Above: an early draft for the cover of what was intended to be Arthur No. 26, originally scheduled for release in Spring 2007.
This issue was delayed til the fall amidst the publication’s ownership transition; by that point, some of the pieces scheduled for publication were no longer available, and Yoko Ono was no longer the cover subject. A real shame.
My biggest regret of all is we lost our massive salute to Sly and the Family Stone, which had been timed to coincide with the Spring 2007 re-release of the band’s entire catalog. The Seth Man had worked so hard, on an insane deadline, to cover it all with his customary sensitivity, scholarship and enthusiasm. Oh, the loss!
In any event, the Seth Man’s pieces appeared in some form later in the year on Julian Cope’s relentlessly inspirational Head Heritage website. Here they are:
Originally posted Dec 7, 2007 on Arthur’s Yahoo blog
While most of the country is stumbling over each other, filling shopping bags with the latest accessories to 21st century life, we at Arthur headquarters are leisurely loading up the annual time capsule in an effort to preserve some evidence of civilization’s existence for future generations. The capsule will be launched into orbit from an undisclosed location in the high desert at exactly 11:59 pm on December 31st and is scheduled to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere, should it still exist, in 2095.
Filling the frontal lobe of the Soviet-designed, cigar-shaped capsule (Ebay score circa Y2K), are two of this past year’s standout reissue programs: the first three Leonard Cohen albums (Songs Of Leonard Cohen, Songs From A Room, Songs Of Love And Hate) and the first three Townes Van Zandt records (For The Sake Of The Song, Our Mother The Mountain, Townes Van Zandt–all available from Mississippi’s Fat Possum Records).
It was a good year to be reminded of the power of song. These collections celebrate two of this country’s finest lyrical poets; the fact that one of them is Canadian only adds to our pride. Both men have been loved and loathed, revered and scorned for their moody evocations of wandering desire, sparse and haunting arrangements, and, to some uptight ears, flat and unmusical singing voices.
While similarities between the lives of Cohen and Van Zandt also abound–the old world family money and education, the brooding depression, the mythical lifestyle of earthly excesses (Cohen: women and wine, Van Zandt: wine and women, in that order)–Cohen was city poet to Van Zandt’s country poet. Cohen sings his songs of self from the perspective of an Old Testament Prophet transplanted in Greenwich Village. You don’t listen to his songs, you enter them, through a haze of incense and cigarettes, at 3 a.m., through an unmarked door in whatever bohemian neighborhood you temporarily call home. Van Zandt may have set out for the city but never quite made it there, distracted along the way by his cowboy fantasies, tumultuous romances, and the winding backroads that lead to the isolated cabin in Tennessee where he spent much of the ’70s. As he sings on “I’ll Be Here In The Morning” from both For The Sake Of The Song and Townes VanZandt, “There’s no prettier sight than looking back at the town you left behind.”
While a finely penned lyric doesn’t seem to be first priority among today’s musical acts, in the late ’60s it must have mattered. Those big 12″ x 12″ lyric sheets were meant to be read and contemplated, preferably by candlelight while huddled around your turntable.
Recorded roughly during the same years (’67-’70) and locations (Los Angeles and Nashville), Cohen’s and Van Zandt’s first three records are each masterpieces of songwriting, modulating from simple love ballads to moral fables to surrealist (some might suggest psychedelic) visions in ways that speak in the particular vernacular of their chosen personas. The songs on these records carve out portraits of what in less cynical times was referred to as the Human Condition. Love, lust, death, demons, and loneliness wage battle among delicate arrangements of mostly acoustic instruments. The voices are deep and grounded, almost unexpressive narrators that belie the turbulent emotions boiling beneath the surface. The production treatment given to these albums is also key to their magical appeal. For both artists, the voice is always front and center, articulated, and clear, but various production anomalies make their albums less of the usual “folk singer” fare and closer to the realm of the more artistically minded “rock” album.
Cohen’s voice tends to embody both a whisper and a growl, inhabiting a rumbling frequency that seems to advance and recede from some dark reverberant tunnel. It is well known that Cohen fought to keep the arrangements minimal and drum-free on these early recordings but as we all know, the devil is in the details. The ghostly appearance of accompaniment by calliope, jew’s harp, strings, spaghetti western guitar, flutes, accordion, a children’s choir, flugel horn, and occasional percussion transport his records beyond genre and make them oddly timeless.
There is a little more variety as well as controversy in the Van Zandt catalog concerning the production that surrounds Townes’ polite East Texas drawl. Unlike Cohen, Van Zandt took a more Laissez-faire approach to the recording studio, thinking that if the songs were good enough they could withstand any producer’s meddling. His first record, For The Sake Of The Song, is almost universally criticized as overproduced, to the point that producer Cowboy Jack Clement has reportedly since apologized. The galloping percussion, droning recorders, wall-of-sound backing vocals, and waltzing harpsichord, all wrapped in a slushy reverb, certainly taint the album with a feeling of Hollywood cowboy kitsch that was probably not what Townes had in mind for 1967. At this distance though, its baroque stylings sound almost avant garde and it’s interesting to hear the energetic arrangements contrast downbeat tracks like “Waitin’ Around To Die.” By the time we get to the third album Townes Van Zandt, his re-recording of this track as well as several others from the first album, has settled into the sparse and pristine production style that would characterize most of the rest of his recordings, but flourishes of sporadic drums and the recurring harpisichord and recorder still sneak in on a few tracks. Our Mother The Mountain was the genre-defying transitional work between the two, and a shamefully underrated monument of late ‘60s musical history, with subtle atmospheric textures and gorgeous string arrangements that elegantly counterpoint Townes’ fever dream lyrics.
If the English language is eventually phased out with future generations in favor of a communication method based entirely on ringtones, the more curious members of this future society will at least be able to ponder the mysterious portraits that adorn the jackets and sleeves of these records. “Gods?,” they’ll wonder at the iconoclastic figures staring back at them. We are fortunate to still know the truth: not gods, but simply men with something to say.
Mark Frohman is Art Director of Arthur Magazine and shares Townes Van Zandt’s hometown of Houston, Texas.
Old people cry, young lovers smile and cynical hipsters get confused when she’s onstage. What is Lavender Diamond’s love-and-ecology frontlady BECKY STARK up to?
By Jay Babcock, with photography by Mark Frohman & Molly Frances Originally published in Arthur No. 26/Sept 2007
Recently Becky Stark and her mother dropped in on Arthur’s Thursday social at a pub in Los Angeles. Talk about the fruit not falling far from the tree: Diane Stark, an ordained minister serving at the Unity Church of Practical Christianity in Grand Rapids, Michigan, effortlessly owned the place. At a table of Becky’s friends, she told stories about her own mother, a spiritualist who gave public lectures on metaphysics in the ‘40s and completed an unpublished book entitled “The Meaning of Love.” She talked about working as a stripper on Sunset Boulevard in the mid-1970s; about witnessing Martin Luther King, Jr. give his “I Have a Dream” speech; about her own life philosophy (“I like to act as if I’m inside a fable”); about how you should hold a loved one when she’s asleep; and, of course, about Becky being born (“She was happy to be here”). Then someone put on Link Wray and it was time for the Stark women to dance—or, as Diane put it, “have a conversation at the energetic level.”
If that doesn’t explain Becky Stark, here are some other true stories. One of the first books she read was a collection of Gandhi’s writings given to her by a friend of the family who was active in the nuclear freeze movement. She joined the League of Women Voters at age seven and in seventh grade, traveled through the Soviet Union with 13 other American kids as part of a cross-cultural exchange initiative called Peace Child. The three-week tour included a stay with 500 Soviet kids at a Young Constables youth camp on the Volka River and participation in a youth choir performance opening for American poodlerockers Skid Row at the Moscow Peace Festival in Red Square. (“Peace Child” was the title of a hit song in Russia, and Becky can still sing it on demand.) From eighth to tenth grade, Becky was the head writer, anchor and host of “Kids’ Point of View,” a weekly 20-minute television show sandwiched on UHF between the World Wrestling Federation show and Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. At 14, she started a local youth chapter of the National Organization of Women. As a teenager, she developed her range by studying modern and romantic opera (as well as Tin Pan Alley and other classic American pop music), but her opera singing career was ended when her body failed to develop the large lung capacity required to sing at a professional level. She studied Russian as a Comparative Lit undergrad at Brown, and dance at the Merce Cunningham Conservatory in New York City. In 2000, Time Magazine published a photograph of Stark wearing a bright yellow dress levitating in front of riot police during a protest march at the Democratic Convention. In 2003, she toured across the country with Xander Marro, performing “Birdsongs of the Bauhauroque,” an operatic fable/comedic poem involving puppetry, keyboards and costume drama. Returning to Los Angeles, Stark worked a series of comical dayjobs and started performing solo as Lavender Diamond and doing stand-up at the Improv and other comedy clubs
Over the next two years, Lavender Diamond evolved from a one-woman act into a four-piece symphonic folk-pop band featuring composer Steve Gregoropoulos on piano, Jeff Rosenberg on acoustic guitar and Stark’s boyfriend, the cartoonist Ron Rege, Jr., on drums. The band’s sadness-and-ecstasy four-song EP The Cavalry of Light was self-released in 2005. At ArthurFest that year, they played into the sun with such beauty that left many (including poet Charles Potts) teary-eyed. During the next year, as they were recording with Vetiver/Brightblack Morning Light/Devendra Banhart producer Thom Monahan, Lavender Diamond were signed by the legendary Geoff Travis to Rough Trade in Europe and then to Matador in North America.
Imagine Our Love, Lavender Diamond’s debut full-length, was released earlier this year to the kind of divided response the band has often received live. Stark’s Lavender Diamond persona is unique: think of a cosmic grade school teacher, or maybe Mary Poppins, returned to talk to you later in life, heartbroken at first to have to remind her former pupils about the importance of sharing and respect for Nature, but happy to encourage you to do better, using music, humor and imagination. When Stark sings “You broke my heart” over and over, pointing her finger directly at specific audience members, it’s a loaded—transgressive, even—move in a culture built on evading responsibility; you can see how it might not fly with every jaded urban hipster. But Lavender Diamond’s music is for the entire school, not just the kids too cool to be there. It’s pop music for peace, simple songs pitched somewhere between Linda Ronstadt, Jefferson Airplane and Yellow Submarine. Or, as Stark says, “It’s lovesongs to the world.”
Here’s part of our recent conversation.
Arthur: So many people think you’re being ironic. Does that bother you?
Becky Stark: I thought our music was simple enough for anyone to get, and so it’s kind of confounded me when people think we’re joking. Why on earth would we do that? Every time anyone asks if I’m serious about celebrating peace on earth I have to say, “Are you seriously asking me that question?” For real. I’m the weirdo? For talking about peace? In the midst of a horrific insane war? What? What have things come to that people think it’s a joke to play music that celebrates peace? I guess that in the performance of Lavender Diamond I am trying to create an antidote to the degradation of our times—it’s like we are trying to run an interference pattern. It’s pretty extreme, and maybe that’s why people think it couldn’t be sincere. I think it’s our responsibility to be understood. Maybe some people think we’re kidding because we look silly. Well, I’ll have to work on my delivery and fashions so that we are taken more seriously. Maybe I’ll have to start wearing all grey and black and frowning! Seriously…maybe we just have to be more elegant…? More sexy? We’ll keep working on it. I probably need to be more dignified and not as loopy. If we’re being misunderstood, it’s because we’re not being powerful enough or intelligent enough in our communication.
Talk about the source for the title “Imagine Our Love.”
Ron [Rege, Jr.] was reading Peace Is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh and came across the phrase “imagine our love” in a passage about covering the world with loving prayer. Thich Nhat Hanh is a peace activist from Vietnam who was brought to the U.S. by Martin Luther King, Jr. in an effort to end the Vietnam War. Peace Is Every Step teaches how to cultivate the strength and power of a loving heart, about love and communication. How to be a peaceful person—a warrior of peace. He talks about how the people he was with in Vietnam had to heal from the war. It is very beautiful and inspiring and heartbreaking. He’ll be at MacArthur Park in Los Angeles leading a peace walk in September. Peace is every step!
Is peace enough?
Yes. That’s the definition of peace, I think: understanding that we already have enough. Peace, by definition, is enough.
What do you think music is for?
Music is for celebration, for having a great time. Music is like touch, language and medicine: it’s for healing, for uplifting. Music is a source of strength for people in a time of trouble. Music gives people a way of expressing joy and sorrow. Music is for communicating poetry and new ways of living and being, for communicating ideas of how we can transform our world and guide it into liberation of the mind and spirit.
The whole world seems to be getting stupider a la Idiocracy‘s predictions. Have we entered a new Dark Age, and if so, how can smart people—the ones who aren’t sharks or demagogues—survive in a devolving situation?
We have to be smarter. We have to grow. We have to evolve ourselves consciously—by being part of the consciousness revolution. We have to build the understanding of the nature of consciousness until it is understood as a fact like the world being round. People have to understand the reality that all of us have power and responsibility and that everyone matters. Everyone is you. The paradox of your own individuation—how at once your life can be whole and part, like a grain of sand—is a source of great pleasure and mystery. What a glorious paradox! It is liberating to discover that your life has meaning, whether you like it or not.
It’s a good thing that our terracidal economies are coming to an end, because our ways are not sustainable. We have to build new models that work so that when the current idiotic models come crashing down, we can be ready with the new ones. An end is a beginning. We have to build the new beginning! We have to be mischievous and intelligent. We have to build templates and demonstrate how to live in a sustainable way. That way it’ll be all figured out and everyone can just copy. We have to make harmonious living delightful. And exciting. And awesome. We should make eco-amusment parks. We could have rides like “It’s a Small World After All”—but everything demonstrating harmony with nature and sustainability. The energy sources for the rides will be transparently built as attractions. We’ll have the artists and engineers create gorgeous, exciting attractions around the energy sources, so that the kids are mesmerized! We’ll have murals, laser light shows. People can come with their families and have a delightful, uplifting, exciting, healing experience that is all powered by the sun and the wind.
I think that if we put our minds to it we can figure out ways to heal our environment. Sometimes I think about public healing rituals for the earth, holistic remedies for planetary toxicity, like our toxic urban rivers. Maybe baking soda would work? The best way to treat completely toxic water is to run it through a system of plant filters. A lot of ferns. Another powerful way to filter water is to run it down a path in the shape of a figure 8—it oxygenates the water. In China, they build gigantic figure 8 sculptures in the parks. I’d love to start an eco-village community that’s built around urban river water usage. That way we can figure out how to clean our rivers and live with them again and teach everyone else to do it too.
And—also—I think the way to progress/survive is to practice radical compassion, to relate to the world in a completely non-adversarial way. It’s a waste of energy to be against anything or anyone. We have to stop wasting energy. Change our energy source. Change our relationship to nature. Change our relationship to each other. Redirect our energy source from fear to love. From limited to unlimited. Perceive no enemies and no limitations. I have a feeling that we can come up with all the solutions we need.
But aren’t some people more responsible for what’s going on than others? Like the rich and powerful, for example. They seem fundamentally different to most people.
I love the rich and the poor just the same—it’s the middle class that’s the problem! Just kidding. It is true that sometimes it is staggering to witness the way that the rich go on with lives involved in the accumulation of power. But the rich aren’t the only ones in the death grip of the paradigm of domination and control—everyone is! Well, not everyone—but a lot of people are. Time to give it up! Sure, debutante balls and Wall Street culture are weird and corrupt but your question smacks of bigotry. Everyone needs healing and needs to grow. We have to stop dividing the world! Stop it! The only way to solve the world’s problems is for everyone to work together and love each other no matter what class you come from. I have friends who are homeless and friends who are billionaires. I used to have a lot of class rage but I’ve given it up completely. I grew up in a poor family, on the wrong side of the tracks (literally—the train tracks were down the block), but I can’t stand all this bigotry. It’s a cult mentality, a false reality. So, stop it. The most beautiful and gentle soul I ever met, who taught me chess and tai chi, inherited billions of dollars when he was 21. He died of a drug overdose on the street a year later. He was so lost. I think if people would have embraced him in our community he wouldn’t have gone astray. Who knows what would’ve happened if he hadn’t died? Maybe he would’ve used his money for good. It hurts my heart, all this dividing everybody up. If you think the rich are different from everybody else, you are operating in the paradigm of domination and control just like all the other idiots! When the earth becomes so toxic nobody can live on it, the rich die too! No one escapes!
Sorry, but you made me mad with that question. Don’t pull that shit. [laughter] There’s no time to fight.
Speaking of dividing up: why aren’t Lavender Diamond playing all-ages shows? It seems like all you played on your last tour were over-21 bars and nightclubs.
We realize that our music resonates for people of all ages so we’re playing as much as possible at all-ages places. We’re organizing a tour to schools where we’ll play with the student bands and choirs. But I do like club shows, though, because you can be more wild and dark.
You once told an interviewer “dancing should be the number one priority of the nation.” But I’ve never seen people dancing at your shows!
Maybe Lavender Diamond is part of the problem! [laughter] People do dance at our shows, but not enough. These days I always wish before the shows that we were making a dance party, but it’s true that we are definitely not making a dance party. That’s why our next record is definitely a dance party record. But yes, Lavender Diamond is part of the problem until we start to make better dancing music. Maybe we need help from the DFA, or M.I.A. Or I could help them, Donna Summer style…?
Who are your favorite dancers? What are your favorite dances?
In terms of historical dancers and choreographers, I love Alvin Ailey, Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, George Balanchine, Maria Tallchief, so many great dancers from the 20th century. Busby Berkeley! I would love to make a musical film with David Parsons’ choreography. I love Ryan Heffington. I want to do some Gene Kelly-style duets. I really love the Singing in the Rain dance, the dance from the end of Lili, and the dances from West Side Story. I love the dead doll pas-de-deux from the ballet coppelia. I love the Balanchine Firebird dance—it’s psychedelic! Twentieth century ballet is so extreme. I like folk dancing too: the polka, the waltz, the do-si-do, square dancing, all the hip-hop dance grooves. I like West African dances—they organize their dances according to ritual purpose, so there’s a marriage dance and a crop dance and death dance and so on. And in Mali they don’t differentiate between the word for language, medicine, and dance. Everyone dances, it’s like yoga—healing codes and positions for your body. It’s like the opposite of ballet. West African dance is all down and ecstatic; ballet is lifting up and is really masochistic. I like ballet but I like the folk kind, not the masochistic high art style. Although I do really love to watch the great ballerinas, with them it doesn’t seems to be about suffering but is about ecstasy. And I want to dance with Patrick Swayze! The dance from Dirty Dancing. That reminds me that tango is the best dance ever. I also like meditative dance like tai chi.
And—I love Mecca Andrews. She is my favorite dancer, she dances in our video. I can’t wait to make more dances with her. Also I love the way Miranda July dances, she’s a great dancer. I love the way my sister dances and my mom dances. I love the way Ron Rege, Jr. dances, he’s a great dancer! I love the way Maximilla [Lukacs] dances!
I guess I really love the way that everyone dances. Everybody is a great dancer!