Monday, April 28, 2008

Bend Me, Shape Me #1: A Broken Frame

What came first, the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?
- Rob Gordon, High Fidelity

I want a room that looks like this

So begins the film adaptation of Nick Hornby's seminal (for mix-tape enthusiasts anyway) book High Fidelity. I can't recall if this is an exact quote from the book (I haven't read it in 13 years) but it feels like one. I think it raises an excellent question, and to take it in a slightly different direction, I believe wholeheartedly that the music I listened to in my formative years had an enormous impact on what kind of person I became and what sort of aesthetic I developed.

A couple weekends ago I read an interesting article in the NY Times "Arts & Leisure" section on the reformed band Portishead and the release of Third, their first album in ten years. As I read I couldn't stop thinking how much I loved Portishead's first record Dummy (1994), and indeed how much that record altered my taste in music while it served as a soundtrack to my life for many months. In the spirit of Rob Gordon, I decided to make a list of the ten most influential records in my life, and amended the time span to records that came out during the most malleable and impressionable period in a music lover's life (according to me anyway)– the fifteen years from 11 through 25.

So, with no further ado, I want to kick off the ten part series "Bend Me, Shape Me" with the first record on my chronological list: Depeche Mode's A Broken Frame, released September 27, 1982.

"Where is she going?" I wondered.

I didn't discover A Broken Frame until two years after its release. Depeche Mode didn't really achieve a foothold in the U.S. until 1984 and the release of the single "People are People" from their fourth studio album Some Great Reward. In 1984 I was living in Cincinnati for the second time, and fell under the influence of their "alternative" record station 97X (immortalized by Dustin Hoffman's character in RAIN MAN who kept repeating their tagline "97X... BAM... the future of rock and roll"). Having recently left classic-rock dominated Charlotte, I was taken in by the sounds of new bands like The Smiths, Tears for Fears, The Cure, New Order, and especially Depeche Mode.

I loved "People are People" (my very first 12" remix purchase) and Some Great Reward and saved up enough lawn-mowing money to buy the Mode back catalog on cassette, including their second album A Broken Frame. It's hard to say with any precision now, but it felt like I listened to A Broken Frame every day for a year. The first track "Leave in Silence" is an all-time fave and defines the early Mode sound: dubby, echo chamber synthesizer loops, chunky synth bass, spare drum machine with occasional low-end boom, interspersed with glockenspiel-esque chimes and other metallic percussion, and singing that alternates between gothic chanting, deadpan narration and earnest wailing.

For a teenager faced with all kinds of awakenings, the album's overall tone of alienation and matter-of-fact desperation hit the sweet spot for me. Fortunately, like most Mode records, it's also cut with just enough hope to keep you from slitting your wrists.

By far the weirdest (and, naturally, my favorite) track on the album is "Satellite". It opens with a lilting synth reggae mood that creepily belies the lyrics:

Now hear this my friends
I'll never be the same again
Gonna lock myself in a cold black room
Gonna shadow myself in a veil of gloom

I will function, operate
I will be a satellite of hate

Looking at them now they aren't exactly sophisticated lyrics (though quite sensational for a 20 yr-old songwriter), but they were very affecting at the time. What is a "satellite of hate" I wondered... and do I want to be one too? What could another person do to you that could make you feel this way?

Disillusioned, I was disenchanted
Forgot the love that had been implanted

When I first heard Radiohead's O.K. Computer I thought that A Broken Frame was its spiritual predecessor, both records cold to the touch, obsessed with the disconnection of the modern technological world, and yet filled with a longing for something better that really resonates with me.

Perhaps for some of those reasons, Depeche Mode were always huge in the Soviet bloc of Eastern Europe, and the album's striking cover photograph strongly evokes the shadow of communist Mother Russia. I was only just becoming interested in politics at this time, and though I wasn't sure exactly what they were trying to say in songs like "Monument" (later covered terrifically by Gus Gus for 1997's up-and-down Mode tribute album For the Masses), I was pretty sure they had something to do with communism.

So we picked up our tools and we worked in the morning light
With the last stone placed wasn't it a wonderful sight?
But it fell back down and scattered all around
Anything passes when you need glasses

My monument
it fell down

Work all of my days for this kind of praise
it fell down

The synthesizer work is especially ominous in this one, with plenty of creepy horn sounds and spare electro touches. It's also one of the few tracks on the album where both Dave Gahan and Martin Gore sing... their voices are both so different yet they blend together quite unusually here.

yes, I even loved their haircuts

Even the more bubblegummy songs on the record like "The Meaning of Love" and "A Photograph of You" were fascinating to my young mind. I was used to songs that told me what love was, not ones that asked me what it meant.

The only song off this record that seems to be known by the casual Depeche Mode fan is "See You", which is a sentimental favorite of mine. When you're in Junior High, you suddenly feel like childhood is over yet adulthood hasn't begun and you're simultaneously nostalgic for the past and the future. The lyrics here seemed to match my frame of mind perfectly.

Well I know five years is a long time
And that times change (oh that times change)
But I think that you will find
People are basically the same (basically the same)

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Say It's All So, Joe!

Mythology has always floated my boat. Growing up, I loved reading the myths of the Greeks and Romans, as well as mythology from other countries around the world as provided by books like the pivotal (for me anyway) The Crimson Fairy Book. In college, I excitedly read the Joseph Campbell book The Hero with a Thousand Faces after I was tipped off by one of my film professors that Campbell was THE literary influence for George Lucas when he was creating the STAR WARS universe.


Confident that I was now familiar enough with Campbell to get by, I didn't touch him again for almost fifteen years until I pulled Hero with a Thousand Faces off the bookshelf when Mrs. Word Player and I were housesitting in Laurel Canyon a while back. Reading him again, especially after focusing so much of my life as a development guy on dissecting the Hero's Journey and three-act narrative structure in screenplays, was eye-opening.

His writing and thinking was far more valuable than merely a guideline for understanding the past and creating fictional narratives, they were critical insights about how to interpret and experience your life's narrative.

Over the past several months we've watched the four-DVD set THE POWER OF MYTH, a series of interviews conducted by journalist (and former White House Press Secretary) Bill Moyers with Joseph Campbell in the last years of Campbell's life. Produced by PBS and originally aired in 1988, MYTH is an awe-inspiring portrait of one man's wisdom, drawn from a lifetime of studying the primal, archetypal stories told by and about our planet known as mythology.

"Spiritual life is the bouquet of natural life, not a supernatural thing imposed upon it."

Campbell, who was in his mid-80s as MYTH was filmed, is a surprisingly mesmerizing screen presence. Shot entirely in medium shots and close-ups, he has such an expressive face and an incredible gift for recall and oratory that you never think for a moment that you're just watching a talking head for an hour. Avuncular, charming, and powerful, Campbell has a similar quality as the Dalai Lama does in interviews I've seen: you simply want to know what they know so you can be the way they are.

His worthy foil is Moyers, no slouch himself in the brains or conversation department. Campbell was an agnostic and Moyers a practicing Christian, and the interplay as they take stabs at interpreting the wonder and meaning of life and death is an amazing thought provoker.

Can you believe it's taken me almost a year to reference STAR WARS in this blog?

I have grown comfortable knowing that I have far more questions than I do answers about why we're here and what (if anything) happens next, and Campbell's quote from the final minutes of the final episode of MYTH is one I can safely adopt as part of my personal philosophy:

“He who says he knows, doesn’t know. He who knows he doesn’t know, knows.”

The DVDs have gone out of print and now list on Amazon for $80 and up, so if you're interested I'd recommend Netflixing them. MYTH is not only a wild ride through history, religion, philosophy, poetry and more, but it's also one of the extremely rare examples of something truly and purely life-affirming. Dig it.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Dog Ears #13: On the Good Life

I had only a faint remembrance of Cicero from my collegiate Political Science syllabus when I read a brief (but funny) passage devoted to knocking him down a peg in Huysman's Against Nature. That book's protag Des Esseintes delighted in calling Cicero "Chick-Pea" (the Latin translation of "Cicero") as he ripped him for his "long-winded style, the redundant metaphors and the rambling digressions" (p28) and much more.

After assassinating Julius Caesar, Brutus asked Cicero "to restore the Republic"

After reading a collection of Cicero's works from the 50s and 40s BC entitled On the Good Life, I'm happy to disagree with Des Esseintes. OK, Cicero was indeed a bit long-winded, but his insights into the core issues of life as he knew it (particularly one's relationships with other people and one's relationship with oneself) are remarkably, even incredibly, spot-on, relevant and and invaluable over 2000 years later.

Rather than fumble around for my own thumbnail description of who Cicero was, allow me to paste from Wikipedia:

Marcus Tullius Cicero (Classical Latin pronounced [ˈkikeroː], usually pronounced /ˈsɪsəroʊ/ in English; January 3, 106 BC – December 7, 43 BC) was a Roman statesman, lawyer, political theorist, and philosopher. Cicero is widely considered one of Rome's greatest orators and prose stylists.
Cicero is generally seen as one of the most versatile minds of Roman culture and his writing the paragon of Classical Latin. He introduced the Romans to the chief schools of Greek philosophy and created a Latin philosophical vocabulary. An impressive orator and successful lawyer, Cicero probably thought his political career his most important achievement. However, today he is appreciated primarily for his humanism and philosophical and political writings.

Yes, that was the right call.

There was just something mesmerizing about the title of this book, and even though I've been looking forward to some "Summer Reading"-type books, I knew I had to see if Cicero knew something about the elusive "Good Life" that I didn't know.

He did. He was plagued by many of the same vexations, frustrations and doubts that I am (and millions upon millions of others too, I'd venture). He placed a much higher premium on friendship than most thinkers I've come across, and as someone who has extremely strong feelings about the successes and failures I've experienced in friendships of my own, I was on the edge of my seat for nearly the whole book.

I highly recommend this book to those of you who often feel betrayed by the depth (or lack thereof) of modern interpersonal relationships and seek the ability to see others more clearly for who they are (and, the real trick, who they will be). This was by far my most dog-eared book to date...

Before his execution, Cicero's last words were said to be "do try to kill me properly"

From "Introduction"

p21 "In converting Classical Greek philosophy into Latin, Cicero "had to create new words. We owe him the terms quality, individual, vacuum, moral, property, induction, element, definition, difference, notion, comprehension, infinity, appetite, instance, science, image, species."

- damn!

p37 "Petrarch also welcomed (Cicero) as the spokesman for civilized, active leisure, and, in his essay On the Solitary Life and elsewhere, quoted him in order to show that the highest aim of leisure is to be busy."

p43 "Cicero's ideals do not dwell in Utopias, but in the real world. His treatises are for people who possess mature and independent minds, who have no desire to follow other minds slavishly, and who are compelled, in the course of their daily existences, to grapple with problems which are complex – rarely admitting of a purely intellectual solution – and which call on all the resources of their humanity."

From "Discussions at Tusculum"

p61 "If, therefore, there exists any man who is capable of regarding all the hazards and accidents of fortune and human life as endurable, a man moreover who is troubled neither by fear nor by distress nor by passion, a man of whom all empty pleasures of whatever kind leave utterly cold – then, if such a person exists, there is every reason why he should be happy."

p86 "For Dionysius was...a tragic poet (how good he may have been is beside the point, for in that art, more than any other, everyone seems entirely satisfied with his own efforts: I have never known a poet – and Aquinas was a friend of mine – who was not absolutely first class in his own eyes: that is how it is: you like your work, I like mine)."

- I think that observation holds true for more pursuits than poetry...

p88 "An acute first-class brain is the finest asset anyone can have – and, if we want to be happy, it is an asset we must exploit to the uttermost."

p104 "And what the contrast demonstrates is that the true satisfaction to be derived from food comes not from repletion, but from appetite – the people who run hardest after pleasure are the least likely to catch what they are after."

From "On Duties"

p122 "If we are trying to achieve mental enjoyment, for example, or relief from trouble, the findings of philosophy are of incomparable value, because the people who practise this study are perpetually searching for the things that produce a good and happy life."

From "On Friendship"

p181 (in discussing the recent death of his great friend Scipio)
"For I do not believe Scipio himself has suffered a misfortune. If anyone has suffered a misfortune, it is myself. But if you let your sorrows at such a happening overwhelm you, this shows how much you love, not your friend, but yourself."

p188 "Friendship, then, both adds a brighter glow to prosperity and relieves adversity by dividing and sharing the burden. And another of its very many remarkable advantages is this. It is unique because of the bright rays of hope it projects into the future: it never allows the spirit to falter or fall. When a man thinks of a true friend, he is looking at himself in the mirror. Even when a friend is absent, he is present all the same."

p193 "When a man shows kindness and generosity, his motive in doing so is not just to exact repayment. We do not hire out our favors, and charge interest for them: we behave kindly because that is the natural thing to do. The reason why we count friendship as a blessing is not because we are hoping for a material return. It is because the union is quite enough profit in itself."

p204 "If people whose lives are just constant wallowings in self-indulgence want to discuss friendship, let us not pay them the slightest attention. They do not understand the subject, either in practice or theory."

p208 "The friends we select ought to be sound and stable and reliable. But such people are distinctly scarce, and, besides, it is extremely difficult to pick them except by practical experience: and the problem is that this experience can only be acquired after the friendship has actually begun. That is to say, the friendship comes first and the material for estimating its desirability only becomes accessible later on; it is impossible to try one's friend out in advance."

- which is really too bad, don't you think?

p213 "Friendships formed before one grows up cannot possibly be stable or permanent. For young people's personalities change, and their tastes change with them – and altered tastes are what bring friendships to an end."

Cicero in younger, happier times...

From "The Dream of Scipio"

p 352 "Instead let Virtue herself, by her own unaided allurements, summon you to a glory that is genuine and real. Feel no concern about what other people may say about you. They will say it in any case."

p353 "'Strive on,' he replied. 'And rest assured that it is only your body that is mortal; your true self is nothing of the kind. For the man you outwardly appear to be is not yourself at all. Your real self is not that corporeal, palpable shape, but the spirit inside. Understand that you are god. You have a god's capacity for aliveness and sensation and memory and foresight; a god's power to rule and govern and direct the body that is your servant..."