March 25, 2017

The cycle of life encapsulated in a day

On this very warm late-March day, I stood in the woods and listened to the snap, crackle'n'pop of growing things under the dry leaves leftover from last fall.  It's eerie, that sound.  A continuous crackling that you'd think must be something moving under those dry leaves, but there's no motion to be seen. It's new life, and one of the most definite, and the most subtle, signs of Spring I know.

On the way home, I drove past a committee of about two dozen Black Vultures congregated on and around a mound of gravel in a field next to a creek, up the road from the old train station at Point of Rocks. I've written about vultures before, they're one of my favorite creatures-- creepy, ugly, with some seriously disgusting habits. But they help to keep the world a cleaner place, removing the detritus of death. And that bunch I saw today, some sitting there glossy and black and hunched while others were stretching their wings so wide the individual feathers at the ends were splayed like fingers, were like something out of an ancient Egyptian frieze.  Beautiful and majestic and symbolic of more than just death.

The vulture goddess Nekhbet. Image borrowed from here.

March 16, 2017


I stand in my kitchen taking my vitamins on a dark March morning, angsting about someone I offended weeks ago and being alone and how very hard it is to turn monologue into dialogue, when a siren wails past outside the window and I think "Ah, there's someone who has a real problem".  

March 5, 2017

Another kind of gender confusion

It's an exciting and frightening time to be a woman these days. It feels like we're heading into both the dark ages and a brand new feminist movement simultaneously.  Only a few weeks after the astonishing turnout of the Women's March on Washington that was matched around the world, we're also dealing with things like the chiropractor in Kansas who's invented a vaginal glue to seal the labia during menstruation to prevent women from being "distracted".  If he were creative enough, he could maybe also market it as a rape prevention device.  Though it might be most effective as an easy means of denying sex to men as stupid as he is.  "Not tonight, dear, my labia are stuck tight."

Even worse, the Oklahoma state legislature is considering a bill that would require women to obtain written permission from the man who impregnated them in order to have an abortion.  The bill's author, state Rep. Justin Humphrey, said he just wants to add the father into the abortion process.

“My bill would stop an abortion if a father does not agree to the abortion,” Humphrey told the committee, which eventually voted 5-2 in favor of the legislation.

... “The thing that I wanted to spark in a debate is that fathers have a role. Exactly where that role is, I'm not sure,” [Humphrey] said. “We are starting the right debate by saying, do fathers have a place? Where should that be?”

He then took it even further by dehumanizing women entirely--

“I believe one of the breakdowns in our society is that we have excluded the man out of all these types of decisions.” He continued, “I understand that [women] feel like that is their body. I feel like it is a separate—what I call them is, is you’re a ‘host.’ And you know when you enter into a relationship you’re going to be that host and so, you know, if you pre-know that then take all precautions and don’t get pregnant.”

This is patriarchy in the extreme and I don't know any woman who would accept it.  I'm sure there are some out there, out in the Bible Belt, but those women do the rest of us no favors. Because women these days are standing up and asserting themselves in a way beyond even the feminist movement of the 1970s.  They have similar expectations of equal rights and an end to objectification, but they now have the platform of the internet and social media to spread the word and build momentum.  From the on-point news coverage of the feminist blogosphere, highlighted by Teen Vogue, to the letter written by the woman raped by Brock Turner, they're making their voices heard loud and clear, and some men are actually beginning to listen.

And, as always, artistic voices are also taking on these topics, which is necessary because art can make us think about things in a deeper way than hard fact can.  One in particular is relevant to the topic at hand-- Third Man Books recently posted a video, directed by designer and musician Poni Silver, of this piece from poet Kendra DeColo's new book, My Dinner With Ron Jeremy.

I look at that video and I see the gloriousness of the current generation of young women who are learning that they can exist separate from men's perceptions of them.  And yet my internal emotional response to it is very conflicted. Apparently a lot of other people had strongly unconflicted responses, to the point that Third Man closed down the comments section on their YouTube page because of the virulent misogyny of some of the replies.  When people feel that sort of hatred, the sort that's been directed towards women for centuries and that's boiled over at every moment in history that we've tried to stand up for ourselves, from the Suffragettes to the Feminist Movement to the Women's March, to women who deal with abuse and inferior treatment on a daily basis, you have to wonder what's behind it. Usually intense hatred is fueled by fear, isn't it? But when what you're attacking is not actually a threat, not really, where does the fear come from?  On his WTF podcast, Marc Maron recently talked to Raoul Peck, director of I Am Not Your Negro, about James Baldwin's theory that so many of the things people are afraid of in the world, the things they project so much hatred towards, are constructed in their own minds.  This is a premise of Buddhism, as well, that most of our suffering comes from stories that we tell ourselves, based on amplified insecurities and things we ignorantly choose to believe.  I can't speak for what sort of insecurities might be behind other people's negative responses to the video for Kendra DeColo's poem, but I know exactly what's behind my own.

I've written before about traits I don't like about myself, about the envy and anger I give in to all too easily.  In this case, insecurity is the fault rearing its ugly head along with those other two.  It peeks out when I'm out by myself and see couples all around me.  It's so very rare to see other people by themselves like I am.  It makes me wonder, why am I always alone? Yeah, I'm an introvert, but that doesn't mean I wouldn't be in a relationship if I could be.  On the rare occasions when I am with friends, any time I see other women around me getting attention from men, I wonder again-- What's wrong with me that I don't attract that?  Is it this or that flaw in my face or body? Is it that I'm opinionated? Am I not feminine enough? Is my independence intimidating to men? Is it some unconscious "stay away" vibe that I send out unawares? What's wrong with me?

Watching the video for Kendra's poem gives me that same feeling. Seeing that series of beautiful young women expressing discomfiture at unwanted male attention makes me sad, because it makes me think of how little I've experienced any of the situations described.  I didn't get hit on when I was 15. I don't get hit on now.  Unless I've been totally oblivious to it, I think I could count on one hand the number of times I've been hit on in my entire life.  I didn't date in high school because no one asked me out.  I lost my virginity at 19 to a guy I met at a party, but he left two weeks later to backpack across Europe and then go off to college.  And that was it until near the end of my 20s, when I moved in with one of the few men who ever has hit on me.  Unfortunately, the 6 years we were together was 5 years and 11 months longer than we should have been. It came to an end when he slept with another woman because he wanted kids and I didn't, and then I found out he'd been sleeping with other women all along. After several more years alone, I had an 18 month fling with a much younger guy I met through a chat room, until he asked if we could go back to a platonic relationship because I made him feel oversexed.  Of the two men I've had relationships with, I was not enough for one and was too much for the other.  And no one's shown an interest in me since then.  What's wrong with me?

So I look at other women and see the attention they get, I see them all around me with boyfriends and husbands, and that question comes up over and over-- What's wrong with me?  A long time ago, the feeling that they had something I don't made me begin to view other women as competition, as an impediment to me having any chance with a worthwhile man.  They're cockblockers, both figuratively and literally.  It's so hard not to feel envious of the young women in that video who seem to have had so much experience of things I've barely had a taste of.  Watching it, listening to Kendra's words, that small, ugly, shadowy part of myself snidely thinks "Aw, you poor thing, you got hit on, how horrible".  And then I'm angry at the world and ashamed of myself at the same time.  And it's damned hard not to let self-pity project outward into hatred.  It's James Baldwin's construction theory at work.

Yet I'm not so caught up in my neurotic insecurities that I'm blind to the importance of Kendra's statement. I realize that it's about more than just attention from men, it's about the attitudes behind the attention and how women have to strengthen themselves to deal with those attitudes.  Whether a woman is hit on too much or not enough, she needs to know that she is not shaped by how men perceive her, that she has value as an individual, and that her body and emotions and needs are her own, not to be dictated by those close to her or society at large.  In those rare instances when I have been treated to an unwanted proposition, I've wondered just how those men saw me, and how surprised, and potentially turned off, they might be if they did get to know me.  As Kendra's poem suggests, would they be shocked at how my blood might ravage their veins?  What men have to understand is that they need to see us as we are before they can know whether they want to tap that thing.

And I wonder about my frustration over lack of attention from men that I would like to be with--  The frustration is born of a natural desire for companionship and intimacy, but when it reaches the point that I'm angry at other women and questioning what's wrong with myself, isn't it perpetuating the falsehood that our value is dependent on men's assessment of us?  My insecurities seem to have been shaped by the very cultural attitudes the current women's movement is trying to break down.  And this is why I realize the value of Kendra's poem at the same time that it can leave me wallowing in self-pity.

I was a child during the Women's Movement of the 70s.  I saw Ms. magazine on the newsstands, I heard Gloria Steinem's name, but I was too young to read any of her writing. So it wasn't until last year, when I read her book My Life On The Road that she was able to have an impact on me.  It took this long for that icon of the previous movement to wake me up to the realization that there cannot be civil rights for all without rights for women.  It will probably always be difficult for me to relate to other women without feeling twinges of that ugly competitiveness and jealousy, but I'm learning that I need to at least stand up with them.  At some point, we all need to do this-- We have to face our individual neuroses and look beyond them to see the bigger picture, to see how our fears and insecurities play out in the world around us. 

Is it too much to hope that all the recent idiocy is the last gasps of a graspingly desperate patriarchy?

"Utah GOP chair's letter to editor published TODAY (not in the year 1624)".
From the Twitter of TawdryLorde

Maybe one way to change it would be to give a copy of My Dinner With Ron Jeremy and a subscription to Teen Vogue to every woman under 40.  And maybe every man , too.

February 15, 2017

Jackie Lee, son of Stagger Lee

 I recently guested on an episode of the Jack White-centric (what else?) Third Men Podcast, talking about blues music. When asked to name my favorite of Jack's blues covers, I qualified my answer by saying the song I was going to name wasn't a cover per se, though in a sense it is.  I went on to describe to the hosts, the Kaminski brothers, how excited I'd been to immediately recognize the source of the cover-that's-not-a-cover when I first heard it, as the song in question lifts sections almost word for word from the older version. I had so much more to say about this song and the unrecognized brilliance of it, but it would've been rude to hijack the podcast so here, in my own space, I can and will babble to my heart's content.  

Three Dollar Hat, from the 2015 Dead Weather album Dodge and Burn, lists all four members of the band as songwriters, but it's very obviously Jack's baby because it's very obviously based on Mississippi John Hurt's version of Stack O' Lee Blues.  Of all the members of the Dead Weather, Jack is the one who's likely to be most familiar with the Stack O'/Stagger Lee tradition that dates back some 120 years.  And Jack is the one who's been driven throughout his career to become a part of musical tradition. Or, as he says in a scene in It Might Get Loud, to "join the family" of song-writers of the early blues era. After almost 20 years of covering half the blues songwriters most people can readily name and many that the average fan could not, and writing blistering blues of his own, he apparently finally felt ready to take his place in this specific, hallowed tradition, to join the huge and highly respectable family of musicians who've sung versions of this song.  

"What I care about your two little babes and your darlin' lovely wife? You done stole my Stetson hat and I'm bound to take your life"  (As a sidenote, one of the things I will always love most about Mississippi John Hurt is how he sang about such violent subject matter in such a mild and delicate manner.  Like Grandpa telling a bedtime story... of murder.) 

The tradition of Stack O' Lee becomes more extensive the further you explore it. As described at

The history of the song tells many stories. It is an anthem of the dispossessed. It expresses fear of the scary black man, the evolution of modern music, culture theft from black to white, hero worship of the outlaw, the origins of a legendary character and the writing of a Myth.

No other song has so transcended its humble beginnings and been re-invented in so many genres, in so many media and by so many artists.

That site's list of recorded versions of the song ends in 2008, leaving it wide open for Jack to come along. It's interesting to note that Jack's pal Beck covered it in 1996 (using it as inspiration for something different) and 2001, and his former antagonists The Black Keys did it in 2004.  Maybe that's part of why he waited so long. 

The initial reaction to Three Dollar Hat that I saw from fans in the Vault and at one of the message boards had people latching onto the Frankie and Johnny reference, or calling to mind Nick Cave's version of Stagger Lee.  There are legitimate connections to both of those songs.

That little snippet of Frankie and Johnny tagged on at the end is blatant.  But turning Stack O' Lee and Billy into Jackie Lee and Johnny does more than just make this a mash-up of two song references, it adds an interesting psychological twist--  Jack White is both a John (born John Gillis, the name on his Third Man Records business card is "John A. White") and a Jack, so just who are the sweethearts Jackie and Johnny? Did he push the Stack O' Lee myth into homoerotic territory, with his bad man Jackie Lee killing Johnny more out of jealousy toward that bad-ass wife than concern over a $3 hat? That idea brings to mind Omar of The Wire, a series busting at the seams with Staggerlees, of which Omar was one of the most intriguing.  Or are Jackie Lee and Johnny two manifestations of the songwriter/narrator, a la Fight Club, and is the whole violent story taking place inside his own head, one side of his psyche destroying the other and then being destroyed in turn?  Either or both, it skews the tale in a way that's gleefully perverse.

(I'm going to admit right now that I have no idea what Alison Mosshart's vocal part has to do with the rest of the story-line. If anyone out there has any ideas about that, please let me know.)

Three Dollar Hat has much of the punk grittiness of Cave's version.  And considering the fact that his son is apparently named after another of Cave's songs, Henry Lee, Jack's surely familiar with this one.  I think any similarity between Three Dollar Hat and Stagger Lee is coincidental, though, a reflection of a shared attitude in bringing the legend into the contemporary era.  Because where Cave went for a sludgy rock'n'roll edge, Jack uses Three Dollar Hat as an opportunity to make the connection between blues and hip-hop apparent to anyone who hasn't caught on yet.

Another man who named his son after a song is Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panthers. In the book Mystery Train, Greil Marcus opens a chapter about Sly Stone and the myth of Staggerlee by quoting a 1970 jailhouse interview with Seale--

I named my son Malik Nkrumah Staggerlee Seale. Right on, huh?  He's named after his brother on the block, like all his brothers and sisters off the block. Staggerlee.

You'll find out. Huey [Newton] had a lot of Staggerlee qualities. I guess I lived a little bit of Staggerlee's life, too, here and there. That's where it's at. You move yourself up from a lower level to a higher level...

...Staggerlee is all the shootouts that went on between gamblers, and cats fightin' over women--- the black community.

Something else, huh? That's life.  And all the little Staggerlees, a lot of 'em!  Millions of 'em, know what I mean?

And so I named that brother, my little boy, Staggerlee, because... that's what his name is.

Farther on in the chapter, Marcus describes Staggerlee as a fearsome ideal--

...Nobody's fool, nobody's man, tougher than the devil and out of God's reach-- to those who followed his story and thus became a part of it, Stack-o-Lee was ultimately a stone-tough image of a free man.

From popular song, that ideal made its way onto the movie screen through the Blacksploitation films of the 70s.  Shaft and Superfly, Curtis Mayfield's Pusherman, these are manifestations of that bad black man standing up to The Man.  A few decades later, he veered back into music and emerged as rappers like Ice-T, Tupac Shakur, and Snoop Dog.  

In the early days of the White Stripes, Jack White expressed disdain towards hip-hop. He was asked about it in a 2003 Rolling Stone interview--

And you're not a hip-hop fan.
Not particularly. I find Out Kast and Wu-Tang Clan interesting. But I consider music to be storytelling, melody and rhythm. A lot of hip-hop has broken music down. There are no instruments and no songwriting. So you're left with just storytelling and rhythm. And the storytelling can be so braggadocious, you're just left with rhythm. I don't find much emotion in that.

But somewhere along the line, he began to hear things differently.  In an article just a couple years ago, which I can't find now to be able to link here, he mentioned that Jay-Z had told him that hip-hop is the blues. That idea gave me pause at first, but damned if he isn't right. Both genres are outlets for the trials and suffering of life, black life in particular.  And both frequently take on that braggadocio Jack mentioned, boasting of things like sexual conquests and material possessions, building up the singer/rapper's fearsome rep.  Following the trail of the Stack O' Lee myth shows how one genre followed from the other and Jack seems to have had that agenda in mind when writing his own entry into the tradition.

I've also seen complaints from fans over the past few years about the number of songs that Jack has begun rapping rather than singing, from I Cut Like a Buffalo to Freedom at 21 to Lazaretto. All of those songs, culminating in Three Dollar Hat (and his more recent contributions to A Tribe Called Quest's last album), must've been influenced by that conversation with Jay-Z.  What the fans bothered by this don't realize is that Jack's doing exactly the same thing he's always done-- He's singing the blues. He's just exploring new avenues, new ways of expressing them.  It's one of his typical subtle lessons in how music evolves. Which makes it a damned shame that this song ended up buried on a Dead Weather album that wasn't even toured.  But according to comments Jack made months ago in the Vault chatroom, the band did make some sort of video/movie-type thing for Three Dollar Hat.  He implied we fans are going to love it.  With any luck, one of these days he'll give it to us. Not doing so is just him being perverse again.

As an extra treat, here's one of the first recorded versions of Stack O'Lee--

Mea Culpa

I was annoyed at being made to feel like an asshole, and so I became that asshole.  And now I can't stop crying long enough to put on makeup for work.  Who wants to actually be the asshole they can sometimes turn into?  It's embarrassing and frustrating when we're confronted, as we rightly should be, and reminded of how easily we slip into that role and how hard it is to catch ourselves.  How do we deal with it when it happens?  Do we let the embarrassment inflame things further, or do we turn away and wallow in regret?  If the latter, at what point does regret turn into just plain self-pity?  Because self-pity is just another form of being an asshole.

How to regret without wallowing. Gotta figure that one out sometime.

January 30, 2017

Are we/Am I doing enough?

Like many other people, I've been to a few protests recently.  A Maryland Rally to Save Healthcare. The Women's March on Washington. An impromptu No DAPL rally near the White House one night last week after work. And yesterday, a No Muslim Ban/No Wall rally that turned into a march. It feels good to be doing something in the face of all the frightening changes that've so quickly taken place in this country.  But I keep wondering if it's enough.

There were two other events I considered going to yesterday, instead of or in addition to the No Ban/No Wall rally-- One was a rally earlier in the day to protest Betsy DeVos' nomination for Education Secretary, the other a protest of the Muslim Ban at BWI airport in the evening.  If I'd gotten myself out of the house early enough, I could've easily gone to the DeVos rally near the Capitol and then headed to the White House for the No Ban/No Wall protest. And I could've probably made it up to the airport near Baltimore afterward for that one. But I chose one of the three. Was it enough?

I keep thinking of a post I saw at the Facebook page for the Betsy DeVos protest.  Someone had said that they couldn't go because they had to take their kids to a soccer game, but they'd be there in spirit.  This is what I worry about--  The Tea Party faction brought us to this point because of the passionate intensity of their beliefs.  Yet we, the "liberal" opposition, pick and choose between protests, or support from afar because we have soccer games to go to.  I can easily imagine Tea Party moms skipping their kids' soccer games in a heartbeat and dragging those kids to anti-abortion protests instead.  Do we believe passionately enough to do the same? 

And the causes we're protesting represent real people who've been, or soon could be, making sacrifices and even suffering because of these issues.  Do we feel strongly enough for them to suffer ourselves?

I don't say this to shame anyone who's skipped a protest because of work or whatever. I'm struggling with it myself. This is all so new, it's been confusing and a bit overwhelming to figure out how best to respond, how to take action and feel that it'll be effective.  I keep telling myself I'm taking baby steps.  But I do wonder at what point we're all going to have to
begin making real sacrifices, giving up those soccer games or taking time off from work, putting in the hours and becoming tired and worn out, in order to protect what we feel is right.   



Images from the Women's March on Washingon here.

And the No Ban/No Wall rally-march here.

January 28, 2017

Spitting out these 300 M.P.H. Outpour Blues

I love the way Jack White talks about the music that's meaningful to him.  In a panel discussion about the Rise and Fall of Paramount Records back in 2013, surrounded by erudite, scholarly types and people who write about music for a living, his descriptions of the songs and the impact they had on him was down-to-earth and easily relateable.  In that snippet above, what he says about the song Mama's Angel Child especially resonated with me-- That part about "he's speaking for me", that's one of the things that definitely draws us to music. Those songs that speak for us, the ones that make us feel as if the song-writer pulled our own thoughts and feelings out of us and set them to a melody, are intensely powerful.

Jack's wish that we could all have the sort of moment he had with Mama's Angel Child was fulfilled for me with one of his own songs, one that's come up at this blog a couple times over the last few years-- 300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues. It's the song that first grabbed me and shook me and told me I had to get into his music. If you held a gun to my head and forced me to name my favorite White Stripes song, this one would be it. To my ears, it represents everything about him as a song-writer-- The cleverness of the word-play, the deceptive simplicity of what he's expressing, the dramatic shifts in dynamic.  It's soft, it's tempestuous, it's acoustic, it's electric, it's acerbic and thoughtful, wry and regretful.  And it speaks for me in a way that is both reassuring and unsettling.

"I'm getting hard on myself, sitting in my easy chair..."

So many of us go through that dance with self-loathing angst--  "I'm not this enough, I'm not that enough, I'm not good enough, I'm not doing enough, why did I do that?, why did I say that?, why didn't I say that?, I really screwed up, I'm really screwed up...."  And yet our lives, to anyone looking in from the outside, are perfectly fine. We have food, shelter, family, friends.  Money may or may not be a little tight, but we can pay our bills, buy some records, and go see a movie once in a while. And yet we suffer.  We get hard on ourselves sitting in our easy chairs.  Why?

"Safe to say somebody out there's got a problem with almost everything you do..."

So much wisdom, and again so simple. But one of the hardest lessons for some of us to learn, something we get hung up on over and over again and that leads us right back to that easy chair, getting hard on ourselves. For what?

"Well, sooner or later, the ground's gonna be holdin' all of my ashes, too..."

And yet, there's a defiance of all those troubles at the end, the strength to stand up to those who have a problem with everything we do and, just as hard, to stand up to our own selves.  That final twist, that's the reassurance this song gives us--  

"One thing's for sure, in that graveyard... I'm gonna have the shiniest pair of shoes."

If that's not the blues, I don't know what the hell is.


December 19, 2016

What's shocking anymore?


I watched the movie Cabaret over the weekend, which I think may be the first time I've seen it since, oh, high school or so. Joel Grey's Master of Ceremonies was as creepily fantastic as ever. I'm better able now to appreciate Liza's insane talent and quirky beauty.  And, well, I've never not appreciated a young Michael York. Fosse did a stupendous job and it's as effective a film as it ever was.

I found myself thinking about it this morning, though, as I pulled a towel out of the linen closet and glanced at my shelf full of bottles of nail polish-- Reds ranging from crimson to ruby to almost-black maroon, silver and gunmetal grey, baby blue, cobalt blue, midnight blue with sparkles, copper, and a deep green that echos Sally Bowles' signature shade. It was her signature because it was, in her mind and in that era, "shocking", a bit of "divine decadence".  The bisexuality of the film was also shocking, in that era and also still in the one when the film was released.  The scenes in the cabaret had a degree of shocking titillation to them. 

But none of those things are shocking anymore. Non-hetero sexualities are still controversial, but rarely hidden anymore. Burlesque and cabaret shows are hip entertainment these days. And, well, there's my shelf full of nail polish.

Is there anything from the film Cabaret that can still shock us?  That's a leading question, and I hope you get it.

August 13, 2016

Overheated crow

It was very hot today.

Saw something I've never seen before. Walking across the parking lot, I saw a crow sitting on a signpost a handful of feet in front of my car.  Shoulders  drooped and wings hanging down, with its beak wide open. Not cawing or calling, just open like a prolonged gasp for air. I stood next to the car and watched it sitting there. Another car pulled into the space in front of mine, right next to it. A group of young women got out, then stood there chattering at each other and gathering their belongings out of the car.  The crow was too overheated to even take fright and fly off, it just sat there next to them, droop-winged and slack-beaked, while the girls chattered and walked away.  I had the empty plastic tray from a Starbucks snack combo in the car, so I tore the lid off of it and filled the bottom half with what was left of the water in my bottle. When I took a few steps toward the signpost to set the tray on the ground, the crow heaved itself off the sign and swooped up onto the limb of a tree next to the car (I always park in the shade if I can).  It sat up there looking down at me with its beak still in that open gasp. As I got into my car and drove away with the air conditioner cranked full blast, I hoped it understood what I'd left for it.

August 12, 2016

Icarus and ecstatic inspiration

How do you place a value on inspiration? 

On July 30th, Jack White had a party at the two locations of Third Man Records, in Nashville and Detroit, to celebrate the realization of... what?  An inspired dream?  A crazy idea? A frivolous lark?  What you call it depends upon your perspective, but a little over five years ago, the man got the idea in his head to play a record in space, and then he made it happen. That's not as easy as it sounds, what with the delicacy of turntable tonearm weight, turbulence, temperature fluctuations, the fragility of vinyl, and reduced gravity.  I'm not going to go into detail here as to how they made it work since it was described in great depth by Third Man Records and many news sources. And not just the usual music blog suspects-- My personal favorite was seeing it at Smithsonian, but it was also at CNN (with a great little video re-cap), Popular Mechanics, and Discover, along with a handful of techy sites like Space, ZME Science, techly, and this highly detailed one from Outside

No, what inspired me to write about the whole endeavor was the lone comment on the coverage at Vulture:  "There are children starving in this world. But hey. 162 retweets."  I started to respond defensively to that, thinking "Since when is it up to rock stars to feed all the starving children? In an ideal world, wouldn't our local, state, and national governments help to ensure there's food for all?", but then I thought about how I've leveled the same criticism at NASA and its space exploration program.  What is the point of space exploration? How can we think of colonizing Mars when we can't even feed all of the people on this planet? Shouldn't that be our first priority, and space exploration come after that?  

I don't know the answer to that. But it's obvious that humanity is compelled to explore. That's how we ended up spread all over this world. That's how we've mapped almost every centimeter of even the areas we don't inhabit. That's how we've discovered, and continue to discover, all of the species we share it with. So it's to be expected that we'd turn our curious minds to what's out there beyond this planet. And there are (or have been) those among us, like Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking, who are able to blend their curiosity and compulsion to explore space with a deep concern for the welfare of people here on Earth.  


Presumably it was that video of excerpts from Carl Sagan's show Cosmos that sparked this idea of Jack's. In 2009, he not only released the audio of that video as a vinyl record on Third Man Records, he also joined the Planetary Society (note the pertinent quote at that link: "He said he's highly motivated to keep in touch, so we're very excited."). Jack's said many times that A Glorious Dawn is one of the releases he's most proud of, so of course it would be a continuous source of motivation to him, to spur the idea of having that exact record be the first actually played in space. He mentioned the project publicly once, in an interview with Buzz Aldrin in 2012, but then was quiet about it and seemingly busy with other things since then.  

But Jack is someone who makes things happen. In talking with Marc Maron, he described his younger self as "very go-getter..., always truckin' really fast" and that's obviously not changed. With Conan O'Brien, he talked about working hard, pushing yourself, cookin' and getting somewhere. Eddie Vedder put it very well when Pearl Jam recently played in the Blue Room of Third Man in Nashville, saying, “We all have ideas... But not only does he have ideas, he sees them through.” Having money obviously helps him to achieve things like playing a record in space but, really, it's more the people he surrounds himself with, people who are, to use his phrase, "cookin'". It seems he seeks out the right people and then creates an atmosphere of inspiration and curiosity in which everyone can work together to accomplish apparently pretty much any idea. It makes me intensely curious to know what sort of things he's dreamed up that he hasn't been able to achieve. In the case of this project, he drew in people from Neil Degrasse Tyson to Buzz Aldrin to Kevin Carrico, an old pal from Jack's early days on the music scene in Detroit who seems like a fascinating and inspiring person himself. There's a lesson in that.

As for myself, as a fan of not just Jack's music but his non-stop curiosity and compulsion to create, I've struggled with feelings that I'm not creative enough. How can I say I'm inspired by him if there's no result to show for that inspiration? I'm a tolerably decent writer and a somewhat good photographer, but that's where I feel my creativity ends. But one of the things I've learned about myself in the time I've been following Jack is that what turns me on isn't creating. It's exploring. Part of the excitement of all those shows of his I've been to has been going to new places. In some cities I haven't seen much more than a sidewalk in front of a theater, but I've still seen things (Did you know Omaha is full of animal sculptures?) and experienced things (sleeping with the homeless in San Francisco) that I wouldn't have if I'd not gone there. I've explored much of Nashville and its surrounding areas, and have now embarked with the same determination to thoroughly get to know Detroit. Beyond physical places, I've explored blues music and the history of this country that it's steeped in. A more recent and completely unexpected Third Man Records release exposed me to Greek folk music and taught me about the history of that culture. Hell, this musician even had me exploring science before this big event-- I'd read the works of Sagan and Hawking before, but I'd not heard of Nikola Tesla until Jack introduced me to him.

It's been impossible for me to be a fan of Jack's music and Third Man Records without being set on continuous multiple courses of physical and intellectual exploration. And if he has that effect on me, what effect might crazy/beautiful things like the Icarus launch have on other fans or, even more compellingly, on the children of his fans, kids who are young and impressionable and, hopefully, easily awed and motivated by seeing someone with Jack's cool factor geeking out over combining art and science? What ideas could they get from that? How might they be inspired to "cook"?  

Our main goal from inception to completion of this project was to inject imagination and inspiration into the daily discourse of music and vinyl lovers. Combining our creative impulses with those of discovery and science is our passion, and even on the scale that we are working with here, it was exhilarating to decide to do something that hasn't been done before and to work towards its completion. And, it brings us great fulfillment to pay tribute to the incredible scientist and dreamer that Carl Sagan was. We hope that in meeting our goal we inspire others to dream big and start their own missions, whatever they may be.

What value do you place on that? Is the price of building a craft to play a record in the stratosphere too much, or just enough? Again, I don't know the answer to that. All I know is that it excites the hell out of me and makes me hope that Jack keeps on cookin' for a long time to come. 

At the beginning of this, I mentioned parties at Third Man to celebrate the playing of A Glorious Dawn in space. I went to the Detroit branch for the event, specifically so I could see the Icarus craft up close and to share the excitement of Jack's and his team's accomplishment with friends and fellow fans. Here's a taste (full album here)--  

Video courtesy of Yvette Wilkins

And, if you want the full experience, here's the complete stream of the Icarus launch and landing. If you've the time for it, it's beautifully meditative--