Stratocaster, a story

Here’s a little story, about a one-eyed man named Leonidas, who you might think at first is not worthy of telling here at a place that talks about poetry and music. Was Leonidas an artist? Well, he started off an accountant. That’s important. Alas, the Great Depression happened, and even accountants were made redundant. Next, he opened a radio repair shop, since he’d been handy with electric circuits since he was a teenager. Better to repair a radio in those days, so he was able to make a go of that.

So, when does the art come in? Patience. Perhaps you know how revisions, pentimento, second drafts work in art? Then too, do you know the old saying about the one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind.? That’ll apply too. There’s musical elements coming up, and we’ll end up in the Museum of Modern Art.

Gris-Picasso

“No painters stroke…” Juan Gris’ fractured guitars. Picasso’s uncomfortable angled arms.

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It wasn’t just families’ home entertainment radios that came into Leonidas’ shop. Musicians would come in and ask him to repair or construct public address systems. Leonidas’ region was bustling. First with agriculture, and soon with manufacturing. Workers wanted music at dancehalls, bars, and roadhouses, and the small affordable music combos with growing and sometimes rowdy audiences needed to be heard. Leonidas could make things loud.

Some of these musicians played electric guitars, a newish invention. The big hollow reverberant wooden boxes that had formerly needed only to be loud enough to provide a discreet chop of propulsion to large brass and saxophone led bands were now equipped with magnetic pickups which drove amplifiers so that one or two guitarists could replace that horn section. Simple accounting — the venues wouldn’t necessarily increase pay for larger, more elaborate groups. Slim down, but get louder.

One catch. The louder noise these big hollow guitars now made with pickups mounted on their surfaces reacted with a hellish howl from their resonate bodies’ underground cavities when the volume got loud enough. Leonidas’ amplifiers could make them loud, but the guitars couldn’t operate well in that loud environment.

Leonidas was the one-eyed man who knew nothing about guitars, but he’d been wiring electric pickups for a particular kind of electric guitar that was going through a bit of a fad: the “steel guitar.” A steel guitar wasn’t a guitar made out of steel, it was a simple flat piece of wood, like a small, narrow end table, with some strings and an electric guitar pickup that was played with a steel bar slid by one hand up and down the strings while the musician’s other hand plucks the notes the bar’s position has stopped on the length of the strings.

Leonidas got the notion to make a guitar that could be played in the regular way, with fingers fretting the notes, but still with a solid wooden body. He made a very practical instrument out of this idea. It was cheap to make, using inexpensive wood with an ingenious neck that could be removed in a minute with a screwdriver. Some musicians loved it, while guitar makers thought it crude. The simple plank of wood that made up a steel guitar wasn’t all that visible, being played flat like a table. This unadorned plank guitar was hardly more sophisticated, yet it would be hung around the musician’s neck for all to see. A musical end table is one thing, but hanging one around your neck while you sang or performed on stage? That’s just not right thought the existing guitar makers.*

Turns out musicians cared less about that incongruity, because Leonidas’ guitar was so practical, affordable, and it sounded great.

Soon other guitar makers responded to this success — but with fancier, less spartan iterations. The competitor’s responses might have golden paint or hardware and the same graceful arched tops the hollow guitars had, though now on top of solid bodies. Others had metalflake sparkle or fancy sunburst two-tone paint.

Leonidas may have been a non-guitar-playing accountant turned radio repairman, but he and his associates figured out how to fancy up his next design. The guitar he came up with next was curved and wrapped like a flowing scarf, shaped like an abstract painter’s asymmetric amoeba in the moment of forming itself into or away from the classical shape of a guitar. It would come in a variety of new-car-show colors. It had not just one, not just two, but three whole electric pickups. And it had a whammy bar, a spring-loaded vibrato device that let one easily swoop whole chords up and down in pitch. It was named like a Strategic Air Command bomber or the upper atmosphere verging on outer space: the Stratocaster.

Tele Strats Super 400

Telecaster: like hanging an end-table around your neck and calling it a guitar vs. the colors and curves of the Stratocaster. A big Super 400 guitar forcing an arm akimbo.

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Leonidas “Leo” Fender was born on this date in 1909. He never learned how to play the guitar — but he helped a whole lot of other people make music with one, by making his guitars affordable and durable like an accountant watching the logistical details. And as a repairman and tinkerer, he made his guitars easy to repair and modify. By choosing a modular design with interchangeable parts he made it possible for infinite variations of his original design to flourish. One could fill a store’s walls with a hundred variations of his Stratocaster — and eventually that is what happened. It’s the most popular electric guitar ever.

In 2015 while visiting New York I got to see them introduce a Stratocaster guitar into the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. Thinking of the radio repairman’s art-shaped art-tool in the midst of MOMA’s paintings and sculptures I wrote this short ode to Leo’s Stratocaster in that context, and then I performed it with the LYL Band the same year. You can hear it below with the player gadget (where that’s seen) — or if you don’t see the gadget, with is highlighted link.

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*Leonidas named this guitar that superseded his radio repairman line of work after the entertainment device that was obsoleting his radios, the Telecaster. I make the Telecaster sound crude because just like an Imagist poem that Modernists suggested could replace more elaborate and sufficiently “poetic” poetry, it did seem incomplete to many then. As an instrument however it’s surprisingly versatile to those who know their way around it. Despite the greater and continued popularity of the Stratocaster, there’s a solid cadre of players who give the secret handshake and declare “Leo got it right the first time.”

Let Us Be Midwives!

Here’s a second part of my short series marking August 6th, Hiroshima Day, the day the first atomic bomb was dropped on that city, killing tens of thousands.*

Did the previous post’s intentionally odd linkage of personal grief with the deaths of thousands seem thoughtlessly, even offensively, narcissistic? Or did that consideration never occur to you? Not to make a show of putting on the hair shirt, but that sort of question does occur to me.

I’ve come to an acceptance that with poetry that charge is hard to avoid. A poem — one performed to an Internet audience like this project has, or to one spread over time on a silent page — works as a connection between one voice and the audience of one, as one. We may talk usefully of inspirations or conceptually of muses, we may choose to represent causes of multiple voices, but in the end a poet, or any writer, is asking for your attention with a claim from their attention. It’s that simple.

So, must what we put in our poems’ attention field be important, generally important? That’s a heavy burden to put on a few singing words, perhaps making also a claim to be novel, beautiful, even a source of pleasure. The bombing of Hiroshima passes any test of consideration surely, but today’s piece by Sadako Kurihara (translated by Richard Minear) makes choices in portraying this epochal event.

hiroshima-shadows

Imagery beyond poetry. The intense flaming light from the Hiroshima blast burnt shadows onto walls.

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Although short, it’s a narrative poem, and its story has power as story, so I’m not going to summarize it here today, asking instead that you take the 2 ½ minutes to listen to the performance of it. Let me instead tell you a little bit I’ve learned about its author.

Kurihara was an anarchist poet who grew up in an increasingly militarized and authoritarian Japan before the war. Living away from her country’s cultural centers and holding unpopular ideas, she and her family lived a life of poverty and obscurity, marked only by occassional run-ins with the authorities. Throughout the war, she continued writing poetry, though publication was out of the question. On August 6th she was at home in Hiroshima when another country’s military dropped an A-bomb on it. The poem I perform today was completed by September and was published early in 1946 after the defeat and occupation of Japan. It predates by a few months John Hersey’s “Hiroshima”  article that helped form widespread attention to the particulars of today’s event. It therefore is likely one of the first poems written or published about the bombing.

Sadoko Kurihara

Sadoko Kurihara

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The poem reads like an eyewitness account, though from what I’ve read in the past few days about it and its author, it’s based on events she heard about from those who had sought shelter in the basement of her city’s central post office.** So, there’s a choice here. Kurihara used someone else’s story, a vary particular one, to portray one aspect of this large event, one small enough to fit into this short narrative poem.

In the last post, I talked about how near grief can seem larger than massive suffering. This poem uses that effect to do its work. My performance of Kurihara’s “Let Us Be Midwives!”***  has a player gadget below so that you can hear it. Some ways this post can be read will not show that gadget, so I provide this highlighted link to also play it. I’d originally thought I do a more complex musical setting for this poem, one that would somehow (that I’d have to figure out) express the massive horror and scale of destruction. But I lacked anything like the time, focus, and opportunities to do that. Instead, the music has a simple and entirely major chord guitar part that I performed live in one-take, and I spent most of the compositional time making the drum part. In the end I decided to add nothing else, as I think Kurihara’s poem is powerful enough to earn your attention without further elaboration. If you’d like to read the poem yourself, here’s a link to four of  Sadako Kurihara’s poems including this one.

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*There will be no ethical discussion today about the decision to drop the bomb, nor any attempt to adjudge and weigh the evils of any side in World War II. Not that that isn’t important, but it’s nothing I want to try to summarize in a few hundred words. Any reflexive “How many American lives were saved, so spare us the stories of Hiroshima” take should pause and consider that Kurihara opposed that war and her country’s militarism. That would be like accusing Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five  as cozying up to Nazis.

**This may bring to mind stories of others sheltering in the largest ruins of their cities today.

***The poem was further subtitled, in the translation I used, “An untold story of the atomic bombing” but it is also referred to under another English translation of the title as “Bringing Forth New Life.”

Palingenesis — three anniversaries noted

Today’s post is part of observing three anniversaries this week: this blog’s launch six years ago, Atomic Bomb Day (noting the anniversaries of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), and my late wife’s death in 2001. An odd combination? Well, yes, but they coincide.

Odd? Personal loss has an odd size. If one holds one’s hand in front of one’s eyes it can block out the entire sun. How close grief is to one, has a similar effect. When the 9/11 plane crash attacks occurred a month after my wife’s death, it was objectively a sad, horrible, thing. To some small and nearby degree it impacted the place I worked. There were employees traveling, in the air as the attacks became known. We had at that time a floor of offices in a tall local building in St. Paul, over a thousand miles away from the attacks, but a tower named at that moment ominously “The World Trade Center.” And the radio network I worked for had a large news component. Everyone and I did what we needed to do in the wake of the attacks. It was not that I did not care or have consideration then — but the sharp pain of that public grief could not be felt to the same degree in my self still encased in loss.

So too the atomic bomb attacks on the two Japanese cities must have been in 1945 to many Americans. Some had lost loved ones in that war, some feared for losses to come. Some were waiting for what, how many, conventional deaths before the war’s end, and wondering if one of them would be their own.

Those nearby close things can blot out an atomic bomb. Ethical philosophers try to make true weights and perspectives, poets on the other hand talk instead of how it feels to think of these things.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, an American poet whose importance is now obscured by judgements of excessive conventionality against the bright lights of Dickinson and Whitman’s new approaches, wrote the poem which I’ll perform in part today. Written and published in 1864 during the American Civil War, it’s author certainly knew of the generalized grief and loss of that war and the human slavery it was fought over* — but he also had closer griefs. His wife had not only died in 1861, she died in his arms, her body on fire from a household accident as he himself was burn-scarred trying to extinguish the blaze. And then his teenaged son was serving in the Civil War and was grievously wounded in 1863.

Longfellow-bomb-Renee

Three anniversaries remembered. There’s no way to picture this blog in a single picture, so we’ll show Longfellow.

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The opening section** of “Palingenesis”  considers memories and grief, considers the imperfection of the rebirth that the obscure word used as the poem’s title offers. If the eternal noises of the sea and ghostly apparitions in the mist may strike us as all-too-tired poetic tropes to our 21st century judgement, the image at the end of the segment I perform, the ashes from which some fabled alchemist might be able to reconstruct a burnt rose still has power for me. This “rebirth” without scent, and without the ability to change and bloom, is not a true rebirth, it does not repair the loss.

My life path after my wife’s death is a complicated story including joy and gratitude. Are those considerable things big enough to obscure the loss — in reverse, a planet bigger than a hand? I cannot honestly weigh that, other than to live in the scent of life and to bloom. Starting this project, even if over a decade after my wife’s death, was one way to return to poetry what my young poet-wife would have given.

I have at least one other planned part to this anniversary post, one other musical performance that doesn’t yet exist. I don’t know if I’ll be able to find time to do that, but this part that I did complete is available below. You can play the performance with the graphical gadget below where you see it — and where you don’t, you can use this highlighted link.

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*A close friend, a U. S. Senator, was beaten unconscious and seriously injured on the floor of the Capitol over an anti-slavery speech which was deemed insulting for inferring the same crimes of sexual slavery Longfellow wrote about in a poem.

**The rest of Longfellow’s “Palingenesis”  concludes with the realization that a forward-looking new birth, not an attempt at exact repair and reincarnation, is the better answer. Not only would the entire poem produce a piece longer than I prefer to present here, I think the poem’s older poetic language might wear down many current listener’s interest. Here’s a link to the complete version.