You Are an Individual: Songs of Freedom, Part 3 of 3

Read Part 1 and Part 2 for the beginning and middle, because this is the end, folks!

In “Don’t Take Me Alive”—another ’70s tune that was way ahead of its time lyrically and musically—we get the idea that the boys had more than a passing acquaintance with the militia movement:

Agents of the law and luckless pedestrians,
I know you’re out there with rage in your eyes and a megaphone.
Saying, “All is forgiven. Mad dog, surrender!”
How can I answer? A man of my mind can do anything.
I’m a bookkeeper’s son, I don’t want to hurt no one,
but I shot my old man back in Oregon—don’t take me alive.
Got a case of dynamite, I could hold out here all night.
Well, I shot my old man back in Oregon—don’t take me alive.

There are scores of great songs and many, many individualistic and anti-statist lyrics in the Steely Dan discography. If you have some of their albums, you know that; in fact, I haven’t run across many serious musical folks who have only one. Once you start, and like it, you will end up with all of them. Like I did.

First of all, know this: The best musicians in the biz are on these dates. Everyone in the music business has a very, very high regard for Steely Dan; the stock answer among the cognoscenti when someone asks, “How do I learn how to produce records?” is, “Listen to Steely Dan.”

From the political standpoint, I couldn’t recommend any of their records over any other. However, my personal opinion is that Katy Lied is the ultimate early-to-mid-years session, while Aja and Gaucho are the later-date blockbusters. Steely Dan’s first album of the 21st-century, Two Against Nature, got them the Grammy that Aja should have won in 1978 over Rumors, Fleetwood Mac-flavored chewing gum for the ears. It would be a great first Dan album for the uninitiated. All of their records, new or old, feature first-rate musicianship, original compositions, wry and intelligent lyrics.

This is popular music the way the term was understood in George Gershwin’s day: the highest level of art and craft, arranged and packaged and delivered to an eager, informed, quality-conscious niche group. Most pop music is eminently disposable nowadays; Steely Dan records are keepers, and you will be astonished to hear material from, say, 1978 (“Peg”) that could be released today and still sound ahead of its time!

Anyway, yes, Virginia, there is music whose lyrics are individualistic, pro-freedom, pro-market, anti-war, and everything else that warms most libertarians’ hearts. You just have to look for it these days.

Full circle now: I was writing those new lyrics for the album closer, remember? And the tune that they accompany has a funky, upbeat, infectious Steely Dan-ish vibe to it, so I wrote identifiably libertarian lyrics, rather than another diluted sermon. That was the beginning of my exit from supernaturalism, but that’s another tale. As for that first liberty anthem, I’ll give you the intro verse and chorus:

I’m not Superman, but I sure would like to play him on TV.
Souped-up circumstances, rodomontade reality.
Buffed-up, bullet-proof, never falls to sinister conspiracy.
Launchpad on the roof, supersonic sandwich-board for liberty.
Don’t you tell me how to live my life,
and I won’t tell you what you gotta do.
You know that no one here is qualified
to rule the other members of the zoo.
And you don’t need no politicians
telling you that one size fits all.
You are an individual,
and you have to answer your own call.
I’m not Superman, I’m not going
to fly down to your rescue.

All right! Jamming with liberty! I hope you hear the music that your worldview deserves, friends, and to that end I do recommend Steely Dan for progressives, libertarians, independents, even non-Establishment conservatives, and anyone else who eschews the official news and views. Are there other liberty-leaning lyrics? Plenty, and you might know of some that I don’t. What good are they? Well, depending upon your audience, sometimes it’s easier to spread the word when it’s set to a good tune. If you know of any, please share!

Only a Fool Would Say That: Songs of Freedom, Part 2 of 3

(Read Living in Harmony: Songs of Freedom, Part 1 of 3)

Well, okay then: Where are the liberty-lovers’ lyrics? Without going back to Sousa, or quoting favorite hymns, or dredging up Broadway show tunes, what can we listen to in the last few generations of music that won’t insult our political sensibilities?

Some of you who know the group I’m going to name may not even have gleaned the libertarian, occasionally even patriotic, slant of the lyrics; others of you may have heard the group’s name, but not realized what their message was; still others may not like the slick, funky jazz style of the music (which means you are not a musician). But to everyone, I heartily recommend—Steely Dan.

Donald Fagen (l) and Walter Becker aged well, as did their music.

Donald Fagen (l) and Walter Becker aged well, as did their music.

Whoa! A group named after the Naked Lunch protagonist’s marital aid? What?!

With these eccentrics, I saw (heard) it early on, in a song from their first album, Can’t Buy a Thrill, in 1972—and even at that time I recognized it as being way out of the mainstream, message-wise. Riding atop a relaxed little Latin beat, propelled by a spare jazz-combo arrangement with first-rate guitar work by Denny Dias, were these lyrics:

A world become one, of salads and sun?
Only a fool would say that.
A boy with a plan, a natural man,
wearing a white Stetson hat.
Put down that gun, be gone!
There’s no one to fire upon.
If he’s holding it high, he’s telling a lie.
I heard it was you talking about
a world where all is free.
It just couldn’t be—and
only a fool would say that.

Holy cow! A far cry from “We Are the World” with its unmistakable message of global governance, wealth redistribution, and rule by (sensitive and nurturing) elites. Another great Steely Dan tune, “Babylon Sisters” from the 1978 Aja album, had this to say about young airheads with unregenerate musical tastes:

Drive west on Sunset to the sea.
Turn that jungle music down,
just until we’re out of town.
This is no one-night stand, it’s a real occasion.
Close your eyes and we’ll be there.
It’s everything they say, the end of a perfect day,
distant lights from across the bay.
Babylon sisters, shake it.
So fine, so young, tell me I’m the only one.

Yikes. Not only are Donald Fagen and Walter Becker good musicians and writers, they’re guys who don’t take themselves too seriously. Try to imagine Mr. Blue-Collar Produndity, Bruce Springsteen, poking fun at himself. This seriously average fella is called a “genius” by the PC critics in the national media—a genius who still hasn’t learned a few more chords to elevate somewhat the emaciated carcasses of R&B tunes past that he calls his original compositions. Self-parody? For the “musical conscience of his generation”? Goodness, no!

Not only do they mock big government, Fagen and Becker mock their own aging egos and the radio culture that enriched them:

Hey, nineteen [19-year-old], that’s Aretha Franklin.
She don’t remember the Queen of Soul.
Hard times befallen soul survivor.
She thinks I’m crazy but I’m just growing old.
Hey, nineteen, we can’t dance together,
we can’t talk at all.

(Part 3 of 3 is up next.)

Living in Harmony: Songs of Freedom, Part 1 of 3

Going on 15 years ago, when I was finishing up my first original-music CD project, I had to write lyrics for the last tune on the album. Now, inasmuch as I was trying to be a “Christian man” at that time, committed to the ethics despite having jettisoned the supernaturalism, there was usually a message of love or hope or renewal in my songs. It was often quite sincere and sometimes quite contrived. Okay, fine.

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Walter Becker (l) and Donald Fagen not only brought jazz sensibilities and top players to pop music, they wrote, “A world become one, of salads and sun? Only a fool would say that,” in 1973. They went on to build among the best repertoires of music in the modern era, and spoke of liberty often.

But the lyrics that came along for that last song were different. Instead of being spiritual in nature, they derived from my other main self-tagging adjectives, the ones contending (not always cordially) with my baffled spirituality: libertarian and skeptic. And this got me to thinking about the dearth of sensible, sensitive, well-thought-out lyrics in contemporary music. Not a whole lot out there, frankly, neither then nor now, that’s very positive about liberty and individuality. It often seems there’s nothing positive at all, in any genre.

Well, okay, you have your country ditties and your lounge crooners. And, sure, you’ve got your gospel artists reminding everyone Who God Is and What Great Things He’s Doing in their lives, but I was thinking of the secular music segment, and the mainstream one at that. What are the messages that we, as a society, get from that cacophonous buffet? We have heard, and heard all about, the rap and the hip-hop and the twerking and the rest of it. But even among the mundane radio-daze tunes, where are the un-PC, or skeptical, or individualist, or non-conformist, or libertarian, lyrics?

Bubblegum for the Ears

No one needs any more evidence of the sorry state of modern songwriting than the playlist at any major-market radio station; tune in to the AM or FM powerhouses in your neck of the woods, whether rap or dance or techno or alternative or rock or who-knows-what, and you’ll get pretty much the same batch of tunes as folks do on L.A.’s undiversified outlets. And we don’t need to spend more than a few bullet points summing up the current state of affairs in pop music lyric writing. You have your

  • cop-killing misogynists of the gangsta rap school, where violence is banal and women are whores;
  • three generations of tra-la-la Lolitas (Madonna, Britney, Miley) winking and slinking to coyly and crudely sing their featherweight fables of sunny seduction and guiltless sensuality;
  • angry troubadours and troubadourettes across a number of musicologically primitive genres;
  • the discombobulated heirs of such musico-moralizers as Tracy Chapman, Bruce Springsteen, Sheryl, and Melissa, correcting the benighted members of our Sick Society with profound pronouncements within their weighty warbles; and
  • those self-consciously Wizened Souls, like Sting and Paul Simon and these U2 characters, who find it incomprehensible that anyone young or hip or aware or intelligent would have any opinion outside the shallow orbit of Ellen or Rachel.

Did I leave anyone out? Of course.

I left out a lot, but I served up enough to make a meal. You know where I’m going with this, and you have enough examples of platitudinous high-school poetry, both in the above paragraphs and in your own memory, to sustain the following generalization: most pop music lyrics that touch on issues philosophical, or political, or spiritual, will rarely mention freedom except in the sorta-Southern-Rock semi-military style that patriotic football fans go for. We’re not just talking Bob Dylan here, you know? Yes, I’m sure you do.

And because you do, you will doubtless wait breathlessly for Part 2 (and there will be a Part 3, as well, so as not to weigh you down too much each time).

Putting Descartes Before the Hordes

He was a lawyer who never had a client—but he argued the case for rationalism, inveighing against the theretofore vague definitions of knowledge and truth, in his voluminous correspondence with the great thinkers and theologians of his age.

He joined the army of a Dutch prince at the age of 22—but he eschewed a military career to devote himself to the rigorous pursuit of knowledge through the study and application of mathematics and philosophy. He was French by birth—yet he died in Sweden after living most of his life in Holland.

Anomalies abound in the life of René Descartes, a man who, on the one hand, stands as a milestone on mankind’s long road to enlightenment and reason, and on the other, has had much of his life’s work disputed and derided.

The Procedural Rule

Rejecting the scholastic methods of his philosophical forebears, who sought truth by contrasting and comparing the views of accepted authorities, Descartes posited in “Meditations on First Philosophy” that a “firm and permanent structure” of knowledge requires building “anew from the foundation.” He determined to rid himself of presuppositions, ignore all but incontrovertible facts, and discount any evidence supplied by his senses.

To the extent that the use of this truth-seeking methodology—his Procedural Rule—succeeded in advancing the studies of optics, analytical geometry, and the theory of equations, Descartes shall be forever ensconced in the pantheon of intellectual giants. That his main contribution to philosophy was to establish the certainty of uncertainty suggests that his quest left him, as its chronicle left so many of his skeptical descendants, personally unfulfilled.

However readily one might accept Descartes’ process for challenging conventional wisdom by application of his Procedural Rule—and the fact that rationalism as a philosophical denomination was born with his “Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason”—it is clear that the “father of modern philosophy” was himself stymied by the limits of his senses and intellect. “[It] is not in my power to arrive at the knowledge of any truth,” he finally admitted.

Descartes was quick to add, however, that his Procedural Rule could ensure that he would never give “credence to any false thing.” Common sense, the sciences, mathematics, logic: In no domain is there indubitable truth provable by human methodologies, because of the undependable nature of our senses.

Yet pervading all of these realms is the consciousness of man, the inquiring and doubting self that is the only solid, certain, provable entity in Descartes’ dualistic universe, to wit: Cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I am.

Failing His Own Test

René Descartes, an extraordinarily gifted man, brought his formidable mind to bear on the profound questions of many disciplines, but through a peculiarly human, undisciplined application of his own methodology arrived at any number of specious, spurious, even silly conclusions.

For instance, the notion that “animal spirits” in human blood interact with “thinking substances” of the brain to create a nerve-channel charge that enables the limbs—was this fanciful idea put through the Procedural Rule wringer? And did the great Renatus Cartesius display intellectual integrity and dedication to objective truth by abandoning his belief in a Copernican universe when it was pronounced heretical by the Catholic Church?

So where, outside of his analytical analog to Euclidian construction, or the fundamental law of reflection, or his inspired though embryonic assertions of the undulatory theory of light, is the consistency, the unassailability, of Descartes’ philosophy?

A Place of Primacy and Permanence

The man who shook “foundations to [bring] the downfall of the rest of the edifice”; the man who was first to challenge categorically the perceptions, assumptions, and sensations upon which entire classical belief systems were founded; the man who enshrined along with the doubt of the objective the certainty of the subjective; the man who extrapolated from that subjective certainty the existence of a God apprehended by reason—this man does, indubitably, occupy a place of primacy and permanence in the history of philosophy.

Today, many of his great and varied contributions to our knowledge of geometry, optics, anatomy, and mathematics—not to mention our knowledge of knowledge itself—are unknown to most people on the planet. Yet someday, perhaps, the great René Descartes will be more widely recognized for his grand, passionate, provocative reasoning.

Perhaps he will even be as revered and respected as modern celebrity philosophers Eckhart Tolle, Bono, Bill Cosby, or Tom Cruise. It could happen; I don’t know.

I only know that I doubt it.

Just Because It’s Commercial Doesn’t Mean It’s Not Art

“Art,” said Modeste Mussorgsky, 19th century Russian composer, “is not an end in itself, but a means of addressing humanity.”

If you are an art student drawing close to graduation, and you balk at the prospect of selling out to corporate America, you have options. If you are independently wealthy, you never have to please anyone but yourself and can build your own museum. If you’re not rich, and still wish to retain your “artistic purity,” you can cajole wealthy patrons (the 21st century versions of the Medicis) or apply for government grants.

Frankly, if you wish to keep the taint of money, what the Bible calls “filthy lucre,” from your art, then your best bet is to have as little as possible. A vow of poverty, from either a Marxist political perspective or a Christian monastic one, may be indicated.

The eternal tension

Seriously, there is an eternal tension between art as “an end in itself” and art that addresses and connects with people. The latter includes art that connects with a marketing director because she thinks it will help sell her product. Whether you are an illustrator, sculptor, painter or filmmaker, you will have to confront the issue of “commercial art vs. fine art” and draw the appropriate lines in your own life. You should begin by challenging your preconceptions. In fact, you might want to make a lifelong habit of this.

Richard Rothstein, a photographer and writer living in Manhattan, brings the historical perspective. “I find it extremely amusing that commercial art of past civilizations and ages is now held in very high regard as fine art. Murals and carvings that promoted products and services in ancient Greece and Rome are now standing as fine art in great museums.”

The commercial/fine art dichotomy is false, says Rothstein. “Bad art is common, bad in composition, emotion, passion. But to divide art into ‘commercial’ versus ‘fine’ strikes me as arrogant and pompous.” One of the towering figures of modern art helps to prove his point. “Picasso churned out art like Ford churned out Model Ts. He was a genius at commercial art, building a brand that would make him very rich. Was he a commercial or a fine artist?”

Starvation vs. survival?

“The difference between commercial art and fine art,” says Joe Nyaggah, “is the difference between survival and starvation.” A 2008 graduate of the renowned arts program at California State University, Fullerton, Nyaggah is a designer who roams widely across the Web engaging in discussions on the social and professional roles of artists. He believes that what most people mean by “fine artist” is someone who creates works “that are only appreciated by a select, eccentric few.” Commercial artists, on the other hand, “execute on demand” rather than “on a whim,” and learn to make a living with their talent.

Nyaggah has little patience for talented people who posture as “starving artists” with moral superiority. “Hunger builds character, yes,” he says, “but money builds so much more. Houses, for instance, that you and your family can live in.”

Defining Freedom Down: Truly Obscene

Erik Jay:

Originally ran in May, when I had few followers. Still timely, and even more urgent. Please share this with friends, colleagues, and your email list.

Originally posted on TWILIGHT EMPIRE • by Erik Jay:

Aficionados of high-technology—from computers to iPods—have already learned to offer their gratitude, grudgingly or gladly, to American porn merchants. It is clear from even a cursory examination of technological progress over the last 50 years that the demand for adult content has driven advances in computing, communications, commerce, and consumer electronics.

It would not be far off base to say that every soccer mom watching a new Blu Ray DVD of a PG-rated movie owes a debt to Larry Flynt and Ron Jeremy for making X-rated ones. America owes a great debt to the porn industry for the 21st century’s media-rich, high-speed, always-on, 800-channel, hyper-individualistic lifestyle. Of this there is little doubt, and the story has (finally) gotten out.

Yet there is a much more serious issue facing our nation of plugged-in individuals, one that until recently never got quite the amount of press accorded the latest PlayStation or Hollywood…

View original 1,982 more words

From Hot Air to Second Wind (Part 2)

We begin Part 2 of ‘From Hot Air to Second Wind’ with the final paragraph of Part 1, but we encourage you to read the introduction in full before starting the conclusion, mainly because it is not the conclusion, and doesn’t come after it, either. That is one reason that it is called something with a “1″ in the name. Go ahead, read it, we’ll wait for you… Okay, then, here we go:

I was becoming one guy on the job, another guy everywhere else. After about a month of looking at meeting rooms full of unhappy harried faces, I stumbled upon a realization that would make me a congruent person for the home stretch of the contest: I recognized that I had better relationships off the job, when I was uniquely, solely “me,” than on the job, when I was a group member, one of “us.” I seized on this revelation like a stick shift and slammed it into overdrive.

To this point, I had been holding meetings and occasionally passing out some memos with sales figures, contest updates, bumpersticker boosterisms. The standard corporate fare. Armed with my new, enlightened outlook, I decided to make the sales-contest memos more entertaining, more “me.”

In the final five weeks of the contest, I cranked out about 150 “entertaining” memos; that’s right, four or five a day. Now, calling these productions “memos” is both too little and too much definition; some were undisguised, unadorned comic strips or short stories. What made them memos in any Websterian sense was that they had the words “Date,” “To,” and “From” on them, and “Subject” somewhere close by, usually near the top of the first page. 

And so I distributed my parodies, plays, and perorations; fraudulent celebrity interviews and fake book reviews; drawings, clippings, and doodles; jokes, insults, rumors, and limericks. Within days I had the happiest team in the contest. They contributed ideas, took copies home for friends, showered me with compliments; I was getting to know them, and they were getting to know me.

But by the end of the sales contest, I had learned another important lesson: Stay balanced. You see, I was too busy making people laugh to concentrate on sales goals and contest rules. I forgot that the idea was for me to motivate the team to better results. The pendulum had swung too far in the other direction, and got stuck.

We lost the contest.

The Big Lesson for me was that balance is essential to a successful life. I knew enough to try to spice up the dreary, empty-hype grind of a branch sales contest; but I didn’t know when to stop with the seasoning, already. I couldn’t seem to find a balance between steady sweaty effort and stress-relieving humor. 

The Big Lesson sank in. I left the computer supply biz; within a year I was writing and publishing an agonizingly precious humor mag called “Pedantic Monthly”; a couple of years after that, having joined the new Macintosh “desktop publishing revolution,” I was flying back to Boston to help some folks bring their national political bi-weekly to that new platform; and then, for another decade after that, I had my hands full running production for a magazine publisher, consulting, composing and performing original music, and writing essays, rants, and raves just for people like you.

There is a direct line from those silly sales-contest memos to the recollection of them that you are reading now. They changed my life. Writing was too serious an undertaking for me to squander my talent on corporate memoranda.

Still, being a philologic pack-rat does have its advantages, especially when it’s close to deadline and I need even more verbiage than I’ve already crammed into whatever weighty piece I’m producing. Having produced about a pound of quixotic and querulous memos way back when, writer’s block is a non-issue. I can reach into that bulging (and forever non-digitized) Pendaflex folder of fustian and flippancy, and transform yesterday’s hot air into today’s second wind.

Ah, the benefits of recycling.