On the humanities Saturday, Apr 5 2008 

So I decided to retitle this blog. The original ‘Music, Books, Film, &c’ had the advantage of being upfront and descriptive of its contents but on the downside was a little literal and lackadaisical since I am very bad at thinking up pithy or memorable titles for anything (essays and papers included). Can you tell that I like alliteration?

Anyhow, ‘Jolly Good Stuff in the Fine Arts’ fits the bill quite well for a blog that (currently) includes posts of praise on art, film, literature and music, if what we’re going for is a title that describes the contents. (One should not underestimate the importance of titles befitting their contents.) The travel portion is a little tricky but it does offer insight into (the rest of) this world and the people in it, much like the fine arts. I always do feel that, by imbibing good books, good music, good film/television, and good art, one can become more learned and yet more humble simultaneously.

Though I’ve had a lifelong appreciation of the fine arts, I studied science subjects all the way through my Singapore education (although I did 4 years of history and English literature during secondary school) and am tremendously thankful that I decided to make a switch to the social sciences in university. Luckily the University College of Oxford decided that this biology/chemistry/physics/mathematics student was worth taking a chance on, and accepted me to study 3 years of Philosophy, Politics and Economics. I am absolutely a better person for it and I think many others would have a similar benefit as well. They don’t call ’em the humanities subjects for nothing.

Apropos of this, here are some thoughts from someone who would evidently agree with me, Professor David W. Oxtoby, president of Pomona College in the USA. Excerpts from his speech last week to the National University of Singapore faculty, reproduced in The Straits Times:

A liberal arts education at its deepest aims to teach students the skills they need to function effectively in a democracy.
A devastating critique of society and education by the 19th century sociologist Max Weber is relevant here. ‘In a modern state, the actual ruler is necessarily and unavoidably the bureaucracy,’ he said, ‘since power is exercised… through the routines of administration.’ Even more harshly, Weber said: ‘The world could one day be filled with nothing but those little cogs, little men clinging to little jobs…’
Weber argued that education needed to focus not just on the training of specialized experts to sustain a bureaucracy, but also on the education of statesmen who can change that bureaucracy. In this regard, he held out the goal of educating the ‘cultivated man’ who can stand outside of a bureaucratic structure, critique it and transform it. This, to me, is the central purpose of liberal education.
… we must recognize that we are not only educating our students to move into professions; we are also preparing citizens who can help the world make wise decisions. Education for responsible citizens needs to be a core goal. As technical challenges influence our daily lives more each year, everyone needs a more advanced understanding of the scientific method, and the quantitative meaning of probability and uncertainty. As we become more globally inter-connected, every college graduate needs to understand not only economics and politics, but also religion and culture.

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Once & Again: The Mystery Dance Tuesday, Feb 20 2007 

No single television series has ever spoken to me as much as Once & Again did – and does. No, I’ve never experienced divorce, either directly or indirectly, which is the basis of the basic storyline. Neither am I American, WASP or Jewish. None of the characters is my age. But Once & Again is perhaps one of the best-written, best-acted, and loveliest shows ever made; the best example for the case that TV can be educational, edifying, eye-opening. (My So-Called Life, the other series by creators Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, is pretty outstanding, but Once & Again is the very pinnacle of television.)

And it is moving. Today, as I re-watched the first season episode ‘The Mystery Dance’, a poem, read in turns by two characters at a crossroads in their lives, leapt out at me. It had never made the same impression before; its relevance had been confined to the characters’ situations. I suppose I’m at the point in my life that makes me ripe for it. This is my first Chinese New Year holiday since 2002, my first as a working person, at the start of the rest of my life.

‘George Gray’ is part of a collection of poems, each of which is a posthumous, autobiographical epitaph, by the American poet/biographer/dramatist Edward Lee Masters. It was originally published in 1915 in his Spoon River Anthology, which is proof positive that some things are universal. ‘George’ contemplates his headstone and his life-that-wasn’t – a sharp nudge in the ribs, a painfully sad reminder to those of us, still living, to live.

George Gray

I have studied many times

The marble which was chiseled for me –

A boat with a furled sail at rest in a harbor.

In truth it pictures not my destination

But my life.

For love was offered me and I shrank from its disillusionment;

Sorrow knocked at my door, but I was afraid;

Ambition called to me, but I dreaded the chances.

Yet all the while I hungered for meaning in my life.

And now I know that we must lift the sail

And catch the winds of destiny

Wherever they drive the boat.

To put meaning in one’s life may end in madness,

But life without meaning is the torture

Of restlessness and vague desire –

It is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.

Edgar Lee Masters

Neil Young: Rust Never Sleeps Sunday, Jan 21 2007 

I still remember the very first thoughts I had when I heard this album for the first time. I couldn’t believe my ears when faint sounds of the audience cheering and clapping came through on the first track, ‘My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)’. They went thus:

1. This is an amazingly clean recording, for a live performance. It sounds like a studio recording.

2. This is live. LIVE. He’s playing that acoustic guitar and blowing that harmonica and singing perfectly, all at once, and live.

3. Eeks. I hope there isn’t going to be audible cheering and clapping all throughout the recording.

No worries on that last account. I understand that the audience track was removed from what was indeed a series of recordings made of new, unreleased songs that Mr. Young was trying out on a previous tour. But Rust Never Sleeps is more than just a pioneering effort. Had it been a conventional Neil Young studio effort (if there is such a thing), it would still have been an astounding musical achievement. Especially that guitar-playing. This is the album that made me want to learn guitar. Whether acoustic or electric, I didn’t care – and there’s plenty of both on the album – I just wanted to be able to produce the gorgeous/ferocious combination of sounds that was assailing my ears.

Not that Rust Never Sleeps is all harsh on the ears. I wasn’t paying full attention on first listen, but I got a vague feeling that the songs were getting more and more fierce/wild/loud/fast as the album progressed. It was quite a surprise to find out subsequently that the album had in fact been neatly split into acoustic and electric halves, coinciding nicely with the two sides of a vinyl record in, ahem, the days of vinyl. I listen to it in CD form, of course, but it’s still a nice idea. At any rate, it showcases to good effect the two (main) sides of Mr. Young’s musical personality – elegiac acoustic folk and heavy electric rock – as became apparent to me the more of his albums I heard.

I like both sides. Both sides of Rust Never Sleeps and of Neil Young’s musical personality, that is. The acoustic portion of Rust Never Sleeps has some of the most lovely music he has ever written and performed, in particular the gorgeous bridge of ‘Ride My Llama’, which juxtaposes jerky, rhythmic acoustic guitar and bass and the silky-smooth unison singing of Mr. Young and Nicolette Larson to incredible polyphonic effect. But ‘Pocahontas’ and ‘Sail Away’ have no less beautiful, though simple, melodies and arrangements. The appeal of the really loud electric half, with its distorted guitars, occasional feedback and extended soloing (never mind if it sometimes consists only of repeated single notes) is more… visceral. Crazy Horse, Mr. Young’s usual ‘back-up band’ (although I don’t think the term does them justice) are tremendously sympathetic in their playing and vocal harmonies. And I’m very fond of the percussive clapping used in ‘Welfare Mothers’ (at least, I think it’s clapping): I wonder just who did that; perhaps the stagehands were roped in? Plus, the huge contrast between the two versions of what is essentially the same song – the acoustic album opener ‘My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)’ and the electric album closer ‘Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)’ – is a wonder to behold.

Rust Never Sleeps is also special to me because this is where I first recognised Neil Young’s wonderful and essential lyrical weirdness. He is real knacky where the music is concerned, but he’s no slouch with the words either. The songs on Rust Never Sleeps are tied together loosely by a few motifs, including Native American history, time travel, a long journey, &c, and sometimes they come together in a bizarre but highly pleasing mix of imagery. To wit, ‘Pocahontas’:

I wish I was a trapper, I would give a thousand pelts

To sleep with Pocahontas and find out how she felt

In the morning, on the fields of green

In a homeland we’ve never seen

And maybe Marlon Brando would be there by the fire

We’d sit and talk of Hollywood, and the good things there for hire

And the Astradome, and the first tepee

Marlon Brando, Pocahontas and me

The idea of a long journey – often an allegory for the artistic quest – is not exactly ground-breaking in rock music. But few, if any, have written about it in such an interesting manner, I think. From ‘Thrasher’:

It was then that I knew I’d had enough

Burned my credit card for fuel

Headed out to where the pavement turns to sand

With a one-way ticket to the land of truth

And my suitcase in my hand

How I lost my friends I still don’t understand.

The above evokes the most important idea in Rust Never Sleeps: that the artist must vigilantly fight the temptation and tendency to stagnate. Even the album title serves as a rather lyrical admonishment: Wikipedia informs me that ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ was the slogan of an anti-rust paint, Rustoleum. This theme, together with the acoustic/electric split, makes for quite a concept, and is itself fully embodied in Neil Young’s work on this album.

Rust Never Sleeps was released in 1979 (strangely enough, in the same year as my favourite album London Calling). The musical event which provoked Mr. Young’s reflections was, of course, the rise of punk rock in the late 1970s. Punk rock was anti-establishment in both its musical style (short, loud, ferocious, simple to the point of simplistic) and lyrical preoccupations (aggressively rebellious, politically and socially aware, and sometimes anarchic). It was uncomfortable and uncomforting, a direct counterpoint to the popular music that came before, and emphatically not inclined to rest on its laurels. A secondary musical event was perhaps the 1977 death of Elvis Presley, himself a pioneer in his prime. So Neil Young pays tribute to those newcomers – like the Sex Pistols – who were, at that point, forcing established artists like himself to keep staying relevant or suffer artistic death:

The King is gone but he’s not forgotten

This is the story of a Johnny Rotten

It’s better to burn out ‘cause rust never sleeps

The King is gone but he’s not forgotten

And to underscore the crucial importance of guarding against artistic complacency, Mr. Young made it the subject of the album’s ‘bookends’, viz. ‘My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)’ and ‘Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)’. The late Kurt Cobain may have shared this belief, including a now infamous line from the former – ‘It’s better to burn out than to fade away’ – in his suicide note. (I say ‘may’ because there is controversy over the rather romantic suggestion that Mr. Cobain killed himself because he simply could not deal with the massive and unexpected success of Nirvana.) And I did quite a double-take when I re-watched the film High Fidelity (one of my favourites, in part because of John Cusack), and finally recognised the line, coming out of Jack Black’s mouth while his character Barry was ranting to Cusack’s character Rob:

‘Rob. Top 5 musical crimes perpetrated by Stevie Wonder in the ‘80s and ‘90s: Go. Sub-question: is it in fact unfair to criticise a formerly-great artist for his latter-day sins? Is it better to burn out or to fade away?’

That line, that theme, and Neil Young by extension, have certainly entered pop culture. A funny incident occurred the other day. I mentioned to a colleague that Mr. Young’s 1970s retrospective compilation album Decade was going for a rather exorbitant price in a music shop in Singapore, and my colleague replied: ‘Oh, but Neil Young is rather esoteric, isn’t he?’ Well, perhaps he’s considered esoteric here. But even though 10 months ago I myself had never heard of Neil Young, I find it funny now to hear him spoken of as if he weren’t a Major Artist in the history of popular music. Rust Never Sleeps plays a big part in that.

I never believed in Father Christmas, but… Saturday, Jan 6 2007 

What would have been a festive season-appropriate entry, if not for the earthquake that disrupted internet traffic throughout the Asia-Pacific around Dec 25, and the pick-up in workload that follows an extended hiatus:

It’s good to believe in Father Christmas for a while. It trains our imagination on the little lies, so that we can believe the big lies like justice, truth. – Terry Pratchett

(I may be paraphrasing what I read in our local paper. I don’t have an elephantine memory.)

MUM: ‘How cynical.’

ME (yes, that’s ungrammatical, but what the hey): ‘Really? I thought it was precisely the opposite of cynical.’

And that is one of the things that I like so much about Terry Pratchett.

Say Anything… Friday, Nov 24 2006 

I’ve been putting off writing about Say Anything…, because it’s tough to describe the film experience that set off a slow explosion (oxymoron be damned) of sorts. (Yes, the ellipsis is part of the title.) I’d decided to watch the film on a whim, largely because of the high rating on its IMDB page. (I don’t rely slavishly on the ratings – lots of films I love have not been similarly loved by IMDB users, and vice versa. But it is probably worthwhile checking something out when lots of people think that it’s good. And I found out subsequently that Roger Ebert – a film critic I respect enormously simply because his opinion is always a considered one, though I do disagree with him on occasion – considered Say Anything… a Great Movie.) Funny how such a casual decision led, gradually, to discoveries substantial enough to change my life. For the better. Not a lot, but enough.

Reaction on first viewing of Say Anything…: ‘Yeah, it’s pretty good’. Could not get more specific than that, which is unusual. I generally find it easy to size up most films after one viewing, so when I can’t articulate much more than ‘this is good’, then repeat viewings are in order, for me to fully appreciate the thing.

Reactions from many, many viewings: Amazingly nuanced story-telling and characters. Realistic dialogue realistically delivered, with a surprising number of memorable lines. Endlessly amusing, packed with jokes of all kinds; but the humour is gentle and empathetic. Life-affirming in subtle but important ways, right down to the ending. And, most salient for the purpose of my anecdote, with staggering acting by John Cusack. I supposed that his personality had to be exactly like Lloyd Dobler’s in real life – so gut level-convincing was his performance as Lloyd – that it came as quite a shock to watch Mr. Cusack coming across just as real when playing Walter Gibson, a vastly different character, in The Sure Thing.

John Cusack was one of those actors I’d never really heard of, and not just because he didn’t usually take on blockbusters. In fact, I had seen him in action (no pun intended) in the one blockbuster he’s done, Con Air, but ironically didn’t even remember that he was in it despite him having a substantial role. Say Anything… was a revelation, because it introduced me to some of the most realistic, intelligent, emotionally sophisticated acting I’d ever seen. Suffice it to say I became a real admirer, and set about watching a whole lot of films in his back catalogue. Along the way I started finding him extremely interesting as a person as well, insofar as it is possible to know what an actor is like in real life. But that’s neither here nor there. The point is, Say Anything… led to John Cusack, who led me to a whole lot of his films including Grosse Pointe Blank, the watching of which triggered my first real interest in popular music. Voila. (Incidentally I am very fond of the Replacements song used in Say Anything…, ‘Within Your Reach’, which Mr. Cusack has described as being completely apposite as a soundtrack to his own teenage years.)

Anyway. I was only six years old when Say Anything… came out in theatres in 1989, which meant that I missed it along with all the other ‘80s teen films. Comparisons are odious and all that, but it’s hard not to feel that Say Anything was in a league of its own in this genre, even including the really famous John Hughes/Brat Pack ones, those that I have watched. Though the label ‘teen film’ is a mischaracterisation in this case and doesn’t do Say Anything… justice: I’m pretty sure adults would get just as much, if not more, enjoyment out of the film, and romance, while a part of the story, isn’t the be-all and end-all.

It is almost impossible to summarise the plot of Say Anything… without making it sound, yup, like a teen film, so I shan’t try, especially since I don’t pretend to be writing a review. Besides, the plot really isn’t the point. Acting-wise, Mr. Cusack aside, John Mahoney and Ione Skye deliver similarly strong performances as the other two main characters, and even those in bit parts are memorable. But a whole lot of credit must go to the brilliantly incisive and funny yet economical script, written by Cameron Crowe (he of Almost Famous fame), and unobtrusive yet sympathetic direction, done by the same, all the more remarkable for the fact that he was directing for the first time. (It must be tough to have somehow produced a master-work on your first outing: it’d be hanging over your head for the rest of your career.)

Till today, Say Anything… remains one of my favourite John Cusack films, and I’ve watched quite a lot of them. It’s right up there with High Fidelity and Grosse Pointe Blank. What is more, it is one of my favourite films, period.

Worldly things Tuesday, Oct 24 2006 

A while ago all my belongings finally arrived home from overseas. And I realised anew just how many CDs I have, while piling them up on my brother’s bed (the only flat space available in the house for the moment). They probably number more than 100 – nothing compared to some people’s music collections which were built up over decades, of course, but I happen to be suffering from an acute storage shortage. Besides, I only picked up this interest a short time ago, so it’s disconcerting to find that I have managed to accumulate this much. This is a bit of a habit, I suppose: when I become interested in something I’ll buy, buy, buy things related to it. Even when I was still at school the porters, who were old dears, would joke about my packages (boxes of DVDs and books from Amazon and the like) causing them hernias.

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How this started Sunday, Oct 8 2006 

One day in June 2006 – the eve of the last day of my final exams – I found myself getting horribly distracted from exam preparations by, of all things, thoughts about how wonderful London Calling (the album, not the song) was. I alternated between berating myself, trying (to no avail) to concentrate on my notes, and digging out the album insert to scrutinise the lyrics of ‘Rudie Can’t Fail’. This was, for me, quite a strange and unnerving experience. I don’t generally have problems remaining focused on important (or at least immediate) tasks. Later that night, lying quite sleepless in bed, it came to me: I need to write about my feelings on such things as London Calling.

Call it catharsis if you will. When I subsequently read Emily of New Moon for the first time, I finally understood her ‘flashes’ – instances when she felt very close to a world of indescribable beauty – to be identical to the experience I had with London Calling. I’ve had flashes all my life, except that where the stimuli for Emily’s flashes were always visual, my flashes are brought on by all sorts of things, including nature, art, books, films, and of course music. When they come on it’s as if some sort of veil or fog that perpetually surrounds you lifts momentarily: and you suddenly perceive everything more vividly. The world is more colourful; sharp; tangy; and, for whatever reason, hopeful. You feel more alive. You are overcome by feelings of great pleasure and wonder. And then you feel an incredibly pressing need to record those sensations.

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