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2013/06/30

The Unity Within Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon

by Jav Rivera

Every now and then I am involved in conversations with younger folk (be they nephews, nieces, children of friends, etc.). And during these conversations I realize how many of them have not been exposed to some of the 70's truly great musical works. For those of us who are already Pink Floyd fans, we need no introduction to arguably the band's greatest album: “The Dark Side of the Moon”. To the rest, I would like to present for your consideration…

Back and front album cover for "The Dark Side of the Moon"
In 1973, Pink Floyd released their eighth studio album, and the world would never be the same. The album included band members Roger Waters (bass/vocals), David Gilmour (guitars/vocals), Richard Wright (keyboards), and Nick Mason (percussion). Founding member Syd Barrett had since left the band, but his influence (both musically and thematically) were intact. It was the first time Floyd were able to break through their experimental psychedelic-rock category and find a perfect balance between art and commercialism. Prior to "Dark Side" Floyd albums were hard for the general audience to appreciate. Though die hard fans will agree their previous work still stands the test of time and exemplifies the art of experimentation, especially on albums such as "A Saucerful of Secrets," "Atom Heart Mother," "Meddle" and "Obscured by Clouds".

"The Dark Side of the Moon" has been praised for decades, and has been the topic of many documentaries. It has also been included on endless top lists. Various artists from various genres have covered songs from the album; some have even covered the entire album. It has been hailed by critics, fans, and most of all, by musicians. It could easily be one of the most influential albums of all time. It seems every generation eventually discovers the album, and aging fans like myself re-discover it with a new appreciation every year. There's so much detail and coverage about the album that there can be no definitive article for "Dark Side." To learn everything about the album, a fan must seek out a plethora of reviews, articles, and documentaries in order to scratch just the surface.

However, in 2003, the "Classic Albums" television series featured "Dark Side" on their show entitled "The Making of The Dark Side of the Moon". The episode is an excellent source of content, and includes interviews with all the band members, sharing their humble opinions and behind the scenes of the recording process. The episode reexamines each track while listening to the individual layers within. One note made is the fact that the album was created during analog days. In other words, there were no computers or digital looping software to produce what the band created "by hand". The track "Time" begins with a multitude of clocks ticking and then chiming in unison. This would be extremely easy using a computer program such as ProTools by simply lining up the individual recorded tracks on the software's timeline. But at the time of the album's release, they were still recording on tape, which meant they had to line up physical tapes and back time them the best they could, one at a time.

Richard Wright, Roger Waters, Nick Mason, and David Gilmour
One of the most interesting aspects of the album is the manner in which it is presented. With the exception of the space* between the tracks “The Great Gig In The Sky” and “Money,” all the other songs crossfade into one another. (*This space was necessary to divide the album into two sides of a vinyl record). At first, it may seem annoying, because listening to the individual tracks on their own won't work because the head or tail of the song will be abruptly cut off. But perhaps it was the band’s intention. After all, “Dark Side” is best heard as a whole, allowing each track to drift from one thought and emotion into another.

The album starts with “Speak to Me”. Quietly, a heartbeat begins the track, and if you pay attention a bit of each track on the album can be heard within the song, ending with the voice of guest singer Clare Torry. It’s the mixing of all these tracks into one introductory song that bring the audience into the experience of “The Dark Side of the Moon”, an experience that will no doubt leave them with a mixture of emotions.

Which brings up my favorite aspect of the album: the emotional intensity. It's not just an experimental album for the sake of experimentation. Each note, each strum, each element is precisely included to add feeling. And the album's emotions range from pain to anger to desperation to hope to peace, sometimes all within a single track. Listening to "Dark Side", it's clear that the album's unifying tracks were created by a unity of men. All four members played to each other’s strengths and ran like a well-oiled machine. And despite the incredible work yet to come, especially their 1979 album "The Wall," no other Pink Floyd effort would ever contain this much unity within the band.

And though the band is worthy of all the praise for the production of this album, they also owe much to the people who helped create “Dark Side”. There were many involved, but it’s most necessary to mention their engineer, Alan Parsons, who was nominated for a Grammy Award for "Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical". The album’s production value remains comparable to any of the best-produced albums of any era. There are so many elements and trickery mixed throughout the album that “Dark Side” has been re-released on various sound formats, including SACD (Super Audio CD) which was created to allow the listener to experience all of the mixing techniques as intended by the band. And though it’s generally accepted practice to listen to music loudly from speakers, I highly recommend that you listen to “Dark Side” using ear buds. So much more comes through, and the songs you thought were already great will be raised to a level of absolute astonishment.

Engineer Alan Parsons
Storm Thorgerson, the artist who is credited for creating the iconic album cover, also deserves notable mention. It’s a seemingly simple design. Using a prism reflecting light into a spectrum of color over a black background fulfilled both the simplicity the band wanted for the cover as well as a nudge to Pink Floyd’s infamous light shows. And like the music, the cover art, too, has influenced artists and imagery all over the world.

Artist Storm Thorgerson
But for me, the unsung hero is Clare Torry, whose vocals on “The Great Gig in the Sky” make the track absolutely, heart-wrenchingly beautiful. It is also my favorite track of the album. Richard Wright’s lovely piano and Nick Mason’s powerful drums meld perfectly with Torry’s impossibly boisterous voice. The song begins with a calmness and slowly builds to a rampage of voice and instruments. Like a terrible storm, the wind and rain and thunder finally end, and your ears are left exhilarated and in shock. The storm clouds part, and a ray of soft-lit sun cracks through as the music calms. The word cinematic can easily be used to describe the entire album, but especially on “The Great Gig in the Sky”. (Click HERE to hear the entire track.)

Vocalist Clare Torry
And because the album is so cinematic, it’s no wonder the strange myth that “Dark Side of the Moon” was secretly created for the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz” has endured for so many years. Of course this myth has been discredited several times by the band, but as an experiment, it's interesting to line up the beginning of the film with the entire album. (My understanding is to begin “Dark Side” after the third roar from the MGM lion.) At points there are similarities in themes, music, and visuals. It’s not hard to wonder why the myth exists, but it's curious to discover how it was started. In other words, who first synced up the movie and album, and what made them even try it?


To express the perfection of each track on “The Dark Side of the Moon” would be impossible. It’s best to express merely that the album should be appreciated as a whole, which is fitting since the album really should be heard in the same manner.

For more information, visit Pink Floyd’s official site: www.pinkfloyd.com. And to preview the album visit iTunes.

TRIVIA: The track “Money” mocks the obsession of greed and consumerism, and is, ironically, the most commercially successful single from the album.

2013/06/23

John Zorn's Spillane

by John Bloner, Jr.


It begins with a scream . . .


In 1988, saxophonist and composer John Zorn arrived locked-and-loaded with his second release, Spillane, on the Elektra Nonesuch label, featuring the twenty-five minute plus title cut, a tribute to crime novelist, Mickey Spillane, and every film noir feature you could ever name.

Twenty-five years after hearing Spillane for the first time, the track still shocks (and delights) my ears. It's like taking a trip through the worst neighborhood in the dead of night, lined with bars, unlit alleyways, strip clubs, bookie joints, and filled with bad characters. It's a journey to a place where the trains run all night, squad cars cruise the mean streets, pointing their searchlight at angry dogs, howling at the sound of gunfire.


Spillane is an aural B-movie. It's jazz noir, hardcore, with some French New Wave and William S. Burroughs mixed in for good measure. It's every crime novel, gangster film or Philip Marlowe drama on a Zenith console radio. It may sound familiar, particularly if you're schooled in films like Kiss Me, Deadly, or it's like a spin on the radio dial of your dreams (if your dreams walk on the wicked side).

If you're quick, you can snap your fingers to its saxophones, dance or thrash about to the urban noise, or you can just lie low and let John Lurie, playing a Mike Hammer-inspired private dick on the record, do the driving while he delivers sardonic snatches of shoofly wisdom for your ears only.

His voice sounds so hard-boiled and bruised, you may swear his lines were punched out on Mickey Spillane's L.C. Smith Standard Super Speed typewriter.

Kiss him deadly.  Mickey Spillane and his typewriter.
Instead, guitarist Arto Lindsay channeled Spillane's tough-guy tone to write the record's prose. Mickey Spillane himself once wrote sentences that sounded chewed on before they were spit out. "The rain clawed at the windows of the bar like an angry cat", he wrote. "And tried to sneak in every time some drunk lurched in the door."

Lindsay's pen is equally loaded on this record, as illustrated below. You can almost smell the darkness, can't you?




Spillane is much more than an aural B-movie (despite what I've said before).  It was born out of John Zorn's file-card method of composing--what he calls "moment form" in the video that begins this article--so words and phrases like "sleazy stripper" and "bloody murder with a car" become cues to create a dark mood.

Many moments in Spillane take only ten to thirty seconds to unfold, before the band pushes through the gears and finds a new road. A creaking organ segues into Spaghetti Western baritone guitar, drenched in reverb. (You can almost smell the smoke from Clint Eastwood's Toscano cigar.) The ambient flavor of a boxing ring, police sirens, and the spin of the dial on a rotary phone are woven into the dense fabric of Spillane.

The file-card method (along with its stylistic cousin in the artist's game pieces) distances Zorn from other artists in the jazz record bins. In the book, Plunderphonics, Pataphysics & Pop Mechanics, author Andrew Jones wrote, "Zorn was driving at a new way of improvising, strikingly different from the classic European model....rather than developing ideas through extended blowing, layering and building up a head of steam in the traditional solo manner, Zorn worked with an internal structure and communicated the parameters of this structure by eye or cue".

One of Zorn's seminal influences arrives from an unlikely place--Looney Tunes--but the connection soon makes sense by lending an ear to the cartoon music of Carl Stalling with its (in Zorn's words) "constantly changing kaleidoscope of styles, forms, melodies, quotations, yet there is something strangely familiar about it all".


"When you listen to [Stalling's] music," Zorn wrote, "Abstract it from the visuals of the cartoons, it's really incredible. There are a lot of abrupt changes in his music. And you can see how Stalling's work related to Stravinsky's and to Webern's experiments in the early part of this century. Stravinsky's whole thing was working with blocks of sound and reordering them, which is also very important for me."

Zorn's music contains influence from the classical music world of Igor Stravinsky and Karlheinz Stockhausen, to Enrico Morricone's music for Spaghetti Westerns like "A Fistful of Dollars", and it calls to mind the musical creations of Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa, the films of Jean-Luc Godard, and the cut-up techniques of Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs.


The sounds of Spillane spill out at such a rapid, yet precise pace, you might think that it's all studio trickery, a sleight-of-hand of a crafty editor, rather than the product of a living, breathing artist who has mastered not only one musical style, but many, from Japanese pop to TV network NBC's G-E-C tone chimes, to hardcore shouts and screams, to 1950's cool struttin' hard-bop jazz. Zorn can be both brutal and beautiful, often within seconds of each other.

Soon after sharing Spillane with the world, Zorn assembled his super-group, Naked City, featuring Bill Frisell on electric guitar, Joey Baron on drums, Fred Frith, bass, Wayne Horvitz, keyboards and Yamatsuka Eye, (now Yamantaka Eye), visual and sonic artist. This band could caterwaul and come out the other side with a wink or a wail. In the video below, you'll want to shout, "Heavens to Murgatroyd!", as Naked City storms, strums and shouts its way through the tune, Snagglepuss.


Spillane was first released in 1988 along with two additional pieces, "Two Lane  Highway", featuring blues guitarist Albert Collins, and "Forbidden Fruit" with the Kronos Quartet, turntable artist Christian Marclay and vocalist Ohta Hiromi. It was re-released in 1999 with another file-card piece, Godard, a tribute to the French film director.

Writing for the New York Times, Peter Watrous called Spillane, "a meditation on America, mid-century, with rhythm-and-blues and country and jazz all mixing, with desire and violence coming together in a sordid and funny jumble".

Around the same time as the release of the Spillane/Godard recording, Zorn issued The Bribe as a continuation and extension of Spillane.  Whereas, Spillane takes over twenty-five minutes to deliver its tale, The Bribe contains twenty-six tunes, some less than a minute or two in length.  Zorn's record label, Tzadik, describes it as "recorded in the same style as Spillane, with the same engineer, and very close to the same ensemble . . . this exciting music features lush moody orchestrations, swinging jazz, hard rock, groovy funk, noise, improvisations, exotic ambience and much, much more".

To learn more about John Zorn (and there is a whole lot more), visit the website of his record company, Tzadik, or the online home of his East Village performance space, The Stone, or purchase his sheet music at Hips Road Edition, or take a look at his alternative to the commercial art scene in The Obsessions Collective, or wrap your ears and mind around his catalog of music with sounds that can whisper a lullaby or keep you up all night (with the lights on).

If you're still wondering, "Who Is John Zorn?", NBC-1st Look NY aired the following interview in 1999. Zorn's philosophy, as you will see--if you have not already seen--goes well beyond making music.


In the same year that Spillane was released, I attended a concert by the John Zorn Ensemble at a summer show north of Chicago, IL.  Because of a tornado warning by Chicago's O'Hare Airport, guitarist Bill Frisell was unable to arrive and join his bandmates--Zorn, Joey Baron (drums), and Kermit Driscoll (bass)--at the indoor theatre, so the trio changed their program, deciding to play a night's worth of Sonny Clark tunes, because, as Zorn told the crowd, "Bill hates Sonny Clark". This statement may not be true, as in that same time period, Frisell and Zorn teamed up (along with George Lewis) to record News For Lulu, showcasing the work of Clark and his hard-bop brethren: Kenny Dorham, Hank Mobley, and Freddie Reed.

Thanks for reading, and see you next month.


2013/06/16

Butter

by Lisa Adamowicz Kless


My cousin and I have similar offbeat senses of humor, so when I asked her for some recommendations of TV shows to watch on Netflix recently, she named a few, and then added in that she thought I might like the movie Butter too. Being born and raised in Wisconsin, the great dairy state, surely I also had some sort of moral or patriotic obligation to watch a film with one of the chief dairy products as its title, didn't I? So I settled in one night, typed Butter into the Netflix search feature, and found that, once again, my cousin's suggestions were spot on.

Not everyone may get the same laughs out of the movie as my cousin and I did, but if you like some dark humor and quirkiness with your entertainment, you'll probably enjoy it. With a basic story line centering on Bob Pickler (Modern Family's Ty Burrell), the long-standing champion in an Iowa state butter carving contest, and his high-strung wife, Laura (Jennifer Garner), Butter has a great cast, with basically everyone shining in their role. Olivia Wilde plays an exotic dancer, Brooke, whose run-ins with Bob prove to be much more than he bargained for. Young actor Yara Shahidi is Destiny, a foster child placed with a family in the town, who has uncanny artistic talent. Alicia Silverstone plays Destiny's nervous foster mom, Jill, and frequent The Daily Show correspondent Rob Corddry is excellent as her foster dad, Ethan. Then there's Hugh Jackman in a hilarious role so far removed from Wolverine that it makes one pause and appreciate the depth of his acting skills. Though all of the cast was great, for me, my favorite was Corddry as Ethan. In the midst of a slew of crazy, ever-so-slightly shy of over the top characters, Ethan is pretty much one of the only mostly sane, "normal" people, with a playfulness and sensibility that sets him apart.  With Destiny having been ping-ponged around from foster home to foster home, the humor, support, and stability that Ethan provides (along with Silverstone's Jill) helps her to gain self-confidence and start to piece together a sense of her place in the world.

Brooke (Olivia Wilde), out to help Destiny (Yara Shahidi)  topple the Pickler butter carving empire
To get back to the plot without giving too much away, Bob Pickler has enjoyed over a decade of fame as the reigning butter carving champ. Laura, his staunchest supporter during that time, is livid when the judging committee suggests that Bob should allow someone else to have a chance to enjoy the glory. She decides that stepping aside will not be an option (no matter what Bob himself wants), so when Destiny enters the picture and threatens to undermine what Laura sees as the Pickler legacy, all bets are off.
Hayden (Brett Hill), Destiny (Yara Shahidi), Ethan (Rob Corddry) and Jill (Alicia Silverstone) wonder what she's up against

There's a definite undertone of political commentary in the film, but most of it is played to an extreme for laughs. The same with other references that are sprinkled throughout; if you have a loose grasp on American pop culture, you're going to get a giggle, at the very least, out of some of the scenes.

The stand out moments for me, though, came in the little touches of humor that were simply ridiculous perfection; as Wilde's character, Brooke, is in the middle of a routine on her pole, the cell phone that she has tucked into her waistband goes off. Without missing a beat, she types out a text message as she keeps gyrating. Then there's a scene in a community center, completely empty except for Laura and another woman. Laura has to get up to the front to the desk the woman is seated at, so she zigzags through an absurd maze of the retractable barricades that one might find in a bank or an airport to keep lines orderly, a huge, polite smile plastered on her face the entire time. And to avoid being a total spoiler, I won't explain the couple of scenes where Hugh Jackman's character is alone and speaking out loud; again, examples of ridiculous perfection.

Jackman goes from an X-Man to a car salesman
Still, for all of its silliness and social commentary, the film has a few genuinely touching moments. These help ground the movie a bit, keeping it from being too campy and laugh-a-minute.

It might be an odd thing to end on, but I can't help but come back to the butter.  The "butter" sculptures in the film, the subjects rendered (the Last Supper and the assassination of John F. Kennedy, to name just a couple) and the intention behind their depiction are just another part of the equation that add to the overall movie. You have to suspend your disbelief in a few scenes where butter sculptures are held in someone's hand and don't melt at all, but I can't help but wonder what the behind the scenes process was like to make these props. If there was a DVD with bonus footage, I'd truly be interested in how artists created the sculptures and what was needed to make them look like they were really carved from huge chunks of real butter.  And in case you think that butter sculpting and competitions are just a funny premise made up for a movie, not at all.  The US, Canada, and even Tibetan Buddhists have a history of using butter as an artistic tool.

Laura (Jennifer Garner) prepares for victory
To get more information on the rest of the cast, the production team, etc. check out Butter's IMDb page here: www.imdb.com/title/tt1349451.

2013/06/09

On the Rainy River

by Dave Gourdoux


On The Rainy River is a short story by Tim O’Brien, from his landmark collection of Vietnam War stories, The Things They Carried.  Part memoir, part fiction, in The Things They Carried, O’Brien intentionally blurs the lines between fact and fiction in search of truth, with the result being probably the greatest literature ever produced about the most complex and misunderstood chapter in American history.

Most of the stories in The Things They Carried follow a platoon of soldiers through their experiences in Vietnam.  On the Rainy River, however, takes place back home, in O’Brien’s Minnesota, in the time between receiving his draft notice and reporting for duty.  Nowadays, in 2013, after so many books and movies have described in detail the hell that fighting in Vietnam was, it’s easy to form some kind of image of what it must have been like over there.  On the Rainy River, to me, is so important in that it gives a sense of what things were like here at home, and, compared to now, how different the times were and how differently our wars were fought.  It’s a story that’s seldom told, and, in these days when we sweep our dirty little wars under the rug and hide them from public consciousness, it’s a somber reminder of what’s really at stake.

On the Rainy River is the fourth story in the collection, the first three plunging us right into Vietnam and introducing us to the platoon.  On the Rainy River  takes us back to the States, in the summer of 1968.  O’Brien has just received his draft notice.  As a storyteller, he doesn’t hesitate to break rules.  For example, right from the beginning, he starts a conversation with the reader, breaking what is often referred to as either the third or fourth wall in storytelling, the wall that exists between the story being told and the reader.   He begins the story with:
This is a story I’ve never told before.  Not to anyone.  No to my parents, not to my brother and sister, not even to my wife.  To go into it, I’ve always thought, would only cause embarrassment for all of us, a sudden need to be elsewhere, which is the natural response to a confession.  Even now, I’ll admit, the story makes me squirm.

We get the point.  He is reluctant to share what he's about to tell us, and embarrassed and ashamed of it.  On first read, before knowing what the story is about, I had the sense that it was going to be about one of the many wartime atrocities that have become such a staple in Vietnam war literature.

The real story starts in earnest with the following succinct sentence:

In June of 1968, a month after graduating from Macalaster College, I was drafted to fight a war I hated.

He then goes on to describe the many and valid reasons he had for hating the war, including "Certain blood was being shed for uncertain reasons", and concluding with "Once people are dead, you can't make them undead".   This is an important paragraph, because it's vital to remember that Vietnam was only one generation removed from World War II.  Still fresh in our consciousness, World War II was perhaps the one war that was fought for certain reasons, and our victory was possibly the nation's greatest triumph.  The fact that we seemed to be rewarded with long sought and unprecedented economic prosperity only made the black and white lines our certainty was drawn in bolder.   

Those black and white lines began to fade and grew gray when our leaders had difficulty articulating why we were in Vietnam and what our goal was.  Meanwhile, television news showed us bits and pieces of what the war was like, and it wasn't pretty.  Young people were dying, and with the uncertainty of purpose or direction, it was unclear what for.

Increasingly unpopular, the war was manned by personnel from the selective services draft.  The draft was actually originated in 1948, as a way of maintaining military levels in the post World War II and Korean War years.   One of its goals was to ensure fairness and parity in those selected to fight, by introducing an element of randomness to the process, which would eventually evolve into the draft lottery.   O'Brien's reaction to getting his draft notice describes one of the reasons why the draft was implemented:

I was too good for this war.  Too smart, too compassionate, too everything.  It couldn't happen. I was above it.  I had the world dicked - Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude and president of the student body and a fill ride scholarship to grad studies at Harvard.  A mistake maybe - a foul-up in the paperwork.

The dichotomy at work in the draft was this very element of randomness. In an effort to share the cost and burden of war, to introduce some level of class fairness, the insanity that is war was perpetuated--that to live or die was a matter of the luck of the draw.

In the summer of 1968, O'Brien worked in an Armour meat packing plant in his hometown.  For eight hours a day his job was to remove blood clots from the necks of dead pigs.  He describes the job in disgusting detail, and how even after hot baths or showers and hard scrubbing, he couldn't remove the odor of dead pig that had "seeped into my skin and hair".  All the while, he was obsessing over what to do about his draft notice.   Options narrowed; the government had ended most graduate school deferments, the waiting lists for the National Guard and Reserves were "impossibly long", his health was good, and he didn't qualify as a conscientious objector--there were no religious grounds or prior history of being a pacifist.  It came down to a choice of serving in the war, or a lifelong exile in Canada. 

The Canada option gradually became more real, more viable, until it got to the point where he was split, between his fear and reservations about the war, and the loss of friends and family and their respect by fleeing to Canada. 

Then one morning in late August, while working declotting pigs, the pressure got to be too much and he "cracked," walking off of the line and driving home. In the empty house he showered, packed his clothes, and scribbled a short note to his parents.  Then he drove north.  He drove through the night, and the next morning he headed west along the Rainy River, which marks the border between Minnesota and Canada.  He eventually stopped at an old fishing resort called the Tip Top Lodge, a broken down old place with several run down cottages.  Already past the tourist season, the place was empty except for the eighty one year old owner, Elroy Berdahl, one of the most memorable characters in any short story.

The two of them spent the next six days together, in the daytime, hiking in the woods or splitting firewood; playing Scrabble or reading at night.  The old man never asks O'Brien any questions about why he's there, but O'Brien suspects that he knows.  He gives O'Brien enough space and quiet companionship to let him sort things through. 

On the final day, the old man takes O'Brien out fishing on the wide Rainy River.  He charts a course straight north, and cuts the motor about twenty yards from the Canadian shore. 


I'll never be certain, of course, but I think he meant to bring me up against the realities, to guide me across the river and to take me to the edge and to stand a kind of vigil as I chose a life for myself.

As O'Brien describes how close and vivid the shoreline was, he again breaks the third wall and addresses the reader directly:

And I want you to feel it - the wind coming off the river, the waves, the silence, the wooded frontier.  You're at the bow of the boat on the Rainy River.  You're twenty one years old, you're scared, and there's a hard squeezing pressure in your chest.

Would you jump?  Would you feel pity for yourself?  Would you think about your childhood and your dreams and all you're leaving behind?  Would it hurt?  Would it feel like dying?  Would you cry, as I did?

Then the discomfort O'Brien expressed at the beginning of the story is explained.  He's ashamed and embarrassed that he didn't have the courage of his convictions required to run:

And what was so sad, I realized, was that Canada had become a pitiful fantasy.  Silly and hopeless.  It was no longer a possibility.  Right then, I understood that I would not do what I should do.  I would not swim away from my hometown and my country and my life.  I would not be brave.

This is where the story really starts to display its power.  It gets to the complicated reality that anyone asked to go to war really faces.  It takes courage and bravery to go, but it also takes courage to flee, to not be a part of the madness that is war, to leave everything behind to stand for a principal.  From a distance, it's easy to pass judgement, one way or another, on the choices that were made.  But up close, with everything at stake, it's a different story.  This is why it was so important for O'Brien to break that wall and directly address the reader.

A vision presents itself, and he sees his whole life "spill out into the river, swirling away from me, everything I had ever been or ever wanted to be".  He sees, in the water and on the shoreline, everybody and everything he's ever known, a parade of people from his past, various mass culture celebrities, even people from his future, his wife and unborn daughter:

All those eyes on me--the town, the whole universe--and I couldn't risk the embarrassment. 

I would go to the war--I would kill and maybe die--because I was embarrassed not to.

He sits in the front of the boat, crying, softly at first, then louder.  Elroy sits quietly fishing in the back, and without passing judgement, he simply says, "Ain't biting" and pulls in his line and turns the boat back to Minnesota. 

The next morning, at breakfast, he tells Elroy he'll be leaving.  By the time he finishes packing, Elroy is gone.  O'Brien then leaves, closing the story with:

The day was cloudy.  I passed through towns with familiar names, through the pine forests and down to the prairie, and then to Vietnam, where I was a soldier, and then home again.  I survived, but it's not a happy ending.  I was a coward.  I went to war.

These days, with the war in Afghanistan largely an afterthought, what with our all volunteer army and with the same reservists on their second, third, or fourth tour of duty, it's easy to overlook that these soldiers are facing the same thing O'Brien faced, the disruption of their lives, and the insanity of war, of human beings killing other human beings.  With such a small percentage of the population impacted, war has been moved to the margins of our collective consciousness, and we show our "support" for our troops with hollow and insincere sentiments about what heroes they are on occasions like Memorial Day or Veteran's Day.  Then it's back to the day to day, and we don't notice when five, then seven, then excess of ten years have passed and soldiers are still dying for whatever they're dying for this week in the remote and foreign mountain passes.  We don't pay much attention when banks foreclose on these heroes, when they return home mutilated and sick to substandard military hospitals, we don't notice when the suicide rate among them skyrockets to obscene levels. 

Tim O'Brien
Before we start waving the flag again and sending the next batch off to wherever insanity flares up the next time, it'd do us each good to read On the Rainy River and remind ourselves what's really at stake.

We live in interesting times.  In so many ways, we seem to be going backwards, regressing, while at the same time, we're making remarkable strides forward.  We have an African-American president serving his second term.  A majority of the population now supports gay rights.  These are things that many thought we'd never see in our lifetimes.  Having come this far, maybe it's possible that someday, we'll recognize the sheer insanity that war is, and we'll banish it forever.

For more on Tim O'Brien, go to:  www.illyria.com