CD Review: Bombay Dub Orchestra

Over the past twenty or so years that I've actually paid attention to pop music, and World Music in particular, I've noticed a depressing trend. A pattern has developed that serves, over time, to dilute an original music, until it has been distilled into something that bares only a passing resemblance to the distinct sound that made it unique in the first place. There have always been things that have bothered me about North American and European attitudes to World Music. The conceit of claiming to "discover" music that has existed in some cases longer than our civilization makes me scratch my head for starters. It's like it didn't exist until somebody showed up with a tape recorder so they could make a project out of it. I know there are a few contemporary musicians who are genuine in their interest, and original in their incorporation, of music from other cultures into their own sound and writing. Peter Gabriel, Bob Bronzmen, Harry Manx, and Ry Cooder have all done amazing work with musicians and music from different parts of the globe. Even Paul Simon, for all that people like to criticize him, was respectful of the people and the music that he utilized in Graceland. He incorporated them and their music into his work without compromising them, or their sound's integrity. But unfortunately, once the music gets past the initial introductory phase that these few individuals offer, and the novelty of the indigenous performers has worn off, things start to become compromised. A prime example of this is what happened to Native American music, specifically flutes. In less time then it takes to say, New Age, people sporting names like Cindy Spotted Wolf and Ralph Running Rabbit swamped the market with recordings of pseudo spiritual, relaxation, and meditation recordings. Swirling keyboards were mixed down with the occasion flute sound, eagle cries and wolf howls to make it sound authentic, and enough sound of running water to make you have to pee every five minutes. Now of course whole new frontiers have opened up so you can get variations on this theme based around music from Africa to Brazil and all points in between. The latest casualty appears to be the music of India. In recent years, second generation immigrants from India to places like England and Canada have been experimenting with elements of Western pop music and incorporating them into traditional music from their homelands. Out of this amalgamation has emerged some pretty amazing music. Groups like Asian Dub Foundation have created a brand of Indian House music that combines all the best elements of Dub and the rhythms of traditional ragas. Of course, there has been a long sporadic relationship with Indian music and the west dating back to the sixties when people like George Harrison began incorporating sitars into their songs on occasion. But it had never really caught the general public's imagination until recent years when Indian performers began the incorporation in reverse. When I heard about the album Bombay Dub Orchestra I must admit that the word Dub led me to have preconceived notions of what I was going to hear when I put the disc in my player. My first indication that this was not going to be what I expected was upon hearing swirling synthesisers in the opening bars of the first track. Bombay Dub Orchestra is the project of two composers and writers, Gary Hughes and Andrew T. Mackay. Recording in both London and Mumbai, they had access to some of the finest Indian musicians around, from sitar and tabla players to vocalists. It is divided into two discs; original compositions on disc one, and then "Dub" versions on disc two. On opening the package I remember feeling quite excited by the photos of the array of musicians, it made me hopeful as to the content. Unfortunately, I was to be sorely let down by the results. After listening to the first piece, I thought that perhaps they had developed a composition similar to orchestral music where themes are developed in an overture and then explored in subsequent movements. That would explain why the sounds of the sitar and tabla are buried under the wash of keyboards. But that was not the case. The further I went into the disc the more obvious it became that this was the pattern followed by all the tracks. The elements of Indian music that were being incorporated into the songs were continually buried underneath washes of synthesiser, depriving the music of almost any legitimate claim to the inclusion of Bombay in the collection's title. Yes, they've used Indian musicians and recorded elements of the discs in the city formally called Bombay, but aside from that, there is little reason to think of this as an example of the meeting of two cultures to form something new. Rather, it sounds like two separate pieces of music pasted one on top of the other, with one, the Indian, being subservient to the other, the electronic music. The Dub versions of the songs really don't make any difference to the compositions, and only serve to point out how dissimilar it is to the genuine article as produced by groups like the Asian Dub Foundation. Adding some vocal tracks by Jamaicans singers do not make a Dub song. There has to be an inherent rhythm to a song that predominates for Dub to work, and when the predominant sound is that of keyboards, there is nothing really to build from. Bombay Dub Orchestra is an example of the trend towards homogenising a music and a culture to make it fit into a market niche. With its swirling keyboards and swirling strings, I expect it to become the latest "inspirational" hit among the new age crowd. But if you want to hear some Indian House or Dub music, pick up some Asian Dub Foundation and you'll see what's it like to dance in two worlds at once.


Eggheads and Artsies: Scarey Monsters, Supper Creeps

I've spent a lot of my life on the outside looking in. This has been especially true in my career choices, which of course has effected my economic standing as well. There have been other mitigating factors that have precluded my participating in the mainstream, including health etc. but as they are not relevant to this discussion, I'll leave them aside. Being on the outside does two things, one it gives you the opportunity to be an observer of trends and behaviours that wouldn't be noticed by an active participant. If I'm to be completely honest, I have to admit that the other thing that happens is that you develop an attitude that affects your objectivity when it comes to passing judgement on those trends and behaviours. In order to justify your "outsider" status, there is a tendency to elevate yourself into a position of superiority to those you deem as active participants in what you're observing. This of course will play havoc with your objectivity as you're constantly seeking to find fault in order to boost your own ego and to cover up any desire that you have for general acceptance. In spite of the above corollary, there are certain observations that are true, and raise certain questions about the nature of mainstream society. If you never had any desire to be on the outside looking in, but your inclinations were such that you ended up in that position what does that say about society? I'm not talking about abhorrent behaviours like rape or murder, or even anything criminal that would immediately separate you from the norm. I'm not even talking about sexual orientation or matters pertaining to race, creed, culture, or religion that could cause a distinction to be made. What I'm addressing here is the way in which intelligence and artistic aspirations are looked upon. From our earliest days in the schoolyard at primary levels, intelligence was looked down upon by our contemporaries, and used as an excuse for being ostracized. Who didn't dread being singled out for praise by their teacher in front of the rest of the class, knowing what sort of teasing would be the result? The overt teasing vanished once you hit the higher grades of secondary school, but by then your "difference" was established and you were shunted aside from the mainstream of school life. Never to the extremes as depicted by Hollywood in their teen movies, but still very real. There was nothing wrong with getting decent, or even good grades, which was considered a status thing. The problem was in having individuality of thought, or formulating your own ideas. It usually came down to a choice of learning to keep your thoughts to yourself and fitting in, or developing a caustic attitude towards the mainstream, and finding your own way in the world. The only thing that could guarantee isolation even quicker than intelligence was having any interest, or inclination towards, the arts. Even the simple act of picking up a book for no other reason than enjoyment could be looked on with suspicion. Going to a movie or watching television was okay, but the theatre, or ballet was considered a sign of real deviance. "Artsy Fag" was one of the more common epithets heard around high school during my sentence. Perhaps by the end of high school open hostilities would have stopped as everyone headed off into their divergent futures, but it was only to be replaced by what seemed the universal scorn reserved for those both intellectual and artistic. (A point of clarification here. Please do not confuse the idolatry reserved for "Stars" as being acceptance of the arts. That's a whole different scenario and circumstance that has nothing whatsoever to do with artistic inclination or intelligence.) If you had proposed a career in the arts, like theatre or writing, it would be invariable that people would ask you what you were going to do for a fall back when that didn't work out. Has anyone ever asked that of the people who have stated their intentions of going to law school, business school, or medicine? Aren't you going to get a teacher's degree so you can teach high school in case your degree in law doesn't get you steady work is not a question you often hear thrown in the face of graduating law students? But those who have gone to art school, or theatre school are faced with a barrage of those and similar type questions. Certainly there is more risk involved in embarking on a career in the arts than in law, but that is primarily because of the attitude people hold towards them in general. Culture is considered a frill in society. In the minds of most people, it doesn't "do" anything so it can't have any substantial value. The same holds true for intellectual pursuits like philosophy, history, and other liberal arts fields of study. The fact that they don't produce concrete results like winning court cases or saving lives or making a million dollars in a business deal reduces them to trivialities in most eyes. Both the desire for knowledge for the sake of knowledge and the desire to create art lack an immediate pay off in the eyes of the majority. Of course this opinion didn't just spring up on it's own overnight. It has to have been fostered somewhere, and than nurtured by someone, to stay alive. If you look at both the United States and Canada and examine their founding cultures, an explanation is not hard to come by. Both countries have as their ruling establishment, monetarily and politically, people who are descendants of 17th century Protestantism. Americans in particular take great pride in proving their lineage back to the Mayflower, the ship that carried over Puritan settlers to the New World. You could not ask for more narrow-minded people when it comes to acceptance of deviation from societal dictates. Artistic and intellectual pursuits would have been considered sinful as they could lead to digression from the word of God, or their interpretation of it. The Protestant work ethic, taken to its extreme, precludes doing anything that doesn't yield tangible results. "Idle hands are the Devil's playground" was not just a saying to describe children getting into mischief. If you are not working hard physically than the devil will control you and dictate your thoughts and actions. Now, obviously that's no longer the prevalent attitude, although it still does exist in certain places, but the hangover of distrust remains. It's not expressed in the same terms, now it comes as an expression of monetary worth. Provincial governments in Canada look at funding Universities based on perceptions of what a degree program will contribute to the economy. Not only does this preclude there being value in accumulating knowledge for the sake of leaning new thoughts and ways of thinking, but it also ignores the impact that culture can have on an economy. Where would New York City be without it's Museums, Opera, Dance, and especially Theatre? Can you imagine what would happen to that city if you took all of that away? Well, you say, look at how well it does without any help. Yes but think of how much more of an impact the arts could have on communities all around North America if there was proper funding. Right now, it succeeds in spite of the obstacles put in front of it, and contrary to what you may have heard, art does not thrive in adversary any more than it does in comfort. In fact, I'd bet someone with a full stomach could produce far better work than someone slowly starving to death. Anyone who has done any writing knows how hard it is to write at the best of times. Imagine, if you've not eaten properly how much harder it would be to be coherent. It takes years of study for a doctor or an athlete to be become competent enough to work at their vocation professionally. The same goes for an actor, a dancer, an opera singer, a visual artist, or any of the other artistic careers. Yet we do nothing to assist them in the manner we assist athletes. How many full artistic scholarships are given out by Notre Dame University every year? If one were to compare the economic spin off from the arts to sports in New York City I bet you'd find that New York could survive the loss of its professional sports teams a lot easier than the loss of its professional arts institutes. It has been said that in times of oppression that the first thing closed are the theatres, and after that the intellectuals are rounded up. The governments who are oppressive are afraid of venues and people who are capable of expressing thoughts that challenge the status quo. In the nineteenth century, riots used to break out at Operas because they were the first theatre that included common people as more than just comic relief or secondary characters. The Barber of Seville was considered incendiary because it showed the mistreatment of a regular person by the aristocracy. It was feared it would give people ideas above their station. Now a day's government does not move overtly against the arts or intellect, instead they plant the seeds of disquiet against them through their attitudes and snide remarks. How many times have you heard a pro government voice make snide remarks about eggheads? They play on people's school ground prejudice against the smart kid, and do their best to make them seem different and therefore dismissible. In their ideal form, the arts should hold a mirror up to society to allow us to take a good look at ourselves. They encourage you to think and form your own opinion. In this day and age, can you think of anything that would frighten governments that are so concerned with spin doctoring more than people who are prepared to form their own opinions? Artistic expression and creativity have been a natural means for humans to express their awe and wonder at the world around them since we first climbed up onto two legs. Look at the cave paintings and pictographs that have been found throughout the world for proof of that. Without creativity and intellect, our development would have stagnated countless generations ago, yet in North America we are conditioned from an early age to look upon both those traits with suspicion. I don't think there's some government plot that created those feelings, they have been ingrained for far too long for the current crop of politicians on either side of the border to take the blame for this attitude. However, that does not mean they won't perpetuate those feelings, and take full advantage of them to fulfill their agendas. Many years ago when I was sill acting, the company I was with spent a summer doing free shows for neighbourhood children. It was one of the poorest working class areas in the city of Toronto. None of these kids had ever seen live theatre before. The first evening they bustled in and kept yelling, out when does the movie start; they had no idea what theatre meant. When the first actors came out on stage the audience was confused, and there was muttering amongst them. But in a very short time, they were enthralled. We played the same two or three shows for a month, but each night they were on the same group of kids were back, and each time they'd bring more of their friends. We would laugh backstage hearing them explain to the newcomers about how it was sort of like a movie, except the people were actually there, not on a screen. It was probably the only time in my life as an actor when I was recognised on the street. I think of those kids and I wonder how many others wouldn't get the same pleasure out of that type of experience across North America, if we only gave them the opportunity. It's a shame that we have a society where so many people have been taught to fear and mistrust something that can so easily bring pleasure to all sorts of people. The arts are never going to go away; there are always going to be people for whom the hardships of a career in them are outweighed by the rewards. But it would be a lot better if it didn't have to be that way.


Looking For Enlightenment

At first, it had only been colours, veering in and out of unformed shapes behind his closed eyelids. More like the formless blobs left behind when your eyes have been momentarily blinded by a camera's flash attachment than anything else, he thought. But those were just the opening salvos to main event. He had climbed up to this cave in the hills two days ago, and started the fast yesterday morning. He wasn't sure what he was expecting to happen, all he knew was that he was hoping to find some sort of enlightenment; a revelation that could help him make a new beginning. Over twenty-four hours without food and water had left him dry mouthed and light headed. Perhaps he shouldn't have had MacDonald's as his last meal before going on a spiritual quest, but this had been a spur of the moment decision which had found him pointing his car our of the city towards the wilderness on the day his world fell apart. He had gone to work as usual in the morning, only to find padlocks on the front doors of his employer's building. It turned out all their assets had been seized during the night pending an investigation into their bookkeeping practices. After a few phone calls on his cell phone assured him that the situation was completely unredeemable, he decided to head for home. He probably would have found out soon enough, one way or another, but walking in on her with someone else between her legs wasn't the best way to find out she wasn't happy with their situation anymore. Not wanting to disturb them, he left the apartment without doing more than ensuring the windows were sealed, the gas stove was on, and a candle was burning in the kitchen. He was rewarded by hearing a very satisfyingly loud boom from two blocks away as he drove off in her Hummer. She couldn't complain about him not making the earth move for her anymore, now could she? All in all, though, things hadn't boded well for the future at that moment. He was out of work, single, and homeless all in less then half a day's time. If things didn't change soon, this downward spiral could continue and who knows where he'd end up. He needed to make some changes in his life, that much was obvious. The first thing to do was to change his perspective of his situation. That's what the self – help guru they had gone to see a few months back had said: "Look on every loss as a new beginning, and it becomes a positive instead of a negative" In fact he'd used a scenario similar to Steven's own that very night. Steven allowed himself a slight smirk at the thought of wondering what Mr. Self-Help would make of starting over from a couple of pounds of ground round. It had only taken a moment to recognise whose jacket had been tossed carelessly on the floor of what had been their bedroom. Look on that as a new beginning asshole. But the fresh start thing was good thinking. The thing was how to go about it. You could always go out and get a new job and a new woman; they were all a dime a dozen these days. But that didn't sound like it would be enough this time. This was the not the first time his embezzling had caused problems for his employers, or that he'd lost a woman to another man. However, the situations were getting out of hand in the ways in which they were resolved this time. He needed more of a solution than just moving on to a variation of the same old thing. There had been this book she had been trying to get him to read, just after they had been to see the self-himself to my woman guy. It was all about shaman and dusty old guys like that who had gone into different states of consciousness to help them gain insight into themselves and understanding. He had picked up the book, if only to keep her happy, and skimmed it quickly. It was all about how most of humanity's religions and belief systems were born out of people entering trance like states either through drugs or fasting. Some shit about obtaining a higher state of awareness allowing them to travel to different spiritual planes of existence and making discoveries. Well, he knew some guys who had obtained higher states of "awareness" some years back, and they weren't about to see the outside of the psych ward for the rest of their lives. Anyways, he had said, there are enough religions in the world now screwing things up, as it is, why would we want anymore of them. She had given him a look, like he was being an especially large asshole or something, and said that wasn't the point. The point was that people weren't willing to look in side themselves anymore and discover their own personal truths. The ones that could free them from the ruts they were in and allow them to discover what they were meant to be doing. Well there was no denying he was in a rut right now. Seeing as the only copy of the book he knew of was probably in no condition to be read again, and he wasn't quite sure what was recommended to help induce a trance like state except fasting and drugs, (Stupid book hadn't even mentioned anything some tea you could only get in Brazil of all places) he figured he shouldn't take any chances. He stopped by a local spot he had been able to score at before, and picked up a bag of weed, a gram of coke, some M.D.A., and a couple of grams of magic mushrooms. After smoking a fat one with the dealer and getting incurable munchies, hence, the stop at Macdonald's on the way out of town. He figured he'd hold off on the coke until he needed the extra spurt of energy to get back into town after the fasting, keep the M.D.A. in reserve (he had no idea how clean it was after all) and just focus on chewing up some mushrooms after a day of fasting. He had remembered the cave from a previous trip to the mountains when he had been younger and he and a couple of buddies had sheltered there from a nasty rainstorm that had surprised them. It had actually been kind of cool sitting there in the cave mouth, watching the lighting, and listening to the muffled sound of thunder from inside the mountain. It had been pitch black in the cave, and the dim light of the storm hadn't offered much illumination. He could still see how odd their faces had looked when light by the occasional flashes of lightning. Disembodied pale balloons floating in darkness was how he had thought of them at the time. So now here he was, sitting in pretty much the same space, and bored out of his mind. He had taken the mushrooms over an hour ago and all he was getting still were the colours. Damn if things didn't pick up soon he'd snort half the coke, which should be enough to get him back to a hotel where he could order room service and sleep this off. "What were you expecting, visions or something", said a voice in his head. "You've only been out here a day that doesn't count for anything in these matters. You've usually got to give it three, maybe four days before anything happens, and then its usually so obscure that it won't make any sense for years anyway" Steven snapped his eyes wide open and looked around the cave. His pupils were dilated enough that even in the dim light he was able to make out shapes that he hadn't on his last trip here, but that didn't help him locate the source of the voice. He shook his head and was about to close his eyes again when the voice said: "Oh I'm for real alright shithead, but I don’t feel like letting you see me just yet. I've been watching you for the last day, and wondering what you've been doing in my cave. Most people only stop in for a few hours at most, a quick shag, or for shelter from rain, and that's about it." "But you've been here more than a day already and so naturally my curiosity is sparked. What you doing in my cave asshole? If you're meeting someone you can probably assume they've stood you up by now" There was a slight pause in which Steven had the distinct impression the voice was taking a closer look at him. "Holly crap, what are you on? Look at the size of your eyeballs; they're like black boulders. You look like someone who's never seen the light of day." There was another pause. "Oh crap, you really are here on some sort of quest for eternal meaning, or some such shit aren't you?" The voice sounded really pissed off now, as if that compounded some crime that Steven was unaware of even committing in the first place. For some reason Steven felt a little embarrassed, it could have been the scepticism that underlay the anger, but that didn't stop him form admitting that's what he was doing. "Well I hope you don't think you're going to come up with some new religion or something stupid like that. Everybody seems to think that wandering around in the dessert or climbing a mountain to sit in a cave gives them the right to be a spiritual leader of some sort or another." "I've got a cousin in the Middle East and he said a few years back, oh a couple a thousand or so, you couldn't go for a walk in the dessert without running into some fool idiot wandering around babbling to himself. Heat crazed and dehydrated. After a while he got so sick of them he began to mess with them." "There was this one guy, it makes me laugh every time I think about it, really emaciated, must have been out there for close to thirty days, judging by how skinny and flat out bug-eyed crazy he was. Anyway, this guy was muttering about some Satan dude under his breath. Was getting himself into quite a state over how he was the root of all evil and had to be resisted at all costs." "Now, my cousin had never heard of any Satan character before, but decided it would be a hoot to pretend he was him. So keeping himself invisible he sidles up to this guy and says howdy. Did he jump, must have been almost ten feet straight up in the air." "The next thing you know he's flailing all about him with this staff he's carrying, damned near brained my cousin with it, and frothing at the mouth. Than he's standing there, rocking back and forth, praying is what my cousin figured he was doing, with his eyes closed. Every so often he open his eyes a crack and peaks around to see if anybody's there, and he'll shout out things like "Get thee behind me Satan" or some such shit." "Now my cousin is genuinely worried about the guy, thinks he might be going off the deep end from no water and lack of food. So he figures the least he can do is offer him something cold to drink, and maybe a bite to eat; make up for the fright he gave him and all. But he figures the guy must have been really toasted by the sun, because he kept screaming out about temptation and evil, flailing about with that damned staff of his all over the place. Invisibility doesn't prevent you from getting your skull split open by a deranged loony if he manages to connect." Than there was also another guy who thought, he was talking to his god because of a brush fire that my niece caused one day on a mountaintop. She always was a little careless with fire, bit of a pyromaniac if you ask me, but she's my sisters daughter, so what are you going to do? She ended up covering by telling the guy to chill, made up some nice things for him to believe in, and he went away happy." "So I've got to wonder about anybody who parks themselves out in the middle of nowhere, are they in it for fame, fortune and fanaticism, or are they just plain nuts. That of course brings us back to you again, and the question of why you are here. If I remember correctly, the answer was "enlightenment". Is that right? Steven could only nod his head yes in agreement. He wasn't sure if an invisible voice could see nods, but he was also pretty sure he couldn't talk right now even if he wanted to. He hadn't really known what to expect, but he was sure this sort of experience wasn't what everybody had in mind when they when they talked about finding a new level of personal awareness. All he had wanted was a few hints about how to get his life back on track and to figure out a way of things not always ending up always starting over. "Well you could start by not being such a self-centred, selfish prick. Ditch the paranoia as well; if you didn't think everybody is out to get you than maybe you wouldn't be out to get them first. I'd also not get addicted to bumping off people you have personal issues with, it ends up getting messy, and you might get caught. You'll probably get away with it this time, but next time you might not be so lucky." "Oh what are you acting so surprised about? If I'm a hallucination of some sort or another than I'm coming from your brain and sub conscience, and deep down you know what a piece of shit you are, even if you're not willing to admit it out loud. If I'm really the voice of some otherworldly presence than I'm going to be able to read your thoughts anyway. So, actually, it's immaterial whether I'm real or not, because either way it's all true." "Quite frankly if I were you I'd just take a running jump out of this cave and hope to splatter myself all over the mountain side, but since I'm not, that decision is up to you. In fact, here's my big piece of advice for you asshole; you might want to write this down it's important. No, all right than." " Everything is your decision and you always have a choice no matter what the circumstances. Take responsibility for your choices and you will live a good and happy life. Blame everybody else for your problems and you become the messed up dipstick that you are today." Steven had been staring open mouthed into space the whole time the voice was speaking. When it got to the point of jumping off the cliff he started to get himself ready to leave. He'd snort some lines off the dashboard of the Hummer, and find that hotel room. Than he'd hunt down the jerk that sold him the mushrooms, and give him shit for this bum trip they had caused. He was so busy thinking about that, he barely noticed the voice was done. He had completely missed the last few words said to him, but he figured they made as little sense as everything else that had happened since he got here. Saying goodbye loudly to the voice, he bolted for the cave entrance where he tripped over a bump in the floor he hadn't noticed before. His balance was off from not eating and drugs and that probably explained why he couldn't regain his footing before he tumbled over the side of the cliff that the cave faced out onto. The lump in the floor stood up on its four legs and padded to the cave entrance and to the edge. A familiar voice, at least to Steven's ears if he was still listening, came out of the very canine shaped muzzle. "Stupid humans never listen, haven't in thousands of year, and aren't about to start now I guess. Oh well not my problem" (Anthropologists now believe that most major human belief systems came about when people have been in a trance like state, most likely induced by the hallucinogenic psilocybin.)


A Letter To George Bush

So, two thirds of the American public approve of you, Mr. Bush giving yourself the authority to order wiretaps of anyone you feel like for national security reasons. What does that say about America today that they would trust someone whose administration has repeatedly lied to them about motivations for their most recent incursion in empire building? That they are gullible idiots, blind fools, or brainwashed? During Hitler's reign in Nazi Germany I'm sure you would have found wide spread support for his programs of expansion and invasion, and loss of personal liberty in the name of the state security too. Did that make what he did right? (Hey, what's that, did he just compare the United States; its people, its leader, and its government to Nazi Germany's? I don't know did I? I'll leave that for you to decide yourself) Mr. Bush you have programmed your people to believe they are under constant threat of attack. How many attacks have taken place in the main land United States since Sept 11th 2001? What proof do is there except the words of your government spokespeople that there have even been any attempts? Periodically you issue announcements saying you are currently under code yellow alert. Do you ever say why after the fact, Mr. Bush? Well no, of course not, it's all a matter of National Security so you can't tell us anything, except to take you at face value. Would you lie to your people? Actually, come to think of it, yes you would. To start there were the non-existent weapons of mass destruction as an excuse to invade Iraq, and it's been down hill from there. Saddam Hussein was a horrible excuse for a human being, there's no doubt about that, but couldn't you have just said that right from the beginning and enlisted the aid of the rest of the world to depose him, instead of making up some bullshit story about terrorists and weaponry? Why did you have to lie about stuff? Why were you in such a damned hurry to invade Iraq anyway? Did you need those oil fields that badly? Look at the mess you've created by invading so quickly and not having any plan for infrastructure after the fact. More of your soldiers have died trying to occupy that country then did in the initial invasion. Every time you or one of your sycophants say that things have turned a corner for the better, the situation deteriorates. The elections in Iraq were a coup for you, no doubt about that Mr. Bush, they went off wonderfully, and the people of Iraq were excited. I admit I felt a twinge of hope that in spite of everything, maybe it would turn out all right for those poor people. But you didn't plan for the divisions in that society being so deep. The country is steps away from a civil war that will make Lebanon seem like a walk in the park. Your armed forces are stuck in a situation where they are screwed no matter what. They are not trained as peacekeepers, and neither side trusts them anymore. One side sees you as the oppressor; the other side sees you as the incompetents who can't offer them any protection. Mr. Bush, you've just asked Congress to approve a budget in the trillions of dollar range, with most of it being eaten up by your Homeland Security and your non-war in Iraq. It's not a war anymore because you said the war is over, so what you'd call it now I don't know. An occupation, a police action, I've heard those words before even if you don't remember them being spoken. While you were drinking with your National Guard buddies during Viet Nam that's what they were calling America's last military defeat. Of course, this won't be a military defeat because you won the war, but oh Mr. Bush, you're losing the peace over there badly. Why have you made the U.N. the enemy? You've convinced half the people in your country that the U.N. is against America because they wouldn't support your unilateral plan to invade Iraq. Why didn't they support your plan? Because they were afraid of what would happen if proper preparations weren’t taken. They didn't want the horror that's happening now to occur. What force in the post World War Two period has had the most experience in actually sending people into situations and keeping peace? Well since they're the only ones who even try it, the U.N. They've won two Nobel Peace prizes for their efforts. The first being back during the very first implementation of peacekeepers, the Suez crises back in the fifties. In the eighties, the peacekeeping forces started to come under fire for their ineffectualness. Since most of this was being directed at them by the Regan administration, which seriously undermined the U.N.'s effectiveness by defaulting on their dues and demanding that the U.N. support American action unquestioningly, it shouldn't have been taken seriously. But that was the first administration that had learned the real lesson of Viet Nam and Watergate, how to manipulate the glamour of the office to influence the press and the public. Speak in simple, emotionally charged sound bites, which the press dutifully report verbatim, and it leaves no room for debate. Rebuttals to the president never make the same splash as the original comment, and can't compete with lines like: " The Sandanistas could drive up the road into Texas tomorrow and invade our country" The fact that that argument was used to justify funding and arming the "contras" terrorists without being questioned by a majority of the American public says something right there about the power of the Oval Office as a propaganda tool. It has always surprised me Mr. Bush, how a country that claims to be the birthplace of Free Speech and individuality can be so easily seduced by the power of a title. The reverence that your office is treated with rivals that of the divine right of Kings, which stated that they ruled through the will of God. Perhaps that's what you and your adherents believe about you and your office. I don't know. For no other reason than you are the president Mr. Bush, if tomorrow you got up and said, black is white and white is black, your word would be taken as gospel by the majority of your country. No matter how many times it has been proven that you've lied in the past, or even just been wrong, it doesn't seem to matter. Mr. Bush, you, and by extension your constituents, seem to take it as a personal affront whenever anyone seems to think that just because it's in America's best interests, doesn't mean it's in the best interests of the rest of the world. You refuse to participate in anything that might end up ruling against you, like the world court; by claiming it's controlled by anti-American sympathisers. You've convinced the people of your country that everyone is out to get them. They really can't trust anyone except themselves to do the right thing for America, and what's right for America is the only thing that matters. Don't you understand how much that frightens and angers people in other parts of the world? Mr. Bush, by saying things like that, and acting from that position, you make it come true. Why do you want that sort of world to exist? Why have you geared your whole propaganda machine to convincing your people that they are under continual attack by forces they can't see, and that only you can protect them from? Please don't take this the wrong way Mr. Bush; I don't hate America or its people. Your country represents some of the finest ideals that have ever resonated through out human history. The only problem is that none of them seem to be on display anymore. In the name of freedom, democracy, and human rights, you have gradually eroded those very principles in the guise of protection. Mr. Bush you have cynically used and abused your fellow Americans love of country to isolate them from the rest of the world. Anyone who is different, or has a different way of looking at things than you do, is suspect and dangerous. You have thrown up walls around your people and blinded them to the beauty of diversity all in the name of expediting your agenda. What confuses me the most is what exactly your agenda is Mr. Bush. Was it to make the United States the most powerful nation in the world so it could make everybody do what it wanted? Was it to completely isolate your country from the rest of the world so you and yours could have the freedom to do what you wanted with it? I can't see what it is you've been trying to do, what vision you have to carry what used to be the beacon that could illuminate the rest of the world with its values into the 21st century and beyond? Your country is probably the most polarized it has been since the civil war in terms of moral and philosophical divisions. Is that leadership? It makes me feel very sad to see what has happened to the promise and vitality that existed, be corrupted to such an extent that Americans are distrusted by so much of the world's populace. Doesn't that give you some indication that something, somewhere is not right in paradise? There's the old story of the mother watching her son in the marching band commenting on how the whole band is out of step, but her son is keeping perfect time. Do you think it's at all possible, Mr. Bush that this story could be applied to your America? Give it some thought and get back to me if you have the time. Yours truly, gypsyman.


The Winter Olympics: Send The Pros Home

Maybe it's a Canadian thing, all that snow and ice, but I've always liked the Winter Olympics better than the Summer variety. Until recently, Canada hasn't done any better in the Winter than in the Summer games, so it can't even be put down to chauvinism. I suppose part of it is that so many of the sports are ones that are much easier to identify with from a North American mind set. Skiing, and combinations there of, skating, tobogganing, (if you can call strapping yourself to a piece of plastic, lying on your back and going down a sheet of ice feet first tobogganing) and snowboarding are all things that anybody at home can do. Unlike the sprinters, high jumpers, hurdlers, gymnasts, and pole-vaulters, who compete during the Summer Olympics, I have a much easier time identifying with the people who compete in the Winter games. Of course I'm not going to try ski jumping in my back yard or a triple toe loop on skates, but at least I've strapped on a pair of skis in my life and been skating. How many of you have ever decided to go for a casual pole vault on the weekend? Or maybe chuck around the discus with some friends? It's far more likely that you've gotten together for a ski weekend at some time in your life than sticking what looks like a cannon ball under your chin, and trying to chuck it sixty or seventy yards. It's not like the Winter Olympics are any less corrupt or commercial than the Summer games; just look at the whole fiasco that surrounded the Salt Lake City games from the organizing committee to the figure skating judging. Or any time a skier is interviewed in the winner's circle and they automatically flip their skis so the brand is facing the cameras; Nike or Fisher, equipment suppliers are the real winners in all these games no matter what the season. Drugs and means of cheating are just a prevalent, and perhaps even more so. Blood packing before cross-country skiing races (transfusions of fresh blood that supposedly gives you an advantage somehow) seems to have been a favourite for a long time and virtually undetectable until recently. I wouldn't be surprised by anything anymore when it came to devising new and ingenious ways of cheating by athletes and their coaches to give themselves any extra edge possible. But, even knowing all that, it still seems that there is something far less tainted about the Winter games. Perhaps it is the sheer insanity of some of the sports. Downhill ski racing may look glamorous to watch, but skiing down the side of a mountain at speeds up to 100mph and over is a really good way to get yourself killed I've always thought. There has been many a time I've tobogganed down a steep hill, that's covered in ice, but I've never done it lying on my back, steering by pointing my toes, and not being able to really see where I'm going. That's just insanely dangerous. In the Winter Olympics there is far more of an element of risk involved than most sports in Summer Olympics. Okay if you go out for javelin catching you might run the occasional risk, but nothing compared to what happens if you lose it completely throwing yourself into the air off a 90-metre ski jump. They not only expect you to survive, but you're judged on style points and how neat and tidy a landing you can pull off. (Wind milling your arms in a desperate attempt to maintain balance counts against you.) Unfortunately, I haven't been able to watch much of these Olympics this year except for a couple of periods of men's hockey. In the past fifteen years the only times I'll usually watch hockey at all anymore is during international events; the stuff that's played in the National Hockey League (N.H.L), and North America in general is just to boring to endure for long. But put the game on a decent sized ice surface, where there is room to skate and make passes and it becomes something enjoyable again. It also dispels the myth that Canadians are the best hockey country in the world. At this Olympics Canada will be lucky to finish 6th after not even making it out of the quarterfinals, losing 2-0 to Russia. What bothers me is how much media attention Canadian Olympic Hockey team has gotten. We have a speed skater who has four medals already at these Olympics; Canadian women are making huge breakthroughs in cross country skiing, winning a silver in the relay and gold in the 15 kilometre sprint; we won gold and silver in the men's skeleton, and have already exceeded out best results for medal totals at a games. But the majority of attention is fixated on the hockey teams failure to score goals and medal. What I find especially ironic about all of this is that in the three Olympics that professional hockey players have been allowed to compete, Canada has only won a medal once. The one medal, Gold at Salt Lake, only came about because Sweden lost in a fluke to Belarus, Russia was in disarray, and the Slovaks didn't have adequate time to put a team together. They ended up squeaking out a win against the American's who play the same style of hockey, but not even as good as the Canadians. Hockey isn't even Canada's official national sport that, honour lies in the hands of lacrosse, yet it seems to be such a national blind spot. Any attempt to criticize the way in which Canadians play or are taught hockey is treated as treason akin to burning the flag in the United States. All the euphemisms that are used to describe the way Canadians play hockey; willing to get their hands dirty, playing with heart, tough, and so on make it sound like skill and talent are irrelevant. Even the term for everyone's favourite type of player, power forward, implies muscle over talent. But what type of player does this end up producing? Well, what we saw at these Olympics were big, hulking guys who had circles skated around them by faster, more talented European players. In their last three games of the tournament, Canada scored only three goals, all of them in one period against the Czech Republic, on a goalie who was having a bad game. Once he was replaced at the start of the second period the Canadians couldn't score again. If it hadn't been for the Canadian goaltender, making some pretty spectacular saves, Canada would have lost the game. To be fair, that type of player is what's needed in the confines of the ridiculously small N.H.L. rinks where there is very little room to manoeuvre. Brute strength and the ability to run people over are much more important than being able to skate fast and pass the puck with any type of ability. Even then, with the game built and designed for behemoths in mind, last years leading scorer was the 5'7" Martin St. Louis of the Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning. While people talk about how the players have gotten bigger and faster in the modern era, their speed has all the subtlety and skill of a run away car. They go straight up and down the ice, continually picking up speed, and running over all objects in its path, but can do little else. There were eight teams in the quarterfinals for the men's Olympic hockey medal round. Canada's final standing will depend on who the losers are in this round and the next. If the teams eliminated have a better record than Canada did in the preliminary round they will finish ahead of them in the standings. I don't think it's possible for them to finish eighth, but sixth, and even seventh are very likely where they will end up. The headlines across Canada, and front pages of newspapers, have all carried pictures of the dejected hockey players sitting on the bench as they watch the seconds count down in their loss. On the same day Canadian athletes had won four medals, two gold, a silver and a bronze, yet all it seems we're supposed to care about is one team's fortunes. On a day we should have been celebrating wonderful victories all that was deemed worthy of reporting was a bunch of professional athletes losing a game. How do you think that makes the people who survive on spare change and usually train at their own expense feel? These guys, who make more money in a month than most Olympic athletes, who are put on pedestals by the press and subsequently the public, get more publicity by losing than others do by winning a Gold medal. I'd be pushing for a ban on professionals in the Olympic games again. Send the dream teams home, be they basketball, hockey, or tennis. These games should be the hour when the people who strive for years to obtain the pinnacle of achievement in their sport are allowed their moment in the spotlight. The media and the public barely recognise their existence except for these two-week periods every four years, and now even that is being taken away from them by the arrival of professionals in basketball, hockey, and a lesser degree tennis. The Olympics have fallen a long way from their original idealism, if it actually ever existed, but some essence of that still remains in the efforts of the athletes who compete and win through genuine effort, and skill. There has been a concentrated effort to reform the Olympics. Corruption among officials is being rooted out, drug cheaters are being hunted down, (a little overzealously by Richard Pound is his desire for the spotlight) and they're even trying to make the arcane rules governing the judging of skating events understandable. But as far as I'm concerned, if they want to keep the light on the people who matter, the athletes, they need to turn back the clock to the days before they allowed the professionals to participate. Be they the hockey players from the N.H.L. or the Basketball players from the National Basketball Association, they are a distraction from the rest of the athletes who strive and compete for their countries. Give the games back to the people who spend their lives preparing for them, not the people for whom they are only an afterthought and something to do if they feel so inclined. I'd rather see a bunch of amateurs try their best and lose, than so –called professionals achieve the same results and steal the spotlight.


CD/DVD Reviews: Speaking In Tongues, True Stories, and Naked - Talking Heads

Toronto, 1978, and the venerable Horseshoe Tavern at Queen St. W. and Spadina Ave. is packed to the gills. Old timers wouldn't recognise it as the place where Stomping Tom Connors shot his movie a few years back. Oh there might be a few ducktails still around, and there is definitely a lot of black leather, but the patrons aren't here to hear Hank Snow, or any of the other Country and Western favourites who have graced the old stage. Nope, tonight they're all here to check out the latest hot band to come up from New York City via the Mudd Clubb and C.B.G.B. A change of management had meant a change of format, and the Horseshoe has become a Mecca for punk and new wave bands from both Toronto and afar. After a warm up set from a local group that's left the audience's ears bleeding from the noise, anticipation is high, and so when three rather normal looking guys and a girl walk out onto stage, nobody pays them much mind until they pick up their instruments and approach the microphones. When the first words out of the lead singer's mouth are: "Can we get the volume turned down" they know they're in for something different than the usual three chord punk assault on the senses. That was the Talking Heads; different from the word go. From gawky, geeky looking David Byrne on lead vocals and guitar, normal looking Jerry Harrison on guitar and keyboards, Chris Franz on drums, and a rarity in the rock world a woman, Tina Weymouth on bass, they hardly looked like a rock band, let alone the writers of songs like "Psycho Killer" and "Life During War Time" Throughout their life as a band, the Talking Heads continually defied expectations. Whether in the stripped down, minimalist four piece band of the earliest incarnations, or in the nine piece funk band from mid-career, they were always a couple of steps ahead of both their audience and the music industry. You knew it was only a matter of time that the creative energy that fuelled that innovation would become constrained by popular music and need to move on. But technology is a wonderful thing, and Rhino records have done the world a great service by re-releasing some of their best albums on dual disc CD/DVDs. One side features the original CD plus some bonus tracks, and the other side is the music remixed in 5.1 surround sound for audio DVD players. Each DVD also includes copies of the original music videos that were released with the albums. I don't know if this is accurate or not, but the CD that somehow struck me as being their most popular in terms of airplay was Speaking In Tongues. Recorded with the full nine piece funk line up, and featuring a special guest vocal by Nona Hendryx on "Slippery People", and Bernie Worrell of Funkadelic playing synthesiser on "Girlfriend is Better", this disc makes you move whether you want to or not. Filtering through the dance beats, sliding into your brain without you really noticing, David Byrne's stream of conscience, oddball, but emotionally evocative lyrics, work their magic on your corpuscles. I haven't heard these songs in over ten years but I knew the lyrics like I had just heard them yesterday. Most amazing, is that I don't actually remember ever sitting down and listening to the record once. On first listen this sounds like a simple funk disc; grooves and beats pulsating up the spine and loosening up the whitest of asses, but listen again and you'll notice there's more to this disc than dance tunes. Layers of sound are built on the foundation of the beat. From the swirls of synthesisers to the background vocals, everything has been skilfully engineered and produced to create an energy specific to a song. From the frenetic drive of "Burning Down The House", with its almost tribal rhythms that come pounding out of the opening synthesiser, to the sentiment of "This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody)" every tone, every sound, is fitted exactly into place. Listen to what could be a throw away vocal at the end of the later song; a simple "Ooh" sung by Byrne; it's precisely timed to fit into the finishing swirl of the rest of the instruments. True Stories was a solo David Byrne project, a movie he made about the strangeness of super market tabloids and life across America. In the movie, the actors sang all the material. The album True Stories was released after the fact, and featured the Talking Heads performing the songs from the movie. Confusing matters even more, Sire Records released a soundtrack from the movie that featured the original cast performing the same material that was on the Talking Heads album. Although released in 1986, which meant that it wasn't there last album, True Stories has always felt like a parting of the ways to me. The band felt like an afterthought to a David Byrne project, and although musically it sounds fine, there has always felt, to my ears, that something was missing. After the fun of Little Creatures, their previous release, there is almost a sterility to this disc, which when it was released made it one of my least favourite Talking Heads' albums. Certainly, songs like "Wild, Wild Life" and "Love For Sale" sound like Talking Heads' songs, but there is a formulaic quality to them that prevented me from ever really getting excited about them. Listening to it again ten years down the line, what strikes me the most is how it seems not to have the same level of thought and commitment that had been the trademarks of the band until that point. In a very round about and polite way, I guess I'm saying it was boring. Thankfully two years latter they redeemed themselves in my ears with the release of Naked. According to bassist Tina Weymouth, they decided to record in Paris to take advantage of the large émigré African musician population that lived there. They wanted to capture a very specific sound for this album, one they knew couldn't be reproduced by the musicians at hand in the United States, so they went to where they could find the people they needed. The Talking Heads were never what you would call an overtly political band. Although there was a large element of social commentary to David Byrne's lyrics, they weren’t ones for the anthem type standards of The Clash, or other members of the Punk generation. But on Naked they made some of their strongest political statements of their career. It sounds strange to say this but Naked always felt like a more international album than any of their previous releases. I don't mean musically, because obviously they had utilized a great number of sounds from all over the world before, but thematically it seems they looked beyond the borders of New York City for the first time. I remember listening to "The Democratic Circus" when the album was first released, and literally a half-mile away from where I was sitting the G-8 leaders were meeting in Toronto. The eight leaders of the biggest economies in the "Free World" had rolled into town to talk about whatever it is they talk about at these meetings, and it was just like a three-ringed circus. It was like being in Paris had given Byrne a perspective on how North America was seen, and saw, the world at that time. To this day, the song, "Mr. Jones" feels like an updating of Bob Dylan's song about Mr. Jones not knowing what's happening. He still doesn't know, but now it's not just at home; he's deaf and blind to the whole world. Musically speaking Naked also recaptured some of the adventurous atmosphere that had been missing on True Stories. Not only was it more musically diverse, but the production values and arrangements created thematic foundations for Byrne's lyrics. Naked was the last Talking Heads album I ever bought, and fittingly it was a reminder for me of why I had liked them in the first place. Intelligent lyrics and interesting music that combined to elevate pop music beyond its usual mundane expressions of sex, drugs, and rock & roll. They were a band that was never afraid to take risks, and disavowed complacency. The concert film Stop Making Sense released in the early 1980's gives a good indication of just how far the band had travelled up to that point in time. From their raw energy as a quartet, to the nine-piece funk band and various stops on the way the Talking Heads were a unique musical experience that happens far to infrequently in pop music. Intelligent, and ever evolving they distinguished themselves from their contemporaries with each album they put out, and concert they gave. How many other bands do you know that have asked to have their sound system turned down?


NaNoWriMo Notes #12: What's My Genre?

What genre am I? No, that's not the latest pickup line in singles bars, like what's your sign used to be, it's the question authors have to ask themselves when they are preparing a manuscript to send off to either a publisher of agent. It sounds like a simple question doesn't it? One that any author should be able to answer about their own work. Well either I'm really so simple that even simple questions defeat me, or this is a whole lot trickier a proposition than I thought it would be. I had just assumed because I had elements of magic and mysticism in the novel I've written that it would fit into the Fantasy category. Sure, it's based on a reality that actually happened, but I've taken huge liberties with historical fact, in that I've just made it up as I went along with no reference to what actually happened. To me that's Fantasy; according to the publishing world however, it's not. It seems a Fantasy novel has to be right out there; in a reality that has no discernible relation to ours. No matter how fantastical elements of my story might be, it's still set on earth in a context that is familiar to most people. All along I thought I was writing a Fantasy novel and I was writing something else. What that something else is remains a bit of a mystery to me now. I guess you could call it historical fiction because it's based on an actual event that happened in our world's past, but doesn't that usually involve real places and accurate recreations of happenings? It's also probably not normal for historical fiction to incorporate magic, astral projection, and divination into the story line. How many genres and sub genres now exist in the world of fiction writing anyway? Off the top of my head I come up with the following list: Mystery, murder mystery, suspense, thriller, horror, espionage, science fiction, fantasy, sword & sorcery, historical fiction, romantic historical fiction, romance, hard science - science fiction, and we haven't even begun serious cross pollination yet. I'm sure you could have something called a romantic sword & sorcery historical fiction novel without even trying that hard. That's not even beginning to consider all the different sub categories for Non-fiction, which is a different kettle of fish all together. (That would be under cookbooks, fish stews) The thing is you have to be able to answer that question if you want anyone to even consider taking your manuscript seriously. It's all about marketing the product. Which bookshelf will it end up on in the bookstore, where will it blend in the best with the rest of the product? I know it sounds naïve to complain about things like this, but it feels like the blood, sweat and tears that have been shed by authors into making their work unique is a waste of time. You don't want to be so unique that you can't fit into a nice safe category now do you. Try and stay within the parameters we've set like a good little author and we might even try and promote your work. Just like everywhere else in the world now, nobody likes it if you deviate too far from expected norms. But what does that say about the creative process. If all of a sudden, you're writing along and you have to start worrying about whether or not you fit into one of the ready to wear categories? To me it says that your freedom to create is being co-opted by the necessity of having to make a piece fit. Maybe there are some authors who can sit down and say I'm going to write a hard science – science fiction novel. But what about those who have an idea for a story and just want to write it? Why should it matter so much which bookshelf it's going to end up on? Shouldn't what matters be the quality of the story? I would think that publishers would be more concerned about characters, plot and style than genre. If it's a good piece of writing can't they market it even if there is an ambiguity about its genre? It's all fiction after all. It's all telling a story about something no matter if you have a secret agent hurrying to prevent an atomic bomb from blowing New York off the face of the earth, or werewolves discussing dinner plans. Here I was thinking, foolish me that what would matter most to a publisher or an agent was the quality of the work they were being sent. But certain agents only deal with certain genres, and if your peg doesn't fit into their slot, then you're out of luck. Thankfully, publishers have a little more latitude than agents initially, and with the exception of a few imprints will accept almost any genre. But even than you need to be able to tell them in your query letter which category you fit into. Maybe I'm making a bigger deal out of this than it deserves, but it just came as such a shock to me to discover that definitions were so important and so exact. More and more, I'm beginning to realize that writing the books is the easy part of being a novelist. It's what comes after you're finished that's difficult. It's like a friend said to me the other day in an email, enjoy this time (the writing and editing) for all it's worth, because it will never be this good again.


Book Review: Captain Alatriste - Arturo Perez-Reverte

Is there any more romantic a hero than the lone sword's man? He stands silhouetted against the rays of the setting sun; his wide brimmed plumed hat set at a rakish angle and his cloak decoratively draped over one shoulder. From the Three Musketeers to Errol Flynn and Zorro, we have been seduced by their daring deeds and their manly mien. Ready at a moments notice to risk all for God, King, justice, and a fair lady's blessing, he'll leap into the fray. Pure of heart and noble of purpose he is chivalry personified and an example for us all. Now there is a new star to shine amongst the pantheon of heroic figures: Captain Diego Alatriste. Alatriste is the creation of Spanish author Arturo Perez-Reverte and his English language debut is the book simply titled Captain Alatriste. How much this long overdue appearance owes thanks to the forthcoming movie starring Viggo Mortensen, as the good Captain, is doubtless just idle speculation. Whatever the reasoning behind the appearance of book one last year, and number two (Purity Of Blood) this year, fans of a thinking person's adventure story have reason to be grateful. Arturo Perez-Reverte has created a character that goes far beyond the one-dimensional hero of the past, and takes the whole notion of the heroic swordsman and stands it on its ear. Diego (the Captain is an honorific, he never was an officer in the army) Alatriste is a survivor of the first round of the Spanish wars in what we now know as the Netherlands. He has come home to Madrid to recover from a wound that has left him pain racked but has not disabled his abilities with a knife and a rapier. In order to make ends meet he, like so many ex soldiers has become a sword for hire. For the right amount of money he will provoke a duel with anyone you want and dispatch them to greet their maker. Were you insulted at court? Has your wife been sleeping with someone you don't approve of? Diego will act as your means to reclaim honour. Our hero is a hired killer, no more, no less. If the price is right, he will ensure that a person receives half a foot of good Toledo steel through their throat. A far cry from those gallants who never seem to have to earn money to make ends meet while they rescue damsels in distress or save the honour of the King. As the story progresses we learn that Diego is perhaps far more noble in his realism, than any of his predecessors were in their romanticism, in the game of swordsmanship. His rules of conduct, never stab anyone in the back, are attempts to hang onto the vestiges of honour he once adhered to. He has no illusions about what he does, and knows there is nothing noble or brave in being a hired killer. We learn about Diego and his life from his former ward, Inigo. The son of a former comrade in arms, he had been sent by his mother at the age of thirteen to be page to the man who had sworn to see him into manhood. As this vow had been taken while Inigo's father was dying from musket ball wound, there could be no going back on it. It is through Inigo's observations of the Captain that we find out about the demons that plague Diego. How he will on occasion sit up the whole night drinking, growing more and more silent in the quiet of their room, and sit staring at his sword and knife hung on the wall as if they were a curse. It is through two sets of eyes that we see 17th century Madrid. The wide eyed, somewhat innocent eyes of a thirteen year old boy filled with illusions of heroism and grandeur; and those same eyes years older looking back on events, providing a filter of cynicism through which impressions are sieved. In one breath, he will tell us about what a dashing figure the young King Phillip IV of Spain cuts in his youth, and then proceed to describe his future descent into ineffectualness and incompetence. Listen to Inigo's description of what was called Spain's golden age:
"And that infamous period was called the Siglo de Oro? What Golden Age, eh? The truth is that those of us who lived and suffered through it saw little gold and barely enough silver. Sterile sacrifice, glorious defeats, corruption, rogues, misery, and shame; that we had up to the eyebrows." Arturo Perez-Reverte, Captain Alatriste, Penguin Canada, 2005 p.108-109.
It is against this backdrop that our hero's adventure takes place. He is hired by mysterious masked men to frighten two English travelers. He and an accomplice are to accost them in a back alley, rob them of some papers, and let them go on their way. But then the orders are mysteriously changed. One of the two masked men leaves the room only to be replaced by a member of the Inquisition and the orders become darker. The two heretics are to be killed as quickly and quietly as possible. But during the attack, the man Diego has singled out as his victim acts in such a manner as to awaken the Captain's sense of honour. Not only does he refrain from killing his target, but he also saves the life of his companion. Oh how are lives are shaped by one little deed. From here on in, he is drawn into a web of political intrigues that threaten his life on more than one occasion. One does not foil the plans of the Inquisition lightly, no matter how honourable your intentions. Perez-Reverte has created in Captain Alatriste the perfect anti-hero swashbuckler. At times moody and introspective, but always real and alive, he is a perfect antidote to the syrupy heroes of film and cheap romances. He knows the things men are capable of doing in the name of God, King, and Country, as he has done most of them himself. But still he tries to hang on to the ideals of honour and justice in the face of changing times and opposition from powerful figures. Captain Alatriste is not only a fun filled ride of sword fights and daring deeds, but it exposes the reality that has too long been hidden behind the mask of the romantic hero. Long live the Captain, and may he live to fight many a battle for our entertainment and edification.


The Meaning Of Lists

I think I've finally clued into why I didn't like "lists". It had nothing to do with the content, top ten songs written by a left handed lead bassist, or even the arguments that develop over them. It was lists themselves I hated. Let me backtrack a little here so you can understand where I'm coming from, or at least realize that I think there is a rational explanation for this. Over the weekend I started compiling a list of potential agents, and the occasional publisher, who I could send letters telling them about the wonderful novel I've written and what a great writer I am. It was with a sizeable jolt that I realized that this was the second time I had done something like this in my life where the emotional investment was a great deal higher than if these were simple job applications. Twenty-five years ago, I was sending out 8" x 10" headshots and resumes to agents who were going to make me a star. Hell, I was twenty years old; fresh out of theatre school, and thought I was God's gift to the acting world. Me, and who knows how many other millions of people around North America. Of course, I was a proper little snob and only wanted to do serious theatre, no commercials or television for me, thank you very much. So there I was, with a heap of padded Manila envelopes, a pile of glossies, a stack of resumes, a roll of stamps, and The List. I had laid it out carefully into columns: Agent's Name, Address, phone #, and room for follow up comments. Remember this was in the days before everybody had a personal computer, so I had done this all by hand. After a couple years of harsh reality, including the obligatory stints in restaurants, where nothing was panning out, I latched on to a small theatre company where I was able to carve out a niche for myself as production/general manager. My life became lists: lists of grants to apply for, lists of press releases sent out and to whom, lists of things that needed to be done or needed to be bought for a play to open on schedule, and most important of all, lists of creditors to phone to keep the wolves from the door. There were lists that ran backwards from opening night to six weeks earlier, lists that read like a Soviet Union Five Year Plan, and lists that made no sense what's so ever because they had been made at 3 in the morning. For five years, my life was writing lists and crossing things off lists. I even had lists of lists that I had given other people to work on. Of course, their lists were listed on my lists so that I could cross off the jobs they were assigned from my lists as they completed their lists. After five years, I had had enough. I decided to go back to freelance acting again. At least this way it was only one list that I had to keep track of. But my heart really wasn't in to it any more. After a couple of years of getting the odd job here and there, I was ready to go back to the life of a mega list maker. So, fifteen years ago I packed myself up, moved to Kingston Ontario, and opened a small theatre company with a business partner. It was, in some ways, one of the worst decisions I've made in my life. In the long run things have turned out as well as I could hope for I guess, but in terms of career choices, it was not very bright. The lists and I had lost any compatibility that we may have had at one time. More and more, I began to run away from reality in ways that are not recommended by anyone. After the dust settled, nearly six years latter, I made the decision to try and avoid lists and all they stood for. Just the thought of them could make me turn to a quivering pile of jelly. When my health started taking a turn for the worst, and people would suggest things like; you should make a list of where, what, when, and how. I'm sure I would get a look in my eye that was suggestive of deer in the headlights, because invariably the suggestion would never be repeated. It's now February of 2006, I'm about to turn forty-five, and I'm sitting here making a list. Once again I have a list of agents I've been compiling, who I'm counting on to, well hoping that maybe, they will at least read my book and like it enough to find me a publisher. What's interesting is I didn't even notice I was doing it. Even though I've spent the weekend at it I didn't once think, I'm compiling a list. Maybe that's because of the Internet. Every time I would go on line over the weekend I would go to a site that lists agents and check out a couple of them. If I went to their web site and thought they looked promising, I would simply add them to my favourites in a folder called agents. I never spent more than fifteen minutes at a time doing it, and any time I'd start thinking ahead to actually contacting them, I would stop myself by saying: "Wait until you've at least finished a second draft". It was only last night as I was turning the computer off that I realized I was making a list. The first good sign was that I didn't immediately break out into a cold sweat and delete the file from my favourites folder. I was okay with this list because there was no sense of urgency to it. It was research and preparing for the next step in the process. I'm not going to do what I did when I was younger and send out something to every person listed, it seems so pointless. I'm trying to get a feel for individuals and agencies based on the way they present themselves. The list I'm creating will serve a purpose other than simply telling me I have to do something or be a meaningless series of names. The people on it will be of my choosing, and will be those I think most willing and able to help me achieve my goal of becoming published. It's my personal top, whatever number it turns out to be, of those who will be the best for me. Just like someone's top ten lists of their favourite guitar players or vocalists, it will be highly personal and hinge on my own preferences. Instead of being something that will intimidate me it will help me define, what I want and like in an agent or agency. I have a lot more understanding of what it is that compels people to make those lists of their favourite things now then I did before. A list doesn't have to define your life; it can help you lend definition to a part of your life and give you clarity of thought. Some lessons take longer to learn then others, but I think I've finally understood the meaning of lists.


Culling The Herd

It is obvious that something has to be done. Things have been going from bad to worse, Loss of habitat and increasing over population has been putting a strain on the species' ability to maintain sustainable healthy levels. Behaviour patterns that could initially be overlooked have now become so predominant that the tranquility and harmony necessary for continued existence has been threatened. Overcrowding, inbreeding, and pockets of isolationist behaviour, have combined to cause all sorts of anti-social tendencies to manifest themselves. Incest, violence between mates, offspring being abused, abandoned and left to fend for themselves, show that breeding patterns have been adversely affected by these trends. But it doesn't stop there. Interrelationships outside of that dynamic have become untenable as well. Simple interactions between male of the species, and even females, have become fraught with tension. Foraging behaviours have become more aggressive as more are competing for less. Instead of the previously seen willingness towards compassion, the elderly, lame, and others unable to fend for themselves, are being left to the mercy of predators and the elements. Worse yet, is an increase of clashes that are not based on survival. There appears to be a continual struggle to assert dominance over each other at a personal and species level. Dominant males have become far more belligerent, utilizing their strength not just to secure better forage and favour among females, but to impose their will on lesser elements within the species. This in turn has given rise to resentment among those less developed, and has caused an increase in bellicose behaviour. Respect for standards of social norms, regarding the resolution of disagreements, have fallen by the wayside. Instead of direct confrontations between individuals to solve disputes, there has been a steady increase in attacks on secondary individuals. Another disturbing trend that has been noticed due to the alarming increase in population, is the continual degradation of the species' natural habitat. Not only have normal sources of food become depleted from the effects of over foraging, but also their supply of fresh water has rapidly diminished. The major culprit for this is that with increased numbers comes an increased amount of refuse. Not only does that foul surface water supplies, but it also contaminates the water table. As fresh water becomes scarcer, the chance of disease spreading increases, and the overall hopes of species survival diminishes. As they are forced to co-habit less and less territory, the incidence of disease increases dramatically. Aside from the fear of water borne, waste generated, bacterial illnesses that can debilitate thousands, (and increase the waste disposal situation substantially) a sizeable increase in viral type infections and ailments has been noted. Given the chance of continual incubation due to overcrowding, these viruses mutate too rapidly for immune systems to develop defences. Individuals may be able to resist an initial strain, but a second or even third generation mutation could easily overcome their defences. Obviously, the situation is fast approaching a critical stage for the species. Unless some type of drastic action is taken in the near future, there is the very real possibility that they could face extinction. While on the one hand this may be seen as a desirable result by some, that takes a rather shortsighted view of the situation. All species, even ones like this that seem to have no redeeming qualities in terms of what they give back to the planet, have a roll to play. They would not have developed and evolved otherwise. No matter how tempting it might be to let Humanity die out because of their own stupidity, we owe it to the world to attempt to keep them alive. It's obvious that the normal means of keeping their population in check, mortality and susceptibility to death from injury and illness, have not been sufficient. It has become necessary for us to intervene before it becomes too late. The obvious solution is to begin a cull. But this cannot be just a cull of the sick and the lame, because that won't solve any of the problems. No, we must have a systematic cull that eliminates individuals from all strata of what they call society. Only then will be there a chance of them finding a balance in the future. Leaving just the avaricious and powerful alive would only allow similar conditions, that caused the problem in the first place, to be reproduced. We will also have to reduce their numbers significantly enough to allow their habitat to recover, and disease to die out. Therefore it is this council's recommendation that seventy-five per cent of the existing human population be eliminated post haste. We see it as their best chance of survival.


CD Review: IR2 - Fire This Time (various artists)

Occasionally something happens, or you come across something, that snaps your head back and makes you just say "Wow". That happened a few months back for me when I came across the site put together by the The Fire This Time. Now anyone who has read anything I've written on a consistent basis will know that I'm pretty hard line when it comes to the issue of Native and Indigenous Peoples rights. For me benefit of doubt is always ceded to the Native people. But if I thought Canada was bad; compared to how Indigenous Peoples are treated the rest of the world over, we're damn saintly. We don't burn them alive in the streets for fun anymore, we've stopped appropriating their land, and have actually even started giving back some of what we stole. You can't give back the sense of pride in self and people that was stolen, but at least we can give back the means to hopefully develop a new pride in themselves. If the new government in Canada honours the commitments of the previous one, agreements reached in the last year with the provinces and First Nation leadership will go a long way to redressing that balance. But from Fiji to Brazil, and Chile to Indonesia, there has been little or nothing done to redress the imbalances of the last 500 years, or more, of oppression. Homelands are still being given away or stolen with government complicity. Peoples are living lives of such poverty and desperation, it has earned them the honour of their own designation: Fourth World. Aside from their living conditions, the biggest obstacle facing these people is the complete indifference of the world to their fate. Aside from the occasional celebrity using them as colourful backdrops for soon to be forgotten photo shoots and press conferences, and the occasional "Indian Uprising" like the Zapata in Mexico, they pretty much fall into the category of out of sight out of mind. The Fire This Time (TFTT) is seeking to change this. Using music, video, visual arts, and direct involvement with the affected communities and peoples they are working to give the silenced a voice. IR2 (Indigenous Revolution) is the music project they have developed as a step in that direction. final-IR2-COVER-ART It was a link from one of the participants in the IR2 project, the group Asian Dub Foundation, that led me to the TFTT site in the first place. Along with members of Asian Dub, some of the leaders of the Dub music scene from around the world have pooled their talents to create music and lyrics for this album. Individuals like Adrian Sherwood, Chuck D, and members of groups like Underground Resistance, 3 Generations Walking, Soma Mestizo, and a host of others have offered up their services to either provide production skills, lyrics or music. But where this differentiates from the usual "celebrity" benefit album is how individual songs are constructed. Take for example track #3, "Indigenous and Sacred" which features the words and music of elders, musicians, and singers from the Solomon Islands and Sosiakamu, plus Soy Sos of 3Generations Walking and Christiane D. of Soma Mestizo. The musicians are based on three separate continents, which made it hard for them to work in the same studio together. All the tracks had to be emailed back and forth between three locations around the world. The music and words from the Solomon Islands and Sosiakamu formed the core of the song. Soy Sos and Christiane D. had the job of incorporating their music into a mix that allowed the original music to feature. Dubbing techniques of repeating samples to emphasise certain phrases musically and lyrically are utilized to keep bringing our focus back on to what is important. The language barrier disintegrates as the voices of elders chanting for calm and tolerance are repeated. Sounds elicit an emotional response as readily, if not more so, as actual words, a fact borne out by the impact of this track. All of the songs on this disc are of a similar construction. Whether it's music underpinning a spoken word essay on the murder of Brazilian Indian Galdino, burnt alive by four wealthy teenagers for a joke, or the lyrics of indigenous Fijian women and music from Brazil on the track "Revoluta". These songs are all true collaborations involving countless emails, remixing and changes as each party strive to strike the right tone to best reflect who they are working with. The songs and lyrics on this disc are unabashedly revolutionary. They see injustice in the world and demand change for the oppressed. But unlike the hypocrisy of hearing these words come from the lips of a multi million dollar grossing recording star, they come from the people directly involved in the struggle to survive. Unlike the new age, "Native" discs of peace and tranquility you can find in your supermarket, these are songs of unrest and disquiet. Your not going to receive any spiritual guidance from this music, but if you are willing to listen, you will get an education and a sobering reminder that people are dying everyday just because they are indigenous. The music on this disc is superlative, there's more reason to listen to it than just the content. Some of the best Dub performers have contributed their talents and technological expertise to make this great musically. It's one of those rare occurrences where the music hasn't suffered to get the message out. Unfortunately, this disc is not available to be purchased. No label has yet to express willingness to release it. They have no problems selling music that advocates misogyny, violence, and drug use in the ghettos of North America, but seemingly balk at a little truth telling. But, you can download various versions of some of the songs in MP3 format. Even more uniquely, TFTT has made available for download the individual tracks that have gone into making up some of these songs. There are chants, acappela vocal tracks, and music tracks in MP3 format that can be downloaded for utilization in making your own music. This is part of how they are trying to give people a means of expression that has been too long denied them. For all those who complain about how the Internet is misused, to me this is an example of it living up to its potential as a means of sharing information and helping other people. The Fire This Time is a fascinating project, and collaborative effort between peoples of all continents trying to improve the conditions that far too many people are forced to live in. I hope to make this the first in a series of pieces about the site and the people behind it. Please, take the time to check it out carefully and listen to the songs they have for download. The music is great and the message even better.


NaNoWriMo Notes 11: The Doubting Game

Well its done. Yesterday afternoon I finished the first draft of Volume one. Yes, that's right volume one. I had come to the realization about three weeks ago that I wasn't going to be able to fit the whole story into one volume. So, I had to start readjusting my thinking. I hadn't even reached what I was considering the halfway point of the story and it was already over the number of words that was a suggested length for a first novel. I've been writing single spaced pages the whole time, and saving each chapter as a separate file, so didn't have any concept of the sucker's actual size. I saved it all into a plain text file to make one long document and converted it to the standard manuscript format requested by publishers and agents alike: double spaced, inch around margins, and twelve point type. Sat back to let my poor little laptop make the changes, and presto: I had 325 pages of something or other. But in the last two weeks, I ran into a bizarre block. I couldn't bring myself to finish. The closer I got to the end of volume one the more I wanted to put it off. On top of that, I couldn't figure out the best way or place to end it. Eventually I realized what the problem was, I didn't want to finish. I had two pretty good reasons for not wanting to finish. The first was that I'd have to start re-reading the sucker and making corrections and edits to the best of my limited abilities. The second, and I know it sounds a lot like the first but it is different, was that I'd have to actually read what I'd written. Reading for editing is one thing, it's dispassionate and purposeful. Your looking for typos, mistakes in grammar, and listening to the words to see if they're saying what you wanted them to say. I find the best way to do that is not read for content; in fact, when I'm proofing something I usually start at the end and work back to the beginning just to avoid that trap in the initial scan. That way typos and stand out. Even on the second read, I'm still just checking it sentence-by-sentence, and paragraph-by-paragraph. Does each sentence sound right, and does each paragraph express the idea I was trying to put across. On the third read through, I check to make sure that there is a proper flow to what I've written, a beginning, middle, and an end. Does my opening paragraphs introduce the subject matter, does the body of my piece cover the right territory, and does it all lead to a conclusion? For a short article like a blog piece, if it does all that, I'm reasonably content. All I want from this type of piece is for people to have an opinion about what I'm saying. Whether they agree with it or disagree with it doesn't matter so much, as long as it's interesting enough for them to have an opinion. But a novel or a story is a different kettle of moose meat. I want people to be captivated; not able to put the book down at night because they need to see how things turn out. In order for that to work a book has to have the tonal quality, the right pitch. When I was writing I had an idea in my head of how I wanted my book to sound. People talk about seeing is believing, for me, with a story, hearing is believing. It's hard to describe, but when I'm writing fiction, I've an objective in mind above and beyond the writing of the story and transmitting the information about plot and character. I'm searching to capture a certain quality that shows my love of language and respect for the power of words. As much as I enjoy a good story, I enjoy the employment of words as building blocks for creating art. Does that sound pretentious? I hope not because I don't mean it to be. It's just that I want to take advantage of the gifts the English language offers a writer that enables him or her to go beyond the prosaic. The trouble is, that more often than not, it feels like my ambition exceeds my reach. I feel like I don't have the skill set yet to balance the two needs I see inherent in a novel; the story and the manner in which it is told. Sometimes, I'm sure I get carried away with trying to be too fancy with words and end up digressing miles off course. Faced with the prospect of the first read through of the story once I finished my first draft, I became more and more nervous? What happens if it's just a whole pile of self-indulgent crap and I've ignored the story? How about the opposite, if its just another boring adventure novel? Part of me is very proud of myself for having completed this task, but another part of me is terrified that its all been a waste of time and that I'll have to start over again from scratch. People can talk all they want about the experience being good for me, but that just doesn't feel like it will cut it. I'm not even talking about it getting it published, although that would be lovely. I just want to have written something that I'd enjoy reading. Sure we are our own harshest critics, and we will always be able to find things that could have been done better, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be able to enjoy reading our own work if its any good. I mean, if I don't like reading how can I expect anyone else to. "Here, I wrote this novel which I think is a piece of crap, you want to read it." I can see that going over really well in terms of publicity and even just getting a friend to read it. Anyway, all these types of insecurities have been floating around in the back of my head for the last two weeks as I've tried to finish the book off. Finally, I just said the hell with it. There's nothing I can do about it now, so I may as well finish and see what I have. Lower my expectations somewhat and be prepared for masses of rewrites now and forever until it is published. (Or not) When I first started out on this project back in November, I figured my biggest obstacle to overcome regarding finishing the book, was my willingness to actually exert the effort required. This feeling was intensified when I went a good three weeks without so much as writing a single word of the story. But that was more due to exhaustion born out of writing close to 70,000 words in the space of a month. I simply needed a break. Once I was able to recover and start heading towards finishing volume one, I found I was able to pick up where I left off. But when it became evident that I was going to be able to finish, that's when I began to question its quality. As is so often the case in these incidences, I discovered new ways of becoming my own worst enemy. Yet, in spite of that, I've been able to finish, and I do feel a certain sense of accomplishment. Last night I took a quick glance through the opening of chapter one, and discovered, to my delight it wasn't half bad. I'm hoping that's a sign of things to come.


CD Review: I'm A Moutain - Sarah Harmer

The problem with expectations is that they inevitably lead to disappointment. While that's probably true with most of life, I find it especially true when dealing with either a book by a favoured author or a new CD by a familiar performer. Over the years, you have set the bar, fairly or unfairly, higher and higher for that artist. Expecting them to always surpass their previous efforts to entertain and enthral you. When they produce a novel or CD that is, in your estimation, something that anybody could have done, you are disappointed. It might be a perfectly good work, but because you expect more from them than you would from just any old artist, you are disappointed. If that doesn't sound like a particularly objective way of reviewing or critiquing a work, it's the truth of the matter. No matter how much anyone might pretend to be objective as a critic, it's impossible not to have expectations about work. What else are we to compare an artist's output to if not their previous efforts? How else would you be able to tell if they've made progress, changed their style, or attempted some radical shift? True, you can always compare them to others in their field who are working in a similar style, but that becomes more of a case of competitive comparison than actual critiquing. Saying someone is better than someone else doesn't give much indication of whether an individual is utilizing their talents to the fullest. That has got to be the longest introduction to a review I've ever written but in the case of the latest CD from Sarah Harmer, I'm A Mountain, I thought some explanation was required. I've been in the fortunate position of living in Kingston Ontario almost since Sarah first started performing in local bars. Any of the times that I have seen her play she has blown me away. (The version of John Lennon's "Working Class Hero" she did with an early incarnation of Weeping Tile is still the best I've ever heard or seen) Some years back she put out an album called For Clem. It was a collection of older standards and traditional country tunes she and a couple of friends recorded on the back porch of her house. If you listen carefully, on some tracks you can here crickets singing along with them. Perhaps because she recorded these songs as a heartfelt message of thanks to her father, or maybe it was just a matter of catching lighting in a bottle, but there was something about that album that allowed it to break down the normal barrier that's between performer and audience. You could picture yourself pulling up a chair on that porch and being welcome to sit and tap your foot along to the music. They had woven a spell of intimacy that was as wonderful as it is rare to find in today's popular music. Her albums have always had a level of intimacy that I have found lacking with other performers. There is always the feeling that she is singing specifically for you. Perhaps it's the simplicity of production or the honesty of her lyrics that creates that feeling, I'm not sure, until now I've never stopped to analyse it carefully. The problem I have with I'm A Mountain is that it sounds like any one of the oh so serious, woman singer songwriters out there now could have written it: Sarah, Jewel, Tori, and whoever. They come from a long tradition of soulless, sentimental pabulum producers like Janis Ian, Pheobe Snow, and Carly Simon. There's always been a fine line in acoustic, singer songwriter style music, separating genuine emotion and self-indulgent naval gazing. In the past few years, a new breed of woman songwriter has appeared who talks about serious issues. Perhaps because I'm not a twenty-year-old middle class white woman the songs have no meaning to me, but all their music sounds alike musically and intellectually. Sarah Harmer's music has never fallen into that category by any stretch of the imagination. It's too real and too diverse in its take on life. Even her weakest efforts to date have shown far too much willingness to experiment with style and form for her to be classed in that category. The problem for me with I'm A Mountain is that it skirts around the edges of that territory. While songs like "Luther's Got The Blues" and "I Am Aglow" have a freshness to them both musically and lyrically that held my attention, none of the other songs were really that captivating. Technically her voice is as wonderful as ever and the songs are all well crafted, but they are lacking something in the heart-felt category that bridges the gap between performer and listener. I felt no reason to be interested in what she was singing about. Sarah Harmer is still one of my favourite singer – songwriters out there, and I will continue to look forward to her new albums. Hopefully I 'm A Mountain will just be an aberration in the otherwise wonderful catalogue of music she has produced. From another performer this might have been an acceptable album, but she is better than this, so I was disappointed.