Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

21 FEBRUARY, 2012

From Philip Glass to Patti Smith, How 1970s New York Shaped Music for Decades to Come

By:

On “people taking the lousy hands they’d been dealt and dreaming them into music of great consequence.”

“If you know what the ’70s are, or have any inkling where they’re going,” announced The Village Voice upon launching their “Invent the ’70s” contest in 1973, “write to [us] and any feasible answers will be printed.” This notion of the 1970s as having an identity crisis permeated all aspects of culture, from politics to fashion, but something extraordinary was afoot in New York City, a kind of parallel universe of invention and reinvention that not only defined the identity of the decade but also laid the foundation for cultural eras to follow. In Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever, NPR and Rolling Stone music and pop culture journalist Will Hermes takes a fascinating “telescopic, panoramic, superhero” lens to what happened in the period between 1973 and 1978 that shaped the course of contemporary culture and popular music.

An excerpt to give you pause:

Much has been written about New York City in the ’70s, how bleak and desperate things were. The city had careened into bankruptcy, crime was out of control, the visionary idealism of the ’60s was mostly kaput. For a kid growing up then, it was pretty dispiriting. The ’60s was an awesome party that we had missed, and we were left to drink its backwash.

[…]

Even the music was failing, it seemed. Jimi, Janis, and Jim were dead; the Beatles and the Velvet Underground had split. Sly and the Family Stone were unraveling amid mounds of cocaine. The Grateful Dead buried Pigpen. Dylan grew a beard and moved to Los Angles. R&B was losing power as slick soul and featherweight funk took over. Jazz and classical music seemed irrelevant — the former groping fusion or post-Coltrane caterwauls, and the latter dead-ended in sexless serialist cul-de-sacs.

There remains a myth that early- to mid-’70s — post-Aquarian revolution, before punk and hip-hop begot the new age — was a cultural dead zone.

And yet, amid the skyscrapers…down on the streets, artists were breaking music apart and rebuilding it for a new era. Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataaa, and Grandmaster Flash hot-wired street parties with collaged shards of vinyl LPs. The New York Dolls stripped rock ‘n’ roll to its frame and wrapped it in gender-fuck drag, taking a cue from Warhol’s transvestite glamour queens. Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith, both bussed in from Jersey, took a cue from the elusive Dylan, combining rock and poetry into new shapes.

Downtown, David Mancuso and Nicky Siano were inventing the modern disco and the art of club mixing. Uptown, Eddie Palmieri, Willie Colón, and the Fania All-Stars were hot-rodding Cuban music into multiculti salsa, making East Harlem and the South Bronx the global center of forward-looking Spanish-language music. In the wake of Miles Davis’s funk fusions, jazz players were setting up shop in lofts and other repurposed spaces, exploding the music in all directions, synthesizing free-jazz passion with all that came before and after. Just blocks away, Philip Glass and Steve Reich were imagining a new sort of classical music, pulling an end run on European tradition using jazz, rock, African an dIndian sources, and some New York Hustle.

All this activity — largely DIY moves by young iconoclasts on the edge of the mainstream — would grow into movements that continue to shape music around the world.”

Though historically fascinating and an absolute treat for music geeks and New York lovers alike, Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever is at its heart about creative entrepreneurship, about “people taking the lousy hands they’d been dealt and dreaming them into music of great consequence” — the same spirit of possibility and clarity of purpose that once reverberated through innovation meccas as diverse as the Renaissance and early Silicon Valley.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

15 FEBRUARY, 2012

Richard Feynman Makes a Wager

By:

Fifteen dollars of irreverence and honor, or how to avoid “occupational disease.”

Twenty-four years ago, the world lost the great Richard Feynman — champion of curiosity, graphic novel hero, no ordinary genius. Among Feynman’s most memorable and beloved qualities was his singular blend of irreverence and honor, which shines in this wonderful anecdote from Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track, a priceless collection of more than 40 years of Feynman’s letters and a fine addition to my favorite famous correspondence.

Immediately after he won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965, Feynman made a wager with MIT Professor Viktor Weisskop, who was convinced that The Great Explainer would succumb to a career in administration — or what Feynman once referred to in a letter as an “occupational disease.” A man of his word, Feynman sent Weisskop the following note a decade later:

Prof. W. Weisskopf
Physics Department
M.I.T.
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Dear Professor:

I have found the document describing our wager and find that you gave me too much money so here’s $15 back. For your records, may I state in writing that as of this date, January 6, 1976, I am not holding, nor during the last ten years have I held, a responsible position as defined in the contract of the wager. Therefore I consider that the wager has been paid by Professor Weisskopf and that’s that!

Sincerely,
Richard P. Feynman

The wager contract itself:

–On this the FIFTEENTH DAY of DECEMBER of the YEAR ONE THOUSAND NINE HUNDRED AND SIXTY FIVE, at a Luncheon given at the Laboratories of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), Meyrin, Geneva, the following WAGER was made between Professor Viktor F. WEISSKOPF and Professor Richard P. FEYNMAN.

The terms of the WAGER are as follows:

— Mr. FEYNMAN will pay the sum of TEN DOLLARS to Mr. WEISSKOPF if at any time during the next TEN YEARS (i.e., before the THIRTY FIRST DAY of DECEMBER of the YEAR ONE THOUSAND NINE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY FIVE), the said Mr. FEYNMAN has held a ‘responsible position.’

–Conversely, if on the THIRTY FIRST DAY of DECEMBER of the YEAR ONE THOUSAND NINE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY FIVE, the said Mr. FEYNMAN shall have held or be holding no such position, Mr. WEISSKOPF will be deemed to have forfeited his WAGER and will be in duty bound to pay the sum of TEN DOLLARS to Mr. FEYNMAN.

–For the purpose of the aforementioned WAGER, the term ‘responsible position’ shall be taken to signify a position which, by reason of its nature, compels the holder to issue instructions to other persons to carry out certain acts, notwithstanding the fact that the holder has no understanding whatsoever of that which he is instructing the aforesaid persons to accomplish.

–In case of contention or of non-fulfillment of the aforementioned conditions, the sole arbiter shall be Mr. Giuseppe COCCONI.

Signed at Meyrin on this the FIFTEENTH DAY of DECEMBER of the YEAR ONE THOUSAND NINE HUNDRED AND SIXTY FIVE.

Richard P. Feynman
Viktor F. Weisskopf
Signed and witnessed: G. Cocconi

Here’s to a lifetime of never holding a “responsible position.”

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

14 FEBRUARY, 2012

Vintage Valentine’s Day Postcards from the Early 1900s

By:

“If she be not fair for me what care I how fair she be.”

There are a million better ways to celebrate Valentine’s Day than with a card — perhaps by revisiting the very first kiss in cinema, smiling over artist Eero Saarinen’s endearing list of his wife’s positive attributes, exploring a love story in geometric diagrams, getting goosebumps from Virginia Woolf’s love letter to Vita Sackville-West, or even taking a sobering look at the psychology of love. But if cards must be your thing, they can at least come with the vintage charisma of the early 1900s, thanks to The New York Public Library’s digital gallery.

The era’s Valentine’s greetings come with a rather limited visual vocabulary — little girls, little boys, cupids, flowers, hearts.

There is also the occasional playful delight:

And what’s love without some indignant bitterness?

Then there’s gangsta Valentine:

And, of course, some classic anti-Suffragette mild misogyny:

But my heart belongs to this “wireless telegram” circa 1903:

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.