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On portraits of survivors, Madonna as director, and the search for love

MONDAY MORNING PLAYBACK

A few of my favorite things from the week that was:

Chris Mars, “Tolerance” (BSFA monograph).
For all the change we’re supposedly living through, we still inhabit a world in which media talking heads and celebrities are regarded as artists with something to say. Thankfully, true artists like Mars get their due in serious galleries, and his work, presented here in 160 glorious and haunting pages, will be around long after the tsunami of politics, punditry, and pop stars gets kicked to the cultural curb. Much like his brother-in-scab-picking Paul Westerberg, these are timeless portraits of survivors — people with mental illness, like Mars’ schizophrenic older brother Joe, whom Chris talks about in his beautiful, angry and loving writings that accompany the artwork — and survivors of all other sorts of horrific lives; the demon-strapped, the self-tortured, the walking dead who ingest bad news and never really learn how to exhale; people who walk around every day living with this quote from Pearl S. Buck tattooed on their inner eyelids:

“The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: a human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive. To him, a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death. Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create, create — so that without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, his very breath is cut off from him. He must create, must pour out creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency he is not really alive unless he is creating.”

Most of these canvases, splashed as they are with ghosts, skulls, disembodied faces with thousand-yard stares and other creatures from the black lagoon of the painter’s soul, were hatched during the last eight years. And now that, to quote Gerald Ford, our long national nightmare is over, Mars’ mirror-nightmare is required viewing for anyone who suspects that the times have not been sufficiently, or harrowingly enough, rendered. 

Madonna (director/producer), “Filth and Wisdom.” Ms. Ciccone and her affection for the human race/condition are on full display in this Altman-esque rumination on saints and sinners (“Music makes the people come together/music mix the bourgeoisie and the rebel,” indeed). I’ve read the predictable pans, but to me it feels like her “Do the Right Thing.” So scrub Madonna’s name off the credits and this messy, stylish, sensitive asterisk would be hailed as a directorial debut that most filmmakers would launch a career on. Eugene Hutz (the singer from Gogol Bordello) is note perfect as the antihero gypsy musician who makes his living as an S&M provider for London businessmen. He pals around with a reticent ballerina who finds/loses herself as a stripper, and a wounded pharmacist who steals pills and dreams of feeding the poor. I could relate to every character’s need to feel something, anything, if not the manifestations it brought them to. Which is to say that “Filth and Wisdom” connects, because even with its tidy ending, it’s all about hunger — for knowledge, experience, and love — and how we feed ourselves.

Jackson Browne, “Fountain of Sorrow” (Oct. 16, Orpheum Theater). In the middle of a muggy spring night in 1977, I came home from my high-school prom, took off my rented tux jacket and, still tipsy on ill-gotten champagne, staggered over to the stereo console that sat in the living room of the house I grew up in with my parents, two brothers, and three sisters. I rifled through the family record collection — “Johnny Cash Live at Folsom Prison,” the J.F.K. audio docudrama “Four Days That Shook The World,” the Marlo Thomas pepfest “Free to Be … You and Me,” and new records by Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, and the Ramones — and slipped Jackson Browne’s “Late for the Sky” out of its jacket.

I put the black vinyl album on the turntable, lifted the arm so side one could play continuously until dawn, and collapsed on the couch. It had been a night of rites of passage and romance, and still I knew there was something missing. The girl I’d gone to prom with was an extrovert, and I liked — probably even loved — her, but when I was with her the loneliness, to paraphrase Browne, seemed to spring from me like a fountain from a pool. I put on “Late for the Sky” because I needed to remind myself that I wasn’t crazy for wanting more.

This night, I wanted to hear about his search for “the perfect love,” which even then I sensed was based on fantasy and vanity: That is, if the love you had wasn’t perfect, the problem was you, not the love, or your lover. 

What I saw from an early age about love and marriage was that you make the best of the love you find, and you find ways to trick yourself into staying in love. It’s good advice, and it works, but over the years, deep down, I wondered if anyone could relate to or understand this secret self I had inside me — if anyone could help fill the yawning emptiness in me that was salved solely by songs and books. In the end, I decided it was preposterous to want for someone who could complete me that way, to forge a connection that was as mystical as the music, because completion was up to me.

It was my job to get and stay happy, to learn about my soul and self and to buckle down and stop dreaming about a lover who, like me, used music as a portal to her inner life and an inner world that she, like I, so often preferred to the so-called real world; a lover who listened to music the way I had listened to it in that living room night after night — alone, staring into the family fireplace, listening not for entertainment but enlightenment. Cue Rob’s voice-over from High Fidelity here:

“What came first, the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?”

Twenty-seven springs after my high-school prom, Bruce Springsteen inducted Jackson Browne into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. My wife and kids were asleep upstairs when I saw it on VH1. Springsteen called “Late for the Sky” Jackson’s “masterpiece,” saying “there was no more searching, yearning, loving music made for and about America at the time,” and, “I think that what drew women to Jackson, besides the obvious, was that they finally felt they were listening to a guy who knew as much about love as they did. And what drew men to Jackson, besides the obvious, I guess, was that when they listened to him, they realized they knew more about love than they thought they did.”

I now know that what happened that night on the couch might have been as important as anything that happened in church, or any other slow-burn epiphany life has presented me with. As I tossed in and out of sleep, those songs — “Late for the Sky,” “Fountain of Sorrow,” “Farther On,” “The Late Show” — got in my system and never got out.

Or, rather, got in my system and made me think and feel for myself.

The other night at the Orpheum, I had to admit that Browne is running on empty, and the two-hour show made me wish I hadn’t skipped the reportedly phenomenal Neil Young show a couple days earlier. He played songs from his new record, and not one of those tunes measures up to any of the previously mentioned. It reminded me of what James Carville said about the third presidential debate, something about how it didn’t refract the extraordinary times we’re living through.

To be sure, it was a missed opportunity. I mean, to have that many people gathered in song and not hear, say, “Before the Deluge” (as sung by Billy Bragg at the Parkway Theater last month) and its poignant message of “let the music keep our spirits high” and “let creation reveal its secrets by and by,” is arrogant at worst and myopic at best. It’s a gospel song, a healing thing, and it reaches for something in a way that Browne’s latest meandering jams don’t. Still, difficult to complain when he delivered the epic that is “Fountain of Sorrow” — a lifetime of ideas, feelings, and rebirths in one seven-minute song.

Best thing I read all week: From Thomas Moore‘s “The Soul of Sex.“:

“PLEASURE
“In the 15th century Marsilio Ficino met with his fellow artists, architects and philosophers in the enchanted villa of Careggi, just outside Florence, in an upper room where the walls were decorated with inspiring words. “Laetus in praesens” was one of the favored sayings, “Happiness now.” These honored words expressed one piece in the humanist philosophy shared by those present, a Renaissance version of Epicureanism, which is the belief that pleasure is not only valid, but a necessary and inspiring goal in everyday life.

“Today the very word ‘pleasure’ can have hedonistic, and therefore negative, associations, and for many it is hardly a worthy motive in daily living. We use the word ‘epicurean’ to refer to the glutton, the gourmet, and the dandy, the person who makes good food and pleasant living their primary values, and we usually infer that this person goes to extremes and lives a superficial life.

“The philosophy of Epicurus, the Greek philosopher who taught his students, men and women, in his garden school in Athens, bears almost no relation to this modern notion of Epicureanism. Epicurus described pleasure as ataraxia, sometimes translated as tranquility or peace of mind. You accomplish this state by living simply and avoiding pain when possible. According to an Epicurean epigram: ‘It is better for you to lie on a bed of straw and be free of fear, than to have a golden couch and an opulent table, yet be troubled in mind.’ Epicurus recommended a simple diet of bread and vegetables and advocated the cultivation of friendship as being among the most important activities in life.

“It is with this ancient notion of Epicureanism in mind that I set out to explore the role of earthly pleasures for the soul and try to give sexual pleasure a place of esteem in a philosophy of life. In our efforts to make our lives spiritually vibrant, responsive to the needs of people who are close to us, and personally rich and full, we can take pleasure, if it is grounded and genuine, as a measure of the soul’s presence. Epicurean pleasures include deep satisfactions like friendship, family, and community, and also the sensuous delights that may not appear at first glance to be so meaningful.

“With Epicurus we could distinguish between the pleasures that make us feel driven and those that make us feel deeply satisfied. The former are not real pleasures but may instead be gratifications that are not deep enough to stir the soul. They may be symptomatic pleasures — not the real thing but only a sign that we are lacking real pleasure in life. Sexual pleasure can either move the soul or offer gratifications that in the end feel empty. Its pleasures are not necessarily the passing kind disparaged by Epicurus, for they can be deep and lasting and have a profound effect on the whole of life.

“Ficino was a vegetarian, but he also loved and kept fine wines. Edgar Wind, an insightful Renaissance scholar, says of Ficino that ‘he tried to infuse into Christian morals a kind of neo-pagan joy’ and believed that ‘pleasure (voluptas) should be reclassified as a noble passion.’ Following a long-standing custom among the ancients, Ficino kept a painting of two philosophers in his study: the laughing Democritus and the weeping Heraclitus. He wrote a great deal about depression and confessed to being a melancholy man, but he also advocated joyful living and dedicated a major essay to the theme of pleasure.

“If we keep in one frame these two images that represent such different yet compatible emotional states, we need not lose sight of the one as we become absorbed in the other. Both melancholy and pleasure play important roles in the emotional complexity of the heart. When we divide them we end up with stern Puritanism on one side and thoughtless hedonism on the other. The true Epicurean brings these two positions close to each other, so that pleasure has a degree of restraint and depth, while virtue doesn’t aim at destroying the joy of life.

“There is a difference between sexual hedonism and sexual pleasure. Most of us are familiar with the compulsion for sex and perhaps as well the fantasy that an unlimited sex life would be bliss. But we have probably also tasted the pleasure to be found in making love with a person we know well, for whom we feel deep affection, and for whom we wish equal pleasure and happiness. With this kind of partner sexual pleasure is not separate from the joys and challenges of daily life or diminished by the struggles involved in living together or the restriction of having only one lover.

“Epicurean sex consists of sheer sensual delight in the touches, smells, sights, and sounds of bodies pleasuring each other, accompanied by feelings of love, emotional peace, and deep friendship. One rarely hears about the connection between friendship and sex, but for Epicurus friendship is a central need of the soul, and it gives sex a comfortable base. If sex is narcissistically self-absorbed or if it represents an anxious escape from loneliness, its pleasures will be diminished. They won’t reflect the central Epicurean doctrine of ataraxia, ‘without disturbance.’ “

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