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Archive for March, 2012

This post serves as a conclusion to my previous thoughts on James’ novel, in the form of a personal reflection. For Portrait is not simply a wonderfully engaging narrative; it is also a brilliant dissection of human pride and folly.

A dark cloud hangs over the characters of Gilbert Osmond and Madame Merle – there is a mystery to their motivations. Yet in time, James illuminates their agenda as both villainous and perversely commonplace – theirs is a monstrous form of something we all seem drawn to express and desire.

Gilbert and the Madame are sophisticated social climbers. Not your classic, garden variety, Victorian types. Their way of ascending the ladder is two pronged: elitist culture via social ways and means. Isabel tragically (and unwittingly) becomes a pawn in their project. These two are snobs to an almost demonic extent. Gilbert is a collector of precious and rare items (which ends up including Isabel), and the Madame, behind a facade of public niceties and social elitism, is full of unpleasant machinations. Both their lineages are terribly unimpressive, yet via an unnatural drive for advancement they climb beyond their station.

Behind these projects is buried the foundation of an idolatry – a worship of self which distorts one’s own visage not only above others, but above the very Creator. Yet we are not unlike them; an agenda bubbles up here which is both artificial, universal and gigantically foolish.

Now before questioning the part you as the reader may or may not play in this drama, a quick prayer for discernment and self-awareness is encouraged as a right expression of wisdom. It is true, not all of us seek a rich suitor to catapult us into another strata. Nor do we all hanker after the obvious flashing lights of the glitterati. But we are, each one of us, like little Gilbert Osmonds and Madame Merles; we find respectable yet  sophisticated methods to bring about the very same results.  I think of a few quickly: an accumulation of cultural knowledge, social acclamation, intellectual success, frequent victory in robust rational debate, personal self-made security. We all find our little niche which appears to advance us and proceed to nail our colours boldly to one or more of these from an early age (perhaps adolescence?).

No, whether we are obvious or ‘subtle’ in our games, matters not; all are false and foolish trails. What we rather need is the advancement won for us by him who was first lowered. He not only catapults us out of our current strata (our family of origin), but surprisingly wecolmes us into a new one driven by the Spirit, secured in the heavens, reflecting the very heart of a perfectly loving Heavenly Father. Might this be the right and true reality which fires the mind and soul, and draws the attention of a too easily distracted vision. Because the alternative, though dangerous, is also very very silly.

 

 

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I had another intensely hopped up beer. It came from all the way across the Pacific Ocean; sunny California to be precise. I am beginning to realise the West Coast of America is good for something – an extravagant array of quality brewers smashing it on the world stage. Today was a heady concoction by the Moylans brewery: their Hopsickle Imperial IPA. That means it’s triple hopped. Wowsers. Sweet, bitey and very, very potent.

Some of my favourite beers are incarnations of the IPA (India Pale Ale). Some are double hopped. Some triple. But all delicious. They generally push the boundaries on the alcoholic content – many IPAs are over 6%; a handful over 10%!

Recent times have even seen the advent of something truly beautiful…the dark IPA. Two of my most treasured beer experiences belong to this kind of sweet joy. Firstly, Murrays Shaun’s Fault Dark Ale is the best of both worlds – the roasted coffee and chocolate flavours of a porter with the hoppy tang of a IPA. Secondly, the Beer Hop Breakfast is a Stout in the new world tradition; you’ll scarcely remember the darkness, because the Danes from Mikkeller have researched how to destroy all semblance of a palate with their brutal brew.

But my current personal favourite is the Bear Republic Hop Rod Rye Ale. It is a work of mad genius.  I hope Jon enjoys the bottle I bought him; it could be a friendship breaker if he doesn’t.

 

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Great segment from a not so great Jim Jarmusch film. The idea: eleven (almost static) scenes, each featuring two to three famous people riffing on life. The common thread: all take place over coffee and cigarettes.

Jarmusch is the master of directing deadpan (Stranger than Paradise, Dead Man and Broken Flowers), so it would seem this minor project is tailored to his strengths. But for some reason most of the segments are drearily lifeless. One, featured below, is definitely an exception: ten minutes of greatness between two living legends. It humourously gives credence to our fallacious fantasies; we sincerely imagine our idols casually catching up to share their lives and stories.

Both of these musicians are principally great entertainers and it shows in this witty and endearing piece. Iggy has never been so sweet (he left the peanut butter at home thankfully).  And Tom Waits knows how to play subtle, cool and charming all at once. The camera just sits on them and we get to enjoy the result. Great stuff.

 

 

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I purchased the Painter’s fourth effort, Ocean Beach on a recent sojourn to Sydney. It is currently on high rotation in the car. It reminds me why I love them so.

It is the familiar beast; but here it almost sounds like Kozelek is enjoying making music – I imagine him breaking a smile as he tinkers on his acoustic guitar. With the music softly playing I am again transported into the past, when greys dominated my world and life seemed like it would never sort itself out. Mercifully, this perspective no longer holds court, but the beauty and fragility of his songs still tenderly pulverises the heart.

 

 

The voice which emanates from the speakers is eternally sad, but in some ways, Mark has lived this life so I don’t have to. And yet shards of these stories belong to my life as well…

Michael, where are you now?

Somehow in my excitement the last time you called,
It slipped again to ask your hidden whereabouts,
I got a lead from your old triple ex-girlfriend, she said:
“I heard he lost his mind again.”
“Again?” I said.
I didn’t know that you ever did.

Michael, where are you now?

Sleeping through the morning in flannel impaired,
Getting high in southern air,
Shoeless, sandy evening down the unfamiliar,
Last whiff of salt-water freedom
Skipping shells in the dead zone…
With the ghost on your side,
Of the state borderline,
Whispering:
“Take it. . .”

Do you remember our first subway ride?
Our first heavy metal haircuts?
Our last swim on the east coast?
And me with my ridiculous looking pierced nose?
I remember: your warm smile in the sun,
The daydreaming boy without a shirt on,
The Birmingham barfly father,
Left the mother of three sons,
You’re the oldest, juvenile delinquent bum,

My best friend.

 

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For a greater part of five years the Red House Painters meant everything to me.

On first listening I could not see what all the hullabaloo was about. Back at the age of twenty-one, rich songwriting was not primary; my ears were hungry for progressive sounds. If a band carved out new sonic territory like a Joy Division, Slint or Mercury Rev then I was a happy chappy. But that was never The Painters game plan.

The packaging was familiar: plaintive acoustic folk rock with a nineties flavour. After some persistence I discovered more behind the classic sound – poetry and sadness like nothing I had before encountered. This was the troubled voice of one man: singer-songwriter, Mark Kozelek. Here lived a sad soul. Yes, there was plenty of unnecessary brooding, but these were not your customary adolescent groans of angst. As I grasped at the shadows lurking on the edges of his songs, Kozelek’s gentle voice empathised with my disappointments. He did not embellish his own suffering in order to shake a fist at fate, but seemed able to accurately reflect life as it was experienced, speaking in turn from the complex emotion which welled up.

Though it is the lyrical and dramatic content which is primary for most Painters fans, the sound managed to lead a movement. Kozelek would become a trailblazer within the slowcore movement, crafting glacially paced songs way beyond their commercially viable four minute length. With this kind of space, Kozelek built dramatic tension without your obvious soft-loud dynamic. Rather, his was a subtle art, painting rich landscapes in the vein of a great musical impressionist.

I remember riding on a bus as “Strawberry Hill”, from their Rollercoaster album, unveiled some of its secrets. This was an elusive beast if ever one existed. To experience this moment alone was worth the admission price of investing in the Painters; visceral rock n’roll high drama – the ideal expression of youthful disappointment and confusion, drawn in stark visual terms. I kidded myself that I had lived every minute of its source material.

Later I discovered the Painter’s debut, Down Colorful Hill, a six track made up of the demos Kozelek sent to 4AD in 1991. This album won me over even more, and still to this day remains my favourite album of all time.

When Kozelek toured Australia for his Sun Kil Moon incarnation, I was one of the lucky souls who saw him at the Troubadour in Brisbane. It was a special night. Despite being irritable and suffering from the flu, Kozelek was miraculous. Beginning with three songs from Rollercoaster, and moving onwards from there, the night was one of those memorably quiet moments now recalled in nostalgic sepia tones.

I guess this is how I have always responded to the Painter’s music – it is aurally arresting in a striking visual way. Instantly classic like nothing else I’ve heard; it is the richness and depth of the emotion and expression which creates this possibility.

 

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The manifold joys of travelling excessive distances solely on one’s own two feet are impervious to most people; but they scarcely give it a chance. For when the sweat flows and the adrenaline and the endorphins start coursing through the veins, then the addictive properties of running are given their prime opportunity to superintend. A sign should be erected: Warning. Here brings one of the quickest and easiest ways to achieve out-of-body euphoria. Cue Lou Reed’s masterpiece “Heroin”. Add in another human to share the moment with and the tasty mixture is complete.

My first significant experience came at age twenty-five. I was a participant in the most popular run available in Brisbane – twelve kilometres of road running around the city. It was a day filled with calamity; two things stick in the memory.

Firstly, my organised running partner, a hapless yet trusting sister, suffered an early exit from the event. It was largely my fault. One kilometre through the run I inadvertently bumped her into a barrier, causing her soon after, unbeknownst to me, to collapse and require medical assistance. I ran the rest of the morning alone.

Secondly, being fairly ignorant of the necessary equipment, I wore Adidas Volleys for the entire twelve kilometre distance. The body wasn’t built for such inadequate podiatric support. After the ten kilometre mark my shins and knees began to ache. Two days later, in the midst of teaching Senior Mathematics, I had begun to hobble around the class like a geriatric. One week hence, while descending Mt. Barney, I groaned with every step.

This raises an important reminder. Essential to the whole endeavour is the possession of a necessary collection of ‘artefacts’: a good pair of shoes, a good mate who can fill the role of  running partner, and a good course to serve as eye candy. For me, these would arrive as a package deal last year, in the form of Sydney’s September half-marathon. At the respectable age of thirty-two I had reached a happy place of physical fitness and endurance.

I now look forward to the next challenge in July: the Gold Coast marathon. But in the midst of the year coming, other places already beckon. I think of a few while I sit here – the Great Ocean Rd and Berlin. Here brings the promise of exciting times. Yet even more I await with a weary heart and soul the greater promise of the  golden crown at the end of life’s marathon. My running rituals are really just a pale shadow of that ultimate race. Might one reach the finishing line, appropriately ready for the day. And Come Lord Jesus, Come!

 

 

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Beer, Red House Painters & Mt Barney – these are a few of my favourite things.

Over the coming weeks I hope to write a series of blog posts on things close to my heart. Music for the ears, mountain climbing for the body, beer for the mouth and stomach, literature for the mind.

What is the purpose of such a self-indulgent exercise?

The hope that my love for these things might encourage others to taste of these things also; here I am sharing the joy. There is a hazard – the possibility that these things disappoint rather than satisfy. In which case, I hope you hear my angry saxophone courtesy of John Coltrane…

 

 

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