Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Greatest

The John Lennon Museum
Saitama, Japan 

As an artist and rebel John Lennon has exerted a huge influence on my life. So there was no way I was going to miss an opportunity to visit the museum devoted to his life and work which is rather curiously located in Saitama near Tokyo.

The exhibition’s introductory film offers a rather perfunctory overview of Lennon’s life and work which is aimed at the casual observer rather than the devotee. It's followed by displays which divide Lennon’s life into anodyne though not unworkable categories such as “Childhood Memories," "Love and Peace" and "Household Husband".

Dyed in the wool Lennon fans will learn little that's new about their hero from this predictable assortment of costumes, films, song lyrics and other memorabilia. But it's cool just to see this stuff and realize how legends are not only born but magnified.

The displays do provide some fascinating glimpses into the star's early life through school reports  and exercise books,  including the original ‘Daily Howl’ comic he drew as a schoolboy containing a priceless weather report: "Tomorrow will be Muggy, followed by Tuggy, Wuggy and Thuggy." It provides early evidence not only of Lennon's acute visual sense but also his affinity for the distinctly anarchic style of post-war British humor which became a defining feature of The Beatles' collective persona.

I was delighted to have the chance to see Lennon’s first guitar, a battered Gallotone Champion acoustic, doubtless one of those, in Paul McCartney’s words, “guaranteed not to crack.”

Rickenbacker guitars were a key ingredient of The Beatles’ early sound and Lennon’s first  'Rick' - surprisingly small in scale - is also on display. I became quite giddy when I started to imagine how many pop classics must have been forged on this instrument.

Other highlights include the ancient two-track desk used for The Beatles' final mixes at Abbey Road Studios, and all-too-brief video interviews with Arthur "Primal Scream" Janov and Lennon-Ono insider Elliot Mintz. And who knew Brian Epstein once presented Lennon with a motorcycle?  I didn't.

Though I'm very much a Yoko Ono fan, her presence determines the overall tone here, for instance in the pointless mock-up of the Indica Yes installation which marked the beginning of Lennon's infatuation with his Japanese earth mother.

Having said that, her influence on Lennon has if anything been understated, for instance in the minimalist style of the "War is Over' campaign, the white pianos and clothing which briefly became the couple's trade mark, Lennon's feminist awakening and the conceptual underpinnings of Imagine.

The John Lennon Museum’s ten-year lease expires on September 30th 2010. The collection could easily be expanded - since it's far from exhaustive - and should be moved to a more sensible location such as New York or even better Liverpool, the place where the legend of Britain’s greatest rocker began.

Hip Priest

Live: Bob Dylan and his band
Zepp, Osaka, Japan

Bob Dylan - guitar, keyboard, harp
Tony Garnier - bass
George Recile - drums
Stu Kimball - rhythm guitar
Charlie Sexton - lead guitar
Donnie Herron - banjo, electric mandolin, pedal steel, lap steel

As Dylan tells it, he was born a long ways from where he’s supposed to be and has spent a lifetime finding his way home. His “Never Ending Tour” is the latest episode in an extraordinary tale of becoming, which - as rock's poet laureate continually demonstrates - is the condition of the true artist.

At Zepp, Osaka, the lights go down and a mighty roar goes up as a familiar figure in white bolero hat and natty western suit emerges from the wings.

It’s almost too much to comprehend that this is the hobo ragamuffin who transformed Beat illumination into protest music, blending folk, symbolism and surrealism to infuse a vital literacy into rock 'n' roll.

In his greatest works Dylan created poetry which to this day remains beautiful and startling. His name belongs - it’s no exaggeration to say - with Shakespeare, Mozart, Joyce and Picasso in the pantheon of western cultural touchstones.

I have to blink the tears away.  For a fan who has long struggled to comprehend what Dylan means - which is to say, everything -  it's a moment of profound reflection.

'Cause if you get Dylan, he goes waay deep. He's the hip priest in the Church of the Cool, and the songs are the scripture and the religiosity is in the music.

Even stranded out here at Zepp, a functional concrete box plonked on the edge of Osaka Bay, it's a rare privilege to bear witness to the most influential songwriter of our times.

The band opens with a loose, loping version of Watching the River Flow.  It’s followed by a harmonica-dominated arrangement of Señor. Bob is unexpectedly upbeat, smiling and laughing with band members, emphasizing each lyric with outstretched arms.

But it takes the band four or five tunes to hit their stride. This is mainly due to Dylan’s insistence on contributing his esoteric instrumental flourishes to each number.  I'll Be Your Baby Tonight features a truly atrocious Dylan guitar solo which effectively sabotages the best efforts of his band.

But by the time we get to the jumpin' jive of The Levee's Gonna Break, the set starts to cruise along nicely. Dylan’s mood only gets better and by the end of the number he's cracking up with laughter as the band struggle to bring the song to a finish.

Stuck Inside Of Mobile is a highlight. Amusingly, Dylan can hardly get the harp away from his mouth in time to splutter the lyrics, so it sounds something like: “Oh Mama (thweek!) can this really be the end (wheep!) / To be stuck inside of Mobile (whaark!) with the Memphis blues again (phaarp!)” Tthe band fashion a rockin', rollin’ version which has the crowd hopping.

Guitar maestro Charlie Sexton - looking for all the world like a reincarnation of Robbie Robertson circa 1965 - is on fiery form all night, playing an enviable collection of guitars - vintage Danelectros among them, axe fans - falling to his knees in front of Bob to count the changes and make sure the master is locked in, since Dylan seems to get lost during the instrumental sections.

Man in the Long Black Coat is restrained and beautiful,  Dylan singing in the deep growl which has become his latter day trademark. It’s followed by a barnstorming Highway 61 and the cracking roadhouse boogie of Thunder on the Mountain with Bob again making those expansive hand gestures and doing a weird little jig on the spot.

Just before Bob is about to introduce the band there’s a hubub down the front. A handsome Stratocaster is suddenly hoisted toward the stage.  It turns out a Japanese luthier has built a guitar which he's valiantly been trying to present to Dylan. Charlie Sexton carries the axe over to his Bobness, who is visibly moved and says, “I like that guitar. Really.  I'm gonna keep it right here by my side. I'm gonna take it with me, and all you people, too.”

For a Dylan show it’s quite a moment. I’m touched, and I can’t help feeling proud of my Japanese brethren because the hard core rock fans here are super-knowledgeable, incredibly loyal and affectionate toward their favorite artists.

Dylan’s comparative verbosity will have surprised the enthusiastic salaryman we ran into before the show. Having scored tickets to all four Osaka performances, he cheerily praises Bob’s indifference on the first two nights: “He not say ‘Arigato!’ Very good! He not speak to audience! Peeerfect!

The encore is unchanged from those concerts. Like most fans, I’ll take whatever Bob dishes out, though I was secretly hoping for Like a Rolling Stone and I'm stoked when the band crank it up.

Dylan's most celebrated “finger pointing” song not only burst apart the parameters of the pop single. In Bruce Springsteen's words, “it blew open the doors to your mind.” Reflecting the twists and turns of an amazing career, the years have transformed it into something which now sounds elegiac, and it brings a lump to my throat.

To conclude, the band deliver a full-tilt version of All Along the Watchtower. Then, as suddenly as it began, the music stops and I’m walking in the rain with two thousand friends, musing over the meaning of Dylan.

It's been a long, strange trip and we all know it's the journey rather than the destination that counts, so if there’s no direction home, that's fine by me. As for describing Dylan, I'll go with John Ford: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."  However you look at it, it's a hell of a story, and like all the great ones, it only gets better in the telling.

Set list: Watching the River Flow/Señor (Tales Of Yankee Power)/I'll Be Your Baby Tonight/High Water (For Charley Patton)/The Levee's Gonna Break/Tryin' To Get To Heaven/Cold Irons Bound/Desolation Row/Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again/Man In The Long Black Coat/Highway 61 Revisited/Spirit On The Water/Thunder On The Mountain/Ballad Of A Thin Man
Encore: Like A Rolling Stone/Jolene/All Along The Watchtower

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Limitless truths

Live: Wilco
Big Cat, Osaka, Japan

In a  stunning performance which effortlessly blended post-rock stylings with experimental, Chicago’s celebrated alternative rockers last night played one of the greatest shows I’ve seen.

As he takes to the stage, band leader  Jeff Tweedy seems delighted to be in the company of a fiercely partisan audience.

The band cover the breadth of their impressive discography, including their greatest album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The soulful I Am Trying To Break Your Heart plumbs incredible depths of dissonance and expression, and their rendering of Impossible Germany is nothing short of transcendent.

There’s a quasi-religious atmosphere in the house as throughout the show the adoring crowd urge their heroes on to greater and greater feats of musical brilliance.

On the contemplative Jesus, Etc., Tweedy hands over vocal duties to the audience. Their emotive rendition is moving and heartfelt. I’m standing there thinking to myself, “This is why I love music.”

Even more impressive is the way Wilco take their rootsy rock into unexpected corners through the use of audacious experimentation.  Guitarist Nels Cline was recently voted one of rock's top players, and his approach to his instrument is unique and inspiring. One moment he's reeling off emotive lap steel solos, the next he’s assaulting our senses with a mesmerizing multiplicity of soaring sound effects. 

Drummer Glenn Kotche gets experimental, too. Solid and consistently musical, at one point he applies a delay effect to his high hat while at the same time running a pitch shifter on the tom toms. It adds yet another dizzy ingredient to the intoxicating brew.

Underpinning this diverse, beautiful playing is Jeff Tweedy’s superb songwriting. Alongside established classics like the hypnotic Handshake Drugs, there are impressive new numbers like Bull Black Nova, switching from edgy paranoia to tranquility before it ends in a psychotic explosion of fear and resignation.  Deeper Down goes through some astonishing transitions as its textures evolve and coalesce.

Such music - at once beautiful, ambiguous and disturbing - reminds us there are limitless truths to be  unveiled in the universal language that is music. You don’t need to be a Wilco fan to recognize that, just someone who recognizes the healing power of great art.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Somebody's sins but not mine

Music and Religion Part 2:
The Omnipotent Sky Wizard

This posting is in reply to Samuel's comment on my recent blog Atheist Manifesto.

Samuel,  I'd  like to thank you for commenting on my posting, I appreciate the feedback. Music is connected with spirituality in a million ways, so religion is not necessarily outside the purview of this blog. Allow me to respond to the points you raised in your comments.

1. Why have people in all cultures believed in God? If there is no God where do you get your morality?

The concept of God is a wish-fulfuilment fantasy which helps us escape from the unsavoury reality that we're all gonna die. Human societies universally devise creation myths to describe not only where we came from but where we're going. The stories are surprisingly similar across cultures due to the universality of human experience and perhaps as a manifestation of the collective unconscious as described by Jung.

This has been demonstrated convincingly in instances of the collision between technologically advanced cultures and  traditional tribal societies - so-called 'cargo cults' - in which less sophisticated cultures ascribe supernatural powers to people and things they don't understand.

When it comes to morality, cultural anthropology suggests that ethical laws are a natural product of society - that as communities grow they need to be able to police and protect themselves and thus codify rules to ensure the continued safety and survival of the group. Anyone who has observed children at play will have seen how they instinctively improvise rules and boundaries in an effort to ensure fairness.

Are we to believe that in 200,000 years of pre-Christian history, no-one came up with "Thou shall not kill" until Moses received illumination from a combustible shrub? Kinda ironic considering all the murder, rape and genocide God sanctions in the Old Testament. Do we really need a homicidal “omnipotent sky wizard” to threaten us with eternal hellfire to prevent us from murdering with abandon?

If you have ever used a razor, enjoyed a bacon sandwich, eaten shellfish, sworn at your parents, worked on a Sunday, partaken in homoeroticism, committed adultery or not been a virgin (if female) on your wedding night, your Bible demands you be executed immediately. How's that for 'morality'?

2. Don't forget that Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot were atheists, and committed the biggest mass murders in history.

This has to be one of the most commonly held myths about atheists.

Not only was Hitler a Catholic, he prayed for 'Almighty God' to bless Nazi Germany and invoked Christian faith and anti-atheistic language to justify his genocidal madness. Nazi followers regularly described Hitler as a 'godlike' figure.

Incidentally, not one Catholic in the Third Reich was excommunicated by the Catholic Church before, during or after the Second World War - not even Hitler himself. Yet Galileo was not absolved of heresy until 1992.

As for Stalin and Pol Pot, while they likely were atheists, they did not commit murder and genocide in the name of atheism. Rather they aimed to found a cult of the state very much resembling religion in its tone.

The problem with fascism and communism was not that they were too critical of religion, but that they were too much like religion in their manipulation of ritual, dogma, and the cult of personality to wage war against the defenseless. As Sam Harris says, an absence of faith or overabundance of skeptical inquiry was not the problem with these societies. They abandoned accepted standards of human decency and compassion largely because of their uncritical attachment to genocidal dogma.

Similarly, a literal belief in Muslim dogma had a lot to do with the tragedy of  9/11. And misguided Christian dogma has everything to do with the fact that stem cell research has been consistently blocked in the United States, that sexual abstinence campaigns have failed miserably, and that the Catholic Church has discouraged condom use in AIDS-ravaged Africa.

When was the last time a war was waged for a scientific aim, or a group of atheists obstructed valuable medical research which could save millions of lives, or secular humanists flew a plane into a skyscraper or exploded a suicide bomb in a busy market place filled with women and children?

3. Even one of the greatest scientists in history Albert Einstein believed in God.

Another misconception. Einstein demonstrably did not believe in a supernatural entity. Rather he used the notion of god as shorthand for the unknown mysteries of the universe or as a personification of the forces of nature.

 Here's what Einstein wrote in a letter to philosopher Eric Gutkind on January 3, 1954:

"The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this. “

4. Look at all the times science has gotten things wrong. The complexity of the universe indicates the existence of a designer. And the elements of this unique setup are perfect for life when they might easily have been wrong.  Look at  the bacterial flagellum, an example of irreducible complexity and evidence for intelligent design of our universe and which proves the falseness of evolution.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The bacterial flagellum isn't even irreducibly complex. Scientists have shown time and again that parts of the flagella of various bacteria correspond to other structures that have different functions, that intermediate evolutionary stages have their uses and...well,  I could go on but if you want to know more check here.

I could also go into the facts of evolution, how vast mountains of evidence from biology, physics, chemistry, botany, zoology, geology, astronomy, archaeology, anthropology, genetics and other disciplines overwhelmingly prove it has taken place on our planet across billions of years.  If you insist - as many Christians do - that the earth is 6,000 years old, how do you account for the fact that organized farming began between 8500 and 7000 B.C. and that the Sumerians invented glue 7,000 years ago?

You're right on one thing. Science is not perfect and it has gotten things wrong…thousands of  times. But the thing is, it's usually scientists who discover and correct these errors, not religious believers. In this sense science is self-critical and self-monitoring in ways beyond the wildest imagination of the religious believer.

If there’s one thing we've learned from religion, it's that it has been wrong, wrong, wrong and consistently behind the times when it comes to science-based truth. Just ask Copernicus, Galileo and Darwin.

It’s clear that we don't understand the universe, but it’s equally clear that books like the Bible and the Koran do not offer anything like our best understanding of it.

Tell me: why doesn't your god heal amputees who pray? Why does he ignore starving children but give bank executives obscenely large bonuses? Why is your Biblical god such a huge fan of slavery? Why do Christians get divorced at the same rates as everyone else? Why do bad things happen to good people, even to good Christians. Example: the thousands of innocent children abused by Catholic priests with the full complicity of the Church?

While creative thinkers and rationalists consistently push forward the boundaries of human knowledge - demystifying superstition and designing our airplanes, computers, vaccines and life-saving medications -  the religious doggedly cling to the same iron age beliefs they unthinkingly absorbed in kindergarten. Those beliefs belong to a different society, a different world, and they represent an entirely different paradigm.

5. Jesus died and was resurrected for the sins of us all, including John Lennon who was a drug user, profaner and adulterer.

Well, as Patti Smith said, Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine.

With regard to the resurrection, given everything that the study of mythology, science and cultural anthropology have taught us in the last 2,000 years, doesn't it make more sense to think of it in symbolic terms?

Resurrection, rebirth and reincarnation are strong components of many religions, including Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam, since what could seem more godlike and supernatural to a credulous iron age laity than the ability to transcend death?

Many Biblical scholars feel that the Gospel stories of the resurrection are fictions devised long after Jesus’ death to justify claims of his divinity, and if any truth is to be found in their myths and stories, it’s surely at the metaphorical level.  Even today we speak of 'born again' Christians to denote those who have had a religious conversion. But they’ve been 'reborn' to themselves, right here, right now.

As I've said elsewhere on my blog, when it comes to religion, literalism is the enemy of truth and the father of ignorance. And a little critical thinking will bring you closer to reality and further from religion. That's why St. Augustine had an overwhelming fear of "the disease of curiosity."

But as T.S. Eliot wrote in The Four Quartets, "human kind cannot bear very much reality." Nowhere is this more effectively demonstrated than in the nonsensical superstitions parroted by ossified religious cults.

When it comes to John Lennon, what can I say, you're dead right. He was a drug user, profaner and adulterer who by his own admission wasn't much of a father to his first child. In other words a real person with faults and imperfections.  But he'll be remembered as the greatest rock 'n' roller of them all, a charismatic force for peace, equality and social change whose music illuminated the lives of millions.

Like the man said, Samuel: "Imagine no religion."

Amen to that.