Monday, June 28, 2010

Spinning Vinyl

It’s just soooo good. It’s an activity that reminds me every time of the difference between doing what genuinely makes me happy, and everything else. It’s just that clear, that enjoyable.

I get a chance to spin vinyl again this weekend. I’ll be doing a late night gig at the Dominion on Queen, Saturday and Sunday, from about Midnight to 3. It’s a side venue to the Toronto Jazz Festival. There’ll be live music throughout the evening, and I come on with the vinyl dessert, for an “after hours” set especially sanctioned for the festival.

I’m at the bottom of the roster, which is just right. Not only am I not a musician, I don’t even do anything fancy with the turntables. There’ll be no scratching and no mixing during my set. All I do is put the records on, and play them. If the music isn’t good, then I can’t be. Nothing fancy about it.

And yet, I delight in bringing an added dimension. That dimension is FLOW. It matters in what order tracks are played. A tune can have its beauties highlighted or dulled, depending on what tune precedes it. And a mediocre tune, with one or two strong qualities, can become a gem in the context of a flowing set. It comes down to reading and feeding the energy of the room, matching accents and instrumentation and rhythm.

It’s analogous to how language works. A letter is merely a letter. But depending on how it’s combined with other letters, it can form an infinite variety of words. The letters , individually, have little or no meaning. But combined into words, they ascend to a different level. And again, those words can remain pedestrian, or they can soar, depending on how they are combined with other words. And the best sentences are made up of mostly ordinary words, with perhaps one – rarely two – exceptional words to set them off. A great sentence doesn’t require great words.

And so it is with music. Great performances often lack any single performer who is great. And most songs contain no notes that are exceptional in their own right. But a note can be made exceptional by its placement among others. And it’s very much the same with a deejay and his milk crate of tunes. Depending on how they are combined and played, the tunes may make for a very ordinary set, or for an extraordinary one, which not only elevates every tune in it, but also creates an experience that can touch an audience to the marrow.

This type of transcendent set doesn’t always come about, but it’s what I’m so excited about attempting on Friday and Saturday night. My advantage over the live artists of course, is that I have the world’s greatest artists and greatest recorded performances to work with. And as I put together a set, I don’t aim to stay between any set of lines. I don’t plan the set at all, except that I often have a tune that invades my thoughts in the preceeding days, and that becomes my opener. After that, it all depends on which 5-10% of my collection I’ve opted to bring along. And that choice will depend a lot on impulse and intuition. But the selection will be diverse.

It will have jazz as its foundation, but will also contain rock and R&B, blues and soul, some funk, lots of fusion, a dash of poppy disco, a country tune or three, and even something classical. I’ll spin Miles Davis alongside Joni Mitchell, and King Crimson with Keith Jarrett. I’ll sample Taj Mahal, Duke Ellington, The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Dianne Reeves and Ornette Coleman; the Supremes, Weather Report, George Benson, Milton Nascimento and Cleo Laine. I’ll throw in some Sweet Honey in the Rock, right on top of some Mahavishnu Orchestra, then flavour it with Earth, Wind & Fire, Flora Purim and The Manhattan Transfer. And Anita O’Day will lead into Herbie Hancock, while Otis Redding meets Steely Dan, Masekela and Horace Silver.

It will flow. Guests will make requests and spin us off into other directions. I’ll end up never getting to cuts I thought I’d play for sure, while tunes I’ve not listened to in a decade will find their way into the airstream. It will be magic woven of music. And I’ll be having so much Fun!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The World Cup and the G-20

The Streets of downtown Toronto have become a kind of creepy dreamscape. It’s all connected to the G-20, which begins tomorrow. A meeting of the leaders of 20 of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful nations suggests all sorts of possibilities…or fantasies.

One might hope that there was something celebratory about such a gathering. Mightn’t there be exuberant displays of national pride in this most multi-cultural of cities, with the singing of anthems and the waving of flags? It turns out that there is just such an expression taking place on this city’s streets. But these are related to the World Cup Tournament, taking place a good turn of the globe away, in South Africa of all places, a country that for decades was the poster child for the police state.

Here, in Toronto, in neighbourhoods away from the downtown core, a different sort of dream is being lived out. The World Cup is being celebrated with smiles and toasts and cheers, even by the daughters and sons of those countries (like Poland, China and yes, Canada) that have no teams in these games. To accommodate the followers of the world’s most popular sporting event, all sorts of limits are being relaxed. In offices and malls, in shops and bars, people take time from their work to follow the live broadcasts. Pubs and restaurants are permitted to serve alcohol an hour earlier than usual – to coordinate with the 10am start time of many matches. And police officers stand by and watch street demonstrations in which countless traffic control laws are violated, and take no action.

These joyous, sometimes raucous celebrations, though in content boastful and competitive, have the feel of inclusion and welcome about them. On the day that both Portugal and Brazil entered the tourney, the celebrants of those two nations spilled over into Little Italy, but seemed not to faze or agitate the Azzurri loyalists at all.

By contrast, it is the Downtown core that has come to resemble the other sort of dream. Intimidating metal and concrete barriers have been erected to protect the Convention Centre and the surrounding streets and hotels. Garbage containers and other street furniture has been removed from public spaces, to prevent them from being weaponized by "anarchists". Thousands upon thousands of office workers have been told, or invited, to remain home, and the street congestion lessens daily. Shops and eateries aren’t so busy, and many have closed altogether.

Most eerie are the thousands of police and security guards that are populating the streets, in numbers that swell daily. These officers of the law congregate and move about in groups – six, eight, often a dozen or more – on foot, on bicycles, motorcycles and horses, in cars and vans and buses. There aren’t only the local police, but groups from Peel Region, from Calgary, from the OPP and the Mounties, and who knows where else. We are told that each national delegation will bring its own security force, to remain always in close proximity to the head of state.

The security forces are watching everything, stopping and questioning those who fit whatever criteria have been determined to merit inspection, checking identification, granting and sometimes denying access to streets and buildings. Some are inspecting alleyways, and the dirt around potted plants, and peering into dumpsters. But mostly they are standing about, preparing, waiting, and looking Together, these elements combine to create a sense of dis-ease and forboding. We’ve been told to keep away unless we have pressing business, and while these are in fact our neighbourhoods and places of business and entertainment – our streets – there’s the sense that, perhaps one ought not be there.

It’s all being done in the name of preventative security, of course, to keep from happening what we all know has happened in so many of the other cities that have hosted a G-8 or G-20 summit in recent years: an explosion of Angry Protest.

I won’t attempt to sketch out the issues or the political lines here. What’s wrong with the G-20, if anything? What are they doing here? What do the protestors want? What’s all this hoopla about ‘football’ anyway? I leave all that sort of analysis to others. Well, not entirely so. It’s just that there are questions and answers I will work through in my own life, in my work, with my families, and in my communities. And I will try and live my answers there, and hope that they are a part of leading us to a saner place.

But even so, sometimes there’s an awful lot to be gained from a study on the most superficial level. And visually, experientially, this coming together of World Cup fever and G-20 urgency presents a most interesting contrast. In preparation for the playing of a huge, global sporting event, in which every partisan bleeds for his or her country to emerge alone and victorious, the liquor laws are relaxed. And in preparation for the coming together of the World’s Leaders, for the alleged purpose of collectively and cooperatively addressing the world’s most pressing problems, cadres of police are brought in.

The soccer matches are thousands of miles and an ocean away, but can be seen anywhere and everywhere. While Harper, Obama, Merkel, Hu, Medvedev, et al will be right here, but will be seen and heard by very few.

At the end of the World Cup, when there’s only one team left standing, there will be no tangible benefit to anyone, except for a few bettors and pub owners. Even the loyal followers of the victors will gain nothing but bragging rights. Yet, the mood on that day will surely be buoyant and celebratory, and even the losers will find occasion to smile or sing.

And when the G-20 has concluded, there will doubtless be lots of hand-shaking, congratulating and soaring oratory about what has been accomplished on behalf of the world. But what will the mood be among the people? And will there be a victory in which we can all share?

A final note. I chanced upon the First Nations protest march this afternoon. It was coming south on University as I was going North. I stopped and watched for awhile, then found myself turning about, at first just walking alongside. But I couldn’t help but join in. The march was many hundreds strong, with marchers of many nations, carrying banners and placards and handouts and drums. I ran into colleagues from a partner agency, and a short while later, into a former client, then a current one, whom I’d been on the lookout for. Over the next half hour, as the march reached and turned east on Queen Street, then north again on Bay, I encountered several more colleagues, clients, acquaintances, and even a long-lost friend. Dozens of police officers stood lining the route on either side, but I detected no sense of threat or animosity. For the moment, they seemed merely a disinterested escort. The power lie in the community of marchers, for the moment claiming the street and the city for itself, and inviting any who wanted to join in, much like the World Cup celebrants in Little Italy a week ago.

When the march reached Bay and Dundas, I broke away, needing to return to my work and the activities I’d planned for the day. I stood on the sidewalk now, an on-looker again, part of the crowd of pedestrians that had been held up, along with a street full of cars, trucks, buses, bikes and cabs. The last of the marchers cleared the intersection, followed by several emergency and police vehicles, and then the traffic signals resumed their control and allowed the waiting throngs to pass through, to shopping or work, or wherever their individual lives took them. Less than five minutes later, I watched about a dozen officers load themselves into vans and drive off. Moments later, the regular rhythm of the city had resumed. It was almost possible to imagine that the march had never taken place...almost.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

My Nature

I don’t much like the color green. I especially don’t like olive. But I love my bike, and one of the things I love most is its color, which is olive green. Today – and surely this will change – I can’t imagine wanting a bike of a different color.

I’m not attracted to skinny women. Yet, I’m infatuated at the moment with a woman I chat with mornings in the coffee shop, and who is quite slim.

I don’t relate to the ritual or the strict guidance of religion, but I find prayer to be a sublime act, and I once took communion during a Catholic Mass (I’m not Catholic in any way) and felt spiritually renewed by the act.

Cars don’t much appeal to me, but I love to drive.

I regularly proclaim that I love all kinds of music, except country, opera and heavy metal. And yet, particular arias have moved me to tears, I love the way KD Lang spins a ballad – or Patsy Cline, for that matter – and I once, unintentionally, saw AC/DC in concert, and was blown away by their gut-pumping soul.

I don’t like my food on sticks or skewers, unless it happens to be souvlaki.

I hate lies and deception, but I love secrets

The public coldness of Toronto I find sad and disappointing; and I love cities where people speak to strangers on street corners and in elevators. But it annoys the hell out of me when people have loud conversations about their business on the bus.

So does it matter that I say what I like and what I don’t? Do I really even know?

And how will it go, when I’m confronted by that next experience that I’ve ruled out in advance?

Or face that objectionable person that I already disapprove.

Are my rules and definitions of myself such fragile constructs? Or just part of a game of dress-up, by which I cloak my broader nature?

I carry fear of so many things, and yet I exist in this world.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

To the Kid who Lost his Joint in Kingston

I’m assuming you’re a kid, only because of where I found it, on the sidewalk, a block or so away from a church, from where energetically played rock music issued, and young teens streamed back and forth.
The neatly rolled joint lay there on the pavement, even and packed tight, with a rolled up strip from a matchbook serving as a filter, the other end twisted to a point. I might have left it there, for when you came back, anxiously scouring the concrete walkway, your friends restless and impatient behind you, the plans for the night already slightly awry. Of course, it might’ve been anyone else to come along: another young or younger kid, a parent, a grad student from the university heading for one of the bars or restaurants along the quaint streets, or a middle-ager like me, taking a solitary walk to the lake and back, or off to meet a friend.
Of course I wasn’t thinking of all that at the time. I bent, picked it up and raised it to my nose, already knowing what it was, and still surprised at the strong and pleasant pungency that tickled my nostrils. I could tell it was good, and so slipped it into my pocket and continued my walk. Chance had delivered me a gift, and I accepted.
It was two or three weeks later that I came around to smoking it – back in Toronto, after a day of work. It was a hot afternoon, and I’d been back and forth through town all day long, seeing clients, sending and receiving messages from other workers, patrolling some of the downtown parks and street corners. At the end of my day I decided to lounge along the lakeshore, and I remembered your gift. I made the trip home to fetch it, and a book and a bottle of water, and I headed out again on my bike, pedalling the paths down to the edge of the water. Then I stopped and stretched myself on a patch of grass. I passed your joint under my nostrils again, to savor the fragrance, wet it to keep it burning slow, lit the tip with a lighter, and took three slow, careful sips, tasting the smoke and holding each toke in my lungs a bit before taking the next, then stubbing it out on a piece of bark.
Good stuff. How I like that barely noticed slip of the mind, to a subtler level of details and dimensions. It was noticing the shimmer in the air and the depth of the spring green that let me know I was high. I felt in myself the congestion of the day not yet released, and began to let it go, and other sensations replace it: the feel of the grass on my leg, the sounds of water and air and traffic, the movement of my breath, stirring me and being stirred, like my thoughts, spinning with the clouds, then with the whirring of my bike wheels.
It was then that I thought of you, back on that remote Saturday night, felt your disappointment, dreamt I could imagine the tiniest dimensions of your different life, intersected with mine in this strange, unknowing way.
I wandered on foot and wheels for two more hours; did Tai Chi in a park, then stopped for a beer in a bar in my old neighbourhood, where I smiled at a while-ago lover from across the room. I chatted with a stranger while buying a bag of cashews in the market, and told him a joke I didn’t know I had. And I came upon and studied a sculpted figure in a courtyard, and felt a little that it studied me.
Mostly, my mind and spirit curled and rose up, like the wisps of smoke from the lip of your joint, which I sipped again and again. Some part of me wafted outward, until it was invisible, and spread itself through the layers of my life, folded in upon themselves, turning memory into presence, and future into a shimmer in the evening air. I was whole without any sense of body to measure me. I was happy in a way no possibilities could contain.
I hope you had your own compensations, your completions and trials, that losing your joint carried some tiny bit of transformative magic for you, as for me – this touching so far beyond your imagined reach. It is presumptuous, but I will presume, that your joint was a better gift than it would ever have been an indulgence. I even feel that I know you a bit, you the benefactor I never met. It may be a link of that folded over memory – things lost long ago that have left their impression, which something else could then later fill. I will rest with that self-serving explanation. And trust that I stand with you in my jubilation, though I can’t rock to the music of that youthful band, nor will likely ever dance the secret alleyways of Kingston.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


I heard what wasn’t said

I saw what wasn’t there

Shouldn’t I know better by now than to believe mere words and gestures, using reason to smooth over discordant realities

I let the blinding rain and blasts of stormy air to be muddled over

With forecasts of easy climes and scattered light

Obscuring what I felt with lame reason

Letting imagination leave too much an imprint on bare reality

But, I’ll do it again

And why? Why choose this blindness?

Because how else will reality become new

And defy what already is?