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Archive for August, 2014

The Mechancial Bean Album Cover copyIn May, I released the album “The Mechanical Bean” on iTunes, Amazon.com and other amazing sites where music is (still) sold. This one’s a bit of a concept album and my only double album.

A mix of electronic experiments, American primitive guitar picking and simple pop songs, “The Mechanical Bean” is a mini opera about a family of poor farmers who find themselves possessed of superpowers after a patented strain of genetically modified super grain blows onto their land. At first lionized by their community for fighting crime, they later find themselves sued by corporations for patent infringement and demonized by anti-authoritarians. A son gets sick from the very substance that made him a hero. Tragedy follows. The family is outcast. Maybe there is time in the end for redemption.

You can buy this 22-song album here on Amazon. Or you can listen to the songs in sequence on the right side of this page, starting with the song “Morning (The Mechanical Bean Part 1)” and ending with the song “All Mechanical,” to make sure you like it and won’t have buyer’s remorse.

Enjoy! If you like what you hear, please feel free to write a review on Amazon or iTunes or share my music with others. If it weren’t for good word of mouth, I might start to think this music is all just a dream I’m having.

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When I heard tonight that Robin Williams had died, apparently by suicide, the thought that jumped into my mind instantly was the last line of Cyrano de Bergerac, the defiant claim that the hero would sweep heaven’s floor with his hat and make his “panache” immortal. Whose panache (or “style,” in the often dumbed down English version of the word) was as big as Williams’? To be honest, I hadn’t seen his work in years. Maybe I thought it had become watered down, or that he was pandering too much to broad tastes. Or maybe I thought his “panache” had been created already and needed no constant witness. Style is deathless, says Cyrano. Williams was around and still lurking in my jaded hipster heart, whether I was watching his movies or not. Always I could catch his breathless, voluminous jokes spilling out in a cameo appearance or some talk show. And I thought he’d always be there for me to go back to, so maybe I took him for granted.

In any case, it’s for that reason—his vitality—that a lot of people will say his death feels unreal. As unreal as the sadness in him that only insiders seemed to acknowledge. He was not a suicidal icon. He was the human Jaws of Life. He’s the guy who reportedly talked a disabled Christopher Reeve out of suicide. He’s the guy we turn to when we’re down.

The comic crying on the inside is a cliché. But when you turn it over, you can ponder how great artists become estranged from their own talents, how their ability to summon brilliance in words or movement might become a blank or banal experience for them—a horrifying idea, especially to the audience that craves a connection to the people who bring them joy and perhaps dreams of somehow giving it back. I think of a Williams movie, “The World According to Garp,” a movie I saw when I was perhaps too young because, despite its flaws and weirdness, it had a very strange grip on my heart and even influenced the course of my life. I think of the short story “Magic Gloves” described in the movie, about a man who can make people happy by touching them, yet can’t feel them, and dies trying, and I’m sad again, because today that seems appropriate.

The comics of the ‘60s redefined their art as philosophy, examining the mundane, questioning what language was, what nature was, in an appropriate revolutionary spirit after Vietnam and Watergate. Williams came up a bit later and reflected something very different: the aesthetic experience of life as television. He was as fast in his patter as the boob tube—probably one of the few people who was faster in associative thinking than teenage channel changers—and could synthesize weird cartoon voices, hippie wisdom, unconscious horrors, puerile boy fascinations, feminist critique and political schadenfreude all at once into one experience of being the way the Beatles could synthesize “Blue Suede Shoes” and Fluxus. Williams was the living remote control for the 80s. He didn’t merely give voice to ideals of the time; he showed the experience of all the information noise and offered possible transcendence of it. His style was such that he was like the rocket once described by Louis C.K.: something that sucks everything up into it, including flowers, trees, lakes and (according to a few comedian detractors) maybe other people’s jokes.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Williams’ career and cable TV developed together. Here at once was the benign Mork who offered you “nanoo nanoo” on Channel 5 side by side with Robin Williams the cocaine animal spirit on Home Box Office talking about bawdy sex and the dangers of toot, the red and the blue side by side, the barriers between our Vaudeville silliness and our dangerous private compulsions exploded. (Before that, comedians kept their risqué stuff for when they were “working blue” off camera.) The convergence of 24-hour TV, HBO’s premium content and the unity of light and shadow in Williams’ characters allowed straight culture and the underground to feed off each other and offer us the best (the beast?) of the two.

What did this mean for me as a kid going through puberty? A lot. I almost hate to admit it, but probably one of the reasons I moved to New York when I was 25 was that T.S. Garp told me in 1982 that that’s what real writers did. (OK, Woody Allen helped, and later Lou Reed, Sonic Youth and Thomas Pynchon.) But Robin Williams and other comedians pondering the unconscious on pay cable also offered me a glimpse into what sex was, at least if you joked about it, what religion really was, if you joked about it. There’s a lot that kids ought to learn in school but don’t because there’s no point of view on it. From Williams (and Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy and George Carlin) you got a viewpoint, and thus a narrative, and thus a reason to remember all these confusing dates and places and rituals. Honestly, I only remember what the Edict of Nantes is because Anne Beatts once told a joke about it.

For a not very intellectually curious kid (me circa 1982), Robin Williams offered explanations of who Alexander Haig, Charles Manson, William F. Buckley and P.W. Botha were, and by the way, they were ridiculous.

And it was a talent whose sweep was broad enough for horror. Garp witnessed two assassinations and succumbed to another. Williams did not buckle as an actor in confronting these developments. Instead, his face registered the pain of watching idealism die (those fake assassinations were about real ones). If you were young and watched Mork confronting existential terror, you realized finally that there was a way to reconcile it to your innocence and maybe even your optimism and go on. The comic who had showed you what style was in the postmodern era, was there to show you all the facets of what’s comedy and horror and comedy again.

But ultimately, a lot of his routines were life affirming, inoffensive to the powerful, interested in shared humanity rather than fraying human bonds with acid, which is why the love for him today is largely apolitical. He could joke about childbirth. Joke about generation gaps. Joke about cats having sex (and being offended by the dog watching) in a way that the president or a 5-year-old could laugh at. Sometimes I wonder if that’s the best mark of greatness in art there is—something accessible to a child that you grow to love more as an adult.

Today we have to confront Robin Williams’ sadness, and to assume a man so beloved by millions had no one to talk to about his despair, even to his family and children. Depression, like genius, wants no company. (I think of the wife in Mrs. Doubtfire, who was tired of being in the shadow of such a staggering personality, having all the style sucked out of the room before she could use any, and wonder if any of that happened in Williams’ real life personal relationships.) Both depression and genius reflect, if nothing else, a brain talking to itself, trying to find satisfaction in itself. Depression is both a psychological and neurochemical problem. Whether you’ve seen it work directly or indirectly through somebody you care about, you probably know that it’s a constant headache. A lack of motivation. A feeling of helplessness or a zombie-like feeling of being trapped in your body where you are forced to do things you don’t want to do—like be awake ever again. Pleasant physical sensations like laughter or sexual fantasy no longer succor this person. I would almost go out on a limb and say that the “reason” for being sad doesn’t matter to somebody who’s truly depressed. He or she will simply make something up to choir with the pain. (“The world is awful.” “I’m a fake.” “I’m worthless,” etc.) So as much as I’d like to think Williams simply forgot he was a genius for a brief tragic moment and that he’d made us all happy, what I really think he forgot was the nature of his affliction and that if he’d waited, not listened to himself, he might have emerged from the depths into the arms of those who truly knew and loved him. But what is an artist if not someone who goes on instinct? Could anyone stop him?

I’d like to think we could. Because how many more geniuses do we have to lose this year? Let’s let the kid in me talk: I grew up with Robin Williams, and I loved Mork, and “The World According to Garp” made me want to move to New York and be a writer. Even when Williams’ movies were bad, I often loved watching him make stuff up. A person who helped fill the creative ether with ideas for me to drink from is filling the world with his ideas no more. I hadn’t put him on a list of my artistic heroes in a long time, because I’ve never wanted to be an actor or a standup comedian. But he’s part of my subconscious in numerous ways, feeding my ideas, a guy whose talent I’ve probably at one point or another secretly wished I had. He’s always been an affirmation of life for me. That won’t change because of what happened today.

 

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