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August 12, 2009 - Rick Chatenever
"You ever seen a ghost?" sings Bob Dylan in the song “Spirit on the Water.” “No, but you have heard of them,”
Judging by the CDs in the trough of my truck, Bob is still my main man, musically speaking. Lately he’s had me rethinking ghosts.
For openers, there’s Bob himself. Like that other 20th-century bard, Canada’s Leonard Cohen, Dylan sounds like a ghost. Well, a haunted house, at least.
Dylan is in his late 60s; Cohen — featured on a PBS fundraiser last Saturday — is 75. That they can just remember the words, much less still give great performances, extends their glow of eternal youth that began in the’60s, regardless of the wrinkles now.
Dylan is turning out new albums at a prodigious rate, more than one a year. Now his songs look at his life from this side — the back side, the regret and what-if? side. He has grown into his gravelly old man’s voice; his musical arrangements sound part roadhouse blues, part Chuck Berry, part minstrel show.
Dylan has always been a musical clock, perfectly telling the time, whatever era he was in. The older he gets, the fewer words it takes.
“There’s a moment when all old things become new again,” he sings on his latest album. “But that moment might have come and gone.”
Leonard Cohen is doing old things new again in his first concert tour in decades. There are enough classics to keep him on stage for almost three hours, a marathon feat for someone half his age, made sweeter by his heavenly trinity of backup singers and the brilliant musicians filling the space around his magic words. In his recent London concert featured on PBS, they looked like a gypsy orchestra, in suits and hats.
With that ironic twinkle in his voice, each word chosen perfectly, he intones anthems of apocalypse, agnostic hymns and wry war correspondence from the front of love and sex.
The songs may be old, but Cohen’s years as a monk in a zen monastery are also evident, now that he’s doing concerts again. Despite the lined face and the old man’s hands on the mike, each epiphany of a song feels like he’s singing it, and you’re hearing it, for the first time.
(The “Live in London” DVD is available from PBS. Or in pieces, for free, on YouTube.)
Here on Maui, we have friendly ghosts. They may be less poetic, but they’re less complicated, too. At last Saturday’s o-bon dance at Kula Shofukuji Mission, we were reminded that the o-bon tradition is about communing with departed ancestors. But we were also reminded to appreciate those who haven’t departed yet, to be thankful for the living goodness and love all around us.
Each o-bon dance has its own distinct character. Kula’s is the one with the great vegetables, the lights of the island twinkling far below the lanterns in the cemetery, and Haleakala’s crisp coolness sneaking into the summer night air.
Drawn by the mesmerizing music and the wholesome energy, I go to lots of o-bon dances each summer, not to dance, but to eat. (Three weeks ago, carbo-loading on the eve of my now well-known swimming race with the buoy, I should have take heed when they ran out of chow fun as I arrived at the window.)
But last Saturday, surrounded by little girls in kimono, watching three and four generations of Japanese families under the lanterns, circling in happy unison to the bouncy recordings, the scene felt timeless. It could have been happening 50 years ago when the island was a simpler place — or 50 years from now, when those little girls have become grandmothers themselves.
There is a Zen koan titled “Subjugation of a Ghost.” Like all koans, it makes a point so obvious, we can’t see it until it’s pointed out. Namely, ghosts don’t exist. They’re figments of the imagination.
Which is also the crux of “500 Days of Summer.” This wonderful comedy is finally in island theaters after winning the top audience prize at the Maui Film Festival at Wailea last June.
The beguiling Zooey Deschanel, who plays Summer, isn’t a ghost. But the extent to which she’s a figment of smitten Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s imagination is what the movie’s all about.
“This isn’t a love story,” we are warned early in the smart, tender screenplay that bounces back and forth through 500 days of their relationship. The days are out of order, because that’s how memory works.
We watch the movie hoping that the warning is just a trick being played on us. Things don’t seem to be going the way they’re supposed to at the movies. But still, we don’t want to buy into Summer’s cool-eyed realist appraisal of romance, especially from eyes so blue and fascinating.
After all, movies are where love stories live, right?
Yeah … right next to the ghosts.
• Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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