Monday, 25 April 2016

For Prince

My earliest encounters with the music of Prince was in the late 70s/early 80s. I was about ten years old, cruising Detroit's Woodward Avenue with my big sister. She had a brand new snow white RX-7 with red pinstripes and a massive sound system for the time. With the radio tuned to 107.5 we listened as the legendary disc jockey The Electrifying Mojo called another session of the Midnight Funk Association to order–an on air ritual he performed to gather the forces of Soul every night. The show began with Mojo asking listeners to solemly swear their solidarity to the MFA as he called it. If we were at home, he told us to turn on our porch lights; if we were driving he asked that we toot our horns and flash our lights. Dozens of cars would flash and honk as they cruised the avenue while the girls working street corners stood for a moment with their right hands raised, all of us showing that we were "down in Motown." (check out this link to hear one of these funky rituals)

And then the music played. 

Few had the nerve to air Prince on the radio in '79 and 1980. His music was too weird, too dirty, too outside the box. Radio DJs weren't brave enough to air it except for Detroit's exceptional Electrifying Mojo. I was a a baby punk rocker then and associated Prince with the avant guarde. Fingering through the bins at the neighborhood record store I’d find Prince records filed alongside The Plasmatics, Pere Ubu, and Iggy Pop. But it was really Mojo who made the most direct association. He was a genre bending DJ who beamed down alien punk funk from The Mother Ship to all the heads of the Motor City. Mojo mixed wildly. He would spin a Prince track alongside something by Blondie, The B52s, Kraftwerk, or the Talking Heads–all of which were in the punk milieu to me back then. 
Mojo circa 1983

I was a Mojo devotee and a card carrying member of the MFA. Many school nights I stayed up past my bedtime, tuning in and receiving the broadcast, getting butterflies of excitement in my stomach when Prince songs like Annie Christian, Dirty Mind, Party Up, or Controversy came on. His music was far out, bizarre, and subterranean for the time yet always groovy. Mojo loved Prince. He broke him to the Detroit scene which Prince often referred to as his second home town. Mojo would play extended versions of songs, or whole sides of Prince records like he was trying to ensure their riffs made a solid groove in our collective psyches. 

In a way, Prince became a role model for me. 

I didn't emulate his style, but I was influenced by the way he radically pioneered the creation of his own thing, how he used clothing to say something about his true nature, how he wore his soul on his sleeve. He also challenged the idea of masculinity at a time when deviance from the gender norm was severely discouraged. Even as a youngster I didn't relate to what it meant to be a "boy." At least not in the traditional sense. It wasn't so much confusing as it was lonely. I couldn't find any eleven year olds who felt the same way. But discovering fringe artists changed that. With every one I found (usually through record albums) the isolation was lessened. I began to know that I wasn't alone. Prince was a major player in a long line of creative characters who helped me understand that it is possible to forge my own way. 

Throughout my life artists have had a profound influence. 

I am one of those people for whom a song, a concert, a book, a painting, or a really good dance party can change the way I look at things. I could talk for an hour on the impact Iggy Pop has had on my approach to everything. I could write a book on the radical affect–no, the total upheaval that Henry Miller’s work has had on my life, let alone the music of CRASS, Fugazi, and Black Flag. But I will save those stories because right now it is Prince who is foremost on my mind. 

Prince was a great cultural outlaw who expressed a new kind of gender reality–one that was an indescribable blend of male and female at a time when doing so was dangerous. He believed in the power of his soul force–a force so strong the mainstream had to take notice. He did good things with his success–giving millions of dollars toward humanitarian efforts, and in his more recent days courageously exposed the corporate stiffs who try to exploit and rule our lives. But more than any of this, Prince gave us some funky ass revolutionary music that will forever be danced to by people all over this planet. And for that I am most grateful.   
Farewell in the beyond.

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Real World

On the river flats. Its rocks heated by the sun are warm to the touch. Cottonwood buds have opened and the air smells of their resin. Enveloped in aroma, texture, sound and color we sit facing east, watching the river flow over cobble toward the snow covered ridge line in the distance.

Moose and elk tracks are imprinted into the mud around us, kinglets and song sparrows play the melodies of spring, and a grizzly has left its marks next to books I brought along–the poetry of Michael McClure and John Seed.

Thinking about evolution as a tangible presence–a force intelligent enough to reconfigure particles into planets then eventually give rise to the likes of spruce tree, blue grouse, lady bug, eye ball, and algae. Thinking about the solidity of granite–the mountain's timeframe, its presence and position sitting in the same place above this valley as the world goes about its changes.

I am in love with ecological systems–how every single piece of the whole fits perfectly; how every being is an expert in its field; how each contributes to the overall health of the whole; how giving and receiving come naturally. Here death and renewal are timeless companions. Bloody harmony juxtaposed with nest building. Symbiosis and mutualism–fireweed sprouting up from ground recently burned, deer mice depositing mycelium allowing tree to communicate with tree, the intimacy between snowshoe hare and lynx.

Out here Pere Ubu's Real World comes to mind. This is real life in the real world to me. Where random chaos finds order as a forest filled with acutely aware beings. 

The idea of artificial intelligence does not hold my interest. It seems cold and lifeless compared to the presence of the tangible, breathing, libidinous intelligence of the wild world–one which has given birth to innumerable forms which experience real life through sensorial bodies, a living intelligence so intelligent it found a way to marvel at the sight of itself gazing up at the mountain through me.

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Black Wolf

His voice caused me to look up from the page. I scanned the big meadow beyond my window. He called a second time. I zeroed in on the little knoll by the old spruce. 

Black wolf standing on snow covered earth. 

His third howl was long and sustained–the tone stretching out over the trees then down into the glacier scraped valley where it settled with the hoarfrost. I put the book down, went to the door. I didn’t want to scare him away so I opened it slowly. When I peeked out the wolf was gone. 

At the knoll I laid my bare hand where Black Wolf had been a few moments before. He left no tracks on the crusty snow but something of him remained–some energetic signature. I felt no fear. The number of documented cases of wolves killing humans could be counted on one hand. Instead, I felt grateful to be so close to a creature such as him. That feeling of gratitude increased as I looked at the northern vastness I had positioned myself within. My life had become progressively more rich and more wild since leaving my home city of Detroit several years before. Following the primeval trail of grizzly bears was what led me north to Alaska. On the edge of the largest protected wilderness on the planet I had built a cabin with a woman who gave up fashion modeling in LA to become a modern hunter/gatherer. Black Wolf’s presence that morning validated every step I had taken on the path back to what was wild and true, leaving me with the feeling that I had chosen a good place to call home.   

Drawing: Stephanie Kellett
I didn’t expect him to return but he did. Same spot on the knoll the next day. Again he howled. Each one followed by a long pause of silence as if waiting for his pack mates to return the call. Just like the previous day, Black Wolf disappeared as soon as I peeked my head out. I didn’t blame him. War had been waged against his kind with poison, dynamite, bludgeon, and the gun since the first colonizers arrived in North America. It continued to the present day with wildlife management agencies using faulty science to justify the eradication of wolves to bolster ungulate populations. Perhaps the worst case in modern history is being carried out right now in British Columbia where the government shoots wolves from the air for the crime of preying on caribou. My stomach turned wondering if Black Wolf was the only survivor of a pack a local trapper had been after that winter. I had a run in with the man one afternoon on the river flats. I asked what had possessed him to kill animals he wasn’t going to eat. It was his christian duty, he said. 

To him, wolves were “the devil’s animal.”

Black Wolf came back for five days in a row before I finally stood outside with him. It happened early one morning. I was collecting firewood from the wood pile behind my cabin when I heard the howl. I got excited. I set the bundle of wood down. Quietly, I walked around to the front of the cabin. The wolf’s long nose was already pointed in my direction. For a few moments we both just stood there, two life forms taking each other in, breathing the same air in a landscape of incomprehensible vastness. 

“I love you,” I said out loud at a volume just above a whisper. He howled again, I howled back then he left–disappearing into the spruce. 

Alien Soundtracks
Trumpeter swans began singing from the nearby marsh–their song reminded me of the strange experimental sounds on the second Chrome LP. I closed my eyes. When I did, I could still see his green eyes–how they looked at me. It was as though he read not just my physical form–facial features, posture, and body language–but went way further, reading what was written in my core. I have been eye to eye with animals such as grizzlies, lynx, mountain lion, and humpback whale. These close encounters are the most intimate. I remember each one as though it happened yesterday and I remember the broadcast I received from being in such close proximity. I’m often left wondering if the memory of me stays with them–if in their own way they remember meeting the rare human creature who greeted them with love and welcoming rather than fear and hatred. 

Black Wolf didn’t come back the next day or the day thereafter. I asked the few people who lived on my side of the valley if they had seen him. One man had but he shot the wolf for eating one of his free ranging chickens. 

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Divination and Strategy

Divination and Strategy is an experimental music project I work with. It's admittedly strange. The melodies are inspired by what inspires me: dandelions breaking through the concrete of abandoned city streets, untrammeled landscapes where numinous creatures roam free, cultural rebels, wild things. 

"On Air" is the first Divination and Strategy video transmission. The assemblage of images were derived from many hours of video Stephanie Kellett and I took far out in the deep wild of the Chilcotin Range, as well as from scenes we conceived and shot in the studio, sometimes with Christie (Camera Eye) McPhee. This transmission is lofi, ritualistic multi-media art for earthlings.   

Click on the link below to see what I mean. 

Divination and Strategy, "On Air" from Robert E. Livingood on Vimeo.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Silver Halo

Watched by eagles under late autumn blue
The steady trickling ambience of the nearby creek
Sandbars marked by primeval animal art–
wolf, moose, deer, and otter symbolically represented by their tracks
A big male grizzly appears, walking upstream–
the sound of his paws dipping into the river, his silver halo of guard hairs
Following that presence, that wild solidity for twenty years now... 
On the day of my birth I'm eating homemade cake in the sun where the Great Ones still walk
Blowing out candles lit by my love
Feeling like I have nothing more to wish for.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Party of a Lifetime

Journeying from the forested bottomlands all the way up to the high-country, above tree line, where granite kisses the clouds, we assemble. The moon has risen, coming into its near fullness above the gnarled and rocky Purcell Range to the east, casting silver light upon the meadow of our gathering. In down parkas, overcoats, and blankets we’ve come to bask in it–150 people embarking upon a contemporary mountain pilgrimage to be together for the lunar eclipse and experience a party of a lifetime. 

Because we are a dancing people, turntables, a mixer, and speakers have been brought along. They are as integral to the culture we are creating in the Kootenays as skin drums have been for First People the world over. For two hours I’m given the honor of using them to broadcast music. I feel things while I spin it: the moon at my back; the mountain goats that have walked through the meadow; the snowy owls that are undoubtedly watching us. There is a glacier behind me. Water falling from its ice sheet hums as it cascades thousands of feet down, blending with the sounds of space disco transmitted from the speakers. 

The experience is magnificent, profound, sweet, and sublime. Like Donna Summer, I Feel Love for this place, the animals, and the constellation of people who’ve gathered beneath the diamond sky, dancing in the firelight for the moon and each other as Earth people have done since time immemorial. 

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Beautiful Dissonance

It's loud inside Oso Negro–Nelson, British Columbia's busiest coffee house. The sounds of grinding machines, steamers, and a room packed full human beings rushing from caffeine with the urgency of dexedrine freaks blend into a factory like cacophony. Concrete, steal, and hefty squared beams gives the interior of this mountain-town espresso bar an industrial feel which seems ironic at first, but it's also very fitting for a city originally built from extracting materials from the surrounding forests and mountains. It's the perfect context for visual artist Stephanie Kellett's newest body of work–an exhibit juxtaposing charismatic megafauna with industrial civilization. The majority of the pieces are elegant line drawings of animals such as caribou, wolves, and grizzly bears that have been paired with everyday tools of resource extraction. Each animal depicted in the line drawings wears a mask–perhaps speaking to their invisibility to industry, their need to hide from humans, or maybe just Kellett's non-didactic way of provoking viewers to wonder. Four large acrylic color paintings are included in the show. These position surreal, almost manufactured looking landscapes beside wild creatures engaging in primordial relationships with one another. Viewing them, I'm soothed by the image of wolves tenderly displaying affection, yet also deeply drawn into the center of what appears to be an open pit mine. This is a beautiful yet incredibly dissonant exhibit inspiring questions about the interface of contemporary society with nature which, I believe, is the artist's point.

The show runs for the month of September.


Friday, 28 August 2015

Earth Disco

My first impression upon entering Bloom Nightclub, in Nelson British Columbia, is that I've just stepped into a state of the art earth disco. Considering that it's several hours from a major population center like Vancouver or Calgary, and is situated way out in the mountains, there really is nothing like it.  

Located in the basement of one of the city's historic buildings, it's a space contained within natural stone walls that were hidden for decades but are now beautifully exposed. Massive antique timbers holding up the ceiling have been revitalized and are proudly showcased as part of the decor, a gorgeous living wall of plants literally breathes life into the room, and the art Nouveau aesthetic combined with warm lighting is both comforting and sensual. 

At 10 pm the doors open and people enter. They've been waiting to get in. I see them at the bar ordering drinks, getting comfortable, so I play slow jams at a lower volume for them. It doesn't take long for a small group of dance floor pioneers to appear. We make eye contact and I nod my head. I want them to know how much they are appreciated, for it is their willingness to put themselves out there on an empty floor that will soon draw others in. Watching how they respond to different melodies, genres, and bass lines also helps me select tracks that will be the foundation for the vibe we're creating. 

Within half an hour, things are happening. The club gets louder and my dedicated crew of rural dance freaks have arrived, getting down to a mix of disco, hip hop, and funk. I play a Casual Connection rework of a Mary Jane Girls track which bumps out of the speakers alongside Grand Wizard Theodore and a Jungle Brothers mash up. The dance floor swells. There's that familiar pressure in the air when the slow jams become faster, but you're still in the 105-110 beats per minute range. The energy builds, the music and the dancing getting more intense, until the party reaches the turning point where the whole room is ready to blow up. At the end of a Badboe track it happens.

Time to go off! 

Steve, Pamela, & Jon Horvath
Photo by Mark Randell

In tribute to our fallen soul brother, Jon Horvath, I cut into the beginning bars of his classic track, Funk for Peace. The crowd goes wild. They're jumping around, clapping their hands, screaming and shouting and singing along, smiling wide. Some know it's a Fort Knox Five song, others just know it sounds really good. By playing the music, it feels like a portal has just opened for Jon's spirit to enter the room. DJ Hoola Hoop gets on the mic to pay respects to this funky character who traveled the world spreading infectious party music that was positive and conscious. Jon loved this town as much as the party people in it loved him. He played Nelson often and his shows were always sold out to a crowd who usually left an FK5 night feeling better than they did when they arrived. When I play "Last Night a DJ Saved My Life," I'm not concerned that the song has been played thousands of times in clubs all over the world because, tonight, the song is a thank you to him. 

A few tracks more and then my first set ends. I step away from the decks, passing the turntables to Mich Duvernet, the creative director and architect of Shambhala Music Festival's Living Room stage. He takes the party into the realm of deep house and I move to the dance floor to get the people's vantage. 

Bloom's layout is exceptionally conducive to dancing. The main floor is sunken and demarcated by tiny lights, while two additional wings provide space for people who need a little more elbow room without being the center of attention. With all the people dancing beneath a massive overhead LED display which provides motion and alternating color on the ceiling, one gets the feeling that the entire room is alive and grooving. 
Bloom's designers have created a comfortable environment to conjure dance floor magic. And they've done such a good job, it seems like nearly everybody in the room wants to take part in it. You pretty much have to. Even the bar is situated so that it is directly connected to the dance space. The energy feels cohesive instead of being cut off, and the layout encourages people to get involved in what's happening rather just than standing around to watch.    


Photo: SugarBear, by Samuel Stevenson
When it's time for my second set, I come on strong with sleazy disco, grimy hip hop, funky house, and booty breaks–a genre blending mix that I describe as wild ass dance music.  My first track is Good Times, by Aquarius Heaven. It's sexy and minimal. The man's voice and music works like a voodoo love spell to pack the floor. People start whooping and grinding, getting out of their heads and into their animal bodies. A woman jumps up on her friend's shoulders to crowd surf. For the next hour and a half it's wild and basic. The songs come effortlessly. The selections are being drawn from the people's feedback and energy. From behind the turntables, I can see that we're all getting high on the music and each other, escaping the world's craziness for a few hours to inhabit a unified space where things simply feel exceptional. Nothing else matters except this good sensation, this funky frenzy where an undulating mass of humans get tribal at the earth disco and undergo some kind of retro/futuristic dance floor healing. 



Friday, 21 August 2015

Smoke on the Water

Standing in a spot in the river that is usually waist deep this time of year, but today it barely covers my ankles. In this channel, the flow from the main stem is almost entirely cut off. I’m not surprised. I’ve had a whole season to watch the water level diminish. Back in early March–a time when there is usually a few feet of snow on the ground in this mountain range–I was preparing garden beds wearing nothing but a pair of shorts. Most of the low to mid elevation snow was gone by then. Without that snowpack, it wasn’t a stretch to imagine that during this time of year–the scorching month of August–the river would be exceptionally low. 

People who’ve lived here for years said not to worry. June will be rainy they said. It’s a natural occurrence that the old time farmers of this region have always counted on. But this year, it didn’t come.

Things are no longer how they were.

Along many stretches of the river, one can walk right across it in knee to ankle deep water without being swept downstream. 
All of its feeder creeks are low–lower than anyone whose been here a long time has ever seen. Two that I know of have completely dried up. One of them was nothing but a trickle two months ago. 

Today, the scene around me is apocalyptic, smokey and surreal. Massive fires to the south are consuming the forest–forests that have decades worth of piled woody debris stacked up on the forest floor. Back in the day, periodic wildfires cleared this material from the understory with a hot flash of tremendous heat that moved through and burned out quickly, without wreaking total catastrophe.  

Nature assigned fire a role that worked to create more balance and harmony.

But now, with over one hundred years of fire suppression designed to suit industrial forestry, a tremendous fuel load exists in many areas. With drought driven by climate change and its exceptionally hot temperatures, it was inevitable that the west would go up in flames.

Standing in the river trying to cool off, I strain my eyes, peering into the gray smoke blowing up from the south and try to make out the usually distinct lines of the mountains. 
Visibility is poor. A few hundred meters and everything vanishes. Closer, all the lines are softened like a charcoal drawing on paper. 
The wind is blowing hard as it often does now (something the old timers say is a new phenomenon), and the leaves of cottonwood trees are raining down with ashes. It’s scary. The mountains are burning. There’s a water shortage. Some people have lost everything they have worked for. But again, like my own dwindling river, none of it is surprising. Our collective disengagement from the natural world has led us to this point. The result of corporate driven disrespect for air, trees, water, and animals can no longer be ignored. We must do something different. Simplify. Downsize. Grow food where possible. Become bioregional. Connect to the fecund world of the woods. Gather your tribe, coalesce with your community, listen to what the land is trying to tell you, even if it is under a thick layer of concrete. Doing these things won't stop catastrophe, but they will help prepare us to live more harmoniously in the world that grows out of the ashes of the old.  

Tonight I will dance for rain, but if my prayers go unanswered, I will not shake my fist at heaven; I will not curse the fire because a part of me knows that Earth now demands we face the burning, choking reality that we’ve created and then, just maybe, we'll be able to create a new existence–one that is reverent,  respectful, and in balance with this planet that is our home. 


Saturday, 15 August 2015

Farewell, Soul Brother

As I steered into the blackness of the highway last night, I wondered if the machines keeping him alive had been turned off. Feeling him...mixed with thoughts of ravens gliding into the void, their wings beating in time to the rhythm of the Great Mystery. I imagined Jon with them, rising in weightless rapture towards the ancient lake we talked so much about visiting, a place where grizzly bears imprint golden tracks upon the numinous shoreline, and wolves sing their songs of tribal kinship beneath a starred sky that stretches beyond beyond.

When I first told Jon about this place, he listened intently, as though I were speaking about some heavenly realm attainable right here on earth–a landscape of incomprehensible vastness, untrammeled, and imbued with rightness and peace. I gave him an open invitation to come along. He smiled wide, in awe at the thought of someday seeing this place of natural wholeness for himself.

We made tentative plans to journey there, plans which had to be postponed as Jon was on a serious mission to spread the music of Fort Knox Five
around the planet, totally driven to funk for peace. Seeing him at Basscoast 2015, the first thing he asked was: "How are the bears doing?"

"Well, you know how it is these days," I said. "Things aren't so easy for wild things." Jon nodded his head. He was connected to the earth and knew exactly what I meant. "I still want to come out with you," he said, "just a couple more years than I'm out of the city."

"The invitation is open, my friend. Anytime you're ready."

I thought about our final moments together as I drove down the valley last night, and with tears in my eyes said goodbye to this Soul Brother, this Renegade of Funk whose genuine sweetness will forever be remembered by those who were graced by his presence.

Farewell, Jon. Thank you for the gift of your music; for all those nights where you were the DJ that saved my life; and for the passionate, tenacious example you set as one of the most committed artists I've ever known.

May the wild vastness welcome you back home.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Yellow Lines

At a cafe on the edge of a parking lot, retired men in Hawaiian shirts, middle aged hipsters on bikes, and all the mainstream twenty somethings lifting Starbucks paper cups to their mouths with tattooed arms. Cars are everywhere. Parked and polished, or being driven to box stores. They've done a good job at this shopping center of making sure no plant grows wildly. Every seam between each slab of concrete has been scrubbed; every bit of detritus swept up. Green things only grow up from islands in the asphalt demarcated by a thick coat of industrial yellow paint, or from planters hanging in front of the mega stores. Next to me a tiny baby gums its mother's iPhone like it is a pacifier, covering it in drool. For a few minutes I linger here, my own paper coffee cup on the table, sitting in the sun, feeling the highland wind move across my arms and bare legs, looking toward the pine covered hills rising to the east–so dry from the drought and record heat. Smoke is in the air. Fires are burning all over the territory–hot tongues of flame reducing what was to ashes.

Friday, 24 April 2015

Higher Intelligence

Biking down the trail in the white light of the sun. It’s hotter than I ever remember an April in the mountains to be. And though I live in a temperate rainforest where moisture loving cedars and hemlocks grow from soil covered in mosses, today the air feels as dry as it is in sagebrush country. This year, the snow left early. Its meltwaters feed our creeks. This has many of us thinking about drought which leads to thoughts of California. Wondering what it would be like to run out of water as I peddle toward the beaver ponds near the river. 

All around me, the valley is greening. The smell of cottonwood resin mixes with the dank aroma of skunk cabbage. I take note of a patch of nettles that I’ll pick from on the way back, and a nice assemblage of dandelion buds (nettles = wild superfood; dandelion is a tasty master detoxicant). Above the marshland I see a harrier cruising. My eyes can only keep up with it for a few seconds–just long enough to really feel the hawk’s presence–the way its talons have formed in relationship to its vision; how its body is shaped in accordance to the environment it thrives in, and that after being on this planet for a few thousand years, it continues to live in bloody harmony with its surroundings, adapting to the changes survival requires. As I watch this member of the Accipitridae fly in the scorching heat of the afternoon, I wonder if we're entering a new paradigm. I mean this in the most grounded, practical sense

The world is no longer as it was. Climate change is changing everything now. 

The result of industrial civilization is obvious and undeniable–melting ice sheets, thawing permafrost, massive drought in some places, torrential rains and flooding in others, sea levels rising. Yet, as this global ecological shift occurs before our eyes, dramatically altering the landscape and our existence, most of humanity behaves like Easter Islanders, stuck in a way of being that simply wont be sustainable in the new world that’s taking shape. We could probably survive in it; we might even be able to thrive in it, but we’d have to behave like an intelligent animal–one that is highly responsive to the changes that are occurring, and we'd have to be willing to adapt to them. In this new paradigm, any system of governance unwilling to do so is not only obsolete, but it is on its way toward extinction. 

The hawk disappears beyond the far edge of the marsh almost as fast as it appeared, leaving me with the feeling that it possesses a higher intelligence that most of us are missing.

painting by: Stephanie Kellett

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Cougar Rock

Scramble up to Cougar Rock. The land is steep. Any boulder loosened by my feet tumbles all the way down the mountain side–its momentum ending abruptly with a crash. Other people come here but I can’t see the path they’ve taken so I follow my own route in city shoes that aren’t really suitable for climbing. Like the other animals, I make do with what I have, moving with careful carelessness, switching back and forth, zig zagging as I ascend, knowing there is no one to catch my fall, but I’m comfortable with that. I shimmy up a crack between two large columns of rock–holding my journal in my mouth, hoping as I climb higher that there is a different path back down. I make it to the top and stand in solitary contentment on the outcropping. Cars drive on the highway far below me, through the valley bottom that has become snow free a month early. Thinking of Elk because, on the way up, I saw their droppings; thinking of Deer–tracks and shit I saw on the game trail; thinking of Cougars because the place is named after them, although that was a long time ago, at a time before most of the valley’s predators had been exterminated. Oregon Grape sprouting up from the interstices between the rocks. Ponderosa Pine and Douglas Fir growing in defiance of clear cuts. Frog Peak visible to the south. Tiny insects flying in air warmed by the sunshine. The process of photosynthesis around me. Feeling my skin–warm, sweaty, and alive.  

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Still High

Two weeks have gone by but I'm still high from it. A good party can do that. In this case, the occasion for celebration was the birthday of local painter and creative dynamo, Stephanie KellettShe deserves to be celebrated. The woman goes to great lengths to offer beauty and art to the world around her. If you were to drive through our tiny town way out in the mountains and take a look around, you would see what I mean. 

Leading up to the party, she works outside with a crew of wild women, sculpting snow, shoveling pathways, and building an installation/effigy out of broken branches and construction waste to be set ablaze as a kind of mid-winter ritual. It's her way of offering some light and warmth at this dark time way up in the cold, snowy, north. 

We expect people to start trickling in by 9pm, but the first ones are there by 6:30 so the night begins with an old Nina Simone record playing from the soundsystem. For the next twelve hours magic happens. Beautiful people of all ages, body types, and identities have gathered. There are acupuncturists and sex educators, mystic cattle ranchers who cavort with vegetarians, disco punks making merry with folk singers and belly dancers, as well as mechanics, mothers, and back to the landers. Some stand in the orange light of the fire telling stories, others grind and shake on the dance floor inside. 

When burn time comes, stories are told and offerings are made, but not in a way that is contrived, didactic, or new agey. Yes there is intention (mine is to have a really good time), but it is expressed with artful grace that is also light hearted and comedic–a merging of the sublime with the ridiculous. Even with saw dust, gasoline, several lighters, and a blow torch the installation doesn't burn easily. Instead, it just kind of smolders and smokes, making everybody laugh which is a really good thing to Stephanie. 

Except for the burn, I’m behind the turntables all night in my Sugarbear guise–pretty much nine and a half hours straight, but I swear it feels like only three or four. When I’m back there and the party is happening, there’s no place I’d rather be (except maybe on a deserted Alaskan beach with a dozen grizzlies). I enter a timeless place of groovy magic, pure joy, and enchantment which is reflected right back at me when the strobe lights flash on the dancer’s faces. At one point during the night when I'm playing a track by Isis Salam, I remember something a mad hat maker once told me. It was many years before. We were at a party in a barn way out in the middle of nowhere. DJ Craig Mullin was playing records and had the people sweaty and bouncing on the old wood plank floor. The hat maker got up close to my ear so I could hear him above the music, and he said that in this fucked up world of lies, fakery, and commodified fun, a good party is one of the only authentic things we have left. In agreement I smiled big and nodded my head. To some that might sound cryptic, but I knew exactly what he meant. 

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Nothin' but a Party

The bartender with the dagger tattoo is the first person I encounter in the room. I ask for a beer. It doesn’t matter what kind, I say, as long as it’s dark. 

“Anything for you, SugarBear,” she replies, winking at me while pouring a bottle of stout micro-brew into a mug. As I stand with my elbow on the bar, taking in the scene before me, not many would guess that I’m actually on the job. My first task involves exactly this: just standing back, out of the way, taking everything in. I notice how the room is lit with candles and dimmed down lighting, and how all the dinner tables are filled with people sitting at them. The bar is thoroughly occupied, and in the foyer, a dozen people are waiting to get in. Overall, the climate and ambience of the room is warm and cozy, especially considering how cold the night is beyond the glass walls. Tonight's crowd is diverse. You’ve got gray haired elders, young children and their parents, farmers, back woods hipsters, carvers of wood and rock, skiers, carpenters, ravers, artists, and crusty skids who moved way out here to the mountains from the cities, fleeing before the inevitable collapse. It’s a gathering of valley folk, congregating in the only public space they have. 

My job is big. I must find a way to gain the trust of this room of radical, rural, fiercely independent mountain people. Then, once they’re comfortable with me, I’ll have to get them comfortable enough with each other to express themselves through their bodies. It wont happen immediately. There’s a process to it with various stages, each of which takes time. 

Music is the primary tool I'll use. And while it’s true that music is the universal language with qualities that can transport the listener into other realities, to achieve my goal the music has to be used wisely. I’m The Sugarbear DJ. It is my duty to know these things.  

Tonight I’m booked for four hours. Some call that a “long set,” but for me it’s standard. I’ll gladly play for eight hours, but nothing less than three–the minimum requirement for the particular experience I co-create with the people I’ll be spending the night with.  

Many are still eating dinner when the turntables start spinning. They’re sipping wine. Laughing. Flirting. Talking to their friends. Their focus is upon what is immediately before them, and so the music I choose in the beginning has to support this. The first song is like a beckoning to the energies imbued within the grooves of my records to assist me in the sonic spell we'll cast. What exactly I’ll play is determined in the moment by the broadcast I’m receiving around me–not just the people in the room, but the greater ambient reality. Tonight, it begins with Maria Helena’s, Improviso. I slide my volume fader up so that the notes are elevated, but it’s not so loud that the song overpowers the space.  

After fifteen minutes or so people begin to notice there’s a change in the aural atmosphere of the room. The random chaos of the playlist on shuffle has been replaced with something more purposeful and human selected. It’s starting to happen. I’m meeting eyes with some of them. Connections are being made. Now we’ll go further, a little more volume and a lot more soul. Since I have their attention, I want to send out a message–most eloquently communicated by Issac Hayes, singing Do Your Thing. Heads are bobbing. Fingers tapping. Everybody is still in their seats, but it’s getting groovy with Ben E. King, Bill Withers. Lynn Collins, Darondo, Sharon Jones, and Fingerman playing. 

More people arrive. They’re way in the back, standing around the bar, taking in the scene like I was an hour ago. I know them. These are the dedicated party people who came specifically for the purpose of getting down. My party crew is a rag tag bunch of urban back to the landers, disco punk hip-hop herbalist hunter/gatherers, film makers, visual artists, social workers, queers, LGBT’s, baby catching mid-wives, blowers of glass, as well as those who simply refuse to be limited to any kind of classification. 

There’s a few people who’ve ventured onto the floor by now–a couple in their late 60s–first wave hippies who ran here to dodge the draft during the Vietnam War era. They’re pulling taffy and spinning around to Stevie Wonder’s, Superstitious, like they did in the old days. With them on the floor, and all the people standing close by, it's clear the pressure in the room is building. I’ve gained enough of their trust to move into the next phase of the party, but before I do, I can’t help but lay down the fantastic track Wait, by The Kills. Not only do I love the song, but it also speaks to the tension in the room because I know people are ready to groove. I let it play all the way through, not mixing anything in at all, then let the silence between songs fill up the space for about four seconds.

In comes the opening bass line of Guns of Brixton. There’s nothing like it on a big sound system. I first heard this Clash song as a ten year old boy, thirty four years before, and find it is as good now as it was then–and perhaps even more relevant. People who thought they hated punk rock move closer to the speakers. Their shoulders rock, responding as though the band was calling from London at that very moment to smoothly sing them a funky revolutionary anthem. 

The stage is set. My heart is beating faster. I’m excited. There’s no going back. I call on Edwin Starr and so he screams up from the grave; his voice from so long ago attached to contemporary, acid inspired beats in space. The people are on the floor now. I hear a woman growl, “YE-AH!” They’re grooving around and smiling, their faces telling me it feels great to be caught up in Edwin’s whirlpool of love. 

It’s on!  

We go to Yo Majesty’s lezzy ghetto funk, then Another One Bites the Dust for all the people shot this year by brutal cops. Emperor Machine has a magic, mid-tempo track which, I know when it bumps out of the speakers, will fill the floor to capacity. When I put it on the dancefloor gets packed. Barely any room left. I invite a half dozen dancers behind the decks. Some are friends, others I’ve never met. Yes, there’s the threat of the turntables getting nudged and the records skipping, but I like having people all around. It increases the intensity and pressure, and envelopes me in the energy of the boogie. It also breaks down the barrier between “audience” and “performer,” something I learned from hardcore in the early 80s. 

With Wicked Lester, Fort Knox Five, The Crystal Ark, Isis Sallam, and Psychemagik’s music of pure funky ass wonder, we’re totally in it. Hands in the air. People whoop and holler. The room is filled with the good feeling of liberating the moment and riding high on a wave of collective joy and fun–not in an abstract or intellectual sense, but in a pure, animal, in the body kind of way. 

At the peak of it all, I drop Selector Retrodisco’s High Voltage edit, and it’s like we’ve just entered a zone of total autonomy–a place where the chains of constraint are broken. With all the grinding and shaking that’s going on, it feels like the burden of living in modern civilization is gone and something brand new is possible. For a moment the dominant reality that hammers our lives into nothing more than consumerist mundanity is replaced by an instinctual, ancestral knowing that life never has to be any less than fantastic. And then, just as we’re tearing the roof off, the house lights flash on and off.

Really–four hours passed that fast? People sigh and boo like a squadron of fun police with billy clubs have just entered the room. Without a microphone I shout to the crowd: “Don't worry people! The night’s not over. There's an after party, and it's within walking distance!” 

They holler back in excitement, and together we move on.