Quite possibly Redd Volkert is the greatest guitarist Canada has ever produced. I suggested that to him on Saturday, when I again had the privilege of hearing his astonishing virtuosity on his instrument during a quick visit to Austin, Texas, the self-styled music capital of America. “Oh, no,” he said in his self-deprecating way. But when I added that he is virtually unknown to Canadians, he laughed heartily and said, “Who he?”
Volkert was just back from yet another trip to Australia, where they seem to appreciate him more than does his native country, and if ever I saw a man comfortable in his art, master of his instrument, totally at peace with and enjoying what he was doing, it was Volkert in this performance.
He plays most Saturday afternoons in the Continental club, that dark grungy hole that I always call “the world’s greatest night club,” with a group of young musicians to whom he gives plenty of opportunity to strut their stuff, notably a remarkable keyboardist called Rick Harnett, whom I have heard playing behind all manner of artists in Austin over the years, always finding the perfect way to pick up whatever genre of music is on the programme.
Redd is also a regular member of Hey Bale!, a sort of country group (in fact, most critics say they are the last exponents of the old, real country music) whose gig at the same club every Sunday night always pulls in a packed house of aficionados who love the music and are keen to show off their dancing expertise.
It’s when I hear stuff like this that my anti-Americanism takes a rest. As someone remarked in an article recently, being critical of American politics, as well as many aspects of the American way of life, doesn’t mean that you don’t like jazz, aren’t enraptured by Nina Simone, or astonished by Ben Shahn or Jackson Pollock. The United States is a country that encapsulates the best and worst of life. How could a nation that was capable of producing Louis Armstrong have lived so long with a social system that stopped non-white people from drinking from the same tap as whites, or sitting at the same restaurant, or staying in the same hotels, or living in the same part of town, or a million other like barbarities.….
Indeed, how could a nation that has produced such great writers and artists as Melville, Hawthorne, Faulkner, Hemingway, and countess others, have elected George W. Bush as president, or Ronald Reagan? And how could a nation that, setting all that history behind it, has managed to elect a black president, have so consumed itself in bitterness that there seems to be a very real possibility that pretty soon the crazies will be running the asylum?
The trouble with the United States social system is that the people of wealth not only are running things, as they have always done, but that nowadays they have begun to use that wealth in such a fashion as to exclude the interests of the majority of people who are not wealth-owners. The evidence is mounting: a terrible disaster seems to be in the offing. The wealth-owners control everything, media, opinion, universities, research, culture, the political process, and, once again, opinion, opinion, opinion. They are in such a position of power that they have begun to brainwash the entire population, which has apparently fallen only too easily for their ceaselessly repeated homilies masquerading as politically unchallengable facts. To get sensible government back out of their grasp is not proving to be easy. No one with wealth is ever ready to give it up voluntarily, or the privileges that go with it.
No, it’s not the entire population that’s been brainwashed: my nervousness about what seems to be building in the United States, momentarily got the better of me there. There remain many, many people, as there have always been, who resist the power of money. It has always been a nation of heroic dissenters. But the mainstream media these days is able to ensure that expressions of this dissent do not reach the majority of people in such a way as to rouse them to action. It seems that even the tradition of dissent is gradually sinking into irrelevance as the crazies begin to take over.
Austin in an interesting anomaly in the United States, capital of a raw-boned Republican state whose citizens seem to value their iconoclasm, their guns, their macho myths to such a degree that they are normally classified by outsiders as rednecks. Yet Austin is a town of liberal instincts exercising most of those good American qualities referred to above. Not only the superb musicians give the town its quality, but it is also a centre of high-quality research in its several universities; the city seems to be ahead of the game in such essential items as acknowledgement of climate change and the need to get our technologies under control, and it is a centre of high-tech industry.
In addition to taking in the Continental club during my five-day visit, I made another visit to the splendid Blanton museum of fine arts kept by the University of Texas, where works by many of the greatest artists of the United States and Latin America are to be found alongside an extensive exhibition of ancient masters from Europe.
Particularly I wanted another look at the large exhibit from 1987 by Cildo Meireles, a Brazilian artist, called Mission (How to Build a Cathedral). Since it is such a direct critique of the Catholic Church and its work in Latin America, I thought it might have been removed since I saw it a few years ago, in the current white-hot drive by the crazy right-wingers for power. But it is still there. Meireles has erected a sort of city square on the floor of one exhibit room, filled the square with 600,000 pennies, representing the economic forces behind the missions, overhung by a ceiling containing 2,000 hanging cattle bones (representing destruction of agriculture, and perhaps other things as well?), the two forces joined by a long, thin layer of altar wafers (800 of them, one on top of the other), the ensemble representing a direct piece of socially conscious art that one would not think popular in the current climate.
Other major works by Meireles includeThrough (1983-9), a labyrinthine structure which invites the visitor to walk across plates of broken glass; and Babel (2001), which is a tower of radios, each just audible and tuned to a different station to evoke resonances of the Tower of Babel in the Bible.Following the military coup in Brazil, Mereiles in 1970 developed a political art project which aimed to reach a wide audience while avoiding censorship called Insertions Into Ideological Circuits. This was achieved by printing images and messages onto various items that were already widely circulated and which had value discouraging them being destroyed, such as banknotes and Coca-Cola bottles (which were recycled by way of a deposit scheme).
There was one peculiar thing about this museum: they apparently can’t count. Not years, anyway. They charged me the full adult price of $7 entry, ignoring the evidence of my advancing years, which should have earned me a $2 remission. Are these guys just trying to flatter?