Sunday, January 31, 2016

Why Do We Prefer an Airplane Over a Starship?

January, 2015 has turned out to be probably the worst month for rock-music deaths since February, 1959.  

Just a week or two ago, came news that Glenn Frey of the Eagles (or rather, “Eagles”, as there was no definite article before their name) had passed away, from cancer, aged 67. A day previously, Dale Griffin, the drummer for the ‘70s band Mott the Hoople, was also 67 at his death (he had suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease). 

Jimmy Bain, the bass-guitarist for hard-rock band Rainbow (founded by guitarist Richie Blackmore after his departure from Deep Purple), died on the 24th. 

 The most famous of the batch was probably David Bowie, who also suffered from cancer and passed away on January 10. Just before the New Year, too, Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister, lead singer and bassist with Motorhead, died from cancer. 

There was also the tragic passing of Animal, the manic drummer for the band on the Muppet Show. 

Paul Kantner.
And then just this week, Paul Kantner, singer and chief songwriter of the Jefferson Airplane / Starship, passed away aged 74 of what is being called “multiple organ failure.” 

Kantner’s obituary on the web site of Rolling Stone reminded me of thoughts I coincidentally had recently about him, and the bands that he lead. 

First, though Kantner wrote the vast majority of the material on Airplane / Starship albums, and was the lead male voice on most of their material (especially after the departure of founder Marty Balin), he was scarcely a household name. 

 Given that the lead singer was Grace Slick, it is no wonder that the other crewmembers of the Airplane / Starship were virtually anonymous to the general public. 

An even more interesting puzzle, though, is why nowadays the Jefferson Airplane remains so well known while the Starship version of the band is virtually forgotten. But during their career, the Jefferson Starship were far more popular than was Kantner’s earlier band. 

According to Wikipedia, three of the Starship’s albums released between 1975 and ’78, achieved “platinum” status (as recognized by the Recording Industry Association of America), with sales of one-million records or more (one of these, Red Octopus, achieved sales of two million or more records). 

Four more Starship records released between 1979 and 1984, sold 500,000 copies or more (thereby achieving the RIAA’s gold-record award). 

As for the Jefferson Airplane, the only one of their albums to go platinum (again, according to Wikipedia) was the Worst of the Jefferson Airplane, the 1970 compilation album. The releases with original material released during the Airplane’s “classic” period (when Slick had replaced the original lead female singer, Signe Toly Anderson), only ever achieved “gold” status. 

The Jefferson Starship was more popular than the Airplane, when these acts were active recording artists. I remember this well from my own youth, when the Starship was so popular, and very occasionally, I would hear the name “Jefferson Airplane”, and think, “Isn’t that supposed to be Jefferson Starship?” 

In the ‘70s, the Airplane seemed an antiquated, forgotten version of the then-current version of the band. However, it is the Airplane, and not the Starship, that people remember today. The name of the Facebook that I belong to which covers the careers of both phases of the band, for example, is named after the Jefferson Airplane, with no explicit mention of the Starship. 

Was the Jefferson Airplane really that much better of a group than the Starship? I don’t know, actually, because although I have seven of their albums, I discovered upon rechecking my disc collection while writing this entry, that I don't have a single Jefferson Starship album (excepting the earlier solo album by Paul Kantner that was backed by all-star band called “Jefferson Starship”). 

I can name several songs by the Airplane – such as White Rabbit, Somebody to Love, or Volunteers – that have significant radio airplay. 

Hey, Grandma.  You're so young.
But Jefferson Airplane hits that are played on the radio these days? Perhaps they are played in places where I don’t live. 

But I would be hard-pressed to name a Starship song (besides We Built This City) to save my life. 

It isn't out of any hostility to toward the Starship’s music that I have failed to buy any of their albums. If I had seen available, new or secondhand, I would have checked them out. Again, it is as though that variant of the band has faded into obscurity while the Airplane has become all the more prominent. 

It is a lesson on the capriciousness of fame. I'm sure there is something bigger here about culture and popular culture that the latter-day obscurity of Jefferson Starship could tell us, but I'm not sure what. 

Signe Toly Anderson Ettin.
Photo from Facebook page.

Postscript: while preparing these writings for publication, I discovered that the aforementioned original Airplane vocalist Signe (Anderson) Ettin, has also passed away. Like Paul Kantner, she was 74 years old. 

A cruel month indeed, January 2015, for old rockers.

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Sounding of Moby Dick

Having seen, over Christmastime, a small independent movie released without much ballyhoo, I turn my attention to what is the undisputed blockbuster of the season, Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea.  

The film portrays the ill-fated voyage of the Essex, the travails of which inspired Herman Melville’s Moby Dick

This tale was recounted also in Ric Burns’ documentary, Into the Deep, a history of American whaling first broadcast on PBS in 2010.  

Image from In the Heart of the Sea.

This comes as part of a more comprehensive account of the whaling industry in the U.S., and is well worth a view. 

It occurred to me, though, that only very recently did the whale change in the imagination of educated Occidentals at least, so that the routine slaughter of the sea mammals, ongoing for centuries, suddenly became intolerable, an activity requiring global prohibition. 

Having surveyed the available literature on the topic, though, my tentative hypothesis had been to link the expansion of whaling to the colonization of the world by Europeans. 

The book Leviathan, is another history of American whaling by Jay Dolin, and confirms that while whale-hunting may have extended back millennia to the Phoenicians and Greeks, a true whaling industry began only during the Middle Ages with the Basques, the people of mysterious origin who have been fighting for centuries for independence from Spain. 

A Basque History of the World, by Mark Kurlansky and published in 1999, expands on the Basque origins of modern whaling, showing that their pursuit of the giant sea-mammals took them throughout the Atlantic ocean long before most other European peoples even attempted long-distance seafaring. 

Kurlansky supports the argument that Basques preceded Norsemen to the New World, citing the coincidence of Basque words in Canadian native languages, as well as the disproportionate number of Basque crew-members on the explorer ships of both Columbus and Magellan. 

Whatever the truth, Basque dominance of commercial whaling was supplanted by the Dutch, imperial masters in the seventeenth century, and a century later by the British, upon whose empire the sun never set during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. 

During the nineteenth century, too, the U.S. became a major whaling nation, in tandem with its rise as a global naval power. 

For his part, Kurlansky explains why it is that the bottom-feeding codfish was so valued for centuries: when dried and salted, it kept from spoiling for long periods, which permitted in turn the distant voyages of the Basques and the Norse. The whale was valued because its extensive blubber produced oil for burning. 

Nantucket island, off the coast of Massachusetts, became the fabled centre of the American whaling industry in spite of its relatively sparse population, as it was closer to the original whaling grounds, and the people of barely-arable Nantucket had no other means of prosperity. 

Kurlansky notes that the Basques and other whaling peoples would eat the slaughtered creatures’ meat (with whale tongues being the most prized of the edible parts, often given as tribute to the local high clerisy). 

Dolin states, however, that the anglophones viewed whale-meat as inedible, with the carcasses of the animals left to rot onshore (or dumped back into the sea) after the precious kerosene oil and whalebone had been extracted from them.  

Into the Deep, describes how whaling expeditions became progressively far-flung as quarry near shore diminished in number. 

The daylong hunts of the eighteenth century became months and even years in length later on, but whales had to be processed for their raw materials soon after the slaughter, so as not to go to waste. 

Accordingly, whaling ships evolved into floating factories. They were thus examples of Victorian high technology, and whaling was part of a seafarer culture which gave rise to the novelty of global imperialism. 

Yet, whaling also gave force to something primal in the human male, at least. Only specialists really know or care that the proper scientific name for anatomically modern human is Homo sapiens sapiens, the successor species of Homo sapiens, who were virtually identical with the super-sapiens in terms of physical form, but whose material culture has been shown to be consistently inferior.  

Somewhere around one-hundred thousand years ago, as archaeologist Ian Morris observed, the cultural monotony which characterized sapiens’ settlements up to that time, gave way “suddenly” (over a period of centuries) to a diversity of regional styles. 

Part of this new cultural sophistication involved the hunting of mega-fauna, most of which disappeared shortly after the arrival of Homo sapiens sapiens. 

But not always the victor...
baroquepotion com

Commenting on the habit of contemporary scholarship to exonerate human activity for these extinctions in favour of climate change, Noah Harari observes, “The giant diprotodon appeared in Australia more than 1. 5 million years ago and successfully weathered at least ten previous ice ages. It also survived the first peak of the last ice age, around 70,000 years ago. Why, then, did it disappear 45,000 years ago? Of course, if diprotodons had been the only large animal to disappear at this time, it might have been just a fluke. But more than 90 per cent of Australia’s megafauna disappeared along with the diprotodon. The evidence is circumstantial, but it's hard to imagine that Sapiens, just by coincidence, arrived in Australia at the precise point that all these animals were dropping dead of the chills.” (Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, 2014, p. 66) 

Harari goes on to state that “mass extinctions akin to the archetypal Australian decimation occurred again and again in the ensuing millennia — whenever people settled another part of the Outer World. In these cases Sapiens guilt is irrefutable. For example, the megafauna of New Zealand — which had weathered the alleged `climate change’ of c. 45,000 years ago without a scratch — suffered devastating blows immediately after the first humans set foot on the islands. The Maoris, New Zealand's first Sapiens colonisers, reached the islands about 800 years ago. Within a couple of centuries, the majority of the local megafauna was extinct, along with 60 per cent of all bird species. A similar fate befell the mammoth population of Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean (200 kilo metres north of the Siberian coast). Mammoths had flourished for millions of years over most of the northern hemisphere, but as Homo sapiens spread — first over Eurasia and then over North America — the mammoths retreated. By 10,000 years ago there was not a single mammoth to be found in the world, except on a few remote Arctic islands, most conspicuously Wrangel. The mammoths of Wrangel continued to prosper for a few more millennia, then suddenly disappeared about 4,000 years ago, just when the first humans reached the island.” (pp. 66-67) 

Harari also makes an interesting comparison: “when climate change causes mass extinctions, sea creatures are usually hit as hard as land dwellers. Yet there is no evidence of any significant disappearance of oceanic fauna 45,000 years ago. Human involvement can easily explain why the wave of extinction obliterated the terrestrial megafauna of Australia while sparing that of the nearby oceans. Despite its burgeoning navigational abilities, Homo sapiens was still overwhelmingly a terrestrial menace.” 

This situation continued until just a few centuries ago, when the Basques and then many other nations undertook whaling on a large scale. 

Meanwhile, the story of super-sapiens’ success was written, in great part, in the blood of terrestrial mega-fauna felled by human hands. 

The ethological conditioning inherent therein, had not primarily to do with the act of killing itself. It was more so the tracking of game that was important to evolving human (perhaps especially male-human) psychology, as the amount of time actually chasing down fauna (large or otherwise) to kill, took much longer than the fatal activity itself. 

It was how Homo sapiens sapiens were able to “read” the terrain, literally on a step by step basis (with the footprints being signs virtually abstract of relation to the creatures that created them), in pursuit of a defined goal. 

Stone-age hunting was also a communal enterprise, as well, and it could be that the early human communication that Iain McGilchrist described as “musilanguage”, obtained true grammar as the super-sapiens pursued big game. Did the success that the cerebrally-modern humans have in killing mega-fauna contribute to a certainty that the world was their’s to own? The triumph of the diminutive man over the grandiose creature is a mainstay of storytelling, from Gilgamish down to King Kong

Herman Melville’s twist on this theme, was to have the beast — a sperm whale — prevail over captain Ahab and his crew. But as if to underline the lack of resonance for human defeat at the hands of the ocean Goliath, Moby Dick was initially a flop, and contributed to Melville’s departure from novel-writing in favour of being a New York city clerk. 

The reality is that millions of sperm and other whales did indeed perish by human hands in recent centuries (whereas very few men died because of attacks by whales). As with the hydraulic civilization of China (which enshrined the village-tribe as the key social unit), the whale-hunt used advanced technology to satisfy a primal human urge, in this case to pursue mega-quarry. 

Whales survived in such abundance, and grew so massive (the blue whale is the largest animal on record) just because people did not have, until modern times, the means of hunting them very effectively. 

However, when the harpooner’s role was mechanized in the 1860s (inaugurating the “age of modern whaling”, according to Norwegian academics J.N. Tonnessen and Arne Odd Johnsen in their mammoth history of the subject, published in English in 1982), the destruction of whale-stocks became so complete that by the early twentieth century, calls came to curb the fishery so as to ensure its future viability. 

Led by Great Britain, biologists began to study the great whales as part of this conservation effort. As described by Graham Burnett in the Sounding of the Whale, nascent whale-science was more focussed on husbandry of a resource, than inspired by outrage at the vivisection of ocean mammals. 

He argues further that ocean-biologists, who accompanied whalers on their often years-long voyages, naturally came to sympathize with the industry, and thus served as an impediment to efforts prevent the slaughter of whales entirely. 

Meanwhile, Burnett writes, the mechanical harpoon furthered the ambitions of Western colonialism, as the British took full possession of south Atlantic and Pacific islands over which they had long claimed sovereignty, but that had heretofore remain unsettled for lack of means to support them. 

Thus the paradox that global, ship-borne imperialism, though an ultramodern project, revitalized the old hunter-gatherer way of life as a factor in human experience. 

Whaling was just one, if a more conspicuous, part of this. For the first months, years, and even decades after their settlement of the Americas, Britons and Europeans had to make their way wholly or greatly by hunting. The North American continent was substantially explored by hunters of beaver pelts, the trappers who helped establish the white-man’s sovereignty over New France and the American west (so important was this fur trade in the north, that Canada is often personified as a beaver). 

Once hunted, and now adored, by the millions.
www venturegraphics ca

The settlement by ancient Asians of what became the Americas, was accompanied by the mass die-off of mega-fauna centuries later, following the pattern established when the super-sapiens set foot anywhere for the first time. 

European settlement of the hemisphere precipitated another die-off of animal species here through over-hunting (the most conspicuous mass slaughter occurring to the bison).  
Some would assert that American Indians were similarly hunted like animals, and in the far west at least consisted of the largest number of victims of homicidal violence (according to Page Stegner). 

Nevertheless, the frontiersman was an enduring figure of American folklore, the very epitome of the “rugged individualist” whose independence was based on the ability to “shoot his next meal.” 

Hunting remained a very popular means of recreation throughout the rural United States, until very recent times. Importantly, the hunting trip served in many families as a form of male initiation into adulthood — again, a very ancient practice of key intergenerational training flourished again amongst New-World settlers. 

Old-World peasants, on the other hand, faced outright prohibition or severe restrictions upon their hunting rights: their overlords reserved the right to hunt the game throughout all their lands, regardless of tenancy. Practically the first droit du seigneur that migrants to the Americas claimed for the common man, was unrestricted freedom to hunt. 

Colonization of the Western hemisphere was, as Lewis Mumford observed, substantially a reversion to the primitive, or “paleo-technical”, phase of humankind. 

As imperialism spread to Africa and Asia during the nineteenth century, the “great white hunter” became another mythical hero in Western society, pursuing exotic big-game in the tropical bush. Of many such expeditions into “darkest Africa”, one of the more famed was undertaken by Teddy Roosevelt, the most openly and vociferously imperialist of all U.S. presidents. Upon leaving office, T.R. led a safari which netted over six-hundred wild beasts. 

Returning in conclusion to the whale hunt, it seems clear that the scientific knowledge acquired through conservation efforts, encouraged people to conceive of whales as beautiful creatures to be preserved, not resources to be exploited. 

But the “save the whales” sentiment was part of a more fundamental change in psychology which took hold among educated Westerners at least, from the 1960s. 

Before that, Occidentals looked upon engineered technology as the crown of creation. But since then, and probably as a consequence of engineering being made so normal as to be unremarkable, middle-class professionals in the West began to cherish the natural economy over artificial things, and especially its conspicuous mega-fauna such as elephants, tigers, and whales. 

The Greenpeace organization, which in the early ‘70s pioneered “guerilla” efforts to prevent the slaughter of whales (such as activists in boats placing themselves between harpooners and the whales), by the 1980s were employing more sophisticated methods of persuasion. 

At that time, the group launched television ads which featured semi-abstract, animated images of great whales moving through the oceans. A deep-voiced, authoritative narrator (whom I remember to be the Canadian actor Don Francks, though I have been unable to find this spot on YouTube or anywhere else) described them as “nature’s works of art.” 

That would be him.
waytofamous com

These placid scenes then dissolved into images of harpoons and whaling boats, with which the narrator says something to the effect: “...but mankind is trying to destroy the last of these works of art”, concluding with a plea to “help Greenpeace preserve them.” 

In the Master and His Emissary, Iain McGilchrist describes how the right brain hemisphere is responsive to living things, while the left-lobe reacts to inanimate matter. 

But, he goes on, certain inanimate objects, such as musical instruments, are perceived by the brain as though they are living. 

After the postwar especially, certain forms of engineering must have been perceived as animate: in particular, mass-media such as the hi-fi stereo, radio and television. 

These technologies helped effect a reversal in Western psychology, especially and paradoxically on the educated, it would seem. Constant exposure to holistic sound and imagery through mass-media, evoked sensitivity to living things as opposed to the mechanical. This was the cultural ground upon which revulsion not only toward whaling, but any sort of sport or big-game hunting, overwhelmed the prestige previously enjoyed by hunters.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Upstairs, Downstairs in Chinatown

A pleasurable side-effect of travelling for business by train or plane, and not automobile, is precisely that I don't have to drive a car. 

This not only avoids the cost of parking, which depending on the city, could run as much as a couple of hundred bucks over just a few days. 

Photo 1: Businesses on Dundas street, Toronto.
Photo: RB Glennie

It is also that I avoid the cost of driving – the stress and hassles involved in just getting around by automobile in the unfamiliar streets of a different city. 

I'm lucky, I suppose, in that my affairs are conducted at or near the hotels in which I stay.  
Sometimes, I will take a cab, but often I will just walk from the hotel to the venue, to orient myself to the surroundings, observe them up close, and to see what there is to see. 

Regardless, after business is done, during the evening I usually take a stroll, intending to check out the quarter near where I am staying. 

But just as usually, I end up going much further, as the one block leads to the next, the one neighbourhood turns into another, and not getting back until later in the evening, in spite of my fatigue from working all day. 

This is how I get to know an unfamiliar place, not going where visitors usually go, but going where the natives are. 

I may bring a map with me, just in case I get lost. But generally I don't, and rarely consult the map when I do have one. 

This has got me to places where I didn’t expect, or perhaps want, to be: as on a recent visit to Vancouver, when I wandered into the notorious Downtown Eastside slum. 

It may have been my naïveté, but nevertheless I felt in no more danger there than I did in the areas just a few blocks away, where condos sell for a million dollars and (much) more.  

Last week, I was in Toronto. Having almost always visited that city by car, after work I instead I left my room in the Yonge street area, and headed west on Dundas avenue. 

Photo 2: Businesses on Dundas street, Toronto.
Photo: RB Glennie

I found myself, without design, in the city’s Chinatown, which begins around where the Art Gallery of Ontario is located, extending a dozen blocks or more down Dundas, to University avenue at least. 

There, I encountered a sort of architectural style that I didn’t identify as “Chinese” until I saw many examples of it in the Vancouver Chinatown. 

A lot of commercial buildings that I saw there, as well as in the Toronto Chinatown, are not entranced by a door leading directly from the street inside. 

Instead, businesses therein are reached by stairwells leading up and down from the street level, with the buildings themselves divided into two units, or even three or four. 

Often, these are stairs extend about a dozen steps directly from the street, down or up. But at other times, they are more elaborate, as in the picture below. 

I have given some thought as to why this sort of building-design is found especially in Chinatowns, and not apparently anywhere else. 

Perhaps it is merely a utilitarian attempt to acquire more tenants by expanding the number of units available in each building. 

Photo 3: Businesses on Dundas street, Toronto.
Photo: RB Glennie

On other hand, at least with some of these shops, the total square feet of space available to do business, has been foreshortened for being accessed by a subterranean stairwell (Photo 3 above). 

Apart from any functional reason why, the stairways of Chinatown objectify a different conception of place and space than in other parts of town – even where the building materials and designs are identical. 

I haven't been able to identify wherein this difference lies. 

But I think it goes back to an observation I had years ago, about the traditional layout of Chinese restaurants in my hometown and elsewhere. 

This applies particularly to such dining places established by immigrants and refugees from Hong Kong and Mainland China, and may not for newer “Asian fusion” places founded by second- or third-generation people of Chinese descent in North America. 

Photo 4: Close-up on subterranean business shown in Photo 3, Dundas street, Toronto.
Photo: RB Glennie

It is that the dining area of the restaurant is inevitably separated from the entrance: that is, it may be down stairs (as was the case at a downtown Chinese restaurant my family used to patronize), or accessed through a hallway; or as at another tiny place that I used to go to as a young adult, separated from the entrance by a removable barrier. 

Apparently, there is some need to place a barrier – be it stairwells or otherwise – between the general public and the indoor functions of the business in Chinatowns, that doesn't exist elsewhere in the city.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Sat on a Dark Bench Like Bookends...

The 35th anniversary of the murder of John Lennon has just passed. 

Thinking about this, it struck me that Lennon has been dead for more than twice as long as he was alive and world-famous. Thus, while the Beatles were an almost an immediate smash in their native Britain in 1963, Beatlemania really became a global thing the next year. 

Lennon was shot down outside his New York City apartment in 1980, about sixteen years after that. 

Years ago, reflecting on the murder of another major public figure, I had the idea that the 1960s’ counterculture in America was a `chaotic’ side-effect of the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. 

Kennedy image: (c) All About History
Lennon image: (c) Sachs Media Group

It could be just coincidence that something recognizable as the counterculture began to emerge in ’64, less than a year after the killing of the President in Dallas. 

It is entirely coincidental that the Beatles’ second album was released in the U.K. on the very day that Kennedy was killed. It is more than coincidental though, that the group was received with such hysteric joy when landing in the U.S. (at New York’s newly renamed John F. Kennedy airport) less than three months following the President’s slaying, in February 1964. 

They probably would have been very successful anyway, but many have commented as to how the appearance of these four young, cheery, cheeky and charming lads from England, served to lift the spirits of Americans mere weeks after their (relatively) young President was so publicly and brutally struck down by assassin’s bullets. 

The Kennedy assassination, meanwhile, was what caused so many young Americans to turn away from mainstream politics and culture as a whole, toward hippiedom on the one hand, and New-Left radicalism on the other. 

It was, as I indicated, a situation of non-linear dynamics. 

That is, the youth of America did not wake up on Nov. 23, 1963, and suddenly decide to become hippies or radicals (or both). 

But Marshall McLuhan described in his 1964 book Understanding Media, the electric circuitry that made television possible, as an “extended nervous system.” In order to overcome this shock to the collective system, as precipitated by the live coverage of the Kennedy assassination, I think many young Americans essentially rejected their own culture, or at least the mainstream part of it. 

Certainly, the counterculture didn’t arrive willy-nilly. But in the years after 1964, many youth in the U.S. (never even close to a majority, but still a significant number anyhow) felt more and more compelled to create their own culture, especially as it appeared that Kennedy’s death had delivered the political system into the hands of the crude (Kennedy’s successor Lyndon Johnson), the crazy (the ultra-conservative Republican challenger to Johnson in ’64, Barry Goldwater) or the criminal (Richard Nixon, who had run for the Presidency against John Kennedy in 1960). 

It is no wonder then, the conspiracy theories about the President’s assassination first gained credence within the counterculture. 

The site of the Kennedy assassination: Dealey Plaza, Dallas, TX.
Photo: RB Glennie

The Beatles were, of course, heroes to the counterculture, no matter their fabulous wealth and mainstream success. They were avant-garde already upon their arrival in 1964, sporting hair quite long according to the prevailing male fashion, and playing brash and noisy music that was abhorrent to much of the older generation (regardless of political orientation: leftist folkies hated them as much as conservative choirmasters). 

Throughout their career, the Beatles remained in the vanguard as to music-style and hair-length, as well. Their records seemed to anticipate and popularize countercultural themes of love, sex and, drugs, as well. They had many peers in the British Invasion (and ultimately, coming from the U.S. as well), but the reason the latter played rock music and not blues, folk, country or jazz, was due to the success of the “Fab Four.” 

Having lost one charismatic, youthful political leader, many young and educated Americans turned toward cultural leaders for inspiration – and of all the Beatles, John Lennon was the most charismatic and political. 

It is a simplistic analysis, I understand. 

And I'm going to follow through on this simplicity by asserting that the murder of John Lennon, about seventeen years after the Kennedy assassination, was what brought a decisive end to the counterculture. 

Lennon’s killer, Mark David Chapman, said as much when he asserted in police interviews (aired on a documentary in the 1990s) that the murder “was the last nail of the coffin of the 1960s.” 

Site of the murder of John Lennon: Dakota apartments, NYC.
Photo: RB Glennie.

The most conspicuous aspects of the counterculture died out in about 1971, I think. They were partially absorbed into the mainstream culture, however, which during the ‘70s adopted not only the long hair and floral fashions characteristic of the hippies. 

More favourable (or at least laissez-faire) attitudes toward recreational drug use, premarital and gay sex, as well as race-mixing in friendship and marriage, came to prevail amongst many of the bourgeoisie (the working classes remained mostly unconvinced). 

It was a coincidence that Lennon was killed just a month after the election of Ronald Reagan to the U.S. Presidency, the Republican who “said with a smile what Goldwater said with a sneer.” 

As California Governor during the 1960s, Reagan had bumped up against the counterculture in its American homeland. His Presidency marked the rejection by much of the mainstream of countercultural styles and values. 

Thus, men cut their hair short and doffed the flares and flowers for the “Preppie” styles more reminiscent of the years immediately before 1964, while women’s dress became more conservative, as well. The First Lady, Nancy Reagan, pursued a successful campaign to “Just Say No” even to soft drugs, while militarism became cool again. 

The charisma of the two former film-actors who headed the First Family, was instrumental in this. 

But I would argue that the murder of John Lennon in 1980 was the shock to the extended nervous system, that made conservative Reaganism all the more powerful than it would have been without it. 

President Reagan drafts Mr. Roper to teach those punks a lesson.

It occurred, crucially, just as the age cohort that established the counterculture, were finally leaving their youth behind, starting families, getting serious about careers, buying homes – the very things that, in and of themselves, encourage more conservative attitudes. 

The death of their beloved cultural hero by gun violence, must have hardened the worldview of the Sixties Generation all the more, at this decisive point in their lives. 

John Lennon was not a political leader, after all, whatever his outspoken views on various subjects. The motive for his shooting was, thus, nonsensical. And indeed, it emerged right away that Chapman was a huge Beatle fan – the last photograph of Lennon while alive has him signing an autograph on Chapman’s copy of Double Fantasy, just hours before Chapman gunned the musician down. 

Whatever his personal foibles, Lennon’s most significant contribution to the culture was to give millions of people joy, including, it appeared, the man who killed him. It was indeed entirely senseless, yet it happened anyway. 

It seemed to mock the very humanitarian ideals of the counterculture – something accepted if only implicitly, half-consciously, embarrassedly even. 

It was as though veterans of the counterculture, after the murder of John Lennon, retreated from the culture wars, shocked, dispirited, disheartened, too busy and tired to fight any more, leaving the field to the Reaganites for a decade or so. I concede again, that I have simplified things for narrative purposes. 

Yet, there is almost literary parallels between Kennedy and Lennon, whatever the different lives they lived. They shared the same first name (which was, however, a very common one in the English-speaking world during the first half of the twentieth century). 

The President was a generation older than the Beatle – born in 1917, Kennedy was a year younger than Lennon’s father, Alf. 

But they were both of Irish Catholic background: Kennedy’s religious ethnicity is well known, but relatively few people are aware that Lennon’s grandfather (apparently named “McLennon”) came from Dublin sometime in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century.  
To paraphrase Paul McCartney in A Hard Day’s Night, Kennedy’s ancestors went west and he became a Boston Brahmin, while Lennon’s went east, and he became an Angry Young Man from Liverpool. 

Pursuing very different careers, both the Beatle and the President became world famous; indeed, it is difficult to know just which one has greater celebrity, or who is admired the more so not only by Americans, but people around the world. 

And, of course, they were both murdered while right beside their wives.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Ottawa 1968 & 2015: A Meditation on Urban Form

Not many entries of late, mostly because of travel on business.

I returned from Washington a few days ago; I might write about that later.  There is a great deal to say.

For now, I will remark on another capital city: my own, Ottawa, Canada.

On the You-Tube site some months ago, I came across a clip entitled “Ottawa 1968 1969”, the entirety of which can be viewed here:

The blurb at YouTube, by "Gwood's Gang", states: "My uncle drove around Ottawa in the early spring, about 1968 and again about a year later. He takes us from Maitland Avenue along the Queensway to downtown, around Parliament, to Champlain point, along the Ottawa River, Dows Lake and many other places in town. How the city has changed!"

Last summer, on a lark, I took the same route as the home-filmmaker, recording the same scenes with my cell-phone camera, in order to edit the two scenes together. 

The uneven result of this can be found at the link directly below.  The chief problem of my own retracing of Gwood's Gang's uncle, is that I was recording the scenes from memory, and thus they are often shot from different angles from the original; as well, it was summertime when I took the cellphone movies, whereas as Gwood's uncle was evidently filming during the early spring, and thus the foliage and sunlight are very different from the earlier film to the new one:

Nevertheless, and contrary to Gwood, it is striking how recognizable the city is in the older footage, when compared to today. 

If, hypothetically, film existed of the same areas in 1921 (i.e. forty-seven years before 1968), the city would have looked very unfamiliar. 

It would have, for example, been impossible to travel from the west-end to downtown by car on the same road, because it was then occupied by a railway. The vast majority of the buildings in the downtown core, as seen in the 1968 film, would not have been constructed in 1921 (whereas many from forty-seven years ago are in existence today). The McGregor Easson elementary school and neighbouring houses on Dynes road from ‘68, were no doubt pastures 47 years before. 

As it happens, there is an an aerial photograph of Ottawa taken, according to notations on the image, in 1922: one can view the various neighbourhoods of the old city, like the Glebe, Ottawa South, and the area I grew up in, Ottawa East:

Ottawa, Ontario, 1922: the waterway extending from the south to east
(i.e. bottom to right) is the Rideau River.  The Glebe quarter is central left,
where the circular playing field is situated.

There was very little of the latter to call it a neighbourhood. It was a vast farmer’s field, with Main street merely a dirt laneway (a bridge over Rideau river would not be constructed for decades). In spite of its status as a capital city, Ottawa was until the Second World War, no more than a large town. 

During and after the war, it underwent qualitative change, becoming a modern city. This is the form in which it remains today. While it is probably twice as large now as in 1968, its physical features have been refined but not drastically altered since then.

Monday, November 2, 2015

The Pointillism of Science

I’ve long been fascinated by the work of the post-Impressionist Georges Seurat, most famous for Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of Grande Jatte, which was unveiled in 1886. 

Sunday Afternoon on the Isle de Grande Jatte.
Georges Seurat, 1886.

I consider Seurat my favourite of the nineteenth-century French painters, if not of all time (but I like Rembrandt van Rijn almost as much). Though the subject-matter of Seurat’s works is antique, his technique renders them strangely contemporary in appearance. 

Recently, I watched a short docudrama with actors portraying Seurat and his contemporaries, Seurat and the Realm of Light, produced by the French arm of the National Film Board of Canada in 1992.  

In this, the painter’s so-called pointillism is described by a narrator as “a technique which consists of painting juxtaposed points of pure colour. Seen from afar these small dabs of pure colour blend together optically in one’s eye, become a homogenous image. A visionary artist, Seurat anticipated by half a century modern techniques of colour division, used in photo composition, television, and digital images.” 

In fact, though, the term “pointillism” is a misnomer. It is more accurately called “divisionism”, as Seurat did not compose the Sunday Afternoon and other works by placing dots of paint on the canvass, as is usually believed. 

Instead, Seurat used tiny strokes of the brush to achieve a divisionist effect (as seen in the detail of Sunday Afternoon below). 

Detail from Sunday Afternoon on the Isle du Grande Jatte.

Divisionism in fact came out of Seurat’s ambition to create a science of art. The NFB film quotes him: “I dream of a science of painting, which can be taught, like music, a colour scale than can translate the effects of light. ... I apply minute dabs of colour, which are blended optically in the eye, and which translate the shimmering effects of light, a mysterious light that reveals textures, curves, volumes and the dimensions of space.” 

Seurat also stated, “just as a chemist separates matter, my eyes are clear prisms that break down the elements of light. Transform them in the crucible of the imagination, and give them new meaning. I am searching for a secret geometry of forms. Painting is the art of giving depth to surface.” 

Knowing very little about Seurat before, I was somewhat taken aback by his avowed pursuit of a science of art. I had thought that by the nineteenth century, and especially after the Impressionists, artists had given up the very Renaissance ambition to make painting into a science. 

Impressionism, as with modern art in general, was a conscious rebellion against the strictures of “Academy” art, the principles of which had been laid down centuries before. Seurat, who died in 1891 aged only thirty-one (of uncertain causes, but likely from a virus which also killed his young son soon after), embraced academic principles, however. 

Circus-Parade, Georges Seurat, 1887.

From a proper bourgeois family, Seurat dressed so conventionally that he was referred to by other painters as “the notary.” In another documentary about Seurat I viewed recently, one of the art historians interviewed speculated as to how, if he had lived a natural lifespan, Seurat would have affected the course of modern art. 

I think, on the other hand, Seurat would have remained an outlier even if he had not died young, as he was during his lifetime, in fact. Impressionism set out to convey precisely what the pictorial medium derived from chemistry — the photograph — simply couldn’t. 

In this way, the movement really was anti-scientific in so far as placed idiosyncratic perspective and technique at the centre of artistic endeavour. 

The post-Impressionists, on the other hand, were determined to return order and principle to painting — doing something more than “splashing paint across the canvas”, as an associate of Seurat’s is quoted in the NFB documentary. 

They were “post” in that Seurat, Camille Pissarro, Paul Cezanne and the others, didn’t reject entirely the Impressionist revolution in painting. They simply wanted to bring system and method to their predecessors’ treatment of colour and light, Seurat the foremost. 

Ultimately, however, the post-Impressionists failed in this goal, and modern art progressively rejected rationality and representation itself, during the course of the twentieth century. 

Seurat’s own quest to break down light into its constituent parts was achieved by engineers, not painters, with the invention of TV in the 1920s. 

But divisionism was the proper expression of the scientific approach to art. The inductive method separates and divides matter into its constituent parts. Seurat himself was only attempting more systematically the treatment of light and colour as pioneered by the Impressionists, whose works were intended to convey the psychological effect of a scene, instead of its literal features. 

La Chahut (The Uproar), Georges Seurat, 1890.

Near the end of the National Film Board documentary, there is a fantasy sequence in which Seurat is shown interacting with a young boy who, after transforming into an adult, is revealed to be Albert Einstein. 

An actor in voice-over recites (with a German accent) words apparently spoken by the relativity-theorist: “In reality all matter is nothing but condensed light.” Seurat is then quoted as saying, “perhaps pointillism was a way of painting atoms.” 

The scientific approach of the “notary” was confirmed by the amount of time he devoted to Sunday Afternoon and his other, later works, such as the Circus Parade (from 1887-88) or La Chahut (from 1889-90, translated into English as The Uproar, and depicting show-dancers and musicians onstage). 

Two of many sketches and studies for the Sunday Afternoon, Georges Seurat.

Whereas the Impressionists could complete a canvas in a few minutes or hours (though many Impressionist works took much longer to complete), Seurat worked intensively on Sunday Afternoon at the Isle du Grande Jatte for two years — not including the dozens of sketches and studies he took of the same scene and subjects beforehand. It is not only that placing minute strokes of paint on a canvas is in itself time-consuming. 

Seurat was attempting to get to the radicals of light, where the image has no resemblance to anything except itself. To break down any phenomenon (whether light or substance) to its digital essence, is to automatically slow down the perception of time, as it must be reconstituted in a step-by-step, serial fashion.