Charles Carman

Alongside studying politics, philosophy, and economics in New York City, Charles usually has with him St. Aquinas' Being and Essence and De Regnum. He yearns to write stories and essays carefully, and thinks both English tobacco and ale the better choice to end the day with. Aposiopesis is currently his favorite figure of speech.

An Interview with Lecrae

It’s a hot Phoenix day at the end of March. The car lot at Grand Canyon University is filling up to the 6th level. Troves of people walk down to the auditorium: families, college students, some dressed to party, others in t-shirts that read “Anomaly,” others “Un-Ashamed.”

Arizona has been a frequent stop for Lecrae for more than 5 years. For the last two, I had the pleasure of interviewing him at his concerts. I’m brought to a holding area back stage, texts are sent, and through a cloth partition emerges this six-foot plus figure. Having published his first album more than ten years ago, he still thinks about what he’s doing with rap, how he wants to deliver his unusual rhymes. He recently published the book, Unashamed, a collection of thoughts on these subjects.

Below you’ll find my recent conversation with him, which has been edited for publication.

 

Charles Carman: Hip-hop and rap begins with Wu-Tang, Tupac, N.W.A. They’re angry; they’ve seen some stuff, and they want to reply to it. They threaten. They’re very creative with their threats. They’re violent. Then you enter the scene. Given how it began, where do you want hip-hop to end? Where is it going?

Lecrae: You have to go back further, to the late 70s, early 80s, when you had artists like Melle Mell or Grandmaster Flash, who spoke out against societal ills and were anti-violent, anti-drugs, and anti-misogyny. Then in the 1980s you have “The War on Drugs”, which radically changed the urban community. The community experienced a militarized police force, drug lords, senseless violence, murders, and the music became a mirror of what was going on. As people began to associate hip-hop with criminality, out of protest, rappers embraced the stigma, and said, “Ok, if this is what you think I am, then I’m just going to go with this.” They started making tons of money, so why change the formula?

Rap has always involved social commentary and scientific commentary—science of the mind and society—but rarely has it engaged the soul and spirituality. As an artist, I’m willing to engage the soul and the social; it’s an alternative view to how we wrestle with societal ills and who we are. I come with an eternal hope, a view of peace, and a view that things can change. I represent more Martin Luther King Jr., while most hip hop is a little more Malcom X.

C: Since “Real Talk” and now with the recent release of “Church Clothes 3”, how has your own work changed?

L: I’ve matured. I’ve always rapped about my experiences. In “Real Talk” you’re listening to a young man who was for the first time experiencing a systematic way to understand his Bible. It was new and I was passionate about this newness. I rap about whatever is fresh on my mind, whatever I’m learning. In “After the Music Stops”, I’m doing foreign missions and traveling. Then you have “Rebel”, where I’m engaging the inner city, standing against culture, and trying to be distinct in my perspectives. In “Rehab” I’m burned out, wondering, “what do I say now?” Then comes now, when I’ve realized that my new mission field and place to engage is the arts community and society. That’s what your hearing, the growth and progress of a person who’s experienced new things.

C: Going back to when hip-hop became an outlet, or a mirror as you say, of the violence in certain communities — some would say: “look, if Eminem, Kanye, Jay-Z, even Kendrick can’t be angry, you’ve taken out the gasoline, anger is the reason they rap.” You want to introduce hope, but they’ve never used that.

L: (Skeptical noise). Two fronts: Yes, hip-hop has consistently been the voice of disenfranchised, marginalized, and angry voices. That’s typical. But at the same time, hip-hop has changed. You can’t really pin it down. Like rock—what’s rock these days? Is it Foo Fighters? Is it Arcade Fire? What about Alabama Shakes? That is what’s happening to hip-hop. It’s become an umbrella—is it Macklemore, Drake, or Kendrick Lamar? This opens the door for people like me to offer an alternative brand or speak from a different vantage point.

C: Though, you do have criticisms, especially in “Anomaly”, opening with “Welcome to America”, and then in “Church Clothes 3” with…

L: No, there’s definitely angst in my music.

C: But you seem to be angry at different things, or at least willing to talk about it differently.

L: Everyone is interpreting a story, and to interpret a story correctly, you have to have a protagonist and an antagonist. A lot of times people have the wrong protagonist and antagonist, people make someone the antagonist who shouldn’t be. I have a broader perspective and don’t think any of us are the protagonist—none of us are the heroes in life’s grand story. All of us are more villainous than we would like to imagine.

C: Eminem would agree.

L: Yeah. But I’m not angry at a particular person. I’m mad at the infrastructure. At the same time, I understand that there are powers and forces of darkness and evil beyond that, and that’s what I’m really upset at, how we’ve become puppets for the forces or evil. That’s what angers me.

C: That reminds me of the short film made for “Church Clothes 3”. The kid at the very end; he’s seen a friend or a brother get shot and runs to get a gun. And everyone watching thinks, “We know what he’s going to do. What would all of us do?” It ends with the kid pointing the gun at the camera and lingering with it there. In the next scene, he throws the gun into the river. That seems to be what you and other rappers like Kendrick would agree with and say together—the throwing away of the gun. But what does the kid need to pick up next?

L: Someone needs to pick the kid up. There’s a lot of cognitive dissonance about what’s going on, but no one’s willing to get in there and pick the kid up. And even if they do, it’s about what we’re communicating and teaching. There are practical things that anyone can teach that young man to make him better. But at the core of who he is, he’s a spiritual being. He has a soul. If that’s not addressed, we’re starting in the middle; we’re not dealing with the actual disease, we’re dealing with symptoms. It’s great that people want to treat the symptoms and stop the bleeding, but what is causing the bleeding? Who is picking this kid up?

C: Now I’m thinking about your unique place in the history of rap. You use this word, “Jesus,” then everyone says, “Wait a second, is this guy really a rapper?” But if they don’t have access to that hope, how long do we listen to them be angry?

L: Some people just embrace the mess that we exist in. For them, hope is just protecting your body, just staying alive, survival of the fittest. There’s no hope: just survive. There’s no divine intervention or solution.

This is a fallen world, susceptible to suffering. People who have a hope beyond this life still have to wrestle with temporal consequences. One’s mom is still going to die. Regardless of whether you see her again, she is still dead, and that’s frustrating, and so you have something to lament, something to point your anger at.

Let’s imagine a scenario where all of hip-hop embraces hope. You now have a different type of hip-hop. The culture looks completely different. You can still call it hip-hop. It’s refined, revised; it’s changed, redeemed. But if we’re realists, we’re going to see that not everyone subscribes to hope. There’s always going to be anger, always tension. We’re not going to arrive at a utopian society in this society of glory.

C: Is hope one of the reasons why you choose very carefully how to speak? You are very careful not to let the anger take over your language. Through this precision, it seems you are resisting a culture, especially within hip-hop, where it is so easy to spout anger.

L: Well, part of that is coming from a false sense of masculinity. But hip-hop is pretty masculine as an art form. Bravado is how you identify, and it takes someone who’s confident in their masculinity to say, “That’s not how I’m identified. I can be selfless, I can be gracious, and that makes me a man.” Because if my standard of masculinity is Jesus, and he is the picture of selflessness, humility, responsibility, and courage, then we’re operating from a different narrative.

Culture is not amoral. You can’t just take every aspect. You have to know what to take and what to reject. Simply adopting it would mean rejecting some aspects of my faith. This means that my faith should supersede and win out, and from this, I hope that people see an integrated faith.

For so long, people have believed that to be a Christian, I have to look like something, instead of re-imagining what you could look like in your culture as a Christian. I hope I’m embodying an integrated faith. I hope to redeem and redefine hip-hop, and not continue with the old model.

I believe changed people change things. You don’t just talk about it. Don’t just picket against abortion. Don’t just stand outside the building with a hashtag. Go talk to a young lady and say, “Hey, are you planning on having an abortion? What if I take the baby on?”

You just gave her hope. Pick the kid up.

 

Charles’ earlier conversations with Lecrae can be found here.

Till I Collapse: From Tupac to Lecrae

Editor’s Note: This paper was originally presented as part of Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Music. This biennial conference brings together musicians, critics, journalists, artists, and listeners to discuss and celebrate popular music—hoping to bridge the gap between the church and popular art. The Curator is delighted to share thoughtful music criticism from the 2015 Festival. Over the coming months, The Curator will publish one paper a week in order to continue and extend the conversation from the Festival. On a range of artists and songs, each paper engages and interprets popular music from a faith perspective.

 

Imagine Green Day releasing a country album, or Taylor Swift releasing 1990’s emo. Imagine the sound of Johnny Cash singing with Sigor Rós. Imagine the lyrics of Coldplay in the diminished fifth of Nine Inch Nails. Imagine Lil-Wayne writing gospel. Imagine a black metal hymnal.

Unless you are “Weird Al” Yankovic, these absurd artistic decisions are unthinkable. Even before there are categories or genres, we know that music works when form and content meet. Form and content need to be in tune with one another or the audience cannot concentrate on what’s going on. Whether the rhythm of My Brightest Diamond or the a-rhythm of Math Music, the aura of Sigor Rós or the dirge of Blut Aus Nord, they make sense because, whatever the music is trying to be, it is being that clearly: a sign of clarity is being able to recognize principles holding the music together. This is as true for Bach as for John Cage. Even Cage wants his un-music to make sense as un-music. Whenever form and content coalesce, and they have a near infinite capacity for this, and there is something there to listen to.

All of this helps re-situate a question that Lecrae and others are asked without end: “How can such a thing as Christian rap exist?” This is asked in many ways, but that’s the gist. Somehow, for some reason, the intersection of Christian themes and hip-hop raises a concern over form and content.

I was fortunate to interview Lecrae, and was determined not to ask him that question. But the question began to reverse itself. So in the middle of our conversation, I asked  “So, what’s up with hip-hop? How can hip-hop sustain the company of Tupac, Jay-Z, Wu-Tang, and Lecrae? How is it so flexible a genre?” After thinking it over a moment, Lecrae replied. “Hip-hop has always been about the disenfranchised.”

I want to clarify what Lecrae and hip-hop mean by “disenfranchised,” even reconsidering the term. I’ll do that indirectly by way of the two formal distinctions that set hip-hop apart from other genres, moving from Tupac to Eminem. In part, this is an historical assessment.

What does Lecrae mean by disenfranchised? First one has to think about the voice that hip-hop speaks from, the distinct grammatical person, as in first-,  second-, or third-person it uses. Lyrics use all three personal vantages, and genres prefer one or another: first-person in pop-music; second-person in Civil War spirituals; and third-person in ballads and Arcade Fire.

With the first-person perspective, it’s significant who the person is. Think of The National’s “I need my girl.” Who is the “I” who needs his girl? Even if the The National, when writing the song, were missing their girl, the “I” is crucially distinct from Matt Berninger. The songs are not about him. But here and elsewhere, the first-person “I” works cathartically. We can all possess the “I.” An entire stadium of fans can sing along with “I need my girl,” or Coldplay’s “I will fix you,” even if at the moment they have their girl right next to them, or have already fixed the the problem. They can own the song by taking on the lyrical vantage point of “I.”

2pac

In hip-hop, the “I” is not sharable or primarily cathartic. The voice that hip-hop takes on is historical. Tupac writes about himself. He is the “I.” It is not an artistic attache through whom the listener can sing along with, having a sense of owning the song himself. Tupac is writing about himself, not so that you can sing with him, but so that you can listen to him. The first-person of hip-hop conveys a sense of the artist being a witness, telling you what he saw.You’re not meant to think that you were there as well when Tupac’s friend got shot, when Wu-Tang went to war or when Jay-Z became king. And you’re certainly not meant to think you are them. It was Tupac’s friend who got shot. Don’t pretend to be Tupac. Listen to Tupac.

Though Tupac speaks about himself, he speaks as a young black male, as in his first album’s first song, “Young Black Male.” He represents the experience of that community. But instead of the choral, plural “we,” Tupac, and hip-hop after him, decided to stand in-front and represent personally that neighborhood, ghetto, city (; e.g., Jay-Z’s Brooklyn’s Finest). Because of this, the listener often gets confused.  Should the listener sing along or is the listener being sung to/about? Hip-hop is not quick to clarify.

The second part of hip-hop is how the writer, the first-person “I,” defines himself. This is not just self-expression, and it is certainly not an impersonal, abstract “self” defining. It is fundamentally auto-biographical; it is auto-nomous, self-naming. Sometimes it looks like masculine preening. Jay-Z: “I’m the new Sinatra.” In his first album, Tupac spells out the acronym Nigga: Never Ignorant, Getting Goals Accomplished. Wu-Tang is nothing to fuck with. They’re all still # 1, still on top. In part, this names the community that the artist writes from, as when Eminem represents the 311. And sometimes this is definition by negation. Tupac writes: “Made to feel inferior, but we’re superior … Honour a man that who refuses to respect us.”

Tupac began certain self-definitions that hip-hop cannot get away from: “I’m a nightmare,” “I’m what you made me,” “They call me violent…the violent’s what I gotta be” and “You’re watching the makings of a psychopath.” In just his first album, and then in Me Against the World, he makes himself something to fear; he digs into a gun fight with police, sees brothers get shot, loves and protects his mother and threatens anyone who talks back. And like his mother taught him, he better be respected. After a while, a character develops which later hip-hop artists have taken as their prototype.

wu-tang

Tupac’s character is picked up by the Wu-Tang Clan and the Wu-Tang Clan is Tupac’s violence engorged. What is Wu-Tang all about? A friend of mine, who has studied Wu-Tang far more than I, has answered, “I – I think they are trying to say that they are nothing to mess with.” Their songs repeat this over and again. The violence that Wu-Tang describes is intricate and almost juvenile in its extravagance, aspiring for avant-garde. Tupac made threats; Wu-Tang carried out the hits.

Following the lyrical wars of Tupac and Wu-Tang Clan, a new character evolves. A new king ascends to the throne. No longer content to be a modern Billy the Kid, he’s the new Rockefeller. He’s Jay-Z. His threats are brief and subtle; he protects La Familia. Concern for mothers and hatred toward fathers has been around since Tupac. Jay-Z, however, has daughters. This introduces a new tension between family and hip-hop. He also continues to have visions of empire, even divine metamorphosis: “You in the presence of a king/Scratch that, you in the presence of a God.”

20090514_em1

These lyrics, and the tension between them, re-occur endlessly in Eminem. “Mockingbird” is a testament to both familial sorrow and visions of empire: “Cause all I ever wanted to do was just make you proud/Now I’m sitting in this empty house, just reminiscing” and “Why be a king, when you can be a god?”

Eminem writes about being a rap god with all the usual superlatives, but to all these self-definitions he gives a twist. Eminem is ambiguous about who he is talking about; for from early on, he gave an independent existence to his hip-hop personae, Slim Shady. Dating  back to Africa Bambaataa, Tupac and the rest have always had MC pseudonyms. But whenever Sean Carter spoke about Jay-Z, he was talking about himself, under a different name. The DJ handle was a mask, a fake ID, a title.

Eminem’s Slim Shady had a personality. Slim Shady speaks to Eminem and Eminem speaks back, a routine where two persons are played by one artist. Slim Shady is a separate bag of motivations, vices and threats. He is a self-sufficient ego. At times Eminem and Slim seem to converge, as in the song “Real Slim Shady.” But even there, the question is who Slim Shady is. And it ends with Eminem admitting, “Guess there’s a Slim Shady in all of us.”

In every case, Slim Shady is the enemy. “Eminem” and “Slim Shady” stand in-twine like a wretch and a tyrant. In the 1998 EP of “Slim Shady,” (not the LP), there’s an opening skit where Eminem wakes up to Slim Shady’s demonic voice telling him to look into the mirror. “You’re nothing without me,” the voice laughs. The scene approaches the disturbing mood of horror. Music screeches. Eminem screams “get out.” Slim Shady is a ghoul, a demon. Eminem finds in himself the mature schizophrenia that Tupac first confessed to in “Death around the Corner:”

“I see death around the- corner, anyday

Trying to keep it together, no one lives forever anyway

Strugglin and strivin, my destiny’s to die

Keep my finger on the trigger, no mercy in my eyes

I can’t give up although I’m hopeless/I think my mind’s gone.”

Before Eminem introduced Slim Shady, he wrote songs that spoke of rapping forever. His first album was all about him being infinite. After Slim, he writes about going in and out of rehab, in and out of relationships and on and off the stage. He threatens to quit once and for all, then promises to come back smart and cocky and then apologizes to his mom and his daughter. Phrases repeat like “I ain’t halting/Till I die of exhaustion” and “I can’t stop / Till I drop.” Somehow, he knows that what he’s doing is fatal. He wavers. Slim is the “the nightmare [in which he] fell asleep and then woke up still in.” And though the nightmare is an infinitely creative expanse, it begs to be escaped from.

Eminem (or Slim?) writes:

“Tragic portrait of an artist tortured

Trapped in his own drawings

Tap into thoughts

Blacker and darker than anything imaginable

Here goes a wild stab in the dark”

What hip-hop artist escapes this assessment? What more can rap do now, except offer darker and darker thoughts? We ask Lecrae how can you be a Christian and a hip-hop artist. Eminem asks how he can be a hip-hop artist and sane.

A sense of “disenfranchised” emerges from these lyrics. It is about far more than universal suffrage or economic poverty, though certainly those come up. There is distress over mothers & daughters, neighborhoods and empires, victory and death. With its economic tone, disenfranchised might technically be incorrect. The themes suggest dis-ease or dis-integration.

What’s more – and this theme has followed us from the start – the disenfranchised artist keeps reaching, through his auto-nomous, for enfranchisement. He fights his way out, breaks the arm of injustice, battles his own demons. And when he’s made it to the top, he realizes that somewhere along the way, he dropped his crown, forgot his family, or lost his mind. These are threads as old as Antigone, the psalter, spirituals. The beggar in tension with becoming king.

If being the victim that breaks his own chains and forges his own crown, captures the aspiration of hip-hop, the prospect for Christian hip-hop grows slender. Theologically, breaking one’s own chains is just another act of inexcusable violence, and becoming a god is the promise of the serpent. Is Christian hip-hop just another understandably charitable attempt to bring all sounds to Christ? A Christian artist has to appreciate something very complex: if, for the time being, the formal structures of a field reject the content of gospel.

Through self-definition, the artist raises himself up from disenfranchised to enfranchised. From having no father to being a father; from nothing to the kingdom; from being a wretch to being a god. This is the direction of hip-hop.

cover326x326

And then we have from Lecrae’s title song, “Anomaly”:

“I didn’t know who was inside me either

Striving to be the captain, […]

Tryna get me a throne of my own so I can put my feet up

Thank God my kingdom was overthrown by The Soul Redeemer”

One cannot suppress the reaction to laugh. The overthrow of Lecrae by God is an all but comedic turn in hip-hop, an utter paradox. This happens nowhere in hip-hop; someone is rescued by being overthrown and taken captive, not by his own strength, but by another’s.

Recall the ambition of hip-hop. That through speaking about himself, and defining himself – through his auto-nomy – he may escape from, say, 8 mile and become a rap god. And here we have language that verges on a cliche of Christian evangelism.

But Lecrae keeps to the first person, and to the motif of self-definition. Though, like Eminem having to define two persons, Lecrae attributes his freedom by defining another, not himself. if Lecrae’s music sounds apologetic at times, it’s because when Lecrae defines himself, he knows that he has to define Christ. Another comedic turn: the schizophrenia of Eminem (and Slim) is re-written by Lecrae as the Christological motif of war between the Old and the New Adam.

“I’m gone get back out that dirt mayne

Not yet what I’m

Gonna be but not what I used to be

Bless his name forever who would

Chose me and start using me

Used to love my sinning fulla greed fulla

Hate

[…]

I’d

Be lustin for ya cousin if it wasn’t for his Grace

Yeah he took me outta

Nothin and he made ya boy a saint”

What does this do to hip-hop? Lecrae has changed, actually changed. There is no empty boast or materialistic hubris. Lecrae confesses that he is no longer nothing, no longer “disenfranchised.” But how long can the the theme of disenfranchisement continue when dis-enfranchisement becomes secondary, past, accidental to a real en-franchisement? If disenfranchisement principally held hip-hop together, what happens when an artist releases it? Eminem only re-situated the disenfranchisement. But from Real Talk to Gravity, and on occasion in Anomaly, Lecrae accepts disenfranchisement, accepts his fallenness and is raised up to where he can break open a new motif in hip-hop: worship. Nothing could be more heterodox to Tupac or Eminem than to have nothing to be angry at or afraid of.

Does this not, therefore, snap a necessary tension; doesn’t this end the music? Should we have been asking not how Lecrae survives in hip-hop, but “How does hip-hop survive Lecrae?” For it seems to me that when Lecrae introduces confession and worship into the genre, it must either fall into confusion or undergo a rending transformation. For while Eminem expresses the nightmare of hip-hop most exquisitely, and Kendrick Lamar wallows in the nightmare with an eerie post-violent passivity, Lecrae has woken up from the nightmare. And to those still asleep he must sound very strange.

A Conversation with Josh Garrels

Earlier this month Charles Carman talked Josh Garrels about his new album Home, his vocation as a musician, and how he is eager to see a shift of the typical artist/father paradigm. The interview can be heard on the SoundCloud link below. We’ve also transcribed it (below) for those of you whom are headphoneless at the office.

 

Charles Carman: Could you situate this album among your other albums?

Josh Garrels: I don’t premeditate how one album’s going to build upon another. I’ve seen what I would consider an artistic pattern. I’m a lot like my sister Gala. She just starts playing around with patterns and textures, and slowly I think a picture emerges. Not that she doesn’t have anything in mind. It’s more like she’s figuring it out as she goes, like “Oh, I’m really into this theme right now.” It might be a family thing.That’s how I approach music.

My brother-in-law and my wife, who are both visual artists,  will approach art with an idea or concept in mind and it’s all about “I’m trying to get there, oh that wasn’t good enough, get rid of that one.” And then they’ll work their way towards this idea they have that they want to see fleshed out. I’ve sensed that most artists approach work seemingly in one of those two directions, and both are valid.

So this [album] isn’t necessarily building directly upon past albums. A good ways into this album are sounds about home, and being homeward bound, and homecoming, and homesteading. Intimacy was the theme.

If there was a theme I had in mind on the front end, it was some sense of joy, because I know I was searching for my own joy again, in life and faith, from the chaos of parenting and running my own business and touring. Those things which are good, but the responsibilities of the world. I’m kind of an old skate board kid. Sometimes I’m like “How did I end up with all this responsibility?” Finances and relationships. So I set out to find joy and homecoming.

 

CC: On this album, there’s this theme of being pierced or struck. “Heaven’s Knife” is such a fun song, but then if you read the lyrics, you see, “Oh, he’s hit, he’s struck, he’s down!” What are you doing with the theme of the piercing?

JG:  In “Heaven’s Knife” I’m hearkening back to Adam and Eve, when Adam had a rib taken out. This is bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh, she is of me. But even that has a sort of piercing, a sort of violence. A bone is taken out of him. Even in the most intimate relationship of my life, which is with my wife, there’s a piercing that comes with every good thing. There’s a piercing in every relationship, my relationship with God, with my wife, even with work and success. It’s not all joy. There has to be an acceptance of the suffering or the humility that comes along with those things.

 

CC: The Walkmen wrote a song called “Heaven” about their families, and they’ve said they “keep fighting and keep writing for our family.” I don’t know of many musicians inspired by or whom incorporate their wives and kids into their lyric and song style. Do you know of others?

JG: I’m now comfortable saying that I’m a vocational musician. I’m around enough vocational musicians to know some that are embarrassed by that set-up, like their family is something to hide. The crowd wants to see a guy on stage who’s bigger than life. But this is what provides for my family. It’s a joy that I get to do this with my life. Incorporating them into my practice has been pretty seamless. I value transparency. Call it a risk, but I hope that if I involve the things that are most intimate to me–my faith in God, my family, the lifelines of my being–hopefully it makes a better song on the front end.

With “Heaven’s Knife”, I wondered if I was going to say that the punch line of the song is “she’s my wife.” And I nixed it at first, but I had enough close friends who said not to. They said, “no one writes songs about covenant love.” I would have changed it, but it’s not too sentimental. And it’s actually for my wife. That’s the power of the song: crying and remembering my wife.

 

CC: What have you found in that balance of autobiography and art? What sort of encouragement would you give to those who have a family, or want to have a family, and want to make art?

JG: One: I think it’s something that needs to be fought for. Two: it goes against the grain of what we’ve been shown.

I know different types of people: the artist who has a wife and children and wonders how they’re going to make this work, the single artist who’s finding success and can’t reconcile how they’d have a family and preserve what they’ve made. I hope our story has given people hope that it’s possible.

When you think of the “music industry,” you think of  the established ways of doing things. There’s a track: make good art, and if the art catches on, hit that mug, get on the road for nine-months a year, because it’s working, don’t lose inertia, play as many shows as you can, write as many songs as you can. Take care of your family at the ebb of your success.

I’ve had to fight to make it work, fighting expectations or imposed expectations, things I think I should be doing. I feel passionately about the work, but in the end, I feel like I’m constantly in the battle to prioritize what is most important. I feel like I have ample time to create the work and be a present father and present husband, and know people locally where I live.

Often touring artists, they may live in a city, but they are MIA in that city. When they come home, they just don’t want to see anyone because they’ve been gone. So they may live locally in Nashville, Portland, or New York, but if they’re a touring artists, they’re not rooted locally. But to be living here in Portland and to be local and to have a presence locally is something I have to fight for. Sometimes that means saying no to touring. That’s why I generally do one tour a month. I leave for three or four days. I do three or four shows. I come home the other three weeks of the month. And that might sound absurd to some people. But that’s another way I make it work.

I had a fruitful conversation with Linnea Spransy at the Wedgwood Circle last year. In the portraits we’ve been given of the great artists–Picasso or Melville–there’s a wake of destroyed relationships. I think society gives them a pass because of their legacy of great work. But is the legacy worth the carnage of relationships?

To me, true success is if you can have people look at your life and want to emulate you.

 

CC: I hear less spoken-word/rap poetry than I did in Zion & Babylon on this album. Could you speak about how the form of your music has changed?

JG: I wanted this album be less beat-influenced. If anything, soul music took the place of what traditionally has been a heavier hip-hop beat sound to my music. I still love that stuff. It’s like Beck with Morning Phase and Strange Apparitions. He’ll have albums that are straight up beats and hip-hop, and then he’ll put out a folk album.

Without knowing exactly what they were, I knew I wanted to work within certain parameters, so it had a certain mood to it. I still love spoken word and longer Woody Guthrie-type lines, but here I wanted to explore soul music and falsetto.

I always start with the sound and write lyrics after. The lyrics attach themselves to the songs.

 

CC: Could you give an example of this, a time when the words came quickly from the sound? 

JG: A song like “Heaven’s Knife” is in 6/8 time signature, so it has this fifty’s ballad feel to it. This is like my first my dance with my wife. Or a song-like benediction. It’s this simple folk song, but this song feels like I’m on my knees blessing the next generation, blessing my children.

With “A Long Way Home”, I was creating a song about a father and son who are estranged, maybe imbued with the hope of finding some resolution before the father passes. It was asking: What does it mean to get home?  I started with that story when I began playing with the sounds. I knew it could be a soundtrack to this specific story, of needing to make it home, making amends before your father passes away.

 

CC: Is this the album you’ve been trying to write, the album that finally meets the artist’s life? 

JG: No. To liken it to a story, when an author writes a book, each one has a different focus, a different set of characters, it takes you on a different journey.  It’s another piece of this catalogue that I’ve created.

Personally, I’m at a weird place. It was one of the hardest albums I’ve ever written. Don’t ask me why, but it was a weird, hard, long journey, and I don’t know why. Because in some ways the subject matter was so simple, even the final structure is not that complicated, but emotionally and everything else, it was complicated.

I don’t know what the album’s going to do. I know there are elements of things I’ve done before that aren’t present in this one that might be a let down to some. There are new influences that might be exciting to others. I’m proud of it, but in a healthy way. It took so long and was hard enough that I learned a lot from the process, but I’m already already song-writing this week. I’ve got a whole another set in mind. My mind and my heart are invested in writing new songs. Coming out of the process of this album, strangely enough, rather than being down in the process of making albums and writing songs, I feel rather galvanized. Almost like my mandate at this point is boiled down to two things: to draw near to God and to write songs. But I want to learn how to do that. I want to be prolific and good. I want to make a plethora of music. I have a lot of sounds I want to explore, a lot of stories, for lack of a better term, colors that I still want to explore.

That’s a long answer to your question. Is its focus different from all my other albums? Yes. I think it goes to a little different place. Maybe it’s the most intimate album I’ve ever made, for what that’s worth.

 

CC: How was collaborating with Mason Jar and others? 

JG: It’s wonderful as a solo-artist to find other artists that you come closer and closer to and trust. Giving them a song, “here’s my song, can you help this thing?” Can you compliment? I’ll shop it out to friends and acquaintances. I’ll let them add stand up bass and violin, and then I’ll get these wave-files, then I’ll plug them into my session, and I’ll start mixing and messing around in the session, and in the end if something’s not working, I’ll axe it. I’ve had friends who don’t agree with the decision. But I do hold that veto power, to have sounds feel closer to how I want them to sound. In the end I’m the final curator of the sounds.

There are times when Mason Jar blew my mind with their ingenuity, and I wanted them to run with it, and there are other times when they don’t like what I’ve done to the song, and I’m like, “I’m sorry, that’s the way it is.” So that’s part of it, trusting one another, and also in the end understanding that this is their project or this is my project and there’s a certain level of responsibility. There’s a lot of cooks in the kitchen, but I’m deciding what spices are working.

In the future, I would love to work with a producer that I could trust so that I could go and play my music, and have them make significant creative decisions. I think that would be really fun at some point, to run more efficiently, effectively. You go in, you play your songs, and the producer sculpts the sound of the album. Up to this point, it’s been me on every album, which is a joy, but it’s taxing. It’s not just writing and recording, but you’re also spending months of post-production.

 

C:C With Small Voice Records, do you envision also being producer for others? 

JG: Maybe, if I hone my skill. It takes me a long time. I’m not a fast producer, because a lot of it I’m learning on the job. I didn’t go to school for engineering or producing. So I know what I want to hear, but sometimes the path to get there is long and awkward. I don’t want to take as long to even produce my own music. To produce others sounds almost frightening.

Maybe when I’m older. Maybe that’s the shift of focus, but I don’t sense that it is the time yet for me. I feel like I’ve got songs in me that can’t wait to work their way out.

Scottsdale: Exile

A writer walks through a suburb of a desert city. He finds that art, souvenirs, tradition, memory, and dam-building and citrus trees have something to do with each other. This is the final of five essays. 

Scottsdale is in the desert. This must be remembered.

In ancient practice the desert is where people were sent to wander. It is the land of exile. In three short hours it can prove how inhospitable it is to human life. Nightmarishly designed insects, cacti whose leaves are sharp thorns, searing, coarse surfaces. The place is opposed to identity. Mirages, impermanent dunes, and dust storms make form and orientation almost impossible.

These are places that sometimes we must travel through, “when the straightway path has been lost.” But going to the desert to plant and start a city stands against this ancient connection between the desert and exile. Perhaps out of an accidental wrong turn or dire necessity, yes, but going to the desert mindfully is a peculiar origin for any city. What farmer choses to relocate to the desert? Who choses exile? One is not lost in a desert only.

To be in a desert is to be lost.

 

This small town with an art district, tourism, and souvenir economy exists in a land of dangerous heat and dry soil. But Scottsdale, and the larger Phoenix metro, is about making the unlivable, comfortable. The West, in a time of expansion into uncultivated and unexplored place, a dangerous wilderness, becomes the best place to retire. The life threatening and the American dream have made an armistice in the valley of the sun.

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Natives talk about the four “C”s to Phoenix: copper, cotton, cattle, and citrus. A fifth is climate. Three mountains rest together just north of Scottsdale: Camelback, Mummy, and McDowell. Around their rims, and climbing up rest the estates of “snow birds.” (A Snow Bird: moneyed individuals who choose to spend the winter in Phoenix to avoid the harsher qualities of cold.) The closer one travels towards the mountain, the pricier the cars. Neighborhoods begin to build brick walls with electronic gates. It grows quiet. The sky is closer. The flatness of the city is a separate, infinite geometric phenomenon to look down upon. Also, shocking to me when I first encountered it while I helped transplant a piano from a mountained home to a flatter one, there is a real population of scorpions and rabbits. More creases and crannies for all to burrow. Snow Birds are also burrowing creatures, with a population of some 300,000, counting by income and address.

The winter weather is mild. Winfield Scott, the founder himself, came here on physician’s recommendation. The climate would eventually help his asthma. Apart from the summer months, the weather is, from late October through winter to early March, between 45 and 75 degrees.

Similar to the Snow Birds, the citrus were brought here because they need the constant exposure to sun, no chance of frost, and the water of constant rain, which the canals would deliver. Plenty of sun and plenty of water aren’t contradictory requests. Usually, though, they are exclusive. The mystery was solved with a small clarification. To make the citrus economy possible, Jack Swilling was among the first to suggest building canals in the valley. They tapped a detouring vein from the nearby rivers and lakes. The Salt River alone supported the initial farming in the late 1800s.

Surrounding the 16,000 miles of the Phoenix metro are rivers and green forests snaking around and kept on the other side of the mountain range’s rim. The valley is lower in elevation. Flagstaff is 7,000 feet,  Phoenix is 1,000 feet above sea level. A satellite view shows the Colorado River, the Salt River, Apache Lake, and Canyon Lake flowing toward then around the valley of Phoenix. Two hours out of Phoenix are coniferous forests, the Grande Canyon, snow in January. Real temperature and seasons. None of this, water- or temperature-wise, is in the valley.

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It distorts the image of a desert to say that the Salt River Valley was made for farming, for ranching, for towns, cities, economy. The only thing that could have survived from the outset in the Sonoran desert would have been the Saguaro cacti and shrubs and succulents. Scott could not just have planed citrus. Swilling could not just have planted the town of Phoenix. None of the cotton would have grown or the cattle survived if the desert was left a desert. (Plausibly, the only other plant that could have survived is the olive tree, which needs little water anyway.) And, regardless of how many canals they built, they could not control water flow. In the summers, the canals dry up. Or if it rained too quickly, the canals could overflow. Most of the time a desert with canals is just a desert with dried up canals. Like The Veils’s “Sit Down by the Fire:”

My father’s singing in the fallin’ leaves

about the complicated beauty of a river run dry

Life and farming in this desert required dams. To build a dam, mountains are demolished, a large-enough paycheck is offered to workers to outweigh the chance of certain death, and, in the case of Phoenix, the import of concrete enough to make hundreds of miles of road. The Theodore Roosevelt dam was built by the request of Jack Swilling. The Reclamation Act was passed and provided funds. Twelve men died building it. Eventually, some eight dams were built. Collectively, they store up enough water for the summer months, and all water that runs down is transformed into hydroelectric energy. The lights of the city are lit by the water falling into the valley.

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Soon after the dam was built, consecutive rainstorms threatened to overflow the dams, the Roosevelt dam and two dams below. The government had plans for flooding, but three storms right after each other promised beyond their predictions. The storms did not rain as much as they could have. The dams held, this time.

Water is never truly under our control. It is elemental, transformative, basic. It is peaceful lightening.

In fact, the uncontrollability of water expresses itself in the valley. The irrigation of suburban lawns comes in two forms: drip irrigation and flooding. For flooding, the edge of the lawn is built up to keep the water in, making a mountain range the size of molehills. In the lawn is what looks like the stump of a cut down fire-hydrant. You twist it open. Water gushes out, floods the lawn, and by the end of the day, the water’s all sunk or sweated away. Orange trees are planted often in or around these man-made quarter-acre flood plains. Special grass is planted to survive the miniature floods.

The water is stored, but not mastered. What else is a dam but an always-imminent flood? Just the twist of a nozzle away. The desert lives on the edge of becoming a lake.

Walking among a grove of olive trees on an olive-gathering adventure, my friend explained the culinary difference between pickling and curing. Cucumbers, radishes, quail eggs, jalapeños, and pig feet are pickled, because they can (in theory) be eaten without the chemical change that curing effects. A raw olive is bitter and must be cured. The bitter compound oleuropein must be leeched out to make it edible.  No cure, and the olive will make you vomit, he said with a grin, at the prospect, I supposed, of gathering fruit that is so repulsive and also a favorite dish.

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The kitchen chemistry reminded me of an old theologian my dad once knew. He was explaining that the word baptizo in greek for baptize meant the same thing as ships sinking in a storm, or cucumbers dunked in vinegar. It’s not dying. The word implies that the drowned undergo a change in their nature. Drowning, is not passive.

There are a variety of mixes. If you’re brave there’s a lye-curing method, which is to deal with a semi-poisonous fruit with a really poisonous chemical; if you’ve got time, there’s a water and salt brine method; but then there’s the regular combination of vinegar and pickling salt, as opposed to kosher salt, which my friend prefers, adding garlic, onions, spices. Once the olives are submerged and the jar is sealed – my friend used an old salsa jar – we wait for six weeks to several months before we can open it again.

Not everything benefits from drowning in the same way. Olive trees need the desert, an arid clime, what to others is an utterly inhospitable formlessness. Little water is ideal. Certain creatures need the desert to live. This fact is puzzling: olives grows with in-hospitality. Too much moisture and temperate weather, the tree gets root rot, its wood grows brittle, it dies. Make sure you cure the olives, not the olive tree.

We take the olives from the tree by shaking the branches, laying a white cloth on the ground to catch the olives on. Go home with jars full of olives. Wash them and inspect. If there are holes or obvious rotten parts, throw the whole olive away. There are olive-specific bugs, worms, and beetles that do not cure well. They traveled with the olives when they were brought here from the Mediterranean (they are not indigenous to the Americas). Once washed, their skin needs to be cut into to allow the vinegar et al to soak into the soft tissue beneath and draw out the un-palatables. Once the curing mix is ready, the olives are submerged.

         I took stock of what I had encountered. Scottsdale has made the best of a very-less-than-ideal place. It has cultivated forms of remembering (art, souvenirs, tourism, etc) the land we have only the memory of; It is the most western town, the most livable city. It has in many ways succeeded being in the desert remembering the garden. Slowly Art, (the-what-is-art Art) took up a definition. Whether what a piece of art represents is in the future, the past, planted in memory, art always comes after; art always “emerges from.” Art is the consequence, always, of what has happened, even when the event exists in the future. Representation is to have come up from baptism.

Say it’s possible that one day the desert is broken back into. The dams do not hold back; the place is drowned. The olive trees, the citrus, the flatness. The valley becomes the seabed, the mountains the sea level. The desert becomes aquatic.

The question upon which the whole project of memory and art rests is also overturned – How shall one remember the desert then? Someone could pick up a rock and say, “it was like this,” but that would be to remember by negation, and could not explain what happened to the desert, being drowned. The desert must give from itself some sign that captures what it was and has become, a sign that could come nowhere else but the desert, and only after a drowning.

Signs must always first be cured. They are all olives from the jar.

Scottsdale: Memory

A writer walks through a suburb of a desert city. He finds that art, souvenirs, tradition, memory, and dam-building and citrus trees have something to do with each other. This is the fourth of five essays. 

The earthquake recorded closest to Scottsdale was within thirty miles, and was only 2.5-scale (on a 100 scale metric). The city lies in the areas with the lowest chance of hurricane, tornado, blizzard, and quake. For this reason, fifty miles away is a nuclear facility. Geographically, the valley is at rest.

This town is not only claims to be the most western but, on the merits of its food, comfort, culture, domestic and natural safety, is the most livable. In 1993 the Conference of Mayors proclaimed Scottsdale the “most livable city.” It’s motto, “The West’s most western town,” is stamped onto it’s city emblem, around the image of a cowboy riding on a wild stallion, hat in his balance-hand. It has hotels, restaurants, festivals to celebrate cultural cuisines and local farms, sport-bars, little golf-carts that function as in-town taxicabs. During the summer, the water-misters are turned on. During the winter months (December and January), heaters are brought out. Every place has outside seating. The sunsets are unlike anywhere else. Camelback mountain, just west of the city, turns a royal purple near dusk. The orange dust is swept up by wind and the helicopters that hover around the mountain (this happens weekly, for rescuing hikers). Particles and gravity bend the setting light toward the slower wavelength spectra – luminal low tide. The desert is safe, its danger a memory.

Usually, when an event or a person becomes a memory, this is the first step towards loss. A person moves from the present, being physically before us, to a memory, an image. We must exercise that image or else it fades. Soon, the voice of lost loved ones vanish. We forget what they look like, forgetting from the first moment they left. If all memories are statues (souvenirs), we need to remember that statues do not always become clearer through time.

For instance, consider Michelangelo’s first of three pietas – known as the Pieta – which lies in the Vatican. Christ lies in his mother’s arms. Together they compose a Trinitarian form, the mother looking down, hands sown wide with the motion of “behold the lamb who takes away,” the son made utterly without life, stunned in a puzzlement which only Hans Holbein’s canvas depicts more disturbingly, according to Dostoevsky, the painting that would make a man lose his faith. The Pieta is similar, excepting the terror. Michelangelo’s craft perfected itself here, and would not deny any detail. The sculpture is almost too ornate for its subject.

Michelangelo returned to the theme twice more. The middle draft, called the Florentine Pieta, trades the triangular for a tilting, spear-like form. Here Christ’s misery twists his joints, his knees and arm to just before snapping. The twist is almost physically untenable. The form itself of the sculpture is in-confidence, unsound-ness, feebleness. Structure – especially the most stone-like structure, the bone structure, of the Christ – is in danger of snapping in half and falling to the ground.

Rondanini Pietà Artist: Michelangelo Location: Sforza Castle Created: 1552–1564 Media: Marble

Rondanini Pietà
Artist: Michelangelo
Location: Sforza Castle
Created: 1552–1564
Media: Marble

The third pieta, the Rondanini Pieta, Michelangelo never finished. And  even though it was among other projects that remain unfinished by his  death, it was not necessarily incomplete because of his death. While the other two took six years to complete, The Rondanini Pieta took more  than ten years; and two times Michelangelo greatly reworked the design.  Something about the form he couldn’t decide on. For an artist who knew  human form, this piece loses all physiology. The body of Christ is fused  impossibly into the Virgin’s body (the theme of which other artists have  taken up, as Gregory Wolfe has spoken about). And in a reverse of the  second pieta, the Rondanini’s Christ is buoyant, even as his head wilts  against the breast of his mother. They seem to emerge from the stone  enmeshed together. It is hard to miss that it is unfinished. The artist  pulling the form free from the stone, and stone sucking it back to the aboriginal womb.

The narrative of the pietas reveal a battle between Michelangelo and the marble for the form, which Michelangelo’s death and timidity left in the material’s advantage. The pietas digressed, returning into the marble’s mouth from which he tried to form them. The mountain reclaimed itself from Michelangelo’s work.

The souvenirs and tourism of Scottsdale are no different. They also risk losing all their significance. They, too, can lose their proportion, becoming monstrosities of our remembering.

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It is hard not to mention the culture of the souvenir and place without thinking of the work of Thomas Kinkade. His paintings are, according to art reviews, possibly hanging in one of twenty of American Homes. My friend’s home has a print of a cabin in the woods. His themes include the home with golden light blazing from windows of houses, churches, or other destinations, which always face at a slight angle away from the viewer, the roads always as if the viewer were walking on them – his paintings are brilliant, that is, fluorescent. Light casts no shadow and shines without blinding. In his sunsets and sunrises, not all the light can be explained by the sun, the light travels from too many angles. The place is heavily dusted with light.

It’s hard to believe that someone’s memory of home sweet home could not be identified with a Kinkade canvas. Next to it, the true memory of their wood-and-nail home seems an ungrateful dysphemism. Say what we will about Kinkade’s form, that it is repulsive; it is still repulsively reminiscent. He works with memory then emphasizes the warmth. His paintings are an extreme form of embellishment, the fishing trip that made the 8-inch bass into a 5-foot salmon into Job’s Leviathan. It takes advantage of the mathematical principle that form remains itself at any scale.

Memories are like fractals. They are the same thing, at all proportions, all sizes. We don’t need to see a picture of someone at the same scale as the person to remember. Most family pictures are going to be several scales down. So too, souvenirs, which alter whatever they mean to be the smaller version of. Their first and primary alteration is size. They are all caricatures, but not always or necessarily for humor’s sake. They caricature in size because the real thing isn’t mobile in its original size. Places and monuments don’t fit in a carry-on. It’s often just a matter of miniaturizing, albeit a few details are missed. The structure is faithful to the significance. Using the phrase, “making mountains out of molehills” to say that something has been made too important, ultimately has it backwards. Memories are smaller. Memories fit. All molehills are created from mountains.

Someone can paint from life and know he gets the real form, size and all. This is not true of the reverse. Someone cannot look at a painting and derive the real size of the thing portrayed. You cannot know the real magnitude of a mountain from a postcard. Which raises a question. Given the sum of Scottsdale so far – art, souvenir, history, tourism, et al.: does the memory of Scottsdale have a real reference, or is it all based, say, on a mental postcard?

Oddly enough, Scottsdale is a city built from false memories. These memories have made wilderness comfortable, the past perfected, the desert, forgotten. It’s as if a mountain has been remembered but has never been seen. This remembered mountain could have a complete and thorough past known by a whole community. Its color, climate, fauna could all be recalled in minute detail. But even though they could draw the mountain and could tell infinite reams about adventures on it, no one ever climbed its rocky side. This mountain is memory without a source. Where is it? What’s its the real size?

What’s the true scale of anything that’s only remembered? What’s the true size of a mountain we only have molehills of? What’s the status of a city only remembered? What does it mean to forget one is in a desert?

Scottsdale: Tradition

A writer walks through a suburb of a desert city. He finds that art, souvenirs, tradition , memory, and dam-building and citrus trees have something to do with each other. This is the third of five essays. 

Everything about the history of Scottsdale fits in its motto, which it chose in 1950: “The west’s most western town.”

The Winfield brothers came to the area around 1890. They and others slowly began the markets that Scottsdale and the larger Phoenix area would be known for: copper, cattle, cotton, and citrus. It’s population increased from 2,000 people in 1951 to 68,000 in 1968 to 202,000 in 2000. As it grew, it needed more space. Space was made. The town grew outward. It is today a lucrative, well-thought-out, 65 year-old city. Many factors, those changing or unforeseen motivations, persons coming to and fro, and often murder, make a town. The mailman was the first to shoot someone.

Old Downtown is striking for the western-ness of it. There are posts for horses, tin roofs and tumbleweeds. The streets are made of cobblestone with distant vanishing points. In cowboy movies, instead of making the entire buildings, they often just put up the storefronts. There was nothing to walk into and the front of a general store or the sheriff’s office was simply the background for the camera following the new character into town. Had the camera floated up, all there’d be to see is buttressed walls. The stores here looked like that western. The city council, as tourism became a prospect, intentionally gave this facade to the town. It has an annual tourism population of 6 million and an economy of a few billion (much of it from art and souvenir sales). The city is clean, dustless.

Scottsdale wants to incarnate “westernness.” It calls itself the superlative of all places western, “the west’s most western town,” a self-proclaimed archetype of the pre-Civil War to late 1800’s expansion, even though the land was bought in 1900, not recognized as a city until 1950, and intentionally makes itself “appear” western. It has enjoyed financial success from this enterprise: superlatives are curiosities.

People from the past look historical, either from how they smile or look into the camera lens, even their physical features. In the 1800s, towns were often built near railroads. People left their homes, a time of Manifest Destiny, Civil War, gold rushes, cattle wrangling. Pilgrims, cowboys, and free-landers needed supplies. Railroads were the veins of westward-reaching arms. Photography was just beginning then, black and white and out of focus. Pictures from that time have an almost magical chemical-ness feel to them. The clothes look like costumes. No one dresses that way except at custom parties and renaissance festivals. This history seems itchy, untouchable.

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Enough time makes a thing seem to have happened elsewhere. Russian philosopher and literary critic, Mikhail Bakhtain writing about the epic genre of literature states: “as the specific genre known to us today, [epic literature] has been from the beginning a poem about the past, and the authorial position immanent in the epic and constitutive for it … is the environment of a man speaking about a past that is to him inaccessible, the reverent point of view of a descent … epic discourse is infinitely far removed from discourse of a contemporary.”

The epic does not look for perfection in the present or the future. Instead, it claims there was a golden age, a time that has gained that otherworldly texture to it. Through its telling, the past becomes exotic, extraterrestrial. The past is an ancestor so genealogically ancient that he looks nothing like his children. Back then, men fought with true virtue, the nation was at peace, the knights defeated the dragons, all lived happily ever after. This time exists safely and securely on the other side of some unbridgeable canyon: fantasy, myth, legend, history, recovered from fragments of parchment and the walls of caves.

Alternatively, perfection might lie in the future. Imagine ideas quarreling then combining with each other, over and over, until they mix their differences into an equalized ideal. Our belief in progress is to hope that all disagreements and difficulties will be solved in time. It’s all a math problem that’s taking a frustratingly long time to figure.

In either case, the contemporary is not the site of perfection but of departure. There’s the land we’re trying to return to, finally arrive at, or recapture in memoria, that, apart from brief visitations, we never really get to. The goal lies always across the way, and we like rocks skipping across a river are not yet at rest.

All the speculation as to where perfection lies, Scottsdale forgoes. Instead, it simply gives us souvenirs and tourism. Town’s don’t give themselves mottos to attract tourism or fashion souvenirs just because they like visitors and paraphernalia. In the case of souvenirs and tourism, both walking around a place and taking back a piece from that place encapsulates a memory that, by any other means, remains untouchable. What else could be meant by its assertion – “the west’s most western town” – than that the Ideal exists in the contemporary, today? Scottsdale tells us that the past it touchable. We have the longed-for object at last.

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And what if, as Scottsdale claims, the ideal is realizable; what if it’s unattainability, it’s absolute alienation, is false? Tourism and souvenirs incorporate what remembering is a vague representation of.

In so many ways, Scottsdale is not connected to the spirit of the West, its history, its troubles, its films. Scottsdale became a city after Westward Ho with John Wayne, and a slew of other movies made in the 1930s. Scottsdale claims to be the most western town, even when it became a town after the West existed. Who expected the spirit to appear when the West had passed? But it claims to be it nonetheless, when every other place sighs and tries to remember.

Scottdale’s motto refuses to privilege any notion of perfection . It steals perfection from the past, presumes it from the future, captures it despite its alterity. Wherever the ideal is made to dangle, Scottsdale plucks it off. It’s odd, as if the archetype of ancient Rome was born yesterday, or the best play of Shakespearean English written in 1990.

There’s something good, even possible, about this. That whatever a period hundreds or thousands of years ago was trying to be should appear in a different period asks if we would think of time differently. Memory is not an uncross-able distance, but the completion of history and the perfection of the future and the ideal – all at once made present. Perfection does not lie in the epic past, but the ordinary present.

There’s a funny paradox when memory becomes present to us, like recalling someone who is standing next to you, or being forgiven before you’ve repented, or knowing a future event like it happened yesterday. A tension releases before it had time to wind up, music plays from instruments still locked in their cases.

Scottsdale: Souvenirs

A writer walks through a suburb of a desert city. He finds that art,souvenirs , tradition, memory, and dam-building and citrus trees have something to do with each other. This is the second of five essays. 

The city of Phoenix is a grid, like New York, within a mountain-rimming bowl—the valley of the sun. Here, one block is a square mile. The road I’m on splits into Scottsdale Boulevard and Drinkwater Boulevard. Drinkwater was the real, and as best as I can tell, original last name of the once-mayor of Scottsdale, Herb Drinkwater. There is a statue of him in Scottsdale near the Civic Center, with a dog at his side, wagging his brass tail. The mayor wears a Stetson, bow tie, and a big smile. It’s the best job in the world to serve the people of Scottsdale, the monument says.

Scottsdale Blvd., running north-south, divides art and craft. No art shops there, no souvenir shops here. Crossing over, I took out a cigarillo – it seemed the right western thing to do – and haunted the souvenir side of town. At an un-manned covered wagon I find pamphlets about nightlife and informationals about the best burgers, all sorts of maps. I stuffed these into my satchel.

With over one hundred art galleries and over sixty shops, I wondered if there were as many stores so densely put in a New York street and I had never noticed it before. In Midtown, for instance, there are souvenir shops but they are cushioned by the more numerous brand name shops. Carrying across the U.S. to Scottsdale, every souvenir shop invariably has this aesthetic. You notice the lights inside the shop first. It didn’t matter if it was sunny outside. From vaulted ceilings, the light didn’t shine, it weightlessly fell. The light has to be described that way. To shine the light needs direction, velocity, linearity. But the light was diffuse, massless, coating things like an invisible fog.

In New York I once watched a family walk into one of these stores. The first thing they see are racks, with t-shirts and other apparel, arranged to make deep trails. The father is looking for something to commemorate their trip to the southwest. The kids look at what’s at eye-level: snow globes, shot glasses with funny quotes, mugs, miniature Statue-of-Libertys, postcards. The mother wants to get a tiny token to send to their parents. The kids like stuffed animals. The father settles on a key-chain, a stuffed-python the kids will fight over in the backseat, an oversized t-shirt, and a little Empire State Building as a gift for the in-laws.

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This same experience transposes onto every shop in Scottsdale, using this simple function: mugs laminated with names w/ [insert Scottsdale scenic shot] + shot glasses laminated or decorated with [insert cacti or local pun] + t-shirts laminated with [insert date: time: event/place] + click pens with [insert local motto or slogan] + … + 1n-1 + 1n. The very same souvenirs found in New York were here. The only difference was the plastic mold used to make them. Gift shops carried Scottsdale-specific t-shirts. Different in font, color, and slightly in wording, but they all said the same thing, to the algorithmic product.

In one jewelry shop window is a necklace I had seen in a previous shop, the same peculiar design of a dancing man playing a flute. There were loads of pretty turquoise necklaces—albeit, the designs did repeat after a while, like a suburban neighborhood. Some were hand made. Others were genuine. Others still were antique or traditional. None were unprofessional or shabby.

The figure I kept seeing was, I later found out, called the Kokopelli. Some date his beginnings at 700 A.D., carved onto mountain faces and inside caves. For the Hopi, a southwestern tribe, and a few others, the Kokopelli is the demiurge of fertility and harvest. He plays the flute, has spiked, long hair, a skinny figure wearing a robe. I saw his figure engraved into pendants, necklaces, every species of jewelry. One version of his history holds that strangers would walk into tribes, playing the flute and dancing, and by this the tribe knew that the Kokopelli had come to tell tales, trade, and speak prophecy and prayers over their crops. This wasn’t the only symbol on necklaces. There were others, all drawing their meaning from near-ancient sources.

The pamphlets gave recommendations for those who want authentic Indian art, recommending buyers ask for a certificate to prove that the piece was made by the Navajo or whichever tribe. The pieces tend to be expensive. That’s part of their authenticity, being craft not product. Especially the rings and bracelets; the hammer work shows its telltale in-congruency.

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The Navajo wore jewelry less than all this makes believe. The tables and the shops, lined with sterling silver jewelry, give an image that the Navajo wore an excessive amount of jewelry. But historically, jewelry was rare and ceremonial and pottery was mundanely practical. Making so much, and so much of, the jewelry and pottery gives the wrong impression. This jewelry is made by the Navajo, but not for the Navajo. More people want Navajo jewelry than the Navajo did.

These souvenirs provided the sense that they were for those just passing through, like when visiting a mountain you leave with a rock to show you were there. This is the transformation from museum piece to souvenir. Museums take artifacts and instead of using them, use them to reveal the past to us. But those artifacts – pottery, ceremonial necklaces, dream-catchers, pipes, baskets – were made, originally, to be used. That’s what makes them real. But when they’re made for the museum of your home (i.e., not used) they’re no longer museum pieces; something is absent.

So too the blanket that is hard to sleep in because of the monogrammed “Grand Canyon, 1999” thickly sewn on it’s corner and the equally uncomfortable pillow with “Appalachian Trail, 1997” in wild-west font; the millions of monuments minimized into miniatures. The grandeur, spontaneity, indescribability “you had to be there” of a place, of a history, of Michelangelo’s David, is reduced to something you can pack away and then put on a shelf. It appears that nothing cannot be shrunk—the miniaturized Pieta, the Ecstasy of St. Teresa, every bit of national architecture. Monuments and histories are taken to foreign countries, unknown coffee tables and kitchens, set next to a dozen other statues and mountains. The monumental is made a mantelpiece, mutatis mutandis. The mountain’s timelessness is taken rock by rock by those who want a part of its grandeur. Like Moses taking tablets from the mountain, they are tangible testaments of a place, a terra. Nothing can be taken too seriously that fits in a pocket.

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“Souvenir” can refer to many things, and I was having trouble, walking around at 8:30, to decide on what it meant in Scottsdale’s case. The souvenirs were forces of unseriousness yet nonetheless carried the power of what they were formed after. This other part was, after thinking a little longer, the more obvious point: they’re for remembering. “The mountain was made of this,” one says, holding up a piece of shale.

Scottsdale: Art District

A writer walks through a suburb of a desert city. He finds that art, souvenirs, tradition, memory, and dam-building and citrus trees have something to do with each other. This is the first of five essays. 

 

I left at dusk. My bag was packed with a few cigarillos, a small notebook, and my denim jacket. It was finally cool in the evenings. I had once before walked parts of downtown Scottsdale, a northeastern suburb of Phoenix, AZ. But I had been sick, and it was distractingly hot then. Tonight I had the whole evening if I wanted it, work the next morning notwithstanding.

There are a few districts to Old Downtown, est. 1894, named after an Army Chaplain, Winfield Scott. First is the Art district, less than a third of a New York City avenue block. Scottsdale Blvd runs north/south; Main St. runs east/west, cutting Scottsdale into quadrants. The art district lay mostly on Main St. on the west side of Scottsdale Blvd.

By the evening’s end I had written down fifty-eight individual art galleries on Main St. alone. There are over one hundred. These galleries were like brownstones in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, representing about as many unique characters. At Esse Objects de Art everything was made of the same material: a fade-gold metallic. If it had a smell, it would be whatever golden mold smells like. On a victorian table sat a sci-fi motorcycle, all luscious curves, a massive wheel on the back, low handlebars, and a woman clad in nothing, exaggerating herself on the seat. Further down were the Shorr Gallery, Romanov Fine Jewelry, and Gallery Russia, which displayed a 6’x8’ canvas titled, In the South, by Renat Ramazanov.

Why this boon of art?

Scottsdale is next to Los Angeles and New York in art sales, and while it is the wealthiest part of AZ, that can’t be a sufficient enough reason. While the prospect of money is a reason to paint, it’s not a reason for painting any particular painting. Commissions bought Michelangelo’s marble, it didn’t inspire David.

Let the wealthy desire all the status, sophistication, and expression art can give, and you’ll have indiscriminate buyers. But here there were genres, styles, communities of artists and galleries, some of which weren’t getting enough interest to justify their remaining. Emerging from half-complete sculptures were ravenous, desirous feminine shapes. There were the self-titled Southwestern artists whose work caught the burning orange, pristinely wild, leathery understanding of the west, all triggers for a memory that no one looking at them could have had personally—all of Proust’s madeleine without the narrator’s recollection.

One artist had labeled their art as, “art that embraces awareness”. I never had to ask the question, “what’s it trying to say?” The art was straightforward. Each painting was given in hand to be received and enjoyed. It was, and perhaps the context of the town helped, perfectly apparent what the meaning of the art was. Artistic style did not vary the message. The abstract was knowably abstract, the impressionistic was knowably impressionistic. This was art of near-perfect disclosure. You have to taste the fruit to know, but there was no need for analysis, no reason for study. It was all of it memory, established.

Here in Scottsdale, between art and the viewer, there was still the moment when the viewer (granted a very wealthy viewer) saw something desirable for and in itself.

One gallery gave art classes. As I passed by, twenty or so adults listened to an indefinite classical-piano piece were told how to get orange from a red/yellow mix. In front of them, at about the same stage of completion as theirs, was an impressionist canvas of some clouds or fire mixed together, which the teacher was painting. In front of all of them was the finished canvas they were replicating. Stacks of previous canvases laid behind them.

It’s difficult to know when to continue performing something. In February 2014, New York, on a rainy evening—when the snow was undecidedly melting then turning back into ice, then returning back to slush—I went to see the Britten Opera, Billy Budd, at the Brooklyn Art Museum (BAM). The London Philharmonic played the score. The Glyndebourne cast took the stage. They had returned to this opera, last played in 2010.

One of the few written in English, Billy Budd has more human (as opposed to stultifyingly social) moments than most operas. The purest of souls (Billy Budd) is unjustly punished for justly killing a man. At the penultimate moment, as Melville’s short story puts it, Billy Budd shouts out the words “God Bless Starry Vere!” This shocks the crew, and it shocked the audience at the BAM theater. Jacques Imbrailo who played Billy, as the noose fell on his neck, tensed his veins with the vibrato. He sung those words with desperation, with the sudden, bursting syllables –“God bless you!”–that the viewer cannot believe (one expected “Farewell!” or “Down with the tyrant!” or “Freedom!”).

The opera begins and ends with Captain Vere. He opens the story with a monologue addressed to the audience, “I am an old man,” and concludes the opera on the same dark stage. Lit at his sides so to provide the illusion of floating—like his own luminescent, flickering memory—he recalls that fateful year full of mutiny and fated angels. Delivering the last lines, he says, “I, Farfaix Vere, commanded the Indomitable,” and after a good silence, roaring applause. That’s how the iTunes soundtrack ends.

That night, however, the actors and the London Philharmonic would put a close to a performing tour in New York and would return to the UK. This was their last performance, and in it a moment not found in the iTunes version of the opera. It ended with John Ainsley, who played Vere, delivering the lines, “I, Fairfax Vere, commanded the Indomitable.” The lights went out. The audience applauded.

But in the moment before the lights went out, he drew breath, as if to go on. There were no more lines to speak. But there was one more in his mind. He let out that half sound of someone who wants to say more–but thinks better of it at the last second – a perfect aposiopesis, a stutter. The audience, who before this had remained silent, attentive, let out a small whimper—the exclamatory “oh” of a mother who’d seen a child fall and scratch their knee outside the window. We all wanted to know what he would have said. But it would remain unspoken.

The performance, and with them the performances, were ended. It could not be done again. Only recordings remained, which one could play over and over. On iTunes, all one buys is a recording of an event which was itself a repeated performance. No one plays that violin again, no tenor sings that note again. And it seems that at some point a performance becomes a recording, not a contribution to the work of art. Something about one piece of art refuses to pass itself on with reoccurrences. The store of meaning is exhausted. Still the song plays on.

The art class back in Scottsdale was called “A Splash of Merlot.” They splashed paint onto their canvases with a canvas of Pollock’s to inspire and guide them, but without the hesitation and anxiety that Pollock suffered over.  The point that night was to paint. There was not a question of whether or not. There was no time to stop painting. Pigment was mixed. Brushes were dipped. Canvases were dabbed.

They work with the strokes, hues, and medium of Cezzane, perhaps one of his still-lifes, but without taking the hours it took him to add one stroke to the canvas. Has the art troubled them? Has the work taken them to mental and physical extremes? And what about the 20 canvases afterword? When they had dried, where do they go?

The painting isn’t deepened by being reproduced. A sentence is recited long after it’s lost its breath. A statue is chipped at after it is complete. At some point, what was craft becomes erosion.

There was in one of hundreds of Scottsdale art galleries, Bishop Gallery for Arts and Antiques, piles to the ceiling of furniture and Catholico-esque shrines. Much of it was made of wood and plaster. There was very little metal, very little shine. Near the door stood a statuette, about four feet tall. It was made of wood, and a little cracking on the top: two men, naked; one had wings folded up on his back. Their posture was as though at the beginning of a professional grappling contest, hands on shoulders, both bowing their heads together in the seriousness of “let us pray.” They weren’t proportional. They had thick limbs and small hairless heads. Their posture said men; their size said children. There was no label, no price tag. Was it a scene from Jacob’s wrestling with the Angel?  It appeared to be. If it was the angel’ hand should be touching the man’s hip, but instead the man’s hand was extended to the angel’s waist. There was, as good sculpture can do, the sense of frozen motion, not just the absence of it. The two men were waiting for the wood to give way. They were drawn toward each other with locked grips, and skin slippery with sweat, whether to wrestle or to embrace. The sadness of their expressions together kept the possibility of their coming together for reconciliation. The statuette’s form hesitated precisely before being violent or resolved. I couldn’t wait to see which the men would give in to.

In Conversation with Lecrae

Ten years ago during highschool football practice, out of an old Honda Passport, I played Lecrae’s first album Real Talk. From their juiced-up stereo-systems, the defensive line played Lil’ Wayne (A Milli had just come out). Wayne’s bass was dangerous and crisp, and from my exasperated speakers came this rapper they hadn’t heard of. The defensive line came over to me and asked what I was playing. I said, “Lecrae.” They listened to the lyrics and walked away, not knowing what to do with it. This rapper could spit a million miles an hour, shout of “Jesus,” criticize rap, and ridicule lust for women and money. It was impossible to place this music.

I interviewed Lecrae on the recent Phoenix stop of his Anomaly tour, which finishes in November. To date, Lecrae has sold 1.4 million albums. He continues to perplex: he makes songs that one can listen to for the musical energy as much as for the lyrical precision.

Charles Carman: Rap is distinguished, in large part, due to its region of origin. East Coast, West Coast—Detroit claims Eminem; Brooklyn claims Jay-Z. These rappers begin their rhymes with streets and cities. What’s your street? Who’s on your street?

Lecrae: Yeah, I honestly think that there’s a conglomerate of believers and Christians around the world that feel like they have someone with whom they can identify, and then I think there’s people who really value substance in their hip-hop in a time where that’s unusual. So you have the Christians who love hip-hop and the people who love substance.

C: You have a growing number of intensely loyal fans. But its almost as if your early fan base wasn’t from any one place. How do you get streets?

L: Part of that is definitely out of my control. Similar to the guy who goes out and catches a bear, and everyone’s amazed: “How did you catch the bear?” And so he goes on a conference tour telling everyone how he caught a bear. But over the last five years he’s been telling everyone how to catch a bear, though he doesn’t catch them anymore. And then someone else catches a bear, and so then the whole mob moves over to this new guy: “How did you catch the bear?” So you have to stay in the forest catching bears for a season, and then come back and explain to people how you caught a bear, and back and forth. And I think that helps how people see me, having-fans-and-living-it-out-wise.

C: Do you find that you go back to Houston, the place where you grew up, to find a regional flavor?

L: Absolutely. I definitely have an affinity with Houston. I’m fortunate to have moved all around the country, so I’ve picked up different things from different regions, but those are definitely my roots. The South, when it comes to music, is all about the emotions, the soul, and that certainly bleeds through. As you move north, things get more into the technicality with the lyrics and the sounds, so I appreciate that as well.

C: You refuse to use the language of hip-hop, the violent metaphors and similes. That means, however, that you have to create a whole new language, which is something most hip-hop artists dont have to think about. Whats it like to create lingo from scratch?

L: So sometimes, as a cultural curator of sorts—no pun intended—you have to double speak. I’m saying things that I think my tribe would understand and resonate with personally, but I’m also trying to say something that someone outside the tribe can hold onto and understand themselves. So I could say red bottoms, and everyone outside of my tribe would think I mean an expensive pair of shoes: “Oh, yeah, everyone talks about red bottoms.” But then I could say something to the effect of “covered in the blood when I’m rockin’ these red bottoms,” you know, and it’s like “double speak” to where my tribe understands what I’m saying, but then those outside can follow along, too.

C: A lot of rap is about the rapper responding to someone with, Im gonna spin some lyrical wit and attack you with it,but that sort of personal attack isnt in your work.

L: I don’t not acknowledge human emotions. It’s what I do with them: anger, guilt, shame, fear, hurt, and loneliness, gladness—those are all real emotions that everyone experiences. Anger is good, because that means you’re passionate about something, but when anger is toxic, it might lash out violently or irrationally. So you have anger, but what am I going to do with that anger? I am angry that the child was molested or mistreated but how I respond in my anger makes all the difference.

C: There are many songs critiquing America from MIA, Del Ray, Kanye. Your song Welcome to America” controversially concludes with someone getting kicked out because they couldnt find a green card. What are you hoping that the songs says?

L: I wanted people to empathize. So often we only walk life in our own shoes, our own perspective. Very rarely do we think about how the other person sees life. I have white friends who say, “Hey, man, how come you always talk about race?” And it’s because I experience it all the time. I would love not to think about it. But that’s a paradigm I’m having to see the world through, so I’m trying to say: here’s the guy on the street corner in Chicago, who’s an American, a soldierwho fought for his country, who you walk by all the time, and he fought for your freedom.

C: It seems that in every interview youre asked, “Whats with being a Christian rapper?” Lets reverse that. Whats up with rap that allows Tupac, Jay-Z, Eminem, Wu-Tang Clan, and Lecrae to claim the same genre? No one takes seriously Christian black metal, or gangsta gospel or shoot-em-up indie folk. What about rap makes it flexible as a genre?

L: Hip-hop is all about the disenfranchised. That’s how it originated—the disenfranchised in the Bronx. It started by welcoming anyone who had been marginalized and ignored to tell their story. I think it’s evolved over the years, so now we’ll probably be a lot more accepting than a couple decades back, but the message from the world is, “We want substance, things that will last,” and that’s what I’m trying to provide.

C: What does it mean to be a rapper but also to stand outside rap, to be an anomaly in the rap world?

L: It’s almost like being in a family where you want to address your brother or your sister. You don’t want to blast them out to the world. You may challenge them, but it’s because you want the best for them. And that’s what I’m trying to do now.  I had to learn how to do that. I was kind of wagging my finger in a pious way—really wrong and ineffective, and what I had to learn to do was to challenge people to see themselves as more, that they’re falling short of what they’re created for. But how do I raise those kind of questions like, “How can I be more than what I am? What is more significant than the girls, and the money and the cars?” That’s what’s been my challenge.

C: Who do you listen to?

L: Pretty much everything—Eminem, Kanye, Neighborhood. I can appreciate form and craftsmanship, even with content that I don’t agree with. And then there are times when the content is so disturbing that I’m moved to question what I’m hearing because it’s viewed as acceptable. And that drives me and inspires me to write out of compassion. When there’s a song that thinks child molestation is acceptable, that grieves me and drives me to respond against it. At the same time I hear things about mundane, monotonous things done so well, I’m inspired to write.

C: Who are some of your favorite painters?

L: I’ve been going back to Rembrandt, just to try to understand [him]. When I was in Amsterdam I spent time in the museums observing the subtleties in his work. Every person’s worldview is communicated through their art. If you have a painter who has a cosmic explosion, it says a lot about what they think. They may think that the world is chaotic, without shape or form. But someone who takes the time to paint a shadow, the infrastructure and order and the form, that means something very different. That impresses me.

C: Theres a tendency amongst faithful artists to take something culturaland Christianize it. Christian rap is said to be like this, too. What do you think about this pattern? 

L: Christians are known for condemning, critiquing, and copying culture, and not creating it. When you begin to create culture, you’re saying that there’s another way. I’m not telling you to conform or be a separatist, but that there’s another way, to use these resources and live and express through these art forms. There’s another way.

On Good Folk, Good Land

A few weeks ago, The Curator’s Charles Carman had a chat with Ben Hardesty, the lead singer of The Last Bison, an indie folk quartet from Chesapeake Virginia. “VA,” The Last Bison’s new album will be released on September 30.

 

Charles Carman: Was music part of your community/family/neighborhood? Are you a folk band by nature (where you came from), or was it more deliberate than that?

Ben Hardesty: In my more formative years, music was a huge part of family and community life. As a child I would sit at family gatherings and watch my uncles play through Marshall Tucker songs, always hoping I could someday play along, singing and picking away with them. It’s hard to say whether the community makes the music, or music makes the community.

The band started as a group of friends and family just making music together. However, through making that music, the music formed us. It wasn’t that we were like, “Oh let’s start a folk band; that’s cool!” Acoustic instruments could be taken outside, played around fires, and in the beginning years of the band that’s where we spent lots of our time. Things were naturally happening; all we had to do was commit to it.

C: Where do you draw lyrics and concepts from—historical events, local cultures? Who do you read/listen to? Do you look at paintings? What are you celebrating with your music?

B: With this next cycle, we’re celebrating themes of freedom from bondage, in both the literal and figurative sense. The narratives of freedom in cinema, literature and the Bible have always been ones that pull at my heart strings. My lyrics are often pulled from fictitious narratives floating around my own head. A piece of some story not yet put together, a glimpse into a moment. I’m also inspired by the places I’ve been and things I’ve seen. Travel is just as good as a well written book often times, in my opinion. It leaves you with characters, plot lines, conflicts, and the resolution to those conflicts. After a trip you’re left is vivid memories of the story of that particular adventure. I’ve had many such adventures, and a gamut of my songs come from the effects those geographical journeys have had on me. Lastly love. Plain and simple. A love that strives to be selfless and transparent. Experiencing that from people, and attempting to love that way often enters the lyrics.

C: Some lyrics, for instance in “Watches and Chains,”sound like vignettes from the Civil War era or earlier. Is there a historic era that especially fascinates or influences you?

B: 19th century America, for reasons I don’t know. I spent a lot of time in school studying the Civil War. It’s complexities fascinated me and my guess is because of that, the aesthetic stuck with me.

C: What is good folk music? What’s folk trying to capture? 

B: I don’t think I have any say in what good folk music is. If I had to give an answer, I’d say anything with acoustic or ethnic instruments that comes from the heart. People want authenticity. Good folk captures that authenticity. It has a nostalgic feel about it— like somewhere you’ve been, or something you’ve seen before. It could be the the guys who don’t sing a word, but pick faster than you’ve ever heard, or the guy who knows a handful of chords and can put what your thinking into words.

C: Any funny concert stories?  

B: One of our first shows ever here in VA—I won’t name the venue—has a short, sweet story. I was stomping so hard I broke their makeshift plywood stage—cracked the board pretty well down the center. I played the rest of the show. We packed and split. I never told anyone. That was bad of me.

C: Favorite whiskey and tobacco pairing? 

B: Samuel Gawith Full Virginia Flake (FVF) with Reservoir Rye Whiskey.

In May 1607, The Virginia Company sent out three ships that landed in Virginia and founded the colony of Jamestown. They set off in search for a route to Asia to advance trade with China with hopes also to discover gold. They failed at both. The mortality rate due to starvation, disease and warfare with the natives approached 70%, and only one thing saved the remaining souls at Jamestown…

C: Tobacco.

B: This tobacco is the fullness of a Virginia blend, and is reminiscent of the same Virginia blends of the old days. When paired with Richmond’s own Reservoir Rye Whiskey, it is a real treat. I’m usually a bourbon guy, however the spice of this Virginia Rye blends well with the thick smell of fresh hay that the FVF emits. This pairing goes well with my favorite fiddle tune Ashokan Farewell.

C: On that note, thanks for your time.

 

An Interview with Josh Garrels

Charles Carman interviewed Oregon-based Josh Garrels—American singer-songwriter, orchestral folk composer, hip-hop producer, and musician—and the two spoke briefly on Garrels’ history, the narrative nature to his music, growing up and the prominence of myth to his life, and the need for love of a city.

Charles Carman: Think back to Stone Tree, your first album. What first thought, question, or urge moved you to write a song, even if it wasn’t recorded for Stone Tree?

Josh Garrels: Earliest memories are like of [me] making little melodies. I think my personality is such that—some people like to be given (and this sounds negative) but like manuals or programs, or when it comes to music, like studying theory and composition and being in bands and orchestras and having conductors—my personality is such that sometimes that’s confining. It actually ceases to make the thing interesting to me. Music to me, still to this day, is this wide open landscape of potential sounds (and I have more words for it now as a grown person), but as a little kid I used to think, “oh, you can just make up melodies and sometimes when you make certain melodies it makes you feel a certain way.” So that was like just singing little songs.

My dad was a music teacher so there was always a pile of instruments around the house, everything from a Wurlitzer and drum sets to clarinets and old Casio keyboards. A big marker in my life was realizing you could record sound: I liked to make little recordings and then go back and listen to them.  It becomes something outside of you then and you can listen to it objectively. There is a certain pride to it, like “I did that!”. This adds this new possible objectivity to what you’re doing, and you can let yourself be influenced by what you hear. Really early I had double tape decks where you could push record/play at the same time, then slowly made that more sophisticated by adding singalodeons with single loop tapes, then eight tracks, digital eight tracks and laptops, all the way to the studio I’m in now where I’m actually learning the stuff I never wanted to learn, like real engineering.

CC: Here are some lyrics from Stone Tree, the song “Ending”

Children running around
looking for the sound
buried in the ground
some are lost and found
waiting for the crown of the King.

There is this theme of looking for the king or waiting for Him returning. How did that theme begin?

JG: Stone Tree was before The Lord of the Rings trilogy on hit the big screen, so I didn’t grab it from that! [Laughter] There is a part of me that likes things that are epic, that’s why I think a lot of my songs go to these soundscapes that are cinematic, because I really like the epic storytelling.

You read the Old Testament prophets and the Revelation of John and you get that sense of the most epic story of all time coming to fruition. In that story, there is the returning king with eyes of fire. I have always been deeply affected by all of that, the poetry and visions of those things. I wholeheartedly believe that its not just poetry for an obtuse era of time. I’m more literal:  “No man, he is coming on the clouds.”

I feed that into my lyrics because I had a radical conversion as an 19-almost-20 year-old with nothing much previous to that—there was always this sense that this is real.  I always had a sense of ” I will follow that King.” I can’t help but sing about those things knowing, at times, they have narrow appeal. When you start talking about those things, it’s distasteful for some.

CC: For most peopleKings and Kingdoms, they’re cool like fantasy is cool or myth is cool, but just a metaphor. How do you try them substantial?

JG: I think that’s what I’m trying to do: take a thing that is considered fantasy or entertainment, or it is scoffed at because of the crazy dude on the corner shouting out like “End Time’s” things—it’s the caricature of a hateful, wild-eyed dude who thinks he is a prophet but really he’s leaving a wake of hurt people around him. I can’t tell myself this isn’t real, but I’m an inclusive guy (and I actually think the story-line [of king and kingdom] is inclusive), so the challenge is: how can I put them forth in a way that is not watering down or compromising or making something less than to build it up to even greater?

CC: You tie the kingdom concepts to lyrics about earth, heaven, and resurrection. In Stone Tree’s “Going Home,” a very slow paced, slowly ascending song, we are going home to be with Christ. Then in Jacaranda you have the wonderful “Zion & Babylon” where you bring it down to a mountain, Mount Zion, and in Love & War & The Sea In Between, you have “Revelator,” where he is coming down to make war and peace with man and reign on earth. So there has been a slow bringing-down-to-the-ground of this reign. Is that something you had in mind to begin with?

JG: I never thought about that to be honest, that progression. In thinking about it now, though, I had Stone Tree, which was 11-12 years ago

CC: 2002

JG: I was in my early twenties in the middle of a radical conversion, pretty zealous with the change. It was special and innocent in a good way because I came up with all sorts of steeped counter culture: skateboarder, drug, art,  hip-hop and indie rock, which felt pretentious and hierarchical—who’s in and who’s out. To be a Christian was a totally non-cool, but life-changing event. So with Stone Tree, I really felt the freedom of it. I wasn’t trying to impress anyone, or get on a label, or be a worship pastor. When I became a believer,I think my head was still twenty-something unattached, very “everything is spiritual.” When you’re that age, you can afford to live a detached, ephemeral lifestyle. Now I’m a husband and father of three, a homeowner, and I’ve calmed down and think more of “the hope of the future”, wondering how that’s present and alive in our present wounded, hard-knocked situation? How do I find peace and contentment in an unideal situation, because I’m not going to run from this. “How do you find Him in the mist of darkness?” That seems to be the progression.

CC: “SISU” from Over Oceans [2006] goes:

By the word and command
mortal man can stand
Son of Man is manifest in the flesh
and the bone and the rocks
and the valley of the dead
the dry bones are gonna walk and talk
to the rhythm of the saints y’all
to the rhythm of the saints.

What is required of the saints today?

JG: From what I’ve seen from my generation, I think [pause] there is the real simple answer:  just to believe. To quote one of my lyrics: “holding fast to the anchor.” I think that is the simple answer. That can be pretty obtuse, though.

Because we live in time influenced by pocket-accessibility to mass media streaming in real time, I think it makes it easy to follow every word and wave of what’s happening (and really I’m talking about myself, too). We’re really distracted.

How do we hold fast and stick to the anchor, not only Christ, but also things central to our being? I’m tired of arguing about the non-essentials. I think our generation is in danger of letting go of some core doctrinal beliefs like the identity of Christ, what the Gospel actually is, which requires something of you.

CC: This is shifting gears really quickly, entirely actually.  Thank you, though, for talking about saints. In “Resistance” and “Zion and Babylon” and several other songs, there is a call to overcome through peace and love. You played “Zion and Babylon” at your New York show, which was very affecting because of all the ways NYC compares to Babylon. What does living as a saint in New York (and big cities in general) look like?

JG: One of the preachers I have been listening to quite a lot over the last few years is Tim Keller. He has a great sermon on The City. Living in Portland,  my work over the past decade was very nature oriented … people really connect to that, and it will always be present in my work. Portland is the first place I’ve actually felt called to be somewhere, and as it happens, I’m in an urban core of the city, which is much less of an urban core then New York, with Keller’s teaching is helping me think about what that means. In my heart of hearts, I would love to live on a house on a hill in the in the country with wide open expanses—that’s what I want, because I’m ministered to by it. But people are in cities. That’s where cultures are these cities like New York and LA, and to a lesser extent Portland. You get the sense there are a lot of hurt and broken things in cities, the reasons I don’t want to live one. But those are the very reasons we should be there.  During the plagues of the Medieval period,  it was the Christians who stayed in their cities, getting sick themselves. They stayed and took care those dying.

My heart and my love is in the country because something feels pure and noble and good there, but at the same time, obedience draws me to cities, which are full of cultures that are interesting and fun. I always swore I hated New York. Since having this revelation that cities are where people are, where the need is, I’m growing to love New York.

 

 

Fire In The Belly

 Arcade Fire yearns for resurrection. Each conflict that Arcade Fire raises, from the aimlessness of the lover searching the streets for his beloved to the madness of the lover who cannot behold his beloved as she walks behind him out of hell, is resolved by one and only one event.

David Bentley Hart writes in “Christ or Nothing”: As modern men and women, to the degree that we are modern, we believe in nothing. And Charles Taylor puts in his tome that we live in a “secularized world.” Before and after them, scholars, essayists, philosphers all have formed a sub-genre of cultural criticism on the two assumptions: we are nihilists and we are secularists. There is no God, and nothing after this life.

But then we listen to Arcade Fire. Things are in a different order. What we believe in does not come first because we do not first believe. First, we love. And if we believe in nothing afterwards, we do so because we are first without our beloved.

Disinterest in God and in the afterlife superficially appears in the song, from Reflektor, Here Come the Nighttime, which asks for the prolongation of darkness, the nighttime party, the neon-lit amusement. The focus is on how nothing is cared about, nothing matters:

When the sun goes down,

When the sun goes down you head inside

Because the lights don’t work,

Nothing works but you don’t mind

The missionaries tell us we will be left behind

Been left behind a thousand times, a thousand times

If you’re looking for hell, just try looking inside

When you look in the sky, just try looking inside

God knows what you might find

And yet, when we look at the Arcade Fire corpus as a whole, this rejection of an afterlife, and of the evangelized-about God who keeps heaven from us, are secretions, not causes, of the tension that moves Arcade Fire from album to album. There is a suffering prior to having lost faith in whatever they once believed in. It is the loss of those whom they desire.

Listening to the four albums are like watching four plays, all with the same tragi-comedic dilemma, none of which satisfactorily defeat it. But instead of literary analysis on Arcade Fires lyrics which, I think, would be fruitful – Arcade Fire rewards those who listen carefully. Here is one example.

Near the end of Reflektor is a pair of songs: Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice) and Its Never Over (Oh Orpheus). They follow Orpheus as he leads his beloved Eurydice out of Hades. Nothing more profoundly than that image conveys the mythopoetic center of Arcade Fire.

As they walk out, they try to remember something. (Which reminds me: a critique of Reflektor is that its too drawn out, songs go for too long. But this is why. It takes time, pounding repetitions of You already know, before you remember). The songs narrator sings, It seems so important now/But you will get over//And when you get over/When you get older/Then you will remember/Why it was so important then. As they walk, and as they sing, almost playfully, perhaps flirtatiously, Orpheus shouts back to his love, Hey, Eurydice!/Can you see me?, which must be a painful question, since he cannot see her. But if she can see him, theres hope. I will sing your name / Till you’re sick of me.

Arcade Fire writes two endings. In Awful Sound, the story ends as the myth does. Their desire for each other, to turn towards the other, whose love and loving requires being present before each other, swells. We cannot blame them. We can only despair for it being tried. This is the sorrowful freedom of the impatient desire. The song ends with them turning, and we know how it ends:

We know theres a price to pay for love in a reflective age

I met you up upon a stage, our love in a reflective age

Oh no, now youre gone.

With the next song, Arcade Fire gives the myth a new ending. The chorus changes. It had at first gone, And when you get over/When you get older/Then you will remember. Now it runs, When you get over/And when you get older/Then you will discover/That it’s never over. The climb out of Hades to save your beloved from death and separation never ends. In this second ending, Orpheus and Eurydice never make it out.

The Suburbs, perhaps Arcade Fires most acclaimed work, is often misunderstood (and acclaimed) as primarily a critique a condemnation of suburbia. Supposedly, Arcade Fire wants to show how bad living in the suburbs is, that its the worst metaphorically, or actually embodies the worst. Sprawl I (Flatlands) ends with a police officer asking kids late at night, [kids] do you know where you live? and the kids answering, If you only knew what the answer is worth/Been searching every corner of the earth. Though a deep critique of the convenience of suburban economy, this is construed as the look, primarily, for a place to live other than suburbia.

However the search for place in The Suburbs is never the search for place for places sake. All of place has been traveled, every corner of the earth. Place itself is not what theyve lost. Eleonore Stump, in her moving and profound theodicy the title of which is incidentally a concise expression of Arcade Fire: Wandering in Darkness suggests what is the primary desire of our hearts. We desire many things, many kinds of things. I desire this drink, or that place, or this time. I may and often would have desires for certain beliefs, going back to nihilism, secularism and religion. I desire a better understanding of God or I desire belief in something that will happen in the future. But, as Stump writes, the deepest things a person sets his heart on are persons. Though the characters of Arcade Fire are lost within a world, a myriad of things, facts, beliefs, what they have lost are not things or states of belief or knowledge. They have lost persons.

Every conflict is that of not yet having found the place where the other is.

With respect to what our culture believes in, secularism and nihilism are largely correct diagnoses. But were we to consider our age with respect to persons (i.e., not statements of belief), we may very well understand our age, vis a vis Arcade Fire, as the reflective age: the age where our beloved is not present. Our lives have become mirrors. Weve no window out of which to see another (which is an interesting reversal of what the computer screen does. Computers are not Windows, they are reflectors). There is ultimately no real Other. There is an absence of lovers except in the dream-house of our mind or the dream-world of heaven. When we think we hear a friend or a lover, its a maddening echo (a favorite leitmotif of Arcade Fire) of our own voice.

In theological terms, this age lives in the evening of Holy Saturday. Christ is beneath the earth. The disciples tremble in fear and shame. The world looms cruel and ridiculous. No matter what Christ said, his disciples must surely begin to doubt his divinity. He, like all things, has returned to the earth. That is all. We can hear the devilish whisper the disciples must have heard, in bridge of Reflektor: Thought you were praying to the resurrector/Turns out it was just a Reflektor. With Christ in the earth, death is once again the natural thing. It reenforces its certainty. The prophecy of resurrection becomes, with all religious promises and rituals, yet another comedic foil which the logic of death dissolves into absurdity. Everything is back to how its always been.

To beat the point into the ground (I almost wrote grave): epistemic doubt is caused by the death of a person, not the other way around. The death of the beloved mocks all belief. As Stump quotes Aquinas: If there were no resurrection of the dead, people wouldnt think it was a power and a glory to abandon all that gave pleasure and to bear the pains of death and dishonor; instead they would think it was stupid.

And so the world is not full of nihilists or secularists; it is full of lovers who have lost their beloved. Everything after is the paint drying. This is at least the world of Arcade Fire – where in Backseat, their sister dies in a car crash, where in Antichrist Television Blues, a father abuses his daughter, where in Wasted Time, lovers know only a consuming boredom with each other; in each case, where lovers deal with what has rolled between them. Belief in nothing, and in nothing transcendent, comes from solitary confinement. And after that, all kinds of madnesses begin. Orpheus turns around.

Stump explains in an interview that resurrection is the confirmation of the goodness of there being particular embodied souls. Resurrection is always of particulars; and our lovers are these particulars. For belief in nothing to be doubtful, its foundation needs shaking. Life must sweep away the claim of death.

When graves are emptied, any system based on graves being filled becomes deficient. The wisdom of the world becomes foolishness. 

Until then, there is the working-out of hope: to live as in the already-present and yet-to-be-unveiled Parousia, as if the stones are already in the process of being rolled away, and we, in the hush of feet walking out, are finally present.

Need Art Ask Permission?

It was Milan Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion that first disturbed me, in the real sense of being unsettled. It took me out of a place I knew and loved into a place of unknowing, and I sensed that somehow my ignorance was being exploited. It is a lovely book, quite easy to fall into, but I was taken out of it when the two main characters sit naked on the floor, leaning against the wall, the light coming from a sleepy fireplace. I jolted into consciousness. I stared, bewildered. I saw that they were naked, and then I saw something forbidden, something I did not want to see. I saw them have sex.

This, for me, was a problem. It came largely from a tradition I grew up in, which taught that you were only to see one person naked, your spouse. To see anyone else, even if it was not pornographic, was nonetheless disloyal. A wandering eye ushers in comparisons, expectations, and unfaithful desires—things that should have no part in the marriage bed. Depictions of sex in literature might inject others into those thoughts that should only be of your spouse. In the imagination, the borders of art and reality are permeable. Sex is attractive, and incorrigible, so it’s best that you be attracted to one person in that respect, not others, not even fictional others. I was taught that sex was set apart, sacred.

I thought of sex as holy.

And so I questioned my professor. Should she have given us the book to read? Should the author have written that scene, albeit small? The professor replied that Ondaatje, a veteran novelist, knew what he was doing. The scene was for the sake of the art he was creating. It was necessary to develop the characters; it was precisely what the art demanded. I nodded, but wrestled ad nauseam in my mind if the scene was actually worth it.

This disturbance resurfaced when recently I read Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. It’s the story of a modern family of three kids, a manipulative mother, and a father with Parkinson’s who try (or try not) to get together for Christmas. In the first hundred or so pages, we follow Chip, the middle child of Enid and Alfred Lambert. Chip is consciously and repetitively self-destructive, so much that I wanted to turn away from what seemed like unnecessary, childish acts. Hadn’t he heard of moderation or prudence? Had he one disciplined or admirable bone? We read about Chip’s ogling obsession, which is perhaps linked to his insatiable sexual appetite. We see Chip having sex with his girlfriend, and with the boss’s wife, and even with one of his students. When his French pornographic VHS gets put in the dishwasher, he takes it back out, “in case he needed it later.”

It was a challenge. While I could appreciate innuendo, maybe one or two scenes, the sexual catalogue of The Corrections was exhaustive. While other characters are more reserved, hesitant, restrained, or repressed than Chip, they share with him the eventual surrender toward what they do not want to become. After reading about some of these other characters, I almost wished to go back to Chip. I read about the loss of virginity, the verge of marital rape, sex between unmarried and married women. I had seizures of conscience. I put the book down for weeks. There are scenes I want to forget. Near the middle of the story, we follow Denise, the daughter of Enid and Alfred, up into her room, with an old, war-veteran co-worker. First he loves her, then he abuses her. Denise hides her stained sheets in the closet.

Somehow, I finished the book. In part, Franzen writes with such brilliance that I couldn’t look away. Every piece was thought out. Every sentence, clause, and word was situated in the whole. The book was artfully, compellingly crafted. Franzen is casual in his prose, but the word-play is wonderful. You misread the book if without laughter. Was it possible that, if Franzen had done this on a literary level, he had also done so with the narrative? Perhaps the story’s explicit content was as intentional as the words.

After some distance between myself and the book, I saw it clearly. And with no little frustration, I realized that I had terribly misread The Corrections. I had stopped Franzen, and myself, with “but is this ethical?” and “do I need to see this?” and “how was that scene really necessary to develop the character?” But these were the wrong questions, or rather they were asked of the wrong thing. Prior to those questions was something larger, which I had not asked, and Franzen had been answering the whole time. It’s best to show it by a parallel.

Consider this scene between Denise and her employer Brian. Brian has come into some money, and is building a restaurant where Denise will be the head-chef. The two take a culinary trip to Europe, which turns from business to something more. Franzen writes:

[Denise] hated [Brian’s wife] Robin for having a husband she could trust. … Two nights before they left [Europe] … He pulled her into his room and kissed her. He’d given no warning of his change of heart. … She was beautifully, avidly adulterous and she knew it. … until there began to swell inside her, hardly noticeable and then suddenly distinct, and then not merely distinct but increasingly painful in its pressure on her peritoneum and eyeballs and arteries and meninges, a body-sized, Robin-faced balloon of wrongness. … She clarified by rolling out of bed and crouching in a corner of the hotel room. She said she couldn’t. … She apologized to him. “No, you’re right,” Brian said. … “I feel terrible. I’ve never done anything like this before.” “See, I have,” she said. … “More than once. And I don’t want to anymore.”

No one in the book wants to do what they’ve been doing anymore; they want their lives corrected. The present is so vicious, and the chance of resolution so incredible, that Franzen seems ruthless with his characters. They are not safe; they will see the worst. (Denise eventually sleeps with Brian’s wife, Robin, and destroys the marriage.) But it is not destruction that moves the book. It’s the characters’ struggle to correct what has been destroyed. And that is a motivation born of virtue, even love.

Consider, now, this parallel from Paradise Lost. This is the scene after Adam decides to take the fruit because of his love for Eve, who has already taken from the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil:

[N]ever did thy Beauty since the day

I saw thee first and wedded thee, adorn’d

… so inflamed my sense

With ardor to enjoy thee …

So he said and forbore not glance or toy

Of amorous intent, well understood

Of Eve, whose Eye darted contagious Fire

Her hand he seiz’d, and to a shady bank

He led her nothing loath; Flow’rs were the Couch,

Pansies, and Violets, and Asphodel,

And Hyacinth, Earth’s freshest softest lap.

There they their fill of Love and Love’s disport

Took largely, of their mutual guilt the Seal,

The solace of their sin, till dewy sleep

oppress’d them, weaired with their amorous play.

Soon found their Eyes how op’n’d, and their minds

How dark’n’d; innocence, that as a veil

Had shadow’d them from knowing ill, was gone.

The disturbing aspect of art is not in showing nudity or sex, not violence or obscenity. Those are accouterments. That is why my questions were asked too early. I had not seen the reality to which all these elements point. They depict man as he reacts to his sin. They display man as he surely dies. The question I should have been asking is whether art has the permission, even obligation, to act out the death which approaches us, which we willingly walk, and sometimes run, towards.

And with what more convicting image can art show this than with the primary relationship of marriage atrophied by neglect; the first mandate to procreate becoming shame; the beginning (and continuing) genealogy of mankind made clandestine and suspect; the act by which two become one becoming the very act that splits them in two? It almost becomes essential, whenever the extent of sin, disorder, and in-correction is presented, to begin where man begins. Procreation thus signals at once the beginning of life and a re-instantiation of life’s brokenness. Sex is hope and confusion.  Every person—hence every family, every marriage—emerges from that “contagious Fire.” With this knowledge, to write about sex is to write about fallen man. The ethics of showing nakedness now becomes the ethics of showing decay.

The last thing we want to remember is that sin is contemporary. In one sense, it’s easy to read Milton. He wrote hundreds of years ago. He wrote so long ago that the problems he wrote about also seem far off. But we don’t want a living author showing us that the very same thing is still going on. It’s just a sad story, that once upon a time man lost paradise. But there’s an urgency about man still losing it. Franzen was hard to read because he took me out of history and bluntly depicted the incompleteness and incorrectness of the present.

We all long for life, until we discover what life must undergo. At that point, we go through the event of hope, or despair. And we are good to recall Milton’s other work. Franzen has written a modern simulacrum to Milton’s Paradise Lost, but we wait to see if he writes with respect to Milton’s Paradise Regained. And there is a glimpse of this. Chip, the character whose destruction was so disheartening to watch and who, in the political metalepsis of the novel, represents our generation, is the one character whose life in the end actually finds some correction. He finds someone to love. They have kids. It’s the one time in the book that Chip’s love for another is described in terms of what it created, not what it destroyed.