MY JOURNEY DOWN THE COLORADO RIVER
A Photo Essay by Christopher Mattera
Modern day river trips through Grand Canyon look a lot different from Major John Wesley Powell's day. Boats are inflatable, mainly, though one company does run the river in hand crafted dories. At the end of WWII military surplus became available to the general public, and some adventurous souls with extensive river experience began to run the Colorado through Grand Canyon in newly available neoprene inflatable military grade boats. In the late 1940's and early 1950's some of these early river runners began taking a few paying passengers here and there to defray costs, and commercial river running through Grand Canyon was born. The trip became an instant classic. Gaining popularity throughout the 1960's, river rafting through Grand Canyon became a true industry in the 1970's. Clients unskilled in the ways of whitewater boating, yet desirous to experience the mysteries the Grand Canyon of the Colorado had to offer, signed on by the droves, and ultimately the National Park's Service — whose dual mission is to both protect the resource and also to provide for the enjoyment of the resource — capped the number of annual river runners in effort to accomplish both goals.
The above photo shows Lee's Ferry, mile 0 of the 280 miles of Colorado River through Grand Canyon, where all modern day Grand Canyon river trips have embarked since the 1940s — though John D. Lee, a Mormon dispatched here by Brigham Young in the1880s, and for whom Lee's Ferry is so named, lived here with his wives, tended his garden, and yes, occasionally ferried people across the river at this only spot suitable to do so for over 200 river miles in either direction, 400 miles combined.
At mile 4.5 the rafter encounters Navajo Bridge, the only place one may cross the Colorado River by automobile for the next 300 river miles, all the way to Hoover Dam in Boulder, Nevada outside of Las Vegas. Built originally in in the 1930's and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Navajo Bridge crosses a shallow section of canyon named Marble Canyon by John Wesley Powell. Today it is not uncommon for tourists, like the author, to pull over and walk across the bridge looking down on the Colorado River, and up at the the sun baked landscape.
The Colorado is so named for its famed red brown color caused by sediment in the water — too thick to drink, too thin to plow — as the saying used to go. Historically, the river always ran reddish. Since the 1960's the river through Grand Canyon emerges upriver a few miles from below the retaining wall of the Glen Canyon Dam where it never sees daylight and remains a near constant 48 degrees throughout the year (historically the river ran warm in summer). The dam allows for the sediment to settle, and what is commonly seen on the river today is a deep green coloration… That is, unless there is rain anywhere downriver of the dam. In that case, the river fills with reddish sediment for a day or longer depending on the severity of the rains. Looking through the beams of Navajo Bridge, the river shows to be running green and clear. Environmentalists, the author included, often heap scorn on Glen Canyon Dam for multiple reasons. Future generations lost Glen Canyon, a canyon said to be as beautiful as Grand Canyon on a somewhat smaller scale and today lies hidden below Glen Canyon Dam's reservoir, ironically named Lake Powell. Additionally, the dam has changed conditions of the river in many ways. Due to the cold temperatures of the river the fish communities have changed. Additionally, the sediment trapped at the bottom of Lake Powell due to the dam, coupled with the lack of historical seasonal flooding which is now negated by the dam, have disallowed for the natural rebuilding process of the beautiful sandy beaches in the Canyon along the river. By the same regard, the lack of seasonal floods in Grand Canyon and the cold temps have allowed a proliferation of non native species to invade the riverbank, side canyons, creek beds, and grottoes.
In the Grand Canyon everyone is a photographer, including the author (here, at Mile 24, up a side canyon near Georgie's Rapid). Georgie White Clark was a true pioneer of the newly emerging sport and business of running Grand Canyon in the 1950's. A pioneer, she became the first woman to row the 280 mile run through Marble Canyon and Grand Canyon, and the first woman to run a commercial river rafting outfit. From the mid 1950's and for 45 years strong, Georgie's Royal River Rats brought thousands of clients down the river. Into her 70's Georgie would be seen on the river. Her classic look was a leopard skin swim suit, and she was well known to hoist many beers while rowing or motoring clients through the wonderland of the Colorado River. In 1991, the year I took my first multi week rafting trip through Grand Canyon, Georgie White Clark took her last trip and soon thereafter passed away, hopefully to a great canyon in the sky. Today, strict standards of safety are meticulously followed by professionals who provide the highest degree of safety possible in such a dynamic environment, while at the same time bringing the fun, clowning around antics expected on such a trip. As for guides drinking beers at the helms of the rafts...standards maintain no alcohol be consumed by guides until boats are tied off for the evening, all clients are served dinner, camp is squared away for all guests, and then and only then, on the boats where they will sleep, as far as possible from the clients who are camped on the sandy beach, one hears the cracking of beers, smells the wafting of cannabis smoke, and overhears the stories, tall tales, and fantasies only a Grand Canyon boatman could tell. (Note, there are female guides, many, but they prefer to be called boatmen. On the Colorado, and not derived from any disrespect, everyone who rows or motors a rig is known as a boatman, gender notwithstanding. And while they stay up all night drinking and smoking and telling tales, come sunup at 4 30am, they are chipper, motivated and have coffee on and breakfast started for a big day ahead.
The camp kitchen is an important part of the journey. The boatmen are your chefs, and the dinners may range from salmon and salad to mango grilled chicken and rice to steak and night. Vegetarian options are always available and tasty. Cakes and other goodies round out the experience, and the beer and wine flows liberally as the wide eyed guests share stories of their adventures and gawk at landscapes which rival anywhere on earth with respect to natural magnificence. After dinner, if you have secured an AZ angling permit before the trip, one may cast for trout which your guides will gladly grill up for you at tomorrow's dinner.
Clients use the four part system. First, scrub the plate in the first tub, then wash it thoroughly in the second, proceed to the third for a second washing, and then conclude the process in the fourth tub with a rinse off. Plates dry in the desert air overnight ready and septic for breakfast. Cutlery is handled similarly.
Hands are washed in the pink and green buckets with a foot pump faucet following the same procedure as the cutlery and plates, wash twice and rinse once. The serving table is being set. Food is starting to smoke and steam. Water dispenser is set up for drinking, a never ending activity in the desert. Everyone is hungry come this time of the evening, and one of the boatmen will be banging the gong and yelling DINNER loudly very soon, summoning the group to convene for the evening meal.
At Mile 31 we encounter Vasey's Paradise, a perennial spring bursting forth from the Redwall Limestone. Named for a botanist on the Powell Expedition the springs are beautiful and support a vibrant community of plants and animals. The water is fresh and clear, and the scene is calm and peaceful giving no indication to the rapids which lay ahead. There are nearly 150 rapids throughout the stretch of Colorado River through Grand Canyon ranging in size from riffles to monsters. The whitewater grading scale for all rivers including the Colorado — except in Grand Canyon where rapids are so big a separate scale exists — runs from class I, meaning just a strong riffle, to class V which is the most violent yet navigable water (by experts, that is). Class VI is a waterfall, non navigable. Typically most rapids on well known, classic white water runs fall into the II, III, or IV range. In Grand Canyon rapids are rated from 1-10. Hance Rapid at Mile 77.1, Crystal Rapid at Mile 98.2, and especially the dreaded Lava Falls at Mile 179.7 are rated at the highest end of that scale, ranging from 8-10 depending on conditions. Lava is so big and loud and violent and scary in part because it actually is, and in part because the guides find a way to work in into conversation at some point every other day or so on the three week trip downriver. So, for three weeks its legendary status builds in the minds of the boaters who are eventually faced with running the beast. Its only about thirty seconds, but for that time you are in for one hell of a ride. Boats typically pull over into the calm waters below Lava Falls and even non drinkers toast with a beer or a wine or stronger to having "cheated death" yet again. There are no significant rapids remaining after Lava, though many smaller and fun rapids will follow, so toasting here seems appropriate and the anxiety which had built in the minds of the passengers vanishes. A large party is generally held that evening, a fantastic meal prepared, libations. Pretty much like every preceding night, but on that night its like everyone's "Lava Falls Nerves" have taken Xanax, and people relax deeply in the remaining days of the journey.
Redwall Cavern located at Mile 33 is a vast chamber carved by the river into the Redwall Limestone. Major Powell named it like so many other features along the Colorado River. He estimated 50, 000 people could fit inside and that the acoustics would be wonderful for a symphonic concert. His estimates were close, modern technology has confirmed the cavern would fit near that number. As for acoustics, they are pretty good by all accounts. Many professional musicians have made music in Redwall Cavern and countless amateurs as well. Usually at least one boatman on your trip will be able to play something, and if you are lucky several will as well as several passengers. When this happens, there is music every night. Even a simply recorder, the type played by elementary students everywhere, will sound marvelous in Redwall Cavern when played by anyone with rudimentary skills. As for some scale, the reader may be able to pick out as many as seven boats which are tied off at the beach in front of Redwall Cavern.
The Little Colorado River is a tributary of the Colorado, and its headwaters begin 75 miles away in the Navajo lands of northern Arizona. If driving to Lee's Ferry from Flagstaff, which is commonly done, one crosses the Little Colorado, at the one horse town of Cameron. Typically the river runs seasonally in its upper stretches, however, the lower section is spring fed and the azure blue waters are the result of calcium carbonate. The contrast of color between the Little Colorado River and the surrounding red rock walls is stunning. A visit to the Little Colorado is a staple of most every river trip through Grand Canyon and most rafters enjoy swimming in its warmish waters.
The confluence of the Little Colorado River with the Colorado River, Mile 61.5, demonstrates the contrast between the calcium carbonate laden Little Colorado's blue warm water with the cold green water found in the main corridor of Colorado River. This spot is known in Grand Canyon circles simply as the Confluence. Presently, controversy surrounds the Confluence as some Navajo tribal members and outside investors have expressed interest in building a tramway from the rim on the south side of the Colorado, which is Navajo land, down to the Confluence just up the Little Colorado from where this photo was taken, which is also Navajo land. Information about the project may be found at www.savetheconfluence.com.
At the Unkar Delta, Mile 73, the archaeological relics of a once seasonal population of Pre Puebloans dating back 1,500 years may be found. Some know these prehistoric people as the Anasazi a Navajo term loosely translated to mean ancient enemies. They were not enemies, however, as both groups populated the area at different times, with the Navajo migrating into the region as early as 500 years ago. Why exactly the Navajo named these ancients the Anasazi is not known. The direct ancestors of the Anasazi are the Pueblo Indians currently settled in north west Arizona and north eastern New Mexico. Subsequently, the term Pre Puebloans is more fitting and respectful for this once thriving culture living on the rim and river bottom of the Grand Canyon and along the Colorado River corridor in some of the harshest desert conditions in the world. Today, Pueblo cultures such as the Zuni and the Acoma create pottery in the styles similar to their ancient ancestors and have historically constructed dwellings in similar rock-and-adobe fashion as the Pre Puebloans who inhabited Unkar Delta. In this image potsherds, an arrow tip, and a piece of corn cob may be seen.
Mile 88, the Kaibab Trail Suspension Bridge, also known as the Black Bridge, allows hikers and mules to cross the river within the inner Grand Canyon. The South Kaibab Trail drops one vertical mile from Grand Canyon's South Rim, down seven miles of steep switchbacks, to this point where the hiker encounters Black Bridge. Once crossing the river, the hiker may then choose to hang at Boater's Beach — where our boats were currently tied off — or continue 14 miles up the North Kaibab Trail to the North Rim. If hiking, be advised, there is no water and little shade on the South Kaibab, but the North Kaibab offers both as well as camping. For those attempting a trans canyon traverse the author recommends descending the South Kaibab on the morning of day one, camping at Bright Angel Campground that evening, and spreading out the next two days hiking up the North Kaibab and camping at Cottonwood Campground before topping out on the North Rim the following day. There are other options, and knowledgeable canyoneers will have no problem putting together a suitable itinerary.
Enjoying placid water, late afternoon sunlight, and plenty of scenery.
Looking for a wide sandy beach for camping... but not finding one here, that's for sure.
On the beach at Mile 101, while scouting Sapphire Rapid, a Slender Deadly Scorpion is spotted.The fellow is slender, that is certain. It is not deadly, however, except in rare and mostly undocumented instances of severe allergic reaction to the venom. Typically, if one is stung, and again it is a rarity for that to occur, the typical fallout is soreness at the sting site, general malaise, and possibly mild nausea. In general, those who dislike or are afraid of spiders will not fancy scorpions. The author has great respect and admiration for these inch long arachnids and became obsessed with photographic it, following it around for twenty minutes and taking dozens of photographs. In this photo, the Slender Deadly Scorpion has had enough and is clearly poised to strike. Not an unreasonable man, the author backed off and allowed the creature the peace and quiet it deserved.
Lizard tracks passing through camp photographed in the warm early evening light.
Camp, Mile 119. Along the river folks usually do not need, nor do they use, a tent. Rather, most Grand Canyon river runners opt to sleep under the stars. Bugs are few, temperatures are high, skies are clear, and a tent gets in the way between you and the canyon you came to experience. From this birds eye view its easy to spot the blue sleeping pads of the campers, the kitchen area dotted with colorful buckets and table cloths, and the boats tied off just downstream of it all. What is not visible and is usually on everyone's mind when they first consider the prospect of a river trip on the Colorado is… the bathroom.
The park service directs all fluid wastes go directly into the main channel, so consequently everyone pees in the river. If you were a little shy about it on day one, that is far removed by day 21 by which time your group is working most likely as a friendly and efficient team of rafters, and modesty fades. As for solid wastes, that's where the "groover" comes in. Historically, river runners brought with them a can on which one would sit to relieve one's self, the result being grooves in pressed into your ass cheeks. The modern groover is actually a similar bucket, on which sits a toilet seat for familiarity and comfort, and all wastes are collected in an ultra thick plastic bag designed for the purpose. The park maintains all solid waste be removed from all river trips, so it is all packed out and disposed of by crew at trips end, when passengers have since left for other destinations (most popularly being home).
Cocktail hour in camp… Passengers enjoy a scenic spot perched above camp to take in cocktail hour before dinner. Since the river is a steady 48 degrees, beer and wine is placed into mesh bags and submerged into the cold river, connected to the boat by a carabiner. By day these libations will travel inside the boat in storage bins, and they will get warm in the desert heat, however once in the river the typical time for a 12 beer to chill to river temperature is only about 20 minutes. The author, not a particularly big drinker, must admit a 48 degree cold beer on a 90 degree evening in camp sure go down smoothly.
Deer Creek, Mile 136. Named by Powell, Deer Creek provides the hiker with an outrageous opportunity if so desired. The hike up to Deer Creek Narrows is steep, narrow, hot and dry. An abyss off the side of the trail plays with your head. But the payoffs are glimpses into Deer Creek Narrows, and down into the Colorado River from a flat area known as The Patio. This photo was taken five minutes into the hike with plenty of elevation yet to gain.
Carol Mattera at the start of the long hike up to Deer Creek Narrows.
Deer Creek Narrows.
Slot canyons abound along the Colorado River like this one somewhere near Mile 148.
Here I'm making some field notes, trying to remember the experience of a lifetime for a lifetime to come. Photographs are invaluable tools to document one's experience on a Grand Canyon river trip. Major Powell kept and extensive journal on his historic first descent through Grand Canyon in 1869, and again in 1871, and turned those notes into the most exciting adventure tale of its day, The Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyons.
At Mile 157 most boat parties prioritize a visit to Havasu Canyon. Here boats are tied off in an active river, immediately downstream from a moderate rapid, making landing at this spot tricky business. Havasu is named for the Havasupai Indians who inhabit the canyon and its upper section — ten miles by foot trail only — they have a village, Supai, with gardens, stables, another steep ten mile hike to the rim above, and above all, the magnificent blue-green waters of Havasu Creek.
High above the narrows of Havasu Creek the hiker may enjoy an intimate sculpted canyon, gorgeous blue-green water, and access to the upper portion of the canyon which broadens out, allowing for swimming in the creek and basking on a rock in the sun. The Havasupai Indians have lived in Grand Canyon for 700 hundred years and indeed the name Havasupai means "people of the blue-green waters."
The confluence of Havasu Creek with the Colorado River demonstrates their profound difference with respect water color.
Lava Falls Day: the most feared rapid on the river by most passengers, mainly due to the guides building it up over the course of a few weeks, though it is not the most technical rapid for boatmen. Hard technical rapids such as Hance at Mile 77 and Crystal at Mile 98.5 are more concerning to boatmen. Statistically, more can and does go wrong in rapids like Crystal. But the absolute huge water of Lava coupled with the multi week hype up leaves the layman and women scared absolutely shitless. The boatmen ease the rafts into the tongue of the rapid, hopefully enter the rapid at their desired point, and make every necessary adjustment of navigation necessary to exit the rapid thirty seconds later, or else they flip. To the rafters freaked out to begin with from the hype the 30 seconds feels like forever but when it is over, and safety assured, the accompanying high is soaring, yet the body and mind is calmed. This photo was taken of the author and his wife Carol and son Joshua on the morning of Lava Falls Day. Our entire party wore the paints to make peace with the Lava Gods and it must have worked, we all came through the rapid upright and unscathed.
The "We Survived Lava Falls" after party.
Pumpkin Springs is a travertine bowl which when active drips bitter, poisonous water into the Colorado River below. Throughout the history of recreational river running on the Colorado rafting parties have stopped and soaked in the warm waters of Pumpkin Spring. Several years ago the National Park Service put a stop to that when it came to light the springs contain arsenic among other poisons.
In a side canyon near Mile 231 Joshua Mattera cools down from the 100 degree heat in the clear, cold water.
One last hike, somewhere along Mile 249, our fellowship makes its way over some scree to a watering hole to relax and siesta in the shade before making our way to camp in the cooler of the late afternoon. Tomorrow will be our last day on the river, the weeks have passed as have the river miles, and the experiences we have had remain clear years after the fact. For those so inclined, a trip down the Grand Canyon, or for that matter along any stretch of the Colorado River, especially if its unhurried and spread across a couple of weeks or more, is a life changing experience for many who ultimately get hooked by the lure of the river and come back time and time again.
A lizard wonders who I'm looking at.
The end of the line, almost. Goofing around on the morning of the last day. This group will travel thirty river miles on this last day and take out at Mile 280 at Pearce Ferry on Lake Mead, the huge reservoir backed up behind the Hoover Dam.
Off of the river now, and on the road back to Flagstaff...looking back one last time at the waters of the Colorado River, backed up here at Lake Mead several miles behind the Hoover Dam.
Header art by T. Guzzio. Original photo by T. Martin via Wikimedia Commons.
WHEN DID YOUR FELLOW MAN BECOME THE ENEMY?
By Paul Borst
When Barack Obama became president, one thing was brought to the forefront of the United States’ consciousness. Universal healthcare was something that had never been talked about by those around me, besides mentioning it in the same breath as that neighbor to the north. But with the implementation of the highly controversial Affordable Healthcare Act, few things have been as polarizing as the idea of providing healthcare as a right, as opposed to a privilege. Of course, any discussion on universal healthcare will include divisive political stances, but I’m going to try to take the politics out of the equation.
As it stands today, some believe that healthcare should be a right guaranteed for all US citizens, as advocated by 2016 presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders. Others contend that a free market economy needs competition to manage costs and to spur innovation. But with the costs of healthcare and insurance spiraling higher, as well as the United States' poor standing among industrialized nations with regards to quality of care, many feel strongly that an overhaul of the current system should happen. A Commonwealth Fund study of healthcare quality versus cost saw the US ranked behind France, Australia, Germany, Canada, Sweden, New Zealand, Norway, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. We have the most expensive healthcare system in the world, but it ranks lowest in efficiency, equity, and outcomes. In other words, we don’t get the job done. Poorer people don’t get equal care or access to services, and the outcomes don’t match up with costs. Many liberals feel this is reason for the government to step in. The insurance companies and healthcare providers are driving up the cost of healthcare with no discernible increase in quality. Many feel that's because the goals of for-profit healthcare are incompatible with keeping people healthy.
Take a look at your next statement of benefits, and take note of what’s being charged to your insurance company. Doctors can and do charge exorbitant sums to insurance companies knowing full well that they will get paid by the insurer. This profoundly impacts you, the patient. The average cost of a family plan, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, was $16,800 in 2015, paid by employee premiums as well as employer contributions. This is before reported requests for increases up to 54% requested by insurance companies, who found that people insured by the Affordable Care Act were sicker than expected. On average, 32% of your income is being spent on the chance you might get sick or injured. Using the socialist viewpoint with an equal distribution of wealth, you could argue that replacing our current system with a government subsidized program, a la the National Health System in the U.K., would reduce the costs to the average American by creating an escalating tax system based on taxable income. In other words, the more you make, the more you pay. Using a conservative lens, where this benefits the market is in costs to an employer. We can reduce the cost of healthcare-related spending to an employer by using that same escalating tax system. Universal healthcare could also decrease days missed from work due to health-related issues, as people start practicing proactive healthcare as opposed to defensive healthcare (when you put off going to the doctor because of the high cost). Furthermore, taking care of your fellow man is a tenet of common decency and many religious beliefs. Buddha, Jesus, Confucius or any other religious figure never add a monetary caveat onto the golden rule.
Many services today are socialized. Do you pay a fire department deductible? How about that pesky police premium? Did you remember to leave your payment in the mail for the postal service? You don’t pay directly for these because these are all in some way subsidized by the government. You are already paying more for other people. Would you expect the fire department to let someone else’s house burn because you pay more in taxes than the other guy? Why can’t we have this same thinking when it comes to healthcare? I understand other factors are in play. I would find it difficult to know that my tax dollars are paying for a lifetime smoker’s cancer treatment. But at the same time, I would rest easy knowing that my neighbors are covered against catastrophic ailments that befell them unexpectedly.
Dipping our foot into the ethical waters of healthcare reform can be a tricky business. Health insurance corporations are making profits off of our premiums. According to the Securities and Exchange Commission, the CEO of Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, Joseph Swedish (an ironic name, really), made $8.1 million dollars in 2014. Stephen Hemsley, the CEO of United Healthcare (the contractor for Tricare West, the healthcare coverage provider for military members in the western US) made $66.1 million in 2014. To put this another way, we have people whose annual compensation is dependent on whether they decide to pay someone’s healthcare costs. This isn’t an oversimplification of anything either. Health insurance claims agents get bonuses based on how much they pay out to members.
Universal Healthcare can and does work in the United States. Multiple cases already exist where people are receiving it. For instance, your tax dollars are covering federal prisoners’ healthcare. All service members and veterans receive healthcare free of charge, including myself. Before I joined the Air Force in 2009, I had an issue with ingrown toenails. I often put off care because of the cost. Despite paying $80 per week for health insurance ($4,160 annually for single coverage), I had to pay $100 out of pocket to get the toe nail removed. It doesn’t sound like much now, but at the time I was the sole source of income for a family of 3, and $100 went a long way. As a result I would live with an ingrown toenail for months at a time until I could afford to have it taken care of. That’s fairly routine healthcare. What about ER visits? That’s where costs pile up. I personally haven’t incurred any personal ER visits before I enlisted. I know I went to one after I joined though. I received 3 staples in my head as a result of a basketball injury. The cost to the insurer was over $1000. I paid $0. Zilch, zero, nadda. Why do I deserve this over someone who isn’t in the military? I understand the argument of risking my life for my country, but I have all kinds of other benefits because of that. I’m willing to sacrifice free healthcare being an exclusive benefit to me. I still have a nearly guaranteed job, I still have education benefits, and I still have other benefits that the average American won’t get without serving.
What happened to us, America? This country was founded on those unalienable rights of life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. When did it become life (so long as you’re willing to pay), liberty (provided you can afford to be choosy), and the pursuit of happiness (as long as you’re ok being sick)? We should look after our fellow man. Not a day goes by that I don’t hear of an effort to raise money for a sick child, or an unfortunate family that’s dealing with a catastrophic illness. I’m overjoyed to hear of when they meet their needs through donations. What if we didn’t have to donate? With universal healthcare, that child, or that family would be covered. I know the system wouldn’t be perfect. The NHS has issues. Canada’s healthcare service has issues. But last time I checked, they just beat us in the rankings.
CONNECT WITH PAUL:
Despite his full time gig as a Staff Sergeant in the United States Air Force, Paul Borst still finds time to pretend to be a rock star. Having served previously as a singer-songwriter/guitar poseur in the Shacks, of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and as songwriter/bass legend in The Standards of Saranac Lake/Tupper Lake, New York, Paul now bides his time as a solo performer in the acoustic mold. He currently resides in Albuquerque, still working as a full time nylon compression specialist (parachute rigger). He can be reached via Twitter (@riggerlovin), Instagram (paulborst7) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
By Tom Guzzio.
Modern audiences will never hear Buddy Bolden, the cornetist considered to be the founding father of the first truly American musical form. There are no known recordings of his work. Despite the far reach of Bolden’s influence on artists like Louis Armstrong and Wynton Marsalis, the sound he created with his instrument – his musical fingerprint – is left to our imaginations, his tone a casualty of Bolden being too far ahead of his time.
This is just one of the many wrongs that litter the history of music, along with the fact that Sammy Davis Jr. couldn’t stay at many of the hotels he performed in, or with A Taste of Honey beating out Elvis Costello for Best New Artist at the 1978 Grammy Awards (hell, let’s just throw the Grammys as a concept in as a collective wrong).
Many would argue that the way popular music gets created today is another wrong, with songs written by committee for marginally talented “artists” whose looks are as important as their voices, if not more so.
But I disagree. The same technology that allows marginal vocalists to be auto-tuned into “artists” has also given legitimate musicians a platform previously unavailable when the recording industry held all the cards. Yes, there still exists a vast corporate music machine that vacuums up cash for a handful of Clive Davis wannabees. But there’s also a vibrant, independent industry outside of the industry, one that has embraced artists and musicians who can’t dance better than they sing, but who can create well-crafted songs that deserve to be heard, and are enjoyed when they are.
This is the place where The Solid Suns live.
There’s this idea that our tastes literally and figuratively mellow with age, and while I find the range of music I appreciate expanding (and, in some cases, getting softer), there’s still something about loud, ossicle-rattling rock and roll that never gets old, no matter how much I do. And while it may never crack the Billboard 200, Ungodly Hour – the latest album from the Las Vegas trio – makes my stereocillia stand up and shake, shake, shake, and that’s a damn good thing.
The album is sonically alluring from the start. “Buttons + Strings,” the album’s opener is a vapor trail of driving funk with a slinky pop flavor courtesy of Jim Campbell’s excellent bass playing. Jon Gamboa’s vocals groove in and out of Campbell’s wake, a smooth falsetto croon that falls a few notches during the menacing chorus: “Come on back! I’ll tear you to pieces...”
This gives way to the whiplash inducing “Existential Queen,” which is driven by Brian Keen’s relentless drumming and it’s marriage with Campbell’s bass. The rhythmic foundation Keen and Campbell create give Gamboa’s guitar and vocals a huge sonic canvas, and he uses every inch of it until he counts us out at the end.
Next comes “Overcast” – a song that repaints the blues with shades of gray. This is a band that knows the shoulders on which they stand. “Overcast” incorporates the blues form for the modern age in a way that’s authentic and not purely imitative. It’s a field song for the suburban retail worker who, as he looks at the Kardashian fueled glow coming off his flat-screen, can’t help but feel “the sun likes to shine on everyone but me.”
"Speak Easy" follows with a riff rooted at the bottom end of the scale. It's a slow song, not quite as bluesy as "Overcast," but with a weight that you feel in your chest if you play it loud enough. It's another fine showcase for Gamboa's vocal range, and his guitar solo around the 3:30 mark is razor sharp.
The band brings more playfulness to the next track, "The Little Things" which again showcases their ability to play punch-drunk funk infused rock. It's a foot stomper that's bound to be a favorite of the band's live shows, and I challenge anyone to listen to it without bobbing their head along in time.
They go deep with "Questions." Gamboa has a rebel spirit, and it takes center stage here: "who the fuck are you to tell us what to do?" It's a question that all good rock and roll should ask at one time or another, and it places The Suns within the tradition of Josh White, Woodie Guthrie, The Clash, and Rage Against the Machine.
Gamboa turns that cynical eye on himself with "Black Matter," another percussive rocker that declares "I am the perfect liar, perfect liar, now watch and learn." It's a heavy song sonically and lyrically - one that challenges fundamental notions of belief as a motivating force. One man's righteous act is another man's senseless one; your martyr is my villain.
"Voight-Kampff" is a love song of sorts. The title alludes to Blade Runner, and the test used to distinguish humans from replicants. Are we the architects of the ones we love? Do we create unattainable expectations for those we objectify?
"Violate" begins as so many of the songs on Ungodly Hour do: with a bouncy bass line from Campbell. This band is so good at playing with and around each other, something this song illustrates as each musician's part grows around the other's like wisteria, especially around the 2:50 mark, when things breakdown only to rebuild. It's a great shift tonally.
"Remember" is a classic closer (only it isn't - wink, wink). It takes everything that's good about Ungodly Hour and draws a logical, effective musical conclusion. We will remember the song, and the album, and we will listen again. It's that simple, and hidden within it is a track whose title perfectly sums up what Ungodly Hour is about: "Heavy."
Truly. Ungodly Hour is an imaginative, finely crafted rock and roll album. So why is it part of the lead up to "The Wrong Issue?" It's because of the circumstances in which it was made.
While a lot of less talented acts get as much money and studio time as they need to record their work, Ungodly Hour was made on a shoestring. It just doesn't sound like it. It is the product of blood, sweat, and an Indiegogo campaign. There's something inherently wrong about the way major labels decide who gets their support and who doesn't. Maybe any or all of the Suns should've had roles on a Disney show when they were kids? Maybe the bassist needs to put out a sex tape, or at least accidentally tweet a dick pic to get the media attention the band's music merits and deserves?
Still, the fact that something so good can be born from a small studio in a town not known as a musical hotbed does say something positive about what's possible in music today, so long as one loves making it. And the Solid Suns love for the music they make is evident throughout Ungodly Hour. Even as so much of the music industry seems so shallow and cardboard, Ungodly Hour exists and is available for all to hear. I'm not sure if that was possible before the digital age. And that makes me hopeful for the Suns' long term prospects.
Get Ungodly Hour via The Solid Suns' Bandcamp page, from iTunes, Amazon, or "wherever music is sold." Additionally, the album is available as a free digital download for all veterans, active military, police, fire, and rescue workers, and teachers. Contact the band via their Facebook page for details.
Help me out. Is there a space where sports and music meet that doesn’t wind up looking and sounding like a Looney Tune? As I moved from music to sports while prepping for the upcoming issue, I tried to find a convergence of the two topics that leaves both with some dignity, but it was just not happening. Maybe it’s because the seminal volume of sports-related music is called, Jock Jams. Maybe I needed to look a little deeper.
There are a lot of songs out there related to and / or inspired by sports, but they seem trite and trend towards novelty. I’m thinking of songs like “Basketball” by Kurtis Blow (who's a Hip-Hop legend), or “Centerfield” by John Fogerty (another legendary artist). On the other hand, songs unrelated to athletic competition often get co-opted by sports, and thereby have a second (or maybe even a first) life seemingly unrelated to their stated themes or lyrical intent.
Take “Song 2” by Brit-Pop icons Blur. Released in 1997, and originally intended as a satire of American grunge music, it’s now become a stadium staple, it’s two-syllable hook used to pump up crowds the world over, joining songs like The White Stripe’s “Seven Nation Army” and Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle” as unlikely declarations of fandom.
Eventually, I stumbled upon songs that, for one reason or another, have become so associated with certain teams as to transcend their original context and purpose, like the Rodgers and Hammerstein's, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” which found life beyond Carousel – the musical it was written for – as Jerry Lewis’s telethon showpiece and also as Liverpool F.C.’s anthem. Unlike “Song 2,” one can actually establish a connection between the song and the team that adopted it. In 1963 “You’ll Never Walk Alone” became a number one single for Gerry and the Pacemakers, who hailed from Liverpool. Legend has it that Gerry Marsden – the group’s leader and vocalist – gave a copy of the song to Liverpool manager Bill Shankly, who was so moved that he insisted the song be played before home games. In reality, the song’s presence at Anfield is the result of the club’s music director simply doing his job. It was practice at the time to countdown the hits of the day prior to the start of a game. When “YNWA” topped the charts, therefore becoming the last song the stadium DJ played just before game time, LFC fans simply sang along as a show of support to the Merseybeat group. The DJ played it, the fans liked it, and it stuck – so much so that members of the team joined Gerry and the Pacemakers on stage when they performed the song on The Ed Sullivan show. The song has since become part of the team’s iconography, adorning its official crest, and watching over those who pass through Anfield’s Shankly Gates.
“You’ll Never Walk Alone” illustrates how when a piece becomes so associated with a particular team, there’s a tendency to want to elevate that association to the point where the origin of said song’s connection to said team becomes mythic. This is true of other music – sports connections as well, like Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” which is played during the 8th inning intermission at every Boston Red Sox home game, and the song that is said to be the third most popular song in American history (after “The Star Spangled Banner” and “Happy Birthday to You”): “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” These songs have come to serve the same function as hymns, in a way, as they bring people worshipping at modern day “temples” together behind a common cause, and this is a powerful thing. Liverpool fans alive at the time will note how important “You’ll Never Walk Alone” became in the wake of the Hillsborough Disaster, which saw 96 LFC fans die in the crush of an overcrowded stadium in 1989. In the end, how the songs got here isn’t important. It’s the fact that they’re here that counts. At their best, music and sport serve similar functions. They celebrate excellence. They bring people together.
"The Faith & Doubt Issue" is weeks old, and the Philadelphia Eagles have signed Tim Tebow.
If faith is the expectation of unfulfilled promises, then Tebow, whose belief in himself is only outstripped by the doubts of his many detractors, could be due.
Or it could be that Tebow has already had his due.
Tebow had an exceptional college career with the Florida Gators, winning a Heisman Trophy and two national championships. Despite lingering doubts about his ability to make it as a quarterback in the NFL, Tebow was taken in the first round of the 2010 NFL draft by the Denver Broncos. In the 2012 playoffs, he led the Broncos to a legendary upset of the Pittsburgh Steelers in what has come to be called the “3:16 Game” because of the many parallels between some of the game’s statistics and Tebow’s faith.
Aside from this one brief, electrifying moment, Tebow’s time under center has been well-below average, and therefore short. After three teams and three years, Tebow was out of the league. Nevertheless, his time among the best is enviable. Tebow did more, and went farther than most of the kids who put on pads.
So why is Tebow back? Some suggest it’s ego.
It’s not that Tebow lacks the ability to play in the NFL, it’s that he lacks the skills to play quarterback. Tebow is an exceptionally gifted athlete. If he’d only switch to tight end or fullback, say his detractors, then he’d probably be in the midst of a long and fruitful career, instead of becoming part of Chip Kelly’s “Philadelphia Experiment.” But he’s so stubborn. For Tebow, it’s quarterback or nothing.
Which makes you wonder when faith becomes folly.
Tebow’s signing by the Eagles comes packaged in the same news cycle as the tragic sinking of a boat full of migrants off the Libyan coast, giving us two starkly different examples of how faith inculcates boldness.
Many of the 700-900 people who lost their lives crossing the Mediterranean in hopes of reaching Italy came from desperate situations in disparate places like Somalia, Eritrea, Mali, Gambia, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Reaching Libya, which has become the center of a booming human trafficking trade (as well as a stronghold for militants from the Islamic State) in the absence of a stable government since the fall of Ghadafi, was their “Hail-Mary.” They sought passage on an overcrowded boat of questionable seaworthiness in order to reach a land where their future was uncertain and their presence unwanted because for them, whatever was waiting on the other side of the Mediterranean’s brilliant blue had to be better than what they were leaving behind.
And there are as many as 500,000 more just like them crowding the scarred Libyan shore, dodging militias, waiting for whatever rickety boat or rubber raft may come because they believe. “I have been hearing the stories that people are dying, but me, I will cross it and I will cross it successfully,” said one migrant in a recent New York Times article. “I know that my Lord is with me. He will cross with me. I have made up my mind.”
Tebow believes, too. The faith he found on his mother’s couch as a 6-year old afraid of hell pushes him ever onward towards his brass ring of excelling at one of the most glamorous jobs in sports: “I believe in my God-given athletic ability and the coaches that have been blessed around me. I believe I can do the job as a quarterback in the NFL.”
And maybe he can, but should he want to? And, in the grand scheme of it all, should we care?
Doubt isn't the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith. - Paul Tillich
So much time and attention, airspace and bandwidth has been dedicated to one seemingly insignificant question: "what color is this dress?"
Initially, my answer was not to answer. I was one of the smarmy minority who, dammit, felt that everyone's time would be better spent on other more pressing issues, like figuring out ways to stop ISIS, or coming up with a better gluten-free pizza crust. In doing so, I took my place among the ranks of what Megan Garber called "the attention police" in a recent article about the dress phenomenon.
Still, "viral" is used to describe such things for a reason, so it didn't take long for me to offer up my opinion on the matter, mostly just to get people to stop asking (I even threatened to put it on a t-shirt). This dress is white and gold.
Only it isn't.
This dress is blue and black. My eyes let me down.
I suppose I should find some solace in the scientific explanation for why millions of people see this same dress in two very distinct ways: the brain - which is truly responsible for making meaning from what we "see" - relies on our senses as gatherers of evidence, not arbiters of truth. In other words, seeing is a guessing game. This was explored in "Colors," a recent episode of WNYC's Radiolab, which you can sample an excerpt of below:
As "Colors" shows, there is evidence that the vast majority of ancient peoples wouldn't have identified the dress as blue either, even if that's what they saw. This is because how we identify color is a social construct born of necessity. In The Illiad, for example, Homer famously described the ocean as "wine-colored," not because "blue" water didn't exist then, but because the Greeks had no need to label anything that way. With the exception of the Egyptians, the Greeks and other ancient cultures couldn't make blue pigments given the technology they had. Since they couldn't manufacture a color - say as a dye - then there was no need to give it a name.
Since the next issue of Prodigal's Chair will be about faith and doubt, it's worth looking at what - if anything - the color of this dress can teach us about having faith or feeling doubt. Seriously.
I think that ultimately faith, like color, is constructed by the brain, based on information it picks and chooses from those unreliable narrators through which we experience the world: our senses. The Book of Hebrews says that "faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." In this verse faith is about rooting our unreliable perceptions in a tangible reality. The ancient author implies that belief lives in the distance between what the eye shows us and the meaning the brain makes of it (even if he couldn't see blue). If that's the case, then doubt is the sum of those perceptions the brain tries to leave behind whenever you make a decision or adhere to a belief.
Speaking of adherence, because I know my senses are wrong, it doesn't make sense for me too hold too tightly to what my eyes still see when I look at the picture: a white and gold dress. In this instance, I have the benefit of a definitive answer. All too often, this isn't the case with other divisive issues, like religion, politics, or which region of the country makes the best barbecue. If you're like me, you do the best you can, relying on what you see and feel to answer your questions and create a way through when the answers don't come. If you're not like me, then you're probably some sort of fundamentalist who can't see past this relativistic bull-pucky and you don't care what color the dress is because it's going STRAIGHT TO HELL!!!
I'd rather take my faith with a grain of doubt.
Because it won't be long before something else comes, breaks the internet, and challenges us to choose between this or that. If we're smart - better yet - if we're compassionate, we'll gracefully excuse those who don't see what we see.
Unless, of course, it turns out the dress is really white and gold, and that the blue and black camp is simply fabricating stories like this to bolster their beliefs. Then it's time for pitch forks and torches.
You never know who you're going to hit when you skip stones across the waters of the universe.
Today I was fastidiously working on getting the next issue of PC ready for launch, when Deb Jarrett sent me this picture. As you can see, it shows His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama holding a calendar. But it's not just any random calendar. It is a Dharamsala Animal Rescue calendar.
Deb is the founder of DAR - an animal (and, by extension, human) welfare organization based in northern India - whose work will be featured in PC's upcoming Animal Issue. For $20, you can get your own copy of the calendar the Dalai Lama is holding, and mark your days knowing that you helped contribute to a worthy cause (if you don't believe me, just click here, and see what happens).
I've never met the Dalai Lama, or Deb, or Katie Lin - the multimedia journalist who contributed the piece on DAR for The Animal Issue, or Diantha Gowens - another Animal Issue contributor. My wife, Cecily put me in touch with Diantha, who put me in contact with Deb, who in turn put me in contact with Katie, and while we've never seen each other face to face, I feel strongly connected to each of them.
We've all heard of the idea of "six degrees of separation," that the distance between any two people in the world can be traversed by a maximum of six relationships that somehow exist between them. We've used Kevin Bacon's career to put this theory to the test at a thousand parties.
I don't think "separation" is the right word, though.
Sure, it's alliterative, but, as I've stated, I don't feel separated from the Dalai Lama - especially after having received this picture at the moment I received it. If we think of traveling through life as the act of treading water - of trudging knee deep in sand and surf, "like we ruled the waves," to quote Roddy Frame - then every act; each step, produces a ripple.
These ripples grow and bloom into a Venn diagram of overlapping movements; Deb Jarrett starts an NGO in Dharamsala. Katie Lin, who is visiting from Canada, is lured by the charm and good work DAR is doing. She takes out a camera and starts recording. Her videos find their way to me, arcing all the way from northern India to the North Shore of Massachusetts. And, just as I'm working these videos into the pages of an online magazine I edit, comes a picture of the Dalai Lama, holding a calendar in support of DAR.
Hopefully, in about a month, The Animal Issue will come flying at you off the top rope, complete with a new entry from me called, "My Panda Problem." In the meantime, you can read a story from The Detroit News on why those pansies at the World Wrestling Federation changed their name to World Wrestling Entertainment by clicking HERE. Also, if you think the image above would look really cool on a t-shirt, you're in luck. The Ann Arbor Tee Shirt Company agrees. Get the shirt HERE, and follow Ann Arbor tees on Twitter @annarbortees, and on Facebook.
The Animal Issue will most likely arrive just in time for the Holidays. In the meantime, I thought it wise to keep the channels open by adding a blog page to Prodigal's Chair. Without any predictable frequency you will see entries relating to the current or upcoming issue of PC arrive here. It may be a small entry just barely bigger than a tweet. Or, it could be something a little more substantial that requires you find a place to sit and something to sip. There may be links, sounds, graphics. Or there may be videos like this one:
For obvious reasons, I wanted to work this song into The Love Issue. In many ways, this whole project is about letting go and sending love out into the world. I found Stars back in 2004, just as it was becoming clear to me that my first marriage was beyond saving. Stars sang what I was feeling, then: "when there's nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire." I took those words and worked at becoming a phoenix. I'm not sure that I succeeded; but now, ten years later, their new record reminds me that No One Is Lost. You can find out more about Stars and their music at youarestars.com. Follow them on Twitter @youarestars.