Saturday, April 11, 2009

Phoning It In

OK, so my friend Gary is very involved in community low-power FM radio and helped found a station here in the Falls of Bellow, WOOL-FM ( He's started this cool mini-programming thing called PHONE IT IN, where one can have a regular slot for three minutes of opining about any old thing. Because I like Gary and he plies me with Malbec, I have agreed to Phone It In. I've done three and it occurred to me today, as I ranted about how much I despise Twitter, that I might as well post these to the Blog. Although Blogger denies that I actually have ever had a blog, I've managed to re-access my account. Hot-cha! Here's the first Phone It In I did, about taking the Amtrak up to Montpelier a couple of weeks ago.


I love trains. I can bore people to death in the space of five minutes talking about trains. So I’m going to try to bring this in in four.

The other day, I was invited to Montpelier. The train’s been operating on time out of Bellows Falls recently, and I thought, “hey, why not take the train up, spend the night and then come back the next day?”

So I called my friend Julie to make a reservation. Julie’s the automated voice at the 1-800-USA-RAIL Amtrak number. People think I have a crush on Julie, but that’s not true. Julie told me it’s be $20 each way and that the northbound train was running 8 minutes late.

I went down to the station. The train arrived on time. The conductress, who looks like Debbie Harry if Debby Harry had chosen to be an Amtrak conductor instead of doing that rock star thing, said that the rate for travel within the state of Vermont was $12 each way.

We rode, majestically, up the Connecticut River Valley, past the floodgates of the Bellows Falls Dam, over the High Bridge on the Sugar River, past the worlds longest covered bridge and the very fetching piles of rubble that constitute most of what one sees of Windsor. It got dark soon after that.

The next morning I was back at the Montpelier station for a 9:42 am departure. The train was pretty full - I heard Debby Harry saying they had 72 passengers on board out of Montpelier and that they’d be full by Hartford.

Vermont looked sparkly and beautiful and watching it spool by made me happy to live here. In White River Jct. two callow college students got on board. They sat down in back of me and started listening to rap music on their computer.

Their conversation went like this:
Listen to this. I like this song.
Heh heh heh.
This song is good.
That’s sick.
I got this album - the carter family reunion. it’s stupid. it’s an entire album by people whose last name is carter.
This is like my favorite song.
heh heh heh.

They were wearing headphones and weren’t being loud, but I wanted to kill them, just on principle.

Of course, my contempt has to be leveraged with the fact that back in college my roomate Jerry and I thought “Your Love Is Like Nuclear Waste” by the Tuff Darts was a good song.

We didn’t giggle like that, though.

We pulled into Bellows Falls right on time at 11:45 am. I said goodbye to Debby, and blew a kiss to Julie as the train disappeared into the tunnel, North-by-Northwest style.

Okay, I can sense that your eyes are starting to glaze, so I’ll stop here. Just a thought, though - think about taking the train on your next little jaunt upstate. It’s fun, and you may get to learn about some new music.

And kiss Julie for me. Ooops. Well, never mind. Just don’t believe a word she says about the cost. Or whether the trains on time or not. She once left me shivering in the cold in Elko, Nevada for three hours in the middle of the night. Julie. What a gal.

Talk to you later.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Driver's Song

The aspect of this project that is causing me to teeth-grit and jaw-gnash and brow-furrow is the (implied?) overt-narrative aspect of it. It's making me loopy. 

I think it's because I was taught in fiction writing (I was a terrible fiction writer, by the way; _nothing ever happened_ in my stories, though I could -as Rick Bass says- 'describe the hell out of a situation,' but then.... nada; all the characters just kind of got along. for eight pages) anyway, it was drilled into us that we should never _tell_. Instead we were to _show_; to let the situation unspool in real time, to stay off the soapbox, to utilize nuance....

Great songwriting often does that; Bill Morrissey, a brilliant and underrated New Hampshire writer whose stuff has a sense of place permeating it like woodsmoke in a jackshirt, is a master. Some of his work may have political overtones, but that's not how it's presented. It just seems to be about people. 

"The Driver's Song," f'rinstance, could easily be mistaken for a bland, if moderately poetic, travelog. The final lines, delivered deadpan by the narrator, say:

I love these back roads of New Hampshire
They twist and wind like a rolling sea
I feel like a captain who knows no fear 
Everybody goes to sleep so early up here

Cool! Earlier, the guy has been talking about how much he likes the warm lights coming through the windows of the farmhouses and how gorgeous the moon is on the hills; real Woody Jackson turf, y'know?

Except.... here's the shiv in your back, delivered with a shrug: the verse preceding blandly says:

"I stop my truck in the middle of the road
Always the same place each night on this familiar route
I open the side valve, then climb back in the cab
And I drive these roads until that big tank empties out..."

So, no, the guy isn't a tourist. He's someone being paid to dump toxic waste. And he does it by driving his rig up to East Bumfuck, NH, opening up the petcocks, and driving around, admiring the moonlit scenery until the tank's empty. And he's not nervous about it. He's calm. Why? Because "everybody goes to sleep so early up here."

Which is a way of being political without being political.

A crappy songwriter would say something like: "Toxic waste is bad! It makes the planet sad! People from Massachusetts! They think they can use us! Drive up late at night! Dump their waste it just ain't right! No, no, no, no, no,no, no, no!"

Bill Morrissey's voice never inflects that we're to be paying special attention to one phrase or another. We have to discover the horror ourselves. That approach, and that level of skill makes me swoon.

THAT'S the kind of painting I want to do. Oh, Sweet Jeezus, I don't want to make bad op-ed art.

The first idea I've been wresting with is/was to depict people in an 'as is' scenario holding up a picture of what 'might be.' Kind of as if President Kennedy had needed remedial education and ended up with Robert MacNamara holding up flash cards. 

This is making my skin crawl as I type it.

The current idea is... better... maybe. It's to explore the idea of consequences of idealism as it relates to Vermont. And its future.

The equivalent of Jim Douglas of the Abenakis probably thought, "The English! Cool! This expands our trading possibilities so we can leverage the French!" As the English concurrently thought, "Need  a blanket, Chief? We just picked up some nice ones down in Amherst!"

So... we have the First Nations. They see trading possibilities, but get smallpoxed blankets. Then we have Merino wool. Which brings the speculators, and then that unfortunate crash. Next come the railroads! It opens up our trading potential, but results in the depopulation of Vermont when the Midwest opens up instead. Then the Interstates! And that brings us (among many other fascinating items) all those nice drug dealers (from within and without the state) who REALLY appreciate the ability to access Interstate Commerce in a trice....

So now we have the (and who can argue!) very reasonable impulse to bring broadband access to every nook and cranny of the state a.s.a.p.! As a good doomsayer (who enjoys his DSL in Bellows Falls, yes indeed), I'm fascinated by trying to figure what the unintended consequence of _that_ is/are going to be...

I'm thinking it is the utter decimation of our hanging-on-by-their-fingernails downtowns... I watched (in quiet horror) this winter when a friend with DSL needed to buy a nail gun, and he went to the local hardware store and checked out the different models and decided which one he liked best (thank you, local hardware store!). Then he went home, went online (to Amazon! Amazon! of all places) and read reviews of the guns. THEN he went to some morally-craven website where all they do is reduce whatever eager impulse one has into the cheapest place in the world to buy it... and bought it.

Let's think on how to depict _that_ without getting all obvious.

Care for a blanket, Chief? 

Sleep well.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Agents of Chang

I've been reading the Future of Vermont website "5 Questions" section, and here's my worry: the Busch Beer swillin' NASCAR watchin' Confederate Flag wavin' population is just _not_ being reached. 

Being a good dirt-eating elitist myself (who actually kinda likes NASCAR so long as I don't think about that devouring non-renewable natural resources for the hell of it part), it just gives me a kind of foreboding that we're not really 100% consistent with reality when everybody who posts seems to agree that what we want is to "make sure VT doesn't become another generic place with big box chain stores" (to just grab one quote virtually at random). 

Well, as vexing and pea-brained as I find it, there's a not-inconsiderable slice of the population that would very much like to see (oh, say) a lot more big box chain stores. And so us, Agents of Change that we are ('Agents of Chang' -which is what I initially typed- sounds like a Chinese spy movie) are we to make visual depictions of only what WE want to see be the future of Vermont? 

I mean.... look at the picture above (from the "Future of Vermont" website). These people supposedly were at the Bennington CFV mereting. Do you think that guy just said, "What Vermont really needs is a whole lot more Wal-Marts"? It's _possible_, I guess, but I kinda doubt it (oooh! But if he did, do you think the woman next to him thinks he's just great or does she want to whack him upside the head? If you really stare at her you can get her motivation to seem to go either way).

Right now, being a literal sort, I'm working on the idea of depicting 'things as they are' with a person or symbol juxtaposed representing 'things as they might be' (being primarily a painter of drippy monochromatic depictions of rotting infrastructure, this is not so easy). My ongoing subtext, I realize, is that I'm thinking "'things as they are' = things I don't really approve of and 'things as they might be' = things I'D like to see.  I don't WANT to do a painting of things other people might want to see that are not things I want to see. I mean, I'm working on a sketch painting (I'll show it next blog, perhaps) of a vast shopping-center parking lot with a person (ok, me, but I was the only one around I could get to pose) holding up an image of a lovely organic-type garden (ok, my mom's garden, but hey).

But there are plenty of Vermont residents out there whose 'things I'd like to see' would show someone standing in front of a cornfield with a nice big picture of a Walgreens. But they're not usually art majors, are they? So, yeah, looking over the GUIDELINES for FINALIST PRESENTATIONS, it doesn't say we have to be democratic (small 'd', the cap D is implied, ha ha), but merely that our work must "address one or more issue, challenge or vision specific to the state of Vermont identified by the work of the CFV."

Well, thank goodness for that. That's the kind of Chang we can believe in.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Are You Out There? Can You Hear This?

In the 1990's I served as singer/songwriter Dar Williams' manager. One of the songs for which we had high hopes of snagging the American public's ears was called "Are You Out There," about the takeover of alternative voices on the radio dial by the corporate behemoth known as Clear Channel.... of course, as we noticed in retrospect... hey! ....since Clear Channel ...had already taken over America's airwaves... the song didn't ...become ...a ...hit. 

This is why I wasn't a terribly good manager. But the line occurred to me as I sat down to try to write my first blog entry.

I've never blogged before. It sounds like a euphemism for something embarrassing, like "vomiting in public."

Oh. Right. It sort of is vomiting in public. But what's the harm? Since I'm apparently not in consideration for a post in the Obama administration, I can (metaphorically) blog all over everybody's metaphorical lawn till the cows come home.

Which sounds very Vermont. The cow part I mean. Not the blogging on people's lawns part. THAT sounds like something that would happen at Dartmouth, across the river.

ANYWAY, it sounds like many of us wiggly little artiste types are having a devil of a time trying to wrap our crania around just exactly what it is we're supposed to be coming up with in order to hit the Art of Action g-spot. It's really interesting. I think it may be that we are very used to the idea of us, the wiggly artistes, just creating the stuff, with it being up to the viewer to interpret the exact meaning of the work. Didn't we learn somewhere that it was not cool to be too overtly political (or at least too overtly sincere)? 

Everyone would much rather be Bob Dylan than Phil Ochs.