Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Canyon hear me running

Beaver Falls
by Ryland Walker Knight

We’ve decided it’s time to descend. It’s four miles back to the boats and coming up took two hours. We’re leaving Beaver Falls’ turquoise waters and otherworldly travertine dams to return to the mighty Colorado’s muddy brown thunderous flow.

It’s midday now, somewhere around 1 or 2, and the sun is killing me. I start inching away from the pool while the others gather their hats and shoes and trash. Allison and Ethan catch up first and we’re alone, ahead of the teenagers. I’m baking but taking my time with the narrow path. I can’t see the ground because of all the long grass, mesquite and prickly vines arching over our feet. The sun is a killer, I’m sure. Why didn’t I jump into the pool once again?

“Hey, Ryland, why don’t we pick up the pace?” Allison asks from behind me.

I quicken my steps, deciding my shins and ankles will be thrashed no matter how fast I’m walking. Ethan starts singing “Twist and Shout”. Allison joins in. They’re trading off lines and I’m peeling away. They didn’t pick up any pace. I keep going faster. Their singing is more distant and I start running. I’m covered in sweat immediately. Allison says, “Hey!” and I hear her start to run up behind me. “Hey be careful.”

I’m running full speed now: jumping over the big clumps, leaping from rock to rock, big steps on the straightaways, little steps down rocks. Allison is close behind and Ethan just a step off her. We’re at water again—a crossing—thank God. I plunge through the current, a million little rocks swimming in my flip flops. At the other bank I pause to shake out the remaining pebbles and I’m off again, this time into the shade—praise Him.

There’s branches on this side. Branches we have to duck under or swat aside or simply power through eyes closed. I hope I’m far enough ahead so I won’t thwack Allison and luckily I am. I keep jumping off the trail to avoid fallen limbs and gross overgrowth only to be forced back on the crowded trail by an impassable stretch up an embankment or across slick mud. Soon we’ve run to the next crossing.

“You think we’ll pass Don?” Ethan yells from behind. Don had started back before us with Beth by about twenty minutes.

“Probably, at this rate,” Allison says.

I don’t say anything but I’m thinking, “If Don can run up this canyon why the hell can’t we run down it?” This new side of the river is full of rocks but somehow I’m skipping, leaping, timing my steps to hit the peaks or flattops ready to spring ahead, up or down. In five minutes of bobbing and weaving we’re right behind Beth. Beth is cautious, tired, slow. There’s no way around her yet. We’re stuck walking for another five minutes until the next crossing, in the sun.

Don wades out to the middle of the river and floats downstream. Allison follows him. Ethan and I lead Beth across briefly before sprinting ahead to slip into the flow and trudge through mud into the current where we plow our way to the rocks again. Don is waving us ahead. Allison says, “You’re too slow, old man,” and I try not to giggle. I’m sure he’d kick our butts in a race.

This first part involves a little hugging. We hold the underside of a shelf and shuffle along the two-inch wide ledge below. I go the slowest, naturally--all worries--until I hit a little dirt and then I’m running again. We’re more open now, the plants only grow to my knees here, not my shoulders, and it’s pretty easy to jump around. I’m flying downhill and Ethan’s on my heels. I throw myself through a branch and yell back, “I don’t really know why I’m doing this.” We’re turning a corner into more shade and I stop running.

Allison and Ethan catch up while I drink some from my Nalgene bottle. There’s maybe five ounces left so I only drink two. Ethan’s holding up his gallon jug and water spills out the sides onto his bare chest. Allison’s bottle is empty. “Let’s go,” I say. “He’s off,” she says. “That was quick.”

Back in the sun, back on the move. But the sun’s not as hot now. Maybe the angle changed. Getting tired. My foot slips across a rock and Allison shrieks but I catch myself and keep running—everything’s fine. My balance is getting worse, though, I can tell, and I slow it down a bit. Jim Doolittle is wading in the river (he’s so huge!) and not on the trail—we’re gone, past him. We’re almost back, I think. The sweat that covered my body’s almost gone. One more sprint uphill. Fuck, that took it out of me.

Walking in the shade is easier. Pretty soon we’re at that hole in the rock where we climb down a fallen tree that has footstep grooves cut into it. At the bottom of the short cave there’s a large shallow pool off the river. Allison and Ethan run past me and dive into it. I walk to the edge, whine “Oh fuck” all smiles and fall face first into the water. When I surface they’re smiling and we swim to the other side. The current floats us a quarter mile and cools us off before we have to hit the trail again for the last descent across rocks to the final emptying into the Colorado.

The last stretch of Havasu is darker green, in the shade of sheer, curved pink rock walls that bend just enough for us to see Jimbo playing his guitar on one of our rafts. We’re swimming again. The orange peels in my pocket float out and into my face. I pretend to eat them but spit them out. I can barely doggy paddle; it’s easier to swim freestyle. Ethan’s at the boats, climbing, looking for his camera. Allison’s right behind him, onto her boat up the side. I’m resting on my back in the river, listening.

Jimbo plays a version of Marvin Gaye’s “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” where that’s all he sings in his plaintive, scratchy, bruised voice (“How sweet it is ... to be Loved by you ...”) over and over and over again. Louis accompanies with some acoustic slide and Gab rounds out the trio with his blues harmonica.

How sweet it is to be LOVED by you.

I open my eyes and see I’ve bobbed my way next to them where I stand up in the waist-high water. I smile at Jimbo and he smiles back, still singing, because he knows it’s my favorite song to hear on the river. Allison offers to pull me onto the boat but I’m able to haul myself over the tube and onto the front deck. I lay across the opposite tube with my head on an envelope bag tied next to our dry box with my eyes closed.

How sweet it is to be LOVED by you.

The band keeps playing and Jimbo keeps singing. Allison opens my ammo box and retrieves my camera: she’s taking pictures. She wants me to look at her. I turn my head but won’t open my eyes. I just want to soak this. Nobody’s speaking yet and this weight of fatigue and wet clothes on the hot plastic boat is the harmony I’d hoped for all trip.

How sweet it is to be LOVED by you.

I open my eyes and there’s the camera: in my face: click. Allison laughs. My heart slows down again. Where's camp tonight?

How sweet it is to be LOVED by you.
How Sweet It Is

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Hits of Sunshine

by Michael Strenski

I have stumbled upon an interesting phenomenon. I work at a movie theatre and as one would expect many of the conversations with my co-workers tend to revolve around film. A favorite question of mine when meeting someone new is: what was the last great Woody Allen film? Across the board, everyone I ask goes at least as far back as 01997's Deconstructing Harry. I then inquire after a film released a full two years' post-Harry, 01999's Sweet and Lowdown. A sparkle of recognition plays across the person's face and they almost always acknowledge the greatness of Sweet and Lowdown. They just forgot about it. I often alternate between worrying about and cherishing the forgotten gems like Sweet and Lowdown. I feel an inherent need to spread the wealth and beauty but at the same time, I enjoy feeling like part of a very small contingent that found the treasure and will never forget.

This brings me around to Sonic Youth. Everyone loves Sonic Youth. The majority of listeners do not love everything Sonic Youth has ever done, but even your mom can enjoy "Theresa's Sound World", and your eight-year old cousin really, really digs "My Friend Goo". Like most people I discovered the band around the time I became a teenager. By that point I had completely given myself to Nirvana, and after listening to In Utero for the zillionth time, I decided to search out one of the bands that Kurt had raved so much about. Sonic Youth were the first step in the direction of the underground. They were the key to Lightning Bolt, to Melt Banana, and a billion other diverse and challenging bands. And as I write this over a decade later, Sonic Youth remain the guardians of that threshold to a host of newly-minted teenagers.

My first exposure was Dirty and I immediately fanned my way out from there. For every newly-released Sonic Youth record I bought two of their earlier works. Soon I had amassed a Sonic Youth library that to this day still intimidates the rest of my record collection (okay, I just checked the CDs and the Melvins beat out the Youth by two albums, twenty-seven to twenty-five). For a long, long time Sonic Youth retained a position in my musical standings that no other band was afforded. I listened to them almost exclusively for months' on end, which only happens with the greatest of bands. I harbor an incredibly intense memory of lying in bed at my mother's house listening to Daydream Nation with my eyes closed. It was the first time I had ever consciously decided to let the vocals, drums and other instruments fade away and just follow one of Sonic Youth's guitars through an entire jam. Visions poured across my mind, everything seemed so incredibly beautiful to me. It was the first time that I can remember concentrating so hard on a fragment of a song. This was what I pictured classical music to be for other people.

Enter A Thousand Leaves.

In 01998, Sonic Youth released another album, just like they had done every other year on average since 01981, the year I was born. At first listen, A Thousand Leaves seemed like an obvious extension of the direction the band had been headed with their previous album Washing Machine, extending the jams and letting the guitars really take off. But the thing with this album was that after each listen it seemed to unfold itself in vastly new directions. Unlike any album before, there were a multitude of avenues to explore. It seemed so all-encompassing. A Thousand Leaves has its Sonic Youth-patented pop songs ("Sunday") and its rockers ("the Ineffable Me"), but the jams on this album were at the forefront, more so than they ever would be again. My friends and I took to the album like a drug. We dubbed the album onto cassette and played it in a boombox wherever we went. There is a guitar skronk at exactly three minutes and five seconds into the song "French Tickler" that might be my favorite moment in a piece of recorded music ever. I seriously considered A Thousand Leaves to be the best album of all time for a while.

The thing is no one else seemed to think so. I remember Rolling Stone giving it a terribly lackluster review which further cemented my disdain for said magazine. I met other Sonic Youth fans who just didn't think much about it. To them, it was just another Sonic Youth album, something they bought the week it came out, listened to a few times and then shelved away with their other albums, rarely giving it another thought. It was more a part of the collection, less a masterwork by four forward-thinking, musical gods from New York City. This brings me to the Woody Allen idea explored earlier. Was A Thousand Leaves destined to become another Sweet and Lowdown? For a long time, that most definitely appeared to be the case.

In an historical nutshell, shortly after completing A Thousand Leaves, almost all of Sonic Youth's custom guitars that they had been using and oddly-tuning for over a decade were stolen. The band was forced to acquire new gear and focus on new work. In my mind this was both blessing and curse. The thought of starting all over seemed great for a band like Sonic Youth who always appeared to be aspiring to do so, the sad part was that the following work was in my opinion, the worst of their career. The three albums that came directly after A Thousand Leaves were all disappointments, the first time I had ever experienced that with Sonic Youth. The last two in this trilogy, Murray Street and Sonic Nurse only had one good song between them, but what an amazing song it is. Lee Ranaldo's "Karen Revisited" is one of the greatest the band has ever done, an amazingly beautiful piece with sincere, honest lyrics that was wholly out of place amidst records that were bogged down in faux-beat poetry and simply put, utterly boring moments. Here's the crux: the first set of Sonic Youth LPs that I could not honestly enjoy were being heralded as a return to form by Rolling Stone, and by their imitators and detractors alike.

I bided my time. I never completely lost faith in Sonic Youth although there were times when things looked incredibly bleak. I had unwillingly turned into the people before me, buying the latest album, listening to it a couple times and then relegating it to the bottom of the stack. I have known for years that I will always buy the new Sonic Youth album no matter how bad it is, because I feel like I owe it to a band that opened so many doors in my adolescent brain about what a band, a song, or art could be. Thankfully, I was rewarded for my loyalty this year when the band released their fifteenth full length, the exquisite Rather Ripped. In almost every way, the new album is the antithesis of A Thousand Leaves, the songs on Rather Ripped are concise, catchy pop songs, some of the poppiest of the band's entire career. Compare that to the former album that has three songs that clock in at over nine minutes, and a song that has Kim Gordon calling the name Alice repeatedly through a noise that recalls life in a wishing well. It doesn't matter. The band sounds invigorated again. And guess what?

Most of the reviews of the new album cite it as a return to form. A return to the greatness of such albums as...A Thousand Leaves. That's what they're saying. This delayed validation gives me hope that justice will be meted out in the long run for all of the other neglected classics.

It just takes time.

Canyon here I come

We'll only have one Dory
by Ryland Walker Knight

It's the night before we leave and we're racing to REI. We're racing to return a pelican case; Allison wants her camera on deck, not in her ammo can. We hit red lights at every intersection. Time is winding down--it's almost 9. Why always red? These assholes in their BMWs are all going to Claim Jumper? Good god.

We run down every isle, just missing the pelican cases at every turn. (They were right here!) We find the rack and Allison asks me to try to fit her camera into a bright yellow, top-loading box. Without taking the camera out of its zippered case, I pretend to stuff it into the top. No go. Clearly, too small. NO, you idiot, take it out! Oh, right, chuckle: it's fine, it's perfect, it fits: let's get the fuck out of here: we have to water!

Pat and Kathleen asked us to house sit and water their plants. They own a 3 bedroom, 2 bath on the hill above Orinda complete with swimming pool, hot tub and private vegetable garden. Yet they don't have trash cans. We looked all week all over their property and all we could find were two green bins for garden waste. There's a ton of trash. So many beer bottles--did we really drink that much?--and all that newspaper--did we really not read those? Most of the neighbors have their red and blue and green plastic cans out front, hugging the sidewalk, so we grab as much as possible to split the load and walk down White Oak avoiding those orange windows above. I know the neighbors are watching in disgust. What are those two hooligans doing? Over-flowing MY recycling? HAROLD!

--The watering will have to wait--I did it yesterday anyways.
--OK, fine.
--The pizza!

There's a pepperoni and sausage pizza waiting to be eaten. I can't wait to cut it. I normally never eat pepperoni and sausage pizza. I'm starving. Wait, we'll eat it downstairs and watch THE NEW WORLD, finally, on their ginormous TV. It'll be sort of a preview and a reflection. We'll preview living on the river barely clothed. We'll reflect on abadoning culture, movies in particular. We'll think about all the afternoon monsoons and the desert walls raining reflected heat on our microscopic boats. We'll wish we had the vision to piece together an Eden like Mr Malick. We'll marvel at the clarity of water; where's our river right now?! We--

--Fuck, I have to water.
--We're only driving to Vegas today, silly.
--I've never been there. Is there a river there?
--A river of ugly.
--A river of ugly, garish lightbulbs and fat Americans.
--I don't even think you think that--you aren't even you, you're me speaking for you, asleep in the next room. In fact, when are you going to wake up? I'm pretty sure the hot tub is hot again and I'm ready to cook eggs and bacon. You're so comfortable in that bed. I was so comfortable last night. I'm not going to be comfortable in bed for a month.

Take care, dear world. I'm off.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Measure Beauty in Tons

by Michael Strenski

(The first is a freak with a masochistic streak...)

Brian Eno is an obvious genius. Anyone who has ever stumbled upon his work has come to this conclusion. We all know this. It is an undeniable fact, like Pi. Most realize it while listening to one of his four solo rock albums from the '70's, others from discovering his "Music for Airports" record (where he single-handedly invents ambient music). The fact of his genius has been confirmed and crystallized whenever we decide to delve deeper (which we all eventually do) into his life and work. His collaborations with David Bowie, John Cale, and the Long Now Foundation among others, cement his brilliance in the pantheon of great thinkers and creative artists.

(...and the second is a kitten up a tree...)

Whilst listening to an old mixtape the other day, I came upon a song of Eno's from the aforementioned '70's rock period that I think warrants closer inspection. On the surface, "the Seven Deadly Finns" is just another foot-tapping, booty-shaking, fist pumping, three-minute rock 'n' roll anthem. It's the type of song that implants itself firmly in your brain from the onset and never lets go. Never. I will be eighty years old and still remember the first time I heard "the Seven Deadly Finns". The same goes for such notable songs as the Violent Femmes' "Good Feeling" and Leonard Cohen's "One of Us Cannot Be Wrong". But those songs are nowhere near as jubiliant as "the Seven Deadly Finns".

(...the third is a flirt wih an awful print skirt...)

Within the first three seconds, the song commands your attention. Hell, the guitar tone in those opening moments brings a smile to one's face. The drums and guitar are forcefully driving, pausing briefly at the end of each bar for simple drum fills. Over the music Eno sounds like he's having a blast. All of the intelligence in the world would mean nothing if the song did not have this immediacy, the visceral thrill of a great rock song going for it. It does in spades. But beneath it, there is much more going on which keeps you intrigued and utterly devoted to the song.

(...and the fourth is pretending to be me...)

The first lyrical section of the song tells the story of French girls who are disappointed by the lack of romanticism amongst the local boys of the town. They lament over the fact that they never receive daisy chains from their male peers. But just when their story begins, a ship pulls into the local harbor and with a bang the song's title characters appear, lusting for the French girls. We find out that the port is famous for its women when Eno acknowledges that besides the Deadly Finns; soldiers, sailors, gigolos and governments have previously docked there for this very reason.

(...the fifth wears a mac and never turns his back...)

At this point, the song's locomotive pace changes to a bridge of sorts where over backing vocals of the la-la-la variety, Eno goes on to describe each Finn in turn (which I am dispursing throughout this post in a conceit stolen directly from Jonathan Lethem, a writer whose great piece The Beards also mentions Eno's importance). Like so:

(...and the sixth never shows his eyes...)

Following introductions, a particularly pleasant and slightly discordant guitar solo breaks in. Afterwards, Eno comes back into the mix but oddly decides to leave the story of the Finns behind as he did the French girls at the song's beginning. Instead he goes on to an all-new lyrical territory when he decides to break down the Meaning of Life: "Although variety is the spice of life/a steady rhythm is the source/simplicity is the crucial thing/systemically of course". This lyrical moment is on par with his statement that "the passage of my life is measured out in shirts" on "King's Lead Hat" off of his 01977 album Before and After Science (both song and album title are anagrams!).

(...but the Seventh Deadly Finn is so tall and slim, he should have never been with those guys...")

Now, it's about this time in the song where my brain starts to overload on joy and information and I think to myself that neither the song nor human achievement can be topped, but Eno does the darndest thing:

He fucking yodels. The song gets all psychedelic for a second and then he fucking yodels himself and the song home!