From: Howe Gelb, Tucson, Arizona
To: Helle Goldman
July 22nd 2018
Kære Dr Goldman, Dear Doc,
I understand you have decided to spend the arc of this existence in the Arctic Circle happily partnered with a Norwegian jet pilot. The island you call home, Tromsø, has a notable labyrinth of tunnels under the city, housing roadworks and brilliantly avoiding the traffic snarl and hilly traverse above. It’s told that this extensive infrastructure was inspired by cold war antics, which seems appropriate enough, way up there where the cold circles all connect.
Do you ever think of those boats afloat in the Arctic Circle in the same way I think of space shuttles whereby the water is much like deep space, and just as unforgiving should one jettison?
Last time I was fortunate to visit, my cowboy boots cost me dearly while avoiding the treacherous frozen seaside path home. Looking down at each slippery step and sadly missing the blazing Borealis screaming at me from above to capture an eye.
Not unlike Stewart Lee’s letter to me, I’m all over the map in writing this. I’m not sure how to answer his ponder about my own work while lost in pondering over yours. As expected, my letter is even later than he thought his was. Irony being a somewhat useful element in letter writing, perhaps Jem’s suggested theme of ‘Time’ has nicely torqued these scribbles that reflect such wrath of tick and clock.
What Stewart was kindly stirring up, by puzzling over the process of my own sonic sketching, is possibly the art of the capture. That, and what we can do to allow the flow of all that stuff stuck inside of us from the get-go.
Back when I was learning lithograph, the instructor suggested we had to listen to the stone to know what to draw. He must’ve been high. Not because he was wrong, but because he dared to declare something like that to a bunch of 20-year-olds. No one is going to know what that means at that age. It was a stall tactic. He couldn’t make a living at just selling his own art so he became a teacher, sensible by comparison, and could then suggest the utterly abstract in lieu of any actual concrete clue. Although he was diligent in the process and talented too, revealing any mysteries of capturing an intended etch upon stone was pretty much left alone.
What I had learned, with the help of the guitar, is that there are things happening beyond our control that are ready to assist in our adventure of ‘elusive capture’. I decided that every song that we’re ever going to write is already encoded within us. The only way I could prove this for myself was to silence everything inside me that wasn’t a song and see if whatever was left could pass for such a thing.
I began to challenge this by believing it was possible to conjure a song without ever having written it before it was played. The trick is to believe that it has already been around forever. This became habit forming. It was a kind of acting. Which defines more accurately the term ‘Act’. Nothing was more exhilarating than this procedure.
At first, I would get away with only one or two during a session. Eventually, I was able to come up with several for an album. By the time of Purge and Slouch I had managed an entire album of these things. Previously these instant songs would be mixed in with other previously written ones so no one could ever know that any particular song was really birthed the moment it was played or recorded. This is what I refer to as a ‘perfect harvest’.
This method of song capture was most efficiently played out just between the drummer and myself. Bass would be added later. Later on, there’d been times after developing a band telepathy within the three-piece line-up when we were able to accomplish a first take that was being written as it was being captured on tape. The hilarious consequence was when those songs were requested on any night, we never could play them the same way because we hadn’t learned the song before it was recorded. They continued to morph every night. Just like nature. Nature and how it correlates to the nature of performance. A gig was a storm.
Giant Sand was an encampment for such an ethos that purposefully founded new approaches in improvisation outside of soloing. We improvised every night. Sometimes we had the audacity to make up a song in the set that no one would ever know hadn’t existed before and could never be played or even remembered again. But man, the band knew and sure got off on it. It was always like each band member had to surf on the sound waves of a brand new sonic swell using their great balance to make it all the way into shore without a spill.
The downside was this form of ‘elusive capture’ hadn’t been uniformly heralded by the audience. In fact, there were those who walked away completely perplexed. We then had gotten the reputation that we were a gamble, a casino of songs on stage, and that our set would either be shambolic or maybe pure magic. But for 98.6% of our shows, we were great. We had just failed to inform the attendees what they were in for.
There was one such spectacular night in the Netherlands. I was in a rogue mood. We have a thing we call ‘The Bends’. It happens on the road. One of the band members will get ‘Bent’ for a period up to 48 hours and then it passes. We learned early on to not take any actions during those times and to give the lad/lass a wide berth. Sometimes it does take 40 acres to turn that rig around.
Anyhow, I had ‘em that night when we were mistakenly included at a Texas-themed festival. For some reason, the promoter was certain we were gonna be trouble and wouldn’t grant us our rider liquor ’til after we played. That put me in a worse mood. Can’t help it if he was such a bad read of character.
During that time I was very intrigued with segues: How to get from one song to another by overlapping them the way DJs do at the turntables. We would do it with a few songs in our set. It’s a tricky form of improvisation. The beat changes. The key changes. The attitudes change and the band members cannot always all be notified at once what’s happening. It is the ‘grand improv’. That night I intended to put the band through its paces playing only new songs from whatever the next album was going to be. So. The band performed brilliantly. Never stopping between songs, just segueing. The entire set was seamless and meticulous. But no one in the audience knew. No one had a clue what just happened. T’was the failure to notify.
Afterwards, in the bone-crackingly cold night outside, a woman who was trying to find me an open bar decided to jump into the empty canal as we walked beside it. Only it wasn’t empty. So. I suppose the promoter wasn’t completely wrong.
It’s in these attempts at elusive capture that I’d like to focus on and what it takes; to capture a moment, to capture an eyeful, to capture one’s heart, or to capture something senseless and make it something for the senses.
I am intrigued by how Stewart Lee captures an audience’s attention on any given night. When I have been privy to catch his ‘act’, it thrills me by how close to the rail he veers, speeding around hairpin turns of narration and open forum pedal-to-the-metal pondering. Why is being funny so vital? Why does it relieve the horrors embedded in our psyche? It certainly dampens the fires of dread and despair that threaten our lush consciousness. And it nicely defuses the horrendous implications of idiots on patrol in political appointments. It reminds me of my old friend John Convertino’s favorite quote from a Joni Mitchell’s lyric; “Laughing and crying… it’s the same release.”
It’s a sweet thing to have Stew reflect on the possibility that he learned that ‘veering’ is a viable form of entertainment from our camp. Planning can often insult the future and improvisation is obviously evident in nature. Another point of savoring in Mr. Lee’s approach is his mastering of ‘the pause’. That empty space between things is what makes eventual points more or less potent. Listen to Thelonious Sphere Monk and to his intentional gaps between stabs. That’s the thing everyone gets wrong when performing one of his compositions. No one has his breadth between plunk and sproing. Even when he takes a solo, it sounds more like a sax player having to breathe in between passages. There’s something about that kind of execution that is so akin to nature and our emotional reflections. We need to catch our breath in between melodic brilliance and catastrophic ill-informed calamity. Monk’s timing is a thing to behold. It’s deliberate and punk. In fact, Punk Rock before it was called that has had a hand in every kind of music that has ever mattered. The upsetting surprise of its ‘now’ increases the odds of long-lasting historical appeal. It’s always been there in country music. It’s obviously there in rock. It has surely been there in Jazz from the beginning. Only after the fact can we respond with critique and reevaluation, but at the moment of impact, we are held captive by its delicious danger. Therein lies it’s elusive capture.
As for you, my dear doctor of anthropological scratch, I stand astounded by your capture of the Zanzibar Servaline Genet, officially known as Genetta servalina archeri, (assumingly in honor of its 1995 discovery by a hunter named Archer), and commonly mistaken for the mysterious Zanzibar Leopard.
The Zanzibar Leopard, it should be noted, became extinct largely due to encroaching human developments which caused the animal to readily hunt livestock as a ripple effect. These actions annoyed the ranchers to the extent it instigated a free for all killing spree sanctified by the local government.
Is it not also speculated that further elimination of the species was in part due to the superstition that the critter was the favorite pet of witches. The locals, vehemently fearing the leopard’s curse, assisted in their eventual demise.
Correct me if I’m mistaken, but wasn’t it you and your husband who were actually responsible for capturing the first ever images of this elusive subspecies?
You managed to extend an exciting glimpse into what’s become a mythical creature where no illustrated evidence had ever existed before. An evolutionary missing link looking like a rather badly drawn predator cat. Where Stewart Lee has managed to brilliantly capture the elusive ‘pause’, you’ve managed to brilliantly capture the elusive ‘paws’.
From what I have learned about the capture of anything, there are usually two ways to go about it. Either sheer luck or brazen effort fueled by forgotten childhood events that instigate relentless passions in adult life.
Could the roots of your elusive capture up here in the future have possibly begun in the tender trappings on the Greek island of Hydra?
I am referring to the fragmented story of how you and your sib landed on Hydra with your mom so many decades ago. The long travel from Scandinavia had taken its exhausting toll on you two kids and mom invented a cute little game to get you both to play so she could relax a minute herself. A bowl was set under the table filled with water and food so you guys could pretend you were small animals, maybe a mythical serveline genet. Possibly an ancient spell was cast then and there, unknowingly. A seed was planted that one day you would become an anthropologist and amateur zoologist and discover such animals for the world.
Perhaps. But what we know for certain, while lapping at those bowls, you did attract the occupant of a nearby table in that harbour restaurant. A certain Leonard Cohen sat down and introduced himself to your beautiful Danish mom under the drenching allure of your mom as a mythical siren. Here then began what would eventually become your friendship with the equally mythical Marianne Ihlen, the Scandinavian beauty of his So Long Marianne.
More elusive capture ensued here recently when your dear friend Marianne requested that you translate her biography into English for her North American readership.
I suppose, Helle, this rambling letter may have attempted to connect a few dots in hopes of a pattern. Human brains love to pattern-ize. They see patterns in clouds and stars, in peoples’ actions as well as stains on the wall. Scientifically speaking, I think it has to all to do with a genetic allergy to chaos. Personally, I’ve noticed chaos is way more user-friendly. Maybe this letter had nothing to do with any of that. Maybe it had only to do with elusive capture. Capturing a moment in time, a memory, a poet or a servaline.
If time and page allowed more pondering, I would bring up how you might have also spotted the elusive Madagascar Spotted Marmont. But no. Today there is a highway heading west calling out for my own capture and I’m late again. The clock is the only thing that has yet to really capture my attention, elusively or otherwise.
At the end of today’s long desert highway will be your mom’s brother’s son’s son and my nephew all in one. With a little luck, I will arrive in time to share with him the Pacific’s specific setting sun in capitulating a captionless capture.
OK, Doc. I gotta go…
With love and unrelenting admiration,
Howe Gelb is an American singer-songwriter, musician and record producer based in Tucson, Arizona.
Dr Helle Goldman lives on the island of Tromsø, about 350 km north of the Arctic Circle, where she is the chief editor of the Norwegian Polar Institute’s international science journal, Polar Research.