Monday, November 29, 2010

WikiDumps: Afflicting The Comfortable

"He is an anti-American operative with blood on his hands." - Sarah Palin
What strikes me as the takeaway from the ongoing WikiLeak's dump is the reaction. Whenever power balks, threatens or demonizes you know something substantial has occurred. Moreover, it's probably righteous. Sarah Palin has been suggesting that Julian Assange is the moral equivalent of Al Qaeda. Members of the press are outraged that the government was unable to keep its secrets from them. So when you hear the Pentagon, or the so-called "watchdog press", criticize WikiLeaks for jeopardizing security, endangering lives or doing more harm than good, just remember who has the real blood on their hands. And the real power to stop its flow, as the grandaddy of whistleblowers, Daniel Ellsberg of the Pentagon Papers, continues to point out.

When you hear pundits say, "No news here - seen it all before," these are transparently the words of people arriving late to the scene of a crime and pronouncing a death long after the body has turned cold. Don't believe a word. They've lost the scoop and are desperate to cover it up. As Glenn Greenwald notes, how one reacts to WikiLeaks will ultimately depend on how you feel about U.S. authority:
"Ultimately, WikiLeaks' real goal appears to me to be anti-authoritarian at its core: to prevent the world's most powerful factions from operating in the dark. There may be reasonable objections to this latest release -- such as the fact that war becomes more likely if diplomacy is undermined -- but I'd argue that one's views in general of WikiLeaks is shaped primarily by one's views of the legitimacy and justness of those authorities."
As in the run-up to the Iraq War, the financial meltdown of 2008, and the resignation of General McCrystal the media failed. Now they're aiding and abetting power in its attempt to shoot the messenger. But sniveling lapdogs lack the ability to do even that.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Eagles: More Than A Plastic Dry...

The Eagles, "the fucking Eagles," as the Dude said. The band you love to hate. The same that prompted Gram Parsons to say listening to their music was like a "plastic dry-fuck." Hathos alert. According to Andrew Sullivan;
"Hathos, a noun. Hathetic, an adjective. Meaning: something so unpleasant you can't help but be riveted by it. As in Lou Dobbs, Bill O'Reilly, Hugh Hewitt and the smell of one's own farts."
Add to that list my completely sincere devotion to the Eagles.

Whenever I hear "Already Gone" or "Take It Easy" I go to a place where shag rugs litter the floor and everyone is clad in plush velour; a place where Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham still share the mic and where their bleached harmonies spill out of Firebirds burning rubber outside the Ocean Beach Hotel on Marine Drive through the heart of a Saturday night in White Rock.

When they formed in 1971, the burgeoning country-rock scene that included Parson's Flying Burrito Brothers, Neil Young and Linda Ronstadt was just lifting off. After releasing their debut the following year with the insta-classic "Take It Easy" (co-written with Jackson Browne) and the spooky "Witchy Woman", they came fast and plenty: "Desperado", "Lyin’ Eyes", "Hotel California" and, more recently, 2007’s "How Long" from their first studio album in 28 years! - Long Road Out Of Eden. For better or worse, their influence has been huge with contemporary Cashville stars Taylor Swift and Keith Urban direct inheritors of their legacy.

The numbers are staggering and inspire the same sense of befuddlement as the popularity of Sarah Palin or Justin Bieber. The Eagles have sold more than 120 million albums, earning five No 1 US singles and six Grammy Awards. Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975 has exceeded sales of 29 million units and vies with Michael Jackson’s Thriller as the best-selling album of all time. Hotel California and Greatest Hits Volume 2 have sold more than 16 and 11 million albums respectively. The band is the embodiment not only of decadent solipsism, but of whorish corporatism.

The Eagles emerged at a time when rock had been devolving away from the baroque pop of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper to the more rustic and rough-hewed Americana of the Band's Music From Big Pink. It was roots based, with the emphasis on country rather than blues. They took the twang from the likes of Richie Furay's Poco and melded it with two other southern California bands that on first listen seem diametrically opposed - the Beach Boys and Doors. By blending Brian Wilson's rich harmonies and sunny pop with Jim Morrison's jaded hedonism, the Eagles were able to create their very own aesthetic, as all-American as trans fats and oil slicks.

After the blockbusting success of One Of These Nights, former James Gang outlaw, Joe Walsh, hopped aboard their good yacht of excess and in December 1976 they released their magnum opus: Hotel California. Shortly before its release Henley told the British magazine ZigZag:
“This is a concept album, but it’s not set in the old West, the cowboy thing, you know. It’s more urban this time ... It’s our bicentennial year, you know, the country is 200 years old, so we figured since we are the Eagles, and the eagle is our national symbol, that we were obliged to make some kind of a little bicentennial statement using California as a microcosm of the whole United States, or the whole world, if you will, and to try to wake people up and say, ‘we’ve been okay so far, for 200 years, but we’re gonna have to change if we’re gonna continue to be around’.”

Don Felder first introduced the track to the band as an instrumental and it got dubbed “Mexican Reggae” before Henley and Frey added the lyrics and some finishing touches. It has since become one of most universally recognizable songs in the world with Rolling Stone placing it at No 49 in its list of the “500 Greatest Songs Of All Time,” between Jimi Hendrix’s "All Along The Watchtower" (No 48) and Smokey Robinson’s "The Tracks Of My Tears" (No 50).

With their seventh studio album, Long Road Out Of Eden, the Eagles proved they still have the ability to blend MOR rock with lyrical themes that confront contemporary issues, such as the disillusionment of the Bush years, while keeping it all about the money - in this case, a "Strategic Marketing Partnership with Wal-Mart".

The Eagles are playing the Hong Kong Convention Centre, March 11, 2011. Tix go from HK$588 (CAD$77) to HK$2088 (CAD$275).

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Prague: Charles Bridge, Early Morn

Charles Bridge in the early morn
Just after a hailstorm
The clouds unleashed and on their way
From Letna to Vinohrady

You're as beautiful as the day we met
In that mountain town I'll never forget
The way the snow falls and the onsen steams
It's a floating world, we are as we dream

What brought us here, I'll never know
It's the same force that makes the river flow
Statues stand like wilting shadows
In their hands they hold buckets of rainbows
Last week was Yuko's birthday, but rather than just limit it to one day, we like to celebrate a "birthday week". After being together for a few years, it gets harder and harder to come up with an original gift. So this year I wrote the song, "Charles Bridge, Early Morn", and commissioned a painting from Steve Meyers, an old high school friend from White Rock. It's from a photo of Yuko on our last morning in Prague this past summer.

There had just been a weird mid-summer hailstorm that week and the air was still damp and chilly. We'd woken up at 6 am so we could enjoy the scene without the tourist hoards and we weren't disappointed. Yuko snapped a few photos of me playing guitar and then I passed it her. She struck some poses and then spontaneously leapt up in the air. Now it's in our living room, a family heirloom from our journey through the floating world.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Tibet: "Sky Burial"

I recently received some very good news - my poem, "Sky Burial" came second in This Magazine's Great Canadian Literary Hunt 2010!

Sky Burial
The path behind Ganden
cuts through a clutch
of wild flowers, continues
beneath a flutter of prayer
flags and rises to the crown
of a hill. We walk towards
a large, flat stone where
the body was divided
from itself. Instruments lie
scattered like a toolbox emptied
in a slaughterhouse: rusted
machetes, axes, a blood-stained
rope. To the side a fire pit
cradles jigsaw pieces of charred
bone in its ashen basket: a skull
plate, a jaw missing teeth, broken
chunks of spine. Ochre stained
tsampa, soaked with blood, is left
for the vultures to clean. Beyond
this cutting board the valley rolls
out its tongue, licks the sky blue.
A gust of wind tosses up a maroon
coloured cloth, spins it in the air
like a monk rising as the birds circle
above. On the drive back to Lhasa
we pass a lamb still breathing,
its eyes flaring as blood
spills from its mouth.

The poem is based on a trip Yuko and I took to the Ganden Monastery, about an hour's drive outside of Lhasa, Tibet. Ganden, meaning "joyful paradise", was once a huge university that was home to 3,300 monks. It was desecrated and razed before and during the Cultural Revolution. It was nothing more than a blackened shell until the early 1990s when the Chinese authorities allowed restoration work to begin. Today, much of it has been rebuilt. Rather than apologize for past atrocities, it seems the Chinese authorities have allowed such projects to go ahead to make up for the damage once inflicted.

Ganden straddles Wangbur mountain and overlooks a sprawling valley. Dating from 1409, it has been a centre for the "yellow hat" Buddhist sect and its founder, Tsongkapa. It's of significance to the current Dalai Lama, who originates from the same sect. Tensions have erupted within the past few years between the Dalai Lama and a small group of monks at Ganden. The Dalai Lama issued a decree banning the worship of a controversial figure here, and some monks refused to accept it. Small clashes have broken out.

Our guide tried to discourage us from visiting but eventually agreed after saying some prayers to protect himself from any bad karma. Once at the top, we began walking the kora with stunning views of the surrounding hills and valleys. A kora is a core ritual for Tibetans that involves a clockwise circumambulation around a holy site or sacred object. Believed to bestow blessings on those who complete it, most monasteries have one. It includes prayer wheels and colourful flags known as "wind horses", which most Tibetans believe deliver prayers across the sky to the gods.

Ganden is one of the few sites to hold sky burials, a Tibetan ritual for disposing of the dead. Tibetan Buddhists believe the material body represents nothing at death and that all meaning resides in the soul. A sky burial entails cutting the body into pieces and burning the bones. No ceremonies were planned for the day we visited, but a large flat stone and tools stained with blood suggested that one took place within the last day or two. As we gathered at the site, vultures were circling overhead.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

"So Much To Tell You": Aung San Suu Kyi Freed

A Young Suu Kyi
Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has been freed from house arrest, but the real test of her freedom will be whether the junta allows her to travel around the country meeting with her supporters. She's been locked up for 15 of the last 21 years and has been released twice before already. She could easily be detained again if the junta feels threatened, regardless of their expressed goodwill.

But for now, the mood is one of rejoicing. She greeted a throng of supporters last night when she was officially freed and then delivered an impassioned speech today encouraging them. “Democracy is when the people keep a government in check,” she said. “I will accept the people keeping me in check.” As one woman said, “I’m happier than if I won the lottery. But this is just the beginning, not the end. The political prisoners are still in jail. Everyone needs to be released!”

Kyaiktiyo Paya
When Yuko and I traveled there in 2008, it was just months after the "Saffron Revolution" that had brought thousands of monks into the streets to protest the country's brutal military regime. Deciding whether or not to visit Myanmar/Burma, a nation of over 50 million, wasn't easy. Suu Kyi has recommended tourists stay away until "genuine progress towards democratization" is made, while others such as Thant Myint-U, an historian and grandson of former United Nations Secretary General U Thant, have argued for engagement.

Top of Mount Popa
I made my decision after befriending a Burmese student in Hong Kong who had been confined and tortured by the regime. He urged me to go, meet the people and report back about his country. I knew to avoid any organized tours and meet the locals to prevent our money going directly to the junta.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

A Fortune Of Tears: Remembrance Day

About your easy heads my prayers
I said with syllables of clay.
"What gift," I asked, "shall I bring now
Before I weep and walk away?"

Take, they replied, the oak and laurel.
Take our fortune of tears and live
Like a spendthrift lover. All we ask
Is the one gift you cannot give.

- from At The British War Cemetery, Bayeux, by Charles Causley
The photo above is of my Aunt Pat and Uncle Jack Gallagher (brother & sister). Pat served with WAVE (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service); Jack with the Canadian Scottish Regiment. He landed at Juno Beach, D-Day, June 1944. Both survived World War II and Jack is living in West Vancouver. Pat passed away in 2007.

Back in the summer of 2004, the 60th anniversary of D-Day, I travelled to Bayeux in Normandy, home of the famous Tapestry and a beautiful town in itself. There were streamers and flags hanging from the wires, the cider was flowing and the people were geniunely friendly, even moreso after learning I was Canadian.

I rented a bike to ride out to the coast and visit the Juno Beach Centre, about 25 kilometers away at Courseulles-sur-Mer. It was a gorgeous day and as the wheat fields and farm houses flew by I felt like I'd fallen into the middle of a Van Gogh painting.

Then disaster struck. My back tire popped. I was about 10 kms outside of Bayeux and had no choice but to push my sorry rental all the way back to the shop.

I grabbed a cab and rolled down the window to catch the breeze like a slobbering dog as we made our way to the coast. The Juno Centre had opened the previous year in 2003 and was empty except for the young Canadian woman from Halifax looking after the place. It's compact, but serves the purpose of housing artifacts from the period like the Allons-y Canadiens! poster above, and of keeping the memory alive of those soldiers who perished or were wounded in the D-Day operations.

I stepped back outside and took in the idyllic scene - kites, picnics, sunbathers. While gazing out across the water I thought of my uncle and his fellow soldiers floating out there in grey-metal gunships about to be flung into the maw of an unknowable terror. It was almost impossible to imagine the blood and carnage that had once ripped open this coastline. But that's the point, I thought. Through their sacrifice they had bequeathed peace from war, communion from animus and life from death just so we could enjoy such fine summer days.

I'm still moved when I think about it - they gave so much, a "fortune of tears", as the British poet Charles Causley put it. This Remembrance Day I give thanks to my Aunt Pat, Uncle Jack and to everyone who serves in whatever capacity and vow to live "like a spendthrift lover", cherishing the pulse of each dying day.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Blood Meridian: A Scorched Prophecy

What do you get when you cross Sam Peckinpah with Samuel Beckett and Federico Fellini? Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West. It's a fantastic novel filled with scorching violence and sinister doom, punched through with carnavalesque visions straight out of Ezekiel. But rather than being set in ancient Babylon, it takes place in the west Texas borderland of the 19th century.

While Blood Meridian has been long regarded as a quintessential American novel, it shares much in common with a Canadian landmark - Michael Ondaatje's The Collected Works Of Billy The Kid. The graphic violence and strangled diction mirrors the savagery at the cold heart of both works.

This is brutal territory, a mindscape where all superficiality and worthless sentimentality is obliterated. All that remains is primordial instinct and cunning, animal-like and ruthless. Blood Meridian is a harrowing novel, a genuine masterwork that redeems itself through the cascading lyricism of McCarthy's prose, at times as scorching as a river of fire, but also revelatory if you can withstand it.