Where is that road headed?

Had to make a long haul drive for work today in an old company van. Because he felt sorry for me, my sweet husband burned some music CD.

“Nothing that makes me think,” I said. “I have to drive for four hours starting at 5 AM. “

I started with the Isley Brothers, which was some good funk. On to Van Halen (because I might as well Jump), and through Shirley Brown.

No man should give his lady a Shirley Brown album. I was loving how good she was, and grateful that Chris had introduced me to her, but men do not come out looking good after she’s done singing.

It was a long stretch of highway. Let me tell you.

Now, the next one. “Hello. I’m Johnny Cash.” At Folsom prison in 1968.

I know two things about the next week or so. I will be listening to this music wherever I drive and I will not be wearing mascara.

You could fly around the world on a jet plan in 1968. But Johnny Cash was playing the guitar like a railroad train. A train. And everything about it made sense. It still does as I am driving the interstate.

Who made this interstate? Some high school dropout making Davis Bacon?  As the white lines flick past me making a trip for a boss I don’t like to fix a machine that nobody uses and somebody broke on purpose—the story of John Henry is making me cry.

John Henry killed himself to prove a point nobody believed, but everyone hoped could be made.


Trains take you places. Maybe it was your idea. But once you are on it, it’s not a choice anymore.

Chugga chugga Chugga chugga

The highway, now, that’s freedom! On the Road! Great Gatsby


Once you are on it, though, maybe it’s not a choice. Keep up with the flow of traffic, stop and go or break your neck.

This automobile that we don’t even know how to fix anymore without calling in a specialist, that we pay and clean and park and house—we think it’s independence.

At least a train would let you ride for free if you were fast enough to catch it.

I’m not saying that we should go back to trains—as if we could! That train left the station even before Johnny Cash and the other country and blues artists made it a symbol.

In 1968 Johnny Cash was singing to the rhythm of the train tracks. The same radios were playing songs that led to protests and “damn the man!” and “Fight the power!” and teaching people to resist the establishment.

That’s not what’s on the radio now.

We are products of our times. Shall we admire the jail cell with GPS that we spend the teaspoons of our life on–maintaining and paying for? Yes we shall. Yes, I do. I do not always recognize that Automobile and that interstate and that parking space as the non-choice it is.

I don’t know what the answer is. I’m so sorry for all the John Henrys. But I do not want the guitar music of the train tracks, as my car bumps over the potholes and jagged asphalt to be lost on me, even if I don’t know what exactly to do about it. Even if I can’t make as many choices as I’d like right now.

John Stuart Mill, I have to drag you into it again,

“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.”

I am not asking for a revolution. I can’t do a revolution right now. But I don’t want to forget the other sides of the question.

Poetrychoir: view, inter- and re-

Inspiration House Poetrychoir: the Spoken Word in the Neighborhood

At 9 p.m. on February 28, Peter J. Harris, host of KPFK’s Inspiration House, organized a Poetrychoir at the Rock Rose Art Gallery at 4108 North Figueroa in Highland Park. The theme for the event was achieving peace.

Inspiration House airs on 90.7 FM Monday nights; from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. Harris founded the show, which features a single poet speaking aloud their work over musical accompaniment.

The Poetrychoir event was based on the same model as Inspiration House performances, however a total of seven poets would perform in the same show. This event was the first of its kind. As Harris said, “I wanted to bring voices together in a format where we could sorta sing.”

The poets were Peter J. Harris himself, and Gloria Alvarez, Carlos Ramirez, Sequoia Mercier, V Kali, Jawanza Dumisani, and finally Dorian Merina. The accompanying musicians were Michael Ligon on the baby grand piano, Marcos Loya on bass, and Rafael Robledo played the guitar. The performers had not rehearsed together, or been told what they were expected to do. The event was meant to unfold. As Harris said, “If you trust writers—trust their creativity and their intelligence—the rest is the gift of improvisation.”

As the musicians prepared the audience for what they were about to hear, Harris stepped up to the microphone, “Put down your gun. Pick up your baby,” he said. As he spoke out his poem, the night’s event began.

Harris introduced the other poets with this statement: “The writers that will join me are writers of uncommon witness, of long voice.” When he finished introducing the poets and the audience, each poet spoke their poems in turn. Unaware of what to expect from each other until after it was voiced, the poets chose their pieces to fit the moment and the performance.

The musicians played beautifully behind the poems, pausing occasionally to catch the feeling of the new poem being brought out. Ligon described it this way: “a lot of gospel, spiritual and soulful music.”

The poets were different from one another. Alvarez frequently used Spanish and English together in one poem; V Kali liked to use images from music, even singing occasionally as part of the poem. Ramirez used his poetry to describe with frightening realism scenes that seemed to be actual events from his life. Mercier took the opportunity to highlight her poems of physical pleasure and intimacy. Dumisani placed his words together to create diamond-cut meaning. Merina took the simplest ideas and used them to open the gates of heaven.

The choir was a success. The beauty of the music and the spoken words absorbed the listeners. It was an extraordinary event.

The surroundings for the performance were helpful to contemplating peace as well. The Rock Rose Gallery had a display of visual arts—paintings, sculptures, mosaics, and others—with the theme “Visions of Peace.” The gallery’s director Rosamaria Marquez said, “Creating a sense of community through the arts, that’s our mission at Rock Rose.” Rock Rose has an active community calendar, often with several events each week.


I got a chance to see the works of Thomas Struth this week at the Museum of Modern Art here in downtown LA. I made a point of going to the MOCA , since I believe in the importance of art and art museums. It’s funny, I’ll go to huge lengths to spend an entire day at a museum when I travel, but if it’s nearby and convenient, I have trouble finding the time.

The MOCA is a small museum, which is good because I only had my lunch hour to see it. Also, the “contemporary art” title made me curious as to what I should expect. It’s funny, but you can’t call it “Modern” art anymore. Modern art is the art of a specific period, which, ironically, is in the PAST. Those who categorize and subdivide are soon going to run out of words.

But contemporary art right now means Thomas Struth, among others. His works on display were photographic. Big photographs. I’m concerned with three kinds of things he took pictures of:

Patches of jungle
Major City streets
People in museums looking at incredible art

In his jungle shots, there were no people, only plants. In this respect, Struth was the only human touch in the scene. The plants grew untamed in an order completely without human intervention. Struth’s choice of angle and lighting for his photograph was the only external influence upon the profusion of flora represented in the work.
The city views he photographed were the exact opposite. Every object in the frame was something created by humans. Sidewalks, streets, skyscrapers, billboards, streetlights, even the clothes on the passersby were all products of human choices and endeavor. And yet…The scene in total was more random than each individual choice. In the same way that each plant in the jungle photos sprung up according to it’s own needs and volition, it seemed as if each man-made object in these city scenes had sprung up out of distinct and different wills and desires. The scene was chaotic and conflicting, with different goals and philosophies expressed. The people walking through the streets all had their own purposes in mind, mostly unaffected and undeterred by their surroundings. There was not really an over-arching plan in the arrangement of these big and small objects, they sprang up according to desire and need.

The progression of subjects in these photographs from purely natural to purely man made reminded me of something…It wasn’t until I put it together with the photos of people in museums that I remembered…The aesthete movement in Victorian England.
Walter Pater started it, and Oscar Wilde finished it. “Art for art’s sake” was their slogan. As I remember it, Pater wrote up this whole argument that artistically refined art is the better.

Think: refined like sugar.

He said, Nature is beautiful, yes. Go out and receive the beauty of a sunset. But you might be disappointed. It would be better by far to go to a museum and observe a painting of a beautiful sunset. But if that is a better idea, then it might be even better to read a beautiful critical piece about the beautiful painting of a beautiful sunset.
The art critic’s piece would be beauty (aka art) processed, refined, three times. He rhapsodically concluded that it must therefore be the highest and best
I’m not making this stuff up. He had a lot of adherents in his day.

So the photos of the jungle are once processed, just nature turned into a photograph. The next one was cities, human-processed nature, turned into art.

But don’t stop there!

We now arrive at the photographs of people in museums looking at the art. Which is a little weird, because I was in a museum looking at photos of the people looking at art in a museum.

I think Pater would have been curling his toes in glee.

I was thinking of Puff Daddy. Are these photos the equivalent of remixes? Like in P. Diddy’s remixes, I was paying attention to the hook. Me and my friend kept commenting on the beautiful paintings in the photo. Of course! They were astounding and beautiful and all the things that we love to go to museums for.

What if there was a 99-cent museum gallery, with nothing in it but prints of great works of art? I bet we would enjoy it still.

Just a thought.

I’m still not sure about Struth. I respected the jungle and city shots, but I am uncertain about the museum shots. What was the originality of his product? How much of himself was he really adding?