On Community

Note: Here is my “Leading Thoughts” column from the September 2019 edition of TREE Press, the monthly gazette of TREE Fund. You can read the latest and back editions, and subscribe to future installments, by clicking here. This article was adapted from a much longer piece written earlier this year, and available on my website here, for those who are interested in reading more about my views on “community.”

If you were to create a word cloud of every document, article, letter, and email I’ve written during my four-plus years as President and CEO of TREE Fund, I suspect that after the obvious mission-related words — tree, forest, research, endowment, education, arborist, etc. —  the word that would show up most frequently would be “community.” I use it all the time, referring to the Tour des Trees as our primary community engagement event, discussing how our work helps the global tree care community, noting that our work focuses on the importance of urban and community forests by promoting research designed to benefit whole communities of trees and related organisms (including humans), rather than individual specimens or species.

If you ran that same word cloud for the four years before I arrived at TREE Fund, I suspect you would not see “community” ranked so highly in our communications. We used to refer to the Tour des Trees as our primary fundraising event, and we discussed how our work benefited the tree care industry, and how our efforts advanced arboriculture, with much of our research focused on individual plant response, rather than forests as a whole. This change in language was not necessarily an organizational shift driven by some strategic planning decision, nor was it a modification to what we do and how we do it directed by our Board or emergent outside forces. It was frankly just me shaping the narrative about the organization I lead, and I how I want it to be perceived.

Calling the Tour des Trees just a “fundraising event,” for example, misses the critical component of how we interact with people as we roll on our way throughout the week, providing education and outreach to help people understand our work and how it benefits them. Saying that we work only for the “tree care industry” seems somehow antiseptic to me, implying that the businesses are more important than the community of people they employ, who collectively engage in the hands-on work of caring for trees. “Urban and community forests” is a helpful rubric in expressing the full scope of our focus, evoking and including big city park spaces, street trees, yard trees and trees along utility rights of way in suburbs, exurbs, and rural spaces. And thinking more about communities of trees, rather than individual plants, helps us better understand and communicate the exciting, emergent science exploring the ways that trees have evolved as communal organisms, and not just as disconnected individuals.

I think my focus on the word “community” is indicative of its deep importance to me, personally and professionally. My desire over the past four years, and hopefully into the future, is that TREE Fund acts and is perceived as part of something bigger and more connected than our relatively small physical, financial and personnel structure might otherwise dictate. I have been awed, truly, by the immense generosity, enthusiasm, wisdom and diligence of the global tree care community, and it has been an honor for me to be a small member of that great collective body, which works wonders, and makes a difference.

Getting ready to rejoin this great community of tree-loving cyclists again this weekend. You can click the photo if you want to make a last minute Tour des Trees gift to support the cause!

A Celebration: King Crimson in Chicago, 10 September 2019

King Crimson’s timeless and titanic debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King, was released in October 1969. The current “Seven-Headed Beast” incarnation of the band have been marking the record’s 50th anniversary with an audacious 50-concert Celebration Tour, which rolled into Chicago’s Auditorium Theater last night. The last time the Crims played Chicago in June 2017, the group (rightly) deemed the performance to be so stellar that they reworked their planned release dates for the year to get Live in Chicago into the hands of those who could not be in the Court that evening. While Marcia and I lived mere blocks from that show’s venue (the venerable Chicago Theater) at the time, the Scheduling Fates had us in the Netherlands that week, so we just experienced the show after the fact via CD, before catching a later date on the same tour in Milwaukee.

And now we live in Des Moines, but this year, the Scheduling Fates actually smiled upon us: I was in Chicago for work this week, and Marcia flew over to join me for the show. This is our third time seeing the Beast, twice with seven heads, once with eight; sadly, keyboardist Bill Rieflin’s wife Francesa Sundsten (who also created the modern Crims’ wonderful art work) passed away after a long illness in August, and he has been unable to tour with the group this year. Marcia and I also saw the fractal incarnation ProjeKCt Two together back in Albany in 1998, and I caught the five-piece 2007 version of the band in New York City. So on one hand, we theoretically know what to expect at a King Crimson show, but on the other hand, part of the magic of a King Crimson show is that if you leave your expectations at the door when you arrive, you’re likely to have a more magical, perhaps even spiritual, experience in the presence of music that transcends its creators.

King Crimson and its management company, Discipline Global Mobile (DGM), are exceptionally attuned to the sweet spots where audience and artist come together to create unique moments that cannot exist one without the other. One aspect of this culture manifests itself in strict prohibitions against photography during performances, flying hard yet consistently in the face of modern social media culture where audience members are often more obsessed with capturing the perfect Instagram shot or getting wobbly clips up on Youtube tomorrow than they are with being in the moment with the music today. Having been to countless shows marred by idiot audients in this way, I cannot tell you how refreshing a King Crimson concert feels with the gadgets put away until curtain time. It is Crim Policy that after all the music that is to be played has actually been played, bassist Tony Levin raises his camera to snap the audience, and we in a spirit of good faith and reciprocity can snap the band as they take their bows as well. I wish this practice would spread.

Another facet of DGM’s audience engagement is their “royal package” approach to the traditional VIP experience. Rather than some seedy backstage grip and grin photo opportunity where ticket holders are shoved through a rope line for a few seconds of reflected, resented glory with their heroes, DGM actually acquires the best seats in the house directly, and invites those who wish to purchase them to a nearly hour-long pre-show conversation with band members and management. We heard, at some length, from Crimson founder, composer, guitarist and visionary Robert Fripp, bassist Tony Levin, and manager David Singleton. And after the pre-show conversations, but before the concert, we enjoyed our complementary signed programs and other high quality merch from our amazing seats in the front row, on the right center aisle. It’s an exceptionally decent and dignified approach to audience engagement, and I applaud it.

I especially appreciated, as I always do, hearing from Robert Fripp, either speaking in person or sharing his thoughtful written words. (For example, over breakfast today, he summarized a portion of his remarks last night thusly). He’s one of a very small number of people in my life who have actively shaped my understanding and appreciation of music not only through what they write and play onstage or in the studio, but also in the ways in which they frame their work and practice, and place their artistry within a context beyond commerce. (Pere Ubu’s David Thomas also comes to mind on this front). Fripp is deeply thoughtful about what he does, and why he does it, and what it means. And he has been deeply committed for decades to sharing the perspectives he’s gleaned from those experiences and reflections, and I find that thought-provoking and inspiring. He’s also very funny, and he loves his wife very much and is never afraid to tell people that, and I hold those traits in the highest regard too. He moves me, at bottom line. I’m glad to spend time with him.

And then we get to the music: two sets, starting at 8pm sharp, wrapping at 11pm sharp, with a sharp 20-minute intermission that began, sharply as promised in the taped welcome from the band, immediately after the first set, and concluded immediately before the second set. After five years together on the road, the Seven-Headed Beast is truly monstrous at this point, making sounds unthinkable in their complexity with brilliant, pointillist precision,  tone and timbre and texture deployed in the full service of the music, which is almost always audibly King Crimson, but which almost never sounds the same, from moment to moment to moment, as the concert careens onward.

Since the Crims’ reboot/relaunch in 2014, I’ve often encountered eye-rolling about the very existence of the band’s triple-drummer front line (Gavin Harrison, Pat Mastelotto, and Jeremy Stacey, the latter most ably doubling on keyboards, often in the same song), which somehow seems to trigger certain critical types into exegeses on excess and essays grounded in stale musical verities from four decades ago. All I can say on that point to the disbelievers is that until you’ve seen and heard it in concert, it’s hard to comprehend how perfect and powerful it is, both in the context of supporting the four back line musicians (Mel Collins on woodwinds, Tony Levin on basses, Fripp and Jakko Jakszyk on guitar, with the later on lead vocals as well), and as an exercise in its own right in high-wire, seat-of-the-pants technical expertise that’s simply dazzling in how incomprehensibly impossible much of it looks and sounds.

Both sets opened with the drummers drumming, and it was delightful to peek up at the top riser every so often and see how much the non-drummers also seemed to enjoy watching their percussive pals playing. The technical wizardry and auditory audacity continued unabated in the early going of the first set, as the gnarly and knotty “Pictures of A City” and “Neurotica” offered a pair of peeks (written over a decade apart) into the perils of big city living, with “Suitable Grounds For the Blues” following as a most apt third element, here in the hometown of electric urban blues. A mid-set block of “Red,” “Moonchild” (with improvised cadenzae from Fripp, Stacey and Levin), and “Epitaph” felt spacious and soaring after the claustrophobic density of what which came before it, though it was no less technical, just less frenetic. Marcia and I got to hear the quirky “Cat Food” (which earned the Crims an improbable lip-synching spot on Top of the Pops in 1970) live for the first time later in the set, which ultimately wrapped up with the electrifying “Elektrik” and the title track from In the Court of the Crimson King, still as haunting and evocative as ever, even with digital Mellotrons.

The second set’s opening drum fest segued into the gamelan-like “Frame By Frame,” which found Levin and Jakszyk harmonizing the vocals sweetly, as Stacey and Harrison created circular marimba tones around them. After a swarming installment from the five-part “Larks Tongue in Aspic” suite, the sweetness resumed with the utterly lovely title track of the Islands album, an almost jazz chamber music number that allowed Collins to shine most brightly as the music swayed and swelled inexorably like the sea against some lonely summer shore. The epic “Easy Money” is featuring new lyrics this year, carrying the themes of economic malfeasance that shaped the original forward into these most venal of populist times; Jakszyk’s wordless ululations through the swelling bridge section gave the song a sense of passion and fire and perhaps even despair in the face of market evils, then and/or now. A potent instrumental pairing of the final “Larks Tongue” segment with a chunky cut from the contemporary “Radical Action” suite returned the band to the knotted instrumental complexity that opened the show. Then an inspirational “Starless” (with its memorable theme, powerful vocals, and that epic building bass bridge that got the audience whooping well before it had run its way back to the final verse and chorus) and a thunderous “Indiscipline” (featuring more of the Drumsons’ incredible “pass the beat” collaborations) carried us into the second interim.

While King Crimson set lists are written by Fripp and presented to the band the day of each concert, always tailored to the moment, never stock repetition of the prior day’s glories, it was a reasonably safe bet that we would receive “21st Century Schizoid Man” as an encore last night, having not yet heard it, and that’s indeed how we ended the evening. Whenever I hear this song — live or at home — I never cease to marvel that (a) it’s half a century old now, (b) it opened a then-unknown band’s debut album, and (c) it was written by a quintet of very young musicians without much academic or technical training between them at the time when they created it.  The song is so titanic, so sophisticated, and so iconic that it simply boggles the mind to ponder the fact that it even exists, never mind the fact that it can actually be played, and then never mind the fact that when it is, it’s as if it’s the most current, most present, most right here right now musical moment imaginable. Everywhere. Always.

I’m not often awed by audio, but that song gets me there, and it was the perfect capstone to a concert that was filled with jaw-dropping moments beyond count. This review is already probably longer than it needs to be, and I could append paragraph after paragraph describing each of the seven players’ performances, but I think it’s sufficient to summarize by saying that their deepest collective strength is how well they work as an ensemble, every one of them using their most formidable technical skills to support the whole, solos (when they occur) appearing less as acts of creative onanism than crucial elements in catapulting the canon forward, upward, onward. As the sole member who has appeared at every occasion when King Crimson has manifested itself live, Robert Fripp often consumes much of the media’s attention and focus, but in concert, he’s the consummate team player, content to create quiet textures from his back corner perch just as often as he called attention to himself with fire and flash, allowing Jakszyk to spin off as many guitar solos as he did over the fully packed course of the evening. It worked. It works. It’s wonderful.

A moving and powerful evening, at bottom line, with some notable elegiac elements for me and Marcia: with our move to Des Moines earlier this year and my retirement from TREE Fund in October, this is the last planned concert of our wonderful years together in Chicago, and the date also marked the 17th anniversary of my father’s death. We remember. We celebrate. Life happens, change changes, and music matters, most especially if we open ourselves to its ministrations, and let it move us as it may.

End of concert photo time. Bravo to all!!!

And here is the post-show view of the sold-out room taken from the stage, courtesy Tony Levin. Click to enlarge, and spot the happiest couple in the front row.

Five Songs You Need to Hear (Slight Return)

About a decade ago, I had a recurring feature here called “Five Songs You Need to Hear.” The premise was to offer a peek into what happened to be rocking my world at the moment, with a focus on things that might be slightly off the beaten track for most folks. I was spinning an older favorite cut this morning, and would have shared it enthusiastically on social media if I still used social media, so I have decided instead to return to this occasional blog featurette about “gotta share” songs of the right now, right here. So with no further ado, here’s another edition of Five Songs You Need to Hear!

“Bleeding” by One King Down: Crunchy, riff-fueled hardcore from the Albany/Troy quintet’s 1995 Absolve EP, with original singer Bill Brown on the mic, before the law chased him out of town. OKD went on to achieve some national notoriety in Straight Edge circle in the years that followed with Brown’s replacement, Rob Fusco, doing the jumping and shouting parts, but this one song, for me, stands as their most titanic moment, and is perhaps my favorite hard-music cut from all of my years as a critic of record for the Albany region’s phenomenal hardcore and metal scenes of the 1990s. The song maintains a stately pace, with a six minute run time, giving itself far more room to grow and swell than most tracks by similar genre bands, with an absolutely killer breakdown for the time in which we must do the circle dancing. (Note that the image on the video is from the cover of a later album, the CD of which included Absolve as bonus tracks).

“The Creator Has a Master Plan (Peace)” by Leon Thomas: Pharoah Sanders’ 1969 album Karma dedicates its entire first side to the 19-minute  “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” one of the most astounding and electrifying recorded freakouts in the history of jazz, if not music as a whole. It’s one of those songs that I occasionally and literally plan to spin, as it requires full attention, and once you start it, you can’t stop it. That is not allowed! Co-writer and vocalist Leon Thomas offered another version of that titanic cut on his own ’69 album Spirits Known and Unknown, preserving the beautiful core melody and sentiment, but in a more readily digestible four minute arrangement. Lovely!

“I, John” by Elvis Presley: My grandfather had Elvis’ three great gospel albums on eight track tapes, and he played them incessantly at his house in Piedmont Cackalacky, when he wasn’t watching Hee Haw. I know and love them all dearly accordingly, and this is probably my favorite track from the three, a weird apocalyptic counting song with a beat than you can darn near dance to. The King is in fine voice and fettle here, and it’s worth noting that this was released in 1972, the same year as his last great pop hit, “Burning Love.” That’s about as good of an absolute “spirit vs flesh” creative dichotomy as I can come up with in a single year from a major artist’s catalog, Prince possibly notwithstanding.

“Long Island Iced Tea, Neat” by The Coup, feat. Japanther: Boots Riley’s incredible 2018 flick, Sorry to Bother You, had a long and complicated creative gestation. The first public glimmers of the project emerged with a 2012 album of the same name by Riley’s group, The Coup. It’s a bangin’ record, soup to nuts, and the 2018 soundtrack to the film provided a perfect second act of new music to help in telling this craziest of crazy stories. This cut is my favorite from the first album, and it features the late lamented Japanther, a deliriously eclectic duo who made the most exciting and trippy noises with their drums and guitars and voices. It was a match made in heaven. I wish they’d both “feat.-ed” each other more often!

“Heaven and Hell” by William Onyeabor: In my remembrance for Johnny Clegg after his passing a couple of months back, I wrote a bit about what a chore it was to find records and tapes by African artists in the pre-World Music and pre-Internet eras. William Onyeabor was a popular Nigerian musician, label owner and record producer who issued an incredible string of albums in his native country in the late 1970s and early 1980s, thought it was damned hard to get your hands on his stuff States-side. After his 1985 album, Anything You Sow, Onyeabor abruptly ceased recording and refused to speak of his musical career, having undergone a profound religious conversion experience. This cut is from his 1977 debut album, Crashes in Love, though you can more readily find it these days via the Luaka Bop compilation Who Is William Onyeabor? (2013), which annoyingly is now the type of thing that populates the checkout racks at your local Starbucks. Grumble. The lyrics make it clear that William, who passed away in 2017, was already thinking about his eternal soul, long before he walked away from music to protect it.

Credidero #8: Complexity

The concepts of “complexity” and “divinity” seem to be inextricably interwoven in much of Western religious and cultural thought. One of the most famous renderings of this philosophical and teleological duality is “The Watchmaker Analogy,” which was explored at length in English clergyman William Paley’s 1802 treatise Natural Theology or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity. Paley opened his tome thusly:

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there . . . Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.

The gist of Paley’s argument boils down to the presumption that when you find a watch, there must be a watchmaker.  So, therefore, when you find a stone, there must also be a stonemaker. And then when you find a perfectly articulated shoulder joint, there must be a perfectly articulated shoulder joint-maker. And then when you find a flaming bag of poop, there must be a flaming bag of poop-maker. Well, okay, actually Reverend Paley didn’t mention that last one. It was just the anchor concept from a humorous collaborative piece I wrote many years ago, in which some colleagues and I envisioned a dialog between Charles Darwin (in Hell) and The LORD about Paley’s Watchmaker Analogy. It piqued my curiosity enough to explore it all those years ago, even if in a satirical form, and it was the very first thing that popped to my mind when I rolled the 12-sided die last month and had “Complexity” selected as the topic of this month’s Credidero article.

Charles Darwin himself also spent a fair amount of time thinking about The Watchmaker Analogy, well before he went to Hell, even. Darwin was aware of and fond of Paley’s work, and scholars have theorized, with clear reason and reasoning, that Darwin’s explanations of natural selection in On The Origin of Species are actually framed and intended as respectful scientific counter-arguments to those made in Natural Theology.  Even Richard Dawkins, the high priest of neo-atheists and father of all memes, evokes Paley in the title of his influential 1986 tome The Blind Watchmaker. The good Reverend’s final book remains in print, and is a cornerstone text in modern “intelligent design” circles. Those are sure some long and limber legs for such a nominally arcane older text.

Given his longstanding popularity and cultural resonance, if you want to frame arguments for or against complexity as a function of a divine creator, Paley’s as good of a starting point as you’re likely to find. Unless, of course, you’re too much of a fundamentalist to see his work as anything more than a derivative text, and you just want to jump straight to the opening lines of the primary text upon which all of Western (and by Western, I mean American) religious culture has been erected:  “And the Earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of The LORD moved upon the face of the waters. And The LORD said, let there be light: and there was light,” sayeth the Book of Genesis, which many Evangelical types interpreteth as the literal Word of The Lord, their God and Savior. A few verses later, as we mostly all know, The LORD went on to make day and night, and stars and sky, and land and seas, and the sun and the moon, and plants and animals, and mankind and naps, with each day’s creations more complex than the ones that came before.

As the very first appearance of The LORD in The Bible highlights His ability to create complexity where none existed before, that seems to be the professional trait of which He (or his public relations team) is most proud, and He continues to conjure up something from nothing (stepping up complexity every time) throughout the Old Testament, in between all the smiting and the flooding and the worrying about what women are up to with their bodies that He so seems to enjoy in His spare time. Then later, when The LORD’s only begotten Son decides to unveil his own formidable chops as proof of his divinity in the New Testament, He does it by creating wine from water at a wedding party, simply by adding that magically divine special ingredient: complexity. Bro-heem Christ could have just ended his career right there and still been a legend.

The underlying viewpoint that increasing complexity requires some force greater than that which mere humans can muster isn’t restricted to matters of natural science. Case in point: Erich Von Däniken’s 1968 book Chariots of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past, and the many sequels and imitators in print and on screen that followed it. The central argument of these tomes is that the design and construction skills behind ancient objects like the Great Pyramids or Nazca Lines or Stonehenge or the Easter Island statues were complex beyond human capabilities at the time, and therefore must have required inhuman assistance, only in this case not from The LORD, but rather from super-intelligent extraterrestrial beings.

I must admit that I ate those books up as a kid, their logic seeming so very obvious and profound to my 10- to 12-year old mind. But I’d certainly raise my eyebrows and smirk these days at anybody over the age of 16 or so who cited them as part of their mature understanding of the world in which we live, just as I do with people who consider the works of Ayn Rand to be rational adult fare. If we can’t figure out how something complex was built or got done, it seems like intellectual defeatism to simply attribute it to super-powerful unseen entities — either divine or extraterrestrial or John Galt — rather than just working harder to figure it out, and then recognizing that humanity’s ability to create complex objects and artifacts does not necessarily proceed in a linear fashion.

We cannot build a Saturn V rocket today, to cite but one of many examples. That doesn’t mean that those epic machines were built by Jesus, or dropped on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral by Bug-Eyed Monsters. It just means that the industrial base required to build them doesn’t exist anymore as our Nation’s economic, political and military needs evolved. Which I strongly suspect is also the case with pretty much every one of Erich Von Däniken’s examples of the allegedly extra-human skills required to build all of those ancient wonders. Humans, then, now, and in the future, are capable of great complexity in our creations, and if we care enough about something  — putting a man on the man and bringing him home safely before the end of the decade, building a tomb that will last forever, or impressing the ladies on the other side of the island with the chunky heft and knee-melting girth of our massive stone heads — then we’ll work marvels large and small to get ‘er done.

So why do so many people default to the notion that immense complexity requires some form of divinity as its motive force? I suspect it is because the natural order of things is to reduce complexity — bodies to ashes to dirt to dust, cities to ruins to iron to rust — so when we see something, anything, pushing valiantly against the never-ending corruption of eternal entropy, we are temperamentally inclined to judge it special, and meaningful, and not just an anomalous series of natural processes organized in a particular way that slows or reduces or offsets entropic forces for some (likely brief) period of time. In the observable universe, entropy always wins in end, so if we want to believe that acts and examples of increasing complexity are permanent, then a belief in something outside of or beyond that which can be known and understood with our senses and intellects is a darn good way to avoid dwelling on the fact that we and our creative works are going to die and become dirt at some point in the very, very near future, speaking in cosmic time scales.

In looking at casual Christian theology and practice, I sort of like the next order of logical thought that tumbles from this one: if complexity is the realm of God the Watchmaker, then is its opposite, entropy, the particular expertise of Lucifer, His Enemy? The written record on Beelzebub is certainly rife with destruction, and fall, and spoilage, and violation, and war, and madness, and off the cuff, I’d be hard-pressed to think of examples where the Crimson King showed complex, creative chops like those the Father, Son and Holy Spirit trot out at the slightest provocation to bedazzle their admirers. God makes, the Devil breaks, and as long as The LORD stays one step ahead of his nemesis, order prevails.

But if The LORD spent too much time watching over one particularly needy tiny sparrow, would Old Scratch turn the tables on Him (and us) and pull apart the fabric of the known and knowable? I think that when the Beast and the False Prophet and the Dragon are finally cast into the Lake of Fire in the Apostle John’s Book of Revelation, what we’re seeing is actually a metaphorical depiction of the final removal of entropy from the world. I’m guessing that the New Heaven and New Earth and New Jerusalem were seen by Saint John on Patmos as the most fabulously complex constructs imaginable in his time, and that most readers of the Apocalypse since then also envision them in such terms, defined by the norms of whatever time and place that they are pondered. The LORD’s not gonna come live with His people in a humble casita or pre-fab double wide now, is He? Nuh uh. The buildings in that glorious end-of-times city are going to have flying buttresses upon their flying buttresses, and there might even be a Saturn V pad in every yard, plus unlimited pocket watches available upon demand.

I recognize, of course, that I’m being a bit silly here in my analysis of complexity as it’s defined by The Watchmaker Analogy, just as I was being a bit silly when I first wrote The Flaming Bag of Poop-Maker circa 2003-2004. And I guess that’s because whenever I think about that particular argument for the existence of a Supreme Being, it just seems so very obviously and inherently ridiculous to me that responding in kind is the only logical approach to tackling it. There are so many arguments for the existence of God, and so many of them seem more sound and embraceable to me than Reverend Paley’s. I suppose my opinion might be different if I actually thought that The LORD created the world over seven days, some 6,000 years ago (thank you very much, Archbishop Ussher), but given 4.5 billion years for our planet’s natural forces to do their things, with the universe as a whole having an 8.3 billion year head start on our stellar system, I’m not in the least bit surprised by magnitudes of complexity far beyond all human understanding, since we’ve only been collectively pondering such matters for (at most) about 0.2% of Earth’s natural history.

To be clear, though, this does not in any way mean that I do not marvel regularly at the complexity of creation, even if creation created itself. I’m truly and deeply awed by so many complex natural things, from the little creepy-crawly ones that I rescue when I see them on sidewalks to the immense ones light years and light years away from us that I gaze at in stupefaction during the (increasingly rare) times when I have an unobstructed view of a night sky free from light pollution. I’m amazed by the complexity of my own body (creaky as it is), and by the complexity of my own brain’s machinations (awake and asleep), and by the complexity of the sea of emotions in which I swim, loving this, ignoring that, hating the other. I’m well read, reasonably smart, and actively interested in understanding how things work, and I still can barely perceive the tiniest bits of what natural selection has wrought upon the living things around me, as we all hop atop a ridiculously complex ball of elements and minerals and fluids, all governed by forces strong and weak, gravitational and electromagnetic.

Really and truly, I don’t perceive natural complexity as proof of divinity, I perceive natural complexity as divinity in its own right. The complex and ever-evolving canons of chemistry, physics and biology are the closest things I’d admit to admiring as sacred primary texts. I could spend a lifetime studying them, and understand as much as my brain could possibly absorb, and still I would be awed beyond comprehension by the complexity of the natural order in which I function, for the very short, sweet, warm time that I’m blessed to be a self-regulating blob of motile biochemical materials, animated by a denser blob inside my beautifully complex upper bony structure, within which everything that is really, truly me resides, amazingly and incredibly distinct from all of the universe’s possible not-me’s.

At bottom line, I don’t need to worship a fanciful Watchmaker, because I am perfectly content to worship the Watch itself. And the stone next to the Watch on Reverend Paley’s heath. And the tiny dinosaurs that hop around the stone, cheep cheep cheep! And the moo-cow that might pass us all by, chewing a cud rich with uncountable organic oozes, as I talk to the Cheep Cheeps, wishing I had some sunflower seeds in my pocket for them. And the 4,000 miles of metal and stone between me and the Earth’s center as I look down, and the uncountably, immeasurably vast distances above me as I look up, gazing billions of years into the past, perceiving light from way back then as it arrives in the right now on its way to the yet to come. There’s nothing in the Book of Genesis that can rival that, if we’re going to fairly assess things. Nor in Atlas Shrugged.

And now I’ve swung from a most silly approach to assessing complexity to a most abstractly profound one, likely more than two standard deviations away at both ends of the spectrum from how normal people in normal times in normal places would perceive normal complexity. Whatever “normal complexity” might be, anyway. Perhaps that’s an oxymoron? Perhaps it’s a phrase that doesn’t normally exist because it doesn’t need to? Or perhaps it’s just a simple way to describe the chaotic world in which we live and work, driven by complex forces that we often do not see, recognize or appreciate?

I’m inclined to grab that third explanation/definition when thinking about human complexity in human-driven spaces. There’s lots of stuff that we collectively create swirling around us, and when I ponder that, I’m still most drawn to the most complex examples of it, most of the time. I like the Ramones well enough, to cite a musical example, but I adore the far-more-complex King Crimson. Likewise in my taste for visual arts, where extreme abstraction and deeply technical compositions move me far more than literal still lifes and figure studies. My list of top movies is also rife with multi-layered surrealist complexities, while I tend to forget simpler character-based rom coms hours after I watch them. Books? I’ll take the complex Gormenghast Trilogy and The Islanders and The Flounder over the simpler The Old Man and the Sea and Of Mice and Men and The Call of the Wild any day. Man-made creative complexity is good in my eyes. It resonates with me. It moves me. It inspires wonder in me. It represents the spaces where we become most Watchmakery, to return to Reverend Paley’s paradigm.

There’s one weird exception when it comes to my love for complexity, and that would be work. I’m a deep devotee of the “keep it simple, stupid” paradigm in the office, and if you interviewed anybody who’s ever worked for me over the past 30+ years, they’d likely cite my penchant for process streamlining and organizational simplification, and my loathing for clerical redundancy and structural inefficiency. When it comes to my professional work, less complex is more desirable, almost to a point of fetishism. I suppose this could be explained altruistically, with me taking the position that my time equates to my organizations’ money, so that deploying my own time and the other human resources around me most efficiently represents a truly ethical approach to stretching our resources as far as they may be stretched. But I think the honest reality is that I view work as a thing that has to be completed before I can play with the complex things that move me more deeply, so by taking the least moves possible to achieve desired professional outcomes, I can preserve the energy I need to take the most moves possible toward the complexities that most amuse and entertain and inspire me. “Wasting time on the man’s dime, yo!” There’s a professional creed to motivate the masses, for sure.

If simple work is the opposite of complex fun, just as entropy is the opposite of creation, just as the Devil is the opposite of the Watchmaker, then we’ve got to wrap back around to opening arguments and conclude by accepting that work must be the purview of Satan, and play must be the purview of God, and that we model ourselves most clearly in His image when we frolic in fields of phlox and fescue and philosophy and felicity and feeling and friends and family and festivity and fun.

I’m ultimately happy to embrace such a simple truth when staring into the awesome face of such a stupidly, gloriously complex universe as ours!

Step aside, simple ones! Complex Nazca Line Building Alien coming through!

Note: This article is part of an ongoing twelve-part writing project. I’m using a random online dice roller to select a monthly topic from a series of twelve pre-selected themes. With this eighth article complete, I roll the die again . . .

. . . and next month I will consider Topic Number Eleven: “Eternity”

All Articles In This Series:

Credidero: A Writing Project

Credidero #1: Hostility

Credidero #2: Curiosity

Credidero #3: Security

Credidero #4: Absurdity

Credidero #5: Inhumanity

Credidero #6: Creativity

Credidero #7: Community

Credidero #8: Complexity

 

Lessons I’ve Learned From the Tour des Trees

We are down to less than a week before this year’s 80 Tour des Trees riders have to meet their minimum fundraising goals, and the team as a whole is within $10,000 of our total goal for the year, hooray! If you want to help somebody get ‘er done here at rug-cutting time (or if you want to help push me up the leader board), you can click on the image above and support any of our riders. We should definitely hit our $300,000 mark this week, so I am hoping that when all’s said and done, we can be above last year’s $327,000 mark before the week of actual riding ends. The more we raise, the more research we fund or endow in next year’s budget, so it’s win, win, win to raise more, more, more!

I have to be at our office in Naperville the week before the Tour, so next week is my final training window. I feel in good shape at this point. It’s easier to do training rides in Des Moines than it was in Chicago, for sure. I’ve ridden a couple of centuries already this summer, and did a five-day unsupported week of 305 miles, so being in the peloton with regular rest stops, support and meals that I don’t have to carry should make the actual week’s tally of about 450 miles with one century and less climbing than we had last year in Ohio more than attainable. I won’t be winning any time trials, but I’ll be back at the barn before dinner every day, and that’s what it’s all about.

While this will be my last Tour as CEO of TREE Fund, I do intend to keep riding it in the years ahead, so long as my ever-more-creaky body allows. I was thinking this week about the things that make the Tour des Trees special, and some valuable life lessons learned on the road over the past four years popped into my mind, so I thought I would share them with you here. I’d welcome any of your own lessons learned in the comments!

1. When life gives you free lunch, you eat it.

2. When everybody stinks, nobody stinks.

3. Love every single glorious descent, because you will be punished for each one later.

4. No matter how many gears you have, life will always throw something at you where none of them are quite right, and you just have to grit your teeth and grind it out.

5. There’s nothing wrong with being able to recognize your friends by their butts.

6. Knowing you have support in front of you, behind you, and alongside you makes everything achievable.

7. No matter how nice your bike is, somebody else always has a nicer one.

8. A ride with no trees makes it most clear why we ride for the trees.

9. You’ll never have nicer conversations than the ones you share on a journey with fellow travelers.

10. What happens on the Tour does not stay on the Tour: it ripples outward, over space and time, and makes the world a better place.

Ride on! See you soon in Tennessee and Kentucky!

A Most Atypical Song (Or Ten)

I have a fond spot for The Police’s 1983 album Synchronicity, having first played it (many, many times) right after its release, on a Sony Walkman while out in the North Atlantic for a couple of months on an epic sailing adventure. It was a great soundtrack for laying atop the ketch’s pilot house at night, gazing up at the incredible offshore stars, singing along to “King of Pain” and “O My God” and being angst-ridden like nobody’s business. (Yeah, The Police were still borderline edgy when that album first came out, kids, as Sting had not quite yet become STING!).

I occasionally load Synchronicity up onto my iPods for nostalgia’s sake, and yesterday the randomizer queued up its fourth track, “Mother.” I would bet very good money that this song is the most skipped/least played of any track released on any Police studio album, hands down, no question, end of argument. Why? Well, if you don’t aren’t familiar with it, give it a spin:

Long way from “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” and “Every Breath You Take,” huh? That’s guitarist Andy Summers singing, and he wrote the thing too, where Sting obviously composed and sang the lion’s share of the Police canon. (Drummer Stewart Copeland also chipped in on occasion, but his voice and compositional styles were close enough to Sting’s that I don’t think casual listeners would even notice the difference). “Mother,” on the other hand, sounds nothing like the rest of the group’s catalog, standing as a true, weird, “what were they thinking?” outlier on an otherwise hugely popular album.

I should note here for the record that I actually love Summers’ mutant blues ode to his maternal frustrations, whereas I suspect that most Police fans most emphatically do not. This got me to thinking about other groups whose catalogs contain such one-of-a-kind, what-the-hell-is-this numbers that somehow made the cut for release, and have likely been ignored (at best) or hated (more likely) ever since listeners first spun them, and then never did so again. There are some fairly obvious cases where some big names did some big experimental things (e.g The Beatles’ “Revolution 9” or Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music”), but I kinda sorta think in those cases that the artists in question knew they were doing something that nobody really wanted to hear, for their own edification. More interesting (to me, anyway) are cases where artists put out cuts within their main studio album catalogs that were nominally song based and listenable, but which diverged so radically from their creators’ “normal” sound that they have mostly ended up being known (if at all) as the songs that the artists’ fans most love to hate.

I scrolled through my music library this morning and found ten fine examples of these most atypical songs, which I share below. Probably not surprisingly, if you know me and my weird tastes, I’m actually fairly fond of a lot of them, though a few are such transgressions that they even rub me the wrong way. I provide some brief statements of context on what makes each of them so anomalous, and a summary judgment on how I feel about the cut in question. Git to listening!

Genesis, “Who Dunnit?”: So let’s make one thing clear right up front: I am not a Phil Collins hater, by any stretch of the imagination. Phil is great. He really is. He just tries too hard sometimes, and we can’t gig him for that now, can we? (You don’t need to answer that). I regularly listen to the Philisis era albums Wind and Wuthering (1976), . . . And Then There Were Three (1978), Duke (1980), and Abacab (1981) more than I do any of the Peter Gabriel-fronted records. “Who Dunnit?” is from Abacab, which I consider to be the last great Genesis studio album. It’s one of two anomalous songs on the disc: “No Reply At All” features the Earth, Wind and Fire horns — but by the time it came out, people had already heard Phil sing with brass, so it wasn’t that much of a departure — and then there is this thing, a goofy, noisy Prophet V-fueled New Wave sort of number with ridiculous lyrics being delivered ridiculously, years after New Wave stopped being fun. Amazingly enough, they actually played this one live for a (short) while, with bassist-guitarist Mike Rutherford playing drums while Phil mugged about in the way that probably makes most Phil-haters hate Phil the most. My verdict: I like the studio version well enough, but the live version (see it in all of its terribly glory here) is too much even for me.

Black Sabbath, “It’s Alright”: This track comes from the unfairly maligned 1976 album Technical Ecstasy, and it was written and sung by drummer Bill Ward. It features absolutely none of the ’70s-era Sabs trademarks: no Ozzy howling, no Tony power chords, no scary Geezer lyrics. While subsequent history demonstrated that Black Sabbath could function reasonably well without at least two of those things (most especially when the late lamented Ronnie James Dio was penning and keening the words), nothing else in the catalog gave any inkling of a hint that the band could have made a go as sweet middle-of-the-road balladeers. Had this one gotten single release, it might could have followed Alice Cooper’s “Only Women Bleed” onto the short list of shocking rockers impressing the adult contemporary crowd, lucratively.  My verdict: I love it. It’s a stone cold classic cut.

The Grateful Dead, “France”: When I considered the Dead’s formidable catalog, the anomalous studio songs that immediately popped to mind were Donna Jean Godchaux’s compositions and solo spotlights “From The Heart of Me” and “Sunrise,” just because it’s unusual to hear her on her own given the group’s normal sausage party mix on the vocal front line. But those songs did get some live workouts, and when you hear them that way, with the usual noodling and doodling, it’s clear it’s the Dead you’re dealing with. So for me, the biggest outlier in their canon ends up being “France,” a cut from 1978’s Shakedown Street that was so very ennnnggghhhh from the git-go that the group never once bothered to take it to the stage. Never! The song also bears the very unusual writing credit of Hart-Hunter-Weir, and it seems that those three formidable composers somehow sort of neutralized each other when they put their chops in one place at one time. The Dead were collaborating with Lowell George and his friend, Cocaine, at this stage in their development, and “France” sounds like (at best) some deep album cut by George’s Little Feat, or (probably more approximately) like something you might hear at a Margaritaville happy hour, on a Monday night. My verdict: I don’t hate it, because it’s too harmless to inspire that level of emotion, and I don’t know if I would skip it if it came up on the stereo, because I haven’t been able to get past the studio “Good Lovin'” that opens Shakedown since about 1980. The most memorable thing about “France” is its forgetability . . . one hour after I type this paragraph, I will not be able to remember how it goes.

Steely Dan, “Dallas”: Before their smash hit debut album, Can’t Buy A Thrill (1972), Steely Dan released a single with the Walter Becker/Donald Fagen composition “Dallas” on the A-side, backed with their “Sail the Waterway.” It was definitely pressed, it was definitely released to radio . . . and then it vanished. Becker and Fagen disavowed it from their catalog, on the only other quasi-official re-release that it ever received under the band’s name was on a four-song bargain EP called (sensibly) Four Tracks From Steely Dan, which ABC Records released for reasons mysterious in the Royal Scam to Aja era. That’s where I heard it the first time. It’s a sweet, sweet country song with lead vocals by Jim Hodder, who also sang the stellar “Midnight Cruiser” on Thrill, and was the first member of the original band to get the big heave-ho a year or so later. So atypical-Dan is “Dallas” in its style and structure that MOR country rockers Poco even managed a credible cover of it in 1975. My verdict: I love, love, love it. Hodder did some session work after the Dan, then died in a swimming pool. Based on this cut and “Midnight Cruiser” alone, he’s one of my favorite singers.

Captain Beefheart, “Captain’s Holiday”: A good number of songs on this list (e.g. “Mother” and “Who Dunnit?”) earn their spots because they’re far more abrasive and offputting than their creators’ usual fare. This is the opposite case. “Captain’s Holiday” is from Captain Beefheart’s widely loathed (and not without reason) 1974 album Bluejeans & Moonbeams. The core of his original Magic Band had bailed on him after their prior album, Unconditionally Guaranteed, and the group of largely anonymous sessioneers assembled to replace them have come to be known as “The Tragic Band” for their work on the notably unremarkable Bluejeans. Although he later denied it, the general critical consensus is that Beefheart was trying to offset years of penury by crafting a radio-ready, easy-to-digest record. While a couple of tracks bear the lyrical or vocal quirks that define the man, most of this record is pap, with “Captain’s Holiday” standing as the most egregious of the lot, as the song’s title pretty much tells you exactly what it is: Captain Beefheart did not write it, he barely appears on it (possibly only tootling a little harmonica), while lead vocals are by a group of women, singing such lines as “Oooh Captain, Captain, play your magic note.” That’s quite a step backwards from (say) “Her little head clinking like a barrel of red velvet balls, full past noise, treats filled her eyes, turning them yellow like enamel coated tacks, soft like butter hard not to pour.” (“Pena,” from 1969’s epic Trout Mask Replica). My verdict: This is a terrible song. Truly the worst anomaly in the Beefheart canon.

The Fall, “Pumpkin Soup and Mashed Potatoes”: I’m sticking with the esoteric side of things here, noting that the late Mark E. Smith’s long-running Fall group arguably took significant inspiration from Captain Beefheart’s catalog (they once covered his “Beatle Bones ‘n’ Smokin’ Stones” on one of their many Peel Sessions), though not likely from Bluejeans & Moonbeams. The Fall covered a lot of sonic turf over the years, and Mark E. Smith’s voice is so very distinctive that the easiest way to pick an epic Fall anomaly might seem to be to focus on one of the small number of tracks sung by other members of the group. But I’m going to take a different tack, and pick this jazzbo number from 2000’s The Unutterable album. Yep, that’s definitely Mark singing, no doubt about it. But is that a jazz flute accompanying him? Or worse yet, a synth jazz flute? And did that irascible Northern poet really just sing about how pumpkin soup and mashed potatoes keep his bowels regular? I think it was, and I think he did. And I think most Fall fans tend to avert their gazes and pretend they didn’t hear what you said when you mention it to them. A later incarnation of the band returned to vaguely jazz-informed stylings more successfully, to these ears, with 2008’s “Alton Towers,” a weirder and wiggier beast, and therefore far more popular with the Falloisie, of course. But “Pumpkin Soup” still stands alone, and mostly despised. My verdict: I like it, and it’s always nice to hear Mark and company seeming to have fun. It’s catchy and it makes me smile, and that should be good enough on some plane, right?

Neil Young and Crazy Horse, “T-Bone”: And on the subject of mashed potatoes: Mark E. Smith is happy to have them; Neil Young, not so much. Neil has covered so much stylistic ground over the years that a lot of songs in his catalog could qualify for biggest “Huh?” factor in his collection (I was also thinking about “We R In Control” from Trans, for example), but I think this greasy slab from 1981’s re-ac-tor album is the one most likely to raise hackles, and the most likely to invoke the “skip” button when it comes on. If it comes on. I doubt it does very often. The skuzzy riff is pure Crazy Horse, sure, and it’s got one of Neil’s trademark one-finger/one-string guitar solos, so nothing out of line there (except that re-ac-tor is recorded with such a teeth-grindingly brittle sound that is almost hurts at high volume), but the lyrics and the length of the song are what truly try the patience of the folks who might be hoping for a little “Harvest Moon” when they see Neil pop up on the playlist. Here’s the complete lyric sheet: “Got mashed potatoes. Ain’t got no t-bone.” Now repeat. For over nine minutes. My verdict: I distinctly remember the very first time I heard this song, after walking into a record store in the Jacksonville (North Carolina) Mall when the record was new. It stopped me in my tracks, and I stood there by the cash register waiting for it to run its course, which got increasingly awkward for me and the cashier alike as it went on and on and on. I loved it then, and I love it now, and re-ac-tor is the very best of all possible Neil Young albums. There. I said it. Let’s fight.

Joni Mitchell, “The Jungle Line”: Joni Mitchell’s 1975 album The Hissing of Summer Lawns opens with “In France They Kiss On Main Street,” which wouldn’t have felt stylistically out of place on Court and Spark, her prior, most commercially-successful studio album. I’m sure many, many fans of her work just loved “France” when they spun Hissing for the first time, happy that they were gonna get another fine collection of Joni’s sweet folk-rock magic. And then “The Jungle Line” happens: four-plus minutes of Burundi drums, Moog synth squiggles, and Joni singing a melody line with a tonal structure that might have pleased Arnold Schoenberg, but not likely many fans of “A Free Man in Paris.” Joni pushed her jazz chops ever-harder after Hissing with varying degrees of success over her next three studio albums (Hejira in 1976, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter in 1977, and Mingus in 1979) before returning to more pop-flavored fare with 1982’s Wild Things Run Fast. Despite a wide variety of wild and weird throughout her jazz period, the majority of the music is all recognizably part of the jazz canon, or the pop canon, or the folk canon, or some combination of the three. “The Jungle Line” stands alone, and there’s not much of anything, anywhere, that sounds quite like it, for better or for worse. My verdict: I like the concept and the forward-looking experimental vision better than I like the execution. I’ll usually get all the way through it when it spins, but not always. Which is weird, because I love African drums, and I love Moogs, and I love atonality, and I love Joni . . . but the disparate pieces just don’t quite hold together in any meaningful way for me.

The Pogues, “Lorelei”: The Pogues were a true force of nature when they blasted out of London with their shambolic Celtic Punk debut album Red Roses for Me in 1984. They moved from strength to strength over the next five years, both onstage and in the studio, but by 1989, singer-songwriter Shane MacGowan’s punishing drinking regimen had begun to take its toll on his creativity and performing capabilities, and other members of the band stepped up to try to fill the gaps that their snaggle-toothed frontman opened for them. Most of the tunes penned by other band members on 1989’s Peace and Love and 1990’s Hell’s Ditch were recognizably Poguey, and MacGowan was still singing the lion’s share of them. By 1993, though, MacGowan had withdrawn, and penny-whistle player Spider Stacy took over as lead vocalist on Waiting for Herb, offering a similar slurry, shouty style, on mostly similar slurry, shouty Irish-infused post-punk songs. The group pushed on without MacGowan and a few other founding/long-term members through 1996, but the shtick got old, and the band members went their separate ways soon thereafter. But right in that cusp between the original inspired piss and vinegar days and the tired post-MacGowan afterlife, guitarist Philip Chevron (since deceased) penned and sang lead vocals on “Lorelei,” a big-sounding, guitar-stoked, plaintive rock ballad, recorded with nary a tin whistle nor cittern nor banjo nor accordion to let you know that it had any conceptual ties to the rest of the Pogues’ catalog. Guaranteed to make a casual, first-time listener wonder if the CD player didn’t somehow auto-skip to the next record during that Pogues playlist. My verdict: An utterly killer song that I never grow tired of, one of the most played in our family playlists since I started keeping track of such things over a decade ago. But I almost think of it as a Chevron solo song, so far removed it is from everything else that this group did and stood for.

Paul McCartney, “Temporary Secretary”: I opened this by noting that I am on Team Phil, and I close by noting that Paul is my favorite Beatle, and that I love Wings and listen to them more than I spin the Beatles anymore, and that I see some goodness in just about everything that Paul does musically, always. Classic case in point: “Silly Love Songs,” which seems to make a lot of folks apoplectic for its lyrical content and lite disco beats, but Jeezum Krow, listen to that bass!! That’s a six-minute “Here’s how you do it” clinic for the kids with the four-string guitars. That said, there are certainly a lot of eye-rolling moments in Paul’s catalog, especially in the early Wings days with things like “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “Bip Bop” and “Give Ireland Back to the Irish” and suchlike. But they’re all obviously Paul (and Linda), and they obviously bear the usual guitar, bass, drum, and/or piano-based arrangements of his work at the time. And most of the time before and since. In 1981, though, after Paul’s weed arrest in Japan put Wings to sleep for the last time, Paul issued McCartney II, marketed in title (if not really in reality) as his second solo disc. Paul plays and sings everything on it, bar some incidental vocals from Linda. A good friend of mine bought this when it came out, spun it once, and told I didn’t have to buy my own copy, because I could have his, so terrible was it. It’s heavily electronic, has but one marginal hit, “Coming Up,” which was actually released in a live format featuring Wings to make it more palatable, and it has a lot of dogdy lyrics and wanky instrumental bits. If there’s one song that Macca fans know well from it, and usually hate, it’s “Temporary Secretary.” With nasal singing, misogynistic lyrics, and sequenced backing tracks, it’s about as far from “Yesterday” or “Hey Jude” as one can get. It’s also a sound that Paul’s never revisited, hence me picking it as this great artist’s greatest anomaly. My verdict: I love it, of course. Duh.

So there you go, ten truly atypical songs, most of which I like in varying degrees. Because me. Hit me with other weirdo suggestions in the comment section. I’ll listen to them all. And probably like them as well.