Saturday, December 27, 2014

Acoustic Guitar Journal #7: Melody Matters

I've been making slow but steady progress with my voice to the point that the overall improvement is now pretty clear. In fact, it got to where I wasn't totally afraid of playing one of the cammed videos I use to hear what I sound like for my husband. I had to know if I was crazy or if I was really getting better. (Luckily, he is not someone to coddle me). I played one for him, and he agreed that it was okay (something no one has ever said about my singing!). It's not good singing, but the effort and practice is paying off. That's all I need to know to be really happy.

As I'm making this progress, I'm running into several things I have to think about while singing: how I breath, where I project from and to, and restraining myself so I don't over-sing. It's slow going for me to get all this right. However, it's worth it for more reasons that just learning voice. Learning to sing is teaching me about how to effectively write songs. For example, just the other day I had a living case study about why it's important to actively compose the melody line and not wing it by relying on what 'sounds good' with the music. By 'melody' I mean the notes being sung (I may not be using correct terminology).

I had been totally winging my melody lines, not knowing what notes were being sung. I learned what a mistake this is the other morning when I had the house to myself (and was therefore free to practice singing). All morning, I was consistently missing specific notes in the song I was working on. It wasn't a range issue, because the notes were sandwiched in the middle range of the song. Over and over I missed the same two notes, and I could not figure out why. As I played around finding the specific notes on the guitar so I could pitch my voice to them and solve the problem, I realized that neither of the two notes I was missing were part of the chords I was playing while they were to be sung. In fact, each was a half step off from the closest note in the chord. The problem was that I had no guide for my voice and - worse - the chord was guiding me away from the correct note!

The solution, fortunately, was simple. I adjusted the chords to match the melody line. Then I went through the melody of the whole song to make sure it was aligned with the music. I performed the song again was like a switch had been thrown. I could easily sync up to the vibrations in the body of the guitar and hit my notes. Even better, not falling out of tune made it easier to get through the entire song smoothly.

After the initial burst of triumph, I felt kind of dumb for not figuring this out sooner. I mean, wow, yeah, how surprising is it that the music should match the melody line? Who would've thought? It seems so obvious now, but then part of the fun in learning is figuring things out.

Another plus is that by adapting the chords to fit the melody line, I ended up shifting towards less commonly used chords. This added some interesting color to the song and perhaps made it sound a bit more distinctive. I'm sure this is going to help me write better music in the future, as my composition of melody is a bit more intuitive and less constrained by ideas of chords and structure. If I sing it and it works, then it's the melody. By letting the melody more directly influence the music, I should end up with far more interesting songs. 

Friday, December 26, 2014

Anais Nin - "A Spy in the House of Love"

I know very little about Anais Nin other than her fame for her journals, that her life involved many famous artists and writers, and that a couple collections of her erotica were published posthumously. I also can't remember what drew me to read A Spy in the House of Love when I was in my 20s. Perhaps it had something to do with my having come out a few years before and, being in the city, my first feelings of freedom related to this. The only other book of hers I've read is Delta of Venus, and I also saw Bells of Atlantis, a short experimental film from the fifties, directed by her husband, in which she reads one of her poems.

It's both easy and difficult to believe A Spy in the House of Love was written in 1954. On the one hand, for anyone to openly discuss aspects of sexuality that live well beyond the roles accepted in society (that's openly, not explicitly) without positioning it politically or for obvious media attention is very rare even today. On the other hand, the milieu of the novel is heavily steeped in the post-war bohemian world of blues, jazz, and modern art. Her writing and voice could easily be transplanted to today, but the artistic circle she moves in lacks the tepid angst or bloated self-consciousness of today's artiste.

I've come back this novel (or novella, perhaps?) several times over my life, as I never feel I fully grasp what Nin is getting at. Certainly there are themes of identity, but there is also an aspect of perception and how we view ourselves - even analyze ourselves - that is unique in modern literature I have read. Further, Nin seems to position Sabina as living 'life as art' (or, more accurately, 'sexual life as art') and this is woven into both the analysis of identity as well as the fevered flights of her sexual 'adventures'. Each time I come back to the novel I find something very different.

This time around, in the last sections of the book, the description of Jay's paintings at the night club are what resonated for me. It crystallized an idea developed throughout the novel that we are all made up of multiple versions of ourselves, created by our experiences. No one version can be selected to represent us, yet it's hard to pin down who we are without reference to all of them. Her view may possibly apply most (or mostly) to artists or creative people, who interact with the world in a specific way in the process of creation.

In Sabina's case, the multiple versions come to be through her experiences with her lovers. There are different aspects of herself that come to the surface with each one. Taking this to a logical extreme, it speaks to the importance of sexual identity and sexual exploration in truly understanding ourselves. More broadly, it suggests a way of looking at all our interpersonal relationships - sexual or otherwise. We show a different facet of ourselves to different people based on who they are and what they mean to us. This isn't a facade or a pretense; it's a legitimate but limited part of ourselves. A shard of us. Sabina's quest is to find a way to express her totality with one person or to be able to continually express all parts of herself (which requires more than one lover). It's an interesting way of depicting identity and interpersonal relations.

That said, the novel is kaleidoscopic enough to allow for many avenues of thought partially because it's not clear whether Nin has fully resolved her ideas or if she is still figuring them out as she's writing. Stylistically, the novel is inviting and crisp, barring one section with heavy-handed Freudisms and Nin becoming too 'talky' as a narrator in the last quarter of the novel. Otherwise, A Spy in the House of Love is a well-conceived, fascinating, and unique addition to a collection of modern literature. Temporally it fits with few of the modern writers I've covered on Zen Throw Down (e.g., Gide, Camus, Sartre), but intellectually it's definitely in the same vein. Written in the fifties, I classify it as part of a 'last gasp' of modernism before the 'idealism' of the Baby Boomers and 60's counterculture banged its rattle on the high chair.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Joys of Running: A Potential Prelude

Born to run?
For a long time, I had this fantasy of doing a triathlon someday. The idea is attractive because - aside from being a really great 'I did it!" moment - it would provide a goal to direct my rather hit and run relationship with fitness. I've tried lots of things to keep active and stay in shape, but I find I get bored pretty easily and need to move on often. Martial arts was the one exception, but it required a commitment that my work schedule (and now work commute) makes difficult.

Admittedly, another reason is that a triathlon seems tantalizingly within my reach. I've been biking for years, so that part's easy. While swimming in fresh water is more demanding than salt water, I've done enough of the latter to reasonably believe I could squeeze out a mile or half mile without tons of training. The only question mark is the running; I never, ever jog. Further, when I observe joggers braving winter from the warmth of my car, I think: "Crazy!!!" This is northern Illinois, after all.

However, many of my friends do 5K runs and all other kinds of runs. Their dedication made me think there must be some fun in it. This, along with the lure of the triathlon calling to me like a distant song of glory (or perhaps beguiling me like a siren song), finally got to me. As often happens, one day I just made up my mind: I'm doing this. When I make up my mind like that, obstacles cease to exist. Starting in winter? Who cares, I can bundle up. The fact I haven't even done treadmill running in over a year? I'll tough it out. When would I fit this in? I'll figure out the details later.

And so three days before Christmas, armed with a 'Couch to 5K' program and a half certainty I was going to hate the whole thing anyway, I went on my first run. My planned course was .8 of a mile, way below Couch to 5K standards. I also planned to use a run-walk-run approach so I could ease into it. Modest goals for sure. 

Sure enough, it was awful! My run-walk-run strategy turned into walk-run-long ass walk-run-walk. Meanwhile, in a delightful jab from Fate, it started to drizzle while I was running. I finished my .8 mile run in a far-from-Olympian 13 minutes. As I unheroically hurled my panting carcass through the imaginary tape at the finish line, my shins were burning, my feet hurt, I was winded, I was cold, and it was impossible to not think: "I'm an out-of-shape old fart". In other words, it wasn't fun in any way, shape, or form. 

But I had made up my mind. So I just didn't think about any of this and went on with my day as if nothing had happened. Two days later - still willing myself to ignore my first run - I forced myself to do a second one. Same course, but the results were much different. I still couldn't run the whole thing, but I was notably less winded. The amount of time I ran as opposed to walked was close to two-thirds of the course (an improvement, I'm embarrassed to admit). I didn't ache either (that day, 24 hours later my right thigh is stiff). Progress!

Am I looking forward to my third run tomorrow? No. But I'll be out there, knowing some driver will pass by me and think: "Crazy!!!

Let's see where this goes!

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Holiday Bash 2014!

As every year, here are pictures from our annual holiday bash. Thanks to everyone who came and made it - as always - a special way to celebrate the season!

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Mumonkan, Koan 30: Baso's "This Very Mind is the Buddha"

Zen Master Baso
Daibai asked Baso, "What is the Buddha?"  Baso answered, "This very mind is the Buddha."

My first reaction was that this wasn't a koan. It's a question and an answer without any riddle or ambiguity. However, as I thought about it, I found myself considering the exchange itself. The question is an odd one to ask, since answers of this kind cannot be given to someone. Certainly not verbally.

If Zen could be transmitted verbally, I suppose this would be the way to do it. However, this answer doesn't give Daibai anything...even though it is correct. What he is asking about - what he seeks - must be found and experienced on one's own, not imparted in this manner.

Taking this line of thought to it's logical conclusion, asking such a question of another person in hope of gaining knowledge or instruction is wrong-minded.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Acoustic Guitar Journal #6: Writing a Musical Bridge

source: Visual Facets Photography
As I'm bringing a few of my songs to a more finished stage, the biggest hurdle is writing a "solo" or musical bridge. It's fine to write verse/chorus/verse/chorus and then end, but this structure can be rather flat emotionally. Sometimes a song just needs a break in the lyrics where the music breaks out. It also works well to do the chorus, go into a musical bridge, and then repeat the chorus before sliding into a final "tie everything up with a pretty bow" verse.

Playing around with this has been a challenge. Since most music I listen to is not solo acoustic guitar, my ear seems  drawn towards sounds I might get from an electric guitar or a piano. It was also immediately apparent that simply replaying the chord progression from verses without words (even if playing is more urgent) doesn't work at all. A song within a song is required. Something a bit different from the verse/chorus chord structure but not so different that it veers off into some other place.

Hitting this point absolutely demanded I work with non-standard chords and explore the fretboard. I've pushed a lot on this already, because I really wanted to finish some of these songs and perhaps use them as practice pieces or tools for training myself to sing. However, I the 7th chords I had been working with weren't very helpful. While these chords vary from the stuff I have used so far in verses (although that's even true as I'm using 7ths a lot more to flavor the main body of my songs), they aren't 'strong' enough to propel a bridge in an emotionally satisfying way. Barre chords were even less helpful since I had to explore through trial and error. (Think the old adage of monkeys on typewriters!)

Of course, it's fun to experiment and just experiment with stuff. However, when you have a song's key and essential chord progression completed, it's no longer fun to play guessing games. At that stage, I know what notes and chords will (and won't) work. I just want to go for it at that point. After laying this all out for my teacher, he suggested something that has been very helpful: an image of the notes on the fretboard. There are tons of these one the internet, and this is the one I've started using. I like it because it isn't cluttered by sharp and flat designations.

This has been useful because, by figuring out what notes are in the chords of my song and what key it is in, I can go straight to those notes on this chart to figure out what chords might work for additional variation. I quickly came up with several chords to drive a bridge in a song I'm tying up. The chart is also useful in building the basic structure of a song too. While playing around with it, I came up with a whole bunch of E chord shapes and was able to start a whole new song as a result. And that's just from one practice session! This is going to help me out a lot.

To augment it, I also downloaded an image of a keyboard with the notes on it. Perhaps it's because I've spent so much time playing piano, but it's easier for me to figure out the key my song is in by looking at where the notes fall on a keyboard. I guess practicing all those scales for warm-up year really paid off, because the patterns are burned in my memory. I mentally lay the notes on this image and remember how I played them in scales, and the key pops into my head. Here's the image I use (although I imagine one without the sharps and flats would be cleaner).

I've only used these tools for a brief time, but they've been a big help in writing a bridge - and more broadly in exploring the fretboard. If I keep at it, perhaps I nail down my first musical bridge.

The other lesson to be learned here is practicing scales is a good thing! Perhaps if I practice them on guitar with the dedication I did on piano, I won't need this piano image to know what notes are where? It's tough to imagine that being the case, however, as there doesn't seem to be any visual cue on a guitar fretboard as anchoring as the pattern of black and white keys on a piano!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

If I Were a Republican...

After the recent midterm election, Republicans had a good deal to celebrate. They increased their hold on the House and took over the Senate. With control of the legislature, they were in an even better position to assert leadership and authority. And we need a good dose of leadership and authority in Congress after suffering through its least productive stint in American history. Additionally, with an approval rating of 7% (less than one-fifth the approval rating of an embattled President), the credibility and esteem of Congress has probably reached an all-time low.

Politically, I'm an independent. However, if I were a Republican, I would look at the midterm results as a huge opportunity! First, since it will take practically no effort to improve over the prior Congress, Republicans are positioned to be perceived as making government work again. Second, having control of the legislature is a chance for the Party to bring forth legislation that will show people the good things it stands for. Third, as Rand Paul succinctly put it "the Republican Party brand sucks". By setting the right legislative priorities, the Party can visibly belie the stereotype of Republicans as white guys who represent big oil over the interests of normal people. Seizing these opportunities would allow the Republican Party to counteract the mountains of negative publicity it has generated over the last decade.

Now, it's only fair to point out that much of that negative publicity has come from one wing of the party: the embarrassing freak show of the proud-to-be-uninformed Tea Party (think Ted Cruz, Christine O'Donnell, Sarah Palin, Marco Rubio, and Michelle Bachmann). While claiming to defy big government and stand-up for fiscal responsibility, years in office have resulted in these demagogues doing little (perhaps even nothing) to contain the former. As for the latter, they have done tremendous damage by leading the US towards a default that resulted in the humiliation of America having its credit rating knocked down (as if we were Argentina or Greece!). While this asylum of crazies has hurt the Party, intelligent Republicans as far back as the Bush administration nurtured them to secure reliable votes while failing to distance themselves from their rantings. So they've pretty much brought this bad rap on themselves.

Things will change in the next two years. With Republican control of the legislature, the Tea Party's bankruptcy will become glaringly apparent to anyone still blind enough not to see it. This is because, despite all their loud rhetoric, the Tea Party has never stood for anything. They are a mass of malcontents who are against stuff. They're great at filibustering, blocking legislation, and throwing rocks at anything anyone proposes, but the movement and its leaders have proven useless in solving any of the problems they continually squawk about. I'm not even sure they have authored and passed a single piece of major legislation (good or bad). Aside from being re-elected and trashing other Republicans, their only activity seems to be repeatedly sending up doomed bills for repealing Obamacare. What this non-existent track record proves is that the Tea Party is great at using scare monger tactics to stir up their base, but that they are incompetent at leading that base into any constructive political or social change.

They've gotten away with this over the years through a smoke screen of blaming Big Government, special interests, and/or - that root of all evil (in their eyes) - President Obama. That isn't going to work in a Republican controlled congress. Keeping up this approach will, for voters, be like ordering a steak at a restaurant, having the chef come out and tell you he doesn't know how to cook, and then being charged anyway. Americans believe Congress is broke, and they want it fixed. If the Republican Party fails to muzzles its Tea Party wack-jobs long enough to accomplish something, it will be impossible to blame anyone but the Republican Party.

"But what about Obama?" is what any Tea Party lemming who might reading this right now is demanding. (As always, they evade issues by pointing fingers at someone/thing). If I were a Republican my answer to this would be that the Party isn't going to capitalize on the midterm success over the next two years if the platform is simply Obama-is-bad. What they need to focus on - now that Congress is in their control - is ensuring that Americans move that 7% approval rating up. If they don't, the Party will lose the power they have just won and will have no chance at all of taking the presidency in 2016. Luckily for them, with such a low bar for Congress to surpass, the midterm election results really are a golden opportunity for the Party to look really good while expending little effort. More importantly, it's a chance to reaffirm to voters what the party is for. 

If I were a Republican strategist, this would have been my plan for Congress during the first six to nine months:

  • A moratorium on public Obama-bashing. Of course, that won't be obeyed. So party leadership should publicly discourage it by publicly calling it: "the kind of partisan politics the American people are tired of hearing from their leaders". Take the high road for a change; it'll be refreshing for the American people.
  • Don't start with 'stereotypically Republican' legislation that rubs big groups of people the wrong way (e.g., anything related to oil, tax-cuts for the wealthy, etc). Instead...
  • The first bills should be chosen to show people Republicans care about issues beyond the ones  that are dear to white CEOs. These bills should be passed with support from Obama, while the Party proclaims its authorship and bipartisan efforts to get government working again. For example: progress on Pacific trade agreements would create jobs, grow our economy, and reinforce American leadership abroad...all issues with broad appeal (and traditional Republican bailiwicks). Or how about getting that stalled Senate Immigration Bill passed? Bottom line: the Party must prove it can wield political power to do something constructive and that matters to large groups of Americans.
  • Nab some warm-fuzzy bonus points with soundbites of Party leadership humorously bitch-slapping Tea Party ass clowns like Ted Cruz. Most Americans view these people as symbols of the problem, so whittle away at them while the opportunity is there

The net effect of these efforts would be:

  • Demonstrate to voters that a Republican congress can make things happen, which is what Americans want after years of filibusters and do-nothing whiners
  • Remind people that Republicans do in fact stand for something - and critically important things at that
  • Show that the Republican Party and its values are not just for white old farts and tycoons who pump oil so they can buy yachts (and elections)
  • Improve the Party's image among people it needs to reach: women, Millennials, and minorities
  • Erode the poisonous influence of the Tea Party with a long-term goal of marginalizing this political dead end

Unfortunately, if I were a Republican, it's clear the golden opportunity of the midterms is being squandered at light speed. The Party has already announced its initial legislative goals: passage of the Keystone Pipeline and repealing Obamacare. I can think of no way the Party could have better confirmed stereotypes held by opponents and the disillusioned center than the selection of these two issues for the front-burner. First, regardless of the value of the Keystone pipeline, its passage will have next to no impact on most Americans as long as gas prices are falling through the floor. A pipeline is also a bad first priority for a party that's repeatedly painted as being in the pocket of big oil. Second, focusing on the repeal of Obamacare is simply foolish since Republicans know they can't override Obama's veto. Since the effort is futile for the foreseeable future, pushing it won't look like convincing leadership to anyone beyond the hardcore Republican base. Even worse, kicking off the Republican Congress with a repeal of health care benefits in any form reinforces a belief among the poor that Republicans don't care about them. Both of these issues represent disastrous choices made worse by there being nothing else on the table.

Obama's challenge to Republicans: "Pass a bill!"
If that doesn't totally squander the opportunity, then the Party's response to Obama's executive order on immigration this past week will. Whether one agrees with Obama's right to issue the executive order or even likes what the order attempts to do is beside the point. As a Republican out to better the party's brand, the smartest course of action would have been to take Obama's "pass a bill" challenge head-on. By passing immigration legislation, the Republicans would visibly prove that their congress will not be 'politics as usual'. It would have been a resounding slap across Obama's face. Instead, Republicans cravenly took the low road:

  • Party members - apparently with Boehner and McConnell's blessing - have threatened to sue President Obama. To anyone outside the hardcore Republican base, going after Obama legally and turning the American government into an episode of the Jerry Springer show is politics at its worst. By taking the low road, Republicans appear to confess that they can't face Obama's "pass a bill" challenge. Bad message to send at this stage. 
  • Representative Randy Forbes (R-Va) claimed the "well is poisoned" for any further action on immigration. Again this just reinforces the belief that Congress (and remember that's now that's 'the Republican Congress' now) is more interested in obstructing Obama than leading America. 
  • Ted Cruz proposes taking no action on the backlog of political appointees from President Obama. 'Tit for tat' might seem like smart strategy to a fraud like Cruz but, since it impairs the functioning of the government we the people pay taxes to operate, it just comes off as petty and counterproductive. Of course, that suits a do-nothing like Cruz just fine. It saves him from having to offer ideas or achieving anything constructive.
  • Senator Tom Coburn (OK) went on record predicting "instances of anarchy - you could see violence" as a result of the executive order. Aside from the kook-value of this humdinger, it's just slimy for a sitting member of the Senate to even indirectly suggest civil unrest as a response to a political pissing match. And it's positively idiotic as strategy when you think that - given the issue - the violence would have to be largely white people rising up against something that benefits Hispanics. Race war, anyone? Nice 'thinking', Senator.
As an independent, the Republican win in the mid-terms was neither a depressing nor a joyous occasion. It was only a transition of power. Of course, given the stagnation of the past few years, I had hoped the change might lead somewhere positive. We certainly could use a functional government given the grave challenges we face as a nation: Ebola, IS, Russian military adventurism, and the increasingly competitive economy of the world.

If I were a Republican, I'd be extremely disappointed by what the Party has done so far. As an American, I'm furious but resigned to another two years of do-nothing government.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Stevie Nicks - 24 Karat Gold (2014)

Given the long breaks between Stevie Nicks' studio albums over the last two decades, I never expected that only three years would pass between In Your Dreams and her next offering, 24 Karat Gold. It's a pleasant surprise, but this also isn't a standard solo album. To come up with the material, Nicks mined her backlog of demos - including songs written as early as the sixties - and properly recorded fourteen of them. A rerecording of "Twisted" and a cover of a Vanessa Carlton song bring the track total to sixteen. That's a generous offering by any definition.

24 Karat Gold's title and the sub-title ("Songs From the Vault") wisely steer us away from going into the album thinking about these songs as what they really are: outtakes. Or actually even worse than that: songs that never made the cut to potentially become outtakes. Nicks wrote almost all of these tracks at least three decades ago, recorded demos for them, shared them with her many musical collaborators...and yet they never once passed muster to be included on any Fleetwood Mac album or on any of her own seven solo albums. They also weren't chosen for b-sides, extra tracks on greatest hits compilations, content on her extras-laden 1998 boxed set Enchanted, or give-aways to dubious movie soundtrack albums. This would seem to not bode well for the quality of the material.

This is especially true since Nicks - who is a brilliant songwriter - has not batted 100 over the course of her career (no one does). Even the most rabid fan can point to misses Nicks has unwisely committed to vinyl. "Paper Doll" from The Chain was a half-baked mess, "Fire Burning" from The Other Side of the Mirror was hopelessly self-indulgent, and "Jane" was the sappy closer to Street Angel. Nicks' worst moment, "When I See You Again" from Tango in the Night, was so dreadful that you wondered what magic spell the Welsh witch cast on Fleetwood Mac to ram it down their throats. If the content of 24 Karat Gold didn't get chosen over these tracks, then how good could any of it be?

The thrill and impressive impact of 24 Karat Gold is in being bowled over by how fantastic these songs are. Every songwriter should dream of having outtakes (or non-starters) of this quality. The sprawling album kicks off with a bang through one of many positively stellar moments: "Starshine". This sassy rocker has a seventies' boogie vibe that easily conjures images of Nicks prancing and cavorting around the stage at the height of her powers. Another stunner is the title track, whose stinging, ominous guitar work is underlined by Nicks intent singing and then softened by the lush harmonies she and her back-up singers weave.

As "24 Karat Gold" closes and you're wondering how on earth it never got recorded, Nicks fires off three more killer tracks in a row. "Belle Fleur" has all Nicks' captivating drama and mysticism flowering within catchy melodies and then slathered over urgent guitar work. Synth-tinged "All the Beautiful Worlds" is a darkly mysterious incantation with a truly satisfying hook. Then, backed only by a piano, Nicks wails out her anguish and fears ("what will become of me?") in the totally relatable lyrics of the heartfelt "Lady". It's a four-track roll that would have been a highlight on any of her classic eighties albums (Bella Donna or The Wild Heart). Other top-notch tracks include twangy rocker "Watch Chain", the likely-about-Lindsey musings of "Hard Advice", gently grooving "Blue Water", and the upbeat pop-rock of "The Dealer".

Tally that up and you have over half of the sixteen-cut album composed of tracks that match her very best recorded material. That's enough to place 24 Karat Gold with Nicks' top recordings. However, in addition, the remaining tracks betray little overt weakness. "She Loves Him Still" and "If You Were My Love" are beautiful ballads, although the latter probably meanders a bit much for a non-Nicks fan. "Mabel Normand" has an edgy sting one doesn't usually hear from Nicks, and "Cathouse Blues" is a light-hearted take on Laura Nyro. In each case, these tracks were clearly not included on her solo albums or anything by Mac for stylistic, not quality, reasons.

There are a few tracks on 24 Karat Gold that suffer by comparison with these other songs. For example, this is third version of "Twisted" Nicks has released and, while it's a great song, the overly Byrds-ish guitar arrangement detracts from the song's 'Stevieness'. Another another hidden gem would have been a better choice. The cover of Vanessa Carlton's "Carousel" is merely competent. Which brings us to "I Don't Care". This is the only song on the album that I haven't warmed to. I love the energy and how it rocks, but it just seems overlong and aimless and I always seem to end up skipping to the next track long before it's over.

Another plus of this album is the way Nicks steps up to the plate vocally. It's unavoidable that listeners will regret Nicks didn't record some of these songs when she was in finer voice, but she certainly doesn't short change the material. Her energy and commitment are admirable and compelling. It makes one wonder if the whirlwind studio sessions that gave birth to this album drove Nicks to record her vocals more like a live performance than a studio recording. That kind of energy certainly shines through.

Beyond the music, 24 Karat Gold is being released in a beautiful format. A large (not quite album-sized) sleeve holds the CD and a thick booklet with the lyrics and a slew of polaroids Nicks took of herself over the years. Apparently, Nicks' work is being shown at a gallery in New York. While I wish she had included the year each song was originally written, the packaging itself is fantastic and well-worth the purchase for a fan. I appreciate the packaging all the more because I remember when buying music involved the visual aspect of album artwork and even the texture of the contents. I miss this quite a bit, and that makes this release extra-special.

As 24 Karat Gold makes its mark, Nicks joins the reunited Fleetwood Mac for a tour and, it seems likely, a new album. It's clear Nicks' late-career renaissance shows no signs of ebbing. "What will become of me?" indeed.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

New Horizons: Mission to Pluto

Photo: Hubble Space Telescope
Faintly recalling the glory of space missions like the Voyagers, Galileo, and Cassini, New Horizons will expand our view of the Solar System. Although the focus of New Horizons is deservedly-demoted-to-ice-dwarf-status Pluto (and I still think there are other targets that would have been more interesting), I have to admit I'm on the edge of my seat now that we're less than a year away from the probe's closest approach on July 14, 2015.

New Horizons will give us a much better view of what this truly distant world looks like, which will be much appreciated given this photo is as good as it gets right now. In addition, we'll see Pluto's five moons: Charon, Nix, Hydra, Styx, and Kerberos. At minimum, Charon is sure to be interesting given its size. However, I'm expecting the other moons to be boring irregular rocks. But you never know. Space missions have a way of surprising us. Who thought tiny Enceladus would end up being so amazing?

After the Pluto fly-by, New Horizons may survey other large Kuiper Belt objects. I'm not sure what's on the docket, but it's exciting that we could end up with some wonderful surprises in terms of what this mission delivers. In terms of deliverables... It will seem very petty and vindictive, but I hope this mission proves that Eris - another ice-dwarf - is actually larger than Pluto. That would hopefully, and permanently, silence the tiresome chorus of people who for some reason have their panties in a knot over Pluto no longer being a planet. While I'm certainly not in complete love with the IAU's definition of a planet, planethood is a bit like Justice Potter Stewart's oft-paraphrased definition of porn: I can't define it, but I know it when I see it. Pluto isn't a planet, and we'll just have to wait for more data and thinking to clearly explain why.
Comparison of sizes: Earth, Pluto/Charon, and the Moon
But then again...who knows? Perhaps Pluto will be so completely active or fascinating or...something that it will seem necessary to elevate it beyond the freeze-dried version of an anonymous asteroid belt denizen. Space missions always seem to surprise us; that's why I'm on the edge of my seat. There's no telling what is waiting to be discovered seven months from now!

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Halloween 2014 - Costume Contest Win (Second Year Running!)

Halloween  is over, but I have a second year costume contest win at the TRANsylvania party one of our friends throws. This year, I went as a Killer Klown (specifically, it's Captain Spaulding from the heinous horror movie House of a 1000 Corpses). 

Turns out my good friend - and the host of the party - isn't particularly fond of clowns...YES!!!!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Fleetwood Mac: On With the Show

I was excited to see Fleetwood Mac in Chicago (that's actually the name of one of the band's early records), and it was a strong show. While upper ranges are long gone and Stevie Nicks' twirling far less frenetic than in the old days, Fleetwood Mac - rejoined by Christine McVie - was credible and in no danger of tarnishing their legacy.

With McVie back in the band, there is a lot less space for Nicks' and Buckingham's songs in the set. That was a good thing in that some less deserving material (mostly Buckingham's who is the least consistent songwriter of the trio) is out. On the other hand, it meant there were very few surprises in the set list. No digging into the depths of Tusk for nuggets like "Storms" and "Beautiful Child", although the band did provide an spirited rendition of "I Know I'm Not Wrong". Aside from that song, the only semi-surprise was the inclusion of "Seven Wonders". Given the track's recent use in American Horror Story, I suppose its appearance isn't a true surprise. The other casualties were solo material and any songs during McVie's hiatus. No "Stand Back", "Go Insane", or anything from McVie's In the Meantime. Say You Will was completely ignored even though the title track would have made a nice bit of resonance for McVie's return, as well as being a song that begs for her vocal harmonies to put it over the top.

While one of Fleetwood Mac's greatest refrains is singing "don't you look back" during "Don't Stop", this show did nothing but look backwards. Over half the set list was pulled from Fleetwood Mac and Rumours, with ten out of twelve possible songs from the latter. Mirage and Tango in the Night were represented only by the hits, and nothing after Tango made the set list. While the predictability was a definite minus, with a band that has this much history it's hard to fault them. This set list is what people coming to the show want to hear, and the band rarely sounded like they were just going through the motions.

McVie's return meant some of the band's biggest hits were back ("Over My Head", "Say You Love Me", "Little Lies"), and it was absolutely fantastic to see/hear McVie practically silence the arena as she performed "Songbird" to close the show. I admit that I was watching McVie during the night to see how "rusty" she might be after sixteen years off of touring, but she betrayed no overt weakness. She did a little solo keyboard run during "Don't Stop" that was fun, and she was still rocking the accordion on "Tusk". If I had one wish, it would have been to hear her deliver "As Long As You Follow" instead of "Everywhere" (which has always been limp on stage). And if I had another wish, it would be to fit in a pre-Buckingham Nicks cut from McVie ("Homeward Bound" or "Just Crazy Love").

Nicks, who has just released her latest solo album 24 Karat Gold, is experiencing something of a popular renaissance and was in fine voice all things considered. She did an especially good rendition of "Gold Dust Woman", calling forth the dark mysticism of her performances from Mac's heyday. As a die-hard Nicks fan, I was thrilled. At the same time, between her solo work and Mac work I'm getting a bit tired of "Landslide" and "Silver Springs". I have to admit I was hoping "Angel" might make an appearance over "Sisters of the Moon", which is superfluous in a set that includes both "Rhiannon" and "Gold Dust Woman". That said, Nicks got to me with "Landslide". It certainly didn't hurt that the entire audience seemed to be singing the song with Nicks.

The guitar work of Lindsey Buckingham, more than ever, is the fire in belly of this band. Supported by the apparently ageless stomp and throb of Mick Fleetwood and John McVie, his guitar work was by turns gentle, rocking, and - on his solos - searing. His solo on "I'm So Afraid" was mind-blowing in its intensity, ultimately making the song beside the point. His finger picking on "Big Love" is as dizzying as ever. To see someone playing at the speed he was often playing at and not once look down at his fretboard (and sometimes keeping his eyes closed) is inspirational to anyone who plays guitar. Sure, he's a bit pompous (the Wizard of Oz projection of his face during one song was a painfully humorous example of ego gone amok) and, yeah, his talent as a producer is overstated, but as a guitar player you simply cannot ask for anything more. He's a genius of that instrument!

There is talk of a new Fleetwood Mac album. Given the quality of music and performances being put out by these five - either in playing old material during this tour or in their recent solo output - it should be an album worthy of the attention Fleetwood Mac's supergroup status will undoubtedly attract.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Zazen in the Modern Age

Finding time for zazen is a challenge while living in the modern world. However, since few of us can retreat to a monastery to pursue our studies, we must find ways to do so within 'the real world'. This is especially important for anyone who – like me – leans towards the Soto school, which stresses the primacy of zazen in Zen practice.

One of the hurdles many people may face is finding the 'right' place in which to sit. There is tendency to gravitate towards a quiet spot outdoors or a room where we can listen to special music or a table where we have candles and a Buddha statue. Time of day can have an impact too, as we tend to prefer sitting when outside noise or interruptions are at a minimum. These preferences partly stem from popular images about what serious meditation looks like. However the preferences also arise because, when we first learn to sit in zazen, it's easier to do so in a controlled environment. After a while, this preference becomes habit and then hardens into practice.

The problem with this is that zazen is how we learn to discipline the mind. As a result, we should be developing the discipline to sit in zazen and reach samadhi in less than ideal situations. If we never learn to do so without pretty candles, the right music, and/or total quiet, then we clearly are not developing much control over our mind and thoughts. It isn't really zazen. It's an emotional indulgence with no more spiritual power than getting a foot massage, taking a hot bath, or indulging in a chocolate dessert. These activities also induce a sense of peace or happiness, but they do not teach mental discipline or help us get to Everyday Zen.  

Candles, music, lighting, and favored quiet spots are crutches. They can be justified - perhaps - for the beginner but, as we learn to discipline our minds, we shouldn’t need the cooperation of the world to practice. We shouldn’t need do-dads or gizmos or pretty sounds to create the right ambiance or 'get in the mood'. A fundamental point of Zen is that our environment does not dictate our mental state; we do! So, ultimately, a truly disciplined practitioner would be able to sit in zazen and achieve samadhi with bugs crawling all over them, a jack hammer rattling away, and the smell of garbage wafting about. 

My arrival at this realization was probably very atypical. It happened because my first experience with the power of zazen occurred almost twenty years ago, long before I was a Zen Buddhist or had engaged in any form of meditation. Far from being achieved while I was sitting in a quiet room with wind chimes tinkling around me, my first conscious experience of samadhi was while I was sweaty and gross and in the middle of practicing karate in a dojo.

So here's the story. In the dojo, our sensei would have us do forms - that is, a specified series of blocks, kicks, and punches done in smooth succession. He'd correct or make us start over again depending on any errors we made, because we had to get the forms right to be allowed to test for the next belt. As a student new to martial arts, I really had to focus because it's not just doing the moves in the right order but making sure form is correct throughout: How's the angle of my back foot? Is my fist at the right height when I punch? Are my fingers making a correct fist? Am I facing the correct direction? You get the idea; it's a lot to get right over the course of ten to twenty moves.

One day, I came to the dojo pissed off (about what I can't remember). I was steamed and annoyed and tense, and I'd been that way most of the day. After class, though, I had completely calmed down. I had simply stopped thinking about and feeling about whatever it was that had riled me. Obviously, the physical exertion of practicing karate was an outlet that must have helped. But, as I thought about it while leaving the dojo, I realized what had really led to my change of mood was not a gradual change due to physical exertion. It was a relatively quick change that occurred while I had been practicing forms.

What happened? The focus required to do forms in the proper manner forced me to rein in my mind. Instead of letting external situations and my emotions dictate my mental state and carry me away, I was focused on what I was doing in the moment...and nothing else. There was no past, there was no future. All I was concerned with was my forms. And it was a healthy focus. I was not worried about doing well, stressed about it, or anything like that. The focus of my mind was simply limited to the action of the moment. In fact, while I was very alert about what I was doing, I'm not sure I was thinking about anything at all.

As I walked home, totally sweaty and tired, I nevertheless felt mentally reinvigorated and was very happy. At the time, I'd read a tiny bit about meditation though I knew nothing about Zen Buddhism. I specifically remember thinking as I walked home that "there's something to this" and that I needed to explore it.

So I learned very early that we can practice zazen and reach samadhi in non-traditional environments, and we don't necessarily need a ton of training to do it. Doing it is important, not only for ensuring we really are learning to discipline our minds, but that we can practice Everyday Zen. So if it's hard to find time to sit in zazen, think about some time during the day that may not seem ideal but that actually should be. Getting off the bus a few stops early to walk, eating lunch at your desk, sitting on the train. And, importantly, don't mourn about the noise and distractions around you. Use them to help you hone your discipline. 

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Acoustic Guitar Journal #5: I Can't Sing

Writing my own songs has been a wonderful way to learn guitar and is very satisfying on a creative level. The next step from writing and playing is performing, and I would be ecstatic to perform my own songs. The problem is I cannot sing. At all. Not being humble. Can't. Sing.

I've always wanted to be able to sing but, for whatever reason, what I hear in my head sounds good while the reality is...really bad. I'd say I'm off key, except that suggests an ability to sing a wrong note. When I sing, it's always the same flat note all the way through. Painful to hear.

The obvious solution is to take lessons, and I have. Twice. With two different teachers. There was no improvement at all. I've also tried doing different things on my own with breathing and projection and taped the results looking for improvement, hoping against hope that I'd finally hit on the right approach. On every playback, I'd only to hear the same terrible sound. It didn't seem to matter what I did. It became so discouraging that I gave up years ago, accepting that singing is something I have no talent for and simply cannot do.

In the last month, a funny thing has happened. While working on songs (both my own and those by others), I'd sometimes hum melody lines while playing to get a feel for the rhythm I needed to play. While doing this, I noticed I could feel notes resonating in the body of the guitar as a vibration against my chest. Then I found I could attune my hum to that vibration exactly the way I would tune a guitar string to match a note on a pitch pipe.

It was a bit exciting when I was able to pluck a note and - by paying attention to the vibration - attune my voice to the note in the same way. Since controlling my voice in any way is something I'd never, ever been able to do, I wondered if this might be a way to train my voice to be in tune. I cammed myself performing a song or two and played it back. While I still sounded flat, there was a notable improvement. It's still no good, but it's definitely more musical sounding than I've ever heard myself sound before.

Given my history with singing, there's no way I can get my hopes up. However, whenever I'm alone in the house I perform my songs - voice and guitar - to see where this goes. In the end, it may be just another episode of wishful thinking. But it's worth a try!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Gay Marriage Progress

I'm still stunned at how fast this has all happened. Ten years ago, I never dreamed it would happen in my lifetime.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Acoustic Guitar Journal #4: C/G Songs

Two of the songs by other people that I picked to learn first - "Wildflowers" by Dolly Parton and "Stolen Car" by Bruce Springsteen - use only or predominantly two chords: C and G. In exploring guitar tabs for other songs I like, I find that song after song after song is just those two chords (or maybe those two with one other thrown in). I started calling them "C/G songs".

It's amazing how songs that I think sound totally different from one another are all essentially those two chords and nothing else. A couple weeks ago, I had a list of songs to check out for guitar tabs and I found that two of them - one I can't remember and "Silver Threads and Golden Needles" by Linda Ronstadt - were C/G songs. I couldn't believe it!

So then I said to myself, "Well, if everyone else can write a C/G song, then so can I!" I went into my journals that I've been keeping since I was thirteen and picked a poem I had had my eye on as a potential lyric and got started. I sat down and within ten minutes I'd worked out the rhythm and had the song. Then I had to work out a chorus, which took another ten minutes. Twenty minutes later, I had my very own C/G song called "Free Spirit" (I have posted this poem to Zen Thrown Down already).

I cheated, because I added extra chords. Ended up with a D and A in the verses, and then an E in the chorus I added to the posted poem. So I guess, technically, this is not a C/G song. I'll have to try again.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Acoustic Guitar Journal #3: Songwriting as Practice

As I continue with my acoustic guitar lessons, I've been writing songs at a good clip. There are four I'm working on, with three I could perform as complete material. Very proud of this and thrilled at how easily it is coming. It just feels amazing to be consistently creative again after years of running dry. It's clear to me that the issue was the hours/stress I was dealing with from my job. It took over my life, and I did not sufficiently deal with the situation to maintain control of my life. It's been a big lesson to realize how much impact it had on me and that, as soon as I was in a place where I could breathe again, all the creative energy came back. Never again!

As happy as being creative makes me, songwriting is much more than an emotional indulgence. From a practical standpoint, it's propelling my progress on my instrument in a really organic manner. Part of learning is exploring chords and how to move between them. However, doing this while writing songs pushes me at a much higher level. It's not about just playing random chords and getting used to the changes (which is excellent exercise), but I'm now doing this while staying in the rhythm and feel of a song. This changes my whole way of thinking when I practice. From the outset, my standard is not "I'm practicing" but "does this sound like a good performance?". This is a much higher bar of mastery to demand from myself at the start, and it naturally is going to drive me to learn more quickly.

Not to say that I've mastered barre chords yet. I still have trouble with the G string going dead on minor 7ths, and I can't switch to these chords with much speed. However, the repetition of playing my own songs using these chords and not being pleased with pauses and rejiggered fingering is definite motivation to learn more quickly. I've ended up pushing myself a lot more insistently because, within a songwriting mentality, once I am exposed to anything I want to learn it so I can use it. It's like adding words to my vocabulary as a child. I feel limited by only knowing the basic chords, and I naturally want more tools in expressing myself. So I'm more invested in getting things right.

Songwriting is also helping me get more out of songs I learn by other people. It helps me 'find the song' in something like "Stolen Car" (see AGJ #2 post). I'm also paying a lot more attention to what these songwriters do, which is education all by itself. Lastly, it keeps me from getting too comfortable. I had begun veering away form finger picking, which is tougher for me to write and perform in. As soon as I noticed I was doing this, I course corrected and forced myself to continue with it and progress. Because I'm writing my own songs, not learning something is denying myself a songwriting tool. I refuse to let this happen, not from any internal discipline, but simply because if I want to write good music I can't allow it!

Overall, songwriting is a great motivator in learning my instrument as well as simply being very satisfying to do.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Stevie Nicks - In Your Dreams (2011)

To wind-up my series of Stevie entries - leading up to the October 7th release of her new solo album 24 Karat Gold - I'm reposting a version of my original review of In Your Dreams.

30 years after Bella Donna established Stevie Nicks as a force to be reckoned with in or out of Fleetwood Mac, she was still able to command interest from the music industry. That said, the ten years since her last studio album, Trouble in Shangri-La, saw Nicks seemingly headed out to pasture. She'd been touring regularly but without new material and had dropped two compilation albums: Crystal Visions and The Soundstage Sessions. All idea that Nicks was headed for retirement was banished by In Your Dreams. It's that good. Even Rolling Stone, which had panned or downplayed most of Nicks' work since she joined Fleetwood Mac in 1975 gushed about this release.

And for good reason. If In Your Dreams turns out to be the capstone of Nicks' career, then she's going out on a very high note. However, the album ultimately suggests it would be a shame for her to stop recording as she obviously has a lot of great music left in her. Simply put, In Your Dreams is her best album since The Wild Heart and it is the best solo effort of her career in terms of merging her mystical and rock sides.

Lyrically, In Your Dreams is the most open album of Nicks' career, reminding us that Nicks is at her best when her moony mysticism and snaky incantations are married to sassy rock and roll attitude. This marriage is partly achieved by Dave Stewart's melodic and tight production. He rarely ventures into the meandering over-instrumentation that has haunted every Nicks solo album since The Wild Heart, yet he lets Nicks breath and indulge in the drama that has always formed the core of her allure. He 'gets' Stevie, and his production lets her be herself.

Nicks responds by giving tremendous, emotional performances. While there's no question her voice isn't what it used to be, she seems to have accepted that her sultry vibrato is a thing of the past and is vigorously working what she has. The result is she sounds alive, energized, and happy throughout the disk, as if she's really into what she's doing and comfortable with it. In fact, I don't think she has sounded so utterly invested all the way through an album since...again, The Wild Heart.

The songwriting on In Your Dreams is very direct and straightforward, yet full of dreamscapes and flights of fantasy. The sound is lush and full of sonic details that support the mood of the songs. There is really no way to pick a favorite song, as they each touch different emotions. And Nicks masterfully alters her vocal delivery for each of them. There's her always alluring, overgrown romanticism ('Moonlight', 'Italian Summer'), hooky pop tunes ('Secret Love', 'New Orleans'), country twang ('For What It's Worth'), thoughtful ballads ('You May Be The One', 'Cheaper Than Free'), a dirge that verges on slowed down black metal ('Soldier's Angel'), an upbeat take on Edgar Allen Poe ('Annabel Lee'), and straight ahead rock (the title track). Even the to-be-expected loopy tracks ('Wide Sargasso Sea', 'Ghosts Are Gone') work. The only song that suffers by comparison to the rest of the material is 'Everybody Loves You', which sounds like a Eurythmics song.

As on Trouble in Shangri-La, most of the best songs are the ones Nicks writes on her own. So if I were to ding In Your Dreams, it would be for Nicks' continuing reluctance to step up the plate and write more of her own material. She also continues to cull her spellbook for songs from the past (this time, fantastic gems 'Secret Love' and 'Annabel Lee'). But these are minor quibbles. The quality and energy of this album will no doubt go down as one of the biggest surprises of the year. Nicks knocked this album out of the ballpark!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Mumonkan, Koan 29: The Sixth Patriarch's "Your Mind Moves"

Prayer flags in the wind, Nepal
Photo: Stefanie Buehler
The wind was flapping a temple flag, and two monks started an argument. One said the flag moved, the other said the wind moved; they argued back and forth but could not reach a conclusion. The Sixth Patriarch said, "It is not the wind that moves, it is not the flag that moves; it is your mind that moves." The two monks were awe-struck.

The argument is based on interpreting what one sees with the mind, rather than simply having direct experience in the moment. As such, there is no right-mindedness while the monks argue about what is happening. They are removed from the moment. This is what is meant by "it is your mind that moves."

The argument is one of delusion since it is the debating of interpretations of reality - what each monk thinks about what they see - rather than reality itself. The distancing from reality is actually three-fold. First, there is the interpretation of reality. Second, there is the evaluation of the other monk's interpretation. Then third, there is the comparison of the evaluations against one another. Once we let our minds "move", we are quickly swept out of the moment and away from the moment into an intellectual hall of mirrors that is merely delusion.

The Sixth Patriarch was chastising the monks for their lack of discipline.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Difference Between Contentment & Happiness

I'm figuring some of this out as I write, so there's no way this post represents a definitive line of thinking. I only know that the difference between happiness and contentment has increasingly recurred as a theme in my Zen studies and that understanding the difference between the two is important in getting to, and maintaining, right-mindedness.

In various places on Zen Throw Down I've drawn a distinction between happiness and contentment. While I love happiness and joy (and who doesn't?), I've come to understand that it's much wiser to seek contentment than happiness. This is mainly because contentment requires no striving and can be maintained in a world that is full of suffering. On the other hand, happiness constantly demands effort to obtain, disappears all too easily, and/or is merely a mirage on the horizon that beckons without getting closer.

This view of happiness runs counter to how many of us are raised. For example, in the United States the "pursuit of happiness" is inherently woven into our national identity. Cultures may differ, but the desire for happiness seems universal. Zen Buddhism, however, teaches us that happiness is something to cherish when one has it...but that one should never cling to it, mourn when we inevitably lose it, or chase after it.

I suppose what kicked off my thinking about happiness versus contentment was a common thread in the marketing on some book jackets, promotion fliers, or websites about Zen Buddhism, meditation, or self-help. These marketing efforts often contain blurbs or catch-phrases suggesting someone can help us "find happiness" or "achieve inner peace" or something of the sort. Personally I've always distrusted anyone who dangles happiness before me like a carrot, and one of the first things I learned in my Zen studies is that my state of mind is largely (or entirely) of my own making. That includes my happiness and suffering. No one can give me happiness.

Memes are not wisdom
Since we are largely responsible for the reality we face and our emotions about it, that means no one can give of us a path to happiness. Even if such a path existed, a person can't be made to consistently walk it or to keep from straying in response to the distractions faced in day-to-day living. Similarly, we can't be handed or told any knowledge that is a "secret" of being happy. Even if such knowledge existed, it wouldn't help us for the same reason that memes like this one posted on Facebook are nice but useless. We read them, smile and nod at the wisdom they contain, and then go right back to living our lives the way we did before. For knowledge to useful, it must be learned. Even when it is learned, we will not profit from it unless we put it into practice during everyday life. Without practice, knowledge is useless.

Lastly, and most importantly, one can't be taught to be happy because happiness itself is a temporary condition. No one can maintain it no matter what they are taught. In Zen Buddhism we are taught that all beings suffer; it is simply part of life. So it is foolish to cling to happiness or to try avoiding all suffering because we cannot maintain the one or avoid the other. Further, both states are temporary. We are happy until something goes amiss, and then we suffer. We suffer until things start going our way again, and then we are happy.

This circle of joy and suffering drags most people into a deluded mindstate, as they spend all their energy trying to evade suffering or to capture happiness. This is all wasted energy because no matter how happy we become, suffering will always eventually come back to us. In short, trying to maintain happiness as a permanent state is like trying - to quote a lyric from The Sound of Music - "to keep a wave upon the sand." We waste our time and energy running around in this circle.

This is why contentment is a better goal that happiness. While happiness is the absence of suffering, contentment allows for suffering. To explain what is meant by this, imagine a time when you were suffering. It's unlikely you could have said to yourself: "Everything is so awful, but I'm happy anyway!" (If you could say this, then it's questionable whether you were really suffering!). However, it's totally possible - especially from within a disciplined, centered mindstate - to be unhappy and yet to be content on some level.

We can be content even when we suffer because, despite the pain or sadness or anxiety we feel we can look at ourselves in the current moment and know that we're okay. We may not be happy, but we are able to let things slide off our backs and be patient with ourselves.

And this is the crux of the difference between happiness and contentment: while happiness vanishes the second anything goes wrong, contentment can be maintained even in quite averse circumstances.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Stevie Nicks - The Soundstage Sessions (2009)

As the new millennium proceeded, Stevie Nicks found herself increasingly in demand as a rock icon and institution. Little wonder she continued revisiting old material with releases like Crystal Visions and  - in 2009 - this live performance in Chicago entitled The Soundstage Sessions. However, this focus meant it was getting close to a decade since the release of her her last studio album of new material (Trouble in Shangri-La).

Surprisingly, Nicks has never released a live solo album before. Given her strength as a performer and her penchant for reworking her lyrics and phrasing to create fresh versions of her songs when they are performed live, this is a major hole in her discography. The Soundstage Sessions fills this gap but, between Fleetwood Mac tours without new material to support and her lack of new solo material, one begins to wonder if Nicks is winding her career down to coast on her laurels. While I watched and enjoyed the PBS Soundstage airing of this show, I did not buy the CD. I just didn't feel the need to own these tracks or, more exactly, I already own most of them in several versions.

To Nicks' credit, The Soundstage Sessions avoids a too obvious set list. Most conspicuous in their absence are "Rhiannon" and "Dreams", despite their inclusion in the live show. From her solo work, there is no "Stop Dragging My Heart Around", "Leather and Lace", or "Talk to Me" (not sure if these were part of the live show or not). That means most of her biggest hits are not included on The Soundstage Sessions. Despite this, the selection of songs contains several big hits and concert/fan favorites. On the downside, the sequencing of the set feels off. The energy level spikes and then lulls for long periods before spiking again. Keeping more of the spunkier songs from the concert (e.g., "Enchanted") would have made The Soundstage Sessions flow a lot more smoothly and increased its novelty.

The album kicks off with a rocking version of Nicks' most alluring hit of all: "Stand Back". She cooks through this number like a Welsh witch steamroller. Right away, you hear Nicks is letting her voice sail sans her trademark vibrato. Time - and perhaps substance abuse - have eroded her vibrato but she sounds great when she emphasizes energy over holding onto vocal stylings she may simply not be capable of anymore. It's a triumphant kick-off that instantly confirms Nicks still has the goods live.

However, the energy immediately slows down as Nicks covers Dave Matthews "Crash Into Me" and then goes into "Sara". During these songs, especially "Sara", I found myself wanting more presence from Sharon Celani and Lori Perry Nicks'. I felt this many times during the rest of the album/show. It's not that Nicks needs them for vocal camouflage, it's just that her two back-up vocalists have always been a big part of her sound. Their harmonic lushness always contrasted and mixed wonderfully with Nicks' alternately raspy rock and gentle twang. Their efforts could have livened up "Sara" and several other tracks, yet they repeatedly seem to be auto-tuned into a nondescript blob and then pushed way back in the mix.

A sturdy performance of "If Anyone Falls" ups the energy level, despite a cheesy synthesizer, but then the pace slows down again for "Landslide". While the song is a 'must' for Nicks to perform, committing a third live version to disc within the space of ten years is overkill. Another song with less exposure would have been a better choice for this album. "Landslide" is followed by the only weak point of the show: a seven-plus minute, self-indulgent performance of "How Still My Love". This okay song has somehow persisted in Nicks' concert set since 1981, despite dozens of better alternative song choices on more recent albums. "Rooms on Fire" or even "Blue Denim" would have been much more interesting inclusions.

After a nice, but unremarkable, reading of Bonnie Raitt's "The Circle Dance", Nicks finally amps up again for "Fall From Grace" and "Sorcerer" from Trouble in Shangri-La. The disc then coasts through the lovely "Beauty and the Beast" and a ten-minute(!) rendition of "Gold Dust Woman", before finishing up with the obligatory (but admittedly still fiery) "Edge of Seventeen". Waddy Wachtel who, as ever, is the perfect foil for Nicks' though-out The Soundstage Sessions really goes above and beyond on this number.

I never purchased The Soundstage Sessions, despite the obvious gap it fills in Nicks discography and the sheer pleasure of hearing how Nicks remains in fine form. It's a solid album and live performance but, for me, the backwards glancing in Nicks output is simply beginning to wear a bit thin.