Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013: Album(s) of the Year

As usual for my "Album(s) of the Year" posts, first some meta commentary.

For me, 2013 was a back to basics year, as I worked to get grounded and rebalanced after a couple years of churn. I was fortunate to have time to reflect on the past, and explore it in the context of the present. This journey had many musical detours, including a wonderful revisiting of the Miles Davis and John Coltrane catalogs from the 50s and 60s (after 25 years, it was like hearing them for the first time).

The music I spent the most time with offered unadorned connections with truths from the past, and calls for what I hope to be truths of the future. The clarity of these truths were an inspiration for me, a welcome companion through the year.

On to the list. As usual, first some niche winners, then my overall winner.

Best Album That I Never Thought I Would Hear, Let Alone Own: Live '88 (Shawn Colvin)
I think it is hard for folks under 30 to understand the commitment required to find music back in the day. It was rare for me to visit a new town and not track down some local record stores in the hope that they had some gems that I was looking for. Inevitably, these quests would result in finding tunes that you didn't know existed. When visiting friends, inevitably the evening would degenerate into flipping through albums and comparing notes about bands, and learning about new bands. All these discussions were tucked away for reference the next time you were in that record store, as the endless quest went on.

With that context, there was a huge surge of "indie" folks acts in the late 80s: Indigo Girls, Tracy Chapman, and newcomer Shawn Colvin. Colvin's "Steady On" album was so catchy, and had cross over written all over it. During one of these late night chat sessions, I came to learn about Colvin's "Live '88" solo concert tape that she was selling at concerts before her big debut album was released. The album was supposed to have been amazing, but no one I knew had ever heard it themselves. We'd have endless discussions about what the album must be like, and I looked for that album in what must have grown to be 100+ record stores.

Even during the initial .com music boom, there were no copies to be found on Napster or Amazon or any of the 1000s of record stores that you could find through Google. Eventually, I gave up and moved on.

Fast forward many years. I'm listening to Lucy Kaplansky's cover of Colvin's "Diamond in the Rough", and reading how she used to sing backup for Shawn Colvin (who knew?). On a lark, I do a search for Steady On on Murfie to see what market is these days and see a recommended link for "Live '88" for $1!!! Holy Crap!!

10 minutes later I'm on a time machine, listening to the definitive version of the amazing "Diamond in the Rough" (all the more meaningful now that I have two daughters), and several other classics, all with Shawn solo on the guitar in amazing unplugged aspirational goodness.

An absolute gem, and an unexpected moment of satisfying closure after a couple decades.

Best Video For the Best Song About a Mummy: The Curse (Josh Ritter)
I think I discovered this video through a link on twitter. I hadn't heard of Josh Ritter before, but I was blown away by the simple clarity and truth of his music. The video by his drummer Liam Hurley is one of the most beautiful short films I've ever seen. A joy and inspiration, and a welcome moment of magic.

Best Albums For the Hero Generation: iTunes Session (Fun.) and iTunes Session (Imagine Dragons)
As folks who know me know, for many years I've had an unhealthy obsession with Howe and Strauss's generational theories that they detailed in their book "The Fourth Turning". In "The Fourth Turning" they chart an 80 year cycle of social trends and generational archetypes that go back centuries, with each generation and social era setting the stage for the next in a series of 20 year "turnings". According to their theory, we are currently in a "Crisis" turning, where the previous social contract is falling apart and new one must be invented, kicking off the next cycle (previous Crises were depression/WW 2, Civil War, Revolutionary War, etc). Born into an Unraveling, a Hero generation comes of age during the Crisis, and uses their energy and their commitment to community to bring society back together after the Unraveling and the social failings of their elders.

As a first generation immigrant born and raised in circumstances akin to an Unraveling, I grew up with a generation that was 20 years out of phase with where I was. The Fourth Turning framework has been a great help to me in understanding and accepting these differences, but for years I have been waiting for our Hero generation to come of age, and help heal the schism that has torn our country apart. I've been especially tuned to music, where youth can most directly express their emerging values. In 2013, I heard the undeniable call of our new Hero generation in Fun. and Imagine Dragons.

My first exposure to Fun. was the silly "We Are Young" anthem that was played again and again during those Chevy commercials. I dismissed them out of hand. But when I saw them perform "Carry On" at the Grammy's, I had to sit up and pay attention. These guys had something to say, and they were in their moment of power. Watching the "Some Nights" video, and this out of time Hero was ready to march. It was a special joy when my 11 year old asked if I could buy "Some Nights" for her iPod (and so it begins).

Generational affinity aside, this geezer has never developed a taste for the over-produced/auto-tuned ethos of modern recordings. While I respected Fun.'s music and talents, their production was distracting. Enter the gift that is "iTunes Session": the band in a studio with their instruments, recorded live without distractions, sounding like they are in the room with you. Perfect.

A bit later in the year, my 11 year old asked me to purchase Imagine Dragon's "Demons" for her iPod. As usual, I googled the lyrics and listened to the song on YouTube to make sure it was appropriate.  At the end of the video they dedicated the song to Tyler Robinson, who had died of cancer at age 17. They also included some footage of their performance of "It's Time" for Tyler. Reading more about the band and Tyler and listening to more of their music, they are real deal Heros.

Thank you Iz for the hope and joy and seeing the best of what we could be. I can't wait for you and your sister's generation to set things right.

2013 Album of the Year: All the Roadrunning (Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris)
Before talking about this gem, a shout out to one of those finds that restores your faith in what music is all about. While bouncing around YouTube for some vintage Van Morrison tracks, I found a link to a bootleg to some demos he recorded back in his prime. Sound quality is terrible, with bleed through from other tracks that had gotten taped over, but hearing Van bring it on Caravan and It Stoned Me is to mainline emotional truths at their most raw. The full bootleg album is easy to find in the usual places, and well worth seeking out.

Also, a shout out to the gem that is "Frozen". Any film that would push "Taxi Driver" out of my list of top 10 films ever is something special, but the combination of images and music is really quite extraordinary. You owe it to yourself to experience this film in a fine theatre with a fine sound system. If "Brave" was what every father wishes for his daughters, then "Frozen" is what his daughters wish for themselves. An extraordinary film.

In 2013, I continued with my "what have they been doing lately" kick with my old favorites. Through the magic of murfie.com, I was able to catch up with the impressive body of work that Mark Knopfler has been doing since Dire Straits days. Although all these albums are solid, his 2006 collaboration with Emmylou Harris is the clear standout. Knopfler has always been a hero of mine: such effortless grace, combining searing power with an effortless lightness. On this album, he and Emmylou take it to a completely different level.

This is not a nostalgia kick. These are old souls with many a hard mile sharing their wisdom, with both at the absolute top of their game. It is so impressive to hear such talent embrace who they are now, and leverage their considerable strengths to create something that they couldn't have touched in their "prime". Knopfler's song writing and guitar playing are the best of his career (which is saying something), and hearing Emmylou’s generous and gorgeous perfect harmonies makes me want to help others be better. I've listened to other albums more in 2013, but "All the Roadrunning" (and especially the amazing title track) is my soundtrack for 2013 and likely the next decade.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Nelson Mandela: A Remembrance

Free Nelson Mandela
Free, free, free, free, free Nelson Mandela

21 years in captivity
Shoes too small to fit his feet
His body abused but his mind is still free
Are you so blind that you cannot see?
Are you so deaf that you cannot hear? I said…
Free Nelson Mandela, I'm begging you
Free Nelson Mandela
— Special AKA, "Free Nelson Mandela

As a freshman in college in 1984, it was impossible to walk through a dorm or go to a party without hearing “Free Nelson Mandela” by Special AKA. For me, it was the anthem of a new found freedom that was damn fun to dance to. It also created a question: who was this Nelson Mandela?

Back in the day, we didn’t have Google and Wikipedia; we had 30 minute newscasts, 60 Minutes on Sundays, local newspapers, and weekly news magazines. Finding out What Something Means was a many month process, talking to friends, gathering tidbits, paying attention in case something of interest filtered through the media, gradually synthesizing a point of view, sharing with others, and rinse and repeat.

Gradually, as I learned more about Apartheid, I discounted what I heard. How could such an injustice exist in 1984? Hadn’t colonial domination and brutality been left behind decades before? How could a white minority brutally rule the vast black majority with such contempt and indifference?

From across the pond, the anti-apartheid movement was gaining steam. The youth of England were channeling their frustration and anger at the injustices at home into empowered action against injustices elsewhere. Musicians and artists were giving voice to the frustration and anger, and in the age of MTV, their words were spreading across the college landscape here in the US.

The more I learned, the more appalled I was that this Apartheid was not just a great injustice, it was a great evil, and the more distraught I became at those who should know better who were turning away.

Our government tells us
We're doing all we can
Constructive engagement is
Ronald Reagan's plan
Meanwhile people are dying
And giving up hope
This quiet diplomacy
Ain't nothing but a joke

I, I, I ain't gonna play Sun City
I, I, I ain't gonna play Sun City
Na na na na na...

It's time to accept our responsibility
Freedom is a privilege
Nobody rides for free
Look around the world, baby
It cannot be denied
Somebody tell me why
We're always on the wrong side
— Artists United Against Apartheid, "Sun City

Enter Steven Van Zandt in 1985, with Artists United Against Apartheid. Little Steven and a veritable Who’s Who of music were calling out not just the evil doers and their enablers, but also those of us that stood by and allowed this to go unchallenged.

Yes Apartheid was that bad.

Yes our leaders were not only ignoring it, they were actively defending it(!)

Yes my generation needed to take ownership of what was being done (and not done) in our name and do something about it.

You can blow out a candle,
But you can’t blow out a fire
Once the flame begins to catch,
The wind will blow it higher
— Peter Gabriel

The boycott movement was in full force. Did you do business in South Africa, Coca Cola? We won’t buy your products. Divestment protests on campus. University of Illinois: We will keep marching outside your offices until you sell any shares you have in companies that do business in South Africa.

South Africa was a pariah nation; if our political leaders are too decrepit and compromised and disconnected from basic human decency to act, we’ll demand accountability and justice with our pocket books.

The right side of history could not have been more clear, but for not the first nor last time, there were those who fought as vigorously for the other side and confused the crap out of me. What were these people thinking?

Reagan pulled out all stops, vetoing the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 and doing everything in his considerable power to sway the country to siding with the status quo. People were literally being beaten and killed for daring to ask for justice, and the same people who dismissed those who didn’t look and think like them as un-American were dismissing the humanity of black South Africans as irrelevant because of geopolitical priorities.

If our leaders could ignore and actively support(!) this grave an evil, what would they do to our country?

As indifference was burned away, all that was left were the cynics and neo-new-world-order types. In their shameful defense of South Africa and resistance to action, their true moral core came into sharp focus. For my generation, even though we were powerless to do anything about the bizarro America that was churning around us (Walter Mondale is our last best hope? Really?), we could and had to do something about South Africa.

Above all, we want equal political rights, because without them our disabilities will be permanent. I know this sounds revolutionary to the whites in this country, because the majority of voters will be Africans. This makes the white man fear democracy.

But this fear cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the only solution which will guarantee racial harmony and freedom for all. It is not true that the enfranchisement of all will result in racial domination. Political division, based on colour, is entirely artificial and, when it disappears, so will the domination of one colour group by another. The ANC has spent half a century fighting against racialism. When it triumphs it will not change that policy.

This then is what the ANC is fighting. Their struggle is a truly national one. It is a struggle of the African people, inspired by their own suffering and their own experience. It is a struggle for the right to live.

During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die. 
— Nelson Mandela, "Statement in Court 1964

In the midst of our awakening, more and more information became available about the anti-apartheid struggle. It had been going on for so long! Here was an alternate history had the Civil War and Civil Rights movement taken a turn for the dark.

I remember a documentary about Nelson Mandela, showing the famous footage from the early 60s which were the only pictures we’d seen of the man. I read for the first time his words at his trial in 1964, and they took my breath away.

Who was this man? In 1964, after years of bitter struggle and war, suffering injustices that were beyond imagination, on the verge of going to prison and beatings and maybe death, he was articulating a moral philosophy that was as profound as it was revolutionary: the power of a collective We, not a win-lose Us vs Them. Could this be real? Could anyone really believe these things in that moment, in that circumstance? If so, in my own struggles, could I believe any less?

When I traveled and studied in Europe in 1987-88, there was so much more sophistication and awareness about Apartheid, and what needed to be done to address that great injustice. As powerless as my peer group felt about their own country's trajectory, there was a quiet but firm resolve to see the Apartheid issue through to the very end.

One of my more interesting experiences while there was the opportunity to spend about a week with a college aged Afrikaner who was visiting a friend at our college. She was a lovely and gracious and generous person, and we enjoyed many a pint together.

When the conversation inevitably turned towards the topic of Apartheid, I and others were deeply interested in understanding how a native felt about such things. She was apologetic, but quickly fell into the traditional tropes of "Their lives are so much better because we take care of things" and "We give these people so much, why do they hate us so". I'd heard similar sentiments living in the deep south (and more recently among the Neo-Oligarchs and Occupation apologists), but the obvious pain and fear that this woman was feeling as she shared her world view with us was heartbreaking. The only way of life she had ever known was being rejected by the world, and her culture and way of life was under existential threat. She and her family were soon to be grave danger. When a pariah is in pain, can you turn away?

It always seems impossible until it is done.
— Nelson Mandela

Flash forward to 1990. Apartheid is crumbling and revolution is at hand. Reagan was wrong: rejecting the pariah took aways its power to oppress, and change was at hand.

TV stations all go to live coverage of some indescript building, and the announcer says that the release of Nelson Mandela is imminent. de Klerk had just assumed the presidency and had just released all the ANC prisoners except Mandela. Remarkably, Apartheid was coming to an end.

I will never forget the shock of seeing a 73 year old Nelson Mandela walk out. In my mind, he was frozen in 30 year old black and white footage and scratchy audio. The full price that this man had paid was devastating. I feared that joy would soon become a genocide, with the streets running red with Afrikaner blood.

In that moment, Mandela held a continent in his hand. A look of disdain or sneer would have set off an explosion that no one could control. Instead, he opened with a call for peace, and echoed the very same appeal to We that he had made 27 years before. By looking into his eyes, I now knew that it was real, and that the greatness of this man was far bigger than what 27 years of captivity could tear down.

What followed was a revelation.

Mandela’s relentless focus on reconciliation and forgiveness and acceptance was the most divine act I have ever witnessed. He embraced decades of hate and humiliation and death and loss and oppression and pain for a whole nation, and he made it his own. He embraced mortal existential fear and desperation and panic and the destruction of a way of life and offered forgiveness and acceptance and love. All he asked in return was the truth, and a commitment to reconciliation among brothers and sisters.

His was also the most profoundly human act I have ever witnessed, and it fundamentally transformed how I see the world and work within it. At a time in my life where I was relishing a righteousness rationalized by my disdain for a moral core different than my own, I was challenged to a different path. 

Mandela showed me through his example that it was no more right for me to deny the others their character and impose mine, than it was when they were doing so to me. The lesson of Mandela is that who we are as a people is a reflection of our consensus character, or as close as we are able to come to it. When we are unable to get to consensus, our plural character must suffice until we are able to get to consensus, but we are all lessened until we do. Wow.

In my heart I believe that as long as our civilization persists, the example and power of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission will challenge us to be better than ourselves, and to aspire to a greater truth and love. It is one of the great privileges of my life to have been alive to witness this great moment in human history, and I carry its lessons with me every day.

I am the Master of my Fate
I am the Captain of my Soul

The 20th century was one of profound transformation and change. While our civilization had many heroes and champions, for me the most vital and enduring and human were Gandhi, King, and Mandela.

Like Moses, both Gandhi and King were struck down before they saw the Promised Land, and they were derided and marginalized as revolutionaries in their time. Through their example and fire and love, they shamed and inspired those around them to something bigger and better than themselves. They fundamentally changed the DNA of our civilization, and our expectations of each other and for each other. They both left a vast void when they left too soon, their work unfinished, which much pain and many open wounds that have yet to heal.

For my generation, Mandela was our Moses. The man had long since become an ideal and legend by the time I was of age, and his tribes of the oppressed and aggrieved had suffered a long and difficult journey. For 27 years, he was effectively gone.

It is a great blessing of my life to have the Moses of my generation also be our Joshua. His journey and the lessons it holds are all the more profound for the revolutionary to return as the healer and peacemaker, and to watch our Joshua build that peace on a foundation of love, acceptance, and forgiveness.

Enkosi kakhulu, Madiba

It is said that a rich man is a poor man that has found something precious that he had lost. The life and example of Nelson Mandela gave me back a gift I very nearly squandered. I am forever grateful for that salvation.

Thank you Nelson Mandela for showing me that evil and injustice can be in the here and now, and that it must be confronted by all good men and women.

Thank you for demonstrating that a struggle that is just in never in vain, and that the moral arc of the universe does in fact bend toward justice.

Thank you for your integrity and commitment to your vision of one South Africa, and the legitimacy you brought to the greater good.

Thank you for showing me that the path to absolution is not through righteousness, but through love and forgiveness.

Thank you for inspiring me to make a difference in the world, and humbling me with what one man can do.

Thank you for making our world a better place, and for making me want to be a better man.

Rest easy Tata. Uhambe kakuhle.

Addendum: "The Last Great Liberator of the 20th Century"

We will never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again. But let me say to the young people of Africa and the young people around the world - you, too, can make his life’s work your own. Over 30 years ago, while still a student, I learned of Nelson Mandela and the struggles taking place in this beautiful land, and it stirred something in me. It woke me up to my responsibilities to others and to myself, and it set me on an improbable journey that finds me here today. And while I will always fall short of Madiba’s example, he makes me want to be a better man. He speaks to what’s best inside us.

After this great liberator is laid to rest, and when we have returned to our cities and villages and rejoined our daily routines, let us search for his strength. Let us search for his largeness of spirit somewhere inside of ourselves. And when the night grows dark, when injustice weighs heavy on our hearts, when our best-laid plans seem beyond our reach, let us think of Madiba and the words that brought him comfort within the four walls of his cell: “It matters not how strait the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”

What a magnificent soul it was. We will miss him deeply. May God bless the memory of Nelson Mandela. May God bless the people of South Africa.
— President Barack Obama, Eulogy for Nelson Mandela