Saturday, April 30, 2011

Fuji-san (富士山): The Heart Of Japan

After driving from the Izu Peninsula, we arrived at Lake Yamanaka, the largest of the five lakes surrounding Mount Fuji.

Our hotel room had a perfect view of Fuji and its ever-changing moods...

Monday, April 25, 2011

Japan: Izu Getaway

We arrived in Ito on the Izu Peninsula, checked into our ryokan and immediately disappeared into the steam of our own private onsen. It was a perfect antidote to Hong Kong's peripatetic frenzy and the ultimate start to my first Japanese visit in over five years.

Izu is about 100 kms south of Tokyo in Shizuoka Prefecture...

The Pacific currents keep the climate mild and temperate and the sakura was in full bloom...

We stopped along the way to Shimoda in Imaihama and enjoyed a rotenburo in the rain...

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

J'Accuse: France Bans The Niqāb

"The worst are full of passionate intensity" - W.B. Yeats
France has banned the niqāb and burqa, the garments worn by Muslim women that cover their faces. A few reasons are being bandied about and one (surprise!) has to do with security. No one knows exactly what's underneath - could be a Frank Zappa or something even worse. Another insists the law protects women from being forced to wear the niqāb against their will. Both reasons are ludicrous. The law subjugates women because it takes away their right to choose for themselves. I don't deny there are women who are forced to wear it, but that shouldn't justify the state prohibiting others a right to freely choose.

The French ban is a feeble attempt by Nicolas Sarkozy's anemic government to win support from the wacko fringe on the right. They and their supporters have succeeded in denying a woman the freedom to choose. The issue is pretty simple - if a woman wants to wear it, she should be allowed in a free society to do so. As a man, I'm pro-choice, not "pro-abortion" or "pro-niqāb", as some fools would have it. Anything less is misogyny. Below is an interesting discussion between Mona Eltahawy - whom I greatly respect, but believe is wrong on this issue - and Heba Ahmed:

Sunday, April 17, 2011

What Life Requires: David Foster Wallace

"Truth is about life before death"
David Foster Wallace has just released a new novel, The Pale King, two and half years after his suicide. Much credit goes to his editor, Michael Pietsch, for piecing it together from formal drafts and abandoned scraps that Wallace left lying around his studio in Claremont, California. I haven't read it, but by all accounts it succeeds in making boredom exciting and extending his pursuit of a meaningful existence in the face of oppressive monotony.

The longer we live without Wallace, the more his absence is felt. He appears as the singular embodiment of the post-boomer generation aesthetic, the voice of quirk, complexity and geek. He resonates like a hybrid of Chandler Bing and Franz Kafka. In 2006, he told Michael Silverblatt:
"I may have a kind of pessimistic view of it, but it seems to me that the situation, the environment which nervous systems receive these communications [novels] is vastly more complicated, difficult, cynical and over-hyped than it used to be..."
Wallace felt acutely that our epoch was far more complex than others. He set out to match it by composing works of Wittgenstein-inspired prose that left his contemporaries tangled in his accordion sentences and infinite subtexts.

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” - Wittgenstein
In his short-story collection, Girl With Curious Hair, Wallace illuminates the struggle to transcend the soul-crushing systems that permeate our culture. As he said in his 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, "It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive, day in and day out." In the story, "Luckily the Account Representative Knew CPR," it takes a heart attack to blast away the shackles that keep two executives bound to their isolated complacency.
"Bent to what two lives required, below everything, he called for help again and again."
The tragedy is that Wallace couldn't sustain his own consciousness and do what life requires to stay alive. Thankfully, his work achieves that and endures.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Orpheus Ascends: Dylan In Hong Kong

"The only thing I knew how to do
Was to keep on keepin’ on like a bird that flew"
*Updated below*

It's a rare privilege to be in the presence of a legendary artist celebrating his life and work the way Bob Dylan was doing last night in Hong Kong. It's even rarer to be center-front swaying with the one you love to "Forever Young" while he and his band of bruised renegades lay down the law:
May your heart always be joyful
May your song always be sung
May you stay, forever young
The last time Bob played here in 1994 he closed with "Blowin' In The Wind." He didn't even play it last night, despite the banshee screaming for it at stage right. Bob can't please them all, it's true, and his voice isn't everyone's cup of meat, but who cares? It's Bob fucking China! Well, technically the SAR, but that doesn't sound quite as novel. Lucky for us, he wasn't resting on any laurels. He gave an inspiring performance, smiling like a prancing dandy behind his keyboard, while his band smoldered or blazed through unexpected nuggets like "Señor (Tales Of Yankee Power)" and "Blind Willie McTell."

I've seen Bob play four times before and this was by far the best. He was having a great time reveling in the moment - sweat dripping from his face and hair - before 3000-plus fans on the cusp of his 70th year. At times it was like watching your uncle doing the old soft-shoe in front of the mirror or a master poet caressing the contours of a familiar lyric:
Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood
With his memories in a trunk
Passed this way an hour ago
With his friend, a jealous monk
He looked so immaculately frightful
As he bummed a cigarette
Then he went off sniffing drainpipes
And reciting the alphabet
(via SCMP)
His band - Tony Garnier on bass, George Recile on drums, Stu Kimball on rhythm guitar, Donnie Herron on banjo, electric mandolin, pedal steel, lap steel, and Charlie Sexton on lead guitar - were white hot, nailing the tightest rhythm and sweetest flourishes to the good ship Bob. Sexton played at least six different guitars, my favourite being the Gretsch White Falcon, as fat as a Cadillac, that he pulled out for "Highway 61 Revisited." At the end of the gig, Bob gathered the band around him as a farewell and disappeared, leaving his golden Oscar behind to watch over the hallowed stage as we reluctantly drifted for the exits. Yup, it was that good...AND he played over half of Highway 61 Revisited, too.

Set List
1. Change My Way Of Thinking
2. Señor (Tales Of Yankee Power)
3. Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues
4. Tangled Up In Blue
5. Honest With You
6. Simple Twist Of Fate
7. Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum
8. Blind Willie McTell
9. Jolene
10. Desolation Row
11. Highway 61 Revisited
12. Spirit On The Water
13. My Wife's Home Town
14. Thunder On The Mountain
15. Ballad Of A Thin Man


16. Like A Rolling Stone
17. Forever Young


I have to correct the South China Morning Posts' erroneous review posted on Expecting Rain. Bob played 17 songs, not 18 and he didn't sing all 10 verses of "Desolation Row" - he sang 5: #1, #2, #5, #6 & #10. And he DEFINITELY didn't do any "scatting."

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Bob Dylan: Piano Man

"I’m here to create the new imperial empire
I’m going to do whatever circumstances require" - Honest With Me
Tomorrow night, Bob Dylan, or "Baobo Dilun" (鲍勃迪伦) as the Chinese say, will be playing Hong Kong for the second time in his career. His current Asian tour has been inspiring rapturous reviews from Beijing to Ho Chi Minh City, but also an undercurrent of criticism from the likes of Human Rights Watch and the New York Times' Maureen Dowd. As Gawker's Max Read put it, they're mad that Bob didn’t overthrow the Chinese government. It's ridiculous and much of it is based on unsubstantiated reports that authorities vetted his playlist, even going so far as censoring such subversive manifestos as "Blowin' In The Wind" and "The Times They Are A-Changin'."

(via CNN)
I don't know about any of that, but I do know he got away with this:
Now you see this one-eyed midget shouting the word "NOW!"
And you say, "For what reason?"
And he says, "How?"
And you say, "What does this mean?"
And he screams back, "You're a cow!
Give me some milk or else go home!"
I also know he's been playing more piano than guitar, which is a very good sign. Bob can play - he's got chops and soul:

Then there's this chestnut from Slow Train Coming, "When He Returns" (via Godtube):

Bob's playing two nights, April 12-13 at the Star Hall in Kowloon Bay. Wouldn't miss it for all for all the farms in Cuba.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Love The Future: Ai Weiwei

"I really don't dare believe that in this society, even love for the future can disappear" - anonymous Internet post
Since Ai Weiwei was detained on April 3rd, his name has been banned, deleted, erased, wacked, clubbed - whatever - by the Internet police in a futile attempt to prevent people from typing what everyone already knows. As a result, netizens have adapted and are using different variants of his name. Ai Weiwei - 艾未未 - can be read/pronounced as "ai weilai" or "love the future" and several people have been using it. It's a beautiful turn of phrase that suggests Ai is the future of China, regardless of what the government might wish.

Above is a screenshot of the statement that appeared briefly on the state news agency, Xinhua, before it was deleted today. He's being investigated for "suspected economic crimes," or corruption. On April 6th, an article in the state-run Global Times threatened that Ai "will pay a price" without specifying for what exactly. It reads like a ransom note from a gang of desperate thugs.

Ai with one of his "crimes" - a name list of the more than 5,000 children who perished in the May 12, 2008 Sichuan Earthquake
After the Sichuan Earthquake, Ai helped launch a "Citizens' Investigation" that uncovered evidence of a corruption scandal involving shoddy construction of what became known as "tofu" schools. In August 2009, while trying to testify for his friend, Tan Zuoren, he was attacked by police in his Chengdu hotel room in the middle of the night. A month later in Munich, he underwent emergency brain surgery to stop internal bleeding. From October 2009 to January 2010, his Munich exhibition, "So Sorry," included an installation made up of 9000 children's backpacks spelling out, "She lived happily for seven years in this world," a quote from a mother whose child died in the earthquake. Ai has also tweeted the names of the victims on their birthdays, using the hashtag #512birthday.

The government is saying Ai's disappearance has "nothing to do with human rights or freedom of expression." If that's so, then the deaths of the children had nothing to do with an earthquake and everything to do with government corruption.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Words Maketh Murder: England Shakes

"Take me back to beautiful England
And the grey, damp filthiness of ages"
Polly Jean Harvey has done her research, dug up the past and uncovered some chilling artifacts. With her latest, Let England Shake, the bones of the dead have been given breath and their tongues drip with ghoulish tales. Harvey has sifted through the mud and blood of her native land and its soil can be heard beneath the ghostly strums of her new weapon of choice - the autoharp.

(Photo by Cat Stevens)
This is cadaver music played by a band of harpies and it's harrowing. That isn't a criticism, but a compliment about Harvey's protean ability to shape-shift from an indie queen into a powerful evoker of dangerous memory. Let England Shake's core trio - John Parish, Mick Harvey, and PJ - sound like Macbeth's three "wyrd" sisters grasping for vision amid all the "bubble, bubble toil and trouble" of our violent epoch. And like the wars England and the U.S. so effortlessly pursue, Let England Shake is both sinister and demonic, conjuring the slaughter of the battlefield with vespertine horror.

"The Nightmare Life-in-Death was she,
Who thicks man's blood with cold " - S.T. Coleridge
Released in February, the album has been generally well-received with a few notable exceptions, specifically New Yorker pop critic, Sasha Frere-Jones. In his review, he implies that Harvey is out of her depth, or more precisely, in the wrong waters:
"But the album’s mood is impossible to characterize, because there are so many voices and attempts to find a comfortable position."
Frere-Jones' inability to place the music is understandable. Its precedents aren't to be found anywhere in pop and lie elsewhere in the folk traditions of John Jacob Niles and in one of England's finest vocalists, June Tabor. But when he goes on to criticize the high register of Harvey's voice ("not a lovely sound") and dismisses “The Glorious Land" as a "thunderously obvious protest song" he loses credibility:
"How is our glorious country ploughed?
Not by iron ploughs
Our land is ploughed by tanks and feet, feet marching"
Let England Shake isn't a protest against war any more than Bob Dylan's Blood On The Tracks is a protest against love. Frere-Jones fails to grasp that one role of the artist is to bear witness.

Harvey succeeds in spite of those who believe war and death are passé or that artists should remain silent about the issues of the day. No wonder Frere-Jones longs for Harvey's album from 2000, the inferior Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea.

That said, Harvey can seem too removed from the material, but not because she's out of her depth. As Heather Phares from AllMusic mentions, some of the songs have a cavalier tone that suggests Harvey is toying with her themes rather than committing to them. When the riff to the Four Lads' ridiculously infectious "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" opens the song, "Let England Shake," or when the schoolyard taunts of "The Words That Maketh Murder" chime in to raise the specter of Eddie Cochran ("What if I take my problem to the United Nations?"), the result is a macabre mockery of the young men now hidden "in the dirt and in the the dark places."

It's a tone that teeters on nihilism, but adds to the overall horror of this truly seminal and provocative album. At a time when the entire world has become a literal battlefield, we need artists, now as ever, to speak out and give voice to the victims. Kudos to PJ Harvey for stepping up and delivering a clarion call.