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Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

DRVING DOWN THE MOUNTAIN WITH ELLA AND FRIENDS

Last week-end my beloved spouse, baby boy, and I went to Mt. Tacoma (a/k/a Mt. Rainier) for an annual cross-country ski trip with a group of people my wife has been skiing with for many years. With our almost-13-month old, we weren’t going to ski, which was fine with me -- I’m a bad skier -- but we did snowshoe.

The group always stays in a big lodge just outside of the park entrance. But our boy is a poor sleeper, and we didn’t want to wake the world, so we stayed in a small one-bedroom cabin 100 yards past the lodge and ate and partied with the group. It’s a fine two-day hippie party with fine, middle-aging, middle-class assimilated hippies, including guitars and hand drums and the singing of songs in the evenings -- my favorite part. Along with the beauty of the snow.

The baby boy wasn’t going to be up for a long trek in the cold blowing winter wind, so we hung out for a couple hours on Saturday in the Paradise visitor center where our group skis. A historical exhibit in the center displayed documents on the history of white people exploring the area and the mountain, including the political tussle over its name. In 1792 the British Navy sailed Puget Sound, and Admiral Vancouver saw the fine volcanoes and named them after his friends. Admiral Rainier never even came to North America. In the late 19th and early 20th century, white Washingtonians petitioned the National Geographic Board to rename Mt. Rainier on patriotic grounds. The Brits in 1792 were America’s enemy; America was an independent nation; Rainier never even came here. The Yakima Tribe of what is now central Washington called the mountain “Tacoma” or “Tahoma,” meaning “great snowy peak.” The anti-Brit activists of a hundred years ago advocated that America continue its fine tradition of using aboriginal names for places, and the museum display showed a lot of post cards from the era that call the peak “Mt. Tacoma.” Sounds good to me.

We did get out for a 45 minute walk on the blowy snowy beautiful cold mountain valley path, under a hazy white sky that blended into the snowy white horizons, where if you squinted the evergreen trees looked like they were floating in white space. A beautiful walk.

Driving back down to our cabin the sky began to clear in patches and treated us to a spectacular color show. Purple clouds, purple-blue monochromatic patches of clear late-afternoon sky, a glowing golden orb-like cloud -- colors we’d never seen in the sky before, and each shade pure and juxtaposed sharply against the next shade, with little blending. Remarkable, gorgeous -- and, to use an overused word, awesome.

We’d bought a new Subaru station wagon just before the baby arrived, not wanting to ruin our middle-aging backs packing him into the ancient two-door (practically Tudor) Datsun, and hey! -- all the new cars have CD players. So I put in a collection from the ‘40s called “Ella and Friends” and we listened to her lovely voice duetting with Louis Armstrong, Louis Jordan, the Ink Spots, the Mills Brothers, and a very smooth group called the Delta Rhythm Boys, and the gorgeous music accompanied our gorgeous drive as we played the American fantasy of being in a glamourous scene of a movie with a glamourous setting and a glamourous soundtrack. Driving while listening to music is the most cinematic of experiences, the windshield serving as a screen.

“Ella and Friends” represents a crossroads of American and western culture, a veritable spaghetti bowl of criss-crossing cultural currents. So much beauty, so many beauties, and so many resonating echoes from other artifacts before and after going backward and forward many decades. The mountain, the musicians, the songs, the music, the words, all bouncing off each other as we drove slowly down the snowy mountain road.

Disentangling the spaghetti bowl would take a long time. I love spaghetti.


FROM THE INBOX

My friend and longtime musical collaborator Jake London of Seattle wrote to differ with the proposed alternative definition of stardom from my post of January 28, “Gait, Posture, Voiceprint.” He was responding to these sentences: "Everybody is a star, like Sly and the Family Stone say. And my definition of a star is somebody with a uniquely personal ‘way of walking,’ which means everybody.”

From here on out today it’s Jake:


I can't agree with your definition of "star" above. Perhaps everybody could be a star. But I don't think everybody is a star. It's true that each one of us is a unique individual (although Foucault and some his buds might argue with that construct too). But the term star connotes to me the relationship of the individual to the collective. In using the term, there is an implicit argument about the star's power relationship to everyone else. The star floats above the rest of us on the ground, and there can be no stars without people on the ground gazing up at them. So if everybody is a star, then nobody is a star. Consequently, I suspect everybody is most definitely not a star (although the rhetoric of our culture certainly encourages the belief that everybody has the right to strive for stardom and the possibility of attaining, which is definitely a nice idea).

I think stars are generally people who have a personal way of walking but not too personal. It's usually a very delicate balance of distinct and indistinct that allows for stardom, particularly on a mass scale. Stars tap into our inadequacies around both homogeneity (I wish I was closer to the norm like this beautiful star) and heterogeneity (I wish I was different from the pack like this star).

So at it's best, the star's gait is distinct enough to challenge the expectations of the masses, but indistinct enough that if the masses work at it a little bit, a certain amount of familiarity reveals itself, allowing the masses to comfortably embrace this gait (and maybe even emulate it). In other words, at least in the culture of modernity, it helps to be aspirationally distinct (I don't quite understand it, but I'm curious get to know this new thing better), but not alienationally distinct (I don't understand it, and it's way too freaky for me to even want to understand it--get it away from me).

This is how people like Neil Young and Bob Dylan succeed in being stars. While some may find their vocal gait to be alienationally distinct, their overall gestalt gait is aspirationally distinct (i.e., put together their, distinctive singing voice, their looks, fashion sense, attitude, the tunes, the production, etc., and the total package is something people didn't quite understand at first, but still ultimately wanted to know better and become a
part of, because it had some familiarity to it--if nothing else sex appeal seems like it is almost always familiar to the masses).

I think it's telling that there aren't many pop stars with the voice of Dylan and the gestalt gait of Wallace Shawn. Paul Simon and David Crosby perhaps come closest to having Wallace Shawn's gestalt gait. But they each have voices that are much closer to the societal consensus of "good singing voice," and this perhaps helped them to overcome those elements of their gestalt gait that were less appealing.
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