Tuesday, March 28, 2006

waxing

I haven't shaved in over two weeks, though you'd never know it. At the end of the first week, I had a thick growth of beard, with a generous percentage of grey, and I was ready for an experiment.

Catherine had had me promise to allow her to wax my face. You read that right: she waxed my face. That is, she spread hot wax on it, and then ripped it off, pulling out all the hair by the roots.

Yes, it hurt. It hurt more than anything I've ever experienced in my life. And this is coming from someone who's experienced a urethral camera, a radical orchiectomy, chemotherapy, and South Asian mass transit. Yes, it bled. Most of the blood came from stress: I'd be gritting my teeth and grabbing the floor, getting ready for the next rip, and Catherine would exclaim that my face was blooming with blood, the pressure having burst forth from my newly traumatized pores.

But it's all over now, and my face is smooth as can be for a good long while now. Being the guy I am, I've also provided you with some pictures to look at:





Keep in mind that the wax lies on the surface of the skin, so all the hair that was growing out of the skin is covered in wax. What you see sticking up here is all root — that was all beneath the skin! Amelia suggested that I use one of them as a toothbrush. No thanks.

Friday, March 24, 2006

charades

I had an unusual experience the other night. We were at 360, which is the Wednesday night youth thing. As you know, all youth events must have a number in them: ours is merely that number. It used to be 360 High, but now it's just 360. When I was a kid, church youth groups were suffused with acronyms. Kids went to B.A.S.I.C.S, were members of the STORMteam, and, in a nod to some first-century Greek youth director, the Wednesday thing was called ICHTHUS. But that's the past. Acronyms are yesterday. It's all numbers now.

So I was at 360. These days, I'm the speaker most evenings, as well as helping out with the worship band. I also teach every Sunday at Sunday school, which, amazingly, is actually called "Sunday school." (I think that's because everyone always called it that anyway, whether it was named "LOGIA" [by the ICHTHUS guy] or "Discovery Bible Study," or, recently, "Youth Bible Fellowship," the product, very obviously, of a committee.) What with this and that, these students are hearing an awful lot of me: about forty minutes a week, which is the length of a television show minus commercials.

Wednesdays, after a few songs, we stop and play a game or two, usually a quiz or contest of some kind. Tonight it was charades. One of the guys looked at the little slip of paper, smiled, and then started pacing around and gesticulating. Immediately, several people shouted, "Barry!" Yep, I was the charade.

What fascinated me was that I didn't see what the guy did to imitate me. It just looked like he was miming talking. But there was obviously something about his mannerisms that had people in gales of laughter. It was a good imitation, apparently, except that I couldn't see what it was he was imitating. They begged him to do more — he's the guy in every group who's really great at that sort of thing, a natural performer — and so he stood and drank from his imaginary coffee cup (which I do), and, free of the charade rules, spoke in a dramatic voice (as I do). But even then I still couldn't see what the details of his performance were.

It was a strange experience. After all, what is the set of mimickable traits that represents you to the world? I saw them right in front of me, and couldn't tell. I'll have to explore this more. Mimesis is a topic that's close to me, as an artist. How do you make music that's "tender," or "thunderous," or "suffused with longing," or that somehow expresses Tom Hanks's character? It's all very abstract, and yet people uniformly respond to these things. I'm always on the dishing-out end of that, though.

As I found out Wednesday, sometimes it is blessed to receive.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

all good hats

Here's a conversation between Dorian Gray, the Duchess of Monmouth, and Lord Henry:

    "Our host is rather horrid this evening," answered the duchess, colouring. "I believe he thinks that Monmouth married me on purely scientific principles as the best specimen he could find of a modern butterfly."
    "Well, I hope he won't stick pins into you, Duchess," laughed Dorian.
    "Oh! my maid does that already, Mr. Gray, when she is annoyed with me."
    "And what does she get annoyed with you about, Duchess?"
    "For the most trivial things, Mr. Gray, I assure you. Usually because I come in at ten minutes to nine and tell her that I must be dressed by half-past eight."
    "How unreasonable of her! You should give her warning."
    "I daren't, Mr. Gray. Why, she invents hats for me. You remember the one I wore at Lady Hilstone's garden-party? You don't, but it is nice of you to pretend that you do. Well, she made it out of nothing. All good hats are made out of nothing."
    "Like all good reputations, Gladys," interrupted Lord Henry.
Lord Henry's reply is given in the rhythms of wit, and as such it caps off this delightfully witty conversation, but it doesn't pertain to the conversation, or the plot, at all. In fact, it distracts from the amazingly perceptive comment the duchess makes.

All good hats are made out of nothing. That's a phrase that has stuck with me since I first read the book as a thirteen-year-old. The duchess was right, and about more than hats. Any artwork worth its salt is spun out of nothing, or at least next to nothing.

The opera comedienne Anna Russell gets a good laugh out of this when she does her analysis of Wagner's Ring Cycle. "The entire prelude is E-flat major. Not the key of E-flat major: it is E-flat major. If you know the E-flat major chord, you know the prelude of The Ring."

Reductive — that prelude is ten minutes of burbling mastery — reductive but funny, and true at its heart. In fact it's not quite true enough, because the opening themes derive not just from the chord of E-flat major, but from the basic overtone series of a single note. In this, the Genesis of the cycle, Wagner is creating the entire world from scratch.

The fact is that not all good songs are made out of nothing, but the duchess is on to something, especially in American pop music. The best songs aren't the sidelong opuses of Rush or Phish, nor are they the tightly spectacular complexities of Dave Matthews or Radiohead. Just give me three chords and the truth, Dylan said.

I've always had a fondness for lean elegant pop songs made out of nothing. There's "Missing," by Everything But The Girl, a melancholy apostrophe driven by a single syncopated classical guitar figure, and fleshed out by a couple of heartbreaking quatrains. The chorus is a single phrase: And I miss you like the deserts miss the rain. It's one of the finest pop songs of the nineties.

Right around that same time, the Cardigans came out with their infectious "Lovefool." It's not as made-out-of-nothing as one wishes, and there are some inelegant missteps. But all is forgiven when you hear the girl sing, "Sayyyyy that you love me," in a voice that's delicate, feminine, desperate, mysterious, and addictive.

Then there's the finest dance song of the turn of the century, Phats and Small's "Turn Around," whose entire lyric is Hey! What's wrong with you? You're lookin' kinda down to me. Cause things ain't gettin' over. Got to turn around. Those simple words go pow when uttered by a voice that sounds like a young Elton John, over a one-bar two-chord ostinato that doesn't vary the entire song. It could have been stultifying, but instead it makes you want to get out onto the dance floor and then go change the world with your smile.

Serious competition for turn-of-the-century dance song comes from Cher, the only person to have a number one song in each of five decades. "Believe" was spoken of only scornfully during the months it was plastered wall-to-wall over our culture, but it's a streamlined masterpiece, and the only instance of the Auto-Tune vocal effect being used artfully. (The simple rhythmic riff, by the way, is the exact same one that's used in "Missing;" both are borrowed from the Brazilian sambas and bossas of the fifties and sixties.) The thumping kick drum stops for four beats as she says "Maybe I'm too good for you," then we sail into the chorus. Go ahead; sing along.

And we'll give honorable mention to her "Song for the Lonely," the only lighter-raiser in history with a beat. Her rich voice echoes from the mountaintop with those piercing, Messianic words, and no armor can withstand it. Henri Nouwen's wounded-healer theology never sounded better. (And it turns out he would have been a big Cher fan.)

The other day I was playing a pick-up gig at a downtown jazz club, with several musicians I rarely play with, and one I've never met. Late in the gig, when everyone was feeling groovy, the drummer did a little idle thing between songs, the way drummers do to fill time. It was a cool groove in 7/4, the kind of thing that gets the average audience member doing that slink-around-in-your-chair dance. I frantically gestured to him to keep doing it, and then I laid down a C-minor and then a G-minor. The band snuck in and created an instant mood piece. I mouthed the words "celebrate my love" to the singer, to go along with the five-note theme I was messing around with. She took it and turned it over and over into a breathless covenant. Ten minutes later, the audience gave us a warm round of true appreciation for a song that had never been heard before, and will never be heard again.

The band gave me an odd look when I sent a shout-out to the Duchess of Monmouth.

Monday, March 20, 2006

go big or go home

At the show I do for Baylor University every year, there's always some down time. The musical producer, Greg Bashara, just sent this picture of me from a year ago, using the best reading light I've ever had.


Thursday, March 16, 2006

packaging

What is it about Apple that makes everything they do look so magically good?

Well, one mental experiment that always works is to ask yourself what a lesser person would have done with the same thing. Watch an episode of Friends and ask what Joey would do with the same situation. You can also do it the other way around: if you have a hard time getting a handle on, say, what exactly is wrong with San Antonio's Tower of the Americas, ask would look like if Eero Saarinen had designed it.

In that spirit, I give you the iPod — packaged by Microsoft.

Wednesday, March 8, 2006

northern epic prose

I'm reading Sigrid Undset's sprawling novel Kristin Lavransdatter. Tales of the North always draw me in, especially if they're long. I recently remarked to a friend about the book, "Ya gotta love a story that has a major character named Ragnfrid." A beautiful woman, at that.

What's weird about it is the translation. It was originally in Norse, translated into English only a few years after it was written in the 1920s. So theoretically it should be a crisp modern translation. Instead, the translators have put the story into what sounds like it should be archaic English but isn't. It's an "archaic" English that never existed.

I've noticed as I progress, though, that, because of that archaism that doesn't connect historically to English literature, mixed with the effect of using old English words that we've lost but are still in our consciousness (beck, sward, wadmal), if I squint my mind a little I can imagine that I'm reading Norse. Maybe that's what the translators were after.

Whether it lays what these men were about, methought it sweet to again sit myself as it were in the lap of one so goodly in story-craft.

Tuesday, March 7, 2006

eighties night

Recently, the Jazz Protagonists had a special Protagonists Jazz Party (that's the name of our radio show). For no particular reason at all, we decided it was Eighties Night. So we played music by Michael Jackson, Wham, The Police, Sade, and what turned out to be a lovely spin on "Somewhere Out There," from the animated movie An American Tail. We also taped "Memories," from the musical Cats (which we reinterpreted as a slow samba-bossa in 5/4 time) but didn't have time for it to air.

All the songs were reimagined in some way, as befits a jazz group. The way we described it to jazz listeners was that it wasn't like Eighties Miles; it was like Fifties Miles doing Eighties tunes. In fact, I've talked about all this before.

The line of the evening went, as usual, to bassist Greg Norris, who one memorable night merited a show, culled from tapings of live gigs, titled Weird Comments By Greg Night. After "Somewhere Out There," I complimented his sensitive solo. He responded, "That song makes me wish I was young and still believed in mice."

The entire hour is online. Enjoy.