On Bon Iver

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“This is for you..?” Justin Vernon’s voice breaks off in a quizzical tone and the audience laughs, before wildly applauding as the band breaks into crowd-favourite, Re:Stacks.

It’s been nearly ten years since Bon Iver produced the acclaimed For Emma, Forever Ago. So the legend goes: Disenchanted with life following a string of personal setbacks, Vernon retreated for three winter months to the seclusion of his dad’s remote cabin in Wisconsin, burying himself in ice, sorrow and music. “I named this band after this TV show, Northern Exposure,” he said last night.  Vernon spent the months in his cabin watching reruns of it, naming his band after a winter-time greeting from the show ‘bon hiver’, ‘good winter’ in French. In a 2008 AV Club interview, Vernon commented on the experience:

AVC: For Emma, Forever Ago is a sad, lonely record. Is that a reflection of how you felt while making it, or was it actually pretty fun being alone in the wilderness?

JV: I don’t think I really had any clue what was going on while I was there. I was just there. There would be days when I would work on music that sounded really happy. Or I’d be really happy to be working on it. I think you can be jazzed about working on a really sad song if you’re into it. But when I left the cabin, I don’t think I felt renewed or “done” or anything. I still felt sick, my liver still hurt. I was going back to North Carolina sooner than I thought, to work with The Rosebuds. It took me months and months to realize what I had accomplished up there musically, personally, all that.

AVC: You had to step back to appreciate what you had?

JV: The enigma of everything, I’m beside it. Yeah, I went up to the cabin in the woods and I made a record. It’s sort of odd to look back and see it as magical, because it felt like a lonely few months at the cabin, where I plugged in the laptop and fucked around.

AVC: There’s already a mythology of sorts around the record, where people talk about the music in the context of how it was made. Do you think knowing the backstory is important to understanding the record?

JV: No. I’ll get e-mails from people saying “I listened to this song and it made me feel this about my life,” or whatever. I think the story pulls people into the music; it gives them a place to enter. But I hope people are reacting to the music.

When Vernon opened with Woods under the multicoloured spotlights, the audience quiet in anticipation, every individual drowning in his haunting autotuned vocals: “I’m up in the woods, I’m down on my mind/I’m building a still to slow down the time.”  

Then the rousing Perth, a favourite of mine off the second album. Written after his video director Matt Amato broke down upon news of the death of his best friend Heath Ledger:, Vernon has said:”And his best friend was from Perth. It just sort of became the beginning of the record. And Perth has such a feeling of isolation, and also it rhymes with birth, and every song I ended up making after that just sort of drifted towards that theme, tying themselves to places and trying to explain what places are and what places aren’t.” According to an interview on Triple J, “the night he recorded the final vocal alone in his studio, [he] listened to the playback, broke down and sobbed.”

I nearly teared as the song ended with powerful, pulsing drum beats. I’ve spent countless nights in the dark listening to this song, drowning in its vitality. Here we all were, people of disparate lifestyles, nationalities, backgrounds, gathered in the dark to share in this experience. For some, like myself, the song held special meaning; others were discovering it for the first time.

The Staves were a welcome surprise. I enjoyed their second album, If I Was, produced by Justin Vernon himself. Minnesota WI, Flume, Lump Sum, Heavenly FatherRoslyn, were all marvellously performed. But the best of the night was undoubtedly Blindsided, Vernon’s excellent bluesy guitar solo, his soft falsetto and the Staves’ ethereal voices melding to sing, “Would you really rush out/ For me now?”

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Skinny Love stunned, every rough facet and sharp barb laid bare in Vernon’s raw scream-singing. The earliest impression I had of him was from his imperfect, yet captivating performance on Jools Holland a long, long time ago, before the bland, lifeless perfection of Birdy’s cover. I recall being stunned by how Vernon wrung every bit of emotion out of the song leaving the audience feeling like they’d gone through the same painful journey with him.

I’ve always associated Bon Iver with ‘that shouldn’t sound good, but it does’, their songs exuding a spark derived from the distinctiveness of their sound, the depth of the emotions, careful construction and lyrical opacity. If For Emma embodies perfection in stripping down to the quiet skeleton of emotions, Bon Iver demonstrates how songs can be decadent without being crushed by their own weight. Above all, I love the authenticity of the music and devotion to the craft. Vernon has said, “I’m just living in Eau Claire, not really leaving for much. I go to the farmers market, go to the studio, go home and play with my cats. I don’t know if I’ve ever been this happy, which is really awesome.” Behind the myth, the plaid shirts and autotune, is just a regular joe hanging with his friends, playing around on his guitar and computer, trying to create some damn fine music.

At the end of the night, we all stood, exhilarated, singing “What might have been lost…” along to The Wolves. A seemingly unremarkable little phrase, embodying profound emotion, nostalgia, and regret, resonating through five thousand souls.

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an ancient thrill

It is 1915.

In seeking supporting evidence for his groundbreaking theory of general relativity, Einstein applies his equations to Mercury’s orbit, which has long puzzled astronomers as it does not conform to classical Newtonian mathematics. Einstein succeeds in resolving this discrepancy and describes the moment as so thrilling that he experiences several hours of heart palpitations.

His heart hammers rhythmically, rapidly, echoing the dancing heartbeat of a bush hunter stalking antelope on the golden African plains. He realises, at this very moment, he alone wields complete understanding of the movements of heavenly bodies suspended in a limitless universe.

Perhaps this is what Einstein feels: the ancient thrill of mastery, however minuscule and momentary, over all things imaginable.

On Blood Meridian

Sean Lewis

Cormac McCarthy is renowned for the violence of his works, his minimalist approach to punctuation (some would say hatred of) and his intensely Faulknerian writing style. With Blood Meridian, he earns fervent praise from critics, with Harold Bloom declaring it the ultimate Western. It has even joined the sacred ranks of The Great American Novel. Bloom elucidates in an interview with AV Club:

AVC: When you called it “the ultimate Western”, did you mean merely the paramount example of the genre, or its final expression?

HB: No, I meant the final one. It culminates all the aesthetic potential that Western fiction can have. I don’t think that anyone can hope to improve on it, that it essentially closes out the tradition. And in the sense that it serves as an extension of the pastoral tradition, it provides an interesting and ironic contrast with American Pastoral by my friend Philip Roth.

Such laudatory comments do not go unwarranted. The book is an entrancing, merciless descent into savagery. It is loosely based on the real-life Glanton gang, a horde of scalp hunters led by Texas Ranger John Joel Glanton. They travel the stark Mexican borderlands, murdering and scalping countless Native Americans for bounty and entertainment during the dark times following the Mexican-American War (1849-1850). The first few chapters leave no doubt that Blood Meridian is gruesome, with excruciating scenes of trees hung with dead babies, the massacring and scalping of innocent women and children, deserts bathed with blood.

We follow the Kid, who joins the gang in their destruction and in so encounters John Glanton, the very picture of a bloodthirsty bounty hunter and the intimidating, ominous figure of Judge Holden. In many ways, Judge Holden stands as one of the best villains of modern fiction. A hairless man of gargantuan bulk, he is eloquent, speaking on the nature of man, war and the law at the campfire before his fellow murderers. He behaves bizarrely, from striding around naked, to documenting artifacts and promptly destroying them, asserting that:

Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.

He appears a strange, all-knowing, almost supernatural spectre. After the gang comes upon Anasazi ruins, he is the sole character who understands and holds respect for this relic of an ancient Mexican civilisation.

For whoever makes makes a shelter of reeds and hides has joined his spirit to the common destiny of creatures and he will subside back into the primal mud with scarcely a cry. But who builds in stone seeks to alter the structure of the universe and so it was with these masons however primitive their works may seem to us.

This comment amplifies the wickedness of the judge, for he knowingly participates in the destruction of Mexican civilisation whilst other men desecrate out of hatred and greed bred of ignorance. The Judge is the living embodiment of the naked, undeniable human instinct for destruction. He is the very agent of war. He preaches:

It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.

This is the nature of war, whose stake is at once the game and the authority and the justification. Seen so, war is the truest form of divination. It is the testing of one’s will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god.

The kid’s travels span the height of the gang’s victories, the riotous revelry which wrecks the towns they pass through, to the ultimate fall of Glanton and the demise of the gang. The kid does not come away unscathed. He is pursued by the judge for being “mutinous”, and he is accompanied by an ex-priest who cautions the Kid against the judge, whom he deems to be the devil itself. The kid evades the judge, but encounters him years later. The bleak conclusion is vague, in McCarthy’s characteristic style, but it is clear that the kid, who represents the wavering flame of morality, eventually succumbs.

McCarthy’s skill with prose is nearly beyond compare. What stands out the most are the landscapes described in Blood Meridian. It will not make for easy reading, but it frames the brutality of the story perfectly. Oftentimes I was transported to stark deserts and salt plains, parched and dusty, beneath painfully clear night skies and bright stars. The landscape is essential to the narrative. As McCarthy puts it:

The desert upon which so many have been broken is vast and calls for largeness of heart but it is also ultimately empty. It is hard, it is barren. Its very nature is stone.

And his talent goes beyond this. Read this beautiful paragraph from the opening chapter.

The mother dead these fourteen years did incubate in her bosom the creature who would carry her off. the father never speaks her name, the child does not know it. He has a sister in this world that he will not see again. He watches, pale and unwashed. he can neither read nor write and in him broods already a taste for mindless violence. All history present in that visage, the child the father of the man.

There are scholars who see Blood Meridian as an anti-western work due to the manner in which “McCarthy’s narrative diverges from the traditional mythology of American westward movement […] Unlike traditional westerns, McCarthy’s novel makes “visible those violent episodes that accompanied the fight over land” (Eaton 157), and reveals a different kind of violence: the violence of cultural amnesia. After all, the problem with southwestern mythology is not only that the “myth was easier to swallow than the reality” (Eaton 157), but that the American national identity was grounded in a willed forgetting of the violence of these events.” (Shawn Mark Jasinski) In simpler terms, McCarthy exposes the brutality and violence of America’s expansion, one that has been glossed over in Western fiction and American history.

Others see it as a universal statement on the prevalence of conflict and mankind’s predisposition towards violence, any time, anywhere, amongst all peoples. No man, white, black or Mexican is innocent of violence in Blood Meridian. An old hermit warns in the book:

You can find meanness in the least of creatures, but When god made man the devil was at his elbow. A creature that can do anything.

I am more inclined to agree with the second camp; certainly, McCarthy framed it in that historical context but he is too brilliant an author to have meant it to be a simple statement on American expansionism and wilful blindness towards the darker sides of its history. Blood Meridian, as Bloom says, is too grand for that. I have to agree with Caryn James (NYT) who observes:

Blood Meridian makes it clear that all along Mr. McCarthy has asked us to witness evil not in order to understand it but to affirm its inexplicable reality; his elaborate language invents a world hinged between the real and surreal, jolting us out of complacency.

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Blood Meridian reigns as one of the best novels I have encountered. The last paragraph burns, even now, upon my memory. 
And they are dancing, the board floor slamming under the jackboots and the fiddlers grinning hideously over their canted pieces. Towering over them all is the judge and he is naked dancing, his small feet lively and quick and now in doubletime and bowing to the ladies, huge and pale and hairless, like an enormous infant. He never sleeps, he says. He says he’ll never die. He bows to the fiddlers and sashays backwards and throws back his head and laughs deep in his throat and he is a great favorite, the judge. He wafts his hat and the lunar dome of his skull passes palely under the lamps and he swings about and takes possession of one of the fiddles and he pirouettes and makes a pass, two passes, dancing and fiddling all at once. His feet are light and nimble. He never sleeps. He says that he will never die. He dances in light and in shadow and he is a great favorite. He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.

recollections

12, Flinders’ Ranges, the Outback: Huddling around a lonely fire, dogs slinking about at the edge of darkness. We skewer sausages and roast them, with the dusty land, the infinitude of stars as companions. In the morning, I wake early and with the rising sun, trek out to see the kangaroos grazing amidst the bush.

15, Sabah, Malaysia: Chased by a storm at dusk, we stop at a deserted prawning farm by the river, the smell of marshland and rain heavy in the humid air. We pull at our lines to draw the prawns and the water bubbles as fish surface briefly. Then the skies break and rain batters the zinc roofs, vestiges of a fading era. A great peal of thunder and for a brief second white lightning illuminates the entirety of the marshes as the building shakes. Plunged into semi-darkness as the electricity goes out, we wait, a little shaken, for the lights to come on.

17, Yosemite, California: My brother and I step out onto the ice and it cracks ominously. He throws a stone, breaking the placid surface of the lake where it is yet unfrozen. I can see bubbles, tiny and fragile, in the clear ice beneath my feet.

19, Bagan, Myanmar: We sit outside a temple on flimsy chairs, sipping sweet coconut juice through pastel plastic straws. The dusty ground is the color of burnished copper, as is everything in this sacred region. Behind us, miniature wooden puppets hang spookily in a tree, the late afternoon sun casting strange shadows. Later, we cycle by starlight over treacherous dirt roads past fields of dry, uncut grass and the sensation of flight, of freedom, is exhilarating.

Poem of the Day

A girl on a swing

by CHUNGMI KIM

She sees the mountain
upside down.

With her long hair
sweeping the fallen leaves
she swings
like a pendulum.

From the lagoon at sunset
a hundred sparrows fly away.

Wishing them back
she whistles softly.
And downward
she falls into the sky.

 

The Edge of the Earth

untitled by Nicola Abraham on Flickr.

And I liked the idea of telling my kid, “When you were inside me, we went to see the edge of the earth.”

But the truth is, the ten or twenty minutes I was somebody’s mother were black magic. There is no adventure I would trade them for; there is no place I would rather have seen. Sometimes, when I think about it, I still feel a dark hurt from some primal part of myself, and if I’m alone in my apartment when this happens I will hear myself making sounds that I never made before I went to Mongolia. I realize that I have turned back into a wounded witch, wailing in the forest, undone.

Most of the time it seems sort of O.K., though, natural. Nature. Mother Nature. She is free to do whatever she chooses.

Today I read this beautiful piece of travel writing, “Thanksgiving in Mongolia” by Ariel Levy. Here are some of my favourite parts. Do me a favour and go read it here.

Stephen Crane Appreciation Post

I don’t know if you know who Stephen Crane is, but he was that dude who wrote the Red Badge of Courage. I have not read it, but I plan to. I discovered him through his poetry, which is sublime. This is Stephen Crane in a super awkward pose. I like his hat?

His poems are little obsidian jewels that chill you:

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter — bitter,” he answered;
“But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart.”

I stood upon a high place,
And saw, below, many devils
Running, leaping,
and carousing in sin.
One looked up, grinning,
And said, “Comrade! Brother!”

 

Feel a bit unsure of where you stand in the universe? Undergoing a spiritual crisis? He was no stranger to this.

 

“It was wrong to do this,” said the angel.
“You should live like a flower,
Holding malice like a puppy,
Waging war like a lambkin.””Not so,” quoth the man
Who had no fear of spirits;
“It is only wrong for angels
Who can live like the flowers,
Holding malice like the puppies,
Waging war like the lambkins.”

A man said to the universe:
“Sir I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”

and this:

I was in the darkness;
I could not see my words
Nor the wishes of my heart.
Then suddenly there was a great light —

“Let me into the darkness again.”

Or if you are frustrated at human stupidity and our tremendous capacity for unthinking cruelty, he was too.

Once there came a man
Who said,
“Range me all men of the world in rows.”
And instantly
There was terrific clamour among the people
Against being ranged in rows.
There was a loud quarrel, world-wide.
It endured for ages;
And blood was shed
By those who would not stand in rows,
And by those who pined to stand in rows.
Eventually, the man went to death, weeping.
And those who staid in bloody scuffle
Knew not the great simplicity.

And boy did he know how to write a love poem *swoons*

Places among the stars,
Soft gardens near the sun,
Keep your distant beauty;
Shed no beams upon my weak heart.
Since she is here
In a place of blackness,
Not your golden days
Nor your silver nights
Can call me to you.
Since she is here
In a place of blackness,
Here I stay and wait

and

Should the wide world roll away
Leaving black terror
Limitless night,
Nor God, nor man, nor place to stand
Would be to me essential
If thou and thy white arms were there
And the fall to doom a long way.

How can you not like his poetry?  Can you believe this man came from New Jersey? Eat your heart out, Snooki.