January 29, 2005


Rhapsody In Blue again, for the first time in more than a decade: I'd forgotten how quick, sensuous, light-footed and coherent the piece is, especially compared to some of the other ponderous attempts to incorporate jazz into a classical framework.

The conventional wisdom once seemed to be that the classical side supposedly weighs down or fatally dilutes the jazz, and vice versa. But from this distance -- with decades of people like Miles or Coltrane behind us -- it's hard to see what's jazz about Rhapsody at all, beyond some vague references and the occasional tonal colouring. Nothing that wouldn't also be at home in (say) Stravinsky or Shostakovich. But it's a beautiful classical work, a sort of restless, concisely sprawling Romantic Modernist piece, shot through with alternating densities and space; it's short, to the point, original, inventive, and (for me) deeply evocative of the 1920's (in fact for me it's not so much classical / jazz fusion as a classical piece absolutely infused with the New York of the 1920's... which is probably what most people mean when they say it's a "jazz" piece).

Unfortunately, what it probably evokes in most Americans is the long-running series of ads from United Airlines (it's United's signature tune), and, if you've been there, the long walk through the underground concourses connecting the United terminals at Chicago O'Hare, where the main Rhapsody motif plays out in different versions every few seconds from the neon-lit walls and ceiling.

Is Rhapsody "uniquely American", as so often claimed? (And does it matter?) I don't know. But what could be more American than walking through a busy dark neon-lit tunnel between terminals on your way elsewhere, being forced to listen to dumbed-down snippets of vaguely-familiar music over the constant calls of cellphone ringers (some of them playing Rhapsody...) while surrounded by total strangers? And what could be a more American fate than being than thrown into that great cosmopolitan melting pot, advertising, or being turned into that great American backdrop, Muzak? Rhapsody In Blue may not be uniquely American in any way I'd recognise, but it's an integral and essential part of the great American experience...

January 25, 2005

SUV Dreaming

From deep within the testosterone-soaked subconscious of the average SUV owner's mind...

SUV fantasies...

You always knew it was true -- the rest of us are just obstacles to climb over or thrust aside...

(An actual, un-edited, un-retouched photo of a recent freeway billboard just across the road from my studio in Oaktown; click on the image to see a larger JPEG version).

January 24, 2005

Along 101

Breaking, into movement, a fugue of concrete lines and steel curves, through the flat suburbs of light, the deep bright emptiness along 101, the half-empty offices and shut-down development, the rush of lights and the deadening weight of the week, little mutinies of feeling...

(An obsessogram...).

January 21, 2005

The Warrior Waltzes

The triumphalist Warrior Waltz, all furs, fantasies, shiny shoes, tuxedos... in today's NYT Bob Herbert accuses W. of being tone-deaf given the mess in Iraq, but it'd be more accurate to say that W.'s got perfect pitch when it comes to his own constituencies (and that's all that matters, no?). That Herbert (and I) hear different notes and tunes than W. does is hardly surprising (we all read from different scores); that W.'s insurgency would chose to brazenly rub our noses in our own irrelevance in such a way is also hardly surprising, just depressing.

His pride before our fall, I guess.

January 19, 2005


I live in a city that's probably most famous (in the US, at least) for being infamous, a blighted Newark to San Francisco's shiny Manhattan. It's a place with a reputation for the sort of urban decay, racial strife, and economic hardship that comes with being a regional centre of heavy industry and labour. Just across the Bay San Francisco has the Golden Gate and its precious self-absorption; neighbouring Berkeley has the University and a fabled history of self-righteous gesture politics; Oakland has ... well, what?

Oakland's sometimes politely referred to as being a very urban city -- "urban" or "inner city" being code words for Black or African-American. Some 36% of the city is African-American, 30% white, 15% Asian; 22% of its population identifies themselves as "Latino", regardless of their "race" (see Confusion...). Oakland always did -- and still mostly does -- the heavy lifting that San Francisco won't touch. It -- not San Francisco -- was the main West Coast trans-continental rail freight terminus for most of the past 150 years; virtually everything supposedly imported or exported through San Francisco actually goes through Oakland (the Port of San Francisco is vestigial -- it's the Port of Oakland across the Bay that does all the real work); its airport is San Francisco's main freight and business jet airport (and one of Southwest Airline's main left coast hubs -- Southwest doesn't bother flying to SFO); local hero Henry J. Kaiser and his Kaiser Aluminum and shipbuilding empire were post-war giants, with Henry J's aerie on the top floor of the Kaiser Building in uptown Oakland topping what was for a while the tallest building west of the Mississippi.

Ask a representative sample of reasonably aware Americans what (if anything) comes to mind when you say "Oakland", and they'll probably focus on the Black Panthers (an Oakland original, still fondly-remembered in large stretches of West Oakland for their charity and social work); Jerry Brown (aka "Governor Moonbeam", a notably-liberal and ahead-of-his-time state Governor who's been our city's aging Dear Leader for some time now, a man possibly most famous for having once allegedly been one of Linda Ronstadt's lovers); East 14th Street (until very recently a particularly deadly stretch of East Oakland, once one of the murder capitals of America, and still not the sort of place you'd stroll through late at night, despite East 14th having been renamed "International Boulevard" to try to lose the notoriety); Gertrude Stein's "There's no There there" (she was referring to her childhood home in Oakland, not the city itself, but it's such an ingrained thing that the unofficial city flag is a black "There" in front of an oak with a green and white background, a flag you see flying over downtown Oakland); the ebonics kerfuffle of the mid-1990's (which saw a typically vicious collision of linguistic and racial ideologies and identity politics that quickly gained national infamy and obscured the fairly reasonable logic at the heart of the original proposal); the once-militant local branches of the Nation Of Islam and the associated local phenom, the "Your Black Muslim Bakery" (which despite the exclusionary-sounding name even has a popular stand at Oakland Airport); Oakland native David "Moses" Berg (the man who founded the Children Of God); those perennial losers, the Oakland Raiders (an American Football team that inspires in its followers the sort of insecure strutting swagger that comes from identifying fanatically with a team that combines an uncanny ability to pull defeat from the jaws of victory game after game, year after year, with the tendency to treat Oakland itself with utter contempt); MC Hammer (another local crash-and-burn anti-hero totally beyond satire, who also helped popularise the use of "Oaktown" beyond the ghetto); the writer Jack London, who lived in the waterfront area now called Jack London Square (but whose strong Socialist leanings have been ruthlessly expunged from official histories); the Cypress Freeway collapse in the 1989 quake which killed more than 40 people (and which wouldn't have been reported much if the national media hadn't been in the area covering the national baseball championships (Oakland vs. San Francisco -- Oakland won)); and (maybe) the Oakland Hills firestorm which killed 25 people and destroyed more than 2,500 homes in a few hours in 1991 (typically, though, non-locals will probably remember this as having happened in Berkeley, or even San Francisco).

And all of that -- good and bad -- is true. I've lived through some of it, at least peripherally: the fire, the quake, E14th (it's just across the railway tracks -- but another world away -- from where I live), the guns (where I lived in the early 1990's you could clearly hear automatic gunfire late at night every few days -- and I lived in a good part of town...), the decay. I've even had the Oakland Police Department break into my home with guns drawn (they got the wrong guy, and, to their credit, they stopped when a neighbour pointed this out before they did too much damage (what's a smashed door or two between friends? And hey, bookshelves, books, and CDs are replaceable...)). But for me it's where I live -- it's where I chose to live. I'm not going to romanticise it (there's nothing fun or exciting about living in a neighbourhood ruled at night by gun-toting teenagers, and there's no romance in persistent poverty, no matter what the young couples slumming it temporarily in search of "authenticity" in their new lifestyle lofts might tell you...), but there's inevitably more to it than meets the casual eye. It's a diverse place, in every way....

On 14th
Textures Of Light
Embodying Islam
Ab Fab (A Tale Of Two Cities)
Life In Industrial East Oakland
Death In Oakland
Death Goes On…
Hog Heaven
Chauncey Bailey

January 15, 2005

The Opposite of Protean

Sally Potter's "Orlando": colours, mannered tableaux, mannerisms, pale English light, saturated near-monochromes, whiteness (sheets, snow, dresses, steam, fog, mist, skin, shirts) ... and Tilda Swinton. Inescapable, it's all the film...(obtrusive -- I'm always aware that I'm watching Tilda Swinton, acting. The opposite of Protean...). Very much a film of its time and place, self-conscious, "playful", knowing ...

January 12, 2005

Up On Telegraph

Up on Telegraph, Tito (youngish, honey-skinned, a Cuban-American from Brooklyn, big, graceful, curly dyed-gold hair, soft-voiced), cuts my hair and can't believe I've never seen "Black Orpheus". He can't resist acting it out for me: "Orfeo!! Orfeo!!", waltzing tragically across the floor behind me, reversing with arms outstretched: "Eurydice!", sliding back across the hair-strewn lino. He drops to one knee with a grin...

January 08, 2005

Right-Sizing God

"Looking for a big-enough God?" -- the hook on a small ad in a New Yorker sidebar for the Episcopal Book/Resource Center (www.episcopalbookstore.org).

A god to fit any-sized dream, any faith, any lifestyle hole, large or small. My kind of god, I suspect (i.e. one that hasn't the chutzpah to exist).

(Too often American protestant gods seem to be merely super-human (or, more accurately, Super-American), rather than the ineffably infinite and interesting God of my (Church Of England) youth).

The god is the measure of the man.

January 04, 2005

Virtually Nonsense

In a characteristically snide and sometimes deeply stupid blog entry on the occasion of Susan Sontag's death, Roger Kimball writes:

"Never mind that a lot of [her writing] was literally nonsense: it was nevertheless irresistible nonsense. It somehow didn't matter, for example, that the whole notion of "an erotics of art" was ridiculous. Everyone likes sex, and talking about "erotics" seems so much sexier than talking about "sex"; and of course everyone likes art: How was it that no one had thought of putting them together in this clever way before?"

Never mind all that -- what I want to know is what it must be like to be Kimball's lover? After all, here's a man who doesn't understand the difference between erotics and sex. And what makes a man shout such a failing from the rooftops? More than mere money, I'll bet...

January 02, 2005

American Zombies Blamed for Bulk of Spam

"American Zombies Blamed for Bulk of Spam" (headline from Tech News World story sometime last week) -- well, it's better than Man Bites Dog, no?

January 01, 2005


"This week nature seems amoral and viciously cruel" (David Brooks in today's NYT). No, humans are cruel; nature just is.

And later: "Somehow [just love that 'somehow' -- JL] it's wrong to turn this event into a good-news story so we can all feel warm this holiday season. It's wrong to turn it into a story about us, who gave, rather than them, whose lives were ruined". The NYT, to its great credit, has mostly avoided this, but as I wrote last week just after the news broke (and then didn't bother publishing -- it just seemed like a too-easy target):

Tens of thousands of people die as tsunamis flood the Asian coastal lowlands. Last night's local TV news spent less than two minutes on the actual events and the aftermath, then took nearly ten self-congratulatory minutes to cover local Bay Area efforts to help.

At least it was the first item on the news; in March 2004, after nearly 200 people were killed in multiple terrorist bombings in Spain, local TV station KTVU reported the story in the third segment of the 10pm news at 10.25, immediately after an item about three teenagers who had to be rescued from the surf in front of the Cliff House.

www Tight Sainthood