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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Piper at the Gates of Dawn

Back when Syd Barrett led Pink Floyd , the band recorded its first album at Abbey Road Studio

at the same time as The Beatles recorded Sergeant Pepper’s there and The Pretty Things were

recording S F Sorrow. They called it, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

Flash forward to this century and a habit I picked up in Amsterdam and can’t seem to shake. The habit is listening to the World Service on the radio all night. It’s the CBC All Night Radio here, the BBC World Service there (I think). A lot of countries contribute reports to the World Service. I don’t really understand how it works but there’s nothing quite like laying snug in your bed, free to fall asleep or listen to Holland, Sweden, Korea or Poland talk about their news. For instance, the other night there was a report from somewhere near Alice Springs, Australia about a race they held between honey bees and homing pigeons. The bees won.

Of course, it you’re tired and working and need to get up early in the morning, it’s unwise to indulge this habit. You lose too much sleep. At the moment, though, I am indulging this habit and the other night I must have dozed off and awoke to a female voice with an English accent declaring that the seventh chapter of Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows proved his hidden but genuine pantheism.

Kenneth Grahame was born in Scotland and spent all of his working life in a bank in London. According to Wikipedia he died in 1932 and The Wind in the Willows was published in 1908.

As I rolled around in the dark, it occurred to me that Van Morrison had included a song on The Healing Game cd called The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. The chorus is “The wind in the willows and the piper at the gates of dawn”.

And Fred Armstrong out in Newfoundland actually talked on CBC radio about The Wind in the Willows. It was his opinion that the book was not a children’s book at all, that it was really written for adults. There was no script for the show but he said he went over the top a little when he called it, “Shakespeare with fur”.

It’s probably the combination of poetry and music in Van Morrison’s song that appeals to me so much. When I actually read chapter seven which is called The Piper at the Gates of Dawn in Grahame’s book, I discovered poetic language there too. In fact, Van used several phrases verbatim from the book or almost verbatim. When Grahame uses “the daybreak not so very far off”, Morrison uses “the daybreak not so very far away” and when Grahame writes “the light grew steadily stronger”, Morrison sings “grew steadily strong”.

And Fred, an old friend and veteran reporter (30 years) just published his first fictional novel, Happiness of Fish (Jesperson Publishing., 2007) in St John’s. He’s a creative soul, one who never gives up on his dreams. If he was interested in the book, there must be something to it.

So I asked him and here’s what he said, “Wind in the Willows is a deep little book about a rather Taoist bunch of beasties sitting around writing poems and banqueting between adventures….”

“Opinion seems to be split on the Pan chapter of WIW. People love it or hate it…. I think WIW is a comfortably sentimental look at nature as deity.

I think anyone who has been scared at sea or lost in the woods and come home can handle the balance between a nature that creates us and takes us away or maybe doesn’t. There’s also something appealing about a deity that performs a Men in Black mind wipe after you trip over him. Ratty and Mole don’t remember him when it’s all over. They take the little otter off to breakfast rather than sitting down and writing the Book of Revelation.”

The words in Van’s writing which are taken straight out of chapter seven are:” heavenly music” and “song-dream” though one doesn’t have a dash connecting them and the other does.

Graham writes “when the vision had vanished” and Morrison writes “vision vanished” a difference in tense only.

Here is the description of Pan in Wikipedia:

‘Pan: in Greek religion and mythology, is the god of shepherds and flocks, of mountain wilds, hunting and rustic music. His name originates from the word paein, meaning to pasture. He has the hindquarters, legs, and horns of a goat, in the same manner as a faun or satyr. He is recognized as the god of fields, groves, and wooded glens; because of this, Pan is connected to fertility and the season of Spring.

The wikipedia article goes on to say that “accounts of Pan’s geneology are so varied that it must lie buried deep in mythic time.” and that “panic” is derived from his name.

The story recounted in Chapter seven of Wind in the Willows is a simple one: Mole and Ratty search for the lost Portly, son of Otter, and find him safe and saved by Pan after they are led there in their rowboat by his magical piping.

Van Morrison uses words like “awe”, “wonder”, enchanted” and “spellbound” to describe the characters’ state as they follow Pan’s music to find little Portly.

Grahame emphasizes Pan’s insistence that the wild creatures’ experience with him will be forgotten when it’s over. Like hypnotism, “You will awake and remember nothing”

Wikipedia includes all kinds of interesting facts like, “Pan is famous for his sexual powers and is often depicted with an erect phallus.” and “Pan’s greatest conquest was that of the moon goddess, Selene.” along with references to the symbolism of Satan, Romanticism and Neopaganism and “A modern account of several purported meetings with Pan is given by R. Ogilvie Crombie in the books, The Findhorn Garden (Harper and Rowe, 1975) and The Magic of Findhorn (Harper and Rowe, 1975).”

Pan is not named in the book, just described, but in the song Morrison calls him “the great god, Pan” when he echoes Grahame’s insistence that the animals were not afraid of him despite his reputation.

It is the only song on The Healing Game (1997) which has no percussion in it. Just Van’s vocals as he plays acoustic guitar with a dobro (which I can’t hear probably because of the quality of my sound system), and a piano with Brian Kennedy’s vocal backings and Paddy Maloney on Uilleann pipes and whistle.

The Uilleann Pipes, a type of Irish bagpipe, aren’t apparently related to the Pan Pipes but their effect in the song is an ethereal, delicate one.

When you see the innocent willow leaves on the cover and the cartoon characters with which it’s illustrated, the same impression is left by the book as when you see Van Morrison’s black and white picture on the cover of the cd with a black fedora and shades, a black over coat and white shirt buttoned up to the neck. Neither give any hint of Pan’s magic. They bring to mind an old Willie Dixon song, You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Cover.

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Happiness of Fish

The white fish are swimming at ease. This is the happiness of fish. Chuang Tzu.

Many years ago for some reason St Pat’s became a part of Carleton U and there were shuttle buses running between campuses. I could catch one a few blocks from the funky old house we lived in on Lewis Street.
The three of us ended up there for unremembered reasons and survived quite well. Ronnie Knowles was an original member of the group who created The Rainbow on Murray Street and is now doing an important job at the annual Bluesfest.
The other guy was Fred Armstrong. He and I loved Kerouac and Hunter Thompson and Tom Wolfe. We spent more than a few nights drinking red wine and reading our stuff to one another. It was terrible writing but exciting at the time.
When everyone else headed West, Fred and a girl who later became his first wife, took a Greyhound bus as far east as they could go in Canada. I remember getting postcards from him in St John’s exclaiming that there were many boddhisatvas to be discovered there.
Life took us in different directions and about a year ago I got an email asking if I was the same guy who lived on Lewis Street thirty five years ago.
I had found Fred again. Or he found me through the internet. The good news was that after all this time, he was getting a book published.
Happiness of Fish was published in November, 2007 by Jesperson Publishing, St John’s, NL.
Broke, as usual, I waited till Christmas and sure enough received the present of a gift certificate issued by a large chain book store. I would rather have purchased it through an independent book store but I couldn’t afford to. The big store located it on amazon.com, ordered the book for me and called when it arrived.
Now that I’ve read it, I feel obligated to comment on it. Not obligated to Fred, but to everyone else.
Every detail of a man’s life is impossible to describe in two hundred and fifty pages but a different point of view, an outline of his time and place and some of his feelings can be communicated well if it is done with precision and care. If it is a fictional character who is the narrator, names can be changed to protect the innocent and the weapons of a sharp witted writer’s arsenal can be used to greater effect.
Thirty five years as a print, radio and television reporter in St John’s (a mention of his defence of Wind in the Willows as a book written for adults is on the CBC radio website now) honed Fred’s writing skills so that his readers enjoy themselves.
Happiness of Fish is deceptively simple at first. As one reads further it becomes apparent that the minute details of the protagonist’s (Gerry Adamson) journey through life are as important as the big ideas and questions which confront him. And they become important to the reader
On the first page he describes a telephone caller’s attitude who has somehow reached him at the radio station office instead of the talk show she is attempting to phone as “somewhere between a nanny-ish desire for precision and ethnic cleansing” when she concludes that he is not a native Newfoundlander. Rather than explain that he’s probably lived in St John’s longer than she’s been alive, he passes her call onto the studio.
When you think of it, there are few Canadian stories wherein the protagonist goes East. There are stories of Easterners, Quebecers and Ontario natives travelling West, and some about people who have returned East from their western jobs and adventures, but few in which the protagonist intentionally moves East.
Gerry’s motivation for the move to St John’s is never clearly defined but seems perfectly natural in the book. It is based on his assumption that moving East in this country is not just acceptable but taken for granted as a smart thing to do.
Gerry writes off one marriage and quits drinking during his first years in Newfoundland, navigates bachelorhood and eventually meets Vivian, his second wife, who comes complete with two grown children, Duane and Melanie, and her youngest daughter, Tanya.
Duane, his wife Gretchen and their kids end up living in Ottawa and become Christian fundamentalists. The conflict with the underlying Bhuddism of Gerry’s philosophy makes for great humour when they visit St John’s.
Vivian’s middle daughter, Melanie, is married to Darren who tries to make a go of it with a donair and pizza restaurant but fails and moves to Alberta. Gerry and Vivian are left with the debt they incurred to start the business.
Tanya, the child who Gerry knows best, finds counting elk in the Rockies of Alberta much more interesting than the business classes at the university. When he looks at what is going on around him, Gerry wonders if maybe she’s leading a saner life.
There is no international intrigue or breathless action or gloomy suicidal despair in Happiness of Fish. Living in Newfoundland with the background of Mt Cashel and the cod fishery and offshore oil is enough.
Gerry’s pleasure is his sailboat and his ambition is to write it all down somehow. He does several character sketches as he forces himself to write in the basement beside the furnace, in a concrete block office rented especially for writing and in the snow covered sailboat which is buttoned up for the winter. The writer’s group he joins has trouble with his inconsistency and aimlessness.
It’s a book about a guy writing a book, but it’s a lot more.
Gerry travels to Ottawa twice, once to visit his old mother in a nursing home and once to witness her death at the Civic Hospital and bury her. On that occasion he shows his wife the tunnels of Carleton U.
Shopping for furniture is how he thinks of picking out his mother’s coffin. Cocktail party and politically correct funeral behaviour are natural targets for his interior monologue.
The most enjoyable thing about Happiness of Fish is the underlying compassion of the book. In all of the family and personal problems which Gerry has to face, there is an irrepressible sense of the absurd in the background. There are a lot of sacred cows to be well and truly skewered but their suggestion is enough. After all, wasn’t Buddha a compassionate fellow?
He keeps reminding himself to act like a grown up but can’t help noticing how ridiculous things are.
A Newfoundlander coming to settle in Ottawa sees the city with completely different eyes than a native. The same is true of a transplanted Ottawan in St John’s.
Fred calls Happiness of Fish his “coming of age book at 60″. In that description is contained all the Kerouacian, zen, mischievous, Pythonesque suggestions of absurdity that back up this book.
The action in Happiness of Fish takes place from 2003 till 2006 so it is a contemporary novel. The flashbacks to earlier times in Ottawa and St John’s give the reader a good sense of place.
It is satisfying to read a friend’s book and be proud.

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