Inside Llewyn Davis: Not the Greenwich Village I Knew

BlogPic_InsideLlewynDavisYou might expect that I should love the film “Inside Llewyn Davis,” about the folk scene of Greenwich Village in the 1960s, seen through the eyes of a young folk singer, who is a reinterpreted version of the young Dave van Ronk. Van Ronk was a legend by the time I hit that scene, as a young singer-songwriter, in the early 1980s. I barely knew him, but I did work the soundboard for one of his performances at the Speakeasy — a folk music club and artists’ cooperative, which put on nightly shows behind a falafel stand on Macdougal Street. I thought Van Ronk was an awesome performer, with a dominating stage presence. I found him intimidating at the time.

Folk music was serious business to the artists who were keeping it alive in those clubs. As a newcomer, you had a steep hill to climb, to prove yourself worthy to be in their company. Van Ronk’s memoir, on which the movie was partly based, is called “The Mayor of Macdougal Street.” I haven’t even read it yet, but I thought of him more as the Pope. I didn’t dare approach Van Ronk, partly because I was not even a true “folky” — though I did get one song, “Epiphany Dream,” onto a “Fast Folk” record album, a periodic collection that was published as a “musical magazine” by the Speakeasy cooperative, and which you can still find online. (I thought of Jack Hardy, editor of Fast Folk, as the mayor.)

I spent several fun, formative musical years in that colorful Speakeasy / Folk City / Macdougal Street music scene, which is painted in brownish-grayish tones in the Coen Brothers film. I have some beautiful memories, too: the legendary Odetta watching my show, complimenting me, hugging me, the memory of which gladdens me still. At the same time, however, I was also fronting a rock band, playing at clubs in the rougher parts of the East Village and Soho, clubs with names like CBGB, 8BC, Kamikaze. (This double life probably made me suspect in the folk world, but that’s another story.)

Yet despite this semi-personal connection to what was being portrayed on the screen, I did not love “Inside Llewyn Davis.” I found myself skipping and fast-forwarding through big hunks of it, in 10-20 second stuttering hops, trying to find parts I liked.

And I did find a few gem moments, most of them musical performances, including a surprising folk turn by Justin Timberlake. The film certainly captured the look of the New York folk music scene as I remember it, which (I now realize) had not changed that much by 1982. Indeed, my experience of New York itself was pretty much just as that movie portrayed it: a little run-down, funkier, more dangerous than the shiny place it is today.

So, I didn’t hate the film. But several others from that scene and time — most publicly Christine Lavin and Suzanne Vega — did hate it, and they went public with harsh criticisms. I mostly agree with their general complaint: the movie doesn’t reflect what I remember of life in that community. We were all young, aspiring songwriters, by turns cooperative and competitive, enjoying the feeling that we were part of something with a history. The Greenwich Village folk scene was a kind of musical nebula that occasionally gave birth to a star (Suzanne Vega broke out with two worldwide hits, “Luka” and “Tom’s Diner”, about the time I began turning from aspiring New York musician into an aspiring Seattle sustainability wonk who still did music). But mostly, that community was all about dedication to tradition, craft, songwriting, artistry, mutual support. Being a musician in New York — especially being a songwriter outside the mainstream of pop — was a hard business. We needed each other.

This is really my chief complaint about “Inside Llewyn Davis”: I felt nothing of that. In fact, I felt nothing at all. I really wanted to just get through the film and go back to work. (I was watching it on a long plane flight.) A reviewer who loved the movie noted that it’s just a fiction, maybe a profound one, and even called Lavin and Vega “narcissistic” for criticizing it — that is, for not accepting it as an original, aching, coming-of-age story, that has nothing to do with their reality. The Coen Brothers, in that reading, just borrowed bits of Van Ronk’s memoir, and images of that time and scene, in order to tell a different story about misplaced ambitions and the hard treatment dished by the real world on youthful dreams.

But I have to defend my old Speakeasy colleagues, Lavin and Vega, on this point: if someone takes your youth, full of colorful people and memories that you love, and repaints it as tawdry and sad, and then presents this portrayal to the world as The Truth On Film, you are fully entitled to hate that movie. And to attack it, critically. (Thanks, Christine and Suzanne, for doing that. I called you “colleagues” above, rather than friends, because while I knew you, I never really knew you. I always wished I had — I so admired your work, you were role models — but I doubt you even remember me. I was a junior, marginal player in that league. I was a Wednesday and Thursday night kind of performer; you were Friday and Saturday night. Still, it gives me pleasure to remember that we played on the same stages, sometimes in the same multi-artist shows …)

So the true Greenwich Village Folk Music Movie remains to be made. Or … maybe it would be interesting to make a movie about a folk musician who lives a double life as a rock ‘n’ roll artist, flitting between gigs in different parts of New York, dancing with the ghost of Dylan’s controversial flip to electric guitar, moving furniture to make a living with a fellow songwriter and, improbably enough, future Earth First! activist (my old friend Darryl Cherney, who recorded my first cassette album in his bedroom studio, and who was the spitting image of the guy playing Llewyn Davis), avoiding the muggers and the groupies and the drugs (I was a total nerd in that regard), performing at weddings and funerals and hospitals for the mentally disturbed, until finally getting a big break with the offer of a serious management deal (the guy that offered me that deal is now head of a major Hollywood movie studio), but then realizing he had a different calling in life, this thing we call “sustainability” …

Well, if you are into making movies, I’ve got a story for you.

PS: Hey, my new album — which which owes a debt of gratitude to those old Greenwich Village days, but is sort of “global folk-rock” — is finished, we are just working on the packaging and marketing now … Stay tuned …

 

Why I Wrote “Purging Wallace Stevens”

Unfortunately, I was deeply affected by the poetry I loved and/or studied as a university student — Rimbaud, Tagore, Elliot, and so many others. Wallace Stevens was perhaps the most difficult to understand, and I loved his work all the more for that, just as I loved Wittgenstein or Hegel. I really understood very little of what I was reading in those days. But I read it all hard, I carried it to bed with me, I scrutinized the volumes while sunbathing nude (the one and only day that was possible, in May of 1980) in the cow pasture out behind my Oxford college. I was earnest.

I wrote poetry then, but it was bad. When I began to write poetry somewhat more seriously, in the early 1990s, Stevens got in the way. I could not possibly measure up to him. Having read Stevens so assiduously meant that I was also, to use a word I learned from another writer the other day, “primed” to think in his oblique, formalistic terms. I sounded like a poor imitation. That is why I had to purge him.

This poem emerged in a kind of controlled verbal rage against not just Stevens, but against the strictures of that schooled set of influences. I’ll reprint the poem here, then explain its references. Readers of Stevens will immediately recognize that this poem is chock full of references to his work. And of course, the embedding of references to other poems, philosophers, artists, the science of the day, is precisely what reading people like Stevens and Eliot and Pound, and studying literature generally, taught me to do.
So this was the weapon I took up against my mental priming.

Purging Wallace Stevens

Call the roller of big cigars and tell him to

get his ass out of town. He doesn’t give the orders

anymore — not in Key West, not anywhere. His world

 

is an attic, a koan at the end of the mind

posed by a million angels, all of them

unnecessary. Our complacencies are of the painful

 

variety:  the muscular ones who whip the Kurds

or contemplate serial murder on Sunday morning.

Oh Wallace, we hardly knew you. Your words said only

 

what would suffice. You met every man of your time

but one, who sold insurance at a crap shoot. You

did not face the women of your time. They could have

 

introduced you, at the grand finale of seem, to the

sticky puddle underneath the emperor of ice cream.

1992

Reprinted from Alan AtKisson, “Collected Poems: 1989-2009,” Broken Bone Press, 2012

So, that felt good. I got that out of my system. Here is what you might have missed, if you were a less obsessive fan of Wallace Stevens’ work.

Call the roller of big cigars

The principal poem being toyed with here is Stevens’ most anthologized work:  “The Emperor of Ice Cream.” Professors loved to teach this poem, with its tough-minded meditations on the interplay of appearance and reality.  “Let be be finale of seem. The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.” That’s Stevens’ closing line. “Do you get it?” the teachers would always say. “Ice cream always melts. Death and entropy are all that rules us in the end.” They appeared to love flogging their students with this kind of confrontation with our mortality.

not in Key West

In “The Idea of Order in Key West,” which is perhaps Stevens’ second-most-anthologized poem, I was taught that he was celebrating the human capacity to impose linear order on a chaotic natural world. The sail boats at Key West “mastered the night” (get that play on words with “mast”) with their straight lines against the sky, etc. etc. Well, two can play at the double entendre game, so I do, with “doesn’t give the orders anymore”.

a koan at the end of the mind / posed by a million angels

Here my studies of Zen Buddhism crept into the picture:  there are no koans in Stevens, but his work is very koan-like, especially “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” (the third most anthologized poem of his, though I have no data to back up these ordinal claims). I’m blending, in these lines, “The Palm at the End of the Mind” (the title of my tattered collection of his work) and “The Necessary Angel,” his singular book of essays.

Our complacencies are of the painful variety

The upper-class domestic sketching in “Sunday Morning (“Complacencies of the peignoir” is the opening line, as I recall). The newspapers were full of violence against the Kurdish people (and others) in those days, and some serial murderer (Jeffrey Dahmer maybe?) was in the headlines. We weren’t in the 1920s anymore. Oh, and the roller of big cigars, “the muscular one,” is bid to whip concupiscent curds in “The Emperor of Ice Cream.” (The word “cereal” shows up in one of those Stevens’ pieces too — I am writing all this from memory now, so I am not quite sure exactly where it shows up.)

Your words said only / what would suffice.

Stevens explicitly practiced the art of saying “what would suffice,” like a sculptor chipping away at stone till what’s left is statue. Of course, I admired this, deeply, else I never would have had to become so irate in order to purge it, in an effort to find my own voice.

… who sold insurance at a crap shoot.

Stevens, as is well known, was a senior insurance executive. That was his “day job.” Here I am claiming — with something like false bravado — that he never actually encountered himself. His poetry is certainly self-reflective, deeply intelligent, sometimes achingly beautiful … but also cold and impersonal, like the poetry of a self-aware supercomputer. What’s the crap shoot? Oh, that’s easy. That’s life. But the insurance approach to poetry has the tendency to reduce life’s blood-and-sweat vagaries, its reckless gambling, to the precision of actuarial tables, which is, as I insinuate here (with that subtle word “crap”), a load of crap.

You did not face the women of your time.

The treatment of women in Stevens’ work is deeply problematic. They are posed, if they are present at all, in their peignoirs, or as two-dimensional cut-outs, inquisitively but rather naively questioning Picasso and his blue guitar. This is masculine, old-boy stuff. It seems, in Stevens, that only the men have minds — orderly, masterly minds.

Which is why this poem ends on a note of pity. Who knows what Stevens really thought, or felt. I hope that my purge-by-critique is base and unfair; I am, after all, reacting against a cardboard cut-out. But how different might he have been — how different would his poetry have been — had he broken a few more pencils, ripped up the dance floor a bit, lain his head in his lover’s lap and sighed a deep sigh … and just listened to what she had to say.

Flummoxed About My Music (plus, a free song)

Update 12 Apr 2013: I wrote this about six months ago, but now, I am no longer feeling so “flummoxed.” The musical path forward is getting much clear. See What Music Means (to Me).

I confess: I am flummoxed. (Translation: deeply puzzled about what to do.) Why? Because I don’t know how to reach my audience. I’m a family man, and a working sustainability consultant, and those are my highest priorities, in that order. But I’m also a writer, a poet, a songwriter, a musician. I don’t have the time (or the energy, or the drive for attention) required to run around tooting my horn and selling my creative products. But this world doesn’t notice you if you don’t.

So why am I making a new album, full of new songs? And what should I do with my old ones?

[Keep reading, or scroll down, and find the free (very old! 1983!) song to listen to, in MP3 format.]

Maybe I’m fooling myself, but I imagine that my potential audience is somewhat bigger than the Twitter followers (833) and the Facebook friends (642 “friends” + 318 “likes” on my public page).  Or the average 500 per month who visit my blog. Or the 500 or so who actually open my company newsletter (out of 2,700 on the list).

Evening performance for Northwest Earth Institute, Portland, OR, 2003 (photo from the NWEI newsletter)

In fact, I am pretty sure my audience used to be bigger, back in the good old pre-Twitter days. My first book sold something close to 20,000 copies. My essays on the now-defunct blog Worldchanging were probably read by many more, and occasionally got noticed by the news media. My music … well, to be honest (with myself), not that many people know my music. My greatest “hit” is a YouTube video (my song “System Zoo”) that has been watched 7,757 times. Yes, my albums are available on iTunes and Amazon … and I have sold a whopping 107 songs and six albums through those channels, generating $118.

That doesn’t much bother me. I write songs because it pleases me to write them, and play them, and record them, and occasionally even listen to them. If no one else ever listens to them … well, that’s fine.

Like any artist, I would certainly prefer that other people listen to my songs, read my books, etc. But — again — I deeply dislike tooting my own horn and doing self-promotion. And the older I get, the less energy I’m willing to spend on self-promotional activity. Hence I am flummoxed.

So, for example:  what to do with my music — old and new? Here is that free song I promised, the opening title track from my very first album, a 10-song cassette demo, produced in 1983, in New York, on a 4-track reel-to-reel system engineered by Darryl Cherney, in his studio/bedroom. He was living with his Mom in those days, and a big white cat whose purring was so loud it could be heard on the tape if we didn’t throw it out of the room. The song is called Whitewing, and it retells the Greek myth of Icarus and Daedalus (click the link to open the song in a new window):

AtKisson_Whitewing_1983DemoVersion

When I made Whitewing, I was just starting to dream of a career in music. A few years (and a few bands) later, I was finally offered the management contract of my dreams … and I turned it down. Cut my hair. Changed careers. Headed toward what we now call sustainability. The reality of succeeding in a career in music — endless touring, smoky bars, playing the same repertoire every night for months — was, when I finally looked that possibility in the face, far less appealing than the dream.

And yet, today I go into the studio again. I’m in the process of recording my sixth album — after a break of twelve years. You probably never heard of most of my albums — “Fire in the Night,” “Testing the Rope,” or the twelve Rilke poems I set to music on “Falcon, Storm, or Song.” (I recorded that one in the year 2000, but did not release it until 2006.) Three of them — the Rilke album, plus the humor album “Whole Lotta Shoppin’ Goin’ On,” and the more serious singer-songwriter collection “Testing the Rope” — are available on Tunecore.

This new album is a return to the troubadour-style ballads of “Testing the Rope.” In fact, I’m thinking of calling the album “American Troubadour,” which is one of the song titles, and also a good description of how I feel these days in relation to music:  American.  You see, living in Sweden — which has a long troubadour tradition, yet not a lot of places for troubadours to play, and even less opportunity for 52-year-old, family-man, American-origin troubadours to play — has further complexified my situation, and made the whole music thing an even more private affair. On top of that, Sweden is not a country where you stand up and say, “Oh, by the way, I’m not just this, I’m also that, and I’m actually this other thing as well, and please listen to my songs and read my books.” Sweden feeds my natural inclination to not draw attention to myself, even though I am in a profession — author, speaker, performer, etc. — that requires drawing attention to oneself.

Then there’s the issue of mixing your professional identity (which I’ve written about in my books). I do quite a lot of work that falls into a category that one might call “serious” — advising companies or UN agencies, writing reports on global economic issues, moderating high-level panel discussions, etc. But my best-known songs (as anyone reading this probably knows) are humorous. Singing humorous songs, especially live, puts one automatically in a sort of “clown-entertainer” role. “Serious” work and “clown” work do not mix together very well.

People tell me, “Oh, but your songs are so effective at getting these messages across!” (I heard this just yesterday, at lunch — and I say thank you very much to the person who said it!) It’s often true that when I give a keynote speech or do a training, people remember what I sing — when I do sing, which isn’t always — more than what I say. I know that because I meet people who heard me years ago, and the first thing they say is, “You’re the guy who sang that song!”

So, I’m flummoxed.

Flummoxed or not, I’m going to keep doing what I do. Maybe more so. All of it. Including music. I’m going to start putting more of that music here, on my blog, so you can access it (for free). And I’m making a new album. (It’s not a funny one.) I have no idea how I’m going to promote that album, or even pay for it — but there’s a decade worth of songs that are just demanding to be recorded. They won’t let me alone until I do.

And then … I’ll put the work out there. On Facebook, Twitter, the Blog, the Amazon, whatever channels are available.

And see what happens.

Announcing Two New Books from Alan AtKisson

Now available for purchase online, or for ordering through your favorite bookstore: two new books by Alan AtKisson

Because We Believe in the Future: Collected Essays on Sustainability, 1989-2009 is a greatest-hits selection of Alan’s best articles, speeches, and blog posts over a twenty-year period. Woven together by personal commentary, these essays offer the reader a walking tour through the history of the modern sustainability movement, as seen from AtKisson’s unique perspective. In voices that are at times provocative, ironic, substantive or philosophically reflective, Alan’s writing always aims to inspire engagement for change. (An ISIS Academy publication, 2012).  Click here to purchase online

Collected Poems 1982-2009 represents the first time that Alan AtKisson’s poetry has been published in book form. As a poet, AtKisson covers a wide range of subject matter including contemporary global issues, deeply personal stories, and the unexpected intersections between the two. Also known as a singer and songwriter, AtKisson’s use of language is precise and rhythmic. The poetic forms he uses are highly varied, ranging from strict formality to wildly referential free verse. He often invokes the work of other poets directly, such as Wallace Stevens, T. S. Elliot, and James Bertolino; and he experiments with poetic structure, while aiming to keep the text accessible to a general readership. Click here to purchase online

Are interested in reviewing these books for a publication? Please write to:  information@atkisson.com

Reflecting on Life, Sustainability, and Star Trek

How different would my life be if I had never seen Star Trek?

The question occurred to me because recently — in a fit of nostalgia, or out of a simple desire to have something to watch on the TV at 11 pm, when I’m too tired to read, and not quite sleepy enough to close my eyes — I bought the latest, and last, Star Trek series on DVD.

The series is called “Enterprise,” and it is a “prequel” to the original Star Trek series that I grew up watching as a child and teenager. A couple of hundred years from now, Humanity sends its first starship out into galactic wilds. There is no “United Federation of Planets” yet (this was presumably a human invention that came later), the Vulcans are not fully to be trusted, and Captain Archer has even brought his dog on the “mission.”

I write that word “mission” in quotes, because it seems that Humanity’s new starship has no mission except to fly around looking for something interesting to do. They’re like teenagers who just got a driver’s license:  they’re cruising, out for trouble. It’s hardly great television, but it makes me chuckle, and somehow warms the heart.

Never a “Trekkie” or even a “Trekker,” the original Star Trek series nonetheless had a deeply formative influence on my teenage life. I watched the show, in re-run then, every day after school for who-knows-how-many years. Televisions took a while to warm up back then (1970s), the sound usually coming on before the picture. It happened often that I turned on in mid-episode, heard about 5 seconds of background music … and knew exactly which episode was on. I dreamt, often, that I was Captain Kirk.

I know that to a modern ear, my youthful immersion in Star Trek lore sounds a little, well, pathetic. But back then, it was not so nerdy, especially in Florida, in eyeshot of the moonshots. Saturn V rockets used to make our windows rattle. Half the boys I knew dreamt of becoming astronauts, during some phase of their young lives.

Which brings me back to my question: would my life be any different, had I not grown up watching Star Trek and dreaming about travel between the stars, meeting alien cultures, exploring an ever-expanding horizon of scientific and cross-cultural mystery?

Contrast that question with, say, a similar one about James Joyce’s Ulysses:  how different would my life be if I had not read this masterwork of 20th Century literature? I did love the book, particularly its closing section, but I cannot say that it has had any formative influence on my personality that I can detect, other than contributing to a vaguely modernist (and post-modernist) worldview and love of language that more properly belongs to the whole of literature, rather than any specific work.  But Star Trek … well, that was more like Ulysses of the Homeric tradition. It was a formative myth. It captured, and amplified, a deeply felt longing, one that had nothing to do with spaceships. The myth of Star Trek had to do with learning, growing, expanding one’s consciousness and capability, overcoming adversity, taking chances, making your own destiny by sheer force of will and imagination.
These have all been central themes in my life, as they are in most people’s lives. In my case, they have been tightly coupled to a life-long quest to make a positive difference, and a contribution to the changes we call “sustainable development.” I have no idea whether watching Star Trek made me more predisposed to travel off to other countries, early in my life, and try to learn about those cultures by immersing myself in them. I don’t know how much it added to my seemingly in-born desire to make change, promote innovation, facilitate improvement. But it is not an unreasonable question to ask, if I hadn’t watched Star Trek, would I have made the same choices in life along the way? I’ll never know the answer to that question for sure — life has no counterfactuals, as they say — but I have my suspicions.

Watching Star Trek now — whether the Enterprise series, or the J.J. Abrams’ relaunch film of a few years back, which seemed aimed at twenty-somethings — is still fun, but it’s fun in a nostalgic sort of way. It’s like looking at a family photo album:  it helps me remember how I got here. My own Ulysses adventure ultimately led me to a very different life, in Sweden.

While I still enjoy traveling and exploring, in connection with my work on sustainable development, I no longer long for it. There’s a home, hearth, family and children in my life now. These fully claim all my capacity for longing, whenever I’m away from them.

But that sense of mission persists. In the end, the Humans of Star Trek are really just trying to make the Universe a better, safer place for kids to grow up in.

Sounds like sustainability work to me.

The Summertalker’s Moment of Revelation

In this country of traditions, which has captured my heart and caused me to set down roots as deep as a modern human can have (family with children, house, bank accounts, taxes, habits of behavior and mind), there is a tradition that is quite modern, as recent as radio.

“Summertalkers” is not a beautiful word, and yet its Swedish origin, “Sommarpratarna,” is somehow beautiful. Partly it is the association:  to experience the Summertalkers program, one sits lazily by the radio, and listens to a gifted writer (or actor or musician …) speak about life. Occasionally, the Summertalkers play a piece of music to illustrate what they are talking about.  Usually the talk is by turns deep, by turns amusing, or perhaps — if the person is quite famous — interesting only in that it reveals something quite personal about them.

As I write this, I am listening to one of most satisfying “Summer Talks” I’ve caught over the years, by author Torgny Lindgren. His 72-year-old voice hesitates in charming ways as he talks about writing and music and how these bring meaning to even the most tragic of lives — say, Joseph Roth, who drank himself to death in the cafes of Paris but wrote compellingly, humorously, and in full command of style, until the very last alcoholic drop.

Torgny (these talks are so intimate in tone that they make one feel compelled use the first name) made me laugh as he recounted the turning point in his young life, the moment when literature gripped him. He was sitting in the outhouse of his family home in northern Sweden, “leaning forward, probably pushing.” The few lines of Swedish poetry that he happened upon in a social-democratic consumer cooperative magazine do not translate well, or at least, I can’t recall them well enough to do them justice in translation. But there he was, a writer-to-be, seized by the language that gives us meaning, having a moment of youthful literary euphoria, in the middle of doing his business in the outhouse.

The beautiful absurdity of it says something about Torgny’s character, his lack of self-pretension (though he sits in chair #9 in the Swedish Academy). But it also says something about summer in Sweden. It is absurdly beautiful here, just now. Everything is wonderful, in the midst of these endless sunny days of leisure, even the most clichéd old song, even American soda pop, even a decaying mini-golf course. One laughs at oneself for enjoying such things — Torgny began by noting that our capacity to fool ourselves about how important, or smart, or beautiful we are is probably one of our most important success factors as a species — but one enjoys it all nonetheless.

“Let’s be honest, music leads us nowhere. Music is completely useless. Ask the tax authorities!” says Torgny. “But we all have a drive to music, a ‘music libido,’ that is as strong as any other drive we have,” he notes, remarking on the remarkable fact that people go around plugged into devices to satisfy their constant, endless need for music. “If Sigmund Freud had discovered the music drive, then all of his work would have looked completely different.”

And the talk goes on, and on. Torgny is playing with words, adding the “muse drive” to the “music drive” — a drive to creativity. We simply must create, just as the Earth — and this is impossible not to believe, during these long summer blooming day-nights in Sweden — must create.

What else, in this endless universe, is there for us to do?

What Lady Gaga and I Have in Common

You might be expecting a humor piece — “I once dropped a piece of Parma ham onto my lap, where it draped across my leg as though it were a patch on my pants, just like Lady Gaga’s famous meat dress” — but I’m actually quite serious here.

I’m not really a Gaga fan, no “Little Monster” as she calls them (effectively creating a “brand” of her own fan-base).  I’ve seen one Gaga concert on TV, I’ve heard the hits on the radio. It’s catchy stuff, perhaps not my cup of tea, unavoidably sticky. But she’s clearly a real musician, versatile, skilled, committed.

And as I also still think of myself as a musician — even if my actual concert-style performances have been more infrequent of late, my playing rustier — I pay attention to the music business; and so I paid close attention to Stephen Fry’s profile article on Lady Gaga in the Financial Times on Saturday, 28 May 2011, followed by an article on the economics of her pop music/performance art empire in the same paper. (Online version here.)

And I learned some things that surprised me.

Let’s start with the tattoo. I don’t have one and never will; but if I did, I would be very likely to choose a line from the poet Rainier Maria Rilke, whose life and work I have studied intensively, resulting in one album of his poetry set to music. I even wrote a one-man musical play, based on his early life and letters, and performed it exactly once.

According to Fry, Lady Gaga has tattoo that consists of a long piece of Rilke’s writing, a quote from “Letters to a Young Poet.”

Then there is her approach to art and work, which one might call “Rilke-esque”. She lives her performance, 24/7. She is fully committed. She professes not to care about making money, and in fact went bankrupt last year — despite her enormous success — because she invested her own money in re-designing and re-tooling her tour, continuously, in response to her evolving sense of what needed to be done.

Without going into the philosophical details here about why, it should be obvious to anyone observing that I have for many years taken a similar approach to my work, at a much, much, much smaller scale of operation. (Just trying to make sure you know that I have no illusions of grandeur. My blog posts are read by, oh, several dozen people at the moment!) In fact, I used to conceive of my work as a kind of “global art project.” These days, I no longer make any distinctions between my “artistic” life and my “professional” life. Consulting on sustainable development strategy, writing, developing processes that bring people together to make change, making up songs and singing them to live audiences as part of a speech or a training session — even knowing when not to sing, because the role I’m playing and the purpose I am dedicated to achieving requires near-absolute adherence to the traditional cultural patterns of suit-and-tie and professional decorum — these all blend together now.

It’s not like I’m doing everything all the time, however. Sometimes a corporate client will specifically ask me to bring my guitar to the session on sustainability strategy (I have even sung to audiences of scientists, and military personnel, you-name-it). But sometimes, it is obvious that any hint of being a “creative person” should be left outside of the meeting. By the same token, when actually performing as a musician, I tend to leave the bullet points on strategy off the stage.

Basically, in each situation, I do whatever seems best to serve the overall purpose of advancing this transformation process we call “sustainability.”

It should be equally obvious that money is not my primary motivation. In fact, like Gaga, I’ve sunk a lot of my own money into developing the tools, methods, etc. that my colleagues and friends are now spreading around the world, with a kind of apparent insouciance to the current profit/loss/cash flow/balance sheet situation that has, on occasion, made my accountants roll their eyes. Why? Because the issues we are dealing with are deadly serious. They outweigh short-term financial considerations. So I do what I think needs to be done, where I see an opportunity to amplify and accelerate change, for as long as I can, and as long as I don’t put other people’s financial well-being at risk. (In truth, I believe or at least hope that this will prove to be a good long-term strategic investment in financial terms. I’m guessing Gaga thinks the same way. I’m also guessing she’ll end up making way more money than the entire sustainability movement will ever see in this lifetime.)

So, work, art, life … It’s all one thing. Sometimes it’s serious (e.g. working to help a country or a company fine-tune its sustainable development strategy), sometimes it’s just plain fun (e.g. singing the “Parachuting Cats” to an international conference audience). It’s not about “saving the world.” It’s about being *in* the world, as it is, in this particular moment.

Okay, let’s wrap this thing up on a lighter note, with the tiniest grain of potential truth in it. When I was a musician in New York in my 20s, I used to get my hair cut on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, at the same place Madonna used to go to, before she got famous. And Lady Gaga, this generation’s Madonna, also comes from the Lower East Side.

So who knows — maybe all three of us have a hair-stylist in common, too.

On Being an American Troubadour at the Swedish Climate Change Conference

This is the third and last installment on my series of posts from the Climate Existence 2010 conference, organized by my friends and colleagues at Uppsala University’s Center for Environment and Development Studies (CEMUS). To read the posts in order: 1. Bill McKibben 2. David Abrams

Performance set-up in the lounge of the Sigtuna Foundation

I am on the 5:23 morning bus, leaving the Sigtuna Foundation. It was astonishing to me how many people assumed I would be driving home last night — driving home in a car, from the climate conference!  After hearing how essential it was that we change our habits!  Of course I took public transport to get here, a comfortable two-hour ride, door-to-door.  I could have taken the bus-train-subway-bus combo home late last night, but sleeping over made more sense.

The conference will continue through Wednesday, but my work and my family draw me home. It’s the Autumn Break, my kinds are home from school, and my wife has taken holiday.

I’ll reflect more on the conference, and on my performance last night, in a minute. But first I will continue down memory lane for a bit, for the last time I was here at the Sigtuna Foundation was also my first time (as an adult) in Sweden, and the occasion of my first “date” with my wife — a date that lasted ten days.

That event was a seminar on sustainable development hosted by the Swedish government. I came to speak, and I also helped find a few of the other speakers — friends from the Balaton Group. Kicki, my wife, was working for the government then. At that point, she and I had no idea, of course, that our international fling was going to turn into a life together; now, ten years later, I am awake early and out the door with a longing to get home, to see her and our children. It is somehow harder to be away for one night, here in Sweden, than to be away for a week in Africa or elsewhere.

Last night I did a formal, two-set musical performance for the first time in a few years. I’ve performed often enough informally, and am frequently asked to “do a few songs” in connection with a conference speaking engagement. But this was different:  I was the official evening entertainment.

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David Abrams: Breathing ourselves aware on planet “EAIRTH”

David Abrams lecturing at Climae Existence 2010

David Abrams explains why Earth should be called "EAIRTH"

This is the second in my series of posts from the conference “Climate Existence 2010.” The series began with a post on Bill McKibben’s opening keynote. This one covers the afternoon keynote and the workshop I went to, which awakened some memories …

“We don’t live on the Earth.  We live in the Earth.  Or rather in the EAIRTH.

This is David Abram, author of The Spell of the Sensuous or more recently Becoming Animal. He is explaining why he is proposing a slight change in the name of our planet.  The addition of that “I” puts the word “AIR” in the middle of the word “EARTH.”  It calls our attention to something that is both invisible and essential.

Because the air is invisible, says David, we tend to treat it as nonexistent. That’s why we can treat it like an open sewer, as McKibben called it this morning. But for indigenous people, that very invisibility is part of what makes the air so sacred to them.  “It’s a kind of a secret,” says Abram (who is also a sleight-of-hand magician, who likes secrets).  “Secret. Sacred. Same word.”

“The air is the unseen medium of exchange,” says David. We speak when breathing out, not breathing in, and our sounds are carried on the air to each other. For oral-history people’s, the air is “a thicket of meaning,” full of stories and spirits.

He introduces us to the word Ních’i — Navajo (Dineh) for “holy wind.” This was translated as “spirit” by the early anthropologists, “but they missed that this inner wind was entirely continuous with the wind out there,” with the air.  David traces the origins of various words related to air, and consciousness, and they intertwine beautifully:  “atmosphere,” for example, from “atma” and “atmos” in ancient Sanskrit, meaning … air, and soul.

He is drawing (I find this on the internet, searching on the phrases I hear from him in real time) on an article he published in 2009, “The Air Aware,” published in Orion magazine. David’s words are carefully chosen, he is a “writerly” writer.  It is an inspired reading.  But he occasionally breaks out of the box of his own text (and literally steps out from behind the podium) to speak, rather than read, and to breathe, and to make his case for taking the reality of the air-in-which-we-live-and-breathe more seriously, more passionately.  (“Passion,” from Latin, replacing an Old English word that combined “suffering” with “endurance.”)

The last time I saw David Abram, fifteen years ago …

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Why J.M. Coetzee may be the greatest living writer in the English language

If you were a novelist committed to writing great novels, in the literary sense, and you won the Nobel Prize, what would do?

Coetzee, who won the prize in 2003, keeps writing great novels.

I picked up his most recent, Summertime (2009), in an airport bookstore, and started reading it while waiting in line to board my flight from Stockholm to Riga.

I finished it the next evening. I did not read it compulsively every spare minute; no, I treated myself to it, to hunks of perfectly polished prose, twenty or thirty pages at a time, over the course of about thirty-six hours.

Summertime is a Coetzee novel about a novelist named “Coetzee.” How close is this novel about him-“self” to his real life? Not so close, at least on the surface, but that doesn’t matter. The novel is not really about Coetzee.

It’s about you.

That is, it is a novel about the reader, whatever reader is holding the book. For what Coetzee’s novels do is turn the book into a mirror.

By focusing his novels so relentless, even mercilessly on himself, Coetzee encourages — no, forces — the reader to consider his or her own life with the same unflinching gaze. It is like looking at a self-portrait by Rembrandt or Van Gogh; after a while, you stop seeing the painter, and notice that the painter is staring at you. You become self-conscious, in both senses of that interesting English phrase: self-aware, and a little uncomfortable.

Which is strangely comforting. To watch a great, Nobel-prize winning novelist turn all his powers of portraiture onto himself in such a way that he succeeds in tearing down the pedestal and conveying his own (or at least his alter-ego’s) flawed humanity, without sacrificing the mastery of his craft in any way, is inspiring. Mastery, Coetzee’s novels seem to say, should not require the perfection of the self. In some cases, perhaps in all, mastery includes, perhaps even requires, full acceptance of one’s partialness, woundedness, and occasional ridiculousness.

If you are worried that Summertime is some kind of autobiographical monologue, forget it. Part of the brilliance of the book is that Coetzee himself — that is, the character “Coetzee” — is practically absent from it, even while being its central character. The text is presented as though it were a collection of notes and interview transcripts. The notes are taken from “Coetzee’s” (fictional, even if they are real) journals, from a period in the 1970s when “he” was living with his father in South Africa. The interviews have been conducted by “Coetzee’s” biographer, an Englishman identified only as Mr. Vincent.

“Coetzee” himself is dead.

Most of the stories in Summertime are not about “Coetzee”, but about the women and men who knew him well during this period. In describing him to the dead-great-author’s biographer, they are unanimous in their harsh verdict: the man was scarcely a man. He was wooden. Far from gifted. Remote. Odd. Sometimes (here is the word again) ridiculous. This remoteness leaves a kind of vacuum in the text, which they fill with stories of their own lives. Thus, Summertime becomes a character study, in a triple sense: it is a study of these characters (including “Coetzee”); it is the study of “character” and how and why our character gets formed the way it does, influenced by geography and history and family; and it is the study of character in the literary sense — that is, the process of creating character. Literary characters are, by definition, non-existent. By turning himself, the great novelist J.M. Coetzee, into a non-existent and personally remote character named “John Coetzee,” we not only have the opportunity to watch the artist at work, the way we see the brushes in Rembrandt’s self-painted hands. We are forced to ask: and how would I paint myself?

On the surface, Summertime is almost an historical novel, on the smallest possible scale: five people’s lives, set against the sere background of South Africa in the 1970s and the equally dry, bookish writer with whom they were intimate on various levels. Through them, we see deeply into the ambiguous good-heartedness of White South Africans in the heyday of modern Apartheid. What astonishes is what’s missing: even for those to whom the morality of their culture is at least deeply questionable, the Blacks and Coloureds are practically invisible. The “Coetzee” on whom Mr. Vincent asks them to focus their attention certainly tries to be visible, both as character and as a human actor in their drama, with his stubborn determination to break the taboo on Whites doing their own manual labor, and his ridiculous (the word again) attempts to make erotica out of Schubert. But he tries a bit too hard, and comes up short.

Summertime, the novel, does not try too hard or come up short. Every sentence has the quality of being chiseled out of a willing piece of rock, rock just aching to be turned into sculpture. And yet the resulting sculpture manages to be not just alive, but fleshy, while still remaining rock and something that will persist in its identity and increase in its perceived value for tens or hundreds of years. Writing in the shadow of his own acknowledged greatness, scribbling on the back side of a Nobel medal, J.M. Coetzee continues to show us what great literature can do: enlighten.