The right side of history

Charles Bukowski

Charles Bukowski

we are always asked
to understand the other person’s
viewpoint
no matter how
out-dated
foolish or
obnoxious.

one is asked
to view
their total error
their life-waste
with
kindliness,
especially if they are
aged.

but age is the total of
our doing.
they have aged
badly
because they have
lived
out of focus,
they have refused to
see.

not their fault?

whose fault?
mine?

I am asked to hide
my viewpoint
from them
for fear of their
fear.

age is no crime

but the shame
of a deliberately
wasted
life

among so many
deliberately
wasted
lives

is.

– Charles Bukowski, ‘Be Kind’

A little Hank, for the day that’s in it. When my time comes I’ll hope not to have aged badly.

Now, time to vote.

—–

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Sonny: Mythic musician, noisy neighbour

The Williamsburg Bridge. Pic: Tyrael 28

The Williamsburg Bridge.
Pic: Tyrael 28

A saxophone player stands and plays for hours on a bridge – the sky above, the Hudson river below. It’s 1959, it’s New York City and the musician is Sonny Rollins.

For weeks he’s been walking to the Williamsburg Bridge from his apartment on Grand Street in Lower Manhattan. Once he arrives at his chosen spot he stands and practices, often for hours. Sometimes he brings friends, more often he’s alone. Usually he spends hours blowing, choosing to play on the bridge rather than in the city clubs.

Three years later Sonny Rollins returns to the jazz scene, releasing an album inspired by (though sadly not recorded on) the bridge – and named after it.

What did Rollins find during those 15 hour days he spent alone over the Hudson River? Whatever it was, it led him back to the music scene that he had stepped away from, frustrated by his self-perceived limitations. His album The Bridge would be acclaimed by fans and critics.

"Sonny

Popular culture, for its part, found something else – a ready-made mythic image, the lone saxophone player practicing over the city, a mid-century outsider urban seer. Rollins’ legend slipped easily into the musical culture of the time – the artist exiling himself to find his muse.

There are echoes of the same story in Bob Dylan’s retreat to Woodstock, or Robert Johnson’s disappearing for six months and meeting the Devil at a crossroads, returning with a new take on the blues.

But every myth has its roots in the everyday and Rollins’ is no different. He first set foot on the Williamsburg Bridge by accident, while rambling around the neighbourhood where he lived with his wife, Lucille. And he returned there not to seek the muse, but rather to avoid annoying his neighbours.

“The problem was that I had no place to practice. My neighbor on Grand Street was the drummer Frankie Dunlop, and his wife was pregnant. The horn I’m playing, it’s loud. I felt really guilty,” he later recalled.

As for his return from the bridge – after two years of daily practice there –  the reality was less revelation and more, well, perspiration.

“I could have just stayed up there forever. But Lucille was supporting us, and I had to go back to work.”

And so pregnancy and the daily grind led to a quintessential jazz myth. The next time I listen to The Bridge I should think of Sonny Rollins’ neighbour and his hardworking spouse – the real reasons he walked on to the Williamsburg Bridge one day in 1959.

But the myth sounds better. As does the music.

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Seizing the day – the Hawk meets the Duke

albumAt 2pm on August 18, 1962 – a hot, summer Saturday – a 57-year-old man, wearing a dark suit, a pork pie hat and carrying an instrument case, walked into a small building on Sylvan Avenue in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.

He was early for an appointment but discovered that the man that he was meeting, an acquaintance of decades past, was already waiting.

And so Coleman Hawkins and Duke Ellington found themselves in a studio at last – a date which had been 20 years in the making. Ellington, for the record, had arrived early.

Over the following next six hours tenor saxophonist Hawkins would accompany Ellington and a small band of Duke’s regulars – Johnny Hodges, Ray Nance, Lawrence Brown, Harry Carney, Aaron Bell and Sam Woodyard – on half a dozen or so songs. This would form the album Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins.

The music was all Ellington, sweet and sharp and singing, but with a strain of melancholy throughout (their take on ‘Mood Indigo‘ is almost mournful).

Listening to it half a century later one hears two important figures in American music, if not at the height of their powers then in full, easy command of them. The recording they left on tape that afternoon still sounds and swings as fresh as it did on that August day.

We’re lucky it exists at all. The meeting of Duke Ellington and Coleman Hawkins almost didn’t happen – and the background to it shows that even the greats are subject to the perils of procrastination.

In an interview published in the album’s liner notes Hawkins told how the album was two decades years in the making.

Coleman Hawkins and Duke Ellington

Coleman Hawkins and Duke Ellington

“Duke came to me twenty years ago…and said: ‘You know, I want you to make a record with me, and I’m going to write a number specially for you.

“‘Fine,’ I said, ‘I’m for it!’

“But we never did make it, although we sometimes spoke of it when we ran into one another.”

Twenty years after Duke’s offer Hawkins was still speaking of the long-fingered plan. After he referred to it in a magazine interview an outside force, legendary producer Bob Thiele, intervened.

By petition, cajolement or the promise of a payday he convinced Duke and Hawkins to make the trip across the Hudson River to New Jersey for an afternoon’s work.

Though their careers ran in parallel for four decades Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins was their only meeting – a lesson that if something’s worth doing it’s worth doing, even if it takes 20 years to do it.

Stanley Dance‘s liner notes recall the pair’s farewell that evening.

“”After four hundred years, we made it!” Coleman said.

“You don’t think it was too soon?” Duke asked.

“Maybe we should have waited, but…”

“We’re leaving town for a week or so. I’ll call you when we get back. Maybe we can think of something else to do!””


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Want to communicate? Then simplify, simplify

With Antonio Carluccio, Glasthule, April 2015.

With Antonio Carluccio, Glasthule, April 2015.

Antonio Carluccio knows it. So did Joey Ramone. So did Ernest Hemingway, and Leonardo da Vinci and Frederic Chopin.

Simple is best. As Henry David Thoreau put it: “Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify”.

If only it were that easy. Confronted with vast amounts of information every day the task of refining, digging to the core or even finding it, is not an easy one.

Unlike Thoreau most of us don’t have the option of going off-grid to a hut in the woods. We have to engage with the information avalanche. And having sorted through it we then have to utilise the useful bits.

I do more of this than most. I work in the communication industry. As a journalist I process large amounts of information every day, filtering it down and then re-communicating the key elements to readers.

Books have been written, theses published and academic careers built upon analysing this process – how best to sort through the mound of content and find the ‘news hook’, the golden thread of the new or the interesting. It’s a constant process – as the news cycle changes day to day so must I.

Joey Ramone, 1980 Pic: Yves Lorson

Joey Ramone, 1980
Pic: Yves Lorson

After a day of such work I recently had the pleasure of attending an event and meeting Italian restaurateur Antonio Carluccio. I can’t cook like the 78-year-old but I can apply his method to the communication field.

In his autobiography Carluccio explains the culinary theory he formulated in the early 1980s. Finding that the nouvelle cuisine of the time amounted to much extravagant kitchen technique Carluccio argued that simple dishes were best.

He called his theory ‘mof mof’ – minimum of fuss, maximum of flavour.

In content terms this translates to ‘less noise, more nub’. It’s a practice those mentioned above applied to their own respective disciplines, like Ramone’s ‘Hey! Ho! Let’s go‘ or Hemingway’s “one true sentence“.

Like those declarations ‘mof mof’ is far simpler in theory than in practice. It requires distillation, refinement and constant revision to get to the purest message possible – to cut through the fuss and find the flavour.

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McCartney’s in my brain and won’t come out

Jet_Let_Me_Roll_It_CoverIt’s 4.30am on a Saturday morning and I spring awake to the sound of guitars, keyboard and horns, followed by a Paul McCartney cry.

“Jet! Jet!”

My wife lies sleeping beside me. In the distance a dog barks. All else is silent.

It’s all in my head. An early morning earworm. But it wasn’t just that one morning; as I write this, five days later, I still can’t get ‘Jet’ out of my head.

Paul McCartney, as he was singing a song in a London studio 41 years ago, is lodged in my auditory cortex. Every time my brain hits idle mode (more often than I’d like to admit) he re-appears, ‘daaa-daaa-dada, Jet!’

What was a four minute listen on my morning commute one day last week has morphed into a hugely frustrating brain itch.

I’ve written about earworms previously. In most cases they disappear after 24 hours, having been pushed out by something else. But McCartney’s song about his dog (or his pony, or David Bowie – take your pick) is stuck there.

My usual trick to dislodge it, of playing another earworm or anything very catchy, hasn’t worked – though I’m still afraid to push the Big Red Button and listen to ‘Guantanamero‘. I’m not one for anagrams, but research suggests that solving one could work. Or, it emerged this week, chewing gum – not a favourite habit of mine either.

Which brings me to my final hope – the theory that reading a book helps. This is interesting. In recent days – the ones which have coincided with my McCartney itch – I’ve skipped reading. Could this be the cause?

FullSizeRender (3)Music psychologist Dr Ira Hyman has suggested the ‘good book’ solution, stating: “The key is to find something that will give the right level of challenge. If you are cognitively engaged, it limits the ability of intrusive songs to enter your head.”

Hyman suggests that an alternative is to learn to sing the song in its entirety, as earworms have been linked to incomplete fragments of melody that the brain tries to resolve. But there’s no way I’m doing anything as reckless as that with a hook-heavy Paul McCartney song.

So it’s back to a book. Maybe I’ll start with the one on the left. Then again…

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Thousand of books, nothing to read

Daunt Books, Marylebone

Daunt Books, Marylebone

Shopping paralyses me.

Not in the ‘lost male in home furnishings’ way (although I once managed, embarrassingly, to lose myself in a Macy’s outlet), but more the ‘holding two items in either hand and sweating’ way.

The excess of choice, the thousands of single items to choose from – in this shop, on this day, NOW – jam my circuits and lead me to walk away, empty-handed.

Take last weekend. With an hour to spare in London, I headed to the Charing Cross Road to browse the bookstores. I’d even drawn up a short list of potential buys on my phone – what could possibly go wrong?

Some 45 minutes, and four bookshops, later and I am standing in the middle of Foyles, staring up at three floors of books above. Everywhere I look there is something I could read, hundreds of potential purchases within metres, including everything on my list. I thumb through the H’s of Fiction, make a half-hearted stab at browsing the wall-to-wall Poetry before I shuffle off, stomaching an odd mix of indecision and anger.

And it’s not just books. Every time I enter a record shop I’m confronted with this same tyranny of choice – hundreds of albums I want to listen to but will never have the time to hear.

debtA ‘first world problem’? I don’t think so. I want less consumer items in my life, not more (our apartment is crammed with books and CDs as it stands); a used album is just as good as a new one.

Shortly after my book trek, while picking through a pile of CDs in a Soho record store I thought of a tweet posted by Brian Eno days earlier: “I realise the reason I like playing records (as opposed to CDs) is that they’re short…I want less music.”

I never believed I’d reach a point at which I want less music, less books, less choice. But it’s happened. Faced with a tsunami  (and that’s before we get to the infinite distractions of the Internet) of writing and music, film and TV drama, my reaction now is to step back.

Walking back to my hotel last Saturday, along Marylebone High Street, I spotted an Oxfam shop. I stepped in and made straight for the books’ section, a small collection in a corner of the store.

The choice was minimal but there, on a shelf, was one of the books on my list – The Debt To Pleasure. Without the temptations of a dozen other titles, it stood out – a £2, 20-year-old paperback.

It was the easiest buy I’d made in months.

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‘I started to imagine another me somewhere’

Sky Mirror at Rockefeller Center, NYC Pic: Anish Kapoor

Sky Mirror at Rockefeller Center, NYC
Pic: Anish Kapoor

“Turning all this over in my mind, I started to imagine another me somewhere, sitting in a bar, nursing a whiskey, without a care in the world. The more I thought about it, the more that other me became the real me, making this me here not real at all.”

– Haruki Murakami, ‘A Wild Sheep Chase’

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So how are the other Cormac Looneys doing?

The one I left in my early 20s studying in the library at Trinity College? The one I last saw as he walked to La Taqueria in The Mission in 1998 to pick up dinner? The one who cursed the cold as he slipped half an hour behind while descending from the Zumsteinspitze in 2010?

They’re fixed in my memory, set in linear time.

But are they? Is each one where I left him, back there in my past? Did they move on too, just like this me did? How did their lives develop? Are they happy? Are they alive?

They exist – if you believe (or understand) the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. This concept suggests that multiple versions of me exist, living an infinite number of  lives, succeeding and failing, living and dying, in parallel with the Cormac Looney who is currently typing these words on a screen.

pic1Each version of me that I can recall (in fact, an infinite number – more than I can comprehend) lives on, as an alternative me. The me that walked to the taqueria is as real as the me who didn’t and who is typing these words.

This begs an unsettling question. As Murakami’s character asks, which one of these is the ‘real me’? Is the ‘real me’ somewhere else, and the me existing here in Dublin in 2015 just a quantum shadow? Does a ‘real me’ exist? Can a ‘real me’ exist?

Am I the total of an infinite number of Cormac Looneys, all bar one of which I will never be aware of? Am I universal? Am I immortal (given that at any given moment I can both die and not die)?

This is all possible, indeed it’s scientifically undeniable.

But one final piece of the jigsaw remains, without which the mind-bending wonder of many worlds remains just an almighty cosmic tease.

How can I be aware of these other me’s?

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The right notes – music to read by

FullSizeRender (1)Back in the early 2000s I worked a night shift job. Each morning I’d return to the house I shared with three others at 4 or 5am, and read for a hour in bed before turning in.

I’d always believed that reading, like sleeping or writing, was best done in silence. But there’s silence and then there’s 4am silence. The coastal suburb I lived in was pin-drop quiet.

And so I picked up a new habit – I’d play music as I read. The only condition was that the music had to be quiet – not solely in terms of volume but also by way of sound.

I spent most of those early mornings listening to Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works, Volume II. The slow surges, whale-call noises, absence of percussion – all served to fill the lingering silence of an early summer morning in Clontarf.

The music also helped me, it seemed, focus on what I was reading. The subject matter might have differed (two of the books I read at that time were Crime And Punishment and a popular biography of Irish Arctic explorer Tom Crean) but the effect of music was the same. Like the ambient hum of one’s body heard in a sound-proofed room the music lingered, just out of feeling but present, while I read.

Brian Eno. Detail from 'Music For Films' sleeve

Brian Eno

The use of music as an aid to reading is a well-covered topic. This week I was brought back to my pre-dawn reading sessions when I encountered a post by Sam Jordison on the Guardian’s Books blog. Much of the article concerned how we can battle ‘aural sludge’ – distracting and loud daily noises -when reading.

I find it difficult, if not impossible, to deep read amidst loud noise – even custom-made soundtracks are unlikely to help me.

But the article led to me to ask: what other music worked like Selected Ambient Works, Volume II did, as a reading aid?

In the 12 years since those night shift days I’ve encountered only a few: a Naxos collection of Chopin’s piano works, Brian Eno’s Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks and, perhaps, Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way.

The ‘x’ factor in each of these recordings is hard to pin down. Perhaps the tidal feel of the music in each set of recordings is the key; or perhaps the absence or mere suggestion of a beat which, when present, is no faster than my resting heart rate.

Whatever their key is they all work to break ground, coming through silence to open my ear and eye and mind to absorb the words.

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‘The strange courage of the second rate’

Charles Bukowksi

Charles Bukowksi

No one remembers the person who comes second. Or third. Or twelfth.

History, in as much as it remembers anyone, reserves its slots for the winners.

And yet almost all of mankind’s graft, humanity’s progress and civilisation’s march has been done by the also-rans, the forgettable others who simply got on with it.

As Charles Bukowski had it, for every Wagner there’s a Bruckner.

While the mercurial Wagner revolutionised opera and was seen as the inventor of modern classical music, his contemporary was a humbler man, who acknowledged Wagner’s greatness while producing some lesser known symphonies of his own.

Anton Bruckner

Anton Bruckner

Bukowski was himself no stranger to the world of uninspiring graft. Until the age of 49 he worked various mundane jobs, most notably as a post office clerk, while writing at night.

Perhaps that explains his affinity with those who did “the best they could/and kept on doing it/even when they knew they/were second best”.

Milton’s thousands, “who only stand and wait”, become Bukowski’s second raters, those of us “who refuse to quit”.

His short poem ‘Bruckner (2)’ is a tribute to their presence, their perseverance, their “strange courage”.

Bruckner wasn’t bad
even though he got down
on his knees
and proclaimed Wagner
the master.

It saddens me, I guess,
in a small way
because while Wagner was
hitting all those homers
Bruckner was sacrificing
the runners to second
and he knew it.

and I know that
mixing baseball metaphors with classical
music
will not please the purists
either.

I prefer Ruth to most of his teammates
but I appreciate those who did
the best they could
and kept on doing it
even when they knew they
were second best.

this is your club fighter
your back-up quarterback
the unknown jock who sometimes
brings one in
at 40-to-one.

this was Bruckner.

there are times when we should
remember
the strange courage
of the second-rate
who refuse to quit
when the nights
are black and long and sleepless
and the days are without
end.

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Why walk when you can saunter?

Henry David Thoreau, 1856

Henry David Thoreau, 1856

When was the last time you had a good saunter?

Not a bracing walk on the beach after Sunday lunch, or a sweaty stroll around the shops, but a mind-emptying couple of hours spent outdoors, putting one foot in front of another?

Can’t remember? In that case you may be risking your happiness, your mental health, your limited days of existence as a sentient being in a world that offers soul-blinding experiential delights.

Henry David Thoreau thought you were. In 1861 he wrote his treatise ‘Walking’ (neatly summarised on this Brain Pickings post), in which he described the benefits of sauntering for those who otherwise endured a sedentary life.

By Thoreau’s standards that would be most of us nowadays. (Elsewhere in ‘Walking’ he writes: “I am astonished at the power of endurance, to say nothing of the moral insensibility, of my neighbors who confine themselves to shops and offices the whole day.”)

The Walden philosopher, at leisure to stroll thanks to – it seems – the donut-baking generosity of his mother and sister, extols us to get up and move.

But it’s not that simple.  Sauntering is not a physical act, it’s a mental one.

You can stroll off along a beach, for an hour or more (as I often do), believing that you’re immersing yourself in nature and renewing your sensibilities. But you’re wasting your time – the act of motion is not enough.

Dollymount Strand, March 2015

Dollymount Strand, March 2015

How often we find ourselves strolling while distracted? Thoughts of the day-to-day easily pervade – work, appointments, plans. How much of my walk is wasted as I  fiddle with my iPod’s song selections or its ear buds?

Thoreau again: “The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is — I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?”

So even the great Transcendentalist himself pondered his shopping list while perambulating around Walden Pond.

Aware of this, Thoreau set to practice what he dubbed ” the art of walking”, the highest form of which was the act of sauntering: walking with a presence of mind, a focus on the body, the land, the air, the everything, and with the affairs of “the village” left behind.

It doesn’t come easy. Thoreau stated that “it requires a direct dispensation from Heaven to become a walker”.

Or just finding the right path.

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