Archive for September, 2017

Willis Earl Beal’s Circular Victory

Posted in Prose with tags , , , on September 16, 2017 by sethdellinger

Turn.  Circle.  Sun.  Moon.

These are the four words that comprise the title of the latest collection of songs by Willis Earl Beal.  The title is not only succinct–it also could not be more apt.

(the album doesn’t have a physical release yet but can be purchased for download at this link.)

All four of the words imply a kind of motion, an orbital, cyclical, or circuital movement (in the case of sun and moon, these motions are dependent on the motions of others).  Beal–who professionally wishes you’d call him Nobody–doesn’t choose words (or melodies, or masks) carelessly.

Sonically, these songs–like much of his recent material–consist of rising and falling keyboard dirges that weave in and out of prominence, often cycling back to where they started, but just as often running like a steady current behind Beal’s  plaintive vocals.  Within the framework of this wide-open musical canvas, Beal still manages to find unexpected nooks and crannies to place his vocal rhythms–he’s suddenly jumping out at you from a corner you didn’t even see–or he’s hiding in it.  Add to this a production value of lo-fi immediacy (I often felt like I could hear him change positions in a chair) and the cumulative effect is one of urgency, despite the modest tempo of the tunes, each song still manages to make you feel as though you are in the grip of strong stuff that is racing to an end.

But to “review” this album in any typical way would be like trying to review a cloud, or dirt.  That statement sounds preposterous, I know, but there it is, just the same.  As he continues to evolve as a songwriter and musician, Beal keeps mining material that gets closer and closer to the elemental; this is art like wind, or the subliminal functioning of a gland.  One feels these songs pass through you like quarks.

Beal has often layered the vocals one on top of another, giving the impression that they rotate around one another (like, for instance, the moon around the Earth and the Earth around the Sun); it’s like Beal orbiting Beal, at first the words just one more sonic tool, one more instrument, but eventually the words start to coagulate and meaning attaches to the dirge.

They are songs of loneliness, and love, and helplessness, and yearning.  From the opening song “Stroll”, where we are taken on a midnight constitutional with our narrator contemplating the greater meanings of the universe, to the closing number “Sun & Moon” with it’s sad binary truth (“I am night/ And you are day”), I felt connected to every song; ultimately, they are deeply human.  We experience the resignation to hopelessness, but also perfect hope (again in “Sun & Moon”: ‘But I will see you tomorrow”).  As we continue orbiting and turning, we experience the push and pull of our contrary desires: to be alone, but to be loved.  To be anonymous, but to be great.  When I invested myself in these songs, I felt understood, but also complex.

In “Cowboy”, we are presented with lyrics so brazen, bold, and current as to warrant presenting some without comment: “Passing places through the mall/ Empty faces filling all/ Hear the laughter off the walls/ Birthday presents for you all/ Know resistance while you can/ Avoid incessant clapping hands/ Put your face in garbage cans/ Take the trash do what you can/Recycle all your wasted shit/ There are people trying to quit/ (You’re a cowwwwwwwwboy/Roping all your bulls.)”

In “Release” we are presented with the lyric “You must let go of all the linear victories”, which is a boy-howdy of a line; you could chew on that line for days.  What is a linear victory?  How do we let go of it?  Like the best art, the songs offer some answers, but not all of them.  However, who knows? If you let these quark-songs flow through you enough, maybe the answers will find you.

The art of Willis Earl Beal–Nobody–has been an undercurrent in my life for years now, and this album more than any others before is like a chameleon, a changeling.  As I listen to it it darts away into my peripheral vision and changes shape, form.  It’s hard to hold onto.

Currently, “Turn, Circle, Sun & Moon” does not have a physical release, but can be purchased for download by clicking this link.  If you buy it, it will almost certainly be a linear victory for you–but at the moment, that’s still the only kind I know how to get.

For Benji, Forever Ago

Posted in real life with tags , , , on September 13, 2017 by sethdellinger

I never envisioned it ending that way, Benji.  Not in that small, fluorescent-lit room, on the floor there, by the diagram posters of canine mouths and the end table covered in year-old magazines.  I don’t know how I pictured it, but it wasn’t there.  I’m so happy I was able to be there with you for it though–although truth be told, I’d have liked to have been anywhere else.

So that was how it ended for you.  The culmination of your significant sixteen years of life experience,  all your moves and joys and sadnesses and all the people you knew and everything you smelled–all the stuff that was you drew up into itself and stopped, right then, in that tiny room.

I’ve had thoughts like this before, Benji.  When my grandma died, she was there in a hospital bed (I wasn’t there, I didn’t see her.  I have regret! I have guilt!) surrounded by, I suppose, pillows, blankets, and unending medical gadgets (one of my favorite songwriters put is perfectly in saying that, as we die in hospitals, we are “swathed in inventions”.  How terrible!).  And that is where her story ended, many miles from where it started, after years of toiling away, gasping for it all, forming and nurturing relationships, it petered out right there in that adjustable-back bed, probably drinking through enormous straws.  When it ends, typically, it just fades out, like the last drips through a garden hose, and practically everything you’ve done just blinks out along with you.  We have lots of grandma’s stuff, but the things she thought, or felt, or knew–those stopped right there, swathed in inventions.

It’s difficult for me to imagine that you had a mother, Benji, but I suppose you must have.  A biological mother, of the dog variety.  You were born on an island in Hawaii, which is so, so very far from here.  I’ve typically thought of your story as starting in the animal rescue that Karla found you in when you were about seven months old, but certainly, for you, your story started before then.  I strain to imagine the circumstances of your birth.  Were you born in an alley in a city?  Or as part of a litter that “belonged” to someone, and they gave you away?  Or were you born in a wild part of that tropical paradise, under some sunny palm tree copse, shadow-dappled, to a gorgeous pure-bred Basenji mother who couldn’t take care of you and your nine siblings?  Your genesis will sadly always be hidden from us; it was locked away from us behind the barrier of language.  How terrible, I say!  How terrible.

When someone dies, I picture their life like a long, squiggly line, moving this way and that, to and fro.  Not just geographically, but up and down as fortune favors or frowns on you, as things go good or bad, as you love or hate, are happy or sad, as you move across the globe, or spend all day in the living room, life is long (it aint short, it’s long!) and the line moves all around as you collect all these vivid experiences, and then, suddenly, there’s a big dot where it ends, on the floor next to magazines.

What was it all for, Benji?  Why did you do it all?  Why go through all the immense machinations just to drip out like drops from a hose, like everyone else?  Well, not to be too dramatic, but I gotta tell you, I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to figure out the answer to that question.  Almost everything I’ve written has been an attempt to get to that (I’ve never told anyone this, out of embarrassment, but when I write, I think to myself that I am trying to “crack open the shell of the world and see what’s inside”.  Isn’t that dreadfully pretentious? And now I’ve gone and told everyone), and all my favorite art and media is mostly more sad or deadly serious than most people prefer (my father-in-law and I joke about my predilection for “feel-bad movies”); I am always listening to music and looking for the answer, reading books and looking for the answer, watching films and looking for the answer.  And Benji, I do think I’ve found it, and here’s what I would have told you if I could have, through the barrier of language:

There is legitimately no reason or meaning to life.  Isn’t that awful? But really, it is quite obvious.  How could it not be so?  We are just little squirmy critters scampering over the surface of a fantastic planet.  We are summoned forth from the void by the power of biology, and once summoned, have to complete the maze until the very end.  That’s about it.  Dreadful.

But, Benji, there is good news! In the absence of any “reason” for living from outside of ourselves, we are free to conjure our own.  And that’s what I have really spent all these years trying to figure out.  If there’s no real meaning or reason for all this, what is the right one to create?  And that, too, seems obvious:

Bring joy.  Be joyous.  Spread joy to those around you and find joy for yourself.  We are but squiggly little creatures on this planet just once, and I lied earlier when I said life was long, it’s short, it’s short!  And its hard, my goodness this life we live from beginning to wherever it ends for us is so damn hard, all you can do is try to find some joy, to bring some joy into your house, to spread that large multi-colored burst whenever, wherever you can, as often as you can.  It’s not easy to do, Benji, because life will discourage it, but hey: it’s all we’ve got.

The best news yet, Benji, is that you were terrific at this.  To the last, you smiled, despite all that life had thrown at you.  You smiled your smile and wanted to be right in the middle of the action, all the time, and love us all up, and prance around feeling the carpet or the grass under your paws, angling your head up to the sun like the vaulted Hawaiian king you absolutely were.   So, I say (too little, too late), thank you.  There is never too much joy.  Someday my line will stop at a big dot somewhere, and until I get there, I want to soak up as much of the joy as I can, and I aspire to spread it around like you did.

Joy.  That’s the answer, right Benji?  It has to be.  We can make it be the answer.  Because other than that, there is only one fact in life: it ends.

He Likes Sunbathing

Posted in Rant/ Rave, real life with tags , , , , on September 5, 2017 by sethdellinger

Today, Boy and I went to the pool in our development for some late summer swimming. The water was freezing, but the company was terrific, and the sun was shining. After about half an hour we took a break and sat on a bench eating some snacks. Suddenly, something hit me in the chest with a thud. I was shocked and bewildered, and quickly realized it was in fact the largest fly I have ever seen. I guess it is what they call a horsefly, although I have no idea what it scientifically is called. This fly, which after running right into my chest circled around Boy and I for a few minutes, was, hands down, one of the largest insects I have ever seen. It landed on us occasionally, and I swear it was the size of a small rodent. When it landed on you, it had true heft, you could feel its weight on you. I won’t deny being a little creeped out, and I did continually wave it away from me, but naturally, the thought of ending this thing’s life never crossed my mind. Why in the world would it?

After a few minutes of this fly circling around us, it became evident that we were not the first people at the pool to have noticed it, and now a lot of eyes were trained on us, watching us deal with it. A few minutes after it encountered us, it landed on the concrete sidewalk about ten feet away from us. One of the local girls who was also at the pool, probably about ten years old, sat a few feet away from it, staring at it in disgust. She held in one of her hands a flip-flop. She looked at me, assuming that I would be in league with her on this, and she said to me, I hate flies, and she inched toward it raising the flip flop. I said in a calm tone, It’s not hurting anything, leave it alone. What I said must not have registered very much, as it is an unusual stance about insects so it usually washes over people at first. She continued to advance on it and raised the flip flop higher and repeated her statement, I hate flies. Before she got any further I said in a sharper, more urgent tone, It’s not going to hurt you. Please don’t kill it. 

Before I tell any more of this story, I think it is important to note that I am in no way telling this story to get kudos for saving this fly’s life. Asking people around us not to senselessly kill animals who are minding their own business is, in my opinion, the very least we can do, and is not something we deserve kudos for but is in fact a moral obligation. That being said, I will continue the story.

The interesting thing is that when I pleaded for her to not kill it, you could see some sort of flash of recognition across her face. It is probably likely that in her life she had never heard anyone plead for the life of an insect. And although she was about ten years old, which in the grand scheme of how we form our worldview is actually rather old, she is still young enough that simple truths like that can penetrate in ways that the psyches of older people don’t allow. A second after I pleaded for the insect’s life, and the flash of recognition happened to her, she looked at me and gave a little smile, looked back at the fly, and almost seemed to look at it with affection. After a few more seconds, she looked at me and said, He’s sunbathing! He likes sunning, doesn’t he? I said, he probably does.

Boy–who of course is no stranger to this rhetoric and is fully on the “don’t kill insects” team–none-the-less wasn’t so sure about my authority on this particular issue. “How you know it likes suntanning?” He asked me. I don’t, I said. But I bet it does, most people do. And then, looking at the girl again, I said, But one thing I do know is, it doesn’t want to die. Nothing wants to die.

The girl walked away, and over the next few minutes I heard snippets of her conversation with her friends, and she kept saying, The fly like suntanning, the fly likes sunning.  Kids are so receptive to these simple ideas, which almost certainly means they are universal truths that we are born with and culture shoos us away from.

The argument I always come back to in any sort of discussion about veganism, animal liberation, animal rights, etc etc, is that things don’t want to die. People can talk about humane conditions or slaughter, humans being natural carnivores, or even justify eating certain creatures of the sea because they lack certain elements of a nervous system, but sentient beings don’t want to die. Things want to live. Even insects. Even worms. Animals want to live.

Dance

Posted in Memoir, My Poetry with tags , , , , on September 3, 2017 by sethdellinger

In all these tiny useless shops, with all this
torn and tattered furniture and too-small coats and
half-working vacuum cleaners, I have never come across
a velvety orangeish curtain like the one we hung
in the living room on Big Spring Avenue; it was
wide and garish like a Lady Pope’s vestments
and it kept the heat from pouring down between the
hardwood floor slats into the musty dirt basement;
likewise, in none of these big city shops have I ever
danced around with a cocker spaniel like I did
with ours–Cocoa–one bright Saturday morning
when I was all alone with her.  I did the funny dance I
only ever did with Cocoa, one hand in my armpit,
jumping on one foot, the sound of my skin half-drum,
half-fart, the world at last and for a moment a perfect
sun-filled room, a dappled meadow, Cocoa just
staring with all-black eyes, shimmying just to
get out of my way, me whirling and singing a song
I can’t recall, then laughing and laughing in the
sun beaming through the windows, falling down
with her, as if we were dying, as if we could
never stop–in 1984, in Newville Pennsylvania–
beautiful strange small-town Newville,
home of Laughlin Mill and the Bulldogs–
a hundred miles and thirty years away from
this dingy city thrift store I stand in, remembering
the orangey curtain and the drafty floors and the
sweet temperamental dog so confused with her
round voids of eyes, she’s gone now, so gone even
her dust is gone, oh giant universe, oh wild universe!

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