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Rock Still

April 10, 2012

The most political thing I’ve done all week is to listen to an old MC5 album.

Remember “Kick Out the Jams”? Motor City Five were the house band for Detroit commie John Sinclair’s White Panther Party back in the Sixties.

“The Revolution will be won,” Sinclair once announced, “on Ripple and reds.”

MC5 played delirious, double-guitar-lead mayhem music, I’ll give ’em that. Like the New York Dolls — another zeitgeist-specific band never meant to last — noise for the boys was the name of every tune.

Today rock keeps struggling to find a magic road back to musical innocence. No way. The results at best are a phony counterfeit of 20th century Pop, than which there is nothing emptier in the creative universe. Oddly enough, a louder and more complicated 21st century strikes mute  our raucous old rock’n’roll.

So I wrote a poem, with apologies to Noel Coward…

“Deafening Silence”: A Pop Allegory

Last night in Winslow, Arizonia,

Ensconced for the nonce

In their random pandemonia,

Père Chris’ noisy family bliss

Got a shock from son Rock

When their blares of cosy yelling

Fell still before a quelling

Blast of quiet from upstairs.

…Loud as a crowd

Of the masses in their stasis,

Came shrill-ish Nell’s, “What the hell’s

Rock up to?”

Indeed, indeed.

“Why so serious?”

April 3, 2012

Why so serious?” Joker in The Dark Knight

Everyday our eyes brush over so many flatscreens everywhere, by now the one fact common to all our lives is flatworld, this sparkling alternate reality 21st century citizens are getting deported to, like it or not.

One disturbing result: for the first time in History, millions of people are growing up who do not rub shoulders often enough with reality to develop a good feel for how life works. Instead, they stare at flatscreens on the job, at home, playing games, watching TV, in the palms of their hands…

Who rules flatworld? Creators of movies and TV shows, especially, are agenda-driven conformists for one simple reason. You don’t work big on either coast if your agenda isn’t screwed on tight. Basic agenda point: A certain agreed-upon kind and shade and tone of world must always depict reality, even and especially when the shows are outright fantasies. Whatever genre of show, somehow it will dependably be “dark and edgy.”

“Dark and edgy.” That cliche sums up most of what audiences have been exposed to in the name of popular entertainment for going on decades. Decades! And, obviously, dear friends, what is being left out of a dark edge? 99% of reality, would you say?

Why? Who benefits from systematically demoralizing and frightening us? Why are people worldwide being trained by the lively arts to feel they are defeated and doomed rather than being encouraged and given heart and shown the supreme truth of love as global humanity’s traditional arts always could and did?

Instead… think back. Can you even remember? When was the last time flatworld showed us — to pick three of the most common daily occurrences in the real world — a happy marriage, a respectable priest or a good death?

Why so serious?


March 27, 2012

Ever notice how History has sputtered to a halt in the United States?

Oh, yes, it’s true. A little demonstration? Okay, take, for example, something as simple as our slang.

If flower children at a Sixties’ Happening ever shouted, “Eat my dust!” and “Twenty-three skiddoo!” and “You’re the bee’s knees!”, their corny Twenties’ slang would’ve made grownups laugh.

Why? Because, as every adult knows, the young in their generation naturally personify the New; they live and breathe this hot minute’s au-courant fashions. The vital element is to defy the grownups’ ears, to have a private language only other kids can understand.

Now my demonstration of social stasis in the US goes even deeper because let’s suppose the hippie guys at the Happening had also taken to wearing 40-year-old raccoon skin coats and porkpie hats, and the girls rolled their stockings and  baked marcel waves into their hair — what then? …Well, for one thing, there never would’ve actually been the revolutionary post-war phenomenon of an international pacifist youth culture.

Instead, of course, as far as Sixties’ slang goes, what really happened was the boomer kids popularized such era-specific expressions as “Bummer,” which came from surfers via the Hells Angels; and “Blow my mind”: an LSD-cult mantra. Plus, Forties Black jazz  had already enshrined “cool” as the highest compliment in White America.

Okay, now let’s fast-forward to our officially global, multi-cultural and maxi-diverse Third Millennium… Stop, look and listen. The children have stopped changing. They are no longer the harbingers of the Next Big Thing.

Listen to 2012 children talking together, and monitor the media aimed at their messy little heads, then examine how so many are dressing. What you notice is, aside from their using hi-tech and social media jargon, today’s kids are basically being trained from youth up to be Boomers Redux.

We can only imagine what’s going on in the government schools, but try watching the Disney Channel. ‘Duxers everywhere not only say “cool,” “bummer” and “blows my mind” with straight faces, even more sinisterly, these generational epigones of newness have also taken to aping 50-year-old fashions.

Check out the #Occupiers, the pop stars, college kids, online personalities. At a rest stop last month, I saw four young men in period costumes straight off a Summer of Love San Francisco rock LP album cover. I had to bite my tongue to keep from yelling: “Big Brother and the Holding Company called! They want their image back.”

Oswald Spengler in The Decline of the West uses the term “pseudomorphosis” (“false change”) to indicate historical situations in which a dominant older culture forces a younger, more vital people to abandon whatever might be their own native interests in order to use-up their fresh energies by reanimating — by pretending in all things to be like — the exhausted but tyrannical older regime.

Pseudomorphosis is, I think, as good a definition as any of what is being done to our children. As to why this peace-crime is being committed against human nature at its greenest and most vulnerable, and by whom, well, dear friends, if you don’t know, I aint-a gonna tell yuh.

It wouldn’t be groovy.

Dining at Society

March 26, 2012

Us at SocietySaturday evening it drizzled a little, but my wonderful “Everyday Guru,”  Susan Cunningham, invited four of us to a tasting at Society Lounge.

As well as pleased with the company, I was also curious about Society. I’d been hearing how a local sports hero had returned to his old neighborhood to open a restaurant in my hometown of Silver Spring, Maryland.

George Mason basketball great Jason Miskiri’s hometown is Georgetown, Guyana, but his heartland, like mine, is this bustling little we-try-harder suburb just across the DC/MD line. Quickly now, before the self-coddling sob of autobiography enters my voice, let’s make it clear why you need to get some friends together and go eat at Society

Four-stars. What does a sports legend bring to dining? Not surprisingly, both his belief in a quality team and genuine love for the fans. Society looks and feels like a winner’s space — and the food is sensational.

Yes, along one wall, there’s a fine sports bar facing ESPN on flatscreens, but the decor is not without a touch of elegance, and the sound is kept strictly local. Set apart casually in back, framed by a cool perfect fireplace: a nook with couches for small parties to settle down together. The main area spaces out comfortable tables and chairs.

Jason remains his charismatic self, charming and welcoming: the perfect host. And on our night, the staff can best be described as stunning — alert,   urbane and delightful. Impeccable professionalism and yet, without intruding, they were as fully-rounded personalities as any of us in our party. So, judging from our experience, even if you come alone, you will dine with interesting people:

Society is toney because it has class all right but class for everybody: neighborhood sophistication. A destination where dropping by might just turn into an occasion.

The David-Copperfield Crap; and Why it Matters

I grew up just across the DC/MD line in a three-story-tall Silver Spring: perennial poor cousin to plush, flash Bethesda at the other end of East-West Highway.

I saw my first movie at the old Silver Theater. We lived in DC but within easy walking distance of tiny, stranded Acorn Park where trickled-out the eking ebb of that same mica-bright “silver spring” discovered by the historical Blairs during a day’s ride in 1840.

The old Silver is now an American Film Institute showplace, and across the street wails the new Filmore, a national venue for hot musicians. Not to mention, the Discovery Channel is located just down the street. My point being, twenty-five-story Silver Spring today is polyglot, vibrant and hustling.

When I see the old place grown big and international, I think back to the tales the old-timers told about America’s greatest cities in their brawling infancies, when every third person had just gotten off some boat or other. When exploding towns like old New York and upstart Chicago awed a younger world, the memoirs of their heroic sons in retirement always looked back wistfully to three things: the great men, the beautiful actresses, and the mighty restaurants.

My hometown, too, is growing up to an immense and brilliant future. A mighty man of the people has opened a great new restaurant meant for these hard-workers whose dreams he knows to his fingertips. The owner names his location after his customers making future history everywhere in the streets around Society.

This, dear friends, is how legends start…

Moo-d Music

March 18, 2012

“Work hard, do the best you can, don’t ever lose faith in yourself and take no notice of what other people say about you.” Noel Coward

It has been objected, wittily, that too much of herbork doesn’t make “sensei” heh heh to the average reader. All this martial arts and satori and what have you.

Fair enough. I don’t want to be Johnny One-Note. So I ask myself what might this “average reader” enjoy? Especially when, in this case, he happens to be Emmett Grayson, a well-respected Nashville songwriter and live performer of note.

Honest is as handsome does, my friends, so Emmett is the toast of those famous informal “songwriters’ bars” where the country-music legends used to pass around one old guitar and take  turns debuting their latest tunes for each other. That classic scene has changed to suit the new guitar technologies, but even in our age of digital fakery and Vegas-style “hat” acts, the country artists who matter are still dealing in three chords and the truth.

So, what can herbork offer one of the idols of these hard-bitten minimalists of everyday life? Naturally, Noel Coward.

On the surface, I admit, the two camps seem at odds. Over here, Coward — Sulka dressing gowns, cigarette holders and cocktails: England’s greatest 20th century master of sophisticated light comedy. And over there, Grayson — the-truth-is-back working man whom his fans call The President.

Dig deeper, however, and you realize what both men have in common is song-writing and live singing. And the Master, as Laurence Olivier and his generation called Coward, was so honored because he knew hard truths about the world’s spongiest business: live entertainment.

Coward in 1955 was preparing to do a Las Vegas review. In turned out to be one of the biggest smash hits not only in Vegas history but coast-to-coast that year. He had two things going for him. Peter Matz had done brilliant new arrangements for all Coward’s old songs; and Noel took steps to be in the best possible voice. From My Life With Noel Coward by Graham Payn with Barry Day…

“On the insistence of Mary Martin and Kate Hepburn, Noel put himself in the hands of America’s well-known vocal coach, Alfred Dixon. Noel certainly knew how to put a number across, but the dry Nevada air is notorious for its adverse effects on singers. Noel’s rather thin, breathy voice had to be brought down, a feat which Mr. Dixon achieved with a distinctive technique: “Imagine you’re a cow, only moo with your mouth shut. Then imagine the cow is a long way away, so you moo quietly. Now it’s getting closer, louder, now it’s going away again, softly, softly.”

“The technique might now endear you to your neighbors, but it extended Noel’s vocal range considerably. Because of his training as an actor, Noel also developed the habit of “reaching,” trying to take too much in one breath. But dialogue falls where you chose; lyrics fall where they must. “Use the smallest amount of breath possible,” Dixon advised, “and sip in a little more when you need it. Don’t be so aware of the physical aspects of singing.”

So, Mr. Grayson, meet Mr. Coward. Dixon’s technique is nothing short of terrific. I’ve been doing it myself driving around alone in the car. My high and low notes are smoother and more accessible. And I hate to dip back into that esoteric enlightenment stuff, compadre, but I think there’s also a deep-slow breathing chi gung aspect to the mooing which might, who knows, bring on a satori on stage one night.

Moo, you sinner!

The “Ugly Baby” Joke

March 12, 2012

First, it was Mind/Body For Dummies (“Float Your Triplex; Roll Around Your Midway; Sink Your Weight: Now Don’t You Feel Much, Much Better?”); and then, a bio on the exemplary life of O-Sensei Morihei Ueshiba, creator of aikido and indubitable martial saint.

So now what ? More deep-dish jive, or something lighter and tangier to the palate?


At last, the “ugly baby” joke!

Late one night in the Sixties, I caught a red-hot Flip Wilson on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. Flip was “on.” After he told the “ugly baby” joke, mayhem broke out in the audience, and Johnny Carson fell off his chair on live TV. And me, I rolled off my couch and under the table. So I remember the joke, vividly.

WAYBACK MACHINE — Seventies’ TV comedian Flip Wilson pioneered Black drag, and smileable still today is “Geraldine’s”  catch-phrase: “The devil made me do it!” Like his peers Dick Gregory and Bill Cosby, Flip embodied a cool new breed of Black comedian who refused to conceal either his intelligence or his scorn. Unlike wry-commentator Gregory, who dwindled into an activist, or daffy-monologist Bill, who, in his wealthier way, did, too, Flip balanced the trademark urban gleam in his eye with a genuine ability to set audiences into an uproar.

What Richard Pryor did, a couple years later, made it impossible since then for a Black comic to be both major and clean. Chris Rock comes the closest, which is why he has cross-over appeal, but the audiences Flip rocked do not exist anymore. Yet I still think the joke is funny.

Out on the Tonight Show stage under hot Kleigs, facing the live house and live-r TV cameras, Flip sat casually on a stool, sharp-dressed and smiling with an attitude that said: “I know you know I know I own this house.”  

Comedians on mid-century variety shows typically got as few as three or as long as seven or eight minutes. That night, he had thrown a firecracker-string of quickies into the crowd that got laughter popping out-loud already, and then Flip launched, deadpan, into the “ugly baby” joke…

“So I was watching this lady on the train, the other day. She was carrying a baby, minding her own business, you know, but in the seat in front of her, there’s this drunk guy. And the drunk kept turning around and looking back,  and every time, he said: ‘Thas’ th’ uglies’ baby I evah saaaw.’

“The lady tried to ignore him. ‘Thas’ th’ uglies’ baby I evah saaaw.’ She’d turn aside holding her baby closer, but the drunk got louder. ‘Thas’ th’ uglies’ baby I evah saaaw.’

“Finally, the lady had to call the conductor — and the conductor shows up and takes charge. He hustles the drunk out of the car, and then comes back to apologize.

“‘On behalf of the B&O Railroad, I want to extend to you our sincere apologies. You paid for your ticket, and you have every right to a safe and pleasant journey. With our compliments, I’ll be bringing you a cold drink now. ‘ He smiled and took off his conductor’s cap. ‘And maybe while I’m back there, I can find a banana for your monkey.'”

O-Sensei Concluded

March 10, 2012

Today ends the three-part bio of Morihei Ueshiba, creator of aikido and acknowledged 20th century saint.

Catastrophic world history happened to Morihei just as it did to everybody else Japanese in the 20th century. Even so, twice more in his lifetime, he knew ultimate reality. His second experience occurred in 1940.

“I suddenly forgot all the martial techniques I had ever learned. The techniques of my teachers appeared completely new. Now they were vehicles for the cultivation of life, knowledge and virtue, not devices to throw people with.”

In 1942, deep into the agony of World War II, his third and final satori revealed “The Great Spirit of Peace” — “The way of the warrior has been misunderstood… It is the art of peace, the power of love.”

For the next twenty-seven years, the five-three giant now called O-Sensei (Great Teacher) went on to shape his fighting style of aikido into an active incentive to peace, a way of winning fights by refusing to fight, by redirecting an attacker’s force instead of opposing it.

Blackbelts often stay in excellent shape well into their sixties. It is almost a job requirement. Martial arts instructors are the only coaches in the world who are not only expected to outplay every man on their team, it’s supposed to get easier as they get older. O-Sensei fulfilled to perfection the Eastern legend of a white-bearded martial saint who is serenely unstoppable in his old age.

Archival films show Morihei Ueshiba in his eighties effortlessly throwing around twenty-ish instructors. To those who are dismissive of what their eyes may not be educated enough to appreciate — it misses the point to dwell on how enthusiastically these young men are cooperating with their grandmaster. After all, they risk serious injury if they do not. Great Teacher’s age has no martial relevance, either. What these films capture is aikido’s ideal being demonstrated by how much of the elderly man’s power over his ukes is technical, the perfection of form, not muscular.

“Ueshiba” means “abundant peace,” and white-bearded O-Sensei lived to fit gracefully into the peace-love-obsessed Nineteen Sixties. Until the end, he went to his dojo every day, often to teach children. Morihei Ueshiba suddenly succumbed to cancer on April 26, 1969. His wife Hatsu died two months later. His son Kisshomaru Ueshiba followed faithfully and well in his father’s footsteps.

Poised before this stunning career, studying it all in all, it seems to be that rarest of human chronicles: the happy life of a consummate human being. Here is the triumphant destiny of a double character — an indoor mind and an outdoor body — both halves of which fulfill themselves absolutely.

If biographies often raise more questions than they answer, the story of this life answers questions most martial artists have yet to ask themselves. After the long and lovely years of O-Sensei, how can anybody doubt that even today there does exist a martial arts path to enlightenment?

O-Sensei Part II

March 9, 2012

Today resumes the short biography of Morihei Ueshiba, founder of aikido (fighting art of Steven Seagal) and, essentially, a saint: a martial saint — since the original question from yesterday is whether or not blackbelt satori exists outside of Asian cinema.

Part II — Attack on Father

Morihei credited his enlightenment to eight years spent following Onisaburo Deguchi, head of the shamanistic-agricultural Omoto sect. An early yearning for sainthood, the years of studying with a holy man, then… satori — Morihei’s biography might almost belong to some great pacifist priest. What needs to be explained is such a spiritual man’s equal dedication to budo, to martial arts.

Something life-defining happened to Morihei during his boyhood years. He saw a political rival’s goons assault his adored father. Today it is hard to recover the awe in which pre-modern Japanese children held their parents. The central formal question in the life of a good child was always first and foremost how to honor father and mother.

How did her fortunate son honor Yuki? Morihei outdoors often explored famous Buddhist sites and quizzed local priests. So he went on preparing himself to someday achieve that spiritual ascent the indoor bookworm had first dreamt of, knowing it would please his mother. And the youth also supposed, in the future, he would gratify his father by great success in the world of men. Exactly what sort of work he would succeed at seemed a decision to make when he was grownup. For now the boy had fiercely gone about becoming stronger than great-grandfather Kichiemon.

Then one day, catastrophe. A few sources say Yoroku fought back and drove away his attackers, although the popular versions sees his father falling, bloodied, more or less at Morihei’s feet. Either way, his idol was cracked, if not smashed, and so the decision of how to honor a broken idol must be made by a disillusioned child. How do you honor a beaten father?

By becoming unbeatable.

Whatever else he did from then on, Morihei looked for martial arts masters who could whip him, since only they had anything to teach. He said of his instructor for twenty-five years, “Sokaku Takeda opened my eyes to budo.” Although the deep childhood wish to be a saint will also come true, after the attack on his father, Morehei begins a parallel and equally successful search for physical invulnerability, and on the very day he clinched that skill, was the day he was first struck by satori.

Morihei grew up, left home and lived — brilliantly — the life of his times. His calm in battle and skill with a bayonet earned Morihei the nickname “soldier god” during the Russo-Japanese War. The greatest post-war budo teachers cheerfully admitted Morihei’s skills were beyond unbeatable. He was untouchable, either free-style or at swordpoints. Once Morihei literally dodged a bullet because of a pre-felt warning he was about to be shot. So his students revered a master who verged on the supernatural.

1925 — the same year F. Scott Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby and Gitchin Funacoshi, his Rentan Goshin Karate Jutsu. One spring afternoon at home, after routinely humiliating an arrogant young Navy officer in his front room, 42-year-old Morihei had gone outside to the garden, washed his face in cool well water and was sitting there by himself when suddenly…

“I felt that the universe suddenly quaked and that the golden spirit sprang up from the ground, veiled my body and changed it into a golden one. At the same time, my mind and body became light. I was able to understand God, the Creator of the universe. At that moment I was enlightened. The source of budo is God’s love, the spirit of loving protection of all beings. Endless tears of Joy streamed down my cheeks.”

Tomorrow — Part III: The fighting art which wins by refusing to fight you

Blackbelt Satori

March 8, 2012

“We no longer know how to make boredom bear fruit.” Paul Valery

O-Sensei Part One

This romance between martial arts and enlightenment is a global cliche. Philosophic boxers wander through the world’s imagination. Kung-fu cinema stars flying Zen monks whose chi can knock down walls. Anime is full of spry and spiritual old warriors; and even Bodhidharma — smaller but staff-bearing and wearing his Shaolin robe — becomes Yoda in outer space.

Is there any truth behind these legends? Or are temple supermen, to China, what leprechauns are to Ireland?

Blackbelts shrug and half believe. At one level, martial artists deal in nothing but miracles. Ask any boy. We put our hands through cinder blocks. To spiritual seekers, however, the ideal of martial satori is sad and repulsive. Perfecting physical harm cannot possibly debouch into sublime peace like a river into the sea.

Well, why not? Intuitively, there is a certain chiming consonance here. Every day of History chronicles warfare somewhere — martial arts perpetually in action. And any behavior so profoundly typical of our species may be said to share in that mysterious transcendence which forever haunts the human possibility.

Moreover, martial artists can point to at least one 20th century fighting master whose spiritual awakening seems proof that such a blend of bliss and brutality is indeed possible, not Once Upon a Time in China, but here and now. The extraordinary life and career of Morihei Ueshiba will be the subject of the next couple-three posts. I think even non-martial artists will  be fascinated by the great man Japan calls O-Sensei.

Morihei Ueshiba — Modern martial enlightenment irrefutably demonstrated

Morihei Ueshiba first saw daylight, prematurely, on December 14, 1883 in a Wakayama Prefecture fishing and farming village now called Tanabe. The cherished only-son in a family of four daughters, his forty-year-old father, Yoroku, was a well-off land-owner active in politics, and his mother, Yuki, a religious woman devoted to art and literature.

Puny nervous unhealthy little Morihei stayed in-doors and read hundreds of books ranging from physics and math texts to wonder stories of miraculous Buddhist saints. Here the influence of Yuki shows, perhaps, but her son’s susceptibility was all his own. Very early on, Morihei Ueshiba daydreamed of a life lived on the edge of sacred wonder.

Yoroku summoned his boy outdoors by bragging about great-grandfather “Kichiemon,” a samurai celebrated for his muscles. After discovering the joys of strengthening a young body by sumo wrestling, running and swimming, the family bookworm decided to become “the strongest man in the world.”  And soon villagers were telling stories about a boy who carried sick kids fifty miles to the nearest doctor…

Hundreds of books, fifty miles — still only a child, and local legends already gather like small golden clouds around the founder of aikido (the fighting style of, for example, Steven Seagal). This is his future. Calmly living at a mythic pitch becomes the story of Morihei’s life — and helps explain why his enlightenment rings true.

Tomorrow: Attack on Father!

An Honor to Meet You

March 7, 2012

To: budokanfirenze

Courtesy bow and a shaolin salute, respected masters. I, too, share your passion for “arti marziali — cultura tradizionale.”

Herb Borkland (USA)