Category Archives: Inspiration

Happy Birthday to “Invisible Man” Author Ralph Ellison

“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of those Hollywood-movie ectoplasms.”

American writer, essayist, and musician Ralph Ellison was born March 1, 1914.

One of my favorite books of all time is Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man: a complex, sprawling, and uncompromising rumination on race, class, and identity in Mid-Century America:

Invisible Man, First Edition, 1952.

” I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids–and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”

It is a book that reveals deeper levels and new revelations with each reading:

“Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass.”

Invisible Man, 2012 cover designed by Cardon Webb.

Considered to be a seminal novel of the 20th century, it is a nightmarish journey of psychological angst and societal madness as told through the narrative of a nameless protagonist.

CODA: If you haven’t read the novel (or if you haven’t cracked it open since high school or college), I would highly recommend the experience:

“When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination–indeed, everything and anything except me.”

 

Emily McDowell’s New Book Expands Upon Her Honest Design About Serious Illness

The book “There Is Not a Good Card For This” expands upon Emily McDowell’s line of cards to address serious illness.

Two years ago, I wrote a feature for TLS about Emily McDowell’s straightforward and often humorous line of empathy cards borne out of her own battle at age 24 with Stage 3 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

This small, personal project has evolved into a larger, collaborative book, There is No Good Card for This (the title, inspired by the name of one of Emily’s cards) with Kelsey Crowe, Ph.D. to help individuals chart a meaningful course of action “when life is scary, awful, and unfair to people you love”.

 

Divided into three parts, the book’s practical,  conversational prose perfectly mirrors Emily’s spare and insightful illustration style—she is masterful at distilling complex subjects and concepts into warm and meaningful forms.

Congratulations Emily and Kelsey on the new book. And thank you for transforming illness, struggle, and pain into meaning, purpose, and beauty that benefits us all.

Todd.

CODA: Listen to Emily discuss the new book on NPR’s Morning Edition.

Celebrating the Immortality of David Bowie

Gifted with the benefit of hindsight, we are aware of Bowie’s terminal illness during the conceptualization and execution of his final album Blackstar with the Donny McCaslin Quartet so it is surprising that hours before what would have been David Bowie’s 70th birthday (and several days before the anniversary of his passing) a Tom Hingston-directed video for the ironically titled “No Plan” has been released online.

Even from beyond, Bowie remains a beautifully enigmatic and otherworldly creative presence with the ability the stimulate our intellect and touch our hearts.

We are all the richer for his efforts: Peace, Blessings, and Godspeed David.

CODA: Explore the world of the album’s title track:

The Perfect Antidote for the End of the Year Blues

You’re angry, confused, and more than a little fearful as this tumultuous year draws to a close.

I feel your pain.

But no matter what the future holds for us, NOW is the time to rest our bodies, broaden our knowledge, and rejuvenate our souls to make our families, communities, and country a better place.

“The Rhythm Changes” and we are still here:

Jazz Avatar Kamasi Washington from 2015’s The Epic

Peace and Love,

Todd.

Google Cardboard Provides A Taste of Virtual Reality for $15 USD

Google Cardboard transforms your smartphone into a Virtual Reality (VR) viewer in seconds!
Google Cardboard transforms your smartphone into a Virtual Reality (VR) viewer in seconds!

During a summer playdate with my best friend and our kids, he exposed me to Google Cardboard via a player received in the post from the New York Times VR (a recently launched content provider for Cardboard).  After slipping on a pair of headphones and staring deeply into headpiece (which conspicuously resembles the old, static View Master), I was blown away by the seemingly effortless experience of swimming underwater with dolphins, climbing the spire of the new World Trade Center, and exploring the history of Cuban Dance.

Despite the fact that Cardboard is 360-degree video and isn’t true virtual reality it is an astounding, immersive experience for only $15 and the content being created for the player (many of them free) is equally impressive!

But, don’t take my word for it, explore it yourself:

“Bring virtual reality to life with Google Cardboard. Using your smartphone and VR apps, this quality viewer puts the world of VR right in your hands, affordably.”

Everything Old is New Again: The Avalanches Release Their First Album in 16 Years

The Avalanches' storm back to relevance with the release of "Wildflower".
The Avalanches’ storm back to relevance with the release of “Wildflower”.

16 years ago, a group of Australian proto-punk, alternative artists turned deejays unleashed Since I Left You : a sprawling, sumptuous fin de siecle album upon an unsuspecting world.

As the 90’s drew to a close, we were witnessing the swift transformation of the music industry from guitars to turntables, record stores to Napster, analog recording to digital assembly; and the Avalanches threw themselves headlong into this brave new postmodern world inhabited by likes of Massive Attack, Portishead, Moby, Air, Thievery Corporation, and DJ Shadow.

Like DJ Shadow’s 1997 magnum opus Endtroducing, the album Since I Left You painstakingly constructed a digital valentine to the quickly vanishing analog era.  A lot has happened in since the early aughts and Wildflower quickly picks up and expands upon where the previous album left off. Assisted by a stellar roster of cameos, Wildflower is a collision of hard, urban beats and soft, psychedelic melodies expertly sequenced as only a collective of seasoned DJs can.

This was my album of the summer, but may be one of the most pleasurable listens of the year.

CODA: Listen to members of the band discuss the album with Beats Radio host, Zane Lowe.

Make a Mixtape (for Someone Who Doesn’t Know You)

Steal-Like-Artist-Journal

Austin Kleon’s brilliant book “Steal Like an Artist” has a companion journal with invaluable exercises to get one’s creative juices flowing with a bias towards action.

As a music aficionado, I was immediately interested in the exercise: “Make a Mixtape (For Someone Who Doesn’t Know You)”. I wrote down my list and created two playlists (“Make a Mixtape Vols. 1 and 2”) in my iTunes to listen to while I work throughout the day. Hopefully you will create a mixtape of your own and share it with a friend.

Enough writing, here’s the list:

SIDE A

  • Charles Brown—Black Night
  • Nina Simone—Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood
  • Jimi Hendrix—1983 (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)
  • Sun Ra—Calling Planet Earth
  • Madvillian—Shadows of Tomorrow
  • A Tribe Called Quest—Excursions
  • Wes Montgomery (with the Wynton Kelly Trio)—Impressions
  • Bad Brains—Sailin’ On
  • Alton Ellis—Reason in the Sky
  • King Sunny Adé—Sunny Ti De Ariya
  • Rhythm and Sound Featuring Cornell Campbell—King of My Empire

SIDE B

  • Hiatus Kiayote—Breathing Underwater
  • Los Destellos—Onsta La Yerbita
  • The Black Keys—Weight of Love
  • Gary Clark Jr.—When My Train Pulls In
  • Paul Weller—Whirlpool’s End
  • Three Dog Night—Easy to Be Hard
  • Leon Thomas—Echoes
  • Terry Callier—Love Theme from Spartucus (4 Hero No Skins Mix)
  • Arthur Verocai—Sylvia
  • Nostalgia 77—Quiet Dawn (Examples of Twelve Remix)
  • Miles Davis—Flamenco Sketches

Why Prince Matters: A Belated Appreciation

Prince's ambiguity created a legion of diverse fans.
Prince’s ambiguity created a legion of diverse fans.

Ever since music avatar and popular culture icon Prince Rogers Nelson died on April 21, 2016 there have been many tributes and testaments to his staggering talent but I think his most lasting legacy may be his comfort with non-conformity.

Prince KNEW he was different and that was his strength. He didn’t look, sing, play, or write like anyone else. Make no mistake, he had internalized the personas of Little Richard, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, and Sly Stone but through the prism of his own contradictory and ambiguous worldview.

Blurring the likes between black and white, straight and gay, sinner or saint, rock and R&B, was an anathema to the culturally rigid society of the 80’s. A world of cold-war paranoia, apartheid, and homophobia. Through his music and performances, he pushed the boundaries of what was considered to be socially acceptable.

As a Generation X black kid  growing up in Milwaukee I knew my experience wasn’t much different from Prince’s Minneapolis and I saw him as a hero. Championing the underground and the counterculture and not allowing himself to be defined by his environment. The rebel, the hippie, the punk, the freak, and the queer were all equally attracted to his persona.

I never imagined that his vision would become the mainstream and that he would be embraced as an elder statesman by the cultural elite.

But, then again I never saw him dying at middle age either. Rest in peace, Prince there will never be another one like you.

Coda: 5 of Todd’s Favorite Prince Songs (in no particular order)

  1. “Dirty Mind”—Beautifully stark in its new-wave minimalism and some of Prince’s finest drum and synth programming.
  2. “I Wanna Be Your Lover”(Album Version)—At first blush this 1979 single sounds very much like post-disco Sylvester, but at 2:28 mark the track transforms into a hypnotic, proto-house electrojam.
  3. “Controversy”—This is Prince’s Declaration of Independence as he fully embraces his bad boy persona and his mastery of the recording studio.
  4. “Lady Cab Driver”—A magnum opus in storytelling and cinematic in production, Prince seamlessly merges his funk, rock, and pop influences into ONE song.
  5. “She Always in My Hair”—The greatest of his impressive body of B-Sides, Prince lays down one of his most infectious guitar riffs to great effect.

Let’s Say Goodbye to NYC’s Other Music

A cultural institution and champion of independent music has closed. For 20 years, New York City’s Other Music has served as an invaluable resource for obscure, alternative, and forgotten music.

Other-Music-Exterior

As a music collector, DJ, and former indie record store manager, I remember when every major city had an Other Music—small, indie stores that doubled as communal spaces serving poseurs, affectionados, students, and fanatics alike. Nowadays, places like Other Music are a rare exception—a reminder of an era long past and another lost opportunity for us as human beings to connect on an interpersonal level.

I still remember ordering by mail or friends making trips to New York to secure the latest electronic and club music imports from Other Music. These strange and obscure pieces opened our minds, formed the foundation of our DJ sets, and helped us spread the electronic gospel to the uninitiated and unconverted.

Other-Music-Closing
NYC’s Other Music was a refuge and repository for independent music for 20 years.

The New York Times’ Manjula Varghese’s touching video tribute to Other Music reminds us that places for self expression and artistic pursuit still matter.

Other Music is dead, long live Other Music.

Coda: Check out Other Music’s Top 10 Spins Video:

These are 10 essential albums that define the Other Music sound.
These are 10 essential albums that define the Other Music sound.

Observing Bill Cunningham’s New York City

Bill Cunningham chronicled New York Fashion and urban street style for more than 40 years.
Bill Cunningham chronicled New York Fashion and urban street style for more than 40 years.

Legendary New York fashion photographer Bill Cunningham died last week, he was 87.

His more than forty years of photographing New York fashion and street style is a singularly astounding body of work and a fascinating catalog of cultural anthropology.

BCunninghamStreet BCunninghamStreet_3

My first encounter with Bill Cunningham’s work was attending the premiere of the documentary “Bill Cunningham’s New York”  at the AFI Silverdocs Festival in 2010.

Bill Cunningham's New York (2010) is a moving and fascinating documentary of the aforementioned street fashion photographer.
Bill Cunningham’s New York (2010) is a moving and fascinating documentary of the aforementioned street fashion photographer.

Although I remember frequently seeing his photographs in the
New York Times, I never knew anything about the dedicated artist behind the camera.

BCunningham_OntheStreet_Video

Leaving the theatre I was awestruck by the passion, focus and dedication Mr. Cunningham had for his craft. In this age of social media there are many, many street fashion photographers; but Bill Cunningham was a true original.