Wednesday, October 7, 2015

My First Glimpse of Janis Joplin (JANIS & ME Introduction)

Summer 1969: In great excitement and awe, we’ve come with thousands of other people to experience a performance by Janis Joplin. We’re two boys in our middle teens, good friends for some years now, dressed in long white shirts of East Indian style, with headbands about our brows. My pal, Jeff Berg, drove us in his battered green VW Bug from Silver Springs, Maryland, to the concert site in the lush green countryside.

From the parking area we cross gentle slopes, past a pond, to the Merriweather Post Pavilion for the Performing Arts.

The facility is partly outdoors, though the central part of the audience beneath the roof has seating and the stage is covered. We locate a position under the sky on a sort of grassy slope well above, yet close to the stage, at a railing where we can see look down upon the performance area from a side angle.

An amazing group, The James Cotton Blues Band performs, yet we’re ready for Janis herself. We’re totally buzzed with anticipation.

The opening act finishes, and after the stage is cleared, the roadies arrange the equipment for Janis’s set. Finally her band’s equipment is all arranged and connected and some musicians have taken their places, including a small horn section with Snookie Flowers on saxophone. This is the line-up known as the Kozmic Blues Band. A few sounds tests add to our agonized impatience as the last of the daylight fades away.

Everything below us on the stage appears clear and jewel-bright.

When the first loud and rich-sounding chords of music are struck, I’m electrified; every hair on my teenaged body stands up! I’m so focused that my brain records the experience in great detail! The entire evening remains vividly intact in my brain now more than forty years after the event.

Janis actually appears running from the wings of the stage to the microphone that perches on a stand at the middle in the front. How on Earth does she actually run in those heels? Yet she does! She wears what appears to be a purple silk pant-suit with bell-bottom trousers, matching purple and pink and white boas attached to her long, flowing hair. Of course, she sports a mass of necklaces and what must be a million bracelets on the wrist of her right hand.

She grabs the microphone and does a little hop of excitement in place—despite the purple high-heeled pumps. She tosses her head back with a flourish of flying hair and feathers to deliver an unearthly, gorgeous, almost terrifying wail that speaks of not only enthusiastic greeting, but a generous dose of passionate longing, outrage, affirmation, seduction: agony and ecstasy.

More ecstasy than anything!

Her fist goes up beside the mike gripped in her other hand, pushed close to her lips. The fingers of that fist fly open with the next sounds that launch from her mouth, and her rapid, even frantic gestures nuance, seduce, grab, stab, caress, punctuate, rip, ripple, tickle and tease the air in synch with that rich, raspy, and entirely unmistakable, totally astonishing voice.

Is she singing two notes at once sometimes?


It seems as if the entire world is still holding its breath.

It’s “Raise Your Hand,” and actually, at first I do not levitate to the same extent I will with the more familiar songs. Momentarily, I’m stunned at the unfamiliarity, and shaken that I’m not sure I like it as much as her albums. This is one of those songs I do not already know from recordings, still the sheer excitement of actually seeing and hearing Janis at that moment overrides everything else in my existence! Nothing has ever in my life so fully grabbed my attention, as she does…

There she is, alive on the stage, belting it out, and as always giving more than 100% of herself. There are no throwaway performances with Janis, I realize.

Every shriek and gasp and coo comes from her core.

She’s a totally riveting whirlwind before our eyes; a genuine force of Nature!

She gives everything she’s got.

Love mixed with intense gratitude for this special experience pours back at her from thousands of opened hearts.

This is an uncanny experience of what the Hindus call “darshan,” the presence of a holy person that in and of itself bestows grace.

Though that first song does not actually disappoint, the next, “Piece of My Heart,” is the one that first lifts my feet off the ground; I will not touch down again that night.

Later, with an exquisite rendition of “Maybe,” the powerful horn section truly shines brilliantly, and this woman’s ability to match the power of the brass with her voice, reveals a new mystery. At the end of this song, Janis has to extend both hands open, one with the microphone between thumb and first finger, to request a hush from the audience so that she can deliver the last liquid note, which then brings down thunder and the first of many standing ovations.

Of course, Jeff and I have been standing and dancing in place all along.

When the time arrives for Janis to sing one of her most famous songs, like a sort of inevitable, yet humbling and privileged ritual of the throbbing mass of excited humans—comes a total surprise. In fact, we don’t even recognize the song at first! The new instrumental introduction sounds classical. It’s a sort of brassy Baroque horn fanfare, an elegant and sweetly-rambling intro that keeps us guessing—what is this song?

What song can this be?

There is a certain playfulness to this deception.

A sweet, insinuating, piercingly pure and somewhat nasal note: “Ssssssummuh-taaaaahhhhhm . . .taaahhm, tahhhhm-tahm . . .” Her voice levitates everyone present higher than ever with a unique clarity and purity such as we’ve never heard yet. Of course, it’s “Summertime,” not only a show-stopper, but a musical sacrament for the faithful. Strange, isn’t it, how the blues can make you feel so incredibly good!

That voice reaches out unlike anything I’ve ever heard or felt and with unparalleled intimacy Janis opens a door to the heart.

The sound system is incredibly loud and it continues to ring in our ears after the concert concludes following several exuberant curtain-calls. At last after a lengthy and unbelievably profound rendition of “Ball and Chain”… with my friend, I’m stumbling beyond words towards the parking area…

Several times Jeff Berg simply mutters, “Mother Mind-fuck,” and nothing more.

Some ineffable quality now seems to connect the dots of the stars in the heavens above and the atomic stardust within our bodies.

Before we get back to the little green VW Bug, we sit by a pond and stare at the reflections on the water for a time as other concert-goers continue to stream past us. It’s as if we need a speechless spell to process what really cannot be understood or grasped.

Janis may have left the premises, only she’ll never leave my heart.

I’ll never been the same person.

I know it.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

THE HOUNDS OF ELKHORN by Bruce P. Grether, Prologue: Winter 1983-4

Winter, 1983-4

Caretaking with good intentions can lead to some deeply disturbing discoveries, such as things that seem impossible. In this case it began with a single light burning within an immense old building that had been carefully closed up and locked for the season, with its electrical power turned off. Crisp mountain air stood still and quiet about Paul Goodfellow that night, yet a wave of foreboding hit him like a sudden gust of icy wind.

He had dreaded something like this for months, and now his peaceful existence felt violated.

He stood below the dark outline of the magnificent old two-story building saturated by antique secrets and untold stories, and he gazed up at that singularly ominous glow. Hands thrust deep into his coat pockets for warmth, a frown knit his brow: it appeared that a dim light bulb burned behind the tattered curtains of an upstairs room in the north wing of Elkhorn Lodge.

This huge main building of the complex, and all of the cabins had been carefully closed up for the winter, and Paul lived in a smaller, older building of year-round apartments to the east along the driveway. This winter, in return for a reduction in his rent, he kept an eye on the entire place for the owner, who did not fully trust the local manager of the property to watch over it effectively. That was another story in itself.

Now Paul’s heart sank. Someone is in the main lodge! Or someone has been inside and messed with the breaker switches and left a light on. If the wiring malfunctions, it could start a fire

The young man’s horn-rimmed glasses fogged over from his warm breath, a condition he humorously called “Clark Kent’s heavy breathing technique.” Only now there seemed nothing funny about the serious responsibility he had accepted. He was told the electricity to the main building was turned off entirely. Could Mr. Treadwell have forgotten to turn it off and left the light on in November when he departed for North Carolina? No. Paul would have noticed. Not likely, unless it had been covered and an old rotten window shade had broken and fallen to reveal the fact…

That’s how his imaginative mind worked—only he knew that to be unlikely, though many things inside the old building were indeed falling apart.

The only other options were a human intruder, or ghosts. He did not dismiss the fact that the old Edwardian structure, built in 1913, was filled with memories and the traces of countless visitors, which made it seem highly haunted, still he felt far more concerned at the moment about vandals and vagrants who might have broken in. And though his life here at the lodge property off-season was usually peaceful and quiet, now his heart hammered fiercely in his chest.

Enough ambient moonlight shone from behind the cloud cover, that he did not even take the little flashlight from his coat pocket as he marched around the building. He tried to keep his hiking boots from crunching too loudly upon ice and frozen soil. His eyes scanned for any evidence of where anyone might have broken in, and the big building was large enough and intricate enough and remained dark enough that he really could not tell for sure.

There were few lights anywhere in this pocket of night at the western end of Estes Park, Colorado, the resort village steeped in its dreams. Though he sought to carefully inspect the windows, and even the base of the structure for any disruption or damage, he walked rather quickly to get the job done, passing along the lengthy front of the two connected wings with their ornate trim and the three spacious verandas on both the upper and lower levels.

He hastened to avoid the sense that the building itself watched him passing by.

In truth, he also almost hoped his sounds would alert any intruder, that they might flee unseen, as he actually had no desire to confront a stranger here at this late hour, much less a ghost.

Wind lifted its voice and sighed heavily on the evergreen slopes to the south of the main building, where shuttered cabins kept their eyes closed in the shadows of ponderosa pines. Paul passed behind the open area at the back of the two wings, where an old wishing well had collapsed into itself, and when he returned to the north side, the light upstairs was out. He had seen no sign of a break-in.

So—do I call the Treadwells, or not?

He had mixed feelings about this: it definitely indicated some kind of presence in the main lodge that he would really rather not know about.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

A review of Bruce P. Grether's novel THE PURCHASING MOTHER'S SON

 by Rev., Dr. Kenneth Dobson of Chiang Mai, Thailand

The Purchasing Mother’s Son by Bruce P. Grether is an easy to read novel of an incredibly difficult period in Asian history, made more difficult for immigrants from Europe by the clandestine and mysterious nature of the people’s beliefs and social structure.  Grether takes us there in his daring foray into the spectral darkness.

If your life has never been thought to have been threatened by the demonic Purchasing Mother count yourself fortunate.  But she has been a constant menace here in South East Asia for more than a thousand years.

Bruce Grether grew up here in Thailand and learned how boys in Siam were protected and became invulnerable to her, but through so horrendous an ordeal that few endured it.  So far as Bruce tells, only one foreigner ever did.

Bad as she was, the Purchasing Mother demon was not the only threat in 1767.  The Burmese were ruthless, too, and they were heading toward Ayutthaya which they besieged, looted and burned.  If the beliefs of all the Siamese at that time were based on truth, not a syllable of Grether’s historical fantasy is impossible because the historical events are as carefully related as possible.  Millions of tourists have visited the ruins of Ayutthaya, but Grether takes us there as the appalling destruction was going on, as the demons rampaged.  Some people survived the carnage and wished they had not.  Some loved and were worse off for it.  There were intervals of beauty and moments of ecstasy even in those grim times.

But the Purchasing Mother was never far away.  Her love was the worst and most persistent.

You can purchase the novel HERE.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Uses of Tragedy in Fiction and in Life

When I lived in Berkeley during the summer of 1967 the entire USA seemed to be speculating about the secret behind the radio hit “Ode to Billie Joe,” a new song by Bobbie Gentry. The lyric tells of the suicide of a young man who jumps from a bridge, though the song provides only a series of tantalizing clues about what happened, and nothing of why.  As a boy of thirteen, I hardly understood how serious this was, though it certainly intrigued me.

Even at that age, I recognized that when you have recently suffered a major loss, words intended to comfort you, reassure, or cheer you up are not likely to help.

Then in 1976, a film called Ode to Billy Joe, inspired by Bobbie Gentry’s song was released, and it proved a genuine tear-jerker. When I saw the film at age twenty-two, I admired its visual and emotional realism, and the beauty and sincerity of the young protagonists, Billy Joe and Bobbie Lee. Only, not until recently was I able to view the film again, on DVD. After nearly forty years, I find appreciate this beautiful film and its nuances as I never could before.

For some critics, the uncertainties of the song proved more evocative and haunting, while the film and the detailed revelation of what happened and why, did not prove so satisfying. Personally, I appreciated the film’s sweating, believable Southern characters, the drone of the cicadas in the Mississippi heat, the excellent dialogue, and the tragic tangle of events. I admired how the young heroine endures her terrible loss.

Unlike the song, the revelations of the film are not ambiguous. Yet no matter how much information we may have about the loss of any person, we can never know the bottom line. The ultimate “why?” cannot truly be answered, even with apparent motivation and circumstances. The complexity and subtle nature of human experience renders any simple, linear cause-and-effect explanation no more than a rationalized emotional placebo. The truth of our existence is profoundly mysterious.

Though I have had a near-death experience (NDE), went to the “Other Side” and returned, I am not convinced of what that really means. Concerning life after death and before birth, I am agnostic. What I believe in is life. Still, human experience demonstrates that loved ones who pass on may sometimes return to comfort their survivors, or finish some interrupted business.  To doubt that this happens, in my opinion, takes skepticism too far, and dishonors the meaningful experience of a great many human beings.

My belief is that mortality is mysterious, that nobody knows for sure what, if anything, happens to our consciousness after we die, or where we come from “before birth.” In the sense of our evolving DNA and the stardust of which it’s composed, it seems we’ve all been around in some form, all along and always will be. For insight, Nature is always the best source, and if you observe what’s happening in a forest, everything is recycling, all the time.

Of course, grief can be caused not only by death of a loved one, but also by the end of a relationship, or by anything you consider a terrible failure, a betrayal, the loss of a beloved home, or a serious health diagnosis.

So, what do we learn from tragic loss, in both fiction and our human lives?

You can never afford to take anything that you love in your life for granted, not for a moment. Cherish what you love, here and now: always. So easily we focus on the past, on what we do not have, and may overlook the good things that are present.

In fiction, tragedy adds the depth of realism to human experience, and produces change in the survivors, motivation, or shifts of direction in plot and story, and character development. The fictional Billy Joe, and his remarkable survivor Bobbie Lee have helped me to clarify my feelings about these realities in my own life.

In life, nothing can mitigate the impact of a tragic loss, though certain beliefs may provide a buffer from the harsh realities. In fiction, the portrayal of loss has an ancient pedigree that goes back at least five or six millennia to Gilgamesh and his lost Enkidu, yet it still provides no definitive answers.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Building Worlds: The Origins of Imaginative Fiction

by Bruce P. Grether

Much as I have always loved C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Herbert and other great world-builders of imaginative fiction, I’ve never wanted to write a book that resembles anything I’ve read. Thus the worlds I’ve created contain no Great Lion, no Elves, dragons or wizards, and no giant sandworms.

I’m not bragging, probably I’m just a stubborn individualist this way. Though I’ve seen speculation that readers of such books tend to two basic categories, wanting originality, or wanting the same basic thing over and over again thinly disguised, I’m not certain it’s so simple as either exploring something that seems new, or imitation.

Perhaps this all has more to do with the early influences upon writers, as well as readers.

Recently I’ve considered what stimulated my own creative imagination early on. Though I was not actually reading much fiction on my own yet at age five, I know that my mother was actively reading to me and my siblings almost every night, a wide variety of fiction: Mark Twain, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and various other classic children’s books.

That same year, I experienced a remarkable scope of actual experiences, only bits and pieces of which I clearly remember. We traveled westward from Thailand to the USA, and I saw the Great Sphinx, played at the foot of the Great Pyramid, saw mummies in the Cairo museum; in the Coliseum in Rome, I pretended a marble chunk was a piano; we saw the Crown Jewels in London; at Lincoln’s tomb in Illinois I was photographed pretending to smoke my toy peace pipe and wearing a feather bonnet. In Denver, I vividly recall that we saw Disney’s brand new film, SLEEPING BEAUTY.

During my sixth through my eighth year back in Thailand, my first three years of elementary school exposed me to an immense range of imaginative fiction, from fairytales, to detective stories, to Narnia, and many others. I’ve been both an avid reader and a writer ever since. Some of my first few completed novels were somewhat derivative, and we can certainly learn our art and craft by imitation. In my early teens, however, I consciously realized that I was not interested in creating worlds that much resembled any I’ve read.

Something different than conscious creation set my writings in motion, a form of inspiration, perhaps from the unconscious mind. The worlds I’ve fully explored by writing full-length novels and series of novels set there have all opened to me without exception through a vivid dream. Most dreams that I recall are not so detailed or clear, but the ones I refer to each created a doorway in my mind that I could always pass through again.

That’s how it works for me!