16 September, 2007


She is always a stranger in that moment before you love her. But that strangeness is so hard to recall when the love is long made clear.

12 February, 2007

Hold on, baby, Hold Steady

The Hold Steady, they’re like a loosed soul riding the rails to Salvation, steaming through the great plains, big cities and burned-out towns along the way. Check out their music if you haven’t heard it.

And holy fucking shit, do they play a show. You should have been there, and as proof I present R, who flew in from Oregon for the day – and I mean the day, landing in the morning and back to the airport at 4 am to catch his flight out at 7. Which return flight, by the way, doesn’t merely end in the northwest corner of the US, since he’ll be promptly catching another flight down to Oklahoma. He’s a working man who knows how to travel, and he, my lady friend and I wound up hanging out after the show ‘til he had to get to his return flight, cause the Hold Steady brings people together like that. A solid guy, R – and just a fan who'd been to a couple shows before and thought what the hell, so the lead singer, Craig, gave him, R, a personal shout from the stage (consider this a second). Which we were pretty much on top of, the stage.

The venue was Paradiso's Kleine Zaal, an intimate little upstairs space in that grand old church of a rock institution. Sold out, so I’ve got to think two or three hundred people. We made our way to the front before the show, where R overheard me and the lady friend and we all got to talking. Then the show started and the lady friend and I got to dancing, danced through the whole damn show and it was awesome. The band noticed, which had more than a little to do with the fact that though the crowd warmed nicely to the band, they just don't dance much here (Calvinists are not Baptists). At one point Craig, the lead singer, says thanks for being here, I yell out thanks for coming, and the bass player, Galen, looks over and mouths thanks back. Good people. Speaking of which, the keyboard player, Franz, comes out after the show to talk with the lady and me and R, probably to flirt with the lady, but ostensibly in appreciation of our energy. Sure I sweated it: his mustache is cooler than mine and he shows some damn sharp moves up on the stage. But we’re all adults here, so we chatted. And it was good. A good guy.

How outstanding is it that Craig carries his own duct tape, and they all open their own beers? Or at least the drummer does the opening for everyone else with his kit. For everyone except Franz who drinks wine from the bottle all night long. And for all his unique vocal stylings, I had no idea how much rap movement there would be in Craig’s stage manner. He was like a cross between Phife of Tribe Called Quest and Andy Kaufman. All the crazy energy in hand signals, head movements, and boozy, woozy antics. Not to mention all the things he yelled and sang that no one will ever hear, because he didn’t do it into the mic, because he just couldn’t help himself. Tad pulled a classic 360 guitar swing early on. Nice. Have I mentioned how much he rocks? Even while resorting to general goofiness with Craig. And man, we could reach out and touch that stage and it was awesome.

The music. Opened up with Stuck Between Stations. Closed the encore with Killer Parties. They played a lot from Separation Sunday in between. First was Cattle and the Creeping Things. Dear lord did it rock. I mean sweet child of everlasting grace, that was religion. Others from that album, off the top of my head, Your Little Hoodrat Friend, Multitude of Casualties, Banging Camp. I don’t know what they didn’t play off Boys and Girls in America. But everything they played – when those guitars get churning, and the beat is driving, the keyboard comes in like the apocalypse will be harmonized and Craig’s singing and screaming like he was born in Conviction and he’s been trying to get back to the light ever since – what do you say when you hear something like that?

They razed the room to ashes and dust.

Mea culpa

It's been a while folks, but I'm back. It may be sporadic for a bit, but I wax with the sun. So stick with me, if you haven't got anything better to do.

04 November, 2006

To do, undone

Tonight I did not go to hear Cat Power play live. I did not get to the show early to grab a good spot on the balcony and read a book or whatever while waiting for her to open. Which means I did not get to hear and perhaps even dance or at least sort of move in place to a rejuvenated and happy-to-perform Chan Marshall channeling the music she has written or covered.

And while I was not hearing her music, Chan Marshall did not have the opportunity to make meaningful eye contact with me -- an impressive feat, this eye contact she did not make, given that I was neither sitting nor standing all the way up on the balcony -- anyway, not having made eye contact with me, Ms. Marshall also did not have the opportunity to invite me backstage, where we did not discuss music and the most important things in life.

I would have liked to have discussed music and the most important things in life with Chan Marshall. As it is, I had a similar conversation with a friend, R. For all I know, the conversation I had was as good or better than the one I did not have with Chan Marshall. But still.

Not having gone backstage after the Cat Power show, I also did not get to hang out with the backing band, the Memphis Rhythm Band. Not having gone to the show at all, of course, I likewise did not get to hear the band, which is too bad because they have a pretty rocking lineup, including steel guitar, violin and sax. I'd have liked to have heard that lineup behind Cat Power. And needless to say, thinking about backstage again, where I wasn't, I didn't get to pick up any steel guitar or sax tips. Jammer, as they say here in the Netherlands.

There are a number of other things I did not get to today. Maybe I'll get another chance tomorrow, or the day after that, or the day after that.

22 October, 2006

Lights out

The days are getting very, very short again. I'm amazed, as ever, at the way this city comes into itself in the early night.

Candles burn small and silent behind the windows of close brick buildings, buildings that lean against each other in the dark, lean over narrow streets and wide canals, lean into the glow of electric light to shrug off the late year's rain.

The raindrops bring the black canals to life and together with the cold and dark shroud bikers on back streets in mystery as they hurry past, the purposeful bikers, their lamps glowing weakly above their tires, disappearing down an empty lane.

And at my stamkroeg, my regular bar, as the days grow cold and short I can sit by the openhaard, the fireplace, and watch the shadows dance along the walls and windows, windows that look out on a huddled brick street where most of the other people in the bar grew up.

Still for the most part I do not like all this darkness. It comes down like a lid, closes us in, and no lit bridge, with arched stone or wood slats, can carry you across it. The people here endure the long night well, and with reason. But it remains a challenge.

15 October, 2006

A fantastic conversation

Amazing what you can hear from a table over on a terrace on a fine fall day.

They had been speaking like this for a while.

"In the evening," she said, "we're all reduced to shadows. Shadows by moonlight, and all quick like silver, like that. But in the morning," and here she set down her dark beer, probably sweet, "we're brought back by the sun, by the sunlight."

"What," he asked, his fork held up between his face and his plate, "are you suggesting?"

"That," she stammered a little, "that at night I know a different truth. A different truth," she repeated herself. "What does that mean?"

When he didn't speak she went on. "It's like a dream. I can't escape its logic while I'm within it. But in the morning it makes no sense. The daytime is so much more sure, so certain. Surer. Surer? But still, whatever, it's not like that means anything at night." She inhaled audibly, perhaps for dramatic effect. "Isn't that scary?"

"What about the dawn?" he asked, not answering. "I always feel different at dawn." Then he added, "not that I'm awake then all that often, I mean at least not sober."

She was drinking her beer again. "Oh I don't know. The dawn's nice I guess."

Of course I had to madlib the words I didn't catch.

09 October, 2006

Take the baton

Consider this another effort to elicit comment from my reticent readers. I'm looking for nominations for today's spirits kindred, for better or worse, to Évariste Galois. If you don't know his story, or don't mind a refresher, read on.

Galois was a sort of republican dauphin (if it's acceptable to say such a thing). Born in 1811 in a village south of Paris to the son of a politically involved republican, and schooled as a young child in Latin and classic texts by his mother, he became interested in mathematics as a teenager. He twice failed the test to enter the École Polytechnique, the latter occasion occurring two days after his father committed suicide following a politically charged run-in with the local priest.

Évariste also failed repeatedly to see his discoveries in the theory of polynomial equations published, the reasons for which are unclear, but he did publish three papers in 1830, laying the foundation for what came to be known as Galois Theory. The full articulation of Galois Theory, linking field theory and group theory in abstract algebra, was published posthumously – not entirely surprising, as he wrote much of its explication only two days before his untimely death.

Politically active, Galois was expelled from the school he did get into, the École Normale, for republican political agitation. He used his extra time to join the Republican Artillery Unit of the National Guard. The unit was dissolved to prevent it from destabilizing the government, with nineteen officers from the unit arrested on conspiracy to overthrow the monarchy. During the party following their acquittal, Galois toasted the king holding a dagger over his cup, and was promptly arrested – though ultimately acquitted – for threatening the king's life. He was later arrested and convicted, however, for showing up to a Bastille Day celebration armed to the teeth and wearing his old uniform.

While in jail, Galois saw another paper on the theory of equations rejected. Then his jail term ended early when he was transferred to a clinic with other prisoners as a precaution taken against a raging cholera epidemic. At the clinic, he fell madly in love with Stéphanie, daughter of Jean-Louis Poterin-Dumotel, one of the doctors. She, too, rejected him.

Within weeks Galois was fighting a duel he knew he would lose. Legend has it the duel was a royalist conspiracy to get him out of the way, but that legend's been long disregarded, and is possibly a fabrication that began with Galois himself. He stayed awake the entire night before the duel, writing his republican friends. Between scribbling "Je n'ai pas le temps" (I don't have time) over and over, and conveying other thoughts in other letters, he made clear his extraordinary mathematics in a letter to his friend Chevalier.

He was shot in the abdomen and dead the following day. His last words to his brother were: "Ne pleure pas, Alfred – j'ai besoin de tout mon courage pour mourir à vingt ans." (Don't cry, Alfred – I need all my courage to die at twenty.)

29 September, 2006

Among the barbarians

Just back from the latest opera from Philip Glass, Waiting for the Barbarians, based on J.M. Coetzee's novel, libretto by Christopher Hampton. A striking, troubling piece of work.

The story goes something like this: an administrator of a frontier town watches with increasing horror while agents of the state, sent from the capital, torture and kill in the name of the truth and in the service of defending country and empire against a feared barbarian advance. The administrator, a man who enjoys his pleasures as well as his peace, develops an ambiguous, perhaps redeeming affair with one of the captured and tortured barbarians.

He endures a difficult journey with the barbarian to deliver her back to her people, for which he is branded a traitor, imprisoned and tortured like the barbarians before him. Before he is apprehended, though, while he is still journeying with the woman, his lover now, it is conceivable that she might yet return with him, live with him in his frontier town. But the treatment she has received makes that impossible, despite the hope of the administrator.

Back in the town, the citizens, first pliant in the name of state security, then complicit in the name of empire, turn against the administrator, returned from his journey a convict. But when the army fails in their attack on the barbarians, when the aggression brings only more hardship and not less, the town turns back to the administrator, finally, and away from the ongoing, debased warmongering of the state. The townspeople throw away the shades given them by the state – yes, sunglasses, which from the start of the performance mark the choice to observe a different truth, dark and distorted.

Now's an appropriate time to say that there is nothing subtle about the drama in this opera. It is entirely a product of its times, and that is what makes it effective, particularly disturbing. Philip Glass, I should mention, writes of "a bold allegorical approach," and states that "[t]o reduce the opera to a single historical circumstance or a particular political regime misses the point." While I agree there's some heavy allegory here, I insist on missing the point. I saw precious little in the way of narrative arc or character development or dramatic tension or drive: just some very bad people, a witness, a mob and some other, innocent people. Six years ago this would not have offered much. I hope that in fifty years it offers nothing more. But this opera is very powerful now, and precisely because such obvious, unsubtle horror is happening so obviously and unsubtly in the world.

The voice in my head is saying I'm the one that's guilty of oversimplifying. But what I'm saying is narrowly intended: I'm not referring to a drama that's considering the fog of war, the quest for beauty, the burden of empire, the will to power. Philip Glass writes that his opera concerns "confrontation, crisis and redemption." The confrontation and crisis are of the clearest sort, so over-the-top it's absurd: it's Waiting for Godot turned into an address from the War President. That we must recognize this for precisely what it purports to be is shattering.

I left the theater feeling that the greatest hope this opera offers, in the clarity of its absurdity, is that it will in time be reduced to a historical footnote for its simplicity. My companion, however, was not so optimistic. I don't believe Mr. Glass is, either. The characters, for instance, spend as much time lying on the ground as standing, as though they just don't have the strength to make it through an entire scene upright. All of them, every character, except the two highest ranking, most rotten state agents, who stand through nearly every scene they're in. Our protagonist, the administrator who fights for rightness and redemption, he ends the opera on a low note – literally: his last note is perhaps his lowest of the night – and he's lying down again, forced down as the ceiling of the sky descends on him, slowly.

And he is confused, the administrator, at the end of the play. In his confusion, the drama achieves its most complex insight. It's as damning as all the rest. The administrator still recognizes something good in his city, but knows the worst now. Yet having witnessed and been subjected to the worst, he cannot understand it. It stares him in the face, he says, but he can't see it. Not seeing, what can he do? He can go on, follow a road that might lead nowhere, he says, as he's forced to his belly again.

Something is terribly wrong. It's clear and horrible, it's all around and everyone's part of it. That's the confrontation and crisis. Redemption? Perhaps, but first the administrator has to understand the nature of what's gone wrong, why and how, then get a better idea where he might be headed.

At last I can mention the music and sets. Because in acknowledging open questions I've finally got around to admitting depth to this opera, and with depth, artistry. The orchestral and choir work is rich and haunting, and there are dream sequences that are all orchestra and choir. Classic Glass, all shifting rhythms and lowly changing textures, with drive and beauty as well as tension. And the set is a stunning thing of flowing screens and changing lights.

With the dreams, their music and the luminous world, we have something more, something that the corrupted world of state and burgher cannot entirely efface. Something that promises redemption after all, if we're strong enough to endure what we're part of, overcome what we've created, understand, perhaps, what we might be.

28 September, 2006

Three beginnings

Why am I still plagued by stupid things I've done that are now long over and past? How is it that I still cringe, sometimes vocalize uncontrollably when I recall some dumb thing I did, what, two weeks ago, two years, even ten or more? In front of friends or strangers, doesn't matter, though the one group has obviously gotten over it, and the other likely never cared, or at least I shouldn't.

A cat with whom I'm on fairly familiar terms has invested a lot of energy in making clear to me and certain others that life is little more than alternation between physical satisfaction and spiritual indignation. Where one is present, the other will not be. Much of this philosophy, it's plainly obvious, has to do with not being able to reach doorknobs. Still, the cat may be on to something.

It's a werewolf's moon tonight. Well, not exactly, I mean it's not full, but it's large and glowing white, with thick ropes of cloud passing across it. There's a sharpness to its light, as if you can see more deeply into the shadows and darkened sky. And now there's a chill to the air, too, so that the day was a dream of summer heat, but the night is wakeful with cold communion.

Feel free to finish these or whatever in the comments.

18 September, 2006

Buzkashi, get it?

Some time back, I asked what sport could be more impressive than fierljeppen. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you buzkashi. What you see above appears to be the very beginning of a competition.

Popular in Afghanistan, Buzkashi translates roughly as 'goat taking.' But don't be fooled: you use a calf. The field of play is variable, about the size of a town, small city or large village. Play can go on for days and occurs entirely on horseback. The riders use short whips to spur their horses or attack other players. The whips no longer include balls of lead at the tips; likewise, use of knives is now discouraged.

Before the game, the calf is beheaded and disemboweled, its legs are cut off at the knees, and the carcass is soaked in cold water for twenty-four hours to toughen it sufficiently to withstand the violent use it will see in the course of the competition. If the calf is undersized, the carcass may be filled with sand to add weight.

The action of the game consists in getting ahold of the calf carcass, carrying it away from the other players and around a flag at the edge of the playing area, then throwing the carcass into a scoring circle, or 'Circle of Justice.' There are not many rules as to how to go about doing this or preventing it from being done. You're not supposed to tie the calf carcass to yourself or your horse, and you're not supposed to hit the person carrying the calf carcass on the hand. Just about anything else will do, and vigorous play often leads to broken bones and copious bloodletting. Most players will attempt to play through any injury, except the ones who are drowned, but that is not so common anymore.

The horses are highly trained. Well-trained horses will stop on a dime and wait once their rider has been thrown. The best trained horses will accelerate to a hard gallop the instant their rider secures the calf carcass. Uniforms for the riders include high leather boots with sturdy heels, padded jackets over heavy robes, and fur hats made of fox or wolf.

The game winner is accorded great respect and given a wide berth wherever he goes.

12 September, 2006

Hello humility

I played basketball yesterday in an organized, team setting for the first time since maybe elementary school. Which made for a fairly ridiculous evening.

For starters I had to explain to a bunch of practice-loving children of the Protestant Revolution that no, I couldn't remember a real practice, but yes, I had played basketball, and no, I wasn't a streetballer.

Then we began the period of interminable exercises. Trouble hits when I can't follow a simple pass and weave routine that's all the more complicated because this lazy guy cheats up to start a half court ahead of the rest of our line, but when everything goes to hell everyone wants to give the American helpful tips on how he can practice better. Thank you Team U.S.A.

I was surprised when we moved on to the two-handed chest pass practice. It's not like we've got all day in the gym. We need to use our time for that? But I was even more surprised to realize that I really don't throw my two-handed chest pass with two hands, and it might be helpful if I did.

After that came the array of arcane pass and shoot exercises along with an exercise that reputedly pertained to zone defense but in effect had more to do with a bunch of us standing in concentric circles and yelling.

Finally we got to play an actual game and I realized that, in addition to the two-handed chest pass, there were a couple other things I ought to work on that might be useful, like making shots and not running into people. It didn't help, however, that everyone wanted to show the American what real coaching is -- thanks again Team U.S.A. -- so they'd call out whatever came into their heads the second I touched the ball, and they'd do it in Dutch, and I didn't feel as though I had the option of just shutting them out since I was trying to convince them to let me play on their team, and it all got rather confusing and not conducive to making any more shots, or seeing the passing lanes, or dribbling.

So I was feeling less than confident when play stopped. Fortunately, this is Amsterdam, so I got a beer with a few of the players at the bar along the far wall. It turns out that liking beer was my best move of the night. That and already being friends with the really tall guy who's the top player on the team earned me at least another week.

I can't wait to show them what I've really got.