Monday, March 27, 2017

Music as a Narcotic

by Creighton Peet

First published in The Forum, August, 1930

   It appears to me that of late we have been getting pretty chummy with the music of the spheres. Thanks to the radio and phonograph, music has fallen from its high estate and has somehow got to rolling around under the chairs and tables, behind the davenport and out the window, without our paying very much attention one way or another. Easy come, easy go. We open a valve and the music comes out, just as water or gas comes out of other valves.
   I do not mean to say that the radio dispense only trash, or that good music is no longer being performed. The radio, in fact, sends forth (along with its insistent banalities) some of the finest music being performed today. And this is true in spite of the fact that our newspapers, which have recently donated millions of dollars’ worth of free publicity to the radio industry, have all too frequently grown hysterical over its “cultural” aspects. One might think that a new race of supermusicians was being created by the hourly broadcasting of “On the Road to Mandalay” and “Mother Machree.” But, in spite of all this nonsense, the radio and improved phonograph have actually made it possible for all of us to hear some splendid things by merely turning a few little black knobs.
   Music is losing its æsthetic and emotional caste because we are increasingly to confuse it with the mechanical rhythms and noises of the world in which we work and live. We turn on the music when we are at home because we are keyed up and tense — because it replaces and compensates for those rhythms and auditory stimuli which we have left behind in streets and offices.
  By “mechanical rhythms” I mean mechanical intervals as well as mere noises of motor cars, subways, telephone bells, buzzers, and so on; these intervals are the periods of time during which we wait alertly for a reaction — intervals which go to make up the sum of wear and tear and general nervous dissipation.
   A few of these intervals which affect us are: the time between red and green traffic lights; the interval between the picking up of the receiver and the answering of central; the interval between the opening and closing of a subway door; the interval between the placing of a piece of toast in a machine and its jumping out to be buttered and eaten while hot; and, in general, the feeling that life is short and that not merely “success” but survival are attained only by constantly leaping this way and that.
   When, on returning home, we switch the radio on to “see what’s doing”, we are actually continuing the auditory and consequent nervous stimuli of our offices, subways , or factories. Just as a compressed-air worker suddenly removed from his high-pressure caisson will suffer disastrously from the change in his atmospheric environment, so do most of us, suddenly stranded in the quiet of our homes, tune up the radio to keep our nerves from quieting down. It is not so much what the radio is playing, as is that is is playing.
   Bridge, poker, dinner, supper, a social call, or even a breakfast are enacted against an unending stream of operatic platitudes, dance orchestras, bedtime stories, and aërial playlets. People turn on the radio before they settle down to read a book, and an amazing proportion of school children prefer to do their home work with the radio going nearby. Like the water in the sink, music, divine and otherwise, runs endlessly from the loud-speaker.
   Young people make love, children are spanked, families quarrel, coal is delivered, Fuller Brush men come and go, and the plumber arrives without the radio’s ceasing for one instant to dispense symphonies, jazz numbers and operetta airs in a loud tone in the living room. Some housewives claim that the radio drowns out the vacuum cleaner. Others frankly admit that their sets aren’t strong enough for that, but say that it is simply lovely for washing dishes or dusting up.
   Now I am not complaining because the housewife has found a way to make her work more pleasant; I am only suggesting that the things that come from the radio matter less and less to her and to everybody else. In theory we should all be mighty grateful for these fine things, but actually an increasing number of us are using “music” as a sort of characterless stimulant. We are interested in rhythms and sounds — in the feeling of being out in the word where things are going on  — rather than in what the music is saying. If peope can go about the the business of a bridge game or a new novel while the radio is working, its sounds must have the same effects as those produced by train, or a noisy office, or the rumble of an ocean liner’s engines. We learn to ignore such sounds, to talk through them and think through them.
   Recently I interviewed a clublady for a magazine article while a near-by radio old me in cultured but emphatic tones that my digestive tract was in urgent need of a certain make of bran. She entirely overlooked the gentleman’s comments. She was immune to sound, vocal or instrumental. Very possibly she had turned on the radio earlier in the day to listen to some specific hour, but either all hours sounded alike to her or else one was quite as good as the next. Possibly her radio has been running all day ever since she owned it. With cheerful impartiality the radio pours for information on Brahms, bowel complaints, baby’s bath and bird lore. You take your choice, or, as this lady did, you take everything.
   But I have no especial quarrel with the radio. It is not only our only source of mechanical and therefor tireless music, by any means. Recently, as a result of hitching up of the radio loudspeaker and the phonograph, we have been overrun with amplified record devices enabling one disk to come booming out of any number of rooms. Thus any institution, fro a hot dog stand to an ocean liner or a shooting gallery, can have music during as many of its twenty-fours in every day as it chooses. And about three stores in every block have installed loudspeakers which provide accompaniments for those who are forced for a few moments to forsake the home radio.
   Let’s be quite snobbish and un-American for a bit and contemplate music not merely as one of the arts worthy of a more dignified setting for its understanding, but as an emotional and spiritual stimulant. Let us consider music not as a wonderful intellectual cure-all which, when taken in adequate doses by entire populations, will produce acres and acres of “cultivated” men and women of the world, but as a highly personal and rather secretive art. Let us take it out of competition with five-foot shelves, little blue pills of concentrated culture, brain-building courses and books of etiquette. Let us remember that music is not simply a “refined” art the understanding and appreciation of which supposedly go with good table manners, good breeding, and good character, but that its absorption and assimilation are among the mysterious processes the human race has yet witnessed.
   As far as the general aspects of a play, a novel, or a painting are concerned, a thousand average human being will carry away much the same reactions. Their likes or dislikes, their emotional reactions and their artistic prejudices will certainly differ; but all will observe the actions of the character, the subject and colors of a painting, or the general outlines of a piece of sculpture.
   Music, on the other hand, more often than not defies a complete appreciation by the layman. It is one of the most intangible and purest arts that we have produced. A march, of course, inspires movement, and a sentimental ditty affects the romantic — but because of the implication of the words rather than through the actual sounds or tones used in the song.
   But in the ultimate sense music is not merely a theme song playing an accompaniment to a pictorial image. It is sheer invention on the realm of sound. By its patterns, its harmonies, its rhythms, and its subtle and infinitely changing nuances, it creates an emotional state rather than a specific picture. Music does not, as most movie-goers have been carefully taught, reach its highest development in the “1812 Overture” (which calls for bells, cannon, a burning city, and other impressive effects of light and color). Music is an entirely personal matter. Ten people sitting in a row go home with ten different reactions — ten different conceptions of what the composer was attempting to convey.
   Obviously this is true only if music is listened to with some attention. Bach or Brahms will be just so much noise and nuisance if they have to compete with a roomful of ladies at their Thursday afternoon bridge; the ladies will quickly turn to a program of dance music, which is especially devised and executed to be ignored while furnishing the necessary pleasing auditory stimulation. The intricate beauties of Brahms require unflagging mental attention.
   Now possibly our generation, our high-pressure cities, the lack of privacy in our communistic apartment houses, and our enforced scramble to earn, not enough for luxuries, but for mere necessities, will not allow us to indulge in anything so deliberate as contemplation — unless we go to a concert hall where we may sit in quiet and peace only because we have paid for that quiet and peace.
   But when the orchestra is miles away, it can be (and usually is) tuned down to become an accompaniment to conversation or cards. Even in the case of those who might actually want to listen to the radio’s symphony, there are all sorts of distractions. The radio is right in the room: if we have anything else to do — housework, papers to go over, or guests to entertain — it is simpler to do these things while listening to the concert. The same instinct which attracts us to a machine which performs three or four functions at once attracts us to serious music in the home. No more wasting of time in concert halls. No idle hands. No idle brains. Again we are carrying office efficiency over into our music. Anyone who has ever tried to play a radio or phonograph on a summer’s night (whether within the city or country) when windows are open and fancies are free, must realize that “music” is a sort of auditory free-for-all, with with each apartment or cottage contributing its own private version.
   It is then, not so much as familiarity breeding contempt, as of music’s becoming a sort mechanical accompaniment to our daily lives — a nervous stimulant.I suppose we should all be bigger and better citizens and have nobler tempers for doing everything in a musical entourage. Soldiers march better and factory workers are speeded up by a fast tune. But although music for marching or working certainly has its uses, its constant performance at all ours must ultimately stupify and stultify our capacity for more subtle enjoyments.
   One may, of course, take the view that Beethoven played through the loud-speakers beside an amusement park pool (which I can vouch for) is going to give the boys and girls splashing about a preference for better music; but I am afraid this is an idle hope. Music takes listening to. People immersed in water, conversation, or bridge are more concerned with the matter of survival and the immediate physical efforts involved therein, than in some pleasant sounds issuing from a machine.
   Never have so many of us be able to listen to fine music — and never has this music been in so much danger of being used as mere atmosphere. Music is in every home, but what of it? So are water, gas, and electricity — and we accept them all unquestioningly. Music is now more of a public utility than an art, and as such it is rapidly losing its dignity, its power,, and its ability to say beautiful things.

Batty’s note: This was written when widespread broadcast music was less than ten years old. I can't even begin to imagine what the author would think of the modern world!

By Professor Batty

Comments: 0 

Friday, March 24, 2017

The Reader - Week 12

Andy’s Awakening

“It’s your turn,” said Jennifer.

“My awakening or my awakening of someone else?” said Andy.

“Your choice.”

“I was fifteen, maybe still fourteen, and there was a carnival at the neighborhood Catholic Church. Most of the attractions there were for little kids: a fish pond, cakewalks, face-painting and the like, with bingo for the grown-ups. There was a stage, however, with teen-aged bands playing cover tunes. One girl, a little younger than me, was looking at the band. She wore glasses, and had a “duck-face” mouth. We stood near each other, watching the band. Somehow, she was suddenly closer, she snuk up on me, I think. I looked at her and said something stupid, something like ‘Cool band, huh?’ I thought she was cute. I ran into her again, about a week later, this time I was going to the local mall that was about two miles from my house, it had a place where you could race slot cars. She was with a couple of friends, we got to talking, we walked together for blocks. She told me her name—Lynette. She reminded me of my mother. When school started again in the fall, we’d see each other in the hall. There was a girl in my neighborhood who lived with her mother on one of the slab houses on the next block over. I had spent some time with her in the summer, just hanging out. This is terrible, I can’t remember her name. Anyway, she knew Lynette and said that she would be coming over that night. I went over to her house after supper, with my friend Kevin. There were five or six of us. Her mom had a boyfriend that went with her into the bedroom. We sat in the living room and watched TV for a while, and then went out to her mom’s car. Lynette and I were in the back seat. We began to make out.”

“Did you touch her? Petting?” asked Jennifer.

“Yes. She got pretty excited. I was excited too.”

“I’ll bet you were. What did that lead to?”

“Nothing. Nothing with me that is,” said Andy, “But later on she did get pregnant. It was with a guy who lived on the next block, he lived in a house that only had grass in the yard—no trees, no flowers, no shrubs. I guess he was under stimulated. I saw her a few years later, on the bus, we talked a little. she said that she found Jesus.”

“You caused her to get pregnant, from a groping session in a car?”

“I don’t know. I felt responsible, somehow, for making her sexually active,” said Andy, “Maybe she was wanton. But I don‘t think so. Am I a bad person?”

“Fifteen? She was fourteen? If you had been caught now you’d be on the sex offender registry. I’m not going to hold it against you. Kid’s stuff. You kept your pants on?”

“Oh, yes. I stayed away from girls… in high school at least, after that.”

“But you’ve had other relationships since high school, I hope?” said Jennifer.

“I just broke up with someone a few weeks ago.” Andy said, quietly.

“You aren’t ready to try again, are you?”

“No. I suppose not.”

“Look. I’ve got some things I have to do today,” said Jennifer, “Here’s my number. Call me tonight. We can work on this some more, later, if you want. We won’t drink so much.”

“I’d like that. Thanks for talking to me. I’ve never discussed this with anyone before. Do you need a ride?”

“No, I’m good. I can use the walk,” said Jennifer, “Thanks for breakfast.”  She got up and walked out the door.

Andy cleaned up the breakfast dishes and sat down with his pile of manuscripts.

The Reader is serial fiction, published every Friday.

By Professor Batty

Comments: 1 

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Offered Without Comment

By Professor Batty

Comments: 2 

Monday, March 20, 2017

Road Trips

The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
G is for Gumshoe by Sue Grafton

Three books, each with connections to my recent road trip to Slab City, the squatter’s village in Southern California.

Kerouac is the godfather of all the “young male on a spiritual quest” novels. His Dharma Bums has extended sections taking place in parts of rural Southern California with hoboes, drifters and free-thinkers in the 1950s. Along with On The Road, it has infected  young minds with the idea of hitting the road to find spiritual revelation. It is a noble intention and Kerouac's main character, Ray Smith, is a true believer even if his grasp of Buddhism is somewhat child-like in its simplicity. The important thing is that these two books inspired millions of young men to leave civilization, hit the road and explore America. Whether that blueprint is a good or a bad thing depends on your own “Dharma.”

Chris McCandless was one of those young men. His story of leaving civilization and ultimately perishing in the Alaskan Wilds is the subject of this popular book and the equally successful Sean Penn movie of the same title: Into the Wild. McCandless stayed in an “outsider” area around the Salton Sea before his ill fated trip. That settlement was later destroyed, parts of the movie were filmed in nearby Slab City (with a young .) I wouldn’t be surprised if McCandless had read and was inspired by Kerouac’s books.

Sue Grafton, the highly successful mystery writer, was also intrigued with the Slab City. Her 1990 book “G is for Gumshoe” devotes several chapters to Slab City and nearby areas. Her journal about the writing of the book mentions several visits. I read the book at the suggestion of my frequent commentator Oroboros and was suitably impressed. Grafton’s impressions of the Salton Sea area certainly synced with mine. It is formula fiction: high on description and action, low on anguished ruminations; the heroine is a woman who acts impulsively, sometimes to her own detriment. Grafton, with a background in TV writing, knows how to keep a story moving along.

By Professor Batty

Comments: 3 

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Reader - Week 11

Breakfast Epiphany

“You must have been having a sweet dream,” Jennifer said while buttering toast, “You were smiling in your sleep.”

“A dream about an old friend,” said Andy, “A dear friend, someone I don’t see anymore.”

“A not so-rude-awakening. A sex dream?”

“Yes, it was a sex dream.”

“What happened?” said Jennifer.

“She’s been in Hawaii for twenty years now. She works in the Honolulu Zoo,” said Andy, “She was always a critter person… It’s funny that I had a dream like that. We were never lovers.”

Jennifer put down her toast.

“I meant, what happened in the dream?” she said, “No, don’t tell me. But do, tell me about this ‘relationship’ that wasn’t sexual.”

“I, uh…  the joy of being physically near someone, a woman that is,  without the… the fear,” said Andy.

“Are you afraid of me?” Jennifer said, smiling, but Andy could sense that she was serious. “Is that why you drank so much last night you passed out?”

“That sometimes happens,” said Andy, “I guess I am.”

The sound of toast crunching.

“When you were young, did you ever sexually awaken someone?” said Jennifer.

“What kind of question is that?” said Andy, “What do you mean, awaken?”

“When I was nineteen, I went to a party with some people I knew at the community college I was attending. It wasn’t much of a party, in a basement of one of the guys in my humanities class who still lived at home. I had never dated in high school, I didn’t like boys when I was young—they were rude and loud. I read books. Jane Austen. Anyway, at this party was Ted, a guy who seemed different than the others. He was talking about things I had never heard of—meditation, nirvana, yogic energy—all that new age garbage. I don’t remember how Ted brought up the subject, but he said that by passing ones hands over, but not touching, a person’s body from the feet to the head, you could increase that person’s psychic energy, bringing them to a higher level. There was a bed in the middle of the basement, where the guy who was throwing the party normally slept. I don’t know what came over me, I suppose I thought Ted was full of b.s., so I said ‘Show me,’ and I got on the bed. He began to move his hands—slowly—a few inches above me, starting at my feet and slowly going up to my head. And then he did it again. And again. And again.”

“Did it work?” asked Andy.

“I don’t know about how much psychic energy he generated, but I was awakened. Lord, I was awakened.”

“What happened?”

“Just then his girlfriend (who I didn’t know about), came down the stairs and that was the end of that, as far as he was concerned. They went into the laundry room. I got up and went outside and cried.”

“Why did you come home with me last night?” said Andy.

“It may sound stupid, but I’m still waiting for Ted to come back; to finish what he started.”

The Reader is serial fiction, published every Friday.

By Professor Batty

Comments: 0 

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Explodo Boys - #5

Traditional country tune, a cover of Hazel and Grady Cole’s Tramp on the Street.

Vocals: Jimmy Derbis, Paul Peterson, Richard Lewis. Mandolin: Tom Pendzimas

By Professor Batty

Comments: 0 

Monday, March 13, 2017

Signs of the Times

Almost any trip to a different culture will expose one to new graphics and signage. Palm Springs and its environs are no exception. Although all the cities in the desert valley have strict signage regulations (to tell the truth, the uniformity of the streets and highways in the area is pretty boring), there are still remnants of unique graphic displays—some from the past, some for the better, some for worse. I found this different kind of menu (an early version of ‘free the nipple?’) in the Palm Springs Historical Society’s exhibit about the wilder days of Palm Springs in the 1950s:

Palm Springs is full of intriguing graphics, including its numerous commemorative "stars" on the city sidewalks.

I think that Jody Reynolds made the cut for being a businessman in the area, rather than for his One-Hit-Wonder status.

The Ruddy Store in the Palm Springs Historical Society’s complex offers a glimpse of the packaging graphics of the past:

The local cinema promotes the mid-century modern craze that remains active in the Palm Springs area:

“Angel View” Resale Stores are just thrift stores gussied up to make them palatable for the Golf-Set, this one has its own angel view in the sky above:

Once outside of the cities proper, things are looser, with eclectic graphics everywhere.

The menu cover (right) from the Ski Inn in Bombay Beach reflects the area’s past glory days when it was a playground for the young and beautiful, a far cry from the charming, if funky, little bar that now sits, forlornly, a few blocks away from the moldering waterfront.

Westmorland, south of the Salton Sea, is in the Imperial Valley agricultural area.

It has a “famous” Date Shake store. It is full of locally grown products, including a wide variety of dates. You can’t miss it—its generic signs throughout the valley announce its presence long before you see it:

The most offensive signage I saw was from The Mattress Showroom. Its ads are everywhere—on TV, in the newspapers, and on all of its delivery trucks, which act like portable billboards. Featuring a wide-mouthed pitchman, I began to think that mattress sellers were the biggest retailers in the area:

On a more personal note, I found this book in the Angel View that had been augmented with not only the previous owner’s underlining, but also peppered with polemical post-its:

But by far most intimate missive I found was this post-it with a price quote that was in a brochure for facelifts (left behind by a previous occupant of our VRBO):

Now that I think of it, I could use a little nip and tuck myself!

By Professor Batty

Comments: 3