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Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Renaissance, the Reformer, and the Painter

Sandro Botticelli has always fascinated me, less as a seminal painter (which he is), than as a unique example of a great artist who fell under the sway of a particularly powerful form of religious fundamentalism. My understanding is limited because, honestly, I don’t know much about Savonarola and even Botticelli.

I’m aware that Fra Girolamo Savonarola had been disciplined by the Pope for aligning with the French and prophesying the invasion of Florence to Charles, King of France. Apparently, Florence was to be a new Jerusalem and I get the impression that if Savonarola was a reformist of the harshest order (he was as antisecular as I think you can get), he may possibly been driven by his own sense of realpolitik. I wish I did know more because it fascinates me that he was charismatic enough to draw a significant number of followers and be perceived as a threat by both Rome and the Medici.

Additionally, his is an object lesson that regardless of the advances made in education, technology, science and the arts, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for spiritual malaise or even fear (on the part of the faithful) of persecution. Both can be fuel for what we see currently in the so-called "culture wars" between fundamentalism of various stripes and the secular structures in place in education, technology, the sciences and the arts and how these differences have profound effect on politics and policy.

I would argue that despite their primitive rhetoric and appeal to millenarian/apocalyptic visions, many of these charismatic leaders aren’t necessarily stupid. Certainly, they seem remarkably uneducated, uninterested in, if not outright hostile to science and technological advances, but they know how to play politics and have carved out extremely dug-in positions among the conservative right. The reasons are numerous and this isn’t what I’m interested in addressing right here.

What I am interested in looking at are two paintings at the Fogg on display at the Harvard Art Museums. One is a Madonna and Child from 1490, if memory serves. The other is a crucifixion from 1500 or 1510. The one predates his involvement with Savonarola (but not his brother’s who was more under the reformer’s influence than Sandro); the other was painted afterward and there’s a note that Botticelli may have painted the crucifixion for his own use. I find them both amazing works and I think I may be one of the few who find Botticelli’s post-conversion work as compelling in its own way as his earlier, more sensuous oeuvre.

In the Madonna and Child, we see this handling of the brush and vision of one of those pristine Botticellian faces on par with his Venus or La Primavera. It’s a tour de force of surface, color and movement.

The crucifixion, by contrast, is raw and expressionist in a way not often seen from someone whose work was typically much more studied and composed.

It’s a sketch, to be sure, but it’s almost Germanic in composition and attack. The angel in the lower right looks almost as tortured as Christ on the cross and the city in the background (Florence as the New Jerusalem) shimmers like a fever dream.What intrigues me is the idea that he might have painted this for his own use. Perhaps as his own reminder of the End Times? Was there something in Savonarola’s teachings that privileged or prioritized the smokey, burning of this vision of a dawn of a new age? Whatever it might be doctrinally, the very fact this exists shows its precedence in Botticelli’s life.

But the first reaction I had to it was that this vision didn’t bring him peace.It’s an agitated, disturbing counterpoint to his Madonna, serene in her place as the Mother of God, but not necessarily divorced from the world. The natural world in Sandro’s pre-Savonarolan work is thriving and alive and embraced and embracing. The flip side is a work like the crucifixion, which admittedly comes with the territory, but there’s a darkness that shocks in the composition. It begs contemplation; you can feel the despair the artist feels at the end of all he’s known up to this point.

Botticelli didn’t live much longer. It’s said that he burned a number of his works in a bonfire along with others who were heeding Savonarola’s call to turn their backs on the vanity of the world.

They are remarkable works and show a studied poeticism that remains with the artist in his later years.I wonder, though: what would the younger Botticelli’s interpretation of Dante look like? Or would it take an artist of his caliber to have his soul forged by reformer’s fire and brought to the depths to begin to essay the Alighierian depths (and heights)? And at the end of this contemplation, I’m reminded me that Savonarola was eventually excommunicated, hung and burned.

I want to be sure that I’m not dismissing him or writing him off. Pico della Mirandola thought pretty highly of Savonarola’s intellect and debates skills (Machiavelli didn’t think much of him, at all), and in any event, he remains a figure of influence in the Renaissance. It would be a whole other area of pursuit to examine the impact of these movements on the sociopolitical dimensions of the time. I believe we could learn much from them.

Postscript, December 7. After having spent a little more time reviewing the period and poring over a few papers, I want to return to the principals and question my own assumptions about the time, the intersection of faith and politics, and look a little more deeply about how we are danced with similar challenges as beset early sixteenth century Florence.


Tuesday, November 25, 2014


Sojong (Wyl. gso sbyong; Skt. poṣadha; Pal. uposatha) 'Healing and Purification' — the bimonthly practice of confession observed by members of the monastic community. On sojong days the observance of the eight vows of sojong or the practice of Narak Kong Shak are recommended.
from the Rigpa Shedra Wiki
I'm not a monastic, and while I feel the effects of my actions sooner than I'd sometimes like, I have to confess that I killed another being. Sure, it was an accident, but if we are to be genuinely aware of our actions and their ramifications, in small things as well as great, perhaps an acknowledgement to be more aware is in order
Thus, I offer this by way of purification and as a genuine wish that if there is a continuity of consciousness that emerges cyclically through form after form, then may the mouse being - whose lesson in care I take to heart - re-emerges soon in enlightenment and supreme well-being. I extend this wish to all beings, but when you are the gateway out of this life, it's best, I think, if you assume responsibility, however "accidental" the action may appear.
What follows is a kind of summing up of the event surrounding the main action and both a confession and a prayer. It can be enlarged to reflect on the numerous instances where we participate unwittingly in catastrophe, of the innumerable moments of sleep that we think are wakefulness, and the lack of compassion we hold for others in the world (well, I don't know about you, but I fall short of the mark more often than I'd care to admit.)
I explained to my colleagues that you and your family and others of your species only want to be happy.
My colleagues found that humorous. All they could see was a small, wretched carrier of disease.

From a child, I was taught a reverence for all life, from the smallest to the greatest. Microbe to whale, all sentient beings only want happiness.
Do you people really believe that just because a paramecium or a cockroach (or a mouse, for that matter) doesn't have a nervous system like a human's that they are incapable of wanting to find happiness? Of wanting to fulfill their nature?
They told me they caught you and trapped you! I said I would take you and free you back into the wild (well, at least the fens.)
WAH! ཝ་(1)
You were under a trash can, a recycling bin
more accurately. I slid the cardboard between the bin and the floor and felt your body sandwich between them. I felt the "something wrong" of your body-self departing.
While it might be true ultimately that there is no arising and no cessation, appearances are to the contrary. Like the Old Fox Monk(2), while recognizing that, I am not blind to cause and effect.
Am I an agent for your ripening karma? Or is this a seed that will come to fruition in my continuum?
For my self - a construct, a fiction - I do not care. All that matters is your liberation, little mouse friend; may you be liberated. May you awaken in Amitabha's Pure Land.

1. Wah. It's a pun, of sorts. A cry of "alas", but also, ཝ་ is pronounced "wa" or "wah", I suppose.
2. This refers to the second case in the Wumenguan/Mumonkan/Gateless Gate of Chan/Zen Buddhism.
Case 2 Hyakujõ's Fox 二 百丈野狐
When Hyakujõ Oshõ delivered a certain series of sermons, an old man always followed the monks to the main hall and listened to him.
When the monks left the hall, the old man would also leave.
One day, however, he remained behind, and Hyakujõ asked him, "Who are you, standing here before me?"
The old man replied.
"I am not a human being.
In the old days of Kashyapa Buddha, I was a head monk, living here on this mountain.
One day a student asked me, 'Does a man of enlightenment fall under the yoke of causation or not?'
I answered, 'No, he does not.'
Since then I have been doomed to undergo five hundred rebirths as a fox.
I beg you now to give the turning word to release me from my life as a fox.
Tell me, does a man of enlightenment fall under the yoke of causation or not?"
Hyakujõ answered, "He does not ignore causation."
No sooner had the old man heard these words than he was enlightened.
Making his bows, he said, "I am emancipated from my life as a fox. I shall remain on this mountain.
敢告和尚。 乞、依亡僧事例。
I have a favor to ask of you: would you please bury my body as that of a dead monk."
Hyakujõ had the director of the monks strike with the gavel and inform everyone that after the midday meal there would be a funeral service for a dead monk.
The monks wondered at this, saying, "Everyone is in good health; nobody is in the sick ward. What does this mean?"
After the meal Hyakujõ led the monks to the foot of a rock on the far side of the mountain and with his staff poked out the dead body of a fox and performed the ceremony of cremation.
That evening he ascended the rostrum and told the monks the whole story.
Õbaku thereupon asked him, "The old man gave the wrong answer and was doomed to be a fox for five hundred rebirths. Now, suppose he had given the right answer, what would have happened then?"
Hyakujõ said, "You come here to me, and I will tell you."
Õbaku went up to Hyakujõ and boxed his ears.
師拍手笑云、將謂、胡鬚赤。 更有赤鬚胡。
Hyakujõ clapped his hands with a laugh and exclaimed, "I was thinking that the barbarian had a red beard, but now I see before me the red-bearded barbarian himself."
Mumon's Comment
Not falling under causation: how could this make the monk a fox?
Not ignoring causation: how could this make the old man emancipated?
If you come to understand this, you will realize how old Hyakujõ would have enjoyed five hundred rebirths as a fox.
Mumon's Verse 頌曰
不落不昧 Not falling, not ignoring:
兩采一賽 Two faces of one die.
不昧不落 Not ignoring, not falling:
千錯萬錯 A thousand errors, a million mistakes.

The last picture is Buddha Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light who resides in the Pure Realm of Sukhavati (Tibetan, Dewachen.) The facing page is the Prayer for Rebirth in Sukhavati which uses the description of that realm from the Sukhavati sutras for the visualization. See below for the prayer transcribed and translated.
ཡོཾ་ཡ་མི་དྷེ་ཝ་ཧྲིཿ is Buddha Amitabha's mantra. Om-ah-mi-deh-wa-rhi, more or less.
Short Sukhavati Prayer
No-tsar sang-gyä nang-wa ta-yä dangyä-su jo-wo tug-je chen-po dangyön-du sem-pa tug-chen tob-nam-lasang-gyä chang-sem pag-me kor-gi-kor.De-kyi no-tsar pag-du me-pa-yide-wa-chen-she-cha-wä shin-kam-derdag-ni di-nä tse-pö-jur-ma-tagkye-wa shen-kyi bar-ma chö-pa-ru.De-ru kye-nä nang-tä shäl-tong shogde-kä dag-ki mön-lam tab-pa-dichog-chu’i sang-gyä chang-sem tam-chä-kyigeg-me trub-par chin-ji-lab-tu-sol.
EMAHO The wondrous Buddha of Infinite Light. To his right is the Lord of Great Compassion (Chenrezig), and to his left stands the Bodhisattva of Great Power (Vajrapani). All are surrounded by countless Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. There is miraculous, immeasurable happiness and joy in the Buddha field called Dewachen. Instantly, when I pass from this life, without taking another birth, may I be reborn in Dewachen and see Amitabha’s face. Having made this aspiration prayer, by all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of the ten directions, may I be blessed with unhindered accomplishment.
This and other prayers and texts can be found at Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche's website:

Sunday, September 21, 2014


Not much to write, except that it's been a wonderful day, a good day, and one of hope, if not promise.

Here's the NY Times' recap:

Scenes from a march

These are just random notes from today and some pics. I'm beat, but it's a good beat!

Running late, but at 12:22, still in the 70s. Not much movement, but chatted with a Raging Granny.

An hour later, we began moving! At 1:30, we're up to 70th!

Strangely moved. There is an abiding poignance in the presence of a throng in support of an aim like this.


Oh, damn. Singing "This Land is Your Land". I'll be bawling like a baby in a second.



Made it to the end! Now to head back uptown and catch my bus back (and 40 winks).


Sources on Climate Change and Environmental Pollution

Before I head out, here is some reading:

Climate change:

Water Pollution:

Oil spills

Add one more to that:

Ocean pollution

River ways, estuaries, aquifers

Air pollution


...and more to come.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Why I'm marching tomorrow

En route to New York City.

Tomorrow is the People's Climate March. It does not exhilarate me that I will be walking with a huge throng of humanity with some dim hope that world leaders will take note and take steps to reverse the damage done and continuing to be done to the environment. If anything, I liken this to a funeral march for the human race and the other species we're destroying and have destroyed.

My feelings are conflicted at several different levels. An optimist by nature, I find my view of humanity grows dimmer over time. We fight over religion, politics, and bullshit. We put everything into the context of socio-economics or political might and never give a thought to the idea that nature really doesn't give a shit for our political parties or nonsensical religious leanings nor our mutual hatred for one another.

Do I think we're doomed? A not insignificant part of me feels that a large amount of the human family is bound for extinction and not unreasonably so. Our religions have not saved us and will not. Religion is by it's very nature exclusive, despite what adherents of this or that group may say. God may love each of His children infinitely, but his kids are dumber than dirt. They shit in their bed and blame the neighbors. My religion accepts everyone, they say, who accepts my savior, this text, that group of tenets; as for everyone else? They're just a bunch of poor saps who are to be pitied because they haven't found, and therefore cannot share in, this remarkable vision and bliss. I don't think Nature cares.

Or this conservative political party is all about maximizing profits, free enterprise, and making sure the rest of the country, if not the world, is on the same page. That other party wants to create a welfare state and hates freedom! Et cetera, ad nauseum. Again, I don't think Nature gives two shits.

Well, those people over there are kind of stupid. They might be nice, but they're awfully slow to adopt our ways. Someone needs to show them the right way to do things. Let's invade them and show them real civilization! At this point, I'd wipe humanity out with a tsunami. However, oddly, Nature isn't vengeful. We are the ones who want to mold the world, the universe into our image. And that comes at a cost.

We've known for decades that humanity is, has been at a tipping point. Look to the writings of Rachel Carson, John Muir, and others. Bucky Fuller extended a sliver of hope in his "Utopia or Oblivion"; he posited, in 1969, that we still had a sliver of time in which to transition from killingry and a fear-based approach to existence and relations to livingry and a longing-based approach out of a shared interest in survival. Fuller was much more optimistic than I.

The sad point is that the human race is stupid. I wish I could say that I'm not, but I am, too! My carbon footprint might be close to nil, but it hasn't always been nor will it always be. But it's not just that I'm thinking about. I'm thinking of how stupid I've been, how insensitive, how selfish, throughout my life. I might be less so now, but perhaps that's only in degree and kind. Our issues began when we prioritized the right of us over them, and by extension, me over you.

So give up any pretense by continuing down this path? I don't think so. Even if we are doomed by our myopia and retardation of species-size order, once we as individuals recognize that we can turn ourselves around (a literal revolution), then we have a moral imperative to share this with others that maybe there might be an alternative to the downward spiral and the possibility of freeing up space for others to grow and flourish where we will not or cannot.

At the same time, while living solely a "virtuous" (and I'm using the term in its original meaning; as with "te" in the Chinese "Tao te Ching", virtue connotes ability or power to do and implied in that we can append the phrase "what is appropriate") life is admirable, there is a genuine necessity to share with others and support others who need the support and who, in the face of monumental catastrophe will need it. I'm not marching because I think politicians and so-called leaders will do anything. I'm marching because solidarity may just help us survive in other ways, perhaps in even more critical ways that are not so easily defined or given to articulation.

If there are enough people engaged in a movement, a movement-toward or forward, to an aim, then there's a chance that others may be inspired to whatever degree to experiment and try it out. I say this warily, since we are stupid and because more often than not, we go to war or oppress one another when we start movements. Maybe it's better to just leave this at the level of a huge experiment in which maybe people will try to make room for alternatives to the usual group think that tends to overrun our foggy minds and confused hearts.

I'm not interested in a Buddhist solution, by the way. Buddhists can be just as thick, violent, and myopic as all others. I say this because I get called a Buddhist a lot and I suppose technically, I am one; however, I don't want to be an "-ist" of any stripe, nor do I want to represent a group, nor do I necessarily have a lot of use for institutions that privilege their perspective over others, and if you think Buddhists don't do that, think again. My note that Buddhists can be just as violent? Look at examples from Buddhist countries across their histories. Yes, this includes Tibet. If you're interested in contemporary history, look no farther than Sri Lanka and Myanmar.

I don't actually know that we have any solutions. Yes, yes, if we pray and meditate hard enough, God will supply the answer, but we've been aware of the answers for at least a century. Don't over-reproduce, don't put more stress on farmland than the ecosystem can sustain (not just in terms of monocultural agriculture, subsistence farming, but also planting and harvesting what is appropriate to the climate, soil, and regional environment and culture), don't dump poison into aquifers and waterways, don't fill the air with particulate matter lungs can't handle.



We say we didn't know any better. A load of bullshit, if there ever was one. Humans have exploited one another for as long as there have been humans. We've damaged each other and laid waste to land, water, and air throughout history and as the population has exploded, that damage has grown in kind and degree of intensity. And no, there never was a Golden Age of peace and prosperity in this world. We've had sequential permutations of oppression and exploitation since day two, most likely.

Why do I continue to see the best in others despite this? Because individually we aren't monolithically hopeless. I often hear from westerners how we should be more like traditional communities that have more communal based societies where the collective good is the supreme goal. This is simplistic and we've seen that the development of communities is no more a panacea than touting the supremacy of the individual over all. It misses out on the messiness that communities are groups of individuals who share a goal or set of values, beliefs, ideals.

Yes, a community may be mostly pacific, like a monastery. Or that same community may take up arms to forcibly convert others who don't share the same salvafic goal. I'm not against community, I just don't like automatic assertions that one approach fits all. It may be that if solutions are to be enacted to meet the myriad crises of climate change, a multifaceted and cross-disciplinary set of solutions will have to happen.

I'll be posting more throughout the next couple of days on this blog, on Facebook. I'll be publishing pictures from the march and references people can use as food for thought.



Court Appointment; Reflections on a Crimson King

I was twelve, in my thirteenth year, when the most majestic sound I’d ever heard issued from a radio that I’d hooked up to a stereo my brother had left behind. No, that’s not quite right.

I was fourteen, not yet fifteen, when the song "In the Court of the Crimson King" played on KPFT, the Pacifica station in Houston, Texas. There was nothing quite like it to my mind. I had grown up (because we are most certainly, in our minds, at least, "grown up" once we’re in our teens) listening to classical music and show tunes with my mom, folk music from my brother, and pop and rock from my sister. Outside their realms, though, I’d educated myself in more obscure areas of music; jazz and some of the more eccentric rock compositions. Although, come to think of it, I seem to remember my sister had a copy of the Mothers of Invention’s "Freak Out".

In any event, there was no escaping music in Houston in the seventies, particularly if you were an artistic kid with access to FM radio.

Music made me awake and opened up a world of dreams simultaneously. I could recall every note and nuance of a song, a bridge in a symphony or a percussive fill from Gene Krupa. So when King Crimson’s opus came a-calling, I was absorbed in a way I don’t think any piece had ever taken me.

I started a drawing of the Crimson King. He looked a lot like John Buscema’s rendering of Mephisto in Marvel Comics’ Silver Surfer (the very first issue, if I recall). He looked like the winged demon in the "Night on Bald Mountain" sequence in "Fantasia". But in the final analysis, there was no drawing or painting that could do the king justice. He was thunder and delicate. He was brooding and poetic. He was a mellotron, but not a Moody Blues mellotron. Oh, no, this was the first time I’d ever heard that instrument used like a sonic wave or an oceanic cudgel. There were no images of something concrete; only a sense of dread and majesty. It would, however, be some time before I heard the rest of the album.

Maybe a year had passed. Maybe it was only a few months. The beauty of FM radio in that era, though, was that you could hear everything and anything. Not as readily and without as many choice as today; but if you heard a thing, you could talk to someone else who had heard it. Perhaps they worked in a library or even better, a record store. However, information began with the DJs on the radio, who more often than not, would talk a little about the song, the band, the album. Until 1974, though, King Crimson remained for me a closed book.

Before 1974, I did hear all of that first album. Several times. Radio stations would play whole sides of albums; it was a special event when you heard the entire LP and often touted beforehand. Then, too, you could phone in your requests. I remember calling KLOL, K101 FM late at night and talking to Crash, one of Houston’s legendary DJs and requested "Epitaph" off "In the Court of the Crimson King"; he sounded pretty stoked at this request (well, as stoked as Crash was capable of sounding; he tended to the stoner-on-quaaludes delivery, a little more awake than dead, say).

Now, before it starts to sound as though I was obsessive about this album and this group, let me interject that while I appreciated and loved this work, I was just as much in love with Yes, Jethro Tull, the Who, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer who got a special pass since Greg Lake came from King Crimson. I was fascinated by Townshend’s tales and Ian Anderson’s wit (honestly, if you listen to those early albums - and even the later 70s stuff - Anderson had his tongue firmly in cheek); Yes and ELP seemed to represent this amazing hybrid of classically-trained musicians playing what was, if not exactly, rock and roll.

Led Zeppelin took us down other by-ways and Clapton’s work was something altogether else. Each group I heard seemed to lead down a different rabbit hole to a different Wonderland. None, though, seemed to quite be doing what Fripp and company had been doing in this King Crimson context. So 1974.

I stayed with my sister, brother-in-law and niece in Gloucester and made four album purchases at the Toad Hall bookstore in Rockport. Miles Davis’ "Kind of Blue", Genesis’ "Nursery Crimes", Ralph Vaughn-Williams’ "Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis" and Schoenberg’s "Transfigured Night", and, oh, King Crimson’s "Starless and Bible Black". Dear merciful Christ on toast.

I could write at great length what each of these meant to me and still does; but obviously, the band of the moment is KC and I don’t mean the one with the Sunshine Band. "Starless and Bible Black" is one of the most consummate works of found sound, avant-garde percussion and some of the finest, most plaintive song-writing and singing John Wetton ever committed to record. While I was more than happy to play the other three works aloud, "Starless…" was reserved for headphones. I think it might have driven others mad.

I also can’t adequately convey what this did to me. I hadn’t heard any King Crimson in the interim, except that first album, which I considered as great as any piece of music could be. Then I heard "Starless" with a different line-up, excepting Robert Fripp and with a more experimental attack, but no less elegiac at times, symphonic at others, and again, anxiety-inducing at yet others. This was love. And I’m not writing that satirically nor with any sense of exaggeration.

By this point in my musical meanderings, I’d picked up music theory, had learned considerably more about what was happening in academia and the concert hall and the avant-garde and my ears were more sophisticated at sixteen than they had been at fourteen. When I got back to Houston at summer’s end, I picked up "Lark’s Tongue in Aspic" with the same crew. This actually preceded "Starless…" and I found it even more demanding and equally rewarding. I also understood why King Crimson wasn’t well-known; it was that very word: "demanding". They demanded full attention, the music wasn’t easy, not always tuneful, and far from "pop". It also wasn’t possessed of the flash and flair of an ELP or a Yes, though it shared a former member with Yes in the form of Bill Bruford (and John Wetton would eventually play with Steve Howe in Asia) and frankly, that trio (which would eventually produce "Red", what some consider the summit of those three albums they composed) could choose to be as bombastic as any "prog" group, but rarely did.

If the Crimson composed of Fripp, Bruford, and Wetton at the core is often considered the apex of 70s Crimson, it’s owing in no small part to the discipline with which they approached each of these works. I’m using the word "discipline" with as much meaning loaded as possible. However, it's this quality that produced the strongest moments of these albums (full disclosure, I only recently came to warm up to "Red"; for decades I found it over-hyped and too much of a kind of greatest hits of Crimson composition and playing without the depth; sadly, upon listening at great length to it in India, I realized I should have fallen in love with this work years ago.) Still, they could hold their own and then some, against the better known acts of the day.

And then, the band broke up and Fripp vanished after declaring the end of the world, or so I was led to believe. He had, in fact, gone on retreat and studied for almost year under John G. Bennett, one of Gurdjieff’s students. By the time Fripp resurfaced, I’d fallen for minimalism, for his work with Eno, for even more diverse types of music, including what became known as world music. Naturally, I fell for punk and later, new wave.

Thankfully, Andrew Libby had introduced me to Roxy Music and I think we were all sucked into the E.G. Records land of connections.

But Fripp had vanished. Then he reappeared in New York and was playing on everyone’s records: Blondie, Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel, David Bowie. Fripp was ubiquitous but the question that must have been on everyone’s mind was if he was going to get Humpty Dumpty, uh, King Crimson back together again.

Eventually, yes. "Discipline" remains one of the greatest works of the 80s. It is lyrical, angular, new wave in places, but not in a hackneyed sense. It also led to "Three of a Perfect Pair" which was fine and "Beat", which was not. The number of critical misfires in Crimson's oeuvre is small. "In the Wake of Poseidon", "Lizards" and "Islands" all received so-so assessments from people I knew who loved Crimson. In retrospect, I should have ignored them. As with "Red", it’s only recently, I’ve come to realize what I was missing by not following my own compass.

This time with Tony Levin on bass and Chapman stick, Adrian Belew on second guitar, Fripp and Bruford couldn’t have found more talented co-players. I had seen both Belew and Tony with Bowie in 1978 and was aware of what they were capable. "Discipline" exceeded all expectations.

Then that was it for almost another decade, as the rest of the band pursued their projects and explored working out their own lives and music. Fripp continued to carry the torch; later, in the 90s, he would go public with exposing E.G.’s Sam Adler to a harsh light of scrutiny for unfair business practices (to say the least); but it’s telling that it is Fripp who calls the shots; King Crimson is a way of doing things and only arises when music presents itself that only the musicians can interpret and channel.

Through the early nineties, watching the various artists pursue different avenues spoke to the kind of workshop of ideas Crimson is. While the members retained their own styles and unique vocabularies, the work produced as Crimson seemed to utilize those vocabularies for a different type or order of speech.

By the time of "Thrack", pundits had noted that the band was less innovative but nonetheless a monster of musicianship. I think they missed the point. Innovation is often overrated and musicianship is more than technique; I don’t think Fripp and the various incarnations were necessarily concerned about innovation (though they did want to create something new) nor has the band simply been a conduit for playing for virtuosity’s sake (though more virtuosi in one band would be hard to find). No, the nineties Crimson was a tsunami that set a new standard for bands like Tool to continue to work with. It also produced some of the group’s most melodic songs ("Walking on Air" is as Beatlesy as anything they ever did and arguably, in another era for anyone else, might have charted...or not; it’s too good for Top 40…)

The band regrouped in 2008 (I think) and toured through Boston, but I begged off. I was a huge fan of what Fripp was doing at the time (still am) with the soundscapes and the acoustic work with the Guitar Crafties and for whatever reasons, I didn’t feel compelled to go see them. A couple of years later (again, I think; my memory is hazy), Fripp announced his retirement from road service and I was heartened that I did get to see him with the League of Crafty Guitarists (or some such) at the Somerville Theater and the Guitar Circle in Cambridge in 2013.

Here’s the thing: I’m not one for sentiment of nostalgia. I don’t think of Crimson as a nostalgia act ("Hey kids! Here’s some Golden Oldies from Bobby Fripp and the Gang!") and while their work can be lyrical, plaintive, and poignant, it’s surely not sentimental. So this was not a concert wherein I was out to recapture some sense of my youth, but rather to very much hear something new. Was I, then, disappointed when the set list performed was composed of all old (very, in some instances) works?

Not by a long shot. Starting with "Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part One", Fripp’s admonition that Crimson is best understood when heard live was fully supported by the entire show. Many of the pieces I was very familiar with. The ones from the earlier albums after "Court" were new to me (I only heard the odd song here and there and this over thirty years ago, until the Boston show; I’ll be interested to revisit these earlier albums, particularly after what I heard of them live).

The temptation is to reprise the show song by song, but this feels almost as much a breach of etiquette as recording the concert. As with most genuinely great performances, it’s pointless to say, "oh this was great; but that was even better". There was much, much more going on than a catalog or retrospective of sounds. Let’s see if I can make that make sense.

With someone on the order of a Sonny Rollins, a Steve Reich, or a great orchestra or band, or any performer, the music fills the musician and the musician within his or her skills and degree of mastery acts as a conduit to bring this to the audience. To shift from performing to visual art, as Paul Klee wrote: the artist is the medium. Additionally, as rock bands go, Crimson is not one for one visual pyrotechnics or flashy showmanship (apparently, they used to be in the early days, though; the visual components of the shows that lyricist Peter Sinfield composed were supposed to be amazing); in this case, you had a stage filled out with three drum kits in front and on risers behind them, two guitarists, one bassist, and a one-man horn section. Each of these players was completely tied into what the others were doing and it was the percussionists that drove the show.

There was also a sense of presence. Not in the sense of stage presence, but in the sense that each of these musicians was present to and for the music. There weren’t any blissed-out expressions, no big super-mystical stances struck, but they were there as fully as any group I’ve ever witnessed. Was this Fripp’s doing? Well, let's take a look to consider for a minute what the man brings to the group.

Prior to the break-up of the band after the tour supporting "Red", Fripp was known as reclusive, distant, and altogether enigmatic personality. After his period of retreat and study with John G. Bennett, he seriously considered not returning to "active service" as he might put it. However, when he did, he was even more accomplished a player, more innovative, and more, well vocal. There are interviews a-plenty on YouTube and I read his column in Musician Magazine avidly. From Fripp, I was introduced to E.F. Schumacher and economic theory in general, for example. His interviews with Joe Strummer and John McLaughlin were revealing, sometimes more about Fripp than his subjects!

However, even with the later iteration of Crimson, Fripp’s personality was regarded as demanding, if not prickly, if not infuriating. However, none of this should be surprising and tells us more about the dynamics of the group and the others who have reported this. I’m not surprised that, say, Bill Bruford has some scathing reflections on his times with Fripp; but I was taken aback to hear that Adrian Belew mentioned he’d had some issues with the guitarist. Does it matter? No, not really, but I consider it worth remarking because there’s usually a damned good reason why some people are prickly, irritable, and irritating in a group setting. Usually, this is in proportion to how deeply they care about the reason they’ve come together. In the long run, no harm, no foul.

Moreover, just because we go on retreat and work on ourselves doesn’t necessarily mean that our outward expressions are going to change so very much. Internal change is almost imperceptible in outward manifestation, until it’s not. By this I mean that maturation comes slowly for many (most?) of us, and what we work on within the crucible called the self, often is not what we think we are working on. This has come to me through alogether too many arduous years of half-assed practice.

Back to the man, though. I’ve seen Fripp live in three different contexts now and he has been a consistent presence in each, though the venue and contexts have been different. I was about to write "strikingly different", but I’m not so sure. With the guitar orchestra that I saw him with, he was the center of a system of guitarists; a quiet anchor. With the smaller guitar craft performance, I’d say the same, with one small, very noticable difference. At the Somerville Theater performance, it was great to see his students playing deeply, sometimes fiercely, and Fripp would sit by his bank of bank of processors on a stool with his guitar coming in only at the right time, the right place. Then, at one point, during an encore, he strode from his stoole and played opposite his group with a calmness that seemed to embody the utter confidence in his mastery of his craft, his instrument, and his ability to play well with others. And I meant that last bit just the way it sounds.

Similarly, in the context of King Crimson where he’s matched skillset for skillset, the dynamic is different and you’d have to be dead or an idiot not to notice that while each of the performers is at the top of their class, they weren’t prone to sitting on a stool and playing calmly. And yet, and yet, there was something in their movements that told me that if this wasn’t calm (King Crimson’s music is often at the opposite end of the spectrum), it was, well, joyful. I did expect to see these guys working hard - it ain’t easy or simple music - but I didn’t expect them to be so, well, happy.

Tony Levin, I did kind of expect to see enjoying himself. I’ve been watching him onstage with a variety of people from 1978 on and I he's a joy to watch. A bigger joy to hear! But a joy to watch, too. Jakko Jaszyk and Mel Collins filled out the back and were arguably the main focus of my curiosity. Jakko had performed with Fripp fifteen years ago, has a storied history as a session player and producer and while I had no doubts about his inclusion in the group, I wasn’t familiar with his work to come to this with any preconceived notions. Mel Collins I had no doubts about either, especially since I’ve heard him throughout my life (as one of the horns on "Red", his work with Bryan Ferry and a varied array of other musicians too long to recap here.)

As for the percussionists, I had not a doubt that they’d be amazing, so I wasn't too surprised but I was super happy watching their interplay and bringing a range of attack to compositions that foster improvisation. Each drummer played with disctinct, unique technique; and then, they’d play in concert as ferociously and disciplined as a dozen Taiko drummers. Thunderously ebullient and earth-shaking on the one hand; delicately - I don’t think I want to use the term "tinkling" but something like that, on the other.


And behind it all, anchoring the band with his 45 year (plus) history, was Fripp. I would like to think that this tour with this band has afforded him the happiness, if not the joy that he has expressed as having escaped him for his entire career as a professional musician. In a recent interview in Wire Magazine, he opined that he had been happy two out of sixty-eight years. My suspicion is that he probably knows that happiness is variable under the best of circumstances, but I don’t know that this is necessarily a complaint; more of an observation.

Fripp is a lineal descendent, one could say, of George Ivanovich Gurdjieff. As such, Fripp encountered the idea of conscious suffering; that we should opt to choose our struggles consciously or with at least as much awareness, as we can. To many, this is anathema; to Gurdjieff, it was a means - the means, perhaps - of staying more awake than asleep. Gurdjieff had pulled together a collection of exercises that were meant to be uncomfortable to push people to a state of awareness, with the aim of waking them out of their mechanical slumber. Additionally, he would compose work teams such that people who couldn’t stand one another would have to work side by side; I personally find this to be the most valuable exercise. The upshot isn’t that you’re working with another person to figure them out or to somehow make them "acceptable" to you, but to find out what in your make-up is impatient, non-accepting, self-protective, or threatened. Our attitudes toward others tell us much more about ourselves than the other.

From these and other approaches or something similar, we can assume that Fripp - already a disciplined player before his time with Bennett - came out of retreat and re-entered the music world with a considerably wider view of himself and others. I would hazard the guess that over the years, his abilty to navigate the nastiness of his industry was greatly enhanced by his training. Certainly, the little I’ve read of his Guitar Craft courses very greatly show a kind of Gurdjieffian influence (as well as how he conducted the proceedings of the guitar orchestra concert in Cambridge a couple of years ago).

Thus, it’s my assumption that this is the discipline that Fripp brings to Crimson and that, absent the issues of the pain of the industry, he is able to play more freely. It’s telling that he’s stated that playing with Bowie was the only time (or one of the few times?) where he was given the freedom to be the guitarist he knew he could be. I hope that with this version of Crimson, he feels that way now.

You might ask, why would I care? Well, aside from the feeling that I wish all beings to be happy and liberated, I feel a certain kinship with Fripp in his training and how he has faced challenges over the past few years that I’ve been reading his online diary. The man is clearly not an idiot and is far more an inspiration than the press would understand or be able to convey.

I’m not big on celebrity, though I’d be fibbing if I said I didn’t like pop culture. It's difficult to make a case that King Crimson is popular, but they are an influential part of the culture in terms of the direction music has taken in the past forty-five years. In terms of celebrity, how we feel about public figures tells us more about ourselves than about the performers. I don’t particularly feel a burning need to meet any of the people whose work I admire; however, there are a handful with whom I feel a certain sympathy. Fripp is one; few have articulated so well what informs the creative midwifery it takes to bring a work into this world and few have given voice to the day-to-day challenges one encounters and how they have dealt with them.

The last observation is that Robert Fripp isn’t King Crimson. Crimson is everyone from Greg Lake, Sinfield, the Giles brothers up to and including Tony Levin, Jakko Jaszyk, Pat Mastelatto, Bill Rieflin, and Gavin Harrison. Naturally, Collins and Fripp, too. It occurs to me that before he encountered Bennett, Fripp may well have grasped that for a group to evolve, it must have an aim. He has said repeatedly, over the course of decades, that when the need for King Crimson’s music arises, the group comes together, in whatever configuration. I would agree with him, too, that Crimson has always been less about the pomp(osity) of prog than the workshop-improv freedom of the various groups Miles Davis generated. These are groups in the service of something much larger than the individuals comprising them (even a Miles or a Fripp). Similarly, in our lives, we may find ourselves - and yes, that’s a pregnant phrase intentionally used here - in the context of a larger group or a movement-toward. Toward what? Wherever we find ourselves.

Tony Levin took my picture. If you open this up and enlarge it, I'm on the far right hand side of the photo wearing a pretty obvious white neck-tie (I went to the concert after work).



Sunday, September 14, 2014

Under the Gun

Photo: Jeff Roberson, AP source:
First: a big shout-out to Joshua Eaton for his article covering the Buddhist Peace Fellowship's recent protest against the Urban Shield conference in Oakland:

Joshua reported on a facet of what the rule of law has come to look like in our country and one to which I've been giving a fair amount of thought. As I'll be going to New York next weekend to participate in the People's Climate March, the militarization of the police weighs even heavier.

We need to question some assumptions about this on-going militarization of municipal police forces, particularly as violent crime has gone down in recent years.

The reasons are a constellation of factors; criminologists point to "a more settled crack cocaine market, an increase in incarcerations, an aging population, data-driven policing, and changes in technology that include a big increase in surveillance cameras" (from the CNN article). None of these include adding military grade weaponry, ordinance, and training to police.

A Wall Street Journal article from 2010 notes that one factor is that there is more of a trend to keep crime rates low as opposed to maximizing arrests. This contention as well as several others is debatable if not plain flawed (along with several others in the piece), but while incarceration rates are high owing to those very same maximized arrests there is a large measure of support that there is a greater amount of focus on containment. The problem, of course, is that people of color are disproportionally targeted and this only serves to perpetuate the fear of racially motivated reprisals and agendas. Socioeconomics drive the ratio of poverty to crime and the politics that support those social and economic elements continue to prioritize arrest and incarceration over education, engagement, outreach and engagement with the marginalized communities.

Blacks and Latinos are most targeted, despite the WSJ's contention that "(k)nowing the exact crime rate of any ethnic or racial group isn't easy, since most crimes don't result in arrest or conviction"; this is a metric that is likely to vary from place to place but given rates of incarceration across the U.S. and the demographic break-out of who is behind bars, this comes across as strikingly disingenuous. It is likewise extremely disingenuous to claim that race plays no part in civil discourse or that we should all be "color blind" or that, well, look, "it's because they're not doing anything to improve themselves".

Of course, this is further promoted and propogated by the idea that the social contract in the United States is predicated on lifting oneself up by one's own bootstraps and the individual is solely responsible for his or her own success or failure. Well, bullshit. If you're born in an extremely at-risk environment, if your family has a history of drug abuse, criminality and lack of education or access to same, the cards are hugely stacked against you. The likelihood of getting out of that cycle is extremely small. It's not to say it doesn't or can't happen, but it doesn't happen without assistance and advocacy coming from outside. Here's where we as a society fail miserably ( and for how we stack up in terms of international standards on profiling:

Arming police with bigger, badder weaponry is going to do nothing except exacerbate more fully a culture of fear. As a youngster in Houston in the sixties, I heard all kinds of foolishness about how the country would be consumed in another civil war drawn along racial lines, how the hippies and peaceniks were eroding our freedoms and how we should just A-bomb all of Southeast Asia. Half a century later, I'm still hearing similar variations on this clap-trap (the Internet, a haven for the stupid and morally obtuse, if there ever was one); so I admit I'm taken aback when I see cops in full riot gear armed and ready to gun down citizens they are allegedly sworn to serve and protect. It doesn't look so different from the National Guard at Kent State.

Arming police this way is not a solution. Not for crime, not for answering the ills that beset our very sick society and not as part of anything resembling a social contract. If anything, that contract seems to be fraying to the breaking point.

I do, by the way, recommend that WSJ article. It's flawed and in some very serious ways misguided. Consider this: "Blacks still constitute the core of America's crime problem. But the African-American crime rate, too, has been falling, probably because of the same non-economic factors behind falling crime in general: imprisonment, policing, environmental changes and less cocaine abuse"; but this is irrespective of the institutionalized racism that has led directly to the conditions that black people are in. It also doesn't recognize that black people are overwhelmingly more affected by "imprisonment" and "policing" and not in positive ways.

Other sources I used:

Crime figures and downward trends

Racial Profiling

Requires registration:


I didn't refer directly to this in my post, but it's worth bearing in mind:

Op-Ed on Police Militarization






Do any of us really "get" that we're travellers on a massive sphere (relative to our size) that spins in an elliptical orbit around an even larger mass?

When I look out an airplane window, I begin to grasp this fact. Pilots and sailors know - looking at maps - that they're never traveling in a straight line, but in an arc.

How do we destroy so much ineffable beauty on this orb? I look out a window from a tremendous (relative to my) height at clouds, mountains transitions from desert to valley, all the while others of my species are blowing each other up, arguing ove their falsely assumed "ownership" of an earth that is indifferent to them.
"My God", "my country", "water isn't a right", "if they're poor, it's their fault"; these are some of the inanities that we spout aloud without the merest second's thought.

The clouds move quietly, silently. Out of combinations of moisture, oxygen, the mix stirred by the planet's rotation, condensed by altitude and sunlight, the sky is a vast crucible. The cooling rains that feed the rivulet rivers below, that aid the earth to bring forth tree, plant, and crop for the animals that don't use tools and those that do, falls on all equally.

Yet there are those who would own aquifer, reservoir, lake, and river. They would profit by selling to some and withholding from others. What madness is this?

I look at a vast ocean of clouds. Depending on cloud cover, some areas of the globe seen from the satellite that orbits it, would be white; where there are gaps in the cloud cover, we might see the brown on green and indeterminate umber shades of the land masses. From a farther distance, the planet would be a blue-white marble.

What wouldn't be seen would be the filth poured into the water nor bodies strewn across the land nor species eradicated nor genocides that take place over years and decades. We may hypothesize that these events are unpackable and analyzable as they broadcast out into the solar system, the galaxy, and beyond as sound travels through the vacuum.

We air our dirty laundry to the universe. No word comes back. Why would anyone want to associate with such ugly, stupid creatures?


From the plane window, looking up (which is really looking further out into space), a counter-thought, a tempering observation obtains; our species isn't absolutely horrid and horrific.

Some do get how precious and beautiful this sphere is; they probably do feel its roundness. They no doubt don't hold others' stupidity in contempt and perhaps even decry something worthy in those who would conquer, subjugate, impoverish, and slaughter other human family members and other beings who share and make up the biosphere.