Monday, July 24, 2017

Is That Really What You Want? How Do You Know? Thoughts from The Century of Self.

For with much wisdom comes much sorrow;
the more knowledge, the more grief.
Ecclesiastes 1:18

A couple weeks ago I saw a question on Quora that intrigued me. Someone asked, "What is the hardest truth?" Several thoughts came to mind, one of them being the awareness of how chained we are by habit, genetic disposition, the formative influence of our upbringing, our tastes, our temperaments… and that to change our selves is exceedingly hard and far more difficult than we imagine.

The irony is that we believe we're free agents. It certainly feels like we're free. I can order anything on this menu that I want, right? I can watch any movie I want. Or read any book I want.

In 2002 the BBC broadcast a four-part documentary called The Century of Self. It's an eye-opening look at recent history from a new angle, from "behind the curtain" as it were.

When we think of influential people in our lives, I doubt that very many of us think of Sigmund Freud. Most people (I have no evidence and am only guessing here) associate Freud with the idea of a patient lying on a couch talking to a psychologist taking notes, or with what seem like strange notions of repressed sexuality, Oedipal complexes and the like. The Century of Self addresses another way in which Freud influenced us, through techniques of mass manipulation developed and implemented by his nephew Edward Bernays, the founder of modern Public Relations (a term which itself is a euphemism for propaganda.)

"By satisfying the masses' inner selfish desires one made them happy, and thus docile." Bernays, this program claims, was central in the development of "the all-consuming self which has come to dominate our world today."

Why are there so many hoarders among us these days? How is it that there are so many storage facilities in existence today, a whole industry that sprang up to store excess stuff, stuff that people don't use or need or know what to do with because they have so much other stuff?

* * * *
The series has four parts. They were:
"Happiness Machines"
"The Engineering of Consent" 
"There is a Policeman Inside All Our Heads; He Must Be Destroyed" 
"Eight People Sipping Wine in Kettering"

A description of Part 1 includes this paragraph:
Bernays was one of the main architects of the modern techniques of mass-consumer persuasion, using every trick in the book, from celebrity endorsement and outrageous PR stunts, to eroticizing the motorcar. His most notorious coup was breaking the taboo on women smoking by persuading them that cigarettes were a symbol of independence and freedom. But Bernays was convinced that this was more than just a way of selling consumer goods. It was a new political idea of how to control the masses. By satisfying the inner irrational desires that his uncle had identified, people could be made happy and thus docile.

The BBC PR for this documentary describes the program this way:
To many in politics and business, the triumph of the self is the ultimate expression of democracy, where power has finally moved to the people. Certainly, the people may feel they are in charge, but are they really? The Century of the Self tells the untold and sometimes controversial story of the growth of the mass-consumer society. How was the all-consuming self created, by whom, and in whose interests?

* * * *
There's much more that can be said here, but it's time to start my day. If you have time, the programs are enlightening. You can also read a synopsis here on Wikipedia.

Meantime, life outside goes on all around you. Think about it.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Scott Marshall's Book About Bob Dylan, the Gospel and the Great American Songbook: What a Long, Strange Journey It's Been

"Good evening ladies and gentlemen,. Would you please welcome Columbia recording artist... Bob Dylan."

Glory, glory, glory, somebody touched me
Glory, glory, glory, somebody touched me
Glory, glory, glory, somebody touched me
Must've been the hand of the Lord.

* * * * 

This is a review of Scott Marshall's 2017 book, Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life, which I finished last weekend, just before my interview with the author. This is not Marshall's first book, nor is it his first foray into the the theme of Dylan's religious convictions. Unlike his first, Restless Pilgrim, this is an in-depth survey of all that Dylan has written, that Dylan himself has said, his actions related to spiritual matters (his son's bar mitzvah, his visits to the Wailing Wall, etc.), and what others have written about Dylan's spiritual impulses, as well as some "man in the street" types of inquiries about perceptions as to where Dylan is at.

Marshall has stated that he spent 12 or 13 years consciously working on the book, sifting through everything Dylan has ever written or said in order to collect the flecks of gold dust that could be re-assembled in this volume. The author acknowledges his own bias up front (he is a Christian and a Dylan fan) but for the most part strives to let the evidence he's accumulated speak for itself.

* * * *

Last weekend, while listening to the radio program Beale Street Caravan, the theme of Pentecostal revivalism was brought up as one of the streams that flowed into the blues. The narrator of the show asserted that when we listen to Motown or the music from the streets of Memphis, there's this whole gospel Pentecostal influence that can't be ignored. Anyone who's been to Bourbon Street in New Orleans knows that one of their theme songs is "When the Saints Go Marching In."

What was the appeal of Gospel music? It's chief appeal was a message of hope, a feeling that we've not been abandoned, a message finding its strongest resonance amongst those who were indeed most likely to feel abandoned and without hope, the down-and-outers, the end-of-the-liners, the betrayed, forgotten and lost.

While Wikipedia's account of Pentecostalism is fairly extensive, the first paragraph does a fairly good job of summarizing the core of this movement.

Pentecostalism or Classical Pentecostalism is a renewal movement within Protestant Christianity that places special emphasis on a direct personal experience of God through the baptism with the Holy Spirit. The term Pentecostal is derived from Pentecost, the Greek name for the Jewish Feast of Weeks. For Christians, this event commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the followers of Jesus Christ, as described in the second chapter of the Book of Acts.*

* * * * 

When I was in college I had an art instructor named Frank Holmes. He was a sensational artist who painted interiors in the classical impressionist/realist tradition. A couple years later I learned that Frank had gone to New York and had a loft where he was now painting. I inquired as to how he was doing and what he was working on. I was told that he was painting a piano, but to paint it profoundly he had to engage it profoundly, meaning he felt he had to learn to play it. He had gone a year on this piano engagement without doing a painting. He may have been doing drawings and sketches, I do not know, and this story was relayed to me second hand, but it was my understanding that he was somehow internalizing the piano first. 

This memory popped into my head as I was listening to Beale Street Caravan last weekend, when they discussed the influences of Gospel music on the Blues. If Bob Dylan's life mission had been to internalize and absorb the Great American Songbook, it would have been impossible to do this without becoming immersed to some extent in the music of its Gospel traditions. 

The Bluegrass stream is thoroughly awash in Gospel, the Carter Family being one of its chief conduits. The music of them thar hills is a blend of both sacred and secular themes, shining a light on the high road while acknowledging the brokenness and muck of life's other side.

Like Frank Holmes's efforts to understand a piano before painting it, the best way to really understand the emotional charge Gospel music gives might be to get "set afire" by the Gospel. What I mean here is that getting totally immersed in the Gospel seems to be the most authentic way to translate the Bible through the unique internal method that is Dylan.

* * * *

1979, San Francisco (photo courtesy Bill Pagel)
Marshall's book is an overview of all the periods in Dylan's life, extracting quotes from interviews as well as lyrics analysis. Many of the stories are familiar, such as Dylan's question to Noel Paul Stookey, "Do you ever read the Bible?" when the latter was visiting Dylan's Woodstock home in 1967. Nor is Marshall the first to note the more than 60 Biblical references and allusions in Dylan's John Wesley Harding. Marshall, on the other hand, may be the first to sift the sand of Dylan's life this thoroughly, from the beginning till the most current times.

The critics were harsh when Dylan released Christmas in the Heart, outdoing one another with their creative salvos, so much so that one failed to notice the positive remarks  that were made. Marshall doesn't miss these and highlights them for his readers.

One of my favorite lines in Mark Sutton's "I'm a Bigger Dylan Fan Than You" is the one where he sings, "I became a Jew and then a Christian, and then again became a Jew." On the surface, this is a common interpretation of Dylan's temporary three year embrace of Christianity. What Marshall attempts to demonstrate is that, although know one knows except Dylan himself, there is ample evidence to support the belief that he never renounced his Christian faith of the late 1970's.

The word that may best describe Dylan on these matters is syncretism, which Dictionary.com defines as "the attempted reconciliation or union of different or opposing principles, practices, or parties, as in philosophy or religion." Indeed, this is what Marshall states near the book's culmination. Dylan has been known to still attend synagogue on Jewish holy days.

Though the songs from his Saved album, for the most part, were only temporarily showcased on his playlist from 1979-1981, Dylan continued to sing "In the Garden" and "Solid Rock" up into the 21st century. He's performed "Gotta Serve Somebody" from his Slow Train Coming more than 400 times, right up to 2011. The song was Dylan's first Grammy, but would that be the only reason he opened so many concerts with this one?

* * * *

Marshall has marshaled an impressive list of endorsements, including Gary Cherone of Extreme and Van Halen, Noel Paul Stookey, Grammy-Nominated producer Jeffrey Gaskill, a columnist at The Nation Randall Balmer, Alice Cooper and the President Jimmy Carter. If this is a subject that interests you, you'll probably enjoy it, too.

Meantime, life outside goes on all around you. Engage it.

*Wikipedia entry on Pentecostalism.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Like His Hero Woody Guthrie, Dylan Spoke the Language of the Disenfranchised

My eyes collide head-on with stuffed
Graveyards, false gods, I scuff
At pettiness which plays so rough
Walk upside-down inside handcuffs
Kick my legs to crash it off
Say okay, I have had enough, what else can you show me?
--"It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)"

In the Old Testament story of David, there came a time when the young giant-slayer's reputation and honor was such that he became a threat to King Saul, who was a symbol of the established order. (See I Samuel 17-19.) After slaying Goliath David became part of the king's household, as armor bearer and poet/musician. Eventually Saul put him in command of a small army. David's achievements were heroic and greatly celebrated by the masses, public adulation that tormented Saul to the point that David's life was endangered, and ultimately David had to flee.

The young poet/musician took refuge in the wilderness, hiding in caves and moving about the surrounding hills. As word got around (even without social media or news corporations the buzz travelled fast) it is written that "everyone who was in distress, everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was discontented gathered to him." (I Samuel 22:2 KJV) The New Century translation of this verse states, "Everyone who was in trouble, or who owed money, or who was unsatisfied gathered around David, and he became their leader."

What comes to mind when I think of Dylan's early songs is how they resonated with the disenfranchised. In fact, Dylan used to cite this story of David while introducing his song "When the Ship Comes In." Longtime Dylan fans are familiar with the early live recording where he stated, "Nowadays there are crueler Goliaths who do crueler and crueler things, but one day they're going to be slain, too." It's a familiar story and a metaphor that captured something of Dylan's appeal in the Sixties.

Where did this attitude and sensibility come from?

It's well-known that young Bob Dylan identified with the folk roots of his hero Woody Guthrie. Guthrie's story goes like this:

"At the age of just 14, Guthrie and his siblings were left to fend for themselves while their father worked in Texas to repay his debts. As a teenager, Guthrie turned to busking in the streets for food or money, honing his skills as a musician while developing the keen social conscience that would later be so integral to his legendary music.

"Guthrie left his family in 1935 to join the thousands of "Okies" who were migrating West in search of work. Like many other "Dust Bowl refugees," Guthrie spent his time hitchhiking, riding freight trains, and when he could, quite literally singing for his supper.

"In 1937, Guthrie arrived in California, where he landed a job with partner Maxine "Lefty Lou" Crissman as a radio performer of traditional folk music on KFVD in Los Angeles. The duo soon garnered a loyal following from the disenfranchised "Okies" living in migrant camps across California and it wasn't long before Guthrie's populist sentiments found their way into his songs."*

Four times in the 1940s American author John Steinbeck was nominated for a Nobel Prize in Literature before achieving it in 1962 "for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception." His novel The Grapes of Wrath poignantly tells the story of the disenfranchised for whom Woody Guthrie labored.

This mix of ingredients along with lessons learned growing up on the Iron Range permeated Dylan's early sensibilities. I think here of Hollis Brown, who "lived on the outside of town."

Even though a majority of the Boomer generation grew up in suburbia, which was supposed to be "the good life," many of the youth of that time felt an emptiness and confusion about the times they inhabited.

Early on Dylan keyed in to this generational angst in songs like "Hard Rain" and "The Times They Are A-Changin'," at a time with others were singing "He's So Fine" and "I Wanna Hold Your Hand." His music performed a role similar to the icebreakers on the great Northern Lake that was hugged by the port city where he was born. Carrying a torch that had been lit by his hero Woody Guthrie, his songs lit many other torches and in a few years we had "For What It's Worth" (Buffalo Springfield), "Ball of Confusion" (The Temptations), "Eve of Destruction" (Barry Maguire),  "Fortunate Son" (CCR) and more. By the early 1970s everyone was wondering "What's Goin' On?"

* * * *
Longtime fans and followers of Dylan's music and performances have commented to me that they're seeing a resurgence of interest in Dylan by growing numbers of young people attending his concerts in recent years. Some have wondered if it's simply a response to his "celebrity status," especially now having won the Nobel Prize. But there are others who have suggested that it's not that at all, rather that having grown up in homes where their parents listened to Dylan, they've now themselves begun to understand what he was singing about, and the lyrics are beginning to connect.

After a lifetime of hearing about the massive growth of our national debt, there's an unreality about it all for most Boomers. But there's no unreality for our young people about the high cost of health care, dental care, housing, taxes and even death (for those left behind) And then there's all that unpaid college debt, while being perpetually reminded that you're never too young to start saving for retirement.

The themes in It's Alright, Ma are as relevant to today's young people as when they were penned more than 50 years ago.

So don’t fear if you hear
A foreign sound to your ear
It’s alright, Ma, I’m only sighing

And so it goes.

*Biography    

Friday, July 21, 2017

Flashback Friday: The Red Scorpion, Revisited

I don't know if all writers feel this way, but I know that many do. The process of creation is energizing and exceedingly rewarding. On the other hand the process of marketing what we've done afterwards is much less so, and at times even odious. Here's a quote I saw the other day about this conflict: "I feel like the wretched employee of my former self. My former self being the happily engaged novelist who now send me, a kind of brush salesman, out on the road to hawk this book. He got all the fun writing it. I'm the poor sap who has to go sell it."

Funny thing is, I've had a career in marketing and actually relish the whole game of planning and executing marketing campaigns, and all the problem solving that accompanies it. So it's a strange thing to see this other self pushed out the door to "make something happen."

Last night I produced an intro to a new story, made progress on a couple other articles, and added a new page on my Many Faces art blog, no doubt all of it a form of procrastination from doing this, attempting to draw attention to my YA novel that's been an eBook since 2011. The idea of it, here, is to give five or so chapters and see if I can get a couple new readers hooked.  

In this opening section of the book I try to capture a wee bit of my own feelings upon visiting Cuernavaca, on the south face of the mountain that serves as a pedestal for Mexico City. This was the setting for Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano as well as the John Huston film based on that book.  

The Red Scorpion
A Haunted House Story with a Supernatural Twist

BOOK ONE
Based on the Private Journal of Dr. William Comstock, Ph.D
Late 1940s

-1-

He woke abruptly, jostled to alertness by the screech of brakes and final recoil as the bus jerked to a stop. He was surprised to find that he had managed to fall asleep at all. The crowded bus included peasants with chickens, crying babies and a crush of people from all stations in life.

Dr. Comstock, glancing out the window, was dismayed to find the bus had not yet reached its destination. It was picking up more passengers, even though the aisle was now full. Several villagers squeezed up onto the steps, some hung out through the doors which had been left open. The bus lurched forward, gears grinding.

A small boy eating a mango placed a sticky hand on the rail in front of Comstock’s knee. Comstock smiled at the boy, but the boy turned his face away. Comstock was a stranger and a foreigner. The boy had been trained not to trust him.

Once more the bus screeched to a stop. This time he could see they had arrived. It was the last leg of his journey, descending to Cuernavaca from the high altitudes of Mexico City. He was eager to begin his work.

Dr. Comstock, a professor of anthropology at the University of Minnesota, had come to Mexico to locate the final resting place of Quetzlcoatl, the plumed serpent of Aztec legend. This was Comstock’s second research expedition in Mexico. He intended to develop contacts that would enable him to obtain funding for a longer trip the following year. Being Christmas break back home at the University, he could think of nothing better than being in Cuernavaca. While arctic winds chilled the Minnesota countryside, flowers remained perpetually in bloom here in the land of Eternal Spring. Red and coral bougainvillea, lavender jacaranda, flaming poinciana, and golden geraniums splashed the air with color and fragrance. The floral tapestry delighted his eyes in every direction that he looked.

His wife Adele had wanted to join him, but he balked at the idea. Her presence would interfere with his work, he said. He promised she would accompany him on next year’s trip if they could find caretakers to run the Eagle’s Nest, the bed and breakfast they owned and operated.

Comstock had an angular face with deep set eyes and thick, dark eyebrows. He wore his hair cropped short. He felt he looked too British to pass for Mexican, though occasionally it worked out that way because he tanned easily and well.

Exhausted from the journey and relieved to have arrived at all, he carried his baggage the two blocks from the bus station to the hotel.

-2-

Comstock sat at an outdoor cafe adjacent to the main plaza, El Zocalo, sipping a large concoction of jugo de tamarindo, a sweet thick juice squeezed from the brown, beanlike fruit of the tamarind tree. His third day in Mexico, he had become increasingly aware of the passage of time. He spent his first two days in leisurely excursions about the city, consumed with a curiosity similar to a boy turning over fallen logs in the woods seeking salamanders and snakes. Now he was becoming anxious about how to achieve his objective. The days would pass quickly. He berated himself for having already wasted two.

A small band of peasant musicians playing an assortment of primitive flutes, whistles and drums had gathered in the street in front of the cafe. A group of children began marching around in circles making whimsical movements, whimpering and bouncing like puppies overeager to see their masters. Another group of boys was working the tables selling Chiclets to the tourists.

Comstock recalled how the incessant begging had disturbed him during his first trip south of the border. By the time he left he had grown weary of the burros, mongrel dogs, roosters, strange smells, gritty eyeballs and clashing colors that seemed to throw themselves at him from every side. He was tempted to think that first trip had been a mistake and a preposterous waste of time.

Afterwards, however, Comstock missed Mexico immensely. He knew intuitively that one day he would return. He only needed an excuse. He found it in the legend of Quetzlcoatl, the plumed serpent.

According to native mythology Quetzlcoatl, also known as Yoalli ehecatl, was the third son of the Lord of Fire and Time. He was given to bring hope and light to the Nahuatl people in the same way his three brothers were given to three other peoples. When he betrayed his father, he was to be banished forever.

Comstock’s intent on this journey had been to find contacts who would be useful guides to the actual places where Quetzlcoatl was born, grew up, lived and died, even though legends said that the god/man simply “went away” and never died at all.

-3-

He was eighteen years old. Though his chest had yet to fill out Chuchui had reached his full stature, little more than 5 feet 6 inches tall like the other men of his tribe. He had light brown skin and the typical Aztec face with a prominent, hooked nose and dark brown almond-shaped eyes. His coarse, black hair had been cut with a fringe over the forehead. He allowed his hair to grow a bit longer in the back and on market days he tied it in a small pigtail with a piece of red twine.

Long before the crimson sun had burned the haze off the moist hills encircling his home, he had begun the trek to the marketplace in Cuernavaca, to sell the strips of beef jerky, leather goods and black pottery that were the commerce of his village.

Though but a youth, he'd seen much and thought much about what his life was about. He was not like his peers. An experience six years earlier had awakened in him a keen interest to embrace more of life than was offered in this remote village. The following summer, despite his father’s disapproval, he taught himself to read Spanish, even though it was not his native tongue.

“To be a Nahuatl is to be noble. We do not need the words of foreigners,” his father said on one occasion. On other occasions his father reminded him that he had a “call” on his life. “You belong to the Colos. You are too young to understand what this means. One day you will know that there is no higher calling.”

Chuchui took care to hide his books, but continued to read and to study the ideas outside his village.

When he was sixteen two men came to his village who called themselves communistas. They brought pieces of paper with words on them. No one could read the words on the paper except Chuchui and he read aloud the statements on the papers to the village elders. His father and the village leaders cursed the communistas, but Chuchui wondered at their ideas.

“A fool does not see the same tree that a wise man sees,” his father told him.

For years his mother grieved because she sensed that one day he would leave their village. The day Chuchui read these pamphlets from the communistas she knew that she had already lost her son.

-4-

From childhood Chuchui had been accustomed to hard physical work. Walking great distances to the marketplace, following the men and womenfolk and carrying a share of the goods as well, Chuchui had learned responsibility.

Chuchui’s father was a very proud man. He took great care to be deliberate in all his actions and always tried to move gracefully. His gestures when speaking were likewise grand and dignified. Chuchui observed all of this, and came to understand that for his father there was no greater achievement than to be a Nahuatl.

One day, Chuchui became ill and began to weaken. He tried to conceal his illness, but as the party of Indians padded down the hillside toward the city, the perspiration spread over him and his eyes began to glaze. When he could walk no further he squatted to rest. “What is it?” his sister Lanti asked.

Chuchui stared ahead as the small party of merchants continued away from them.

“You’re hot!” Lanti said abruptly, having placed her hand on his forehead. “How long have you been --”

Chuchui cut her off. “I will go to the market. It is not my place to be weak.” He stood uneasily, and they continued on toward the city.

When they reached the outskirts of Cuernavaca he stooped once more. “You go. I will follow soon,” he said to his sister.

Lanti had always been kind to him, but she was simple. He had no brother and there seemed no one with whom he could share his confused and burdensome thoughts. At times he wondered whether it were he or the gods who were blind. Nahuatl life was like the gouge a heel makes in the sand which is so soon washed away by the rain, leaving no mark. Twenty years or eighty, what matters when the mark is gone?

* * * * *

The marketplace was teeming with activity behind Cortez’s Palace. Dr. Comstock looked like a conquistador on the prow of a ship as he stood atop a thick wall there, feet planted the width of his shoulders, watching the orderly chaos. The large triangular scene resembled a flea market of sorts, but without the tables. The variety of goods exceeded comprehension -- food, clothing, poultry, medicinal herbs, eyeglasses, jewelry, pottery, trinkets, antiques, piňatas, crafts, toys, leather goods, shoes -- a little bit of everything, useful and otherwise. He glanced down at a rooster tied by one leg to a wooden crate. Normally it would have amused him, but today it depressed him. In some way he felt a little like that rooster who at first appeared to be free, but was bound.

Comstock watched the peasants set up their little booths and spaces for selling or trading wares. He was attracted to the dignity and cleanliness of the Nahuatl villagers in their distinctively simple white outfits. But his thoughts were elsewhere.

On his first trip to Mexico he had visited Taxco, and several of the other places where Quetzlcoatl had supposedly lived and ministered. Comstock had gone to the place where Quetzlcoatl had been baptized. He had even managed to locate a place where Quetzlcoatl had reputedly performed a miracle. But where was he last seen? Where had he died? Comstock could not get away from this question, nor could he find anyone who knew its answer.

Comstock turned away from the marketplace, pondered his next move. He walked north and turned left toward the main square. By the time he reached the Zocalo he was feeling very depressed. He didn’t have a plan. He’d thought he could just wing it, and was now fully conscious of his folly.

At that very moment, as he was feeling his lowest, a peasant Indian fell unconscious at his feet. “Borracho,” someone chuckled from behind him. (Borracho is the Spanish word for drunkard.)

The so-called borracho was dressed in the native whites of the Nahuatl. Comstock looked about, his expression an appeal for help, but the passersby avoided making eye contact. Comstock knelt and rolled the man over to make sure he was breathing. The native looked to be no more than a youth and had badly skinned the bridge of his nose. The native’s face was unpleasant to look at, moist with sweat, made filthy by dirt and grime from the street and the oozing blood from his scraped nose.

Comstock looked about once more but no one even seemed to be paying much attention. There were benches nearby where seated tourists were watching a scene in the park. A group of mariachis was gathering. An old man with a trumpet had now joined them.

Comstock called to a vendor from the nearby gazebo and asked for a glass of ice water, which the vendor remarkably brought right over. Comstock rubbed the native peasant’s nose with an ice chip and shook him gently. His head fell limp to this side and that, until the professor threw the glass of water directly into his face. The youth coughed once, then opened his eyes, sputtering words the American could not understand.

“Are you all right?” Comstock said.

Chuchui looked at him attentively, but cautiously, without making reply.

Comstock helped Chuchui to his feet. “Thank you,” Chuchui said in almost perfect English, whereupon he turned, walked briskly away and disappeared in through the door of a hacienda.

Comstock, looking confused, turned round in a complete circle, then sat down. Suddenly, he leaped to his feet and followed the young Nahuatl inside, but Chuchui was nowhere to be found.

“Have you seen the native,” Comstock asked one and then another hotel employee, but no one had an inkling what he was talking about.

That evening, while walking along the pasado that leads back to the park, Comstock saw him again. He recognized the skinned nose, the flat looking face. Comstock ran up to him and said hello. Chuchui frowned and turned away. “Where are you from?” Comstock asked, following him. Chuchui did not answer and Comstock kept on his tail. “What is your name?” Chuchui turned and squared off, facing the persistent American. “I no speak English.”

It was apparent Comstock had misjudged him. Chuchui’s “Thank you” earlier in the day had thrown him off. It was something he learned to say when doing business with Americans in the course of his work.

Undaunted, Comstock began to address him in Spanish. “Donde vas,” Comstock said, which means, “Where are you going?”

Chuchui shook his head, tried to speak but no words came. Suddenly his voice broke and he began to cry. This was not something Comstock had expected. Chuchui placed his palm on Comstock’s arm while his eyes scanned the square, darting here and there, as if he were afraid of something.

Comstock sensed the youth’s uneasiness. “I am from the United States. I am called William. How are you called?”

“I am Chuchui,” the youth said, nodding his head slightly as he said it. “We must talk now.”

-5- 

The American could see that the native, eager to talk, was also frightened. “Let’s go back to my hotel. Are you comfortable with that?”

Chuchui nodded and the two made their way back to the Posada Arcadia where Comstock had a room.

Once alone together, the native spoke with purposefulness. Comstock learned that Chuchui was not drunk, as passersby imagined, but had had a fever. He had been dizzy and ill for about a week. Strangely, the fever left him the moment he was awakened.

“Why are you in Mexico?” Chuchui asked the American.

“I teach at a university. I am here on a research project.”

There was a long pause. They were like card players. Chuchui held a card Comstock needed, but Comstock was unaware of it. At the same time, Chuchui hoped that Comstock held a card that he needed. Both were reluctant to show their hands.

“Do you believe in Fate, Mr. William.”

“William. Call me William.”

“All day I have pondered how it is that I came to fall into your hands. When the fever left me I was... confused. Today I have caused trouble to my family. I did not return to the marketplace. I have been walking and thinking. All day I have wondered.” He stopped.

“Go on,” Comstock said. There was something fragile about the boy standing here in this room, yet a disturbing depth and toughness as well. Comstock could not shake the impression that beneath the surface of this encounter there was some kind of treasure, something of value to be discovered, that the encounter may have been Providential.

“Do you know who I am?” Chuchui asked.

“You have told me. You are called Chuchui. You live here in Mexico. Your family trades in the marketplace.”

“Yes, but do you know who I am?”

“I am not sure what you mean.”

“At least you are honest. I am the last living male in a clan called the Colos. Have you never heard of the Colos?”

Comstock slowly shook his head.

“Of course not. How could you? You teach at a university and have so much knowledge, but do not know things that our people have known forever.” As he spoke his eyes glistened and his voice gained strength.

“And what is it you know, truly?” Comstock asked pointedly.

Chuchui avoided the question. “How much money do you have with you?”

Chuchui stood in the middle of the room facing Comstock who had seated himself on a corner of the bed. Alone in this room he suddenly feared becoming the victim of a robbery or an assault. Without changing his expression, Comstock sized up the native to determine if he could overpower him in a tussle.

“You have money?” Chuchui asked. “If I give you something valuable, you must give me something in return.”

“I have money,” Comstock said reluctantly.

“You must not be afraid of me. I am the one who should fear.”

Comstock sensed the truth in the youth’s words.

“Do you want to tell me about the Colos?”

“The scorpions?” Chuchui laughed as if he had made a clever joke. The name of his clan was the Colos, which means scorpions in Nahuatl.

Comstock didn’t get it.

Chuchui asked why Comstock had come to Mexico and the American said he was doing research on the life and death of Quetzlcoatl.

“Such a strange notion,” Chuchui jeered. “And what have you learned?”

“I believe there was a man who once lived among the Aztecs, who called himself Quetzlcoatl,” Comstock said. “I cannot believe he was a son of the gods, but I do believe there was once someone powerful, someone who lived in these parts who went by that name, or was given that name.”

“Go on,” Chuchui urged.

“He was called the Feathered Serpent, perhaps because he wore feathers and garments of snakeskin or something like that. In some legends he is called Our Young Prince. In most legends he betrayed his father somehow and was banished from his homeland. It was supposed that he never died, and promised one day to return to liberate his people from the power of death.”

“Interesting stories,” Chuchui said. “Do you believe all these things?”

“No. No, I do not believe these stories. I believe there was someone very important, and the evidence of it is deep in the culture here. I am confident that if one knew where to look they would find evidence that he has passed on.” Comstock unbuttoned the topmost button of his plaid shirt.

Chuchui stared at him without blinking. “You have heard many things and studied well. Do you recall hearing of a place called Mictlan?”

“Certainly,” Comstock said. “Mictlan is the place of the dead. Or at least one of the places people went when they died, according to the Aztecs. Warriors went to the sun, and some went to the rain god’s mountain.”

“Quetzlcoatl went to Mictlan,” Chuchui said matter-of-factly.

“Then it’s true, he’s dead.”

“I did not say he is dead. I only tell you that he went to Mictlan.” Comstock attempted to speak, but the youth waved his hand. “Silence!” Then he told how all the legends about Quetzlcoatl were a cloud of mists designed to frustrate outsiders from learning the truth. Chuchui said that only a small handful of Nahuatl know the real truth, that a single clan has been entrusted with the secret truth regarding the bones of Quetzlcoatl. This clan, his clan Chuchui says, is called the Colos, which means Scorpions.

Chuchui shared how many of the places came to be named as they were. For example, the suffix “tlan” means “place near an abundance of.” Acatlan, therefore, means “place near an abundance of reeds,” because the word for reed is “aca”. Mazatlan means “place near an abundance of deer.” Chuchui’s village was called Colotlan, “place near an abundance of scorpions.”

The professor leaned forward, interrupted again. “You mean the Nahuatl deliberately tell lies about Quetzlcoatl to confuse historians, to hide the truth?”

“It is not the Nahuatl who tell lies. It is one clan of Nahua peoples. My clan, the Colos. We lie to preserve the truth. It is our mission.”

Comstock stood and began to pace. Of this moment he later wrote in his journal, “No wonder it is so difficult to know what is true and what is pure fabrication with these people.”

“Why have you come to tell me all this?” Comstock asked casually, taking great pains to restrain his excitement over these things. Questions were zinging through his head like bottle rockets the little boys had been firing in the street the night before.

“I am taking a great risk, you must understand.” Chuchui narrowed his eyes so that they became slits. Explaining it seemed impossible to him. It was the wrong question, because the answer was too complicated. Whether today, next month or next year, one day he would leave his people. Perhaps Comstock was not the one who would help him, but he refused to let the moment pass without making some attempt to try. If Comstock could not help him, perhaps the next American might.

He once read that each man who longs for a thing with all his heart obtains the thing he longs for by sheer force of desire. Is this how the gods answer our prayers, he wondered, by putting longings in our hearts and granting their fulfillment?

Their encounter had been a strange one. He had been delirious, fell unconscious in the street. Upon waking, he saw this face directly before him, this foreign face. It was not difficult for him to believe that fate had had a hand. As a consequence, he acted on this conviction. It was an intuitive leap.

“Tomorrow I will bring you to the place of the dead,” the youth stated simply. “I will meet you in Tepoztlán. From there we will go to see the scorpions.”

“What do you mean, see the scorpions?”

“I cannot say more than this. When you come, you will see and experience imatini.”

“What is.... imatini?” Comstock asked. The game was beginning to annoy him.

“It is our word for knowing. I can tell you stories, but they mean nothing. For the Nahuatl what matters only is imatini; first hand knowledge.” Chuchui spoke as if he had just shared a sacred truth.

“How will I find you?” Comstock asked.

Chuchui turned. While opening the door to leave he said, “I will be waiting at the monastery.” The door closed with a clack. Comstock scratched at his chin, then slowly unbuttoned his shirt, loosened his belt and began preparing for bed.

* * * *

Meantime, life goes on all around you. Open your eyes!

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Writers Read: Going Coastal at Zenith Bookstore

(L to R) Marie Zhuikov, Max Reagan, Judy Budreau, Phil Fitzpatric
The flowering of our arts community these past 20 years has been a thrill to behold. Last year I overheard Barton Sutter say that several decades ago the public poetry community consisted of he and Louis Jenkins meeting for coffee at a local restaurant and sharing their work. Today the burgeoning poetry scene is now seeding a whole range of events from Duluth Dylan Fest to Homegrown, which itself is a showcase of the incredibly vast array of music talent here in the Northland. Then there's theater, and the symphony, ballet and even opera, along with the outstanding exhibitions in the visual arts. And then there are the writers, pecking away on their myriad keyboards, pilfering personal experiences and observations to create hard-hitting stories, gentle uplifting tales, insightful essays, novels for youths and adults, and more. Let's not forget the gardens and the culinary arts. It's hard to believe that in 1999 some people were wondering if we were on the threshold of the end of the world.

What a resurgence this region has seen since the mid-1980's when Canal Park was a patchwork of abandoned buildings, bars and restaurants, as was our Lincoln Park community.

So much for introductions. Last night we were treated to a reading at the newly opened Zenith Bookstore by three writers whose stories were included in the recently published volume called Going Coastal. The event, which included a silver tray of cupcakes courtesy Beaners next door, opened with a welcome by the store's co-owner Bob Dobrow, began by saying, "I'm overwhelmed by the support from our community." I believe the mutual sentiment of everyone present was an extravagantly warm-hearted, "Welcome to Duluth!"

Dobrow then introduced Marie Zhuikov, on behalf of the Lake Superior Writers group. This book was produced as a fund raiser for the organization. It developed out of a contest they had last year. Writers from around the lake submitted stories with nine writers included in this anthology, the winners of the contest. Going Coastal is the fourth anthology published by Lake Superior Writers. For more complete details on the book read Ryan Swanson's review at Zenith City News. Last night's event featured Phil Fitzpatrick, Judy Budreau and Max Reagan reading excerpts from their stories.

What made the panel of readers especially interesting was that two -- Phil Fitzpatrick and Judy Budreau -- were experienced, published writers later in their careers with the third being something of an emerging writer. In point of fact, Max Reagan stated that "The Lake Effect" was his first published story. It's also a very good read.

Fitzpatrick became the first reader, which coincided with his story being the opening story in the book, a story about an Anishinabe man, who leaves the Twin Cities and returns to Grand Portage. It's a wonderful read about an elderly man making his way back home, remembering the places and spaces of his life as he travelled North along the shore, revisiting meaningful places along Highway 61. In addition to being an author and poet, Fitzpatrick is also a Dylanophile, so I can't help but hear a measure of his parallel passion woven into the subtext at certain points. (In addition to making a Dylan-themed presentation during Duluth Dylan Fest this spring, he also attended his 50th anniversary reunion at Harvard where he made an hour long presentation to classmates of his alma mater. It was there in 1963 that he first saw Bob Dylan, who was opening for Del Shannon at the time, and there that he was comforted by The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan when JFK was assassinated.)

Judy Budreau was next introduced and she read from her story "Superior Mordant." Like Fitzpatrick, this wasn't her first rodeo. Both writers were excellent readers as well. She introduced her story with this observation: "Like all fiction, my story begins with a piece of something real." Naturally I thought of a number of my own stories, and guessed that other writers present Tuesday evening were weighing this thought as well. Budreau's lodestone in this story was, "when all is uncertain, everything is possible." Beginning here she wove a story around it about how Lake Superior becomes a reference point for a life.

Max Reagan was third to take a turn, selecting a fragment from his story of a 1919 shipwreck. His writing had all the drama and vividness of an "as if you were there" kind of experience. He's looking to pursue a career in writing, and winning a contest like this will be a nice starting point.

In an unpremeditated moment of naked self-promotion, I will mention here that I won the five-state 1991 Arrowhead Regional Arts Fiction Competition when I myself was a fledgling short story writer. It provided a tremendous boost to my confidence at the time. Two decades later I published it with five other stories as an eBook, but you can also read it here for free on my original website.

Though I'd obtained a copy of Going Coastal several weeks earlier, I purchased a second so as to have a pass around copy. I've lost a number of books over the years by loaning them out, so having an extra to share feels alright. You might want to pick up a few for Christmas gifts for family members who wonder what its like to live on the shores of the largest freshwater lake in the world. I recommend buying local, here at Zenith Bookstore, but if you're reading this from a distance of more than 100 miles, I won't blame you none if you get it on Amazon or here at North Star Press. All proceeds are being designated for Lake Superior Writers.

* * * *

Whenever you read a good book, somewhere in the world a door opens to allow in more light. 
–Vera Nazarian

Thank you to the Dobrows for hosting this event, to Jason for bringing over the cupcakes and to all those who shared a bit of themselves with us Tuesday evening.

Meantime, life goes on all 'round us. Engage it...

Photo Credits: All photos here courtesy Bill Swanson except the picture of Judy Budreau reading her story on the left middle of the page.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

A Visit with Scott M. Marshall, Author of Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life

While I was praying, Somebody touched me
While I was praying, Somebody touched me
While I was praying, Somebody touched me
Must've been the Hand of the Lord.
--The Stanley Brothers

Scott Marshall in 2010.
The Bob Dylan story is fascinating in part because it has been so unpredictable. In some ways he's been a real-life Zelig or Forrest Gump, appearing in a whole range of unexpected scenes with famous personages, from Ed Sullivan and Johnny Cash to Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, performing on the world's biggest stages, meeting presidents, Hall of Fame musicians, even the Pope, and most recently addressing the Nobel Prize committee. How he came to record three albums in Nashville, cross the U.S. with the Grateful Dead, or begin a chapter of singing Frank Sinatra covers can also be added to the "unexpected" category. But for some, the most unanticipated of all might have been his apparent embrace of Fundamentalist Christianity and the "Gospel of Jesus."

Did Bob Dylan really become a Christian?  Is Bob Dylan still a believer?

Scott Marshall, author of Restless Pilgrim, has just published a second book about the spiritual themes that run through Bob Dylan's music and career, titled Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life. Marshall, whose book includes endorsements from Alice Cooper and former president Jimmy Carter, graciously accepted an invitation to share here a bit of his story with regard to this second Dylan-themed volume.

EN: How long did you work on this book, from conception to publication?

Scott M. Marshall: It’s been a bit of a haul, about 12-13 years. (Some of the earlier, original interviews date back to 1999-2002.) The book could’ve been out much sooner, but the manuscript encountered more than 15 rejections along the way. Looking back, with some of the things that happened after the rejections, I’m grateful for the timing now. But I was guilty of some pretty consistent grumbling on the road to publication.

EN: It’s obviously a labor of love. What was your motivation?

SMM: It flows back to Dylan’s music. Also, some natural curiosity and intrigue were in play. At a certain season I was more naturally curious about Dylan’s spiritual journey. I was—and still am—often intrigued by the strong reactions against his expressions of faith, especially in the 1979-1981 era. Or even reactions against him having some faith to begin with, or now (hearing a lyrical echo now). Not always, but often it seemed these scornful, dismissive responses communicated more about the person writing the piece than about Dylan. This served as motivation to try and piece together, in the words of a book title by the late Paul Williams, What Happened? (Or, if you will, the subtitle of Clinton Heylin’s forthcoming book—What Really Happened.) With that said, those who’ve tracked the Dylan story will know that his spiritual/religious leanings and expressions have been pretty much present since day one, and it continues to this day. But some aren’t aware of this fact; some maybe have forgotten it, or just were aware of flashes here and there; and, yes, some couldn’t care less. I’ve let Dylan’s voice loose throughout the book when, over the decades, he’s chosen to speak about topics and themes relevant to his spiritual orientation and preferences. Additionally, I was motivated to gather the voices of many others who’ve crossed Dylan’s path, whether that crossing involved a moment or two or lengthier seasons. Just the original interviews conducted and the observations and stories I collected should motivate those interested in this angle of Dylan’s career to check out Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life.

EN: You seem to have done exhaustive research in areas not frequently covered in other articles and books. Where did you find/acquire so much new material?

SMM: Thank you for noticing. Because of curiosity and a journalistic orientation, I’ve been checking under every small stone, rolling over every large rock to see what I can find. A lot of the time, there’s barren ground or something promising leads to a dead end. But it’s very rewarding and encouraging when you stumble upon a footnote or endnote in an obscure book (or even a well-known one) which then suddenly slings open a door to seemingly another world. Or when you talk to someone whose voice, strangely, wasn’t a part of the public story before. For example, in 2000, when I tracked down Regina McCrary, one of Dylan’s singers during the 1979-1981 era (via James Hill of the Fairfield Four), she had never spoken on the record about her experiences touring and recording with Dylan. She’s since been on a Dylan tribute album that even Dylan participated in (Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan, 2003), and she and her sisters have joined Dylan for an encore “Blowin’ in the Wind” at one of his concerts (2012). She’s spoken about her time and experiences with Dylan through a documentary (2008) and as a guest in a Christian college classroom (2014). I also tracked down Dylan’s old publicist Paul Wasserman not long after he was liberated from jail. He had some great stories. So did Peter Barsotti, one of Bill Graham’s right hand men who was on hand for the Warfield gigs of 1979-1980. One of Dylan’s former wives, Carol Dennis, even spoke to me. In the 25 years since their divorce was finalized, she’s been pretty tight-lipped, to say the least. But her love for Dylan as a person and her spiritual inclinations when looking at their shared history was apparent. I wasn’t digging for dirt, and she wasn’t offering any. Never thought I’d interview her, but the opportunity crossed my path. Some might call it luck; I wouldn’t. Sometimes these clouds of witnesses roll by, sometimes they go by so fast, sometimes slow. But they’re worthy of a hearing. In the words of that Tom Petty song, I’m trying to pick up whatever is mine.

EN: Do you find it intriguing how everyone seems to have a spin on his Gospel album and that period of his career? Some of the quotes by “experts” are almost comical.

SMM: I don’t know what particular quotes or experts you’re referring to, but I catch your drift, I think. Some of these quotes make their way into the book. For me, intrigue is a big part. In other words, the voices of those who are resistant to or highly critical or apathetic to Dylan’s gospel era—or its apparent lingering hangover—are also represented in the book. I’d like to think someone who’s a Dylan fan and a staunch atheist or agnostic, or someone who is coming from, say, an Eastern orientation, spiritually speaking, could learn or gain something from the book. I mean, I recall learning that the late Nat Hentoff and the late Christopher Hitchens were opponents of abortion, and they were coming at it from an atheistic perspective. Some Jesus followers have a hard time trying to figure out something like that, but it’s true. Christians don’t have a monopoly on moral convictions. The rain falls on everyone.

EN: What was your biggest personal take-away from writing this book?


SMM: Do not be wise in your own eyes. And the reality of heavy-duty impatience. I was, at times, like that first-century fellow Thomas whose doubts were very natural, normal. His name gave us that “doubting Thomas” label, which usually means an offhand comment with negative connotations. He had to see evidence of the wounds in the hands to believe the stories he’d been hearing. The women were crucial eyewitnesses in this patriarchal context. I’m all for logic and reason, but this journey of a book project humbled me countless times and pretty much proved there’s limits to reason and logic. Right when I thought I had it all figured out, that curve ball came. So the personal take-away was trying to figure out this idea of waiting; it’s somewhat foreign to the modern disposition, obsessed as we are with our screens, speed, efficiency, information glory, etc. Patience. It seems like it’s a rare commodity, but the apostle Paul tells us it’s one of the fruits of the Spirit. What do we do when our apple carts are upset, or thrown into the ditch while cackling thieves make away with the apples? Be encouraged, somebody. Somehow, Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life came out of this scattershot.

EN: What was your reaction to Dylan’s receiving of the Nobel Prize?


SMM: Well, he doesn’t seem to have a Twitter account and he didn’t check in with Entertainment Tonight or TMZ, so he was perceived pretty quickly as slow to respond, unappreciative, downright rude, and God knows what else. In the end, he didn’t reject the prize. I sense he was truly surprised and honored. I wish Allen Ginsberg could’ve witnessed it all. I bet he would’ve had something worthwhile to say. Pretty sure he would’ve given an interview for the book; he seemed pretty generous and accessible. But he passed in April of 1997, before my project commenced; Dylan heard the news of his old friend’s passing while on the road and sang “Desolation Row” in his honor. At a concert in Moncton, New Brunswick, a place Reader’s Digest calls the “Most Polite City in Canada.”

EN: Your next project will be…

SMM: I’m not entirely sure, but a book on Woody Allen’s films or Joe Walsh or T-Bone Burnett could be in the works. And maybe something not for the faint of heart, like a book on the roots of Regent University (that would be the school founded in the late 1970s by the son of an Absalom, the lovable Marion Gordon Robertson—at age 87, he can still be found on television. That’s gotta be some kind of record. Most know him as “Pat”).

* * * *

I opened this post with a verse from the Stanley Brothers because one of my live Dylan CDs opens with Bob Dylan enthusiastically singing this song that is pure Gospel. Dylan's inhalation of "the Great American Songbook" included all of its streams, not simply folk, blues and classic, but also that earthy Gospel stream that fed into the others.

Sometime in the next week I hope to produce a review of Scott Marshall's book.

Meantime, life goes on all around you. Get into it.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Things He Left Behind: Bill Morgan Original Artwork For Sale

Originally from St. Louis, the late Bill Morgan taught art history and studio art at UWS here in the Twin Ports. When I learned of his passing in early 2016 I knew he would be missed by many. In my interviews with local artists I repeatedly came across artists whom he had influenced.

In 2012 I had the privilege of meeting him and spending an hour interviewing him. He shared with me how he came to be an artist himself and his approach to making art. "Somehow in the West we think everything is a problem to be solved. I don’t think this way. You should be relaxed and enjoy oneself. Some painters have everything worked out in advance, all their colors, everything. That’s anathema to me. I start with canvas, and see what happens. I’m not afraid of words. I see them as patterns. They can work as just a visual experience."

Morgan didn't just teach and inspire students, he was himself prolific. As a result, when he left us he left behind a large body of work.

I'd heard about an estate sale that was taking place last year and hoped to swing over that I might perhaps acquire one of his works. I has a schedule conflict, so was unable to attend. I was curious, though, where his many pictures may have dispersed to, hoping they wouldn't have ended up in a dumpster.

Earlier this month, out of the blue, I received a phone call from local painter Doris Sampson and learned where at least a portion of his things ended up.

Doris Sampson is a local artist who has been painting for more than fifty years here in Duluth. In my 2013 interview with Sampson I speculated that nearly everyone in Duluth was familiar with her work but simply didn't know it. Her paintings appear on walls in many local businesses including the DECC where one of her paintings of the Edmund Fitzgerald hangs. Sampson, who is likewise prolific, had attended an auction where some prints of her work were being sold. Serendipitously, Sampson saw that a large lot of Morgan's art was on the block to be sold. Rather than having the sold for a pittance, she snatched up the whole lot.

Some of the pieces in this collection brought to mind the work of a Spanish artist whose work I have followed in the past, Pere Salinas. You can check out his illustrations and designs here.



In an effort to bring them to market in a manner that respects their value, she has created a website and made them available for others to purchase and appreciate. Because I myself have found inspiration in Bill Morgan's work, I offered to share some of them here. All are 16"x 20" unless otherwise specified. To see more, or to purchase yourself, visit this web page featuring The William Morgan Collection.

You can get to know Bill Morgan more intimately by reading my interview with the artist. Or simply by enjoying his art, shared here.




This piece is 11"x 14"



Ah, to see the world as through the eyes of a child. All becomes wonder.

 Meantime, art goes on all around you. Engage it.