Tag Archives: Laurie Anderson

The Book I Read: Wisdom Lit, the Power of Allusion, Lincoln in the Bardo, and the President’s Hat

As a student of literature, always a beginner, and one interested in a wide variety of wisdom literature or philosophical texts, certain books of historical and literary significance have crossed my radar, have maybe even made it into the home library, but have never been read, you know, famous philosophical or spiritual texts like the Tao Te Ching or The Bhagavad Gita or, more modern texts–Gibran’s The Prophet, for example. Among these kinds of work I would include the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Until recently, even though I was aware of the title and its historical, cultural, and spiritual mega-importance, I had no idea what it was about. It turns out–it is, in short, about a place called The Bardo–which I will feebly attempt to describe in the progress of this entry. This word “bardo,” too, was new to me. Only recently was I introduced to the concept of the bardo by the songwriter, composer, and performance artist Laurie Anderson–a huge influence on me, by the way–since the late 80s she has helped shape me as a writer and a musician–being, as she is, one of the most successful artists (in my humble opinion) to bridge the literary and musical worlds. In 2015 Laurie Anderson wrote, directed and produced a film with an accompanying soundtrack album, “Heart of a Dog.” Here we are on dogs again! At any rate, her film is a meditation on a number of things: living in New York in the aftermath of 9/11, her midwestern childhood and early traumatic brushes with death, but primarily, the loving relationship and ultimate loss of her pet terrier Lola–and by thinly veiled metaphor–her loving relationship and ultimate loss of her husband, Lou Reed. Actually, I don’t know that the metaphor is thinly veiled at all, it’s pretty obscure–Reed’s name is mentioned not once in the film–but the film does close with perhaps one of his last recorded songs, the beautiful and haunting “Turning Time Around.” At any rate, at one point in her film, she imagines her beloved puppy in this place–not just as an exercise, but as part of her spiritual practice–her rat terrier Lola is in the bardo.*

Don’t worry, eventually, I will arrive at the George Saunders novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. I’m serving up this long preamble, in part, to kind of demonstrate what we do sometimes when we are faced, from the get-go, (from the title!) with an allusion that we don’t understand. What’s the bardo?–the first question a reader is going ask when they approach this thing–that is, if they do not have the requisite prior knowledge. And I talk about this with my students all the time regarding allusion. What’s are the consequences, for a reader, of not understanding an allusion? If Shakespeare’s character mentions a Greek myth, for example, one that you don’t know, are you completely out in the cold? Can you still move forward without that knowledge with full understanding? Maybe you can. I know that Greek Myth was an absolute hole in my education when I was reading Shakespeare for the first time–and somehow I managed not only to understand Shakespeare but to love him. Here’s the thing I say. If you come across an allusion, and you DO have the requisite prior knowledge, your understanding of the work is enriched, as is your appreciation for how interconnected human beings are by STORY; it is a thread that binds us all together.

So, what’s the bardo? Now, granted, this is, as I have confessed, a new one for me. I have not read The Tibetan Book of the Dead, but, through Laurie Anderson’s work and some time with the google machine, I have discovered that the bardo, according to Tibetan Buddhism, is a transitional space between one life and the next. When you die, you spend, according to Tibetan lore, 49 days in the bardo, at which point you are reincarnated into the next life. Granted, this is a cursory, a superficial definition. Our job then, is not to understand everything there is to know about the bardo in Tibetan Buddhist teachings, but rather, to simply describe the way it is revealed in George Saunders’ novel.

We can get to that in a minute. First, it might be important to establish, quickly, a historical context for the novel, and to describe somewhat the unique, the super-strange, the inventive way, and the very challenging way, this novel is put together. First, it’s February 20th, 1862, about 10 months into the American Civil War, and president Abraham Lincoln’s son, William, 11 years old, dies at home in bed of typhoid fever. And to provide, again quickly, the premise of the novel: William arrives, after his death, in the bardo–where an enormous cast of characters who already occupy this space, are serving out their time, and who become immersed in the drama and tragedy of William’s death and the effort to help him through this liminal space to the other side.

Stylistically, the storytelling method here is singular, unlike anything I’ve ever seen–breaking both with conventions and tradition of narrative fiction, it is a highly experimental work. While the entire novel is mostly delivered in short bursts of prose separated from other bursts by a break or double space, the story is revealed to us in essentially two ways. Some chapters, a full quarter of them, I’d say loosely, are collections of, what seems to me, quotes from primary texts from the era–histories, news articles, essays, op ed articles, letters, oral histories or interviews–and it appears that these pieces of text are recorded faithfully by Saunders without changes. So these are pieces that Saunders has not written, per se, but only selected and then arranged. So that, for example, in several chapters that describe a party the Lincolns host at the White House while 11 year old Willie is upstairs dying, the description, the narrative line, speech and commentary are all made up from these quotes from primary source documents–each one with an identifying source note afterwards. Miraculously, these quotes from this wide range of sources, in the way that Saunders has selected and arranged them, provide a coherent and compelling narrative–a cacophony of voices that nevertheless provide clarity.

The remaining chapters, the bulk of this novel, (and what could be decisively described as Saunders’ own imaginative work), are delivered as a kind of play. Each burst of prose in these sections, then, are delivered by characters who occupy the bardo–unlike a play, however, where the character’s name is placed before the line they speak, in this case the lines the characters speak are followed by the name of the character speaking. This provides a challenge for the reader–the choice between a temptation to look ahead to the end of the burst to identify the speaker, or, to read the speech without knowing who the speaker is, and thus, be kind of guessing all the time until you might be able to identify the voice even before you’re told whose voice it is! This is hardly an issue when the lines from characters are short and follow one another in rapid-fire succession as they often do–the attribution is right there. Identifying characters or not seems to be more of an issue when the characters are given long lines or paragraphs of prose. Does it matter? I think it does–because each of these speakers has been uniquely characterized–they all have their back stories, their histories, their quirks, their syntax and rhythms. Who are these people? One of the questions that I had, which was never satisfactorily answered, was whether the characters in the bardo are also historical figures–or–are they purely the fictional creations of the novelist. Without time for further digging, my gut tells me that the latter is the case here. Still–who are these people?

There’s a mess of them, from all walks of life, it appears, with no common denominator save for the fact that they’re all in the bardo–and oddly, somewhat oblivious to their “condition.” –but primarily, there are three main characters in this bardo cacophony (Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III, and the Reverend Everly Thomas), characters who take center stage, speak most often, interact with each other, seem to have established in the bardo a long-term relationship, take turns telling the story, each from their own unique perspective, and guide us, the readers, through the drama–while all the others, dozens of them perhaps, interrupt, introduce bizarre side stories or other kinds of historical revelation, sometimes help out, other times provide insight, often provide comic relief, absurdity, and sometimes, other windows into the horrors of the 19th century, slavery, the civil war, occurring in what the characters often call “that previous place.”

I fear that I could go on and on an on about this novel and only scratch the surface. As I write this thing, conscious of wanting to stay under 2000 words or so, or, 20 or 25 minutes on the clock, my brain just swims with possibility. And I fear leaving out something key–not in the way of a spoiler–because I want to be really conscious of avoiding those, but in the way of capturing the most important and striking features of this novel for me. You know what I think I’ll do–something I do often when stymied about how to proceed organizing big ideas? I’m gonna make a list:

Let’s begin with some observations about the bardo.

The people there seem to be unaware that they’re dead–

The people there, when they are not out and about, inhabit what they all refer to as “sick beds,” which seem, to me anyway, to be a unintentional euphemism for coffin. Unintentional, again, because these residents don’t seem to be aware of their true nature–

The bardo is full of these sick beds–which seems to indicate that the bardo is essentially a massive cemetery–that the people in the bardo have not really travelled that far from their resting place.

Many of the people in the bardo are in various stages of anguish, or self-torture–if one did not know better, you might say that many of them are in Hell–

Or, you might say that they are in a process of repeatedly acting out or experiencing some of their worldly defects or traumas–although, some appear to be content where they are–do not wish to leave.

The environment there seems prone to surreal and bizarre states–people physically mutating in grotesque ways, hats raining from the sky, people being mutilated in an act of violence and then miraculously repairing themselves.

People in the bardo (in this bardo, anyway) seem to have been there a lot longer than 49 days–so, either Saunders is breaking with that particular convention of Tibetan Buddhist belief, or, the residents of the bardo experience time in an excruciating and elongated way.

When someone leaves the bardo, the process is referred to somewhat crudely as the matterlightblooming phenomena. It’s quite something. Clearly, a process that is bewildering to the residents of the bardo.

One of the most exciting features of bardo existence, and one of the devices that moves this story along and provides us with an exhaustive knowledge about the star of the show–not the folks in the bardo, not the young dead 11 year old boy, but the president Abraham Lincoln–is that the folks in the bardo discover they have the ability to inhabit the bodies of others–living others–and dramatically in a few key passages, some of them–actually many of them, inhabit the body, and therefore the mind, of Abraham Lincoln, while he is visiting his dead son in the crypt.

And I guess I would like to stop here to say that for me the single most profound takeaway from this novel is that I feel like I know more about Abraham Lincoln than I ever have–I feel like I have had the privilege of inhabiting that incredibly monumental historic figure–and the central drama of this piece seems to be the inconceivable, incomprehensible burden of losing a child–coupled with the potential loss of a nation that is under one’s charge. Most of us cannot imagine the second–but all of us who are parents or who had parents (I think that’s most of us), can imagine what it might be like to lose a child–and this novel gives us that viscerally. As bizarre as this novel is in its subject and in the way of its telling, it is an incredibly moving, heart wrenching, heavy work. But I am so glad I finally pulled it off the shelf. And I can’t have been alone–again–as strange as it is, it became a best seller for George Saunders and catapulted to many lists of great books made by people who know things about great books.

In my last installment of The Book I Read, I was inspired to end the episode/entry with a poem written by a friend of mine. This seems like a good tradition. Last time, too, that choice didn’t come out left field, but was a logical decision–in that the friend’s book recommendation was wholly responsible for the content of that episode–and the poem I had chosen served as a fitting bookend to the general subject matter under discussion. I want to keep that tradition going–or at least–let it be a motif in this series.

My friend and poet Don Colburn has published a book of poems called Mortality with Pronoun Shifts. It is a brilliant collection of poems that serves as a meditation on, you guessed it, mortality–and while there are no poems specifically about the bardo, there are poems here about great historical figures, two 19th century figures to be precise, Henry David Thoreau and Abraham Lincoln. I’d like to close by sharing with you a poem by Don Colburn, “Abe Lincoln’s Hat”

Abe Lincoln’s Hat

at the Smithsonian Museum

Topper, stovepipe, smokestack, cylinder,
it made him seven inches taller
than he was (and he was tall)
and, at a distance, fashionable.
But here, dim-lit behind glass,
without a gangly, scrabble-bearded president
to dignify and heighten, it looks lost.
Unlike those who saw him, say, at Gettysburg,
I can look down on the hard flat top,
the rub of wear and weather, streaks
like rust, their grainy whorls
a time-lapse of the overbearing stars.
And see, barely, darkness on darkness,
the black silk band he added after Willie died.

Someone named Davis made this hat,
a modest seven-and-one-eighth,
stiff-walled oval pillbox on a plate,
no give or dimple in the plush.
He wore it last and doffed it last
the night they went to Ford’s, arriving late.
After cheers, after the orchestra struck up
Hail to the Chief, the play resumed, Act Three.
Hatless again, he folded his 6-foot-4
into the rocker in the presidential box,
his top hat by his feet, out of the way.

Don Colburn

Oh my god. Right? Lincoln’s hat is perfectly preserved. He probably wouldn’t have thought to leave it on his head while watching a play, but, you know, he could have fallen over on top of it after he was shot. But no–it’s “out of the way.” I love this poem. And it makes me think of what people leave behind after they’re gone, you know, people who aren’t presidents. And I can’t help but think about a musician friend of mine who recently died. I wonder where he put his bass guitar–whether it might be preserved. But he made music and he recorded music. Bob’s bass. Lincoln’s hat. Bob’s music. Lincoln’s hat. Hey Abe, say hello to Bob for me, in the bardo. Meanwhile, I will keep listening.

Here is a link to the podcast version of this blog entry

*I discovered today, that after Laurie Anderson’s 2015 “Heart of a Dog” film and album, in 2019, she released an album called “Songs from the Bardo.” I’m listening now for the first time–kind of embarrassed that it was not on my radar–but I’m thinking that this, for the uninitiated, might be a wonderful introduction to all things bardo–perhaps a more accessible route than tackling The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and one that might provide some insights ahead of time to the imagery Saunders incorporates into his novel Lincoln in the Bardo.

https://open.spotify.com/album/08D0Jby6PtRWX9io6dQamA?si=f9CBUAMoTXitR2VVVVLP6A&dl_branch=1

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Educational Music Shopping: Why Did These Artists Win Grammys?

Okay, I know exactly why the Laurie Anderson/Kronos Quartet record won a Grammy: because it is awesome. But I wondered about the other winners, the ones that, of course, I had heard of (you’d have to be living under a rock not to have heard of them), but had never listened to. So, at Music Millennium a couple of weekends ago, the oldest independent record store in Portland, Oregon, and one of my favorite places on the planet, I did some record shopping, and in an unusual state of looking for nothing in particular, I decided in the end to buy albums from artists that, while having minimal interest in heretofore, won a Grammy, and thus earned the distinction of the I-should-probably-know-something-about-this-record award from yours truly. I bought two albums that weekend from such artists: “Anthem of the Peaceful Army” by Greta Van Fleet, and “By the Way, I Forgive You” by Brandi Carlile. It was actually a different album from Greta Van Fleet that had the honor of winning a Grammy, but this was their most recent thing and, I thought, should be most representative of what they’re doing presently. They won for Best Rock album, and Carlile won for Best Americana album.

Let’s talk about the rock. Greta Van Fleet are clearly superbly talented young musicians. There can be no doubt about that. They’re a tight band, each member obviously not just proficient but accomplished on his instrument. They’re all very handsome young dudes as well, and the fact that three of them are brothers ads a kind of irresistible adorability factor. They have all those things going for them. Again, I’m not listening to the record that earned them a Grammy, but the one immediately and closely after. Are the songs good? Yes, on the whole, the songs are good. Is this band Grammy worthy? I have a few concerns.

The buzz around Greta Van Fleet is that they are a 21st century Led Zeppelin. And at first listen, and second listen, and third, this comparison seems absolutely appropriate. The lead singer out Robert Plants Robert Plant. He’s probably more virtuosic than the original, but if at times while listening to this record you close your eyes (which is a very silly thing to say, as the music will sound the same whether your eyes are open or closed), you will think you are hearing a long lost but sonically superior Led Zeppelin song. It’s possible that this singer is just doing his own thing, and his own thing happens to sound like Robert Plant’s thing, but it’s also just as easy to conclude that this guy is deliberately aping the mighty 70’s hard rock singer. It’s that close. And because, stylistically speaking, everything about this record seems to be paying tribute to 70’s hard rock bands, it’s difficult to believe that these boys were not studying the Led Zeppelin catalogue while they were in their diapers. And when he doesn’t sound like Robert Plant, the singer sounds like Geddy Lee. And sometimes he sounds like Geddy Lee sounds like Robert Plant, you know, a là Rush’s debut record. And not only is his singing eerily similar to these two giants, but his lyrics seem also straight out of the “Misty Mountain Hop”/”Kashmir”/”Anthem”/”By-Tor and the Snow Dog” songbook. And I find them silly. Rush’s lyrics are also silly, but when I fell in love with them first I was in the seventh grade. I think this record would have been infinitely more interesting to me in the 7th grade. But while I’m listening and driving, I’m banging my head. I’m a 7th grader again.

I read that Alice Cooper also dubbed these guys the new Led Zeppelin, and said they were doing a tremendous service for guitar rock in the 21st century, and if you love the Zep and wish they were still making records, I suppose Greta Van Fleet will satisfy those desires. My feeling is, yes, that could be a very good thing, but their stuff is super derivative, not original or groundbreaking in the slightest, and, I guess, not very interesting to me outside of its rocky goodness (no small potatoes), and perhaps, if it were my decision, Greta Van Fleet would not be worthy of a Grammy.  Nevertheless, I like this record and will listen to it a bunch more times likely before I tire of it.

Let’s move on to the Americana. First of all, what the hell’s Americana music? I’ve only been hearing this term for the last six or seven years, have played with musicians who consider themselves playing in this genre, but I’m still not completely sure I know what it is. But apparently though, it’s so much a thing now so as to have its own category of awards at the Grammys. So let’s look it up, shall we? From wikipedia:

Americana is an amalgam of American music formed by the confluence of the shared and varied traditions that make up the musical ethos of the United States, specifically those sounds that are merged from folk, country, blues, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, gospel, and other external influences.

The definition on AmericanaMusic.org is super similar, but they’ve added this little nugget, which I find instructive, that while Americana draws from all these other genres, it results “in a distinctive roots-oriented sound that lives in a world apart from the pure forms of the genres upon which it may draw. While acoustic instruments are often present and vital, Americana also often uses a full electric band.” What I find kind of funny about these definitions is that they seem to fit almost any musical outfit that is cross-pollinating genres. How “distinctively roots-oriented” could you get while playing around between six or seven different traditions–how could that be “a world apart”? I don’t have anything against artists and musicians who are not squarely in a particular camp, if fact, I admire that kind of thing, I’m just having difficulty deciding if Americana is an actual genre or whether it’s just a label we use when we can’t describe the genre but nevertheless decide that it feels genuinely American. Sidenote: listen to Elton John’s
“Madman Across the Water” and tell me that that record sounds British. I dare you.

So Brandi Carlile won the best album award in the category of Americana for “By the Way, I Forgive You”. What intrigues me about my response to this record is that, while it is a type of thing stylistically that I would be usually much less interested in than I would be in a record from, say, Greta Van Fleet, I like Carlile’s album a lot more than I like “Anthem of the Peaceful Army.”

At first, its decidedly country influence out of the gate puts me off some. Typically and with few exceptions, I do not favor country music. I especially do not like contemporary popular country music. Brandi Carlile’s voice is unabashedly a country sounding voice and the first tune on the album, “Every Time I Hear That Song,” seems to me an unabashedly country song. But she is none of the things I hate about country, and while I’m not a huge fan of that opening track, “The Joke” is something different altogether. This thing is an anthem. It’s got tremendous power, lyrically and musically. The first time I heard the song, I almost wept. In fact, in every subsequent listen, I can feel that tug. One of these times I think I’m going to have to let loose. It’s like the “We are the Champions,” the “Shout,” or the “We Are Young” of Americana. This is one thing that makes this album significantly different and better. Brandi Carlile is an ADULT and she’s writing very seriously about serious adult things; there’s no ice and snow in fairyland here (not that there’s anything wrong with that). And the music, if it’s intended to be roots oriented, seems to me at times much more sophisticated, more progressive. Check out that third tune, “Hold Out Your Hand,” a tune with a jaunty little bluegrass verse that busts into a kind of slamming, again anthemic, four on the floor stomp swing in the chorus and culminates in this shouty, chant-like spoken word thing, coupled with one of those nonsensical background vocal hooks worthy of The Beatles. And, country twang or no country twang, Carlile is a powerful and interesting singer.

Americana? I guess so. There’s country here, blue grass, folk, rock, etc. Rootsy? Okay, but there’s orchestration on this album as well, beautiful and lush string orchestration, and that don’t strike me as rootsy. She sounds like Elton John trying to sound like an American. Maybe “By the Way, I Forgive You” is an Americana record simply because it defies easy categorization. That’s okay. I’m easy. Is it Grammy worthy? I think if it can make a 54 year old man want to cry, sure. Give this record a Grammy.

Postscript Ramblings: I’m kind of jonesing to get back to my alphabet project, the game of listening to a single album by every artist represented in my compact disc collection in alphabetical order and then writing about it. I started this project years ago, only got half way through the letter H, and then stopped. Mostly it’s because I cannot stop buying new music and new music listening seems to always take precedent. And I’ve spent lots of time listening to “new” music by artists that I’ve already written about in the alphabet, namely, rediscovering the entire early catalog of Bowie and the entire entire catalog by Kate Bush. And I’ve been listening to a lot of vinyl. And I’ve been discovering, like I have above, other new things that have ere now been completely out of my wheelhouse: Solange, Childish Gambino, Anderson .Paak, Richard Hawley. I have to forgive myself for being distracted by so much good music pulling me away from the alphabet. I’ll get back to it some day, maybe someday soon. If this appeals to you, let me know.

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#38: Last Night I Dreamt I Was Awake and Unable to Sleep

dreaming

I’m not especially skilled at dream interpretation, probably because I don’t invest the time.  However, here’s a poem about one of the most annoying types of dreams in my personal repertoire.  True story.

Last Night I Dreamt I Was Awake and Unable to Sleep

Last night I dreamt
I was awake and unable
to sleep.
In the dream, I got up
and decided to watch a movie
and I landed on a new
film by the performance artist
Laurie Anderson
in which all the dialogue
(which was really a monologue)
was delivered in reverse
chronological order.
I love Laurie Anderson
but I was too fatigued
for this particular experiment
and decided to go back
to bed where I was already
sleeping to try to get some sleep.
In many ways, dreaming
about not being able to sleep is the worst
kind of dream, a disequilibrium
of purpose, the sensation
of not doing a thing you’re
actually doing, like teaching
sometimes, or living, loving,
all manner of things attempted
and fallen short,
like dreaming you’re awake and trying
to sleep,
not quite like sleeping,
not quite like waking.
And in the morning,
when you realize that the whole
time when you thought you were awake
you were actually asleep,
you feel better, but not sufficiently:
happy, but disappointed, cheated, and tired.

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