Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Layers of Creativity

I don’t tend to do breakfast. I don’t like breakfast, much to the consternation of health and nutrition minded friends. “Think of what you’re doing to your pancreas!” Of course, breakfast occurs whenever you eat your first meal of the day, but we’re speaking here of that top-of-the-morning affair that you think of when you hear the word. Fasting brings a crystalline mental clarity that is quickly dispelled when food begins to draw blood to the stomach. Even the brief and minor overnight fast can have this effect in a mild way and I hate to give that up for the day. I like to prolong it.

Today, when others would have been consuming a breakfast, I indulged in a first-thing-out-of-bed extended phone conversation with my old friend David…in truth, more brother than friend. David is a likeminded and highly creative artist who lives across the country from me. When neither one of us is as cranky and depressed as we can tend to be we inspire each other in various ways. I came off the phone today revitalized and raring to go. It was about noon. I decided to make a breakfast of pancakes. Those health minded friends of mine would have been tucking into a nice lunch right about then.

I decided to listen once again to Thomas Moore’s audio lecture, “The Soul of Creativity,” while I whipped up the hotcakes. I have listened to this recording many times. I could recite some of it from memory, but I always get something new and fresh out of it. Like all ideas that have legs Moore’s are amplified by whatever is on my mind at the time I listen to them. Today I focused on the section having to do with the sentimentalization of creativity. He talks about the various ways that this can play out. For example, when someone falls in love with the idea of themselves as a creator/artist more than the act of creating things. Or when we get hung up on whether we “feel” creative in a given moment, beating ourselves up when we don’t. He suggests that classes on how not to be creative would be as or more useful than the umpteen classes that are offered on how to be creative.

Moore went on today to speak about another way we sentimentalize creativity by imposing the need to come up with something novel and supposedly never done before. [This apparently preordained concept of creativity has actually only been prevalent since the latter 19th century.] He suggests that taking ideas that have been explored already and presenting them in a way that is meaningful today is also a highly creative activity. This brought to mind a great book I’m reading right now. Avant Rock: Experimental Music From the Beatles to Bjork by Bill Martin, published in 2002. A more accurate subtitle would be “from Sibelius to Bjork,” because Martin delves deeply into jazz and “classical” avant-gardes as well as rock to make his profuse and profound points. He is a philosophy professor at DePaul University with a number of books to his credit. He knows how to find nuances in the ideas he examines and to communicate them effectively. One of his observations has to do with the proposition that most or all music is rooted originally in song, dance, or worship activities. He suggests that rock music experimentation over the years has connected to and been accepted by the populace because rock has clung to its roots of song and dance. Jazz and concert hall derived avant-gardes have lost their audience because they have wandered away from those roots. Rock experimenters also fit the model that Moore presents when they base their movement forward on foundations that were already established.

I find these ideas to be endlessly stimulating. Bill Martin has joined the ranks of Thomas Moore and some others in showing me things about the activities I’ve pursued intuitively for the past 40+ years.

As I mentally played with and pieced together these layers of thought regarding creativity it occurred to me to add some powdered ginger to the pancake batter and layer banana slices on the cakes as they cooked in an attempt to recreate some pancakes that a local restaurant used to serve. It worked wonderfully. I recommend trying it. Or something else that occurs to you as you build on the recipe…

Comments Appended to One of My Recent YouTube Items

Solo prepared electric guitar and voice recorded by Gary Lee Joyner in Mill Valley, CA in 1983. It was recorded into a two-track Walkman Professional cassette recorder. The sound quality has been cleaned up a bit. Other than that this is precisely how it sounded that day. The first half of the recording is an improvised guitar solo. It moves directly into the song performance.

Photo: GLJ, 1972. Here are some loosely related anecdotes to read while you should be focusing on the nuances of the guitar solo for which I still have great affection. The photo was taken ten years before the recording playing now. It was taken at a session at Moon Sound in Minneapolis, a session of the first and wildest version of The Fixation Band. The music played that day was very much in the same vein as Pretty Black Marks. Sadly, the tapes are lost. I was working with a particularly crazed saxophone player at the time, a fine lead guitarist who did some creative mods on the guitar in the picture, a drummer who later worked with me in San Francisco, a keyboardist who committed suicide soon after the sessions, and Grosse Johann Divine who played bass with me for years.

As it happens, I was the first person to record at Moon Sound. The studio at that time was a dark smelly coal bin in the basement of an old house, but Chris already had a window between the bin and his control booth. He was using a Teac 4-track that ran at 15 i.p.s. By the time of this picture the studio had moved into a larger cellar room. That's burlap hanging on limestone walls for sound absorption.

A huge party was held at Moon Sound on my 25th birthday. Someone poured beer in the studio piano, someone else set my bongos on fire, the crazed sax player took the stage for a wigged out solo and wouldn't get off...then things began to get out of hand.

A couple of years after this photo was taken rumors started to float around the Moon Sound scene that Chris was recording a 16 year old kid who was writing his own material and playing all the instruments. A real monster who showed signs of going somewhere in the biz. And he had a weird name...Prince...

Monday, January 9, 2012

A Messenger In the Hand Is Worth Two Babies Thrown Out With the Bathwater

People in conversation have a habit of confusing someone attempting to identify and describe a particular point of view with someone stating an advocacy for that point of view. As a result, instead of "thinking about" they "argue with". This is very tiresome to an idea explorer. It is a dualistic, challenging method of facing off with concepts that has been mistakenly taught as "critical thinking".

Sunday, January 8, 2012

That Sound is John Cage Grunting in His Grave

I hear some people use the term "noise guitar". I don't us it. For one thing, it implies a false dichotomy...a fundamental difference/conflict between noise and music. I don't trust the person with the chalk drawing the line.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Carl Jung With a Bone In His Nose

The job for artists and poets today is to dream for a society that’s forgotten how to dream. We’re failing miserably. We have preachers, not poets. Preaching kills dreams. Telling others to think like us is the easy way out. It’s for simpletons.  Direct force creates resistance. Meanwhile corporate media gods treat us like puppets on strings with cartoon images of shouting, ranting, raving lunatics of vulgarity on a soapbox. Can you say Poetry Slam? Or the other caricature—a limp-wristed, tea-sipping, simpering whisperer of lavender words crawling out of a dusty lair to bore us to death. Neither one is of any use to real people except in mockery.

Our education system does a damn good job of installing a poetry deflector shield for life.

We need real dreamers, real dreams, witch doctors who find our fears and desires and bring them to light—display them in all their multicolored, frightening, lustful power. We are thirsting for Carl Jung with a bone in his nose, sweat pouring down his naked bulging belly, beating the dirt in a primal rhythm with his dusty feet, a dripping red paintbrush in one hand, a stone symbol of the subterranean Lord Priapus in the other, singing loudly and off-key about the foul thing he saw fall from the sky onto a tall, thin steeple.

That’s what we need right now. Leave your application and a resume at the door.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Twenty-Five Interchangeable Sketches Toward a Portrait of Michael Yonkers

I originally began this piece when I was asked to provide liner notes for the Michael Yonkers 2007 Sub Pop/De Stijl CD release, Grimwood. My writing quickly grew in scope to become a personal memoir that was too extensive for the space available in the CD packaging. Facts and truth intermingle. Michael has called it his favorite thing ever written about him. It’s based on a friendship spanning 40 years as of 2012, through times of obscurity and international notoriety on his part and poverty on both our parts. It’s been freshly edited, updated, and expanded for this blog publication. It will continue to grow if I keep coming back to it because the stream of memories doesn’t subside. As Picasso said, works of art are never completed, merely abandoned.

Twenty-Five Interchangeable Sketches Toward a Portrait of Michael Yonkers
A Memoir by Gary Lee Joyner
© 2012 Gary Lee Joyner

Sketch #1
This fellow calling himself Yonkers is a unique combination of self-invented elements. He’s a valued friend, a gracious host, and an encouraging supporter of artist colleagues. At the same time, he is a determinedly private individual. He is careful about who knows where he lives and even his phone number comes with firm instructions that it be passed on to no one. He’s a master at creating his own mythology. He can make you feel that you and he share some essential wisdom, some clarity and common sense that would be available to the rest of the world if it could only wise up and listen. Ironic humor peppers his impassioned diatribes. He has an endless stock of skewed anecdotes. The wackiest things happen to him--not always pleasant, but always fodder for a good story. His move from relative obscurity to being the object of worldwide reverence as a prescient music visionary is a remarkable trajectory in the saga. Those of us who have witnessed a lot of frustration over the decades smile and say, “It’s about bloody time.”


Sketch #2
Michael Yonkers was born in 1947. He got his first guitar when he was fifteen, a Harmony electric archtop. The first song he played was Miserlu. His first big influence, The Trashmen.


Sketch #3
The self-produced album, Grimwood, was recorded in 1969-during an era swollen with the atrocities of the Viet Nam war, violent draft resistance, civil rights conflicts, and heart-rending assassinations. We embrace the romance of an artist as product of his time, and so there is a temptation to seek out social commentary in the album. Yonkers disavows any intention along these lines. He participated in demonstrations and marches, but he didn’t see his music as a pulpit for sermonizing. He worked in isolation. There was no Internet. There weren’t even cassettes. After his unhappy experiences with the Michael Yonkers Band in the world of major record labels he escaped to his basement with an acoustic guitar to write songs by himself, for himself, figuring that the results were only likely to reach a few friends. The tapes sat in a box until 1973 when he borrowed $1500, a significant amount at the time, to finance a vinyl pressing of the songs. He says of this gutsy move, “It was downright stupid. I did it pie-in-the-sky, eyes wide open, brain closed shut, thinking I’d certainly be able to sell enough to make my money back.” He ended up giving records away at nursing home gigs and selling new copies for 25 cents apiece. He paid twice that every time he bought back copies that he found in used record bins.


Sketch #4
In 1974 Michael showed me a box of jumbled, neglected reels of tape. Being an obsessive archivist I was concerned about cool things in that dilapidated box that might be deteriorating and eventually lost. I asked if I could take the tapes home, straighten them out, and rerecord them. This was fine with him. The tapes contained music that was very different than what he was currently performing. They contained songs like Microminiature Love and Puppeting. I spent the next 20 years listening to the songs and marveling at a world that hadn’t found its way to this work. Eventually some of the songs did get public attention via the Sub Pop release, Microminiature Love. Meanwhile, I have recordings of concerts MY and I did together through the 1970’s where he played music unlike anything that has been released.

Sketch #5
MY: There’s a lot of hope now [i.e. 2007] because kids are hip. I’ve given up, personally. In the Grimwood day I firmly believed. I really did. A lot of people thought, “All we have to do is say it doesn’t have to be this way, and everybody will realize ‘oh yeah, you’re right.’ And everything will change and the world will be great.”
GLJ: Those things seemed self-evident. The last lines on this album are “if you want to live in dark, keep love to yourself.”
MY: I’d forgotten about that. Whew!
GLJ: You say the kids today have hope, but at the same time we’ve all become so jaded. We laugh at the naiveté of those days.
MY: They are definitely jaded. How could they not be? But they’re very aware.
GLJ: Nobody’s thinking that love will solve all our problems.
MY: Absolutely not. And you know what? It ain’t gonna. Not now, anyway. It’s gonna take the Lord coming down in a spaceship with guns ablazing and saying, “Get it together, or else.” And what’ll we do? We’ll shoot at it!


Sketch #6
In 1972, a musician friend named Clancy who was a fan of my music and performance forages into the unknown (the term “performance art” wasn’t around yet) told me about another buddy of his who I simply had to meet. He regaled me with enticing tales of lunacy and way-out music. For example, the guy--it was Michael Yonkers, of course--had been kicked out of the local musicians’ union because of a performance of a song called Big Balloon during a downtown outdoor event. A giant elongated balloon inflated behind him while he played. At some point, as the story went, he crawled inside the balloon and started to squirt whipped cream from a can. The powers-that-be were offended by the imagery, hence the yanking of the card.

We did eventually meet at a backyard summer barbecue. I remember being a bit intimidated by the stories and wasn’t sure what to expect. Certainly not the low-key friendly guy I was introduced to. We sat on folding chairs drinking beer and exchanging pleasantries, both being uncharacteristically shy.

Soon after that Yonkers played a set at One Groveland, a popular local venue, and I got my first taste of the singularity of a Yonkers performance. Amidst typical rock acts tricked out in trendy clothes and sexy guitars, Yonkers came on in blue coveralls sporting an old Fender. Not a cool Strat or Tele, but some student model. That hardly mattered because it had been severely mutilated, chopped down to a shadow of its former self. He had a kazoo connected to a long piece of plastic tubing in a harmonica neck rack. He pulled out a large can of baby powder and began to shake it vigorously over his entire guitar, creating a thick cloud around himself. (It particularly resonated with me because a year earlier I had used baby powder in a different way. I filled my hair with it and put a paper bag mask over my head. While my band played a maniacal vamp I danced on stage and at the proper moment I tore the bag in two from the top down creating a cloud of “smoke” around my head that dissipated to reveal fiendish greasepaint make-up. I hadn’t counted on the effect of airborne talc on my lungs and I was choking which added to the bizarre effect. Incidentally, I was also known to abuse my audience and throw things at them. In those prehistoric days before self-conscious rock and roll theater hit the pop market my performance ideas were decidedly marginalized. I was accustomed to rejections such as, “You can do your own thing, but not here. Not here!” As I watched Yonkers I began to see parallels that Clancy perceived between us.) And then Michael slammed into Swamp of Love. The guitar was distorted--not the honey-smooth Clapton or Hendrix distortion that everyone else aped, but a noisy, nasty, barbed distortion with attitude. There was nothing trendy about him, but he exuded a sort of hipness that was all his own. He was more concerned with his ideas and executing his energetic performance than he was with our reaction to it.


Sketch #7
Yonkers had a job in the 60s repairing amps and speaker enclosures at a music store. About that time, he became interested in the distorted guitars on albums by old time blues players. They got the distortion by overdriving small amps. Effects pedals that emulate the sound were not yet available so he began to experiment. First he cut slits in a speaker with a razor blade. An on/off switch was used to bring the wounded speaker in and out of the sound loop. Later he experimented at his repair bench.

MY: Mine was the first full out fuzztone that I’d ever seen. It blew everybody’s mind because there was nothing that sounded like that. I didn’t know anything about electronics theory, but I had access to stuff to play with. I’m sure I was doing things that would be considered wrong. I started building them into boxes and selling them at the store.
GLJ: Were they noisy?
MY: Yeah! (Laughter.)
GLJ: What did they sell for?
MY: Fifteen or twenty bucks. I wish I would have kept some of those. The were called “Fuzz ‘n’ Barks,” ‘cuz you could also set them to make a barking sort of sound.
GLJ: Could you recreate one now?
MY: No, because they were made out of a specific circuit that was made back then. And what would be the point? Now you can get the same thing through any digital box.


Sketch #8
Yonkers has a sixth sense for uncovering fascinating flotsam and jetsam of the consumer society, things that have been produced and discarded by the corporate world. His home is a combination of sleeping quarters, warehouse, recording studio, health center, and museum. You never know what you’ll see there--rare reel-to-reel tape recorders, a perfectly functioning high end laser printer found in someone’s trash, a vintage Japanese pinball machine, an ancient lathe for cutting your own records at home, or strange Victorian medical devices that glow with a lavender light.


Sketch #9
MY: Around ‘69 a man in Minneapolis, Herb Pilhofer, had one of the first Moogs in the country. Five of us got a grant through the Children’s Theater. We were able to go over to Pilhofer’s home and hang around while he played with the Moog. It was huge, with more knobs and patch cords than you could believe. I was attached to every word he said. One thing knocked my mind into kingdom come. He said, “The way the Moog works is--beat and pitch are all the same knob.” That was a musical revelation to me. It’s all beats and cycles. You slow down the beats and the pitch goes down. Beat and pitch are the same knob! I knew enough about electronics to realize that on the Moog that knob was a potentiometer. It somehow clicked when I saw a toy called the Sketch-A-Tune in Woolworth’s one day. It was a plastic box with a little electronic thing and a speaker, and there were paper templates. Each one had notes stamped on it. You would take a lead pencil, connect the notes to make a circuit, and clip it to a speaker in the box. Depending on where you put a probe you would get a different note. I realized that the piece of paper and the probe were a potentiometer! I bought every damn one they had, took them home, took them apart, and built a box. You could put the probes in your mouth, on your skin, hook them up to anything you wanted and make all these wonderful sounds. The sounds on Grimwood are the Sketch-A-Tune. I built a bunch of them into a box and performed with it in the coffeehouses. People these days aren’t amazed by things. There’s nothing to be amazed about anymore. But back in those days people would show up just to hear Mikey with his box. It was filled with all kinds of stuff, but the tone generators were the Sketch-A-Tune.


Sketch #10
Yonkers clearly appreciates the dramatic effects of his choices and actions. At the same time, there is always some practical motivation behind his maneuvers. His chopped down guitars look great in a bizarre and Frankenstinean way, but they are necessitated by a back injury. Baby powder made a good visual, but it also made the neck of his guitar slippery and fast. When he attaches a long fishing rod to the end of his guitar it looks like some outer space insect, but any savvy guitarist quickly realizes, “Hey, it keeps him from tripping on the cord.” When I met him he drove an old Mercedes sedan that he had painted flat black. His bicycle was hand-painted flat black. His nylon-string guitar was painted flat black. I asked him why he would lower the value of these possessions in this way and he said, “Who’d want to steal a Mercedes with a cheap flat black paint job?” He also laughed about people who would spend hundreds of dollars to get a bicycle that was a few ounces lighter in weight and then carry a ten pound lock to protect it.


Sketch #11
I once produced a concert based on the theme of Tupperware. As usual, Yonkers was game to participate. But he never showed up. Instead, a tall woman appeared with a deep voice, in full Max Factor make-up, and dressed in a Jackie Kennedy style business suit complete with pillbox hat. She said her name was Pam-Pam, the Tupperware Lady. She had Yonkers’ guitar and sang his songs. She never broke character all night, on stage or off.


Sketch #12
MY: One time in those days I opened for a friend’s country band in northeast Minneapolis at a hardcore bar. The stage was about a foot high. I started doing Puppeting. A guy walked over from the bar. He was so big that even though I was on a small stage we were looking face to face. I’m playing and singing and he says, “I got a request.” I looked at him. He snarled again, “I got a request!” So I stopped playing and said, “What’s the request?” “Shut the fuck up!” I did. What are you gonna do? They were all sports guys. They were all watching sports and they didn’t want this music shit getting in the way.


Sketch #13
Yonkers has been heavily involved in theater and dance. He has done sound design and walk-on parts for Minneapolis’ Children’s Theater Company. I acted opposite his powerful performance as an evil priest from the Spanish Middle Ages at Olympia Arts Ensemble, a 1970s Minneapolis loft theater. He has worked in a number of dance forms including modern dance, belly-dancing, and ballet. During the 1980s he created a set of experimental dance/video pieces. He appeared in Minnesota Ballet productions of The Nutcracker for over 20 years.


Sketch #14
The Answer, a track on Grimwood, has a theme of dance, song, and love as harbingers of peace. I suggested to Yonkers that this theme might be seen as the essence of Grimwood.

MY: That song was prophetic for me on a personal level. This whole album was done before I broke my back in 1971. Around the time I was writing these songs I would go to the Black Forest Inn and drink beer, have some food, write poetry, and draw. One night I walked out with a very disturbing drawing which I still have somewhere. It was of me and these two giant birds with huge pointed beaks that were jammed into my back. That was in ‘69. When the accident happened in ‘71 I broke my back in the exact spot where the birds were putting their beaks. As it turned out, when I got into dance as therapy it was the thing that saved my sorry butt from real big trouble. I was into dance before that, but more as defiance. I had tried hard to study martial arts in ‘67. One day my instructor said, “You can move, but you have no killer instinct. I suggest maybe dance for you.” I was so mad I stormed out. “Dance! What the hell are you talking about?” I don’t know what came over me, but when I was registering for the next quarter at the U of M I decided to take a modern dance class, and I really liked it. But then I broke my back and didn’t dance for many years until I got back into it as therapy. So on a personal level, dance was The Answer. The song also works on the cosmic level that you are talking about.

Sketch #15
I used Tripping Through the Rose Gardens from Grimwood as the theme music for my KFAI-FM radio program in 1978-79. (The lovely Rose Gardens near Lake Harriet in Minneapolis continue to be a popular area for visitors today.) Yonkers was a guest on my show several times. We would jabber and converse on the air in exactly the same way we did in our homes and continue to do in the 21st century. Someone else must have been at these sessions because there are photos of us drinking beer over the studio console.

Sketch #16
Yonkers worked on a sheep farm and had to pry open frozen sheep muzzles on harsh northern Minnesota mid-winter days.


Sketch #17
Yonkers laughs about expectations from people when he plays shows around the world. He senses that his age makes people expect an overweight, bearded Jerry Garcia-like figure in a tie-dye T-shirt when they meet him at the airport. They are startled to find a youthful man in good physical shape. He reaffirms that if he didn’t work hard to stay in shape his injuries would have killed him long ago.


Sketch #18
Grimwood was recorded on Viking tape decks that were made in Minneapolis. They used 7 inch reels mounted upside down that ran at 7 1/2 i.p.s. in a 1/2 track format. The preamps were close to the motor. It vibrated the tubes causing a microphonic response with a resulting hum that occasionally appears in the recordings. Overdubs were created using two machines. Yonkers played all the instruments, engineered, produced, and prepared the original tape for the mastering process.


Sketch #19
The lonely atmosphere pervading Grimwood fits the current 2007 interest in loner music. There is a slow, time-warp feel to the whole project. The opening and closing songs have an Elizabethan quality that he attributes to the escapist climate of the era in which they were written.


Sketch #20
Yonkers loves and never misses the Minnesota State Fair.


Sketch #21
The crowd noise in Grimwood’s The Big Parade came from a library sound effects record.


Sketch #22
Yonkers performed the songs from Grimwood in coffeehouses when the album first came out. Half of the show was done with acoustic guitar and half with electric guitar and electronics. He mounted a device in his guitar that generated the sound of applause when audiences were small.


Sketch #23
Yonkers on songwriting: “I tell people it’s not that big a deal, but you know what? It is. It hurts.”


Sketch #24
The painful truth is that world-wide artistic success doesn’t ensure wealth, prosperity or comfort. Yonkers affirms that his basic realities, motivations and intentions haven’t changed much from when he recorded Grimwood. He sites a difference--back then he chose to lock himself “in an egg in a basement”, but now his counter-cultural existence is an ingrained life style.

GLJ: You talk about the fact that your current fame hasn’t brought you financial reward. So why the hell do you go on doing this? Why give your life to the struggle of being an artist?

MY: I don’t even know. I was thinking about that last night. I’ve got it down to a science. I come up with the ideas--a sound or a chord progression. I usually start with the music and add the words. I play them every day. At a certain point I realize enough is enough and I have to write this down. I just hate that. How do you decide when that point is? Well, I don’t decide. It just happens. Yesterday I came in here and without even thinking I went to the computer, turned it on, and got out my pages and pages of scribbles and scratches. That’s when it starts to flesh out into something where I can say, “That’s a song. And that’s song 2. This is song 3.” As I was doing that I wondered, “Why the hell am I doing this? Shouldn’t I be out walking? Shouldn’t I be sleeping or eating? Shouldn’t I be watching television, something other than this, which is probably not going to go anywhere accept a few people will hear it and like it?” But I’ve been working on this for weeks, spending all tonight typing and printing it out, putting it in order, putting notations on it. And then I’ll practice it and practice it and practice it. Then I’ll record it. Then I’ll record it again. Then I’ll listen to it for a week. Then I’ll record it again. Then I will go through the whole process of putting it onto a CD, coming up with the photograph. And I think, “Why am I doing this?” I have not a clue. I have no answer. It’s the same for all the arts. You can get some heady answer from people who are heady. I’m not very heady and I have no answer.

GLJ: Do you think about your audience, who’s going to hear this, that they will hopefully enjoy the work and find it meaningful?

MY: Not in the least. Couldn’t care less. If you’re American Idol you have to think about the audience because they want a specific kind of singer and performer, a specific look. But what I do--it doesn’t make any difference. The audience finds the stuff. Getting back to your original point, probably a lot of this has to do with escaping from constant fricking pain. It takes my mind off it for awhile. I don’t have any preconceived notions. If I do what’s coming from the heart the right people will find it. If they dig it and take something away from it, great. If they want to eat it for breakfast, that’s just fine and dandy, too. I’ve never been less concerned in my life about whether something’s going to get played on the radio. I really am not concerned about it at all, and at this point in my life more of this stuff is being played on the radio than ever. It’s a hard core attitude, but on the other hand, after doing it for forty years I have the right to a hard core attitude.


Sketch #25
2007 bears too many similarities to 1969. Media representations have evolved, the names of the guilty have changed, but the state of world affairs continues to decline. Power mongers promote wars, people under their control are manipulated, maimed, and killed, and we have become perversely accustomed to living under the threat of imminent destruction. The crimes didn’t stop during the years between 1969 and now, but maybe we were more easily diverted in the intervening years. We were so pleased to be out of Viet Nam and so distracted by our increasing number of electronic gizmos that we happily ignored Indonesia, El Salvador, Grenada, the Falklands, Panama, Nicaragua, Bosnia, not to mention other atrocities that we weren’t even told about. We had a nice tidy War on Drugs to occupy us. The means used to distract us are more obvious now for those who are paying attention. As Neil Postman observed and predicted over 20 years ago, the Huxley model of the future has overtaken the Orwellian model. Books don’t need to be banned if no one wants to read. Our downfall is not in what we fear but what we love. Yonkers quotes comedian George Carlin in saying that we are just circling the drain, and adds that we can retreat into our homes to watch pictures of that swirling drain on television. Do artists have an answer for our dilemma? If so, I suggest that it is in the act itself more than the content of the work. One can cite Yonkers’ perspicacity in carrying on through constant pain, legal battles, and little recognition. In one sense, the act of making art is a giant middle finger flipped in the face of the insanity around us. In another, it might be appreciated as a meditative release allowing illusory existence to pass through one’s consciousness in a Zen-like flow. In fact, those senses co-exist.

The truest thing an artist can do in the face of challenging realities is embrace the work with a hunger for excellence. Not to preach or bully, perhaps not even to communicate. Rather, a line drawn in the sand that signals our belief that we are better than this. Simply an act, an existential act. Michael Yonkers continues to act now as he did when he recorded Grimwood.
Sketch #26, a 2012 update
I saw Michael a couple weeks ago. He has once again stated his intention to retire from performing. He has done so a number of times in the past. This time he riled some folks by canceling scheduled appearances. The drama of the announcement always makes for good press coverage, but I don’t believe that this is his motivation. Physical developments make it harder and harder to play the guitar. By the way, his broken back is usually blamed for his decades-long health problems. In fact, botched treatments as well as asthma are significant contributors.
A movie is being made or has been made about Michael Yonkers and his work with The Blind Shake. (Hey Hey What: a film about Michael Yonkers and the Blind Shake.) He tells me that his renewed withdrawal means that the film doesn’t include intended footage of Yonkers and the band on stage together, although there is some in-studio video. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but eagerly await it. I send Michael my love and the hopes that he will once again find a way to mount the stage. Nothing about him surprises me. And I look forward to carrying our ongoing conversation into its fifth decade.