Thursday, October 9, 2014

Words to live by: Charles Bukowski

                             more Bukowski on Truth and Beauty:

Charles Bukowski's "The Laughing Heart"

                            Charles Bukowski: So You Want to Be a Writer?

                                 Charles Bukowski Gets Life-Affirming

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Frank Zappa's public debut

Frank Zappa in 1963:  clean-cut and unknown
Some artists just have it

A vigorous work ethic is essential to artistic longevity (I think of anecdotes about John Coltrane playing 12 hours/day or Jimi Hendrix walking around his apartment with a guitar strapped on), but it isn't enough. Among the millions of musicians, writers, painters, dancers, photographers, and filmmakers who dedicate their lives to art, only a small number have a lasting impact.

One such artist was Frank Zappa, a frequent flyer on this blog.

Before he released the first rock concept album and double album, wowed audiences with wicked guitar chops in insanely tight touring bands, battled with the Moral Majority over record labels, and served as a cultural emissary to Czechoslovakia during the Velvet Revolution, Zappa made a soft-spoken appearance on the nationally-televised Steve Allen Show at the age of 23.

I'm much more partial to Zappa's later work than this safe made-for-tv bit, but this cultural artifact provides an early peek into the adventurous mind of a musical explorer whose unique vision would be going strong five decades later.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Five stirring performances at Woodstock

I first saw "Woodstock" in the mid-'80s, when most rock and pop was weightless and overproduced, with all the shelf life of a stale fart.

As a teen bohemian-in-training trapped in what was in many ways a plastic, reactionary era, I found the movie fascinating. For over three hours I was transported to a time when personal growth and exploration didn't take a backseat to getting ahead, when brotherhood was more prevalent—and infinitely more hip—than greed, when the young men didn't look like frat boys and the women had long, straight, natural hair instead of those godawful '80s perms.

Musically, Woodstock remains a rock festival without peer, a distinction which is likely to stick due to the scale of the event and the quality of the bands. The list of soulful, high-caliber acts that performed on those four days 45 years ago is staggering:  Jimi HendrixThe Who; Santana; Sly & the Family Stone; The Band; Ravi Shankar; Janis Joplin; Johnny Winter; Creedence Clearwater Revival; Ten Years After; Crosby, Stills, & Nash; Jefferson Airplane; Blood, Sweat, & Tears; Joe Cocker; Joan Baez; Arlo Guthrie. 

Woodstock's high points could fill multiple posts, but I will focus on just five key moments. 

Richie Havens, one of the lesser-known acts at Woodstock, opened the festival. The first performance that appears in the documentary is Havens' closer, "Freedom." Never before have I seen a musician move an audience of 200,000 with just an acoustic guitar, his voice, and a lone conga player.

This turbo-charged rendition of Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues" features the Who early in their career, firing on all cylinders (see:  Pete Townshend's windmills, Keith Moon's kinetic drumming, Roger Daltrey's microphone lassoing). Added bonuses include Townshend's sonic performance art at the conclusion of this video and the heady split-screen footage spliced together from seven cameras positioned around the stage.

The backdrop to Woodstock was the United States' futile and bloody involvement in Vietnam. Country Joe, the relatively obscure leader of Country Joe & the Fish, captured the zeitgeist with an anti-war protest song, the "I Feel I'm Fixin' to Die Rag." Interesting historical footnote:  a young Martin Scorsese, serving as an editor of the documentary, came up with the bouncing ball-on-white lyrics effect that comes in at 1:42.


Ten Years After was one of my most potent Woodstock discoveries. Other than hearing "I'd Love to Change the World" every once in a while on classic rock radio, I had no familiarity with the band. After I saw this rousing clip, Ten Years After—and virtuoso lead guitarist Alvin Lee—became a permanent part of my musical landscape.

Alvin Lee was not the only bonafide guitar hero at Woodstock. Carlos Santana, then just 22 years old, led his band through an epic version of "Soul Sacrifice." From the sheer size of the crowd to the percussion orgy break (2:11) to the most bad-ass rock drum solo this side of "Moby Dick" (3:07) to the molten guitar solo that followed and the random shots of audience members caught in musical ecstasy, it doesn't get any better than this.

                                                 More music posts at "Truth and Beauty":

Saturday, August 2, 2014

40 years

Forty years ago, I was photographed on my first day of school. 

Shielding my eyes from the bright morning sun, I looked into the camera without the slightest idea of what the future held in store.

Recently I returned to the scene of that photo for a "half time" check-in:  if gene patterns held, half of that future had been lived and half remained. 
Again I covered my eyes, but now I looked up into a sky that held optimism and promise. 

Three years ago this fall, I took an inspiring writing workshop which redirected my energies from the non-fiction writing I'd done for many years to a then-moribund novel. 

85,000 words and countless re-writes later, I'm in the final stretch of edits, working on a book proposal, and diving into my next venture:  an MFA-Creative Writing program. 

Where will this path lead? 

I honestly don't know. 

Will I become a creative writing teacher? 


A grant writer? 


An editor in a publishing house? 


Will there be opportunities that I can't foresee? 


What I do know is that I'm excited about the journey.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Eddie Van Halen, Jan Hammer, and Tony Levin—on one stage

Many years ago my first guitar teacher loaned me a VHS recording of a concert tribute to Les Paul called "Les Paul & Friends."

Among the highlights were Les Paul's demonstration of his "little black box," a sweet, subtle rendition of "Georgia" with Paul on lead and jazz guitar phenom Stanley Jordan on rhythm, and a blues cutting contest between David Gilmour of Pink Floyd and Jan Hammer of the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

The high-energy peak of the show for me was the video below, featuring Eddie Van Halenwho was then the gold standard of rock guitarwith two highly esteemed musical collaborators. 

After giving the audience a taste of his vast sonic palette with the instrumental "Cathedral," Van Halen was joined by an all-star line-up for this instrumental version of "Hot for Teacher." On keys was Jan Hammer, a longstanding member of jazz fusion royalty. Tony Levin, a member of King Crimson with an astonishing catalog of side work, ably handled bass. 

The performance was novel on many levels. It was a rare opportunity to see Eddie Van Halen at the peak of his powers with world-class musicians whose chops were several notches above the average rock 'n' roller's. In his namesake band, Van Halen did the solos and emitted all of the fireworks, but here the virtuosic Jan Hammer held his own (and produced musical ecstasy faces to match). The Hammer-Van Halen point-counterpoint solos  and climactic low-to-high, guitar-and-keys unison run before the closing main theme all point up the singular potency of jazz finesse married to the raw power of amplified rock. 


                                               More Van Halen at "Truth and Beauty":

                                       Eddie Van Halen's "Fair Warning":  an appreciation

                                   Great Guitar Solos, #4:  Dweezil Zappa Nails "Eruption"

                                                   Avery Molek. Seven-year-old drummer
                                                  [includes performance video of Avery doing 
                                                     "Hot for Teacher" and "Girl Gone Bad"]

Friday, June 13, 2014

"Finding Vivian Maier"

"Finding Vivian Maier" is the story of an exceptional artist who chose obscurity. 

In the winter of 2007, Chicago real estate agent John Maloof bought a box of decades-old negatives at an auction.

After seeing the striking images that emerged from the dark room, Maloof (who wrote and directed this movie with a very sure hand) went on an obsessive quest to learn about the photographerVivian Maierand gather up the rest of her output. In the process, he found "100,000 to 150,000 negatives, over 3,000 prints, hundreds of rolls of film, home movies, audio tape interviews, and various other items."

The first half of "Finding Vivian Maier" focuses on Maier's photography. Maier worked
All photos courtesy
of the Maloof Collection, Ltd.
primarily with a Rolleiflex camera which required her to look toward the ground as she framed her shots, even as the lens pointed forward. Though she was not facing her subjects eye-to-eye, Maier was able to capture them in intimate poses, often looking down at the camera, giving the subject an authority over the image. 

Maier specialized in street portraits and had an acute sense of human folly and human tragedy, particularly the savagery of poverty. While working as a nanny, she took her charges on field trips to slums, stockyards, and even a slaughterhouse. She had few outside friends and the families she worked for were unaware of either the caliber or volume of her work.

Maier was a pack rat. While she was alive, the vast majority of her negatives lay boxed and

buried in an ever-growing raft of belongings. After her death, John Maloof acquired Maier's possessions and combed through them like a detective. His findings inform the second half of "Finding Vivian Maier."

Once the movie has its hooks in the audience, Maloof tries to decode Vivian Maier the person. Maier was intensely private; on some level this pivot feels unseemly, voyeuristic, like secretly reading a shrinking violet's diary. But Maloof has so expertly built up Maier's exquisite photography and the mystery surrounding her being that curiosity trumps the viewer's sense of fair play.  

A picture of a loner with a crack visual eye forms. Maier's idiosyncrasies and rough edges are revealed and feed speculation about her past, which is by turns intriguing and futile (can we ever truly know what's in someone's heart, especially a loner's?). 

Observing the overflowing crowds that have filled art museums in Chicago, L.A., Manhattan,
and London to see Maier's photos years after her death, one could feel a sense of the tragic, as I did when I waited in line at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Here was a lonely artist who produced extraordinary work without validation in her lifetime. 

But in Maier's case, this sentiment might be misplaced. It appears that Maier lived the life she wanted to live and pursued photography from the purest of motives:  she found fulfillmentperhaps even joyin the process of creating art. 

(*Click here for more of Vivian Maier's photos)


   Other "Truth and Beauty" film reviews:

"The Wolf of Wall Street"

                   "There must be something in the water: the magic of 'Muscle Shoals'"

                                                                        "Inequality for All"

                                                             "A spoiler-free review of 'Mud'"   


"Honest Abe Makes Sausage" (about "Lincoln")

"Errol Morris Strikes Again" (about "Tabloid")

Monday, June 2, 2014

"A Sunny* Monday in San Francisco," re-visited

This shot of the famous painted ladies appeared in "A Sunny* Monday in San Francisco," my first photo essay. 

"A Sunny* Monday" was posted in the early days of this blog, when readership was negligible, so it didn't get the attention it deserved. Thus I'm bringing it out for a second go-round.   

Since that first posting, I've put up a new photo series every 3-6 months as a nod to my love of visual art and a break from more arduous, cerebral fiction writing.  

Click here to take a tour of two years' worth of "Truth and Beauty" photo essays.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Fifteen minutes in San Francisco

BART platform
Last night I had an eye-opening experience on San Francisco's public transportation routes (not for the first time).

Rather than convey the story through dry, grammatically-correct prose, I've chosen a freewrite voice that better reflects the lively, elastic vibe of the moment.  

When I reached the bus stop late night a young Spandex-clad woman rambled full tilt into her phone and a really good listener's ear 

A bus rolled up I went to the middle of the last row where I could see everything

The guy in front of me to the left played rap music for all to hear through his phone

The guy in front of me on my right bopped his head along just barely to the beat

And directly across from Head Bopper was Full Tilt, still yammering away about a friend whose parents were pushing her through school but she wasn't studying enough because she didn't really want to be in school and

A stop, a cat got on, sat next to Rap Boy, fist-bumped him

Stop after that a middle-aged woman got on with a bunch of bags but

She rode just a few blocks and at one stop as the driver was about to close the back door and move along she suddenly yelled, "
Wait! I have lots of stuff to carry. Wait!"

And so the driver waited she got off Head Bopper grinned at the drama, started bobbing his head again to the rap

Bus pulled up to Van Ness and Market the guy directly in front of me fist-bumped Rap Boy got up to leave and loudly sucked mucus up into his throat without breaking stride

And did it one more time as he waited for the green light above the back door to come on

Head Bopper grinned again (the shit you see...)

I got off at the next stop, said to Head Bopper, "Endless entertainment on MUNI"

He smiled broadly, said

I came down into the long Civic Center BART tunnel two brothers were playing smooth jazz

keyboards and sax over a drum track

I gave 'em a dollar the saxman said thank you I said, "No. Thank

And when I looked ahead I saw a homeless cat near the add fare machines dancing in a winding cartwheeling drunk belly dancer style to the jazzmen

He saw me see him as I passed he smiled big and full of teeth except the one in the front which was missing

I smiled back and gave him a thumb's up

Through the turnstile,

Downstairs on the platform I ran into a soft-spoken bearded dude from my old meet-up group who wrote verse in a little black leatherbound book, if memory serves,

I said hey, don't I know you?

He said

Are you still going to the group?

And so on...

The train came, I broke away

The doors closed behind,

Sealing me in.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Brown v. Board and Three Dog Night's "Black and White"

I was first drawn to Three Dog Night's 1972 rendition of "Black and White" by the lyrics. Here is the opening verse: 

The ink is black
The page is white
Together we learn to read and write
The child is black
The child is white
The whole world looks upon the sight
The beautiful sight

The words spoke to my appreciation of ethnic diversity and reflected the truth that racism is learned behavior (and its corollary that bigotry would diminish as new generations of Americans transcended their parents' prejudices). 

The appeal to brotherhood was typical of the early '70s, a time of great social change when a soulful song with an important universal message could reach number one on the Billboard charts.

"Black and White" was written by David I. Arkin and Earl Robinson in 1954, spurred on by the Supreme Court's watershed Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which ended legal segregation in public education.

As we celebrate the 60th anniversary of Brown today, it's easy to be skeptical about the prospects for social and political evolution in America's near future. The election (and re-election) of a mild-mannered black president has spawned legions of white Tea Party faux patriots and an upsurge in militia membership. Fox News has a propaganda grip on a not-so-discerning one third of the country. And dirty corporate money continues to corrode our political system and block human progress

But underneath the plutocrats, reactionaries, and low-information voters is a tolerant, enlightened America which has the potential to live up to its ideals. As Brown showed, "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” 


Other civil rights writing by Dan Benbow:

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Road to the Mountaintop (about the speech King gave on the last night of his life)

Honest Abe Makes Sausage (a review of Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln")

Actions, Not Words (a life review of Ollie Matson, an Olympic medal winner, NFL Hall-of-Famer, civil rights trailblazer, and good citizen) 

Monday, May 5, 2014

Charles Bukowski's "The Laughing Heart"

This video combines two of my favorite artists:  
Charles Bukowski and Tom Waits. 

your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is a light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the darkness.
be on the watch.
the gods will offer you chances.
know them.
take them.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death in life, sometimes.
and the more often you learn to do it,
the more light there will be.
your life is your life.
know it while you have it.
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight
in you.


 more Bukowski on "Truth and Beauty"