Thursday, March 12, 2015

Charles Bukowski: words to live by

                               more Bukowski on Truth and Beauty:

                                      Charles Bukowski: "Born into This"

Charles Bukowski's "The Laughing Heart"

                            Charles Bukowski: So You Want to Be a Writer?

                                 Charles Bukowski Gets Life-Affirming

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Richard Linklater's "Boyhood"

                 Mason (Ellar Coltrane) in the beginning of "Boyhood"
Salon columnist Andrew Ohir was right to say that Richard Linklater’s new movie “isn’t quite like anything else in the history of cinema.”

Filmed in increments over a 12-year time span, “Boyhood” is the story of a small Texas family in a near-constant state of transition. The movie opens when the protagonist is in elementary school and ends when he goes to college. What makes “Boyhood” unique is that it keeps the same cast members all the way through; though the film is fictional, the children literally become young adults before our eyes. 

There’s no juiced up plot line and little in the way of eye candy (“Boyhood” was made for just four million dollars). The narrative unfolds organically, following the individual and family dynamics of Mason (first-time actor Ellar Coltrane), his older sister Samantha
Samantha (Lorelei Linklater)
(Linklater’s daughter Lorelei), and his mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) as they struggle and grow through a series of life challenges. The passage of time is conveyed through changes in the characters’ appearances and landmark events
the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the presidential elections of 2004 and 2008

Mason, the main character, is something of a dreamer; the movie opens with him lying on the grass gazing up at the sky. Samantha is harder and more practical, a straight A student who is inextricably tied to her brother and often patronizing toward him. Olivia is a loving mother trying to raise her children to be good, well-rounded people while juggling professional growth and difficult partners

series of men pass through the children's lives. The mainstay—after a separation early onis Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), the fun, aimless parent who whisks the kids around on playful weekend outings in his classic GTO. 

A warm, humanistic glow suffuses “Boyhood.” The principals are sympathetic, three-
Olivia (Patricia Arquette)
dimensional characters and the movie effectively conveys both the joie de vivre of childhood (bedtime stories, Saturday morning cartoons, swing sets, trampolines, hide and seek) and the confusion (Mason and Samantha watch from a hidden distance as their parents fight without fully understanding what’s happening).

Numerous cultural references impart a feeling that the drivers and products of our imagination matter. The children dress up in character for a Harry Potter book signing. Star Wars” gets multiple mentions“To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Breakfast of Champions” are name-checked. The lost art of tap dancing comes up. Mason Sr. is a musician; his son takes up photography

“Boyhood” also brims with the art of conversation, another Linklater specialty, the dialogue frequently seeking to enlighten us about the world rather than merely serve the plot. Among the philosophical asides are discussions of Pavlov, carpe diem, John Bowlby’s
Mason at the end of "Boyhood"
attachment theory, the dehumanizing effects of technology, and the meaning of life, which is passion, connection to something, anything. Follow your heart.

The power of “Boyhood” resides not in any individual element (e.g. a command performance, visual style, or dramatic event) but in the cumulative sweep of everyday life built up over 165 minutes. I didn’t walk out of the theater spellbound, but the movie has seeped into my bones in the three weeks since I saw it and left what I imagine will be a lasting imprint.

Twenty-five years into his career, critics are gushing over the versatile Linklater, who has remained cheerfully on the periphery of the film industry all these years with small, artsy indies. If the long list of awards received so far is any indication, “Boyhood” might just defy gravity and win best picture at the Oscars.

It would be nice to see the Academy honor one of America’s most original artists, but I don’t know that it would matter much to Linklater, for whom the biggest thrill seems to be the sheer joy of filmmaking.


Sunday, January 25, 2015

An appreciation of “1984” as Eddie Van Halen turns 60

I was late to the party known as Van Halen.

Throughout most of their vintage period I listened to the Beatles, Stevie Wonder, top 40 radio. I saw the classic “Fair Warning” concert videos in the early ’80s on MTV, but the music didn’t stick; hard rock wasn’t yet part of my musical palette. 

The gateway drug was “Jump,” Van Halen’s only number one record. Released as a single and a video at the tail end of 1983, the song opened my ears to the band. 

By spring, “1984” was the high-adrenaline soundtrack that got my blood pumping before I walked out on the court as a freshman on the varsity tennis team. My doubles partner, a drummer on the side, had the bug too: he expertly mimicked Alex Van Halen in a pair of air band contests. The growing success of the
Eddie Van Halen flying high in 1984
with his first number one single
  album paralleled the excitement of a season in
 which we won the conference title.

By May, Van Halen was my favorite band. A cassette of “1984” or one of its five predecessors was in regular rotation on my $20 boom box. Filled with the zeal of the newly converted, I scrawled the boss Van Halen logo on notebooks, the inside of bathroom stalls, the back of desks, anywhere I had the time and space to spread the Gospel. 

It wasn't long before VH invaded my household. When we got our first family dog, I started calling the unnamed beagle Eddie. My parents initially agreed to the name as a placeholder only, but it ended up sticking.

That summer, my younger brother (at left) got in the act. With black hair, natural six pack abs, and boyish good looks, he was a fitting stand-in for Eddie Van Halen as he launched off our ottoman with a cardboard guitar. (Years later, he still had the bug, using “Panama” in a video shoot with his friends in Africa.)

In July of 1984, the circus came to town. The Velcros opened the concert; they’re still bragging about opening for Van Halen thirty years later. Amid a spectacle of lights and stage mounts and stimuli, David Lee Roth told us we were the best audience he’d seen in the last 99 shows. Out on the floor, I had my first kiss with a girl who invited me back to her hotel after the show, the same hotel name-checked on the back jacket of Van Halen II.

Nine months later, Roth left the band. The party was over.    


Decades passed. Other than a brief revival of Van Halen infatuation in the early ’90s (during a period of intense devotion to the electric guitar) the band mostly fell off my radar as my
Business time.
tastes veered toward ’50s and ’60s jazz, Frank Zappa, Funkadelic, Laura Nyro, soul, baroque classical, instrumental world music, an ongoing dose of
60s/’70s rock. As my listening habits changed, my six-string sensibility gravitated away from the technical playing that dominated the ’80s to the electric blues (Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan in particular). Even so, I slowly acquired the first six Van Halen CD’sjust in case.

The separation ended in 2013, during an especially challenging time in my life. As if dipping my toes in the water, I put just a handful of tunes from each Roth album on my iPod.

Soon I was hooked all over again. For months the band provided aural therapy as I crossed San Francisco sidewalks, the music mainlined into my ears loud and clear. With 25 years of electric guitar under my belt, I appreciated Eddie’s innovative sound(s) in a way I hadn’t before.

I’ve been a born again fan ever since. It feels like we never parted, as if we've been joined
in a continuous line running from the moment I cracked the plastic on my "1984"
cassette up to the present. Looking back from the vantage point of 2015, the final album with David Lee Roth represents a crossroads for this listener. Working from his home studio
and freed of the shackles of hit-centric producer Ted Templeman, Eddie created an entire album’s worth of original material, a major achievement in itself and a big step up after the covers-heavy “Diver Down.”

And yet, the synthesizer-based tunes on "1984" not only sound dated (in the way that ’80s production values sound dated), but they remind me of the sappy, formula pop songs the band did with Sammy Hagar which made me lose interest in Van Halen.

I love “Panama” and “Hot for Teacher.” They’re kinetic, well-crafted songs that have stood the test of time. But like "Stairway to Heaven" or "Layla," I’ve heard them too many times to count. 

What remains freshest in my ears are The Big Four: four guitar-oriented album tracks which connect me with the life force that put the mighty in The Mighty Van Halen.

Closing side 1 of “1984” in grand fashion are “Top Jimmy” and “Drop Dead Legs.” Before I knew who the real Top Jimmy was, I thought the song might be a veiled ode to the virtuosic Eddie, who makes his mark from the opening with ethereal harmonics counterpointed by a slashing riff, as a volume swell trills in the background. The verses have a swing that could only exist in the Roth era. The solo opens with a patented Eddie whale shriek and ends with a quivering tremolo dive that sounds like it’s falling down a mine shaft.

Recently accused of helping cause Ebola, “Drop Dead Legs” has a lumbering beast of a main riff (modeled on “Back in Black”) that is pure Van Halen strut. The MXR Phase 90 tone Eddie opens with is pristine, the drumming simple and powerful. The last minute-and-a half—tacked on after the rest of the song was already recorded—is a singular outro inspired by Allan Holdsworth. After vamping for a spell, Eddie breaks away from his typically disciplined pop-length solos with a smorgasbord of shapes and colors and sounds, a rare display of Van Halen's free-form side.

The other two tunes on my active playlist are the closers on side 2, “Girl Gone Bad” and “House of Pain.” The former, which Eddie wrote in a hotel closet while Valerie Bertinelli was sleeping in the room, is an advanced composition that clocks in at 4:30. The wealth of ideas begins with Eddie tapping harmonics high on the neck while holding chords (with the same notes) at the low end as Alex taps insistently on the hi-hat, then the ride. The verses are short and to the point and transition—with Roth’s Tarzan yowls—into a fresh interlude at 2:16. The rest is gravy: following a soft landing from the solo into Eddie’s arpeggiated lines, the opening theme re-appears en route to another pass through the chorus. Alex brings down the curtain with a sweeping flourish that drops into a Rototom-and-kick drum stomp. 

My favorite tune on “1984” is “House of Pain,” a song with distinctly Rothian tongue-in-cheek lyrics. The crushing main riff alone is worth the price of admission. Transitioning from the opening riff into the first verse, Eddie maintains the hard edge with a propulsive rhythm guitar line. The solo proper is merely a prelude to the outro solo at 1:42, introduced with a screeching pick slide capped by a taut snare hit. What follows is a heady demonstration of the musical telepathy a drummer and guitarist working in tandem for 15 years can generate. Over Alex’s driving beat Eddie conjures a wicked assortment of squeals, howls, dive bomber sounds, and serrated blues licks. He comes out of the squall into a boogie blues riff doubled by a vocal line, a final dance with Diamond Dave before Eddie, Alex, and Michael Anthony march one of posterity's most kick-ass rock ‘n’ roll bands over and out for the last time.  

A lot of the music I listened to in the ’80s seems like a guilty pleasure now, but Roth-era Van Halen still feels vibrant. And no one since has re-calibrated the sonic possibilities of rock guitar the way Eddie Van Halen did. As a player, I haven’t found a way to incorporate his space age techniques into my straight ahead blues style, but as a listener, I remain in awe.

Happy 60th, Eddie. 


                                              More Van Halen at Truth and Beauty

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

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

                              Eddie Van Halen, Jan Hammer, and Tony Levin—on One Stage 
                                           features live footage of Eddie doing "Cathedral" (solo) and 
                                          "Hot for Teacher" with two fusion virtuosos 

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

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Crystal Blue Persuasion (San Francisco, 12/23/14)

For years I imagined taking a daytime walk from the Embarcadero to the Pacific Ocean, both for the visceral experience and the bucket list feat of traversing San Francisco from one end to the other. Last Tuesday the elements conspired in my favor. 

The tour started in the viewing area of the ferry terminal, at right in the image below.

From a glance I could see 
the back of the Ferry Building, 
Four Embarcadero Center, 
the clock tower, and

the waterfront sign which
greets ferryboat arrivals,
here in isolation,

here in concert.

Not far away was this 
seasonal San Francisco treat.
Ice skating rink? Check.
Palm trees? Check.  
60 degrees with sun? Check.
Welcome to California.

I wandered from the rink to the nearby cable car turnaround. 
This was my view from the back, facing the soaring 
buildings on California Street, while 

up front a small boy gazed in wonderment at the skyscraper canyon.

Working inland, I approached the Transamerica Pyramid 
on Merchant Alley, my field of vision shifting from   
the contrast between little brown buildings
and a white tower into

a concrete bank of off-white as I

passed a catwalk, 

the Pyramid now convening,

now become one with the azure sky.

Coming back down to earth, 
I found  Glenna Goodacre's "Puddle Jumpers,"
a sculpture at the base of the Transamerica Building, and

headed west, up Sacramento Street's precipitous incline to 
a block-sized plateau at the top of the hill where 
a treasure trove of landmarks and views
surround Huntington Park

In short order I glanced down Taylor Street to the bay,

walked the steps of 

Grace Cathedral, 

and swung by the entrance of the world-class Mark Hopkins Hotel, before

hoofing it down this Mason Street sidewalk.

I crossed Mason and Bush and

before long was in the Tenderloin, a rough neighborhood 
given to fits of beauty like this mural (at Eddy and Taylor)
by artists Darryl Mar and Darren Acora, a mural which

reflects the magical diversity of San Francisco and

makes me feel hopeful about the multicultural tapestry of America's future.

I continued along Eddy until I reached Boeddeker Park
another diamond in the rough, and hooked left on 
this charming Leavenworth crosswalk.

Some blocks on, at Leavenworth and Golden Gate, I caught
"The Gifts You Take Are Equal to the Gifts You Make"
by Catalina Gonzalez and Marta Ayala. 

My next major stop was a mile west, at Alamo Square, a popular tourist 
destination. The view below, with the "painted ladies" in the center 
of the frame and the skyline in the back, is the common one.

This time, I approached the iconic location 
from down below, on Grove and Steiner.

Moving in close, I saw 716 Steiner bathing in bright sunlight.

A few strides away was the simple elegance 
of 712 Steiner's porch and

the exquisite beauty of its window frames.

Reversing the typical perspective, I sat on 712's front steps 
and viewed two of countless thousands who have 
captured snapshots of the Victorian sisters 
from the hill across the way.

After leaving Alamo Square 
I saw this sidewalk stencil from
street artist Eclair Bandersnatch,

this door mural at Scott and Fell, 

and soon found myself in the Panhandle, 
on a winding trail which

cut through abundant green space crisscrossed with

lengthening mid-afternoon shadows.

The Panhandle took me to Golden Gate Park.
 I entered Hippie Hill from the back,

breathed in the glorious expanse at the ridge,

continued west through the AIDS Memorial Grove,

under the tunnels near the Academy of Sciences,

then along JFK Drive, 
on which I passed
a waterfall, 

Lloyd Lake,

and Spreckles Lake, where 
a seagull stood in repose while 

a duck paddled through the water, 
leaving a V in its wake.

Sunset neared as I closed on the ocean, trying to
keep up with the trails of sunlight which 
refracted through tree cover, 
moving west just ahead of me.

The Pacific was, 
as ever, 

The big ball in the sky hovered, 
its death glow growing brighter, 

casting orange as it dropped low to the water.




Other Truth and Beauty photo essays:

"It Starts with your Heart and Radiates Out" includes San Francisco 
street art, architecture, and miscellaneous city scenes 
in a stroll from the Mission to South of Market to downtown

"Gone but not Forgotten" is a tribute to a friend who left this world all too soon 

"A Sunny* Monday in San Francisco" is a day tour of the city, 
from Mission Street to the Pacific Ocean

"On a clear day you can see forever" explores Noe Valley, Ashbury Heights, 
the Inner Sunset district, microclimates, and street art on a pristine September day 

"Random San Francisco" has 46 photos which range from 
ornate architecture to vistas to murals to sidewalk messaging

"California in November" captures deep fall natural splendor