Friday, October 28, 2005

a stroll through baylor architecture - and what it tells us

Today I took a stroll through Baylor. I come up here twice a year, but it's been a while since I've stayed at a place that allows me to walk to campus.

What interested me was that, as I've noticed before, a west-to-east trip through the campus can give the careful observer a history of Baylor, a history of academia, and a history of attitudes toward education, without a word being spoken. It's all written in the very architecture.

Start along the western edge, where some old dorms are: Memorial and Alexander. Across the mall, you can see Burleson Hall. To your right, Waco Hall and Tidwell, to your left, the commanding Pat Neff hall. All these buildings were built during an era, the late nineteenth century through, say, the nineteen-forties, in which education was viewed as a lofty thing, a drink from the fount of knowledge. The buildings have spires and columns, and references to classical times. Pat Neff bears the inscription along its entablature, "Wisdom is better than rubies." And you get the idea that the wisdom gained from higher education was worth any ruby anyone from that era could scrounge up. The towers soar, and bring the eye with them, to the heavens. Universities at the time were considered secular temples, and looked like them.

Crossing through Burleson and Old Main, you're standing in the oldest spot, architecturally, in Baylor. Old Main was built in 1887, and its ivied windows and gorgeous gold domes made it one of the finest buildings, bar none, west of the Mississippi. Burleson Hall was once a dormitory. Its cornerstone, uncovered during a 1973 restoration — right during the flowering of third-wave feminism — says that the building is "dedicated to feminine piety." Yep, it was one of the first female dorms in academia.

Emerging into the Quadrangle, you see Carroll Science and Carroll Library to your left and right. For some reason, Carroll Science is where the English department lives, and Carroll Library is where, for years, you took math. They're twin buildings, done in typical turn-of-the-century style: blond rough-hewn stone, with magnificent stairways. They spiffed up Carroll Science in the nineties, replacing the antique windows with larger, black-tinted ones. This creates the vibe of an old geezer in slick shades, slightly disturbing in precisely the same way Jack Nicholson is.

Far to your right, beyond Carroll Science, is Tidwell Bible Building, which looks like it was designed by someone trying to replicate an Old Testament ziggurat. Its entire crown, circling the third-floor home of the Philosophy Department, is a frieze in white stone — an ivory tower indeed.


To your left, beyond Carroll Library, is the SUB, the Student Union Building. The official name was changed in the eighties to the Bill Daniel Student Center, but no one ever called it that. Students have their own names for things. The SUB has seven drawing rooms of various sizes, all done in hardwood, gilded plaster, old paintings of donors, Persian rugs, and mahogany furniture with damask upholstery. I always took that building as a compliment. It's so much better than the hard architecture you find at other colleges' student centers: the bolt-everything-down-so-it-doesn't-get-stolen aesthetic that's so depressing. There are bookshelves full of old books, big stuffy chairs to sit in, and, every Tuesday to this day, a social hour with free milkshakes so that the young men and women of the university may fraternize. This was the vision of academe that our great-grandparents had: a place that ennobles the spirit, that encourages the exchange of ideas as well as the exchange of the social pleasantries that are so necessary for an enlightened society to function, led by people who had acquainted themselves with the best that has been thought and said.

With that Baylor behind you, you see across the street its last vestige: Rena Marrs McLean Gymnasium. It's not a gym; it's not an athletic center; it's a gymnasium, with pillars and columns, and, inaccurately, robed classical statues in niches along the pediment. When that's your gymnasium, you might come to see physical fitness and athletic contest as being part of a larger picture, as part of a balanced life of mind and body.

Pass that, and you enter a new era. Ahead of you is the middle twentieth century, with its retooling of the university as a place where young citizens can become equipped as Cold Warriors of the highest degree. You walk along the strip of grass called Fountain Mall (named for a fountain built by people who confused modern innovation with refusal to acknowledge that a fountain should involve water at some point; Baylor recently improved the campus by tearing it down and replacing it with a shady walkway). Ahead is the semi-Miesian Moody Library, pleasantly proportioned and windowed but unremarkable compared to what you've seen. To your left you see a monstrous red block, and to your right you see a monstrous red block. These are Sid Rich and Marrs McLean science buildings, both huge, ugly, and devoid of any architectural effort beyond their capacity for tons and tons of new students.

The fifties and sixties and seventies, of course, saw this phenomenon replicated all over the country. Universities expanded to fit a swell of students who came to college mainly to improve their financial lot. The buildings that sprang up during this expansion gave modernism a bad name: cheap, huge, industrial. But they perfectly expressed the new attitude toward education. College was now a stepping-stone toward middle-class life. People began speaking of college strictly in terms of the kind of job you could get with a degree. The G.I. Bill, passed in 1944, was all about the American Dream of prosperity. In all the discussions about it, you'll rarely find any high-flown talk about drinking from the fount of knowledge. All those G.I.s were guaranteed a college education, and they needed a place to go. Sid Rich and Marrs McLean gave them one, and gave them nothing else.

Further to the right you see Constitution Hall and Hankamer, the old law school and business school buildings. Again, they're square, big, and prosaic. Prosaic! That's the word: these five buildings, and the several smaller ones that surround them, contain, in fact, not one ounce of architectural poetry. Where is a single form of beauty to be gazed on, to reward the sustained attention? Where is the sense of event, of aspiration, of nobility? It's behind you, that's where it is.

A long hike, and that dismal era, too, is behind you. For the most part, what's ahead is far more beautiful, if in a less beautiful way. It's a grasping at the former mellow grandeur of academe — and a grasping only. The Music School, built in the early nineties, was the first of this new era. It has a late-eighties look to it, a bit fussy and square-shouldered, but certainly a relief from the prison-yard it faces. Higher education once again has taken on a bit of dash, but this time there's a different feel to it. What is it? A look at the "Slick" might be instructive. That's the SLC, the Student Life Center. But the students call it the Slick, and slick it is. It's a luxury athletic club with a two-story climbing rock, state-of-the-art racquetball courts, workout rooms, and, of course, computers (every public place at Baylor has dozens of computers). When this building went up, students joked that in a few years Baylor Athletics would surge to the top of the Big Twelve in the areas of Twisty Slide and Lazy River.

Behind that joke is the truth. The children of those mid-century upward strivers are now potential customers. And tough customers they are. Universities know that they need to woo students with attractive new buildings, attractive new amenities, attractive new attractiveness. What matter if it all bears an oddly familiar scent of inauthenticity? Those customers are used to it. The university has journeyed from secular temple to middle-class stepping-stone to, finally, shopping mall. Think I'm overstating it? We can discuss it at the food court. There's a Taco Bell on campus, and a "Chili's Too," one of the first of its kind. Even the cafeterias have come to resemble mall food courts, complete with fake village-square nomenclature.

Of course, there is much beauty in the midst of all this. The new law school and the new sciences building are both stunning examples of modern university architecture. They pay homage to Baylor's architectural past while speaking flawlessly to the moment. The law school is stolid, massive, inspiring. It brilliantly co-opts and updates the traditional forms — the dome, the columns, the inscripted entablature, the classical proportions. The sciences building should be on magazine covers, with its snazzy classical facade folded into a generous feminine swoop of glass and steel, presiding over an intimate plaza, a fountain that's all about water, a harmonious meandering stone-bedded stream. It's operatically dramatic and energizing and inviting. It lightning-bolts you with its glamorizing of the power of ideas. If I were Robert Sloan (the recently deposed President), I'd defend my entire presidency by simply saying, "Science Building, Science Building, Science Building, Science Building, Science Building, ...."

But these triumphs aren't the only symbols of the recent past. It's true that the east end of campus now has spires for the first time. That does make Baylor's skyline lovely. But it's important to note that the spires most visible as one approaches the university belong to... but is it really true? Yes. The parking garage. There's a new parking garage on Baylor's easternmost edge — the students, wise and witty as ever, call it the "Garage Mahal" — and it is crowned by several spires that imitate the ones on Old Main. Except, as everyone must notice, these spires aren't attached to temples of higher learning. Spires, whether on churches or castles or mosques or schools, point not only to the heavens but also to the noble or important activity going on below. These spires, though, adorn a parking garage. They perform the same duty as the spires on a shopping mall or theme park. One half-expects to see colorful, rigid flags, frozen in permanent unfurling, sitting on top.

Crass commercialism, shopping-mall pandering, plastered with the facades and spires of academe — isn't this exactly what Robert Sloan's critics accused him of? Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks, and the hand builds. A school can't help but express the views of the society that builds it.

What will Baylor look like next? Though you may never attend class there, send a child there, or even set foot there, the answer is nonetheless up to you.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

the pleasures of dry ice

I'm up at Baylor now, doing my yearly deal for them. Every evening after the show, we exit the stage door to find a huge pile of unused dry ice. Yes, folks, these otherwise healthy people just throw dry ice out the back door by the pound, to let it waste away unappreciated.

Tonight we remedied that. Joe and I gathered a sackful, maybe ten pounds, leaving perhaps fifty more behind, and spent the evening doing fun stuff with it. We took one lump to Taco Cabana with us, and within a few moments had completely mesmerized the under-tens. We also, more importantly, had mesmerized ourselves. As someone pointed out, there are certain questions to which the answer is always "Yes." One is, "Would you like to build a trebuchet?" Another is, "Hey, wanna play with dry ice?"

We discovered that as the ice cools the water to insane temperatures, its Macbethian effect is lessened and lessened. So we kept getting water from the coffee thing to freshen it. When we got home (after a spell involving artichoke pizza, Montague Churchills, Hefe Weisen, and a five-hour World Series game), Joe and I boiled several kettles of water and poured it over the lumps, several at a time. It never got old, seeing that stuff swirling and bubbling and creeping along the floor like the material in a Pensieve, a gas impersonating a liquid, occasionally shooting out tiny tight smoke-rings from a creamy fog.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

requests

There's nothing really wrong with the concept of requests. People want to hear a song, they ask for it, the musician plays it. Should be just fine. So why is it that they so often are a burden? We were just at a club playing New Orleans Sicilian Swing with a Django-ish guitarist and a bass and piano, and three people asked if we could do some country.

Then there's always "New York, New York." And I do mean always. That song is not quite on the level of "The Rose" and "Feelings," when it comes to musicians' attitudes about it, but it's somewhere in there.

One common thing is that people will request a song that you've just played. I think that's because they hear it subconsciously while they're talking, and then it's in their minds and they think of it and want to hear it. Perfectly understandable.

But last night I had a first. I was doing a duo gig with Loretta Cormier, and she was singing "The Lady is a Tramp." A woman came up right during the opening chorus, and said, "Oh! A woman at our table just loves this song. Could you play it sometime later this evening?"

"This song we're playing now?"

"Yes, 'The Lady is a Tramp.'

"That's what we're playing now. We just started it."

"Yes! It's so wonderful. She heard it and said it was one of her favorites. Could you play it in a little while?"

Honestly. That's one for the books.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

package for mr brake

Under the subject line "Here's an eye-dih," Paul writes, "Maybe Barry can post this pic on his website and comment on it."

No comment.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

resemblances

The three Brake boys have all sorts of similarities: high brows, twitches, broad interests, religious devotion, strong political views, musical talent, high intelligence, a curious fondness for heavy metal, an appreciation of good cigars, a liking for getting up in front of people.

Most folks notice the similarities between Paul and me, I think because we physically match more than either of us with Rich. But the two of them share important traits. They're the most politically conservative members of our family, by a long shot. They both say "eye-dih" instead of "idea." They both wear shoes that show they went to college in the early 80s. They're the youngest Boomers, where I'm the oldest Gen-Xer, and it shows in a thousand ways.

When you get us all together, you can see the dramatic family resemblance among all of us. But every once in a while I look so much like Rich it's scary. I was finally looking through some pictures from Panama, and came on this one.



Interesting, no? I'd post a picture of Rich for those of you who don't know him, but it's no use. You have to know him. There isn't a picture that would show it. Family resemblance. It's as delightful as the variations on a theme in a Bach piece, and for the same reason.

Friday, October 14, 2005

gibbs gig

Gerry Gibbs called me the other day. He's a fantastic drummer and a kinetic personality in the jazz scene around here. He was putting together a Katrina relief fundraiser in the form of a jazz festival, and wanted me to be part of it.

So. If you're free at all on Sunday, come on down to Carmen's de la Calle, on Mistletoe; it's just a block away from 281, right off St Mary's, kind of across from Krazy Kat music and in back of the Candlelight Coffeehouse. There'll be jazz there all day from noon to midnight. I'll be on at five. See you then!

Thursday, October 13, 2005

syzygy

Today, Catherine was doing maintenance on my underchin. She had happened on something spikily painful, and I wondered whether it was a pimple or an ingrown hair. So I said, "What is it, is it a zit?"

And then I thought, What a remarkable question. Let's render that phonetically:

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

halliburton's royal road

Just started reading The Royal Road to Romance, by Richard Halliburton, one of my favorite writer/adventurers. It has to be the funnest book of the twentieth century. So dated in places, and yet it still shouts from the page its message that life must be lived.

Monday, October 10, 2005

blake's hitch

The other day, I read an amazing article by Richard Preston, the guy who wrote The Mountains of Pi. This one's called Climbing the Redwoods. Every new paragraph contains an astonishment. Simply a must read. Read it! You must!

One thing that caught my eye was the Blake's Hitch. It's a new knot that was developed by a tree surgeon in 1990. I like the idea that the art of knotting is still alive and growing. When I was a kid I had to learn the various knots that would be useful for my future as an outdoorsman (however remote that future may be — the endless roads of youth's yellow wood!). I learned the Clove Hitch, the Square Knot, on and on. Very useful stuff. But I guess I always figured these things were worked out by outdoorsmen, sailors, pirates, soldiers, and other manly men centuries ago, and it had never occurred to me that there were serious new knots being added to the body of knowledge.

I give you, then, the Blake's Hitch!

Thursday, October 6, 2005

high

Christmas day in October: I saw a brown paper package in the mail today, and knew: The Blue Nile's latest, High, has arrived. I've already given it a listening, and it doesn't disappoint. The same sound surrounds us from the first note: a wash of synth, irritatingly dated drum sounds, a lone trumpet, the sad voice. And, once again, proof that no one can get more meaning out of the word "yeah" than PB.

I'm on holiday.

Tuesday, October 4, 2005

grapefruit mentos

On our way back from Houston, we stopped at a gas station for a soda, a coffee, some cornnuts, and — grapefruit Mentos! Ah, beautiful beautiful grapefruit Mentos. Be nice to me and I'll give you one.

Monday, October 3, 2005

new blue

I am astounded, amazed, thrilled, giddy, celebratory, gulping for air with anticipation. I am also dismayed, stunned, slightly angry, and still reeling with shock and alarm.

The Blue Nile has released a new album.

This, to a small but devoted group of people, comes like the news of a once-a-decade celestial event, because the release of a Blue Nile album happens, indeed, once a decade, and is, indeed, celestial.

Dismaying: the album has been out for a year now.

How could this have happened? How could you not have told me? How, how.... how.... how could this have happened? I've spent the last year starved of the new Blue Nile release.

I was (and am) signed up on a Blue Nile fan newsgroup — "theparade" — but a couple of years ago I began to winnow out some of the extra mail I'd been getting, so I changed my options to web-only and then promptly forgot all about it: cancer happened, then Protagonist stuff, then engagement, then marriage, then catherine's health, ... and here we are, a year after High and I've not only never heard a note of it but I never even knew it existed. Naturally, theparade exploded in July and August of last year, but I never gave it a thought.

I've remedied that dire situation: ordered it last night, vastly discounted (some consolation!), and ordered along with it a single that contains their first released song from 1982-ish, I Love This Life, of which there were only a thousand copies made and of which I'd only heard a cruddy, scratchy, overcompressed mp3.

The whole thing started this weekend. Catherine and I drove to Houston and back for a gig and a party, and took along the iPod. I'd finally gotten around to putting some stuff on it, and in the process had found an old mp3 CD full of Blue Nile singles, rarities, covers, collaborations, concerts, bootlegs, and other assorted fanstuff. So, for the first time in a long time, I got to listen to some of my favorite pop music.

There's music that makes you feel, and then there's music that feels you. The Blue Nile has concocted a potent recipe for the latter: deceptively simple pop music formulas and textures, disarming lyrics, and Paul Buchanan's voice. He's the anti-Karen Carpenter: her rosy, sunny, warm voice gave depth to the Carpenters' often depressing lyrics; his battered, prematurely grey, cloudy-sky voice gives depth to the Nile's otherwise sugary lyrics.

And what lyrics they are: some of the most romantic musical lines I can think of belong to the Blue Nile.

"I love an oooordinary girl."

"Stay! I will understand you!"

"Come with me / Only looooove is alive!"

"When you comb your hair / I'll be standing there."

Buchanan observes, rhapsodizes, and lists like a Scottish Whitman. Cigarettes, neon lights, a radio playing in the alleyway (it's a love song), morning light, the jangle of St Stephen's bells, families falling apart, crowded streets, an empty bar: he loves whatever he looks on, and his looks go everywhere. He loves this life.

The trip to and from Houston was underscored with some music for which I'd been very thirsty, and some other things I'd never been too familiar with, such as their collaborations with Chris Botti, Edi Brickell, Annie Lennox, Ricky Lee Jones, and a million others, mostly original tunes by Buchanan, all bearing the distinctive Blue Nile touch.

So, after another party Sunday night, I started going back through my songs and correctly labelling the files and adding in all the missing information. I needed some info on a song that Eddi Reader had done with them. I looked up Blue Nile on Amazon. That's when my heart stopped. I saw the familiar field of blue (Hats), the familiar field of white with the horse (Peace At Last), the familiar spare square (A Walk Across the Rooftops), but topping them off was something unfamiliar: a rush of color and the word High. Could it be?

How could this have happened? But ah. I'm waiting. I'm laughing. Isn't it good to feel this way?