Brilliant Songs #13: Jean Sibelius’s “Finlandia”

The best music always crawls right under your skin, raising a few goosebumps along the way as it wends its way in short order to your heart. And so it was the first time I came across Jean Sibelius’s “Finlandia,” on an LP I picked up used in a dusty music store in Santa Monica, California just about a half-century ago.

I’d taken a music appreciation class in college, inspired partly by my mother, who grew up around classical music in her native Hungary and had exposed me to it along with Nat King Cole and a few other stalwarts of the era. So I had taken to scouring music stores to score used albums that looked intriguing enough to justify the fifty cents or dollar they would set me back.

I remember getting the Sibelius back home to play on my $99 record player (with detachable wired speakers!), and being absolutely floored by its beauty, the lush evocative melodies taking me through heights and...

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Courage, Compassion, Action: Albert Camus’s “The Plague”

“Our townsfolk were not more to blame than others; they forgot to be modest, that was all, and thought that everything was still possible for them; which presupposed that pestilences were impossible…They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences.”

***

Albert Camus’s 1947 novel, “The Plague,” has often been described by critics as an allegory for the Nazi occupation of France during World War II. One can certainly read and profit from it as such, or even make it more timely today as the drama of an inept and ill-intentioned presidential administration sowing the plague of chaos and discord upon the land.

But make no mistake, “The Plague” is also very much about the real bubonic plague that has reared its head in human history over thousands of years.

The plague’s frightfulness is largely due to the approximately 50 million people it reportedly killed...

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On the Passing of Ram Dass

Ram Dass was an important figure for many people who came through the counterculture of the 1960-70s. Those who, having “countered” their Judeo-Christian religious upbringings, were nevertheless still seeking to anchor their world from some kind of spiritual base beyond the rampant materialism and status-seeking of modern industrialized life.

When Dass (it feels strange to refer to him by only his last name per writing protocol; it’s as if he had but one name, said in full every time: RamDass…) died just before Christmas, I noted a kind of complex but common feeling that I suspect most everyone experiences when death takes not a family member or friend but a public figure with whom we do not have a personal relationship, but who had an impact on us in the past.

The person’s death takes us back to that time—who we were and were coming to be, and how the person may have affected that becoming.

It’s...

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“Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band”

Some people are just born for the camera and stage and storytelling. Robbie Robertson was 16 years old and a high school dropout (not because he was a ne’er-do-well stoner, but because he had a serious jones for music-making) when he sold one of his guitars to finance a train ticket from his native Toronto to Arkansas, where he joined up to become one of the “Hawks” backing noted rock & roller Ronnie Hawkins.

Hawkins had first noticed Robertson playing locally when Hawkins toured in Canada, then invited him to come explore the possibilities of joining up with him in Arkansas. Robertson wound up writing two songs that Hawkins used, launching the teen on a songwriting and guitar-playing mission that has served him well over his subsequent 60-year career...

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Four More Years: Why Bernie’s Anti-Capitalism Paves the Way for Trump

There was a revealing (and for Democrats, deeply foreboding) moment in Wednesday night’s Democratic presidential primary debate, quite apart from the shockingly bad, woefully unprepared, nearly moribund debut of Michael Bloomberg. It came when moderator Chuck Todd raised a question about a past Bernie Sanders statement from the fall, when he introduced a tax plan that his own economists said would reduce the fortunes of most billionaires by some two-thirds.

As reported in the New York Times, Amazon Founder Jeff Bezos’s fortune would shrink from $160 billion to $43 billion under Sanders’s plan. (Elizabeth Warren’s plan would allow Bezos to retain about double that: $87 billion.)

Asked at the time whether he thought billionaires should exist in the United States, Sanders said, “I hope the day comes when they don’t.” 

Todd followed up on that Wednesday night in this exchange in which Sanders g...

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