Monday, October 23, 2017

Harmonic Convergence



The band known as the Vulgar Boatmen is based in Indiana. They don't play many gigs, and in fact as far as I know they basically don't play at all outside of Indiana and Chicago. I don't live in the Midwest, so even though I've been a fan for twenty-five years the chances of my ever seeing them live would seem to be about as good as the chances of my seeing a total solar eclipse.

But total solar eclipses, though rare, do occur. I didn't catch the celebrated one this past August, but in compensation a business trip took me to Chicago on October 19th of this year, which coincided precisely with a visit by the Vulgar Boatmen to a club called Martyrs' in Chicago's North Center. This is called fate; you don't mess with it.

I took the CTA's Red Line, then changed to the Brown Line. At some point during the trip I saw the lights of Wrigley Field in the distance. (The significance of this will be made clear below.)

I got off at a station called Irving Park. I walked along West Irving Park Road to the intersection with North Lincoln Avenue, then took a left. One of the cross-streets I passed was called West Larchmont Avenue. (The significance of this may be explained some other time.) I found Martyrs' without any trouble. I hadn't reserved a ticket ahead of time, but getting in wasn't a problem, maybe because people were home watching the Cubs play the Dodgers. I paid the cover charge, stepped inside, and found a table a little off to the side.

The opening trio, the Sunshine Boys, had already started playing. They were a guitar player and singer named Dag Juhlin, a bass player named Jacqueline Schimmel, and a drummer, Freda Love Smith, whose name I was vaguely familiar with. I liked them. I ordered an Ayinger Weissbier and sipped at it slowly.

The second act was Walter Salas-Humara. Walter was an original member, or at least an early member, of the Vulgar Boatmen, but went off on his own long ago, for a while as the lead singer of a group called the Silos. He was accompanied by Jonathan Rundman, who alternated between accordion and mandola and pitched in on vocals. Walter prefaced "I'm Over You" with a funny story that involved Hootie and the Blowfish and an unexpectedly large check from BMI.

There was a TV over the bar and facing the stage, and every now and then Walter would look up to see how the Cubs were doing. The Cubs were not doing well at all, and at some point in the course of the evening the TV was switched off.

After Walter's set I went over and bought a couple of CDs from him and said hi.

The Boatmen lineup for the evening, in case you're keeping a scorecard, was Dale Lawrence (lead vocals and guitar), Matt Speake (lead guitar), Jake Smith (bass), and Freda Love Smith (returning to the drum kit to pinch-hit for the absent Andy Richards). This was probably a better lineup than the Cubs were able to muster, on that night at least.

They opened with "Heartbeat," done as more of a rocker than the old recorded version, then played an energetic set of about 14 or 15 songs, including "Wide Awake," "Allison Says," "Mary Jane," and other old faves, plus a few covers I didn't recognize.

Dale called Walter Salas-Humara and Jonathan Rundman back to the stage, and together they ripped through an exuberant version of Michael Hall's gleefully antinomian anthem "Let's Take Some Drugs and Drive Around." It was hard to say whether it was Walter Salas-Humara or the beaming Freda Love Smith who was having the most fun on that one (see video clip), but when it was over I don't think anyone in the audience went home disappointed either, except, of course, for the Cubs fans.

Friday, October 13, 2017

An Ainu Ceremony


From Jude Isabella's article "From Prejudice to Pride," about the history and current state of the Ainu, in the online Hakai Magazine. "Kamuy" means "god" or "spirit."
When Yahata and her non-Ainu husband purchased a used Suzuki Hustler, they decided to welcome the little blue car with the white top into their lives as a traditional Ainu family would welcome a new tool. They conducted a ceremonial prayer to the car's kamuy. On a cold, snowy December night, Yahata and her husband drove the car to a parking lot, bringing along a metal tub, some sticks of wood, matches, sake, a ceremonial cup, and a prayer stick.

The couple tucked the car into a parking space and made a little fireplace with the metal tub and wood. “Every ceremony needs to have fire,” Ishihara translates. For half an hour, the couple prayed to the car kamuy. They poured sake into an Ainu cup borrowed from the museum and dipped a hand-carved prayer stick into the cup to anoint the car with drops of sake: on the hood, the roof, the back, the dashboard, and each tire.

Their prayer was a simple one: keep them and other passengers safe. Of course, adds Yahata with a smile, they got insurance...

The ceremony was so much fun, Yahata says, that the couple held another when they changed from winter tires to summer tires.
The entire article is also available as a podcast via the link above.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Hard to Find



"In response to the question 'Why do you play such strange chords, Mr. Monk?' he once told a disc jockey, 'Those easy chords are hard to find nowadays.'" — Related by Lewis Lapham in "Monk: The High Priest of Jazz"

Thelonious Sphere Monk was born on this date one hundred years ago. Below is a recording of one of his best-known compositions, "Blue Monk."

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Brown study



It's drizzling today as I write these words, but the woods have been dry for weeks, and with the days getting shorter and the temperatures marginally colder there hasn't been much new to see. At the halfway point of a two-hour walk I found these healthy specimens of Ischnoderma resinosum, commonly known as the resinous polypore. I'm told it's edible in the early stages, but I don't forage; I'm happy just to enjoy the rich earth-tones and textures and know that the woods still have a few sights to offer before winter shuts down the show.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

To the center



Like many in my generation, I grew up knowing the works of Jules Verne primarily through Hollywood adaptations — mostly bad ones — and comic books. About fifteen years ago, when I read Journey to the Center of The Earth in a well-regarded recent translation, I was underwhelmed. That the geology was implausible was the least of it. The expected dramatic payoff when the travelers finally arrive as close to their destination as they manage to get (they never actually get anywhere near "the center" at all) just didn't seem to pack much of a punch. Reading it now in French, though (my very imperfect French), it seems like a much more considerable book. True, some of it remains very silly. Verne mangles Icelandic names and thinks that a medieval Icelandic manuscript could have been written in a runic alphabet (highly unlikely), and the whole climactic ascent through an erupting volcano is cartoonish and absurd, but on the other hand the trek across Iceland is vivid and evocative, the descent is tautly narrated, and the dreamlike depiction of an immense underground, vaulted sea — illuminated by some obscure electrical phenomenon — is beautiful and psychologically potent. It lacks the epic character of Vingt mille lieues sous les mers, but on the other hand you don't have to struggle through page after page of abstruse 19th-century natural history jargon along the way.

There have been many adaptations and imitations of Verne's underworld tale, and there's something instinctively appealing about the whole idea of burrowing down into the underworld. One version that remains elusive, to English-language readers at least, is Hikaru Okuizumi's The New Journey to the Center of the Earth, published in Japan some fifteen years ago. It is untranslated, but we do have Tatsuro Kiuchi's lovely and mysterious illustrations from the original serialization in the Asahi Shimbun to ponder over.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Millipede


Narceus americanus
Do millipedes dream? This one wasn't moving when I found it draped over a dead twig this morning. Its head (to the left in this picture) was bent down, so maybe it was sleeping off a rough night, or more likely it had a face full of whatever it is that millipedes eat. I took pictures at leisure — there's something to be said for an inert subject — then gave it a gentle prod. It moved off, but in no great hurry.

It appears to be Narceus americanus, the American giant millipede, which lives as long as ten years and can emit a noxious fluid to deter predators.

Elsewhere, I found a gloriously ruby-colored patch of what I believe is hairy pinesap (Hypopitys lanuginosa).

Monday, September 18, 2017

The owls



I was walking on a quiet back street in the next town north. Some twenty feet up in the branches of a great oak that rose up next to the sidewalk I caught sight a family of owls — two parents, and a fledgling — then saw three more owlets sheltered in a hollow at the base of the tree, peering out at me as I approached. That the owls were visible in broad daylight was not as remarkable to me as was the fact that they were sharing their quarters with a comparably-sized family of cats, who played and curled up with the little owlets, tails and wings fluttering and shaking together as I watched, as if nothing could have been more natural.

I hadn't brought my camera with me. I ran home — a distance of some five miles — and when I returned again I took a wrong turn down a parallel street. A Frenchman approached, seeing my camera and indicating his own which he carried around his neck, and asked me a highly technical question regarding photography. As I am essentially an ignoramus in that regard I apologized and said that I couldn't help him, but as compensation I offered to lead him to the tree, where he was sure to find a promising subject for his lens. We walked the few blocks that remained, but when we arrived we learned that the health department had ordered the people who owned the cats to send them away, as their presence was deemed a threat to the vulnerable owls. There was nothing left for the Frenchman and I to do except shake hands and exchange our farewells.

Image by Toshi Yoshida.