Wednesday, May 22, 2013


Whatever Happened to Sheena Easton?

Sheena Easton is one of the most versatile recording artists of the past three decades; her sultry, soulful and passionate voice enabled her to become the only person who scored a top three hit on every major Billboard chart: Adult Contemporary, Dance, Pop, Country, and R&B. "9 to 5 (Morning Train)" reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and the Adult Contemporary chart in 1980, "We've Got Tonight" (a duet with Kenny Rogers) reached number one on the Country chart in 1983 and "Sugar Walls" reached number one on the Dance chart and number three on the R&B chart in 1985.

Easton's debut single was 1980's "Modern Girl":

Sheena Easton - Modern Girl Live by rvdgu2006

Easton's single "9 to 5"--which was retitled "9 to 5 (Morning Train)" in the United States to avoid any confusion with Dolly Parton's 1980 number one hit--reached number three on the UK Billboard chart and that success elevated "Modern Girl" to top 10 status in the UK after the earlier single was re-released. Easton became the first woman to simultaneously have two top 10 UK singles. "9 to 5 (Morning Train)" also became Easton's first and only Billboard Hot 100 number one hit:

Her rendition of the theme song for the 1981 James Bond movie "For Your Eyes Only" was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe in 1982; it peaked at number four on the Hot 100 chart and number six on the Adult Contemporary chart and it is on the short list of best Bond theme songs ever:

"You Could Have Been With Me," released shortly after "For Your Eyes Only," peaked at number 15 on the Hot 100 chart and number six on the Adult Contemporary chart. Any spurned lover who feels like his or her former partner has made a mistake can identify with the piercing lyrics delivered by Easton on this track:

Easton teamed up with Kenny Rogers on a number one Country hit in 1983, "We've Got Tonight":

She soon followed that success with "Telefone (Long Distance Love Affair)," which reached number nine on the Dance chart in 1983:

Sheena Easton Telefone by Celtiemama

"Strut," which peaked at number seven on the 1984 Billboard Hot 100 and number six on the U.S. Dance chart, signaled a shift for Easton toward songs featuring lyrics that were more sexually suggestive:

Prince--using the pen name Alexander Nevermind--penned "Sugar Walls" for Easton and that single became her first and only number one Dance hit; it also was listed by the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) as one of the "Filthy Fifteen" songs. In 1987, Easton teamed up with Prince on the duet "U Got the Look," which reached number two on the Billboard Hot 100 and thus became the highest charting single from Prince's "Sign O' the Times" album. Easton was not listed on the credits when the single was released but she appeared very prominently in the song's video:

Between 1980 and 1988, Easton had eight top 10 singles on the Hot 100 chart but after "The Lover in Me" peaked at number two in 1988 only two of her next 22 singles were listed in the Hot 100: "Arms of Orion" (a duet with Prince that is featured on the 1989 Batman soundtrack) peaked at number 36 and 1991's "What Comes Naturally" peaked at number 19.

Since 1990, Easton has periodically released new music plus some compilation albums; Easton's 1993 album "No Strings" includes her cover version of "The One I Love Belongs to Somebody Else":

Recently, she has focused on theater work, voice-acting and performing in various venues in Las Vegas, her current residence; in 2004 she was inducted into the Casino Legends Hall of Fame.

Here is Easton performing "For Your Eyes Only" at a 2012 concert in Chicago:

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Wednesday, May 15, 2013


appreciating e.e. cummings

E.E. Cummings is not the greatest poet of all-time or even the greatest poet of the 20th century but he wrote with a distinctive voice that still resonates and that sets him apart from any other poet. From his earliest poetic efforts, Cummings forged his own path, bending--no, breaking, shattering and obliterating--grammatical and syntactical customs; his poems featured few or no capitalized letters, syncopated rhythms, stylized word spellings and stanza structures that challenged both typesetters and readers. Cummings' unique style defied poetic orthodoxy much like Salvador Dali's now-iconic painting "The Persistence of Memory" defied painting orthodoxy; Dali presented ordinary objects as part of a grand surrealistic vision and his twisted clocks force us to confront the mystery of time and existence, while Cummings' oddly shaped stanzas force us to focus on the meaning of each carefully chosen word: you cannot casually read a Cummings poem, just like you cannot casually view a Dali painting; in both cases you must interact with the art and let the art interact with your mind and your emotions. Through careful and disciplined manipulation of form, Cummings demanded the reader's full attention; free verse requires that the writer not let freedom descend into chaos and that the reader must concentrate in order to understand the writer's message.

This is my favorite Cummings poem:

if up's the word;and a world grows greener
minute by second and most by more-
if death is the loser and life is the winner
(and beggars are rich but misers are poor)
-let's touch the sky:
with a to and a fro
(and a here there where)and away we go

in even the laziest creature among us
a wisdom no knowledge can kill is astir-
now dull eyes are keen and now keen eyes are keener
(for young is the year,for young is the year)
-let's touch the sky:
with a great(and a gay
and a steep)deep rush through amazing day

it's brains without hearts have set saint against sinner;
put gain over gladness and joy under care-
let's do as an earth which can never do wrong does
(minute by second and most by more)
-let's touch the sky:
with a strange(and a true)
and a climbing fall into far near blue

if beggars are rich(and a robin will sing his
robin a song)but misers are poor-
let's love until noone could quite be(and young is
the year,dear)as living as i'm and as you're
-let's touch the sky:
with a you and a me
and an every(who's any who's some)one who's we

I love the couplet "in even the laziest creature among us/a wisdom no knowledge can kill is astir"; it conjures two images for me: one image is that of a seemingly "slow" person who shines and thrives if someone takes the time to patiently teach him and the other image is of a person who retains his wisdom even after enduring 12 years of being force-fed all of the "knowledge" that the American public education system purports to dispense. Cummings saw that there is inherent wisdom--and worth--inside every person, regardless of that person's seemingly "lazy" disposition and regardless of the way that certain experiences may have dulled that wisdom/concealed that worth.

Cummings' poetry challenges readers in a way that was once widely considered enchanting but his reputation has not grown after his passing, perhaps because readers no longer want to be challenged. Cummings anticipated that his writings--and what he called "The New Art" in general--might not be well received by some audiences. During a Harvard commencement address that he delivered in 1915 at just 20 years of age, Cummings presciently predicted that the "fakirs and fanatics" would not view with favor works of art that explore methods, emotions and concepts that fall outside of the norm. In an article titled "Make it Newish" (May 2005, Harper's Magazine), Wyatt Mason explains, "Cummings had come to issue a corrective to an audience ignorant of any error."

Cummings hoped that society would embrace art that challenges preconceptions and that reveals new ways to look at the world but society instead lurched in the opposite direction. More than 30 years ago, Jerzy Kosinski lamented how much people rely on "The constant companionship of distracting devices" and he warned that we are becoming a nation of "videots." Kosinski decried what we would now call "reality" TV before the concept had even devolved into its current form and he told interviewer David Sohn, "I look at the children who spend five or six hours watching television every day, and I notice that when in groups they cannot interact with each other. They are terrified of each other; they develop secondary anxiety characteristics. They want to watch, they don't want to be spoken to. They want to watch, they don't want to talk. They want to watch, they don't want to be asked questions or singled out."

"Videots" will not take the time or expend the effort to untangle Cummings' unorthodox poetic structures; they will not read slowly enough and with enough concentration to discern the method underlying what superficially seems like random, chaotic madness. Cummings sought poetic/artistic truth and such a quest is out of step with a society that values "reality" TV over poetry, artistry or truth.

After describing Cummings' compositional methods, Mason's article discusses three major biographies of Cummings. Mason considers Charles Norman's The Magic-Maker "an affectionate profile" but notes that its objectivity is somewhat compromised due to the heavy influence that Cummings exerted on the composition of the book's final draft. Mason praises Richard S. Kennedy's Dreams in the Mirror for not only being exhaustively researched but also for being very well written. Mason finds strong evidence of plagiarism in Christopher Sawyer-Laucanno's E.E. Cummings: a biography; Mason demonstrates that Sawyer-Laucanno used Kennedy's research without proper attribution and even directly lifted several passages from Kennedy's book while only making very slight changes to the text. Few crimes are more destructive than theft; no community can tolerate rampant theft, which is why even in the animal kingdom thiefs are treated quite harshly: it is understandable--if a bit extreme to civilized minds--why some societies sanction that a thief's hands should be cut off. The theft of someone's ideas/intellectual property is particularly egregious; such theft deeply violates the victim and reveals the moral emptiness of the victimizer. Mason notes how ironic it is that deception runs rampant throughout a book about a writer who was so devoted to artistic truth and so passionate about creating unique works. Mason soberly ponders what this means:

It tells us that we are drowning in information--unreliable information, shoddy information, wrong information. It tells us that, as a culture, literary or otherwise, we are letting our ignorance lead us. Ignorance is nothing more than an indifference to what is before us; we have only to pay attention--and we are paying attention in a way, but to pretty noise, the newer the better. Pound knew this, and Cummings knew this, and they tried to devise a means by which we might pay better attention to our world. The pictured caves of the Dordogne marked by prehistoric hands; the tattered verses once sung by a girl with a lyre; a tapestry that tells of a thousand-year-old battle upon which a certain comet may be seen, bright as any star: these delicate things are evidence, proofs that others like us looked at the world once. These are the sources of ourselves, our truest fossil record. The Modernists feared we were burying this record and, with that burial, losing what was best in us under waves of what was worst. They set out to help us remember. But, of course, Modernism failed. It never had a chance.

Put even more simply, one could note that there are hundreds of cable/satellite TV channels available but most of them broadcast nothing more than "pretty noise, the newer the better." U.S. Chess Champion/philosophy professor Stuart Rachels expresses a similar sentiment in different words, decrying America's "deeply engrained anti-intellectualism." That anti-intellectualism explains why "Modernism...never had a chance"; our society does not train people to savor the joys of thinking and the merits of sustained concentration: anything that cannot be tweeted in 140 characters or less must not be important--or so we have been told (brainwashed).

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Monday, May 13, 2013


Whatever Happened to Jeru the Damaja?

Jeru the Damaja (whose given name is Kendrick Jeru Davis) burst on to the music scene in the early 1990s, showcasing a distinctive flow and thought-provoking lyrics. His 1993 song "Come Clean" peaked at #10 on the Billboard Hot Rap Singles chart:

JERU THE DAMAJA - Come Clean by homhom

"Come Clean" features Jeru's trademark free verse couplets, including these two gems:

I'm a true master you can check my credentials
'Cause I choose to use my infinite potential

My attack is purely mental and its nature's not hate
It's meant to wake ya up out of ya brainwashed state

Jeru's second album, "The Wrath of the Math," peaked at number three on the R&B chart. The single "Ya Playin' Yaself" urges listeners to focus on "knowledge, wisdom, understanding," words that are repeated throughout the song; here are some of the lyrics:

Knowledge, wisdom, understanding like King Solomon's wealth
You're a player but only because you be playin' yourself...

The race is on, but I won't compete
In this competition, because I have a greater mission
I hope that you listen
Knowledge, wisdom and understanding brings long life
And health, think anything else and ya playin' yaself

It is interesting to note that the Hebrew acronym Chabad--which is the name adopted by one of the Hasidic movements in Orthodox Judaism--refers to Chochmah, Binah and Da'at, meaning Wisdom, Understanding and Knowledge. Knowingly or not, Jeru delivered a quintessentially Jewish message--intellectual/spiritual development is more important than the accumulation of material wealth--that needs to be heard by all of humanity.

In an October 2009 interview, Jeru explained that he "wrote the whole treatment for 'Ya Playin' Yaself' and came up with the concept." Jeru has studied the martial arts, so the "Ya Playin' Yaself" video includes martial arts set pieces while presenting a message favoring the pursuit of long term enlightenment over the pursuit of short term frivolity:

"The Wrath of the Math" also included a brief track titled "Tha Bulls--t," a raw declaration of war against anyone who values commerce over art:

Jump up in my Rolls Royce, top choice
Make 'em holler, everything I do is for a dollar
F--k being civilized, I got dollar signs in my eyes
One day I'll fall but for now, I'll rise

The end of the song makes it clear that Jeru is not promoting such a decadent lifestyle but in fact considers such a world view to be a nightmare vision that he would not want his children to follow. With those lyrics, Jeru the Damaja rejects the assumption that the primary purpose of life is just to accumulate more and more toys and he seeks to reclaim Hip Hop as a poetic art form as opposed to a crass celebration of "gangsta" life. Visit any bookstore or music store or just glance at the bestseller lists in either genre and it is easy to find many examples of the shoddy work that Jeru the Damaja passionately decries--and not just in Hip Hop; works that display technical craftsmanship and that contain enduring artistic/intellectual worth are exceedingly rare.

Jeru's talents are not limited to music; he is also a photographer. Jeru the Damaja has not appeared on any U.S. Billboard charts since the 1990s but he is still producing music and he is still entertaining his fans worldwide. His November 20, 2012 post at explains his current activities (the quoted passage retains the original spelling and punctuation):

While other guys are Stressing getting their song played on hot whatever, or thinking they made it because they have a hundred thousand followers on twitter, I have millions of loyal fans worldwide and this number increases daily. Actually, I take that back...theses people are not fans, they're family! who have, and continue to support me in all musical endeavors. 

See, I'm like a stealth bomber flying under the radar. Dropping bombs on my targets whenever and wherever I please. It's the classic case of, if a tree falls in the forest. Just because you didn't see it or hear it doesn't mean that it didn't take place or had some type of huge effect on something you know nothing about. For example... I have records with dudes all over the world you never heard of, Those same records are platinum in those countries with millions of hits on youtube.

Disregard the few random typos and focus on the larger message: Jeru the Damaja is pursuing his artistic vision on his own terms, expressing himself creatively without paying attention to what the "mainstream" critics and charts say.

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