Sunday, August 28, 2011

Ian & Sylvia: Canadiana Duo

Clearing out storage is a pain in the ass until you uncover some rare artifacts that make it all worthwhile. As I was unpacking some boxes that had been stored for over 10 years, I found a little gem - Ian and Sylvia Tyson's self-titled album from 1971. It was released just a year after the classic, Great Speckled Bird, and mines the same country-rock sound that the duo had begun excavating on their 1968 release, Nashville.

Great Speckled Bird
Ian and Sylvia did what only a few other rock or folk musicians were doing in 1968 - they traveled to Nashville to record and embarked on playing a hybrid of country-rock with a Canadian twist. Apart from Bob Dylan and the Band, few others were heading in the same direction with as much flair or aptitude for authentic country. They were ahead of the pack and while there they released some stellar albums that are worth checking out for those with an interest in Canadiana that goes beyond Stompin' Tom and the odd stubby.

The album opens with a David Wiffen tune, "More Often Than Not" that appeared on his Fantasy debut the same year. It also includes the definitive version of "Summer Wages" and Sylvia singing a haunting cover of Bert Jansch's "Needle of Death."

But the absolute kicker for me is "Barney." Ian relates the story of shooting a horse that's got to be one of the most moving and tender ballads written for an animal I've ever heard...and that includes the Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog."


Yesterday morning the snow came at last
The cattle all came down from the hills
Barney, he’s been crippled for quite a long while now
His old legs stiff and bare in the chill
Since coming up from Texas he’s been owned by many
And he’s been rodeoed and knocked all around
So to bury him deep before the ground got to hard
That morning I put Barney down

We walked up the hill through the dead brown grass
Barney, a rifle, and I
And tying him quickly I took aim and I fired
In the hopes he’d feel nothing and die
But with a heart such as he had he clung so to life
Bust his halter and staggered away
He was coughing his blood still fighting to stand
When he pitched foreword and died where he lay

As I drove into town I started to cry
Where no one could see or could care
The sadness cut through me as I stared through my tears
And rush hours on coming there
I wept for my seasons of youth past and done
And for things that I thought I forgot
But mostly I cried for an honest brown horse
Who gave me much more than he got

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A Man You Won't Meet Everyday: Jack Layton

"My friends, watch out for the little fellow with an idea." - Tommy Douglas
Canada is mourning a Prime Minister that should have been - Jack Layton, the greatest politician our country has seen since Tommy Douglas. The comparisons have been frequently made and will continue for a long time to come. Both were NDP leaders (Social Democrats) of Anglo dissent who loved their work and approached it as they did life; as optimists who believed in the collective will of people to change the world for the better.

(Jack Layton & Olivia Chow, 1997)
Most people do their work; Jack Layton loved his. And it showed. As with those rare individuals who relish what they do, Layton attracted others to his side and inspired their loyalty. That's what he did until last Monday when he passed away from cancer at the age of 61.

Yuko and I have just returned to Canada from living abroad for over 10 years and his passing is my very first genuine sorrow back home. I was looking forward to watching Jack in action, participating in his project to better the world.

I was too young to see Tommy Douglas in his prime so my recollections are culled from old archived news reels and his written words. Above all, what stands out is his voice and his undeniable integrity. With Jack I recognized the same timbre, the same dignity minus pretense or overwrought gravitas. It's the same quality of sincerity I recognize in the music of Stan Rogers and Leonard Cohen, in the poetry of Al Purdy or Susan Musgrave and in the paintings of Emily Carr or Lawren Harris. As a Canadian, I recognize this uniqueness as intrinsically belonging to us.

(Lawren Harris, "North Shore, Lake Superior," 1926)
An American or a Spaniard might hear or see something completely different and attach their own cultural attribute to it, but it will always remain originally from Canada. Sure, it's white, Anglo-Canada but that doesn't diminish its power for me.

(Tommy Douglas, 1968)
My own spiritual beliefs are agnostic but they bend towards belief in a just universe. I see karma at the centre, but as I grow older I also recognize something larger, perhaps grace, also at work. Grace, as Bono sang, "finds goodness in everything." It's faith, not only that my good or bad deeds will be returned, but that something beyond my control can also deliver me into the hands of joy. It's as simple and as plain as what Jack wrote in his last letter to Canadians:
"My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world."
It's not only there in the substance, but also in that tender phrase, "My friends." That's grace - the faith that a stranger is not really one at all, but is a soon-to-be friend. And as Tommy Douglas said:
"Courage, my friends; 'tis not too late to build a better world."
(Greg Perry)
Thanks, Jack, for your courage and grace...

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Cappadocia: Turkish Delight

(Photos by Yewco)
Deep in the heart of the Turkish region of Cappadocia is the town of Göreme, a wonderland that seems conjured from the elements for hobbits, wizards and fairies.

The phantasmagoria of upside-down ice cream cones and minarets known as "fairy chimneys" is the result of volcanic ash being accumulated and eroded for thousands of years.

We entered Turkey from Syria in the southeast and were slowly making our way to Istanbul. Our "cave hotel" was built right into one of the fairy chimneys. It was so cool to bed down at the end of the day like a couple of troglodytes in our own little hole in the wall (literally).

After exploring the underground caves and ascending the towering pillars we chose to go a little higher - a dawn ride in a hot air balloon.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Dialect Of The Heart: Jack Gilbert

"What we feel most has / no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses, and birds." ~ "The Forgotten Dialect Of The Heart," Jack Gilbert
This week was my birthday, or "birthweek" as we say in our home, and I'm happy to report I'm still following the songlines of dreamtime. When you're young and naive, dreams flare easily into life and often continue giving off heat well after life cools. Then you hit your late thirties or forties only to find you've been running on the fumes of your twenties. Or worse; you've turned off the engine.

Kullilla Art
I've got a sackful of dreamtime and I'm relocating back to Canada after a decade of living abroad. What else could I ask for? (Okay, maybe that 1964 Plymouth Valiant convertible I saw at White Rock beach the other day, but I digress). Something else I'm doing is reveling in the poetry of Jack Gilbert.
The Forgotten Dialect Of The Heart

How astonishing it is that language can almost mean,
and frightening that it does not quite. Love, we say,
God, we say, Rome and Michiko, we write, and the words
get it all wrong. We say bread and it means according
to which nation. French has no word for home,
and we have no word for strict pleasure. A people
in northern India is dying out because their ancient
tongue has no words for endearment. I dream of lost
vocabularies that might express some of what
we no longer can. Maybe the Etruscan texts would
finally explain why the couples on their tombs
are smiling. And maybe not. When the thousands
of mysterious Sumerian tablets were translated,
they seemed to be business records. But what if they
are poems or psalms? My joy is the same as twelve
Ethiopian goats standing silent in the morning light.
O Lord, thou art slabs of salt and ingots of copper,
as grand as ripe barley lithe under the wind's labor.
Her breasts are six white oxen loaded with bolts
of long-fibered Egyptian cotton. My love is a hundred
pitchers of honey. Shiploads of thuya are what
my body wants to say to your body. Giraffes are this
desire in the dark. Perhaps the spiral Minoan script
is not laguage but a map. What we feel most has
no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses, and birds.

I came back from the funeral and crawled
around the apartment, crying hard,
searching for my wife’s hair.
For two months got them from the drain,
from the vacuum cleaner, under the refrigerator,
and off the clothes in the closet.
But after other Japanese women came,
there was no way to be sure which were
hers, and I stopped. A year later,
repotting Michiko’s avocado, I find
a long black hair tangled in the dirt.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Timeless Serenade: Okinawa

Apart from the ricocheting wail of a U.S. army helicopter, the air is full of the melodic clucking of a sanshin, the Okinawan three-stringed guitar.

My wife and I are sitting in a roadside restaurant somewhere between the cities of Naha and Nago on the main island of Okinawa. We've just ordered a dish of umi-budo-don, a specialty consisting of sea-grapes, sea urchin and red fish eggs. The walls, painted the day-glow colors of a neon sunset, give off the cheesy vibe of a black velvet painting. I cross my fingers and hope the decor isn't a reflection of the food.

When the dish finally arrives all thoughts of tropical kitsch are soon forgotten. Our meal, culled from the indigo waters off the coast, is delicious. We may have come to Okinawa for the sun and diving, but we've also discovered a few keys to longevity: raw fish guts and a green, bitter gourd called goya. The Uchinanchu (local dialect for native Okinawans) have the longest life expectancy of anyone on the planet -- 86 for women and 78 for men -- and diet is one of the main contributing factors.

Another factor is the Okinawan lifestyle. "Okinawa time," the islander's casual relationship to the clock, set the Uchinanchu far apart from mainland Japanese. Nan kuru naisa, (don't worry, be happy) is the local creed and clocks rarely agree with one another.

The Okinawan islands stretch over 1,000 kms from Kyushu, the largest southern island of Japan, to Taiwan. As a result, the Uchinanchu share more in common with the Taiwanese and Filipinos than with mainland Japanese. Once an independent nation known as the Ryukyu Kingdom, Japan officially renamed the islands Okinawa Prefecture following the Meiji restoration in 1879.

Shurijo, the 13th century-era royal castle of the Ryukyu Kingdom, was completely destroyed in 1945 during the "Battle of Okinawa," also known as the "typhoon of steel." It has since been rebuilt and is a source of local pride.

While diving off Zamami Island, Miyazato-san, the owner of our hotel and diving buddy, grabs hold of a porcupine puffer fish. It flares up like a prickly volleyball in self defense and swims away into the lucid blue distance of the warm sea.

On our last night while walking down Kokusai Dori (International Street) in Naha, a local troupe of traditional Okinawan dancers known as Eisa suddenly emerge from traffic. They pull up in two small flat-bed trucks waving their taiko drums and begin a free performance in the parking lot of a convenience store. Two chondara clowns run around exciting the audience while the entourage plays on. After 20 minutes they pack up as quickly as they'd arrived and speed off.

Soon we'll depart from Okinawa and reluctantly adjust our watches to prepare for a slow transition back to "real time".

Friday, August 05, 2011

Light In The Dark: Herzog Underground

"These fragments I have shored against my ruins" - T.S. Eliot, "The Waste Land"
There's an old adage - it's not the artist, but the spirit that moves through the artist who creates. Werner Herzog's latest film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, explores the invisible hand at work in the magnificent Chauvet Cave rock paintings recently discovered in southern France. Painted over 25,000 years ago, the paintings are fragments pointing to a larger whole - our own collective being. As Herzog asks, "Is this their heartbeat or ours?"

Herzog was given unprecedented access to the cave, but was only allowed to bring a crew of four including himself. His choice to use 3D was ingenious - not only is it trendy, but it brings the texture of the paintings alive as if they'd just been freshly baked.

One scientist believes the people who painted the rocks didn't recognize any boundaries between the spiritual and conscious worlds or between creatures like bisons or humans. As Herzog says, they also weren't trapped within history and enjoyed more freedom of thought than us so-called "moderns". Once again, Herzog tackles the impossible and dresses it in rare and provocative attire - another great film by the maestro.