I write on the backs of napkins

I write on the backs of napkins
I write on scraps of tissue paper
for you ought to not sweat
the fancy jet
the time yet, no
or the old lessons of propriety
don’t stack that shelf
full of fancy volumes, neither
no, don’t overload the head with journals
with their pages crisp and clean
with the ribbons in between
if you’ve got paper
and you got a pen
then write it down
and let it all
flow
and ease the weight
from within your head
you’ll thank me in the end

Cordially Yours,
Your friend,
Ren

 

Originally published // renmichael.com

a capella #1

I am not exactly a conventional musician, you know…
I couldn’t tell you anything about theory.
I can’t even read music. No,
I’m just like this wild man of the woods
born of the swamp, singing
if not screaming to the heavens
and sometimes to my people
and I’m gonna use whatever
I have on me to be able to do it.  

Though all I really need is my voice.

mantra #1

an exercise for clearing
out the cobwebs in your head…

for if we are truly
to get to writing then
we must have no fear (and)
keep the lids off the pens
things will get messy
as we paint the towns red.

as we write and we
write, see we write, write on
all excited once again when we
finally get to bed
as our body shakes and trembles
as we arrive outside our head

before the morning and late evening
when we do it all again

Mr. Moonlight Slim

Chase not the praise of others
seek only the affirmation of self
as you keep an eye out
for anytime you think
you’ve got things
figured out

as you constantly
create yourself
you may yet switch
names like you do
different hats
adopting shapes to match

but all the while
the stars align with
Slim the crescent moon
smiling in night
you are they
and they are you

a bluesman, true
born of the southern
American swamps
singing, dancing
for the coming
light of the sun
up the road, knowing
remembering all is
but one

Portraits of American Music: Robert Johnson

Editors Note: In the spirit of honoring Black voices, we here at Quinby & Co. wanted to launch an ongoing series in tribute to the giants of American Music, a strong majority of whom are Black.  Far from being mere adherence to the times or simply doing what is trending or currently in vogue, this is something that is both extremely important to us and something that is distinctly us

These artists are our heroes.  Their music is a gift to our country and to the world.  Furthermore, that music is a big part of who we are.  It has largely informed the culture of this magazine.  Without it, we would not be here.  In honoring these voices, we honor our roots and we honor ourselves. 

Before we continue please consider visiting this link to see how you can help in the fight for universal equality and justice.  Thank You.

This is part of an ongoing series, and though the soon-to-be-mentioned list does follow something of a ranking system, we will be covering each placeholder out of order. 

Thanks and Praises

Ren Michael

Lately I’ve been thinking about the greatest American musicians. A Mount Rushmore of those who’ve shaped the music and shifted the collective consciousness through their work.

On the one hand, I think any sort of ranking system is crude and just plain ol’ silly when it comes to music, or any kind of art. On the other hand, it’s also kind of fun once you’ve surrendered any lingering claim to objectivity.  The exercise is, at the very least, just a display of affection for the music and the people who’ve shaped it.

Why did I focus on American music? Well for one thing–besides the fact that I’m American–in my most humble opinion, American music is simply the greatest composed in the last 100 years.

Our English cousins across the pond would likely agree.  That so-called British Invasion was, after all, an influx of British musicians coming to America and playing rock n’ roll remixed with a heavy dose of delta and Chicago blues.

Anyway, the more I thought about it, the more inclined I was to go ahead and do it. It remains a fun thing to think about, something that made me happy to sketch out during these unusual times.

Alright so here we go. This is my Mt. Rushmore of American musicians.

1. Louis Armstrong
2. Frank Sinatra
3. Robert Johnson
4. Bob Dylan

Choosing those four was actually easier than I thought it’d be. What proved more difficult was deciding between Johnson and Dylan for the number three spot. Both were songwriters as well as musicians, which interestingly enough, applies to neither of the top two. Still, if this is a broader discussion of musicianship as opposed to songwriting, then I think more credit goes to Robert Johnson. His playing, his technical wizardry across the fretboard, continues to influence guitarists all over the world.

Robert Johnson-King of the Delta Blues Singers
King of the Delta Blues Singers by Robert Johnson; Compilation album released posthumously in 1961 by Columbia Records

Yet while this isn’t a discussion about songwriting alone, any artist’s ability to write lyrics ought to play a role in assessing and appreciating their work.  On that score, Johnson again surpasses pretty much every other composer in the blues. For me, the lyrics of ‘Love in Vain’ offer a sample of his poetic depth and economy.

I followed her to the station, with her suitcase in my hand
I followed her to the station, with her suitcase in my hand
It’s hard to tell, so hard to tell, when all your love’s in vain

When the train pulled into the station, I looked her in the eyes
When the train pulled into the station, I looked her in the eyes
I felt so sad, so lonesome, I couldn’t help but cry

When the train left the station, it had two lights on behind
When the train left the station, it had two lights on behind
The blue light was my baby, the red light was my mind

Robert Johnson, ‘Love in Vain’

I’ve always appreciated anyone’s ability to create anything with so little at their disposal, who reaffirm the creed that less is more and showcase the unfailing sophistication of simplicity. I think, in using what ultimately amounts to just six sentences, Johnson achieves that here; as he did in so many of his songs.

He also took a classic setting, one that’s been in more romantic dramas of both film and literature than I can count–a train station where two lovers are saying goodbye–and evokes the core emotional dilemma with subtlety and grace, stripping away melodrama.

As a result, the song stands the test of time.  It could have been written yesterday, or any other day.  And the hero’s conflict is universally relatable.

It’s just one mark of superb artistry, one of many that makes Robert Johnson the father of the blues and by extension, rock n’ roll.

Robert Johnson
One of two known photographs of Robert Johnson

And still, very little is known about him.  Only two photographs remain in which we can even be sure it’s him.  Robert Johnson was born in Mississippi in 1911, and started playing in local juke joints at an early age.   According to friends and acquaintances–whose accounts form the majority of what we know about him at all, aside from the music–Johnson demonstrated enthusiasm for playing but only moderate ability and showmanship.

Then he disappeared for about a month before returning doing things on the guitar that nobody had ever seen.  The remarkable change sparked rumors which eventually birthed the now-popular legend that he sold his soul to the devil, down at the Mississippi crossroads, in exchange for mastery of the guitar.

Not long after, he recorded songs over the period of a couple days in San Antonio, songs which today seem painfully few in number, a precious selection that would ultimately cement his legacy.

The recordings reached the ear of John Hammond at Columbia Records in New York.  Eager to book Johnson for an upcoming bill at Carnegie Hall, he sent word down south to find him, only to discover that Johnson had died just weeks before.  The story was that he’d been poisoned by a jealous husband, who’d discovered that Johnson was having an affair with his wife.  He was 27 years old.

Robert Johnson
Second known photo of Robert Johnson

When it comes to the legend surround his life, it’s important to not get carried away particularly regarding the devil at the crossroads.  Myths have and likely always will lend meaning and vibrancy to our lives, often acting as roadmaps in navigating deeper universal truths.

But if we treat them as gospel, then–in this case for example–they diminish the virtues of practice and dedication to craft.  Indulging the image of Johnson being aided by a supernatural force comes at the expense of recognizing a man of natural ability and instinct, who put in the time to become who he wanted to be, or at least get a little closer to it.

What remains the most enduring fact of Robert Johnson’s legacy lies in those recordings.  There is very little production involved.  Listening to them, you get the feeling that he might have just walked in, cut them real quick in the span of a few hours, and then left, going about his business with little to no expectation of what might come of it.

Like many recordings of that early era, you can still hear the grainy, scratchy sounds of what is still a new medium, one through which America, for the first time in it’s history, is beginning to hear itself.  You can hear a young man, playing his music.  Little did he know that one day, his music would change the world.

Have a listen, friends.  We recommend playing it early in the morning, maybe with your first cup of coffee.  Or maybe at night if there’s a full moon or if you’ve got a nice view of the stars.

I often look up when I hear the music, and I consider a life on earth cut short, but a spirit that endures in some form or another like those stars in the far reaches of space, assuming their own rightful place among the grand tapestry of the cosmos.

We hope you join us in raising a glass to a profoundly gifted artist, and a true national treasure.  Robert Johnson.

A sketch…a world in flux

It’s a near-complete circle, unfinished at the bottom where the shape begins and ends, as though painted in one swift, smooth brushstroke, left barely disconnected by the painter without any second thought.  I’ve seen it a lot over the past year, as I’ve consistently thought about projects still unfinished, not quite realized. 

‘This Is It’ by Thich Nhat Hanh

Last night I was thinking about sketching.  The first drawing, the rough outline for what’s to come.  The more I think about it, the more I learn to appreciate it; and the more I realize that conception, for better or worse, has always appealed to me more than completion. 

That end result has always been less exciting to me, which I guess is ironic.  Here I am pursuing something and yet—maybe subconsciously—I’m not even in a big hurry to get it.  Maybe it’s a weakness, but it’s one that I embrace.    

There’s nothing like that initial moment where something comes right out from my head and onto the page.  The sketch is raw, still in motion and only just being born.  It’s breathing and you can feel the pulse, as Jude likes to say.

Meanwhile when something is complete, it’s complete.  Done.  It’ll be hung up on a wall, put on record, published in a printing house and maybe admired and talked about for ages to come, or it might be forgotten no sooner than it arrived, but either way it’s finished. 

It might take on a life of it’s own after you and that’s a beautiful thing, but even so, it’s a life that’s separate from you.  The sense of finality isn’t always comfortable, but probably necessary. 

There are only a few things that ever seem to remain constant in my life, anyway.  Like the people I’m lucky to call friends and family, and certain fundamental understandings of life and the universe. 

In my beginning is my end…
In my end is my beginning
-T.S. Eliot, “Four Quartets”

A friend once told me the only thing consistent in life is change.  The sketch, at best, reflects that fundamental truth.   It’s still in flux, still being made.  It’s future unknown. 

Open to possibility. 

Issue #4
Q&Co.

critic at the pulpit

by Cal Corso

Art belongs to the people. It always has and hopefully always will.

It’s an important relationship, essential to the human experience.  Still it’s most consistent threat comes in the form of the intellectual asserting their expertise and implicitly suggesting some greater understanding of the art than the average person, even though we all have eyes and ears.

It’s a role that really shouldn’t exist unless it celebrates the work and it’s potential value to society.  If the work itself is no good then why talk about it at all? Wouldn’t it just add more noise to something that isn’t worthwhile to begin with?

Conversation and debate, more so than criticism, should arise from the ideas suggested by the art, and not dwell on whether the work is any good.  Any real complaint or criticism, then, would still manage to stimulate further discussion instead of stifling it.

“Never use a long word where a short one will do.”
-George Orwell

I can’t help but notice how these critics are a lot like some religious leaders who take a universal experience, plainly accessible to everyone, and suggest that their perspective on it is somehow more credible than our own, that they are more aware of its complexities–even though these are typically complexities of their own creation.

Most of them have never made a film, written a novel, composed music, or contributed anything to the field in which they claim expertise.  What they have done is invent a vocabulary, spontaneously and without any great need for one, a lexicon uniquely tailored to the craft, to a collective experience, that only further reinforces the illusion that they understand it more deeply than we do.

Jargon complicates the experience for the layman, reserving it for the elites who invent the language, evidently to perpetuate their own sense of self-importance.

In the late 1940s, William Faulkner criticized Ernest Hemingway for his terse style of writing, his limited choice of words.

“He has no courage, has never crawled out on a limb,” Faulkner said. “He has never been known to use a word that might cause the reader to check with a dictionary to see if it is properly used.”

When Hemingway heard about the criticism, he had his own choice words for Faulkner.

“Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”

Very often I’ve met people who find art overwhelming, even intimidating, just like they do poetry and certain types of music, like jazz or classical, because they feel it goes over their head.  They get discouraged by their seeming inability to figure out what the artist is trying to say, as if there’s some great big point to it they cannot grasp.

Ultimately it’s a product of our own making.  We’ve cultivated a whole industry that assumes the right to decide for everyone else what is good and what is bad, even though there has never been a science in determining something like that, and suggesting otherwise only reinforces the idea of there being some secret language to understanding it in the first place, a language reserved only for the esoteric few instead of the many.

There is no big secret, or code, or convoluted way.  The language is universal.  There is only the reaction, our own individual connections to the art, every bit as legitimate as the reactions of the self-proclaimed scholars.

I emphasize this because, in this magazine, we’ll be talking about music and films and painting and all kinds of art that we enjoy here at Quinby & Co. We’ll be talking about why we enjoy it too.

We will never be talking about something just so that we can give it a bad review and shoot it down.  If you hear any kind of criticism, it will more often address a specific point we feel the work in question is making, one that we feel has broader societal and philosophical implications.

If anything, it will try and stimulate debate not on the merit of the work but on the larger points that we have interpreted from it.  Most often, it will be a conversation over ideas.  We are not experts here, but we are passionate about telling good stories that resonate with people, about the tradition of telling stories and understanding why, since the dawn of man, we’ve even bothered to do it all.

To that point, we’d like to emphasize our belief that any work of art that stimulates such discussion is still, at the very least, something worthwhile.  Something worth experiencing.  In our humble opinion, it makes for a significant contribution to the times in which we live.

Issue #2 / Quinby & Co.