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There’s Power in a Union

Billy Bragg walked onstage Friday night in Royce Hall with a couple of guitars and a cup of tea and held us all right in his grasp.

Bragg’s penchant for rabble-rousing rhetoric is well known among his fans, as much as his thoroughly thought-provoking lyrics, hooky riffs, raw, aching and yet-subtly controlled vocals and his clear and absolute sense of his musical self and personal mission. Those of us who’ve known and loved him well for years were not disappointed. He peppered his songs with effortless soapbox interstitials on the political state of his and our country, the dangerous and polarizing effect of our sensational media outlets and their pundits–or “peddlers of hate” as he dubbed them in a new song titled “There Will Be A Reckoning”–alongside tongue-in-cheek criticism of American football and American tea.

Bragg has a political agenda, to be sure. It may not match your own, but even so, you have to respect the way he stays true to his own ideology–talking, writing and singing about it with great logic and more than a little wit, wisdom and warmth, all of which is truly inspiring to witness in person. Really, you would have to be a complete cynic to not have felt just a little inspired by ‘the bard of Barking’ Friday night.

And the man himself used much of his set to warn us all against the dangers of cynicism and exhort us not to give up hope in a time of political turmoil.

It’s human to doubt, and good to have healthy skepticism, but “our greatest enemy is cynicism,” he admonished us. “I battle my own cynicism every day, but I get to come out here in the dark and talk to you and you all cheer for me and it helps.”

Bragg admitted he’s always been a “glass-half-full guy,” and it’s easy to scoff at people like that.

But, he said…if you want to make things better in this world, “half-full is a damn good place to start.”

There’s Power in a Union, he reminded us at the end of his set. This battle-cry song has always struck a nostalgic and emotional chord with me, having grown up a Teamster’s daughter. And, it struck a chord with more than just me Friday night, judging by the immediate and immense standing ovation it was met with.

But I’ve always also felt the dual message in that song and I felt it again Friday night. There’s power in a union, but not just in the organized-labor-protective-group definition of the word. There’s also power in a union of people, in a meeting of the minds, in a union of purpose.

The night yielded one such union, when Billy joined the indefatigable Mavis Staples on stage to perform the gospel staple The Weight. Their union on that stage held a simple purpose, to generate a massive amount of joy and share it with everyone in the room.

Mavis and her band kept that pure joy flowing for the rest of the evening and by the end of her set, every seat in the hall was empty because we were all standing, hands thrust in the air, joining in the repeated phrase “I’ll take you there,” witnessing the great power of great music to join us all in a singular purpose.

Even if that purpose was simply enjoying a musical legend performing and manifesting pure hope and joy, well, that’s a damn good place to start.

Mavis and Billy definitely took us somewhere Friday night. It’s nowhere I’ve ever been before, and perhaps I’ll never get there again. But it was a heck of a visit, that’s for sure.

Were you with me? Share your favorite moment from the night.

Free (jazz) your mind…and see what follows

Ornette Coleman was here.

Such a simple sentence to write. But really my feeling while writing that sentence is more like the feeling you get when you see a name etched into a tree bark, a random piece of concrete or an ancient stone in a faraway  country…an evocative feeling, tickling at your brain, making you stop and take notice of that name, that etching, even if it’s not a name you recognize, not a person you know.

Someone was there. Someone was here. Wherever “here” or “there” or “someone” might be….

Well last night, that someone was Ornette Coleman.  And that somewhere was here. And, perhaps unsurprisingly to music lovers who know him well—to put it simply, watching and hearing his performance made me think. About a lot of things. I confess, prior to this UCLA Live season and all the promotion around last night’s event, I was not well-versed in Coleman’s style or repertoire, or really free jazz in general. How sad for all the music-loving years behind me, how fortunate for those ahead of me and how gloriously present that moment in time was last night.

For me, watching Ornette Coleman and his amazing fellow musicians, Tony Falanga on standup bass, his son Denardo on the drums, Al Macdowell on electric bass—was incredibly mentally freeing.

Perhaps that presentness is the intent of the genre itself. I found the unfettered instrumental voices so inspiring and surprisingly non-frenetic even in such a playground of improvisational experimentation, perhaps that’s due to the remarkable presence of the man leading the charge.

It made me think: “Wow this is exactly what’s happening right now.” The highlight for me was a lengthy riff on Bach’s flowing Cello Suite during which it was like each instrument on stage was speaking words from the same poem, but in entirely different languages and in an entirely different stanza order.

And, when Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea hopped onstage for the final few songs, he added not only another ridiculous bass line to try and wrap our heads around, but his own infectious energy, green hair bouncing in time to the cacophony.

Flea’s admiration for Ornette Coleman is well and widely known and after the show backstage, he let a little  endearing nervousness slip. “Were you guys out there in the audience? Did it sound OK? Man, I wish I’d gotten to practice with those guys first.” (Flea showed up well before the performance, but after sound check, clearly in a rush, but also clearly thrilled to get on stage with a man who’s a personal icon of his.)

Yeah Flea, it sounded OK.

It sounded way more than OK. It sounded like freedom of thought, of hope and of purpose.

I was already convinced after reading this interview with Ornette Coleman, that the man’s mind just doesn’t vibrate on the same level as most humans, mine included. But during and after the show, his skill set my mind reeling, thinking about music, about human nature, about art and love and hope and left me grasping for a way to describe that feeling.

“I seek to play pure emotion,” Coleman’s quote in the program notes reads. Mission accomplished.

Another quote popped in my head as I was thinking about the show just now…I think it will serve to encapsulate how this show made me feel. It’s something  that resonated with me when I first read it and has stuck in my head since, a comment made by Entertainment Weekly blogger Jeff  “Doc” Jensen in his recap of the final episode of “Lost.” (random connection, I know! What happened to my brain?!)

‎”The best we can do is live our lives with enlightened improvisation — to be so self-aware and fearless that we can live fully in the present and redeem our every moment and every human connection.”

Thanks to Ornette Coleman for reminding me of the beauty, emotion and magic in enlightened improvisation.

And thanks to any and all of you who shared in that with us last night.

A Matter of Poetry

OK people. It’s official. Individual tickets to all our events are now on sale. Woohoo. We can’t wait for everything to get going around Royce Hall. Check out the calendar if you haven’t in a while and see if anything strikes your fancy.

And…speaking of fancy, we’ve added a fancy new spoken word event to the lineup this year—an evening with not one but TWO–count ‘em, TWO–former U.S.  Poets Laureate. (Oh that’s one of those fun word pairings like culs de sac). Two of America’s most lauded poets, Billy Collins and Kay Ryan join our spoken word slate April 23, just in time to celebrate National Poetry Month. (We’ll be calling on you the audience to share some of your own poetry with us around this event as well. More on that in the near future).

I love the way poets wield language, especially poets like Billy Collins who often do it with a slightly tongue-in-cheek style.  I love the way they can inspire us to look at so many different things in a poetic light.

Here’s a fun one from Collins…

Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep A Gun In The House

The neighbors’ dog will not stop barking.

He is barking the same high, rhythmic bark

that he barks every time they leave the house.

They must switch him on on their way out.

The neighbors’ dog will not stop barking.

I close all the windows in the house

and put on a Beethoven symphony full blast

but I can still hear him muffled under the music,

barking, barking, barking,

and now I can see him sitting in the orchestra,

his head raised confidently as if Beethoven

had included a part for barking dog.

When the record finally ends he is still barking,

sitting there in the oboe section barking,

his eyes fixed on the conductor who is

entreating him with his baton

while the other musicians

listen in respectful

silence to the famous barking dog solo,

that endless coda that first established

Beethoven as an innovative genius

I love the musicality of his writing, and how a sense of music often comes into play or directly into the style of the poem. I feel like the world is like that, or at least it SHOULD be like that. Perhaps we should all be listening for those songs, those melodies in all of our moments whether those are moments of quiet and contentment or moments of frustration and hopelessness.

Collins again….

I Ask You

What scene would I want to be enveloped in

more than this one,

an ordinary night at the kitchen table,

floral wallpaper pressing in,

white cabinets full of glass,

the telephone silent,

a pen tilted back in my hand?

It gives me time to think

about all that is going on outside–

leaves gathering in corners,

lichen greening the high grey rocks,

while over the dunes the world sails on,

huge, ocean-going, history bubbling in its wake.

But beyond this table

there is nothing that I need,

not even a job that would allow me to row to work,

or a coffee-colored Aston Martin DB4

with cracked green leather seats.

No, it’s all here,

the clear ovals of a glass of water,

a small crate of oranges, a book on Stalin,

not to mention the odd snarling fish

in a frame on the wall,

and the way these three candles–

each a different height–

are singing in perfect harmony.

So forgive me

if I lower my head now and listen

to the short bass candle as he takes a solo

while my heart

thrums under my shirt–

frog at the edge of a pond–

and my thoughts fly off to a province

made of one enormous sky

and about a million empty branches.

But of course, we can’t all express those thoughts and sounds quite as well as Collins and his cohort Kay Ryan. That’s why we spend evenings listening to people like them, to help us identify the sounds and rhythms inherent in the written word….to open our eyes and hearts and ears to something our own brains might never be able to spontaneously produce in that way. As arts lovers perhaps just experiencing it can be almost as profound as creating it.

Perhaps, just perhaps, poetry matters.

Photo courtesy athena via Flickr.

Truisms and Truthiness

With all the buzz around Wikileaks this week and the recent passing of Daniel Schorr–one of the last real “newsmen” of his kind–I’ve been thinking a lot about journalism, its evolution and its role in modern culture.

I took my first news reporting class in the mid-1990s at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism.  Email and the internet were still emerging, still dial-up based and still something of a novelty. (Raise your hand if you’ve ever reported a story by digging up information on library microfiche or sitting behind those awful monitors at the courthouse that dulled your eyeballs with a greenish glow).

I distinctly remember the ah-ha moment when my professor (a Pulitzer-Prize winner by the way) said: “Never use the attribution ‘according to the internet.’ That’s like saying ‘according to the telephone.’” He followed up with tips on how to decipher how legitimate internet sources were, much like we were taught to do with a human source.

Seems absurdly obvious now, but think back to 1996—the internet was all very new (and regrettably, still just as grammatically challenged.)

Still, then and now, there are a couple of basic logical truisms when it comes to absorbing information:

“You can’t believe everything you read” and “Consider the source.”

We live in a largely sourceless, hyper-opinion-driven climate of news dissemination. It’s exciting and scary at the same time. Exciting because for we news junkies it’s cool to have so many ways to absorb information and so many voices to consider and scary, well, for obvious reasons.

The explosion of the blogosphere, the rapid dissemination of any and all newsworthy topics, the rise of pundit status among people who’ve never had to adhere to a three-source rule, pour through the pages of a phone book trying to find an expert source, pound the pavement, develop on-background contacts—this reality makes it increasingly important and yet often difficult to check off those aforementioned truisms.

And I’m not saying anything new or clever when I use the “infotainment” moniker to dub our current media climate, but really that’s what it is–Infotainment.

Put simply, even given all the myriad outlets and information sources our current journalism climate offers, we basically like getting information from places we like. We flock to media and blogs and outlets that adhere to our highly personalized appetites and it’s easy to insulate ourselves from anything, any opinion that runs counter to our own. And it’s equally easy to perpetuate stories and blogs that align with our own ideologies. We can create our own truth around pretty much anything these days, and that’s kind of scary.

I’m not exempt from this. In full disclosure, I am a card-carrying member of the Stewart/Colbert militia. Their tongue-in-cheek, nothing-is-sacred satirical methodology appeals to me, partially because it’s so skillfully delivered and partially I admit, because their politics and ideology pretty much line up with my own.

Still, it makes me think.

If you hold to the adage that you can’t believe everything you read then does that imply the only things you might actually be able to believe are being perpetuated by people who don’t actually expect you to believe every word they write or say? Is Stephen Colbert perhaps the truest journalist of our times if you embrace the  Bizzaro World idea of journalistic truth?

Is Colbert-style  “truthiness” really the best we can hope for in our current media climate? And does it in fact offer us more actual truth than straight journalism? What is “straight journalism?  It’s an interesting conundrum to ponder, whether you are a casual reader, middling information hound or total news junkie.

To that end, I’m looking forward to having The Yes Men here at UCLA Live Oct. 14.

The tagline for The Yes Men’s documentary The Yes Men Fix the World is “Sometimes it takes a lie to expose the truth.”

The Yes Men—Andy Bichelbaum and Mike Bonanno—stretch the truth for sure, lying and posing as executives from government agencies and multinational corporations in an effort to ferret out often more-salacious untruths. Their methods are extreme and, well, fabulously funny at the same time. Still, their cunning legerdemain, however comically or altruistically motivated, hasn’t left the duo unscathed.

Whether or not you agree with The Yes Men’s tactics or motivation, you have to admit, what they do is thought-provoking.

And isn’t that essentially what any information-consumption should be about? To inspire you to think? To process…to not just swallow something whole simply because it comes from someone who looks just like you, who thinks just like you, who shares your worldview or your methods of information gathering and dissemination. What an idea. Maybe I will watch Fox News tonight. (Maybe not).

I’m sure we’ll examine the idea and phenomenon of “truthiness” a couple of times here in Royce Hall this year, first with The Yes Men and later in February with The Onion Editors.

In the meantime, don’t believe everything you read. Unless it’s good stuff about UCLA Live of course. That you can take to the bank.

Photo note: Front page of the fake New York Times The Yes Men printed and handed out. If only some of THOSE stories were true.

Splendor, Mundanity and Strenuous Briefness

Harvey Pekar died this weekend. Fans of graphic novels knew him as the “master of the mundane,” creator of the long-running series American Splendor, whose emphasis on the less-than spectacular events of an ordinary life became an inspirational treatise on how to extract the profound from the mundane.

Harvey was here at UCLA Live just a few months ago, appearing with Alison Bechdel, a truly stunning graphic novelist and generally brilliant woman who spoke frankly of the ways in which Pekar inspired her over the years. She even shared a short strip she had drawn based on a stick-figure outline Pekar handed her one day. “Here,” he said. “You should draw this.” Her multimedia presentation on the Royce Hall stage  flashed on a yellow, lined piece of paper with a few scribblings Harvey had made, simple scribblings that somehow inspired a story.

Pekar himself talked about his somewhat incongruous rise to fame in the graphic novel world…after all, he can’t draw at all, but one of his early and most prolific collaborators/supporters was R. Crumb who is pretty much a legend in the genre.  Harvey was, in person, much as like his character is in the  American Splendor strip—just a guy. A guy like the rest of us. For me, the most endearing part of his appearance here was seeing him interact with Bechdel, and seeing first-hand the impact his work and vision had on fellow artists. His latest work is The Pekar Project, an online strip for Smith Magazine for which he worked with a variety of talented up-and-coming artists.

Harvey’s life and death calls to mind a lot of questions. What is art? What is profound? What is mundane, and where do these ideas converge?

It makes me think of a passage from one of my favorite books, The Picture of Dorian Gray.

“Out of the unreal shadows of the night comes back the real life that we had known. We have to resume it where we had left off, and there steals over us a terrible sense of the necessity for the continuance of energy in the same wearisome round of stereotyped habits, or a wild longing, it may be, that our eyelids might open some morning upon a world that had been refashioned anew in the darkness for our pleasure, a world in which things would have fresh shapes and colours and be changed or, have other secrets, a world in which the past would have little or no regret, the remembrance even of joy having its bitterness and the memories of pleasure their pain.”

Don’t we all feel like that sometimes? Don’t we all lay down our heads at night sometimes and wonder what it would be like to wake to a different world?  But we never really do. We wake to our own lives every day. We go about our routines. We do our jobs. We think our thoughts. We live. We live the only way we can because that’s all we can do.

Our actual lives are largely defined by our most mundane habits and necessary behaviors. But those things don’t necessarily define the self. Harvey Pekar knew that.  It’s in the mind,  and through art and literature that we can perhaps, if we are lucky and inspired enough… extract the beauty and profundity from those simple and often mundane behaviors and tasks. There’s beauty in the breakdown.

Life is brief, more brief than we would like…strenuously so. We have our moments of pleasure and pain, of joy and bitterness and then we go. Perhaps, if we’re lucky, we leave a little inspiration behind.

Rest in Peace, Harvey Pekar.

Here’s a little something from another inspirational chap to see you off.

…e.e. cummings

into the strenuous briefness
handorgans and April
darkness, friends

i charge laughing.
Into the hair-thin tints
of yellow dawn,
into the women-coloured twilight

i smilingly glide. I
into the big vermilion departure
swim, sayingly;

(Do you think?) the
i do, world
is probably made
of roses & hello:

(of solongs and, ashes)

The Soundtracks of Our Lives–Live

Yes I dig the band whose name is alluded to in the title of this blog entry, but it’s other self-created “soundtracks” that are running through my mind right now.

I’m talking about those albums that worm their way into your heart and life, the ones you play over and over incessantly (I can’t be the only person who does this!). The ones that either started out meaning something to you, or that grew on you until they did, or that carry such powerful emotion or pack such an evocative punch  in 13 or so tracks that they literally become a soundtrack to periods in your life.

I’m thrilled that we’re starting off our season in September with an event that strikes a chord like that. The legendary John Cale is coming to perform his Paris 1919 album in its entirety. I admit, before coming to UCLA Live, I was not well versed in Cale outside of The Velvet Underground.  But I am absolutely intrigued by this upcoming performance.

It’s a very nostalgic album, written while Cale was living in Los Angeles and apparently thinking very fondly of cities in Europe that he loves—sort of a soundtrack to a time in his life, not to mention  inspired (at least titularly) by the Treaty of Versailles. (Only John Cale could set the Treaty of Versailles to an artistic rock soundtrack nearly half a century after it occurred.) It’s been called his most accessible solo work and it’s extremely appropriate for our Royce Hall stage considering Cale originally recorded it with the UCLA Philharmonia. He’ll be accompanied by a full orchestra here too.

I love the concept of performing albums in their entirety. I’ve only witnessed it a few times….Roger Waters doing Dark Side of the Moon at the Hollywood Bowl and at Coachella a couple of years ago. The Pixies doing Doolittle at the Palladium just last fall.

It works for me. It’s like this ride that you’re on with the artists on stage….you know what’s coming next, they know you know,  and you can just go with it together. It’s a beautiful thing.

Obviously it’s not appropriate for every single album ever made. I can think of a few of my personal favorites that it just wouldn’t be right for.

But I can also think of a few others of those aforementioned soundtracks of my life that I think it might work out with, including The Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Green Day’s American Idiot, (though I suppose I could just go see the Broadway show, don’t mock me), Radiohead’s OK Computer, The White Stripes’ Get Behind Me Satan. (I have yet to truly hone in on why I love that album so much, I’m just going with it).

What do you think of the complete-album performance conceit? What are some of the soundtracks to your life that you might like to experience live and in full?

Even if Paris 1919 may not be on that list (yet), it’s sure to be a magical night in Royce Hall. Hope to see you there.

Photo courtesy nati via Flickr.