Do Platypuses Dream of Eccentric Sheep?

Sleep; who needs it? And who doesn't? Isaac Asimov called it a waste of time, whereas John Lennon wrote one of his most mesmerizing songs in praise of it. My personal alliances are with Mr. Lennon, a warm bed to collapse into at night being one of life's little pleasures for me. On the other hand, some people I know sleep as little as they can get away with, either due to personal preference ( a la Mr. Asimov) or the demands of their jobs. Adult humans might spend anywhere from a third to a mere sixth of their lives in dreamland. But what about our fellow mammals? Who are the Asimovs of the animal world, and who are the (to me, far more sensible) Lennons?

Giraffes - These are critters after Mr. Asimov's own heart. Not only do they look like inhabitants of one of his more unusual worlds, they sleep less than the great man himself! In fact, they sleep less than anybody. They are the true Night Owls of the animal kingdom. They burn the midnight oil, are up with the roosters, catch the worm, etc. etc.; there's not a cliche about sleeplessness these guys don't have covered. For they get by on a mere ninety minutes of sleep per 24 hour period. And even that isn't all at once. Because these giant creatures are such an obvious target, they have to be on the lookout for predators almost continuously. So, the same evolutionary process that endowed them with those crane-like necks also rigged it so that their sleep needs are met by little naps of between five and twenty minutes or so. The next time you're on a safari, consider that the giraffe who's picture you snap might be the reincarnation of some workaholic ancestor of yours who thought that sleep was for wimps.

Elephants never forget, and they rarely sleep. What keeps the largest and strongest land animal on earth up at night, I can't imagine, but sleepless nights are the norm for pachyderms. Sleepless days, too. Rivaling the giraffe in terms of how little shuteye they require, our giant friends get by on around two or three hours of sleep per cycle. This is roughly the same amount as horses, who, like giraffes and elephants, sleep standing up. Rhinos get by on just a few hours too. They can nap standing up, but for their deep sleep periods they lie down.

How much sleep do our closest relatives (chimps, gorillas, orangutans) get a night, compared to our average of eight hours? Well, if you, like me, find sleep to be one of life's treats, then you may think you've ended up on the wrong branch of the Tree of Life. Our genetic cousins generally get between twelve and thirteen hours of quality time with the sandman. Which makes one wonder, if it's good enough for these guys, with whom we differ in less than ten percent of our DNA makeup, why isn't it good enough for us, and are we really the smartest apes?

Hippos are hard to pin down. These giant mammals spend most of their lives underwater, and yet they breathe through nostrils (they are in fact said to be the closest living land animals to whales, who have evolved an entirely different breathing apparatus). They have been observed napping on land, but as for their underwater lives, how do they sleep without drowning? First, they make themselves airtight; they fold their ears over on themselves and close up their nostrils before sinking into the water. Then, while asleep, their bodies rise several times throughout a sleep period for more air. But is it a sleepwalker's sleep, or is it more like getting up and going to the bathroom? If the former, then hippos seem to get about sixteen hours of sleep, far more than their fellow, earthbound, giants, the elephants.

Lions and Tigers and Bears - Oh, my! The living is easy at the top of the food chain! Anyone with a pet cat knows that their furry friends sleep like it's a lifelong calling, and it's no different for the big fellas. Lions average around fourteen to sixteen hours, with the lucky males sleeping up to twenty. Like all big cats, the females use tremendous amounts of energy when they are called upon for a hunt and kill. The male's job is to protect the pride, which means he has less to do on the average day. He sleeps all that time because he can, basically. Same for tigers, and big cats in general. As for bears, they seem to have it even easier; they get to "sleep" a whole season! Technically, bears don't really hibernate. Their metabolism doesn't change radically from normal waking hours in comparison to true hibernators like squirrels. Scientists call what bears do "winter lethargy", which means they basically just zone out during the cold months. Not a bad deal, right? When you're a bear, you don't even have to bother with Do Not Disturb signs.

The Platypus - Looking like it decided to go to a Halloween Party dressed as Darwin's Missing Link, the platypus has puzzled and perplexed people ever since it was discovered. It seems to be going out of its way to be an oddball in nearly every respect, and sleep is no different. For one thing, playpuses are said to be the only mammal that doesn't dream, at least not as indicated by the study of dreaming. They have the deep REM sleep associated with dreams (in fact, they rank first among mammals in this regard, up to eight hours, compared to two for the average human), but not the accompanying frontal lobe activity. On the other hand, not being platypuses themselves, can scientists really say for sure whether they can dream or not? Which raises the question: if they do dream, can they possibly dream of anything more unusual than - a platypus?

It seems almost unholy, or at least not wholly appropriate, to name the Sloth after one of The Seven Deadly Sins. Though long thought to be champion sleepers (up to eighteen hours a day) a recent study led by Dr. Neil Rattenborg reveals that these slow moving critters manage a mere ten, not that much more than a human. And this on a diet of leaves so poor in nutrition that they are forced to conduct their waking activities at an exceedingly slow pace. "Lazy", indeed! They are just coping with their environment. Perhaps the true sloths are the folks who live on a diet of chips and suds when much healthier alternatives are readily available, but that might be taking us into Gluttony territory.

We come now to the Sultans of Somnolence, the champion sleepers of the mammal kingdom. I am tempted to give the award, with no further research necessary, to my own pet ferret, Rosie. Rosie not only sleeps more than ninety percent of her life, she has developed sleep into an art form. She can sleep in any position, from pretzel like contortions that make it impossible to discern how the body parts connect, to stretched out like a bear rug. She can sleep just about anywhere, including my head (I have a picture of this if you want proof)! Furthermore, she seems to never tire of finding new places around the home to sleep, which means precautions must be taken before throwing anything away. In general, though, although ferrets certainly rank in the higher echelons of sleepdom (at sixteen to eighteen hours) they don't get the blue ribbon. That honor goes to the little brown bat. These little guys get plenty of, er, "beauty" sleep (of the "eye of the beholder" type, it seems), managing a mere two to three hours of wakefulness per cycle. They have company; koalas and armadillos are animals with low metabolisms that sleep about twenty hours out of twenty four.

So there you have it. On a mammalian scale, we humans and our roughly eight hours end up pretty much smack dab in the middle. We share the world with creatures who make do on far less, and others who couldn't imagine life without at least twice as much. So if you worry that you're sleeping your life away, remember the lions and bears, kings of their realms, mostly dozing. And if you're frazzled from too few hours in bed, remember the stately giraffe, ever alert, ever watchful, going through life with eyes wide open.


They Shoulda Been Contenders!

Live from The Chicago Municipal Opera House, bequeathed to the city by Charles Foster (Citizen) Kane, it's Oscar Night! Tonight is a special ceremony, wherein we honor the Best Pictures to NOT win Best Picture. At what other venue could we possibly hold this auspicious event? Citizen Kane is more than just a great film that got snubbed by the Academy. It is widely regarded as one of, if not THE, greatest motion pictures ever made. In fact, so laden with accolades is Orson Welles' groundbreaking triumph, it seems unnecessary to award it with  something as trivial as an Oscar at this point. Better perhaps to allow the film that bested it, How Green Was My Valley, that one link to immortality. Leaving "Kane" aside, let us now focus our attention on some of the other masterpieces of film that were robbed of their Art Deco paperweights. 


Goodfellas (1990); When The Departed won Best Picture in 2007 (it was released in 2006), most movie fans considered it to be little more than a face saving way to present a Lifetime Achievement Award to its director, Martin Scorsese. It may have been his goriest crime drama, but it was hardly his greatest picture. This is the man who gave us Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, after all. Both of those films merited an Oscar, but it is Goodfellas that must be looked upon as the master director's greatest epic. The best gangster movie ever made? With its release in 1990, it certainly muscled its way into that conversation alongside Oscar winners The Godfather Parts I and II. Goodfellas is a cinematic tour-de-force, dazzling us with one unforgettable scene, camera angle, and performance after another. Surely every movie fan has riffed on Tommy's  (played by Joe Pesci) "Funny How?" monologue at least once. So, what movie did the Academy decide to laud as the year's best in its place? Kevin Costner's Dances With Wolves. While not a bad movie, Costner's politically correct Western amply demonstrates that the freshman director knew less about making grandiose, sweeping epics than Scorsese had forgotten (which would be confirmed by later Costner "epics" The Postman and Waterworld). Early in Goodfellas, when the narrator, mobster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), introduces us to his mentor Jimmy Conway (Robert Deniro), one of the first things he tells us is that "Jimmy loved to steal!" One cannot but wonder how Jimmy feels when the shoe is on the other foot, because he, along with his wiseguy cohorts, wuz robbed!


2001: A Space Odyssey (1968): Here we have a movie so unusual, so utterly unique, so creative, so visionary, so unlike any other movie ever made that it basically changed our perception of the medium. To be sure, there were "art films" before (and no doubt inspiring) 2001. But it was 2001 that first dazzled us with the technology of filmmaking, the "special effects" that opened up doors undreamed of to directors and studios. If Jaws (1975) was the movie that ushered in the era of the summer blockbuster, it was 2001 which revealed the potential of what such films could look like, and the impact that makes on an audience. You don't watch 2001, you experience it, which was exactly what director Stanley Kubrick was intending. Plot? Secondary. Performances? Who needs 'em? The best lines, every single one of them, went to the disembodied, hollow voice of a malfunctioning supercomputer. What supplanted all of that was a VISION; Kubrick was out to entertain our subconscious minds, not the part of us that decides to get up and buy some popcorn. So, what beat out this cinematic work of the finest art? Well, it wasn't even nominated (though Kubrick was nominated for, and lost, Best Director), so you could say that all the nominees did. The award went to Oliver!, but Funny Girl and The Lion in Winter were also picked as better films. HAL 9000 wasn't the only thing malfunctioning in movie-land that year, it seems.

May I have the envelope, please? We now come to my personal pick for Best Picture Not to Win Best Picture, Sunset Boulevard (1950): Director Billy Wilder was firing off on all cylinders with this masterpiece,  directed from the height of his powers. Combining black comedy and noir mystery with a subject  he knew all too well about (Hollywood, with its egos and fantasy worlds), this, among all his works, seems his most personal statement. Did Wilder see himself as the writer played by William Holden, losing his soul to the gaudy seductress Norma Desmond (played to perfection by Gloria Swanson) who represented, better than any other role in history, Tinseltown itself? When Norma haughtily proclaims, "I'm still big! It's the pictures that got smaller!", is it her ego Wilder is poking fun at, or his own? Perhaps he himself didn't know for sure, but with this claustrophobic, surreal tragi-comic nightmare, he gave Hollywood its most searing and unflinching look at itself. Nevertheless, it's hard to fault the Academy this time. "Sunset" was bested by another great movie, featuring another stellar performance by the female lead. All About Eve is perhaps Bette Davis' finest film (and performance), and unquestionably deserved its Oscar. The only problem is that Sunset Boulevard deserved it too, even more.

Clearly, the Academy has made some dumb, historically indefensible decisions. Worst Picture to Win Best Picture? Hard to be objective in such matters. Some people see art where others are left shaking their heads. Did Titanic deserve its Oscar? This movie, perhaps seen by more people in the world than any other motion picture ever made, certainly delivered the goods in terms of spectacle and scale. But with its two dimensional lovers, and one dimensional villain, it is doubtful that it will be talked about in years to come as a masterpiece. Preachy Crash is a movie whose Oscar provokes many a temper tantrum by serious movie lovers. But for me personally, the "honor" can only go to Chicago!, which won in 2003 (released in 2002). Chicago! is a soulless, unabashedly amoral piece of doo doo. In Roxie Hart (played with neither charm nor sex appeal by Renee Zellweger) Hollywood gave us perhaps its most annoying anti-heroine ever. Featuring unwatchable dance numbers (literally, because they are shot so dark or cut so rapidly), pathetic lyrics, lousy performances, and an utterly bleak and sneeringly cynical viewpoint, in its defense I can only say that  some of the costumes are nice. Kind of. But Best Picture? Fugeddaboudit!

Maybe Norma Desmond was right. The movies really did get smaller. Consider that in 1972, Cabaret, a movie musical far superior to Chicago! in every conceivable way, lost  Best Picture to an even greater film, The Godfather (consider also the competition between Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve). 2001 would never conceivably be released by a major studio in this day and age. Hollywood is in a pretty bleak state right now, content to crank out superhero movies one after the other, or gory splatter-fests, or Will Smith special effects extravaganzas - noisy movies lacking the intelligence or wit of the films mentioned above. Great movies are still being made, just not with the regularity with which they once were. They are like oases in the desert, rare respites, refreshing reminders of the possibilities of filmmaking for we, as Norma puts it, "wonderful people, out there in the dark....."


Live At Gamuso

Last Saturday I was up on stage at a great event held in Gamuso, a live house in Asagaya, western Tokyo. Asagaya is a fantastic neighborhood, an both an area and an era - the 60s! It's an artsy, bohemian area with a happening street life and lots of little places to hear music. I was there as part of an organization called JAMBO International's www.jambointernational.com biannual musical event. Normally, I sing my own songs, but last week I felt like singing older, well known songs. So I went for "Over the Rainbow", "Amazing Grace" and "Let It Be". The latter is what you see me up there singing, alongside Yuki Band. (Yuki is playing keyboard on the right). 


Animal Farm

Here is an image I did of George Orwell, author of the dystopian novels "1984" and "Animal Farm". I will probably have a color version and essay to post along with it soon.


Ichiro's Hit Records

"I could have had a lifetime .600 average, but I would have had to hit them singles. The people were paying to see me hit home runs." - Babe Ruth

"Keep your eye clear, and hit 'em where they ain't" - Willie Keeler (currently tied with Ichiro Suzuki for longest streak of 200+ hits seasons)

If you're a baseball fan, you might be aware that something amazing is about to happen this season. On the other hand, if you're a baseball fan who doesn't reside in Seattle or Japan, you might very well not be aware that something amazing is about to happen. It might take place without more than the briefest of mentions on your local TV news program. A Major League record that has stood for 108 (!!) years is almost certain to be broken this year. This is not some little stat that only a baseball geek could possibly care about, like thirty stolen bases for the largest number of different teams, or something like that. No. This record is going to be the longest unbroken streak of 200 or more hits in a  season in the history of Major League baseball, ever. That number is nine. To give a little perspective, Pete Rose (aka Charlie Hustle) is the all time hits leader, with 4,256 hits to his credit. And the longest streak of 200+ hit seasons he managed in his illustrious, though ethically marred, career? Three, and he did that twice.

Ichiro Suzuki, the diminutive (for pro sports, anyway) Japanese transport who is going to break that record, is no stranger to making history. He already holds the Major League record for hits in a season, a record that had stood for 84 years. If these two records (the one he already broke and the one he's about to) were people, they would have trouble remembering your name but could tell you a lot about WWI. Ichiro has many other distinctions to his name as well, such as being one of only 2 players to win both the MVP award and Rookie of the Year award in the same year. The only thing about THAT distinction that doesn't ring true is that Ichiro was a "rookie" in technical terms only. Coming into the League, he had already accumulated some of the most impressive stats ever seen in his country's professional baseball program. What is so impressive is that his stats have not only not declined in the bigger, tougher Majors, but have actually improved! Had he played all his seasons in the Major Leagues, extrapolating his performance here backwards, he would actually have more than the 3,252  hits he has to date, and could pretty much spend his free time picking out the colors of the shrine they'd be erecting for him in Cooperstown.

Which he should be anyway. The Baseball Hall of Fame would surely be an odd place if it were missing its holder of two major hits records, wouldn't it? And yet, go on sports blogs and you will find people arguing anything from the defensible point of view that talking about his admission into the Hall is premature, as his career is still underway, and he hasn't yet notched up his 3000th hit in the Majors, to the point of view that Ichiro, well, sucks. If you're not a baseball fan, you would probably think that such a point of view is a little, let's say, stupid? If you ARE a baseball fan, you might well think the same thing. Or not. Not only does Ichiro have numerous detractors, an even larger number of baseball fans don't think all that much of him, don't pay much attention to him, and would scoff at the notion that he should be considered anywhere near the upper echelon of current great players such as Albert Pujols, Manny Ramirez, A-Rod and Derek Jeter.

Like the brilliant Japanese movie "Rashomon" in which the same event is given a different spin by each of its protagonists, Ichiro presents an enigma that makes his accomplishments open to interpretation. Sports is about winning, and that is something that his team, The Seattle Mariners, aren't very good at. Their hit-making star has not taken his team even as far as the playoffs since his "rookie" season. A typical Mariners season generally goes like this: they remain competitive, within scrapping distance for the top  spot in their division, up until the All Star break. Then, Ichiro inevitably gets called up to the All Star game and does something extraordinary like making an amazing how-did-he-do-that? catch or hitting a, yes, infield home run (in 2007, first time in All Star Game history). The city of Seattle goes nuts for their hero! He returns to the remote Northwest, the regular season starts up again, and the Mariners start to sink like an olive in a martini. Ichiro generally gets more national press for his All Star appearance than for his work with the Mariners.

So what's going on here? How come all those hits aren't helping his team win more games? The answer to that is the second reason Ichiro bashers give for his unworthiness to be admitted into the Hall. The vast majority of those hits are singles. If you put Ichiro up against any of his rivals for top batting average or most hits in any given season, you will see a significant discrepancy in doubles, and most of all homers. The only stat other than singles where he may possibly keep pace with them is triples, because Ichiro is the kind of player who can turn a double into a triple with greater ease than his rivals. Once he's made that connection of bat to ball, he's a cheetah out there running  on a diamond that is usually trounced upon by lions. And it's not just the fact that he hits mostly singles that bothers some people. To them, Ichiro is not so much a hit machine as a stat machine; they are convinced that he is solely interested in keeping up his numbers and getting his two hundred plus hits per season, even if it means hitting less power hits that add up to runs, and ultimately wins. They say that he gets hits when it doesn't matter anymore, late in the game when pitchers are less sharp. They say he is a bad teammate, a sort of pariah on his own team. 

There may be smidgens of truth in all of those sentiments. Ichiro is an eye-of-the-beholder type player. He is also a bit of a throwback to an earlier age. Like Ty Cobb, he's a smart, scrappy hitter who seems capable of performing minute calculations of trajectory and distance while watching a baseball speed toward him at ninety miles per hour. And with his running skills, he can get to first base on unlovely little bloopers that are never going to make a sports highlight reel. Small wonder that the records he is breaking are so old, and weren't even contested until he came along, whereas home run records seem to be continually up for grabs. Ichiro isn't some pumped up, 'roid addicted Incredible Hulk hitter, and let's face it, today's sports fan wants his heroes to be superheroes, displaying superhuman feats of strength in super-sized bodies. Ichiro, when he doesn't have his baseball uniform on, could easily pass for an ordinary Japanese businessman in need of a shave. No bulging muscles, no pop star diva girlfriends, no octupus leg tangles of dreadlocks flowing out from under his helmet a la Manny Ramirez. Just an average looking Japanese man, with a wife and a pet dog back home in Kobe. Snooze.

Of course, it might be different this season. This may end up as Ichiro's year in more than just one way. The Mariners are having a winning season, for one thing. The addition of undisputed (though past his prime) great, Ken Griffey Jr., to the squad has invigorated Ichiro and his teammates. They are currently nine games out of first place, but if they finish strong a wild card bid is not out of the question. If that happens, there is sure to be a lot more buzz about the dusty old record that Ichiro is about to break. If that doesn't happen, if the Mariners finish third in their division and miss the playoffs yet again, then Ichiro's hit record will play to a much smaller audience in the U.S.; mostly just Seattle and its suburbs. In Japan, of course, it will be different. Ichiro the Hit King will be recognized as a genuine marvel, a local boy making it big on one of the world's biggest stages.


Warmer Than My Heart

An illustration for a song I wrote a while back, "Warmer Than My Heart". Basically, the idea was to take an old C&W, cryin' in your beer song such as Hank Williams might sing, and merge it with some sardonic humor about the world's environmental crisis. Rather a unique combination, I'm guessing! Lyrics below. If I can figure out how to add an MP3 file on this blog, I'll do that as well, later.

Cherry trees in Tokyo are blossoming in March

New Yorkers in January picnic in the park

I read you letter late last night and sat there in the dark

now every place is warmer than my heart

Moscow in the winter is like Paris in the spring

I wonder why in old Shanghai the birds have come to sing

in Berlin I saw you girl in your brand new boyfriend’s car

and every place is warmer than my heart


we’re told that we must heed the warning

or life as we know it could well come to an end

but I’m hoping that global warming

will melt your heart and bring you back, back to me again

businessmen pay scientists to say it isn’t so

while on the slopes skiers hope for just a little snow

if you want to cool things down, then I'm the place to start

'cause every place is warmer than my heart

repeat refrain

The climate crime rate’s going up just like the mercury

the way you cooled our romance down seems like a crime to me

we had a great thing going till you blew it all apart

now every place is warmer than my heart

warmer than my heart, warmer than my heart


A(xl) Rose By Any Other Name

"Man, that Led Zeppelin sure plays some kickass guitar!" I suppose one has to be of a certain era to appreciate the humor inherent in that line; there was a time when American kids really did confuse British band's names with their members. Hence, Ian Anderson, the eccentric creative force behind Jethro Tull, actually was Jethro Tull in the eyes of many fans across the pond, and Led Zeppelin was a guitar hero who sang like a banshee. This was milked for full comic effect in the classic line, "Oh, by the way, which one's Pink?" from Pink Floyd's "Have a Cigar". John Entwistle, bemoaning how his band wallowed in relative obscurity in the U.S. before their breakthrough rock opera, observed that many newly hip fans came to think of Tommy as a golden haired hunk who cut a double album titled "The Who". 

   This isn't all that hard to understand, what with so many hard rock acts of the period giving themselves names that sounded like personal names, while at the same time British singers such as Elton John and Mick Jagger going by names that, at least to North American ears, sounded unusual enough to actually be band names. Whether name-resembling or not, during the late sixties to mid seventies a band name consisting of two words generally connoted a hard, riff laden, kickass sound. Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Iron Butterfly, Jethro Tull, Thin Lizzy, Uriah Heep, Alice Cooper, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, etc. If you liked your hard rock with a Dixie twist, you had Lynyrd Skynyrd and Molly Hatchet to wreck your eardrums with.

   Some of the band names were actual names, from history, literature or elsewhere. Jethro Tull was a British agriculturalist from the 17th century. Uriah Heep was a character in "David Copperfield". Alice Cooper, which was the band's name before singer Vincent Furnier adopted it as his own, was supposedly the name of a 17th century witch (what IS it about the 17th century?) . Actual member names have been used as well. The Van Halen brothers, Eddie, Allen and Wolfgang (yes, Wolfgang) would have been crazy not to adopt their family name as their band's name; it was just too perfect.  Similarly, John Bongiovi had only to do a little tweaking to create a name similar to his hair metal forefathers, and Voila! Bon Jovi was born.

   Over all these acts, Led Zeppelin reigned supreme, so their influence was unquestionably the greatest, not only with respect to their sound, but with naming as well. Their own reason for dropping the "a" from "lead" (the name was suggested to Jimmy Page by Entwistle) was logical enough: it was so fans wouldn't mistake them for "Leed Zeppelin". The trend caught on. In deference, the quirky misspelling of words (which had already been done by The Beatles) became de rigueur.  Soon we had Motley Crue, Axl Rose (lead singer of Guns&Roses), culminating in surely the most shameless name ripoff in rock history (after The Monkees), Def Leppard. Like a hawker in Hong Kong barking out, "Get your authentic imitation Rolexes!", these British glam metalists, with their missing "a" and double "pp"s, could hardly have been more brazen.

   Hard rock is not the only genre characterized by similarities in band names. During the latter part of the same era, a lot of crap bands emerged, "perfecting" a soulless brand of music known as power pop. Many of those acts had names related to locations or traveling, i.e. Boston, Kansas, Foreigner, Journey and Asia. Taking us a bit further afield were Starship (whose original name, Jefferson Airplane, was strikingly similar to that of their California hippie brethren Buffalo Springfield, right down to the syllable structure and double "ff"s) and Styx. Styx is a location, being the mythical river to hell. And if "Mr. Roboto" isn't the music playing on the ferry that takes you across it, then some demon isn't doing his job well enough!

    A certain power trio from Canada who, although they managed in the space of their first two albums to rip off nearly every Led Zeppelin cliche in the songbook, were a little more original in the name department, opting for a single word, Rush. Perhaps the timing was off. Perhaps if Geddy Lee and his bandmates had formed their group today, they would have selected a name every bit as sinister sounding as Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden or Molly Hatchet. Naturally, they would have had to misspell one portion of the name for form's sake. Imagine twenty thousand lighters being hoisted skyward by stoned teens, as our axe wielding heroes emerge from backstage; "Cleveland!!!! Are You Ready??? Let's welcome...... Rush Limbah!!!!"


"Copying" Vermeer?

Yesterday I taught an art class titled, "Drawing from the Old Masters" in the middle of Tokyo. Six people came to study by doing highly detailed pencil drawings that were taken from the paintings of master painters such as Vermeer, Da Vinci, Ingres and Caravaggio.  I have taught this course several times, and the results are always stunning. However, I often find resistance from students (and, I would presume this to also be one of the reasons why the class is not always packed with students) to the idea of simply "copying" the works of artists of the past. They feel that art should be original, that it should come directly from the person doing the drawing. I understand why my students, and art students in general, have come to feel this way.

Probably some time around the time of Picasso's and Kandinsky's rise to fame a truism arose that art should be free, personal, expressive and emotional. What failed to figure into this truism was just how well trained, classically, Picasso was. His father was a classically trained artist who became an administrator of a great art institution. He made sure that his son learned the fundamentals at an early age. And one of the best ways to learn the fundamentals was to follow the ancient tradition of learning from, by copying, the work of masters, either contemporary or ancient.

When a pianist plays a magnificent piece by Tchaikovsky or Chopin, do we say they are "copying"? When Ella Fitzgerald cranks out a "standard" from the jazz repertoire, is it only imitation? Of course not! Somehow, with regard to music, the idea of learning, practicing, paying homage to and ultimately finding one's own expression through great works of the past has never fallen out of favor. What a good thing this is for music, and musicians! And how sad that visual art in most modern, Western societies has erected an unnecessary architecture of shame around the very same activity, that of copying from and learning from great masters.

The two images above are pencil drawings of mine. The lower one was done as a demonstration in one of my classes. It is, as all will probably recognize, a copy of a famous painting by Vermeer, "Girl with a Pearl Earring". The upper one was done later, as I decided to re-create the image in a different way, influenced by the great painter Modigliani and my own tendency to stylize faces in a similar manner. People might say that the one on the right is more original, certainly, but the point is that I wouldn't have been able to do it, at least not to the same degree of subtlety, if I hadn't first done the left image, when I was "just copying".  The time I spent copying, and learning from,  a great, master painter was time very well spent! The Old Masters have provided us with such a rich legacy, just as the great composers have. It seems like a waste to merely look at their works and admire them,  when we could learn so much more by studying their sensitivity, the beauty of their shapes, and probing the mystery of their genius with our own hands and eyes!




考えてみてください。ピアニストが、チャイコフスキーやショパンの有名な曲を弾く時、私達は「彼らは、真似ている!」などと言いますか? エラ・フィッツジェラルドが、ジャズのスタンダードを歌う時、「単に真似ているだけ!」と言いますか?もちろん、言いませんよね! なぜか、音楽に関しては、過去の有名な曲を学び、練習し、敬意を捧げることによって究極的にその人自身の表現を見出すのだという考えは、好意的に受け入れられていたのです。これは、音楽や音楽家にとって、なんていいことなのでしょう! そして、同時になんと悲しむべきことなのでしょうか。 非常に似た行為であるにもかかわらず、最も近代的な西洋の社会において、偉大なる巨匠を模写して学ぶことは恥であると考えるような、不必要な風潮が築かれたのは。

上の二つのイメージは、私が描いたペンシル画です。下の絵は、私が教えるあるクラスのデモンストレーションで使ったものです。たぶん皆さんお気づきのことと思いますが、これは、フェルメールの有名な真珠の耳飾りの少女の絵の模写です。上の絵は、後に描いたものです。モディリアーニの影響を受け、そして彼と同じようなやり方で顔をデフォルメするという私自身のやり方を取り入れ、前の絵と異なる描き方にしました。人は、右側の絵がよりオリジナルなものだと必ず言うでしょう。しかし、大切なことは、私がただ単に模写する時、もし最初に左側の絵を描いたならば、私は少なくとも同様に繊細なレベルまでにはできなかっただろう、ということなのです。このように私が、偉大なる画家から学ぶために模写をしている時間は、非常に意味のある時間なのです。昔の巨匠達は、偉大なる作曲家とまったく同様に、私達にとても豊かな宝物を残してくれています。彼らの作品をただ単に鑑賞したり、賞賛したりするだけではもったいないのです。 私達は自分自身の手や眼を使って、巨匠達の偉大さの謎を探りつつ彼らの形の繊細さや美しさを学ぶことによって、非常に多くのことを学ぶことができるのです。



How did you get here?

 Tokyo is an enormous city; it’s almost impossible to adequately describe how expansive it and its surrounding cities are. Densely populated, but at the same time relatively well run and organized, it features one of the most extensive and intricate mass transportation systems in the world. So a common question when meeting friends, say at a party,  is, “how did you get here?” There are commonly a variety of public and private train and subway routes to access a given destination. There are several websites whose only purpose is to provide access information, including all available options, in terms of price, number of transfers, and arrival time down to the minute!

   It’s an interesting bit of small talk, revealing as it does just what an important aspect of life in Tokyo is the gargantuan system of vehicles and tracks that take people where they want or need to go. One of the reasons people ask is that they are always curious to find out if an even more convenient route is available to them that they hadn’t considered before. The one thing that you DON’T see are the trains themselves; in other words, people come together after disembarking, and don’t show up dragging their trains behind them! Yes, that is a signal that I am getting metaphorical here! I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the human tendency to drag our past around with us. It’s not all that unlike hauling the train that got us to where we are around with us everywhere we go. For someone like me who is living my fifth decade on the planet, that’s quite a lot of load to haul!

   Our past is essentially a vehicle. It is the “train” we rode to get to the exact point where we are now. We honor our past best by experiencing the present moment as fully as we can. If we always carry the heavy weight of our former experiences, particularly the regrets and recriminations, the disappointments and hurts, we really ARE like someone hauling an enormous, heavy train on his back, unable to move as fluidly through the present moment as we could if we were able to just put it down. I wrote a song a few years ago called “Recovery”  that included the lines; 

I didn’t know where I was going, I just knew that where I was, was no place that I wanted to stay;

carrying my past around, ’cause I didn’t know how to put it down, is how I wound up where I am today

    Like a train, our past carries a huge amount of momentum with it. It can be hard to step off it as it chugs along, adding to its “weight” with each chunk of scenery it devours as it moves along. For example, if a moment of disappointment, a setback of some kind, gets fed back into a history of similar moments we have experienced in the past, we can “lose track” of a.) the experience itself, b.)our place in it in this current moment, and c.) our power to do anything about the problem with a clear head and the eyes of newness. That’s when we really need to “step off the train”. It carried us here, to this place. Maybe, like the commuters of Tokyo, we could have taken a quicker route, one with less transfers, one less costly. But we didn’t!Regardless, whatever train we took to the place we find ourselves now, we don’t have to carry its weight around with us, nor do we serve ourselves by doing so.  As with the people sitting around at a party in Tokyo, there will always be another train, maybe even one we never realized we could take before. So while we’rehere, we should enjoy the party!

The Troll Slayer

Here's an image I did for a friend who runs a website, Free Range Talk. It will probably end up on T shirts.
I think he makes a good Free Ranger, keeping the trolls (unwanted posters) at bay.


Terribly Sorry!

Here is an illustration I did recently which will appear next week in the Daily Yomiuri, along with a column about negotiating, and obviously focusing on apologies. I hope you like it, and am terribly sorry if you don't!


Browny and Friends 2

Here is another of the latest Shosen series. The little white ferret on the right is my actual pet, Rosie. Ferrets are great pets! They are friendly and insatiably curious! They never saw a bag, or any kind of hole or opening, that they don't want to crawl into! Gotta be careful about dem critters!

These are three images
from an earlier series of bookmarks for Shosen. As you can see, I love circus imagery!


Bacchanalian Honky-tonk Blues

Well, the Great Whore of Babylon was on my tail,

I tried to evade her, but to no avail;

I searched low and high for a Holy Grail,

but all I could find was a rusty nail,

I wound up with the whore, bedding down by the Nile,

in a seedy motel called The Crocodile;

and she said to me, “boy, your lot ain’t cast;

you can go when you please, but don’t come too fast!”

Here's a series of illustrations I did for a song, roughly based on Bob Dylan's "Highway 61" and other songs of that era of his where he put lots of literary, Biblical and historical illusions into puns and wordplay. I wrote the song first, but it was so full of images that I felt that I had to do it justice by painting them. They have been published in reverse order so they appear first to last. Enjoy!

Circus Maximus Scene

then the Circus Maximus rolled into town,

with a whole lot of lions and a couple of clowns;

Nero and Cicero had front row seats,

they were reciting Ovid, but it sounded like Keats;

and the master of ceremonies was Bobby D.

who called our attention to rings one, two and three

and said, “it doesn’t matter what stage you’re on,

cuz it’s all just a show, but it must go on!”

Sheriff of Nottingham Scene

I was going quietly into the night,

when the Sheriff of Nottingham came to fight;

he called to his officers, one by one.

and they showed me the business end of their guns;

I said, “Sheriff, what's this?  I’ve done nothing wrong,

I’m just finding the rhymes to the lines of my song!.”

And he said, “that don’t matter none; you’ll do time

you’ll be breaking rocks before the church bells chime!”

Sherwood Forest Scene

into Sherwood Forest I made my escape,

after Sherlock Holmes kindly loaned me his cape;

I lived there for a while with the elves and gnomes,

who were all good friends of Mr. Holmes;

but I knew it was finally time to leave,

when the Queen of the Faeries pulled on my sleeve

and said, “You best get while the getting’s good,

‘cause this all belongs to Robin Hood!”

The Festival Scene

then the Archduke of Canterbury took seven Cornish hens

and tried to turn the Hound of Baskerville into man’s best friend;

while the Caliph on camelback flashed his scimitar,

and the Naiads gave Perseus a hand-rolled cigar;

we all went down to the festival wearing jewels and beads,

where Jesus was talkin’ bout them mustard seeds,

and He said as He threw the seeds into the air,

“If you know where you’re going, you ain’t going nowhere!”


Browny and Friends

This is one of a series of bookmark illustrations I did for the bookstore Shosen, in Jimbocho. The funny-eared bear is named Browny, and he is a licensed character that I have developed along with Shosen. They have used his image for bags in addition to bookmarks.

Artwork, songs and musings by Andy Boerger

This is a personal space to show my works, which includes artwork and song writing, and probably various musings about things going on in my life and in the world. Thank you for visiting, and I hope you will enjoy yourself here.