A Little Light a the End of the Tunnel

Just when I was in despair about the state of the world because of our dependence on oil, I read The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World by Daniel Yergin. Whew. There is some hope.

At least, that’s my interpretation of it. I am a glass half full type of person and that’s my view of it. I may be wrong. I’ve been wrong before.




774 Pages The Penguin Press ISBN 978-1-59420-283-4

It also Includes Acknowledgements, Photos and Photo Credits, Notes on each chapter, a Bibliography and an Index.

This book gives me hope. Its message is simple and positive. It convinced me, through painstaking research, interviews and a recounting of recent history, that human beings will survive. Somehow, through some miracle, In some unpredictable, unknowable way, human kind will make it through.

It is worth reading for that hope alone.

The list of major events and their effects on human efforts to harness available energy is impressive. And it all happened within the span of a lifetime. Desert Storm, the collapse of communism, OPEC and Venezuela’s actions, the world recession and, of course, 9/11, the accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the Japanese tsunami and the Arab Spring. All of them and others are on the list.

Daniel Yergin, a Pulitzer Prize winning writer, lays out this book in six sections.

Part 1 is called The New World of Oil and is made up of ten chapters which deal with events which range from the Gulf War to the rise of China. The definition and examples of “the Dutch Disease” and “Petrostate” are contained in these chapters as well as an accounting of the creation of the “Supermajors” (giant companies like ExxonMobil) and their influence.

Part 2 is called Securing the Supply and includes chapters eleven to sixteen. They deal with unrest in the Middle East, the uncertainty of Venezuela, the threats from Iran and the history and currency of “energy independence” from American and Chinese points of view.

Part 3 is called The Electric Age and includes chapters seventeen to twenty which demonstrates that “the history of the oil and gas industry, as with virtually all industries, is one of technological advance”.                                    It is here that human progress is tied inexorably to electricity which is produced, in large part, by burning carbon.

Part 4 is called Climate and Carbon. It includes chapters twenty one to twenty-six which tell the story of how climate change went from the study of a few curious scientists climbing around glaciers to the main focus of the Kyoto Conference to the beginning move toward a carbon market and a cap and trade system. Those who object to “trading pollution” are reminded that the internet exists because of electricity.

Part 5 is called New Energies and includes chapters twenty-seven to thirty-two in describing alternatives to coal and oil such as wind, sun and other “Renewables”.

Part 6 is called Road to the Future and includes chapters thirty-three to thirty-five. The last chapter (35) is called The Great Electric Car Experiment and the Conclusion is called “A Great Revolution”.

Who could have known that last year China bought more new cars from American manufacturers than  Americans did? And that 70% of all new housing in Japan will have to have solar panels on the roof by 2020? And that grow your own biofuels and electric cars are well on their way to commerciality?

On November 12, 2014 China and The US signed an agreement to increase their use of “renewables” to 20% by 2030. Even if it is for show, as some say, it is a small, faltering, baby step in the right direction. When those two behemoths move, they get everyone’s attention.

The landscape won’t change appreciably until the 2030’s. Coal, oil and natural gas will generate most of the power and car engines will become more efficient. When the people born now are sixteen years old, the 2030’s will be beginning a new age of energy and power generated by human beings with less pollution of the atmosphere with carbon and other waste. Here you can only hope that it’s not too little, too late.

As Yergin demonstrates in this book, huge events like the Japanese tsunami and the Arab spring are as unpredictable as hurricane Katrina and the world recession in their effects on the energy picture. Yet the genius of human beings always finds an answer.

Unimagined solutions to our present problems are waiting out there for us to discover them. We might not find them but someone will. This is not a book that encourages us to maintain the status quo. It is worth reading because it delineates the history of human progress and points out the many cases where people were too dedicated or determined to give up until they discovered solutions or partial solutions to our energy problems.

No matter how humans try to see what the future holds, they can never quite get it right but somehow, in an unexpected way, they find the solution to the immediate problem and discover a way to attack the bigger problems.

The Quest is a meticulously researched book which gives the reader a refreshing, unfamiliar, positive point of view on the big picture.

But that’s just my glass half full interpretation of it. As a Canadian that’s the only way to look at it.

“This is not a blind faith, by any means. There is no assurance on timing for the innovations that will make a difference. There is no guarantee that the investment at the scale needed will be made in a timely way, or that government policies will be wisely implemented. Certainly, lead times can be long and costs will have to evolve. As this story has shown, the risks of conflict, crisis and disruption are inherent. Things can go seriously wrong, with dire consequences. Thus, it is essential that the conditions are nurtured so that creativity can flourish. For that resource will be critical for meeting the challenges and assuring the security and sustainability of the energy for a prosperous, growing world. That is at the heart of the quest, it is as much about the human spirit as it is about technology, and that is why this is a quest that will never end.”

P 717 The Quest

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The Three Pillars

Salt Sugar Fat

How the Food Giants Hooked Us

By Michael Moss

Toronto, Ont Canada

Mclelland and Stewart 2013

450pp $32.99

ISBN 978-0-77-57003

It’s bad enough what  the oil and pharmaceutical companies have done to us. Not to mention the banks. But to find, reading this book, that Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds, the cigarette manufacturers, are now running a large part of the food business, it’s almost too much to believe. I guess it shouldn’t be.

The same people who defended tobacco till the end are still selling their products in the same calculated, deceptive ways to maximize profits and the same Wall Street managers are telling them to do it. Their products are processed foods and they use every bit of sugar, salt and fat they need to find the public’s “bliss point”, hold it and keep it. The bliss point is combined with the convenience of instant food and snacks and is just too tempting to hurried parents.

In a shocking exposure of the American and the worldwide food system, Michael Moss, a winner of the Pulitzer prize and a tenacious and serious writer, and even more important, a concerned father, exposes overwhelming evidence that most of the medical emergencies which America and the world have experienced in the past thirty years, (eg) the high blood pressure alarm, the obesity epidemic and the diabetes scare, are attributable to the nutrition of the population and its dependence upon processed food.  There is a long list of types of cancer associated with processed food.

‘As food manufacturers knew very well and as I would find out by moving the reporting of this book from Madison to Washington, when it comes to nutrition, the role the government plays is less a matter of regulation than it is promotion of some of the industry practices deemed most threatening to the health of consumers.’

Michael Moss pp. 211 Salt, Sugar, Fat

The government regulators who we think are taking care of us, aren’t. The processed food lobbyists financially outgun any of the pathetically funded regulatory agencies. Every time there is an attempt to legally cut back on the salt, sugar and fat in our diets, there is a serious pushback by the industries affected. The mayor of New York city was recently laughed at as a nanny for trying to regulate the sugar industry. Anyone who wants to limit or cut back seriously on the salt, sugar and fat in our diets is accused of being against capitalism.

But this isn’t some wild eyed lefty conspiracy theorist spouting propaganda. It’s a well respected investigative reporter who can back up his claims with evidence. From many hours of interviews, court documents and documents obtained both with and without  access to information requests, Michael Moss has carefully gone through the histories of the industries of salt, sugar and fat and told their stories.  Many of the people in the industries were open about their participation.  Several ex CEOs and presidents have recanted and very few use their own products.

We’re talking about brands and products which are familiar to all of us, the most well known in the world. They do billions of dollars worth of business yearly.

Brands and products like Kraft, General Foods, Nabisco, Tang, Kool-Aid, Coke, Pepsi, Twinkie, Jell-o, Dr Pepper, Campbell Soup, Snapple, 7-Up, Doritos, Maxwell House, Folger’s, Hamburger Helper, Pringles, Prego, Ragu, Pepperidge Farm, Oreo, Cadbury, Kellogg, Postum, Cocoa Puffs, Frosted Flakes, Unilever,  Nestle. There are many more. You get the idea. You’d have to be living under a rock for the past 30 years not to have used their products.

Salt, Sugar, Fat cites the evidence and testimony of expert after expert who blame the health crisis and associated costs (billions of dollars) on the processed food industry. Lack of education and exercise are associated with poor nutrition but it is generally agreed that processed food is the big culprit. Big tobacco was eventually defeated in court when states got together and insisted that “You caused the medical crisis, you pay for it”.

The book is divided into 14 chapters. 1 to 6 make up Part One: Sugar, 7 to 11, Part 2, Fat, and Chapters 12 to 14 make up Part 3, Salt. There is an epilogue, a section for acknowledgements, a note on sources, other notes chapter by chapter, a selected bibliography and an index.

One of the best anecdotes was about the gentleman who invented Cheez Whiz and bought some as he and his wife enjoyed their retirement in Florida. He didn’t like the taste of it, in fact, called it “axle grease”. After a long and serious investigation the company had to admit that he was right, there was actually no cheese or cheese products in the Cheez Whiz.

It almost seemed normal, after reading how the companies targeted diabetics and bombarded young children with irresistible advertising, to read how Nestle, a giant headquartered in Switzerland and visited by Moss, fattens up the population so that hundreds of thousands need stomach surgery each year and only Nestle can provide the special drink they need while recovering.

When the big processed food manufacturers need to, they fall back on the media strategies they know best, the ones which were so successful selling cigarettes for so long.

The famous “mechanical tenderizers” which are suspected in the recent Alberta outbreak of salmonella poisoning are mentioned in the part of the book dealing with Oscar Mayer processed meats. The cereal business, baked goods, the cattle and dairy industries, they’re all present. All are complicit, if not guilty outright, in one of the biggest scandals the world has ever seen.

Thank you, Michael Moss

If you don’t like getting conned, deceived, fooled or manipulated, read this book.

Hackwriters.com – Reviews section

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Plastic Brain

The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science

By Norman Doidge, M.D.

Published by Penguins Group (Canada) 2007

This book is about brain plasticity and the miraculous abilities of our brains to compensate for damage, natural or inflicted, to learn or relearn tasks and actually change themselves to adapt without drugs or operations.

Norman Doidge is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and researcher at Columbia University and The University of Toronto. He took the time and made the effort to visit many contemporaries he calls “neuroplasticians “.He outlines the history of neuroplasticity, its proponents and opponents.

Neuroplasticity: Neuro is for “neuron”, the nerve cells in our brains and nervous systems. Plastic is for “changeable, malleable, modifiable”

A lot of wonderful discoveries took place in the 20th Century, yet Norman Doidge  says in his preface that brain plasticity is “one of the most extraordinary discoveries of the 20th Century”. The results of experiments with the human brain which lead him to that conclusion are astonishing.

In a futuristic science like neurology one would expect a more progressive attitude in its practitioners, but the same old attitudes appeared there too and every scientist -doctor- researcher who bucked the trend  and suggested the possibility of plasticity was attacked because the establishment had concluded that the brain was hardwired to certain functions. The notion of plasticity was so revolutionary that those who believed in it wouldn’t dare to use the term in writing for many years. Those who knew brain plasticity was a reality were vilified, ridiculed and obstructed at each step of the way. Doidge pulls no punches when he describes the difficulties these people went through. As usual, the rebels led the way.

One of the biggest misconceptions about this book is that it is written only for the super intelligent. It isn’t really. The stories of experiments with monkeys, rats and mice which make up many of the eleven chapters of this book are told clearly and simply. The extraordinary results in humans as well as animals are described in detail in plain language.

There is a section at the end of the book, just before the appendix, called Notes and References, in  which Doidge includes verifications and explanations of quotes, ideas and concepts, some requiring whole pages.

The Brain That Changes Itself is a hopeful book which is well worth the read. This edition has 427 pages including. eleven chapters, two appendices, Notes and References, a forward, an acknowledgements section and an index.

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Private Empire: Exxonmobil and American Power Blues

Steve Coll


The Penguin Press New York 2012

685 pp. $36 US  $38 Canada

ISBN  978 1 59420 335 0

“-the corporation does more to shape our energy economy than our democratically elected government-” Steve Coll

I didn’t want to read this book and try to understand its meaning because I thought it would be too depressing but like SELF SERVE: HOW PETROCANADA DRAINED CANADIANS DRY by Peter Foster and SEVERE CONDITIONS: BIG OIL AND THE TRANSFORMATION OF ALASKA by John Strohmeyer, it’s irresistIble to me.

I’m interested in the oil business because I worked in the upstream (the exploration and production of raw oil) as a roughneck in Alberta and on the North Sea and in the downstream  of the business (the manufacturing and selling of oil and gas on the wholesale and retail markets) as a yardman in the pipeline terminals of Esso (Exxon through Imperial Oil) and PetroCanada in Ottawa.

Steve Coll wrote the Pulitzer prize winning GHOST WARS, an account of the CIA’s activities in pre2001 Afghanistan. He has written six others including one called, THE BIN LADENS. He is a serious writer with a talent for telling a story from facts and events stretching over many years.

He has written about important historical events in  present day America. When you read this book, you realize that he’s doing it again by documenting history as we live it.

In 1904 Ida Tarbell published The History of the Standard Oil Company. It was one of the first pieces of investigative journalism and described the ruthlessness of John D Rockefeller’s monopoly. It eventually led to the trust busting laws of 1911 which broke up Standard Oil.

One of the pieces of the Standard Oil breakup was Exxon. In PRIVATE EMPIRE Steve Coll has written a meticulously researched book of investigative journalism about it.

Exxon had always been shrouded in secrecy but, bit by bit, through the use of over four hundred interviews, more than one thousand pages of previously classified US documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and unexamined court records, the curtain is pulled back by Coll.

Exxon and Mobil were both originally parts of Standard Oil. They completed their merger in 2000.

Canada’s taken for granted. That was the feeling I got when I read the book. A kind of impotent outrage at being snubbed and the old realization that we in Canada aren’t that important even though Canada is by far the single biggest supplier of imported oil to the US, 1.9 million barrels per day in 2008.

It’s pretty clear that if the CEO of ExxonMobil can ignore, consult with or demand attention from the US government at any time, he isn’t too worried about what Canada’s government thinks.

PRIVATE EMPIRE is a book  of 624 pages, with 61 pages of acknowledgements, notes, a bibliography,a complete Index and a Table of Contents into which the twenty eight chapters are divided into Part One: The End of Easy Oil and Part Two: The Risk Cycle. There are maps of Exxon’s and Mobil’s upstream investments before the merger, of the countries of Indonesia, Equatorial Guineau, Chad, and Venezuela and of the Exxon spill in Jacksonville, Maryland, where a gas station leaked 25,000 gallons of gasoline into a community’s water supply. It also contains a Cast of Characters listed by country; dictators, despots and enemies of the American government among them.

Canada and Alberta are dealt with in four pages. As Coll puts it, “Canada’s politics concerning the oil sands were complicated, but as a practical matter, there was virtually no chance that Alberta’s provincial politicians or the country’s national leaders in Ottawa would seriously limit Canada’s production in the years ahead.”

At the time of the writing and publishing of this book, ExxonMobil was trading places with Walmart as the biggest company in the US and with PetroChina as the company which was most valuable in the stock market. It was the most profitable corporation headquartered in the US.

The corporation’s K Street lobbyists in Washington DC spent more millions than everyone else except GE and Pactfic Gas and Electric shaping, influencing, and stalling regulatory legislation after 1998.

ExxonMobil, whose income dwarfed that of most countries, used the USA’s military and diplomatic channels to ensure smooth operations and ignored the politicians when they wanted to.  Rex Tillerson, who replaced Lee Raymond as the Chairman and Chief Executive of ExxonMobil in 2005, told the State Department, ” I had to do what was best for my shareholders.” after a $3.1 billion deal was announced between Vladimir Putin and ExxonMobil to develop oil beneath the Kara Sea in Russia. The deal could grow to $500 billion. The State Department was usually told first.

Steve Coll catalogues, in exhaustive detail , ExxonMobil’s refusal to take responsibility for the social and physical damage it caused in places like Aceh, Indonesia, the Niger Delta and Nigeria, Chad, and Equatorial Guinea. Places far away and unlikely to interest the American population. But, to be fair, as Coll is ,painstakingly, through this book, they were the only places on earth where the oil  and gas supply was vast and available.

Lee Raymond, the CEO of ExxonMobil until he retired on January 1, 2006 with a four hundred milllion dollar package, was a midwest product, an engineer for 30 years at Exxon, an old time oil man. He was Machiavellian in that he didn’t hesitate to manipulate governments, politicians and their military power, regulators and environmentalists to his advantage. He was stubborn and short sighted in that he never believed in the science which claimed that climate change was due to the burning of fossil fuels. He employed many ethical scientists whose non disclosure contracts were tied up with pensions and retirement bonuses. No one really questions the character of the scientists but Coll and others  point out that the management of the science is dubious.

Raymond’s tough style kicked in with the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989 when the company’s reputation was in shreds and the regime of safety he instituted included how employees parked and required reporting of paper cuts. He personified the arrogance of ExxonMobil and was disliked by many but was an undeniable success in the business world.

ExxonMobil, extracting oil from tar sands in Alberta at Syncrude since 1978 through its Canadian affiliate, Imperial Oil, has Canadian contracts there reaching into 2035 and other interests in the tar sands.

ExxonMobil would never use the American miiItary, the consular services or the Washington lobbyists to force Canada to be the oil spigot for the American consumer, would it? It’s a question that needs to be asked. As unlikely as it seems, history shows otherwise.

The author is scrupulous in presenting both sides of the arguments, explaining ExxonMobil’s activities, good or bad, from their point of view, through their eyes.

Coll says, “Oil from Alberta, barrel for barrel, contributed  one of the highest gas emissions of any source in the world” but the message Canada was getting from the American government under Bush was “ Produce as much of this oil as you can-we’ll buy all of it” There was never a problem with the environment and global warming when Bush and Cheney were in power. Cheney and Lee Raymond were close personal friends, both, like Bush, from an oil background, who met frequently in Cheney’s office.

When Obama took over, the oil industry was angry with his attitude and at the new California emission standards. They rallied some of the population with patriotic fervour, saying that if Canadian oil wasn’t sold to the US, it would be sold to the latest threat, China.

ExxonMobil was so confident in Canada as a friend and risk free oil source that it thought the many efforts of oil company lobbyists when Obama returned to Washington from his traditional first visit to Ottawa were a waste of time and money.

Their attitude was that if the US government cut itself off from Canadian oil, they would sell it elsewhere.

The problem is that exploiting the tar sands is more like strip mining than drilling with even higher costs to the environment and local people.

The time horizons of ExxonMobil’s investments far outlive the politicians who hold power for a few years and are gone. In some countries there might be war for years and changes of unstable governments or no governments at all.

It is no wonder that ExxonMobil had more influence in Chad than the US government. Where the American government gave $3 million to the country, ExxonMobil invested $4.1 billion.

ExxonMobil has been compared to the East India Company, and the Dutch East India Company who set out four centuries ago to colonize the New World. The irony is that four hundred years later, these gigantic multinational oil companies may be responsible for raising the very seas upon which the early explorers sailed, through global warming.

The corporation is compared to a Frankenstein monster in the statesman.com  where Bruce Watson states, “Nowhere has ExxonMobil bullied the world more than in the global warming debate”

The Exxon Valdez disaster happened in 1989 and dumped 257,000 barrels of oil into Prince William Sound, more than had ever been spilled in American waters before. Lee Raymond instituted reform and Exxon produced an admirable safety record and record profits.

One would think a huge company investing gigantic sums in oil and gas plays all around the world would be vulnerable to the resource nationalism, partisan movements and blackmail which is commonplace in many countries but through an uncompromising array of legal action, shifting responsibility for human rights violations to militaries or to the World Bank and outright influence peddling, ExxonMobil has managed to avoid any Exxon Valdez type disasters so far. In 2005 Dick Cheney personally called the UAE government to enable ExxonMobil to win a contract to develop a field which held ten percent of the world’s oil and the fifth largest gas reserve.

Whether using the Indonesian military in Aceh (whose methods included torture, summary executions and burying insurgents’ bodies in mass graves with company equipment),the military torture chambers of Equatorial Guinea or the security forces in the craziness and piracy of the Niger Delta, ExxonMobil built its own foreign policy without the US government’s concern for human rights. It was there on the surface, they said all the right things and did their best to protect the corporation legally, but they knew about the human rights abuses and, for the most part, carried on anyway.

ExxonMobil Chemical is also dealt with in PRIVATE EMPIRE. About a quarter of American oil imports are used to manufacture commercial chemicals annually. A chapter of this book outlines the fight ExxonMobil and their spokesman-congressman, Joe Barton from Texas, waged to avoid having DINP (phthalates- See Ottawa Sun Aug 27, 2012 page 8) banned from children’s toys. It is a softener which makes vinyl more pliable but is suspected of being carcinogenic. Consumer advocates got some DINP banned but not all thanks to ExxonMobil’s lawyers and politicians.

The premise of it all, of course, is George Bush’s long awaited pronouncement that the US was “addicted” to oil. There has been no doubt about that for a long time and as unpalatable as it is to the oil industry to hear put that way, they can rest assured that they are safe in the short term and, judging from the performances of the governments of North America, equally unthreatened by long term solutions.

To understand the power of ExxonMobil, another George Bush quote is helpful. When the Indian prime minister asked why he didn’t just tell ExxonMobil to buy into an oil play in India, Bush replied,

“Nobody tells those guys what to do.”

The debate about climate change is something which Tillerson mulled over and investigated through ExxonMobil’s specially hired astrophysicists for three years. ExxonMobil finally admitted that global warming, at least in part, was caused by human activity, probably the burning of fossil fuels, when, for the first time in the company’s hundred year history, Tillerson supported a carbon tax in 2009.

When the Deepwater Horizon blowout happened to competitor, British Petroleum, in 2010, it was estimated that five million barrels of oil were released into the Gulf of Mexico.

Rex Tillerson commented, with a typical ExxonMobil attitude, “We would not have drilled the well the way they did”

The “energy independence” drum is being beaten as it is in every election and the “Drill, baby, drill” proponents are searching for a congressman or senator like Joe Barton.

ExxonMobil has unprecedented power in governments world wide.

Canadians who are happy that we’re in such a helpless position, can take comfort in knowing that ExxonMobil is in our oilpatch. They were ten, if not twenty years ahead of PetroCanada in the Ottawa pipeline terminals when I was there in 2000. It means that we have someone technologically brilliant and wildly successful businesswise, exporting our oil.

On the other hand, it is depressing.

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Scorsese Then and Now

It’s a deceptive title, really, because I’m not a film critic nor a fan of any director.

But Martin Scorsese was the one who had the smarts, the interest and the resources to make two concert films 30 years apart, THE LAST WALTZ (1978) and SHINE A LIGHT (2008).

In 1976, the post Vietnam era in the States, Martin Scorsese and Robbie Robertson managed to record on film (the first concert movie shot in 35mm) the farewell concert of the Band in the venue where they first appeared as The Band, the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel were leaving the road after sixteen years. In an interview Robbie says he couldn’t imagine doing it for twenty years. The Last Waltz was called “the end of an era”.

At the time Scorsese was directing New York, New York, a big expensive production, but he had cut his edting teeth in the Woodstock film and learned what not to do there. He took some time off from the New York, New York project and filmed The Last Waltz in a weekend, put it almost all together in a week and a few months later, filmed three songs on a Hollywood sound stage. It grew from Robbie Robertson’s idea, a not for profit enterprise with no budget to an important cultural event, done by the seat of its pants, almost an afterthought, and ultimately, the concert movie by which all others are judged.

Thirty years later, after Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and Goodfellas and all the awards for No DIRECTION HOME (2005), a documentary on Dylan’s early career, Scorsese filmed a Rolling Stones concert.

Shine A Light presents the best of the Stones’ Beacon Theatre concerts on their A Bigger Bang Tour on Oct 29 and Nov 1, 2006 in New York city mixed with interviews of the band from long ago (mostly in black and white) and in present time The backstage segments were the first time Scorsese used digital cinematography.

Ronnie Wood appears in both films; in out takes of a jam in The Last Waltz, more prominently in Shine a Light.

THIS MOVIE SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD!  appears on the screen before  The Last Waltz starts. A sign of the times in 1978.

The movie begins with Rick Danko telling Scorsese that the game is “Cutthroat” and a loud cracking of the pool balls as he breaks. Shine a Light nods to that opening as it starts with Ronnie Wood taking a pool shot in a game with Keith Richards.

The Band returns to the stage for an encore. They play “Don’t Do It” and Robbie Robertson’s lead guitar places the viewer in a beat up neighborhood of San Francisco on the way to the Winterland Ballroom where crowds are lining up and the huge vertical sign above the entrance has half of its lights burnt out.

‘The Rolling Stones’ appears on a marquee between two rows of lights above the entrance of The Beacon Theatre. Scorsese appreciates the balconies and huge space he has to work with and organizes the tracked moving cameras. Shine a Light will be filmed in a beautifully appointed theatre.

A young couple waltzes gracefully across the screen against the backdrop of the The Last Waltz logo to the music of The Last Waltz theme song, written by Robbie Robertson, as the names of the guest performers appear: Dr John, Ronnie Hawkins, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Emmy Lou Harris, Muddy Waters, The Staples, Van Morrison, Neil Diamond, Paul Butterfield, Ringo Starr, Ronnie Wood.

The huge variety of styles to which The Band adapted and the energy they injected into the songs made for a memorable performance. They were a perfect backup band as well as the stars of the show.

The concert itself is a mixture of Band originals beginning with Cripple Creek interwoven with guests who play one song each and interviews of all the members of the Band and some friends. Ronnie Hawkins tells the story of each band member as he was brought into The Hawks, Ronnie’s backup band which became Dylan’s backup band and then The Band.

The commentaries of the director, musicians and others who were involved in the project which is played over the concert performances in the Special Features section is fascinating. As each person appears, someone talks about them. There is a hilarious description of Van Morrison’s sequined outfit as he steals the show with a striking performance of Caravan and an equally funny description of Dylan’s preparations for the show.

The actual filming was done for free by world renowned cinematographers who did it as a favour to Scorsese using seven cameras. Ideas like Boris Leven’s of filling the Winterland Ballroom with chandeliers had to be cut back because they could only afford three.

Boris Leven, a personal friend of Scorsese and his set designer on New York, New York as well as  The Sound of Music and West Side Story, thought of renting the set of La Traviata from the San Francisco opera company to spruce up the old Winterland. He designed the sets upon which Scorsese shot The Weight, Evangeline and The Last Waltz theme song on a Hollywood sound stage. The songs featured the Band, the Staples and Emmy Lou Harris.

One of the great contrasts of the films is the reference to lighting. An assistant tells Scorsese in Shine a Light that one of the lighting effects will literally cause Mick to burst into flames if he stands near it for more than 18 seconds. Scorsese says firmly “We can’t burn Mick Jagger. Very simply. We want the effect but we can’t burn Mick”

When Paul Butterfield does his solo in The Last Waltz, there is a general panic among the crew when they lose all power to the lights except the one spot on Butterfield and Levon. The problem is fixed in time for the next song and Robbie comments that it turned out to be a perfect shot for the harp player and the drummer.

Camera shots preoccupy directors obviously but Scorsese didn’t seem any more relaxed while discussing them with Mick thirty years after his assistant in The Last Waltz had to negotiate every camera movement with Bill Graham who held the rights to the Winterland stage and insisted that nothing impair the sight lines of the live audience. When Mick mentions the audience inconvenience to Scorsese, the director opts for the swooping in motion cameras anyway. He knows the value of a historical document. He did it thirty years ago.

The Special Features section of The Last Waltz dvd contains a Last Waltz Revisited segment in which Scorsese and others talk about the experience 25 years later,

Perhaps the biggest contrast between the two films is that a connection to the Beats plays prominently in the Last Waltz when Michael McClure, the poet, appears on stage in a spotlight, recites a short piece of The Canterbury Tales in Olde English, smiles and walks off. Lawrence Ferlinghetti appears at the end of the show, just before Dylan, recites a quick, cool poem and exits.

Thirty years later the subjects of Scorsese’s concert film are meeting the President of the USA and the ex president of Poland backstage. In fact, as Clinton announces in his brief introduction, he’s opening for them.

The Stones concerts benefitted the Clinton Foundation and the band received a visit from The President himself as well as his wife and their entourage. One of the funny parts of Shine a Light is Charlie’s response to an assistant reminding him that the meet’n greet is at 6:00. He says “I thought we just done it.” To which the assistant replies, “No, you just met the president, he’s got thirty guests coming”.

The Stones play Jumpin Jack Flash, Shattered, She Was Hot, All Down the Line, Loving Cup with Jack White111, As Tears Go By, Some Girls, Just My Imagination, Far Away Eyes, Champagne and Reefer with Buddy Guy, Tumbling Dice, You Got the Silver, Connection, Sympathy for the Devil, Live With Me with Christina Aguilera, Start Me Up, Brown Sugar. I Can’t Get No Satisfaction and Shine a Light. Undercover of the Night, Paint It Black, Little T&A and I’m Free are included as a bonus special.

At first I liked The Last Waltz more because of the in depth interviews and the commentaries and its good natured, humourous attitude. But with a budget of one million dollars and the high pressure atmosphere of recording a Stones concert, it makes you wonder what else could Scorsese do? There was really no room for long interviews with the musicians so he threw in clips of past press conferences and interviews where the early days of scandal and infamy were covered and the question which seemed to obsess everyone was “How long are you going to do this?” A young Mick Jagger says he thinks the Stones will last at least another year when they are two years old and then without hesitation says “Yeah” when Dick Cavett asks him if he could see himself doing it in his sixties.

An old Keith Richard attributes his longevity to coming from good stock and a younger one tells an interviewer his luck hasn’t run out when he’s questioned about surviving for so long. In The Last Waltz Robbie Robertson contemplates recent deaths of musicians like Janis and Jimi and the high risk lifestyle. He says simply, “You can push your luck”.

As Robertson talks over Muddy Water’s performance in the commentaries expressing how honoured The Band was to have him in the show, he names some of the musicians influenced by Muddy and mentions The Rolling Stones being named after a Muddy Song.

Scorsese looks like the older, respectable director he is in Shine a Light compared to the hungry young man in The Last Waltz.

In Shine a Light when a lighting effect test stops the group he is in from talking, shocked at the flash, Scorsese remarks “Hmm. That cleared my sinuses” and smiles with the same mischievous sense of fun the viewer sees in The Last Waltz as he follows Rick Danko on a tour of Shangrila, the ex bordello which has been turned into a clubhouse and studio.

It’s just the difference in times, part of the 60’s and 70’s vs the first decade of the new century. But there can only be a difference, a comparison, a contrast, because Martin Scorsese had the vision to see rock music in a historical context.

At the risk of sounding too Canadian, I think that both concert movies are well worth watching.

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Henry and Me

I first heard of Henry Miller, perhaps fittingly, when I lived with two other guys in East Vancouver. One of the guys had a friend who was a postman, the other guy was having an affair with the postman’s wife. There were a few awkward moments when he snuck her in for a night or an afternoon quickie, but, all in all, things went well and I saw a book which the postman had lent to his buddy, my housemate. It was a compilation of the letters between Henry and Lawrence Durrell.

I became interested and then obsessed with Miller’s writing, read everything of his I could get my hands on.

I still have a worn copy of Tropic of Cancer by my bedside along with Flann O’Brien’s, The Poor Mouth. For some reason which I don’t want to analyze, both books are places of refuge for me when I just want to relax and enjoy the language. At times like that I don’t think as much about the content of what I’m reading as much as how the words are strung together.

Finding Henry’s writing was like the moment when Shakespeare made sense to me in high school: a light bulb shone.

In all my travels after that I kept a sharp eye open when books by Henry were displayed. Krishnamurti, Durrell, Arthur Rimbaud, Anais Nin and others were introduced to me by Henry’s writing and their books were ones I watched for too. Of course, I was watching for cheap versions of their works.

When my friend, Robin, arrived to visit me in Crete he brought a copy of The Colossus of Maroussi, written when Henry visited Lawrence Durrell and his wife in Corfu.

Surviving in a tiny room in Paris on croque monsieurs, cheese, baguettes and red wine, I planned a novel using the Paris metro map as structure. Needless to say, the novel became as confusing and mixed up as my understanding of the Paris subway system and was abandoned.

I made a pilgrimage to the street where Anais Nin lived when she and Henry were having their affair. Their conviction that analysis was necessary and their visits to Otto Rank, a student of Freud, revealed the notion that psychoses are the products of frustrated or blocked creativity. Frustrated writers can take comfort in the idea that writing is at least healthy if not profitable.

By the time I was there, the bars mentioned in his books were too expensive for me to patronise but I lingered outside the Coupole and the Dome.

I walked endlessly around Paris, imagined what it was like then, wondered why Henry was never mentioned in the list of writers who lived in the city in the 30’s. There was irony in the thought of him existing from meal to meal as he worked on Tropic in the arts capital of the Western world, poor, reviled and rejected.

I didn’t know then that he and Anais Nin wrote pornography for the money of their rich patrons but I knew there had been an overwhelming rejection of him in the States and that he was involved in the debate about pornography and obscenity.

It looks like the descendants of those moral Americans who banned his books for so long have, seventy or eighty years later, taken over the government of the USA.

He described his trip across the states in The Air Conditioned Nightmare. The title pretty well demonstrated Henry’s attitude toward the system.

It gave me hope.

Here was a man with great curiosity about the world and other people and sex who ignored all the warnings and temptations which were placed before him and followed a singular path of his own. It led him to another continent, through years of poverty and piles of rejection slips. But he kept going and kept laughing.

“Always cheery and bright” was his motto and the most depressing situations could be changed for the better just by reading his books.

I know that a generation who thinks the 60’s is ancient history has a hard time understanding his relevance now, but then he was like a beacon. He personified the rebelliousness and questioning which was rumbling underground.

I often wonder what he would have made of this internet, instant world. I like to think he’d revel in it. It would be so much easier to spread his subversive ideas and plead for sanity. A literary website reminded me of him when they put out a call for submissions on “money”.  He had written Money and How It Got That Way years ago though I don’t know where I saw it.

He would enjoy, as Kurt Vonnegutt Jr put it, “Poisoning them with a little humanity”.

Henry believed that the best education it was possible to get was available to anyone with a library card at the same time as he relished the quote ,“When I hear the word Kultur, I pick up my pistol”.

Henry wasn’t published until he was almost forty and that was always a prod for me when I started feeling sorry for myself.

He’s been called racist and misogynist but, in my opinion, almost always by someone with an axe to grind. After all, Anais Nin’s lover must have been more than just a male chauvinist pig.

The worst was online when a critic (critics are paid to criticize, we shouldn’t forget that) said he was boring. Of course, the critic, who seems to be trying to make a name for himself by attacking famous writers, used much of the language  which Henry and others like him forced into literary acceptability. He couldn’t express himself without those words but he seemed to have no idea that the very words he used were allowed in the English writing world because of legal battles fought over Henry’s books.

I don’t know what the penalty was for getting caught with a Tropic or a Rosy Crucifixion book in the 60’s but that there was a penalty at all seems ridiculous. As ridiculous as excoriating Elvis, The Beatles and The Dixie Chicks.

Sex was the same then. It hasn’t and hadn’t changed. He had the audacity to describe the act itself and men and women’s bodies without apology and, many times, with great humour. He didn’t gloss over the sweaty, intimate details which weren’t supposed to be mentioned in polite society.

It’s not just that Henry wrote about sex like no one else. He described it in the first person often and didn’t avoid branching off into other personal thoughts which occurred to him while he was engaged.

His style of using his own personal experiences for the creation of fiction and nonfiction became the roots of my travel writing. Henry seemed to be painfully honest even when he was making things up.

I was working on the rigs in Alberta, living in Edmonton, when Henry died. I happened to be in town and not in the bush on that occasion and made my way to the nearest hotel.

The bars in Alberta are huge and busy. Others at the table had no idea who Henry was and why I should be there to drink a farewell toast to him on the occasion of his death. I did the same at the same bar when John Lennon was shot. They didn’t know, any more than I did, that I would carry around his books and lean on his inspiration for many years.

Here is Henry’s description of one of the many jobs he took to survive in France.

“Here was I, supposedly to spread the gospel of Franco-American amity- the emissary of a corpse who, after he had plundered right and left, after he had caused untold suffering and misery, dreamed of establishing universal peace. Ffui! What did they expect me to talk about, I wonder? About LEAVES OF GRASS, about the tariff walls, about the Declaration of Independence, about the latest gang war? What? Just what, I’d like to know. Well, I’ll tell you-I never mentioned these things. I started right off the bat with a lesson on the physiology of love. How the elephants make love-that was it! It caught like wildfire. After the first day there were no more empty benches. After that first lesson in English they were standing at the door waiting for me. We got along swell together. They asked all sorts of questions, as though they had never learned a damned thing. I let them fire away. I taught them to ask more ticklish questions. Ask anything!- that was my motto. I’m here as a plenipotentiary from the realm of free spirits. I’m here to create a fever and a ferment. ‘In some ways’ says an eminent astronomer, ‘the universe appears to be passing away like a tale that is told, dissolving into nothingness like a vision’. That seems to be the general feeling underlying the empty breadbasket of learning. Myself, I don’t believe it. I don’t believe a fucking thing these bastards try to shove down our throats.”

Tropic of Cancer

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How to Become Clairvoyant

  • When I finally got my hands on How to Become Clairvoyant because of the generosity and sensitivity of inlaws at Christmas, I could hardly wait to take it home and play it.
  • I was scared to be disappointed but I had to hear what Robbie Robertson had created and was convinced that anything Robbie Robertson did with Eric Clapton would be good.

And it is.

How To Become Clairvoyant is a guitar player’s collection of songs.

The songs are:

Straight Down the Line:

Where Robertson’s New Orleans delta affinity shines through. The man who wrote The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down displays his reverence of the spiritual south, whether it’s black magic or Southern Baptist gospel in this song.

Robert Randoph, included in Rolling Stone’s Top 100 Guitar Players, plays a fiery solo on the pedal steel to answer Robertson;’s electric guitar solo.

When the Night Was Young:

My personal favourite, it’s got one of those hooky choruses that keep popping up in your head long after you’ve heard it.

We had dreams when the night was young.
We were believers when the night was young,
We could change the world, stop the war,
Never seen nothing like this before,
But that was back when the night was young

Angela McClusky, a native Glaswegian transplanted to L.A., replaces Richard Manuel’s vocals with hers and harmonizes perfectly with Robertson on some of the verses and all of the choruses.

He Don’t Live Here No More:

A song about addiction with appropriate wild guitar sounds as Clapton plays a solo on the slide guitar and Robertson surprises the listener, who is expecting a roaring electric guitar, by playing a solo on a gut-string guitar which starts with fine Flamenco picking.

The Right Mistake:

Of course Steve Winwood is a part of this project. He plays on three of the songs. He’s a multi-instrumentalist, named Singer of the Year in 1986 who’s been entertaining since before Clapton and Robertson had that visual spark in The Last Waltz in 1972. You can hear his organ clearly on this song which includes solos from Robertson and Clapton and Angela McCluskey’s soulful vocals.

In the credits Bill Dillon is credited with playing the guitar and the guitorgan. A friend saw Steve Winwood at Bluesfest last summer and was very impressed with his live show.

This Is Where I Get Off:

Robertson’s first musical reference to the painful breakup of The Band wherein he and Clapton do simultaneous electric guitar solos and backup singers, Rocco Deluca, Angelyna Boyd, Daryl Johnson, Michelle John and Sharon White contribute as the song builds up to each chorus beginning, “So just pull over / To the side of the road.”

Fear of Falling:

“A mellow Clapton riff” is what I thought the first time I listened to this. Both Robertson and Clapton are credited with writing this song so only they know. It’s an easy going, well crafted blues based song where they both do electric solos and Clapton plays an acoustic guitar. The lyrics are sung back and forth in verses and the two men harmonize on the chorus. The lyrics give it the possibility of being a hit. Steve Winwood’s organ in the background is solid but not intrusive. The backup singers, Taylor Goldsmith of The Dawes, Michelle John and Sharon White supplement Robertson and Clapton’s harmonies on the chorus. Their blues roots shine through here.

She’s Not Mine:

“Anthemic” is the word which first came to mind when I heard this song, though that description sounds a bit grandiose now that I’ve listened to the song often. It’s very impressive with its strategic, distant drums, lyrical imagery and musical sound. It’s the only song in the collection which credits Jim Keltner (a mainstay for decades in the rock recording scene) on drums as well as Ian Thomas. The rest of the tracks feature Pino Palladino on bass and Ian Thomas on drums.

Pino Palladino has played bass with everyone from The Who to Eric Clapton to Don Henley and Elton John, who has a Fender bass named after him. One of the best in the business.

I became aware of fretless bass in Paul Young’s cover of Marvin Gaye’s Wherever I Lay My Hat (That’s My Home). I learn, all these years later, that Pino Palladino (from Cardiff) played the fretless bass on that song.

Ian Thomas, also born in Cardiff, is as technically perfect as a rock drummer can get with just the right amount of emotion in his playing.

Madame X:

A gentle instrumental Clapton wrote. He plays it on a gut string guitar while Robertson plays electric guitar and Trent Reznor, former front man of Nine Inch Nails, adds “Additional Textures”. The song’s bridge evokes “Tears In Heaven.”


In “Axman,” an homage to the tradition of the guitar slinger, Robertson names many of the old blues players, as well as Jimi and Stevie Ray, Doing the guitar solo on a song dedicated to “brothers of the blade” is an honour given to Tom Morello, of Rage Against the Machine.

Won’t Be Back:

A song by Clapton and Robertson, produced, as all of these songs were, by Marius de Vries, on which he plays keyboard and Eldad Guetta provides the horns.

How to Become Clairvoyant:

Written by Robertson, this song includes the playing of Robert Randolph on the pedal steel guitar as well as Robertson’s electric guitar with Marcus de Vries on piano. Pino Palladino and Ian Thomas provide the beat, while Dana Glover and Natalie Mendoza are the backup voices.

Just when you think you’ve listened to some heavy guitar and it’s all very serious, Robbie Robertson speaks at the end of the song, “Now that would be a revelation / And I also enjoy levitation.”

Tango for Django:

It is natural and fitting that a guitar player’s recording contains a tribute to one of the greatest guitarists of all, Django Rhinehart. Robertson plays it on a gut string guitar as it leads with violins reminiscent of Stefan Grappelli, into a growing roll of kettle drums and on to the formal introduction of a slow tango. As he wrote a musically correct waltz for The Last Waltz, Robertson has written, with Marcus de Vries, a formally correct (I assume) tango using Frank Morocco on accordian, Anne Marie Calhoun on violin, and Tina Guo on cello in this tribute to Django.

(I wonder if Henry Miller heard Django in Paris in the Thirties. I like to think he did.)

There is always a texture to Robertson’s stuff, something a little wild and weird, usually in his intros. In The Last Waltz he is surrounded by extraordinary musicians so it shouldn’t be surprising that he’s again surrounded by the same.

Eric Clapton isn’t named in “Axman” but he played on six of Robertson’s songs, co-wrote two and unveiled his Instrumental, Madame X, on How To Become Clairvoyant. His participation is his approval and his tribute.

Even if you are not a rock guitar fan nor a fan of The Band or Eric Clapton, this collection of rock songs, sung unapologetically in rock language, is worth listening to. It has what all good rock ‘n roll has always had – surprise.

They didn’t have to do it for money. Sometimes it’s as simple as two old guitar players having fun.

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