Saturday, August 27, 2011


After a fire destroys his home, Dr. Ibrahim Masud, a Muslim living on the Indian side of the new India-Pakistan border in Amit Majmudar's novel Partitions, decides to head to his clinic by bicycle, as he does every morning: "Violence would not trespass on the dominion of illness." In literature, such a conviction is immediately punished, so when Masud arrives at his clinic, it is no surprise that it has been destroyed. Beyond that, Masud's conviction is proved more generally erroneous throughout the novel, as violence repeatedly "trespasses on dominions" that are supposed to be exempt from it.

When I remembered the line later, I misquoted it to myself, replacing the word "dominion" with the word "domain." But "dominion" is the right word here: both in the novel and in the world in general, the trespasses of violence are aimed not at "domains" (places in general) but at "dominions" (places that are governed or ordered in some way by some authority). Where a boundary has been established, a dominion is created, and violence will seek to trespass on that dominion.

More specifically, "dominion" is the word used in the British Commonwealth to refer to some former colonies, including, apparently, Pakistan. And the creation of Pakistan and India in 1947 set up "dominions" in which violence was not seen as "trespassing" as long as it was directed at others: the Muslims in India, like Masud; the Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan, like the novel's three other main characters.

In the end, this wonderful novel reminded me of Wayne Wang's movie Smoke, in its implication that the bonds of blood, family, and religion are weaker than the bonds one chooses to establish with others. The former establish dominions that are all to likely to attract the trespassing power of violence—or even to generate that violence within themselves. The latter, the chosen bonds, may be utopian in the negative sense of "unrealistic," but in their rejection of "partitions," they are also utopian in the positive, visionary sense.

Thursday, August 18, 2011


I recently discovered Brian Brodeur's blog "How a Poem Happens." Each post has a poem and a series of questions for the poet—mostly the same questions, which makes for interesting comparisons in terms of how the poets work and how they think about what they are doing. My favorite section in most of the recent ones I read is, "Do you believe in inspiration?" And my favorite answer is the one given by David Hernandez:

Inspiration is a lazy architect who gives you a blueprint with only the front door drawn, then snoozes on a hammock while you build the entire house.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Rosy-Cheeked Shuffle

Even when the band stretches out and demonstrates its cohesiveness, you feel the ghost of Jerry Garcia and his rosy-cheeked shuffle.

So writes Sasha Frere-Jones in his New Yorker review of My Morning Jacket's latest album, Circuital. Jerry Garcia as Santa Claus? I kind of like the idea, as in this picture I just found on the web, but Jerry-bashing in order to praise MMJ's "cohesiveness" even when "stretching out" misses the cohesiveness of Jerry's own playing. And when Frere-Jones goes on to discuss MMJ's jam-band self-marketing in the next paragraph, he messes up the history entirely:

Something wonderfully odd has happened: though the punks famously want nothing to do with the system, it was the hippies—because of jam bands like Phish and the String Cheese Incident—who were the first to abandon the traditional music business, at least in part. They built enormous fan bases by touring endlessly. They earned reasonable salaries and were largely freed from worrying about how many records they sold or whether they were played on the radio.

As Phish and SCI would be the first to tell you, it was the Grateful Dead (with their rosy-cheeked shuffle) who first built their fan base by focusing on touring and thus freed themselves from record sales and radio airplay. If you're going to bash Jerry as a sweet old hippie, Mr. F-J, at least get your facts right!

And just to belie the image of Jerry as some sort of sweet musical Santa, here's Jerry and the Dead getting into a close encounter in 1978:

Friday, August 05, 2011


Most of my touchstones make implicit or explicit claims that I in some way agree with. Kafka's "Das nächste Dorf" is not just a pleasant paradox that amuses me but a complex statement about time that helps me sort out how it passes. But sometimes I refer to something again and again primarily because it is a pleasant paradox, as with Roland Barthes's claim about re-reading: if you read a lot of books one time each, you keep reading the same book, but if you read one book twice, then you've read two different books. I've been quoting this claim for over twenty years now, and I don't even remember where it comes from—or whether I even read it at all. Perhaps some grad-school buddy quoted it to me; perhaps he or she has long since forgotten it, while it stuck with me, to be fingered now and then.

It came to me again the other day, this pleasant paradox, and now I've realized that I have always read it in a way that contradicts its content: by quoting it so often, I re-read it multiple times over the years, but it was always the same. And now it's different, and only now that it's different do I understand that it is more than the pleasant paradox I long held it to be. Without realizing it, I'd always understood it in terms of re-reading a book twice in quick succession (perhaps because that's what one does in grad school when writing about a book). Now I see Barthes's claim in terms of re-reading something years or even decades later—or seeing a touchstone anew, after many years of referring to it. The works that accompany me change with me as I grow older—but so do the little fragments that I've torn out of context even as I "re-read" them every time I quote them. And every new book or poem or song or quotation I come across is the same book, poem, song, or quotation as all the others until I give it my attention a second time—or until it makes me pay attention to it a second time. I never know in advance which ones will become new touchstones, but at least I know that the old ones will always be new every time I take them out to touch them.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Furthur and The Grateful Dead

Furthur is the current band of the Grateful Dead's Bob Weir and Phil Lesh, with John Kadlecik on lead guitar, Jeff Chimenti on keyboards, Joe Russo on drums, and Jeff Pehrson and Sunshine Garcia Becker on backing vocals. The band has played over 100 shows since their first gig in September 2009, and though I have not had a chance to hear them live (since I live in Switzerland and they have not been in Europe yet, and I always miss them by days when I'm in the U.S.), I have listened to recordings of all their shows, thanks to the Live Music Archive and Furthur's own live downloads. Gradually, despite my being a veteran Deadhead (83 shows from 1982-1995), I have come to the conclusion (with a couple of caveats) that Furthur is a better band than the Grateful Dead.

The primary reason is Jeff Chimenti on keyboards. Chimenti's background is primarily in jazz, and he has played with Bob Weir's band Ratdog since the late 1990s, as well as being on keyboards with the various incarnations of The Dead (as the surviving members of the Grateful Dead—Weir, Lesh, Mickey Hart, and Bill Kreutzmann—called themselves in 1003-4 and 2008-9). Simply put, Chimenti is a much better player than any of the Grateful Dead's keyboard players. None of them (Pigpen, Tom Constanten, Keith Godchaux, Brent Mydland, Vince Welnick, or even Bruce Hornsby, whose tenure on piano with the GD was brief but wonderful) ever had the chops to provide a serious second lead instrument alongside Jerry Garcia's leads—and that is exactly what Chimenti adds to the mix. While Garcia always rightly insisted that his lead playing was just part of what the band was doing, the sound of Furthur benefits hugely from Chimenti's leads, both as a compliment to Kadlicek's lead guitar and in how his keyboard solos (whether on piano or organ) take the band's jams in ever new directions.

Drummer Joe Russo is also a better drummer than Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann ever were. I always liked the lightness of Hart and Kreutzmann's playing together, the way they kept the band afloat by never overemphasizing the beat but always playing colors and textures around it. When they started playing the beat more heavily in the late 80s, it detracted from the band's feel to my ears (although this might have been a matter of mixing the snare drum higher, in good 80s style, à la Phil Collins). Russo plays the beat with emphasis and drive, while also keeping the rhythm floating. Both Chimenti and Russo's potent contributions to Furthur can be heard in exemplary fashion in the first set of the July 22 show at the Gathering of the Vibes festival in Bridgeport, Connecticut, especially on "Sugaree," "Deal," and "Big River." (That just happens to be the show I listened to this morning.)

Furthur's quality also derives from the vocal arrangements. The backup singers and the band's obvious serious rehearsal of the vocals give Furthur something the Grateful Dead never had: consistent high-quality harmonies. I love the old recordings of "Uncle John's Band," say, as much as any Deadhead, but Furthur just nails the vocals all the time, while with the Grateful Dead, the vocals were always hit and miss at best. While listening to the Bridgeport "Sugaree" and "Deal," it struck me that, in this respect, Furthur is more like the Jerry Garcia Band in the 80s and 90s, with his excellent background singers. (I even hope that Lesh and Weir will give their backup singers a chance to step forward and sing lead ...)

So Furthur is a better band than the Grateful Dead—but of course, they owe everything to the Grateful Dead. Weir and Lesh are still playing their Grateful Dead repertoire, most of which (despite excellent contributions from Weir and Lesh) was written by Garcia. They should, of course: it's a great catalogue! There are a couple of Furthur originals, and one or two get played per show, but it would be a waste if Weir and Lesh played together without playing their back catalogue together, and as with the Grateful Dead, they play almost the whole catalogue, with no repeats from one show to the next.

Now it's time to discuss the elephant in the room: Jerry Garcia. Overall, Furthur is a better group of musicians than the Grateful Dead, but Furthur doesn't have a Garcia, who was simply one of the best musicians in rock history (and even beyond rock, as his work with David Grisman shows). Yet Garcia was not always at his best, and John Kadlecik is much more consistent than Garcia was in the last few years of his life. Like Chimenti, Kadlecik also has great jazz chops. Early in my listening to Furthur, I kept hearing traces of John Abercrombie in Kadlecik's playing, which turned out to be a matter of the wrong John: Kadlecik's primary early influence (even before he began listening to the Grateful Dead and Garcia)was John McLaughlin. As the lead player in the Dead cover band The Dark Star Orchestra for over a decade, Kadlecik knows how to "be" Garcia; interestingly, Furthur gives him a chance to play Garcia's music while being himself.

So the two caveats on my claim are that Furthur doesn't have Garcia, and that Furthur plays Grateful Dead music and is thus implicitly "derivative." But my argument is finally that Furthur does take the Grateful Dead's music "further," primarily but not only because of the unique contributions of Chimenti and Russo to the band's sound.

A while back, I read a comment on a Furthur show at the Live Music Archive that pointed out that in 20 years, when Furthur is long gone, Deadheads will be listening to the Grateful Dead and not to Furthur. Because of Garcia, that's probably true, even for this Furthur fan, but my response is also that the Grateful Dead's run ended in 1995, and Furthur is happening now. I hope I get a chance to hear them live before they stop happening.