Guard Duty

The National Park Service's centennial reflects a legacy of conservation
in defense mode

The sanctity of the National Park system is taken for granted in its protection of America's natural wonders. After a century of administration by the U.S. Department of the Interior, there is an assumption of permanence. Yet even if it has taken billions of years for nature to form the areas designated as national parks, such acts of preservation are a new idea in human consciousness. On the 100-year anniversary of the establishment of the National Park Service, to put it in perspective, the agency is barely a decade younger than the official formation of Major League Baseball and only five years older than the National Football League.

On the centennial of the National Park Service, the concept of preserving national parks faces challenges on many fronts. The agency turned 100 on Aug. 25, celebrating the signing of the National Park Service Organic Act in 1916 by President Woodrow Wilson. From that point areas designated as national parks were to be managed by a single system. But that legal declaration came after many years of failures, coming after conservationists lost a nationwide campaign to prevent a dam to flood the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park.

When the 1916 Organic Act was passed, it was controversial after a tough legislative fight with the powerful timber, mining and business lobby. However, a lifetime of work by naturalist John Muir found a voice and movement ratified by law with the act to preserve lands for the national benefit. But this idea of the sacredness of lands is made tenuous by the voices of exploitation that called Muir and his supporters "nature lovers and fakers." For example, Yellowstone National Park was designated by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872, but a dam was proposed for it in the 1930s. A proposal to dam Grand Canyon National Park, established in 1919, was defeated in the 1950s.

Preserved areas are only as permanent as the administration upholding their defense. After the French Revolution of 1789, thousands of acres of private forest groves kept intact by a system of nobles for hundreds of years were de-forested within a decade of the monarch's beheading and the anarchy that followed. The intellectual class of industrialized England, facing the future shock of what William Blake called "the dark satanic mills," fostered the concept of the need to get away from it all. Those poets of that age planted the seeds of a romance with nature. The so-called "Lake Poets" of England, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, reflected Enlightenment attitudes regarding appreciation of the wilds as a human right. Wordsworth described the Lake District in northwest England as a "sort of national property, in which every man has a right and interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy."

But that was a contrary view. Since the emergence of democratic institutions, private property interests have pushed preservation efforts into the citadel mode, with the fortress under government control.

In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed an act of Congress giving the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias to the state of California. The stipulation was that the areas would be forever public, but booming America's belief in the sacredness of "progress" always questioned whether any state or federal body had authority to create parks.

Yet mutual interests merged together in on man: Stephen Tyng Mather. The first director of the National Parks Service was a millionaire industrialist who made a fortune as owner of the Thorkildsen-Mather Borax Company, but then became a conservationist who led a publicity campaign to form a federal agency to oversee the national treasures. The man who organized the original NPS is what Mather Point, on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, is named after.

Although it was President Wilson who signed the National Park Service into law, it was President Teddy Roosevelt who led Americans to codify the preservation of natural wonders into a national plan. But Congress resisted Roosevelt's efforts to turn the Grand Canyon into a national park for a decade. He succeeded in proclaiming it as the Grand Canyon National Game Preserve in 1906, and into a national monument in 1908. But only by executive action. Bills to name the Grand Canyon as a national park were defeated in Congress in 1910 and 1911, and it wasn't until 1919 that it became a national park.

Roosevelt, on the importance of the national park, stated, in explaining his use of executive power to preserve it, "In the Grand Canyon, Arizona has a natural wonder which is in kind absolutely unparalleled throughout the rest of the world. I want to ask you to keep this great wonder of nature as it now is. I hope you will not have a building of any kind, not a summer cottage, a hotel or anything else, to mar the wonderful grandeur, the sublimity, the great loneliness and beauty of the canyon. Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it."

Obviously, his pleas have been only mostly observed. Hotels and other amenities were built and roadways were cut for access as our wonders waver between pristine settings and a more Disneyfied interpretation of the word "park." To powerful sectors of the economy, and to the sheer necessities required for millions of visitors, that balance posed by Roosevelt is always in a state of amorphous compromise.

Indeed, permanence is only as real as people who struggle successfully to keep it so.


Boys of Summer

The Donkeys just have that sound
to make you think of California

The soundtrack for the film "The Endless Summer," released in 1966, has an important place in the hearts of the members of the Southern California band, The Donkeys. First of all, the musical group The Sandals, who did the surf theme for the movie, came from the same place The Donkeys did, Dana Point, California. When the original four members of the indie pop-rockers The Donkeys were growing up, the oceanside city between San Diego and Los Angeles was an idyllic place where you could surf, or just hang out on the beach and breathe in the sea breezes, while their families could live there at a reasonable price. But like so many musicians of their generation living in Southern California, their artistic cravings were fueled by the restlessness of being young in the 'burbs.

The film "The Endless Summer" was about a group of surfers, finding California beaches inhospitable during the cold currents of winter, seeking out warmer climates around the world in order to do what they love around the year, thus making it sunny and wavy wherever they went. It's a kind of gypsy idea, reinforced for the 20th century by Jack Kerouac and his novel about life on the move, "On the Road." Fledgling rock bands, therefore, are perfect extensions of this Kerouac idea: of roving minstrels, of easy riders, of boardmen moving with the currents. Touring musicians perfect the surf-and-travel ethic by getting paid something, anything in order to do so. Indeed, traveling bands are the nuclear families of endless summer.

Captured for a comment for a cell phone interview while negotiating traffic in a van moving north from New York for a show in Canada, The Donkeys are living the dream. They love touring but have families and need to strike a balance. In the tour bus were band members Timothy DeNardo, Anthony Lukens, Sam Sprague, and Steve Selvidge, a stand-in member of the tour who also plays with the band Hold Steady. Asked about why The Donkeys recently released a cover of the theme song for "The Endless Summer," the band's drummer and occasional vocalist, Sprague, says the Sandals' original was a seminal moment in surf music and the California sound.

"The record label was asking us for a cover and the Sandals were from Dana Point, and we wanted to pay homage to that," Sprague says. "We recorded it in Anthony's garage and we didn't get too far out with it. It's hard to compete (with the original). It was a masterpiece."

The Donkeys are most commonly categorized by critics as being a new form of hippiefied beach crew, mostly because of their San Diego performance base. They often feature the vocal oohs and ahhs of the breezy Pacific ease of the Beach Boys, as well as the extended jam techniques of the Grateful Dead. They also share an affinity for another California band, Pavement. But in an interview a few years ago, guitarist Lukens denied any sort of strict Left-Coast musical alignment, stating they could have just as easily come from Iowa. Listening to the instrumentation for any of their four albums and a recent EP, "Midnight Palms," you can easily hear the jangle-rock remnants of a legendary East Coast band, The Velvet Underground.

"I love Pavement, but I really don't feel like we sound like them," Sprague says. "A huge influence was the Velvet Underground, a very big influence."

Their first self-titled album, "The Donkeys" came out in 2004, and was followed by "Living on the Other Side" in 2008, "Born with Stripes" in 2011, and "Ride the Black Wave" in 2014. By the time they had released "Born With Stripes," they were getting raves for being one of San Diego's favorite emerging acts and won a nod from the San Diego Music Awards for best rock band in 2012.

They got a taste from mainstream culture in an odd sort of way. A producer for the TV show "Lost" had heard their music, and wanted to use it on the show. Sections of their music have been used throughout the series. The show created characters for a fictional band called Geronimo Jackson and used a tailored version of The Donkeys' song, "Excelsior Lady." This was done by having the fake band lip-sync the real-band recording. Proceeds from the song's usage on TV helped to pay the cost for another Donkeys album. Lukens recently quipped that the fake band, Geronimo Jackson, was actually more famous than the Donkeys.

Sprague isn't sure about any acclaim to fame for being the players behind a pseudonym.
"We are probably still waiting for that big break," he says.

Unlike the Velvet Underground, The Donkeys don't go much into the harsh light of crunching dissonance. Their recordings are clean, with all members of the band sharing the vocals much as the same way as another immaculate California band, the Eagles. They peruse the pop idiom of relationship songs. Storm and stress is kept at a minimum. As Sprague says, "Writing songs about girls is the classic thing. We are a romantic bunch. Who doesn't like love songs?"

The first song on the new EP, "Hurt Somebody," is an uptempo tune with tinklings of keyboards very reminiscent of Bob Dylan when he moved from folk to rock, and includes the highly affirmative chorus, "It will be all right." It sounds like many neo-classic alt-country bands who themselves were inspired by the Byrds. "Down the Line" could have been a hit on FM radio in the 1970s, with its happy message and simple "do-dit-do-do-does." They honor Grateful Dead stylings with "Hold on to You," a rocker with youthful exuberance. "Day by Day" recalls the solo efforts of John Lennon from say, "The Double Fantasy" period. Then comes "Star Bird," even more dreamy with a live-in-the-studio feel, layers of keyboards, airy background vocals, a sweetly skeletal guitar chime and a soothing melody. It's the standout piece of the EP.

"Born with Stripes," their next-to-last full-length album, is ear candy with bright keyboards harking back to some time way back, not sure when. The track "I Like the Way That You Walk" sounds like bands such as The Feelies, who themselves were inspired by the Velvet Underground, but the sweetness of the lyric, in praise of the feminine subject, is feel-good pop. Other songs on the record sound as if they were inspired by long drives across the California central desert. Their use of farfiza and Rhodes organ sounds, and a simplified sort of rock, really makes you think this music was recorded in the 1960s. Especially when they use the sitar. "Ride the Black Wave," from their last full-length effort, makes one think of another Californian, Chris Isaak, except spacier.

"It's great that it sounds nostalgic, we just don't want to be the Beach Boys reincarnated," Sprague says. "Hopefully, it doesn't sound derivative."

Sprague is the youngest member of the band at 37, so The Donkeys aren't fresh-faced folkies trying to reinvent the wheel with obtuse vocalizations or otherwise tuneless, baroque melodies. And if people think of the Dead due to the unified brilliance of their live shows, that's because the members of the band have been playing together in different bands since high school. The band's hive-mind sound really came together after a previous tour where they performed for 32 straight nights.

"We have been playing together, after being in various bands together, for a solid straight eight years," Sprague says. "Nowadays we are more focused so when we get into the studio we can get it done in a day or two. That tour playing 32 days in a row was really rough ... but we are definitely tight as hell. That's the greatest feeling."


Gordon Lightfoot
A North American national resource

During the days of the 70s when FM radio ruled as the central output for whatever was going on in music, when story-telling Jim Croce had his big bad Leroy Brown, Harry Chapin his cats in a cradle, and James Taylor his fire and rain, Gordon Lightfoot was right alongside them with such hits as "Sundown," "Rainy Day People," "Carefee Highway," "If You Could Read My Mind," and by far the best maritime disaster song of all time, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." They call it easy listening now, many of those FM radio hits that were ballads, but many of the best, in Lightfoot's case, were drawn from gut-wrenching heartbreak and a general appetite for tragedy. Basically, some pretty dark stuff.

In a telephone interview from his home in Toronto, Canada, Lightfoot, now 77, was almost as good at telling the stories of his most famous songs as he is at singing the songs himself.

For example, he says "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," about the sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior on Nov. 10, 1975, started out as a song when, a few weeks before the disaster happened, he remembered a melody from childhood.

"It was an Irish dirge I heard when I was three," he says of the original melody for the song. "It kind of sprung itself all of the sudden."

The details for the "Edmund Fitzgerald" were realized for Lightfoot when he read a story in Newsweek magazine about the 29 crew members who were lost during the severe November storm.
"I remembered that night because there was a very strong wind in Toronto, and I was wondering how my sailboat was doing that night," he says. "After I read the Newsweek article a few weeks later, the melody was already there and I wrote the song."

Last year was the 40-year-anniversary of the tragedy, and Lightfoot has kept in touch with the families of the victims over the years. A year ago he was throwing himself behind a preservation effort for the old church in Detroit referred to in the song. "I had to take care of that," he says.
Lightfoot and Bob Dylan have had a mutual admiration society for decades, going back to when Lightfoot would occasionally visit Dylan at his songwriting office in New York, after Lightfoot got a management deal with Albert Grossman, who also represented Dylan.

"I can remember watching (Dylan) work on the typewriter," Lightfoot says. "He was really large for me. He's the main influence. I got into how he did it. How he got it done."

He laughed about the week of Woodstock and how there were all of these stories about Dylan performing at the show in upstate New York, while Lightfoot knew all of the time he was at the Isle of Wight festival in England. Lightfoot says he was invited to go to Woodstock, to watch, that is, but he didn't go. Playing such a gig was discouraged by his manager, Grossman, who didn't like the idea of his clients playing for free.

"He'd say 'keep it for the concerts, keep your mystique together,' " he says.

Lightfoot grew up as a performing child prodigy, singing in public for the first time in the fourth grade, and he became quite used to being in front of audiences by the age of 10. He loved Bing Crosby and songs by the 19th century songwriter Stephen Foster, who wrote "Camptown Ladies," among other American standards.

"I don't know if I plagiarized him or not," he jokes of Foster's influence.

He got his career start in music in the late 1950s and early 1960s hosting shows featuring country music, first in Canada, then in England on the BBC, and by around 1964 his songs were being recorded by such artists as Elvis Presley, Marty Robbins and Peter, Paul and Mary. His first big American hit was "If You Can Read My Mind" in 1970. From that point on, Lightfoot was a heavyweight on the radio playlists.

"There was always competition," he says. "There was always the Beatles or David Bowie in your face."

He says it was during his early years that he'd found a way to write songs: finding solitude by asking people with empty homes or apartments in Toronto if he could go inside and play there for a while. With families, kids, all kinds of people in those coffeehouse folk days of Pete Seeger wannabees around him, it was the best way to get quiet and find the folkways going on in his head.

"I found an empty condo fine. You have to just completely remove yourself from everything," Lightfoot says. "I had an odd thing about working in empty houses. They (the owners) would go outside and have a smoke, and by the time they were done I'd have a song," he says.

By the late 1970s Lightfoot was a huge success in Canada and the U.S. with such singles as "Sundown" and "Carefree Highway," the latter inspired when, on tour in Arizona, he came across a highway sign, literally, "Carefree Highway." He wrote the two words down and threw the piece of paper into a suitcase, only to discover it later when he was in the spirit to write. The song is purported to be about a carefree life on the road, but Lightfoot loaded it with its main story about loss and longing. Equally edgy, from a relationship-song standpoint, is "Sundown," about a man suspicious about his lover, a song that cuts so deep Lightfoot has to remind people that, hey, it's only a song.

"I crossed paths with one guy who was totally convinced 'Sundown' was about him," Lightfoot says. "He was so worried about it, I had to stand there and ease his fears."


Sludge, American style

For Melvins' leader Buzz Osborne,
normal is a state of someone else's mind

     The Melvins have a flare for the dramatic, as well as for the bizarre, most certainly in a Frank Zappa sorta way, especially for a band with album titles like "The Maggot," "Hostile Ambient Takeover" and "Everybody Loves Sausages." Appropriately, the masters of sludge rock, longtime members Buzz Osborne and Dale Crover, are celebrating the month of August by appearing as animated characters in the Cartoon Network series "Uncle Grandpa." You could argue that Osborne's potted-plant hairstyle also inspired another cartoon character, the Simpsons' "Sideshow Bob."

     Living in the sub-cult village of American pedal-to-the-metal, they are irreverent, funny, and, occasionally, exceedingly ambitious.

     For example, the group that usually performs as a power trio once played every night for 51 straight days in every state in the U.S. and the District of Columbia. The 2012 tour started in Anchorage, Alaska and ended up in Honolulu, Hawaii.

     Band leader and guitarist Osborne says the Herculean effort would have been written up in the Guinness Book of World Records, "but you have to pay for that."
     As far as the weirdness goes, Osborne makes no apologies. Being anti-social, most certainly non-commercial, is a an artistic statement opposing the overculture.

     "We're a lot of long-haired kooks, that's kind of the deal," he says in a telephone interview from his home in Los Angeles. "There are enough bands already doing the normal stuff."

     Other notable oddities in the history of the Melvins is that in 2011 they were touring in Christchurch, New Zealand at the time of a major earthquake, and then were in Tokyo, Japan for an earthquake and tsunami. He adds they were in Los Angeles for another temblor, but adds he finds no special coincidence regarding these events, even considering the fact that the Melvins play loud and hard enough to set off earthquake alarms.

     What else? Oh yeah, this: The Melvins challenge Neil Young for the title, "Godfather of Grunge." They have also been referred to as "the Gods of sludge." They are most certainly the godfathers of gut-pounding something.

    "One-hundred percent, no question," he says. "Most people give us props for that, for what it's worth."

     The grunge pioneer connection began with Osborne growing up around Aberdeen, Washington, and attending the same high school as Curt Cobain.

     "We did know each other to some degree," Osborne says. "We were all interested in music. (Cobain) had a talent for chord progressions that were good to listen to ... But everything that happened with the way he died replaced all of that."

     When he introduced Cobain and Krist Novoselic to Dave Grohl, Nirvana was born. Now a member of the Foo Fighters, Novoselic recently proposed to Osborne that he and the Melvins join together for a series of shows performing Nirvana songs, but the idea fell through.

     Nevertheless, they will be always connected to the birth of grunge and the fabled "Seattle sound," even though they have been based in Southern California for more than 20 years. The band's first album "Gluey Porch Treatments" in 1987 led to a few more independent releases and then, just as Nirvana was taking off, the Melvins were signed to Atlantic Records to produce "Houdini." But in the time since the group has spun out of the "grunge" universe, creating a ferocious, disassembling hodge-podge style fusing Black Sabbath to the furies of all forms of guitar noise.

     The Melvins are touring after releasing two albums this year.

     The first, "Three Men and a Baby," is a project that originally began in the late 1990s, but was abandoned when the drummer had to be fired "due to extracurricular activities, if you know I mean," Osborne says. After he returned, they completed the record.

     "I had put that (project) completely out of my mind," he says. "I completely forgot what they sounded like. He came back we finished it and now I'm really proud of it."

     The main focus of the band, though, is to promote "Basses Loaded," which includes a rambunctious cover of the Beatles' "I Want to Tell You," as well as an eclectic mix of buzzing guitar, jazzy interludes, off-color joke tunes, a cover of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," and more than one track calling back to the early days of grunge. The record features six different bass players (hence the album title), including Novoselic, Jeff Pinkus of the Butthole Surfers, Mr. Bungle bass player Trevor Dunn, Jared Warren of Big Business, and Steve McDonald of Redd Kross, who is the bassist on the current Melvins' tour.

     Osborne says the use of so many bassists was due to a feeling of complete insecurity about how many band members have come and gone over the years. He is the lone original member.

     "It's so discouraging to have all of my musical hope pinned on one guy," he says. "So I use a lot of people. Every version of the band (on the album) is different sounding. We hadn't done anything like this and it seemed like a good idea."

     At the end of it all, the Melvins are the avant garde masters of the unconventional.

     "I don't think it sounds odd," he says. "There's not much I can do about what people think is experimental or odd. It sounds normal to me. All things are relative."

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Thievery Corporation: 
Two Decades of Downtempo
  At the nadir of the alternative scene of the 1990s, Rob Garza and Eric Hilton were looking for something different. Based in Washington, D.C., they had met in 1995 at a popular lounge co-owned by Hilton, an entrepreneurial sort who had been producing parties for the hotspot known as the Eighteenth Street Lounge, which was located in an old mansion with three floors renovated for DJ-driven music events. The duo decided to use the venue, drawing from the musicians it attracted, to create a collective entity that has been known for 20 years as Thievery Corporation. 

    What they were looking for back then, recalled Garza during a telephone interview from his home of seven years in San Francisco, was something new to inject into the electronic dance music scene. New hip-hop acts and ultra-hip sampling processors such as Fat Boy Slim and the Chemical Brothers were replacing the heroes of Pearl-Jam-landia. Digital drums jumped to the front like mighty hammers, smashing the primacy of grunge and noodling guitar solos to bits. The appropriation of beats and found sounds was all the rage, and Garza and Hilton, after rummaging through the record stores in Baltimore, bought old bossa nova albums, dub records and soundtrack music, and began incoropating those inspirational elements into recordings made at Hilton's studio.

     Garza says it got to the point that they realized their love for Brazilian bossa nova from 30 years before might be updated with the new production values and the trance-like electronic vibe of the emerging age.

     The duo drew attention with their first two 12-inch offerings, "Shaolin Satellite," a dark, intense, bass-driven and danceable electronic track, and "2001: a Spliff Odyssey," where dub meets a kind of spacey, atmospheric jazz. With their 1997 debut LP, "Sounds from the Thievery Hi-Fi," the duo showed a desire to break into more and more of what had at that point been known as world music.

    "In '95 we were really just doing it for the fun of it, but then people really responded to the music," Garza says. "After the first two singles, people from all over were into us. It was at that point that we decided to create a business that was sustainable. The music we were creating had a trippy quality where you couldn't be sure if it was from the future or the past."

     What they were doing has since been labeled "lounge" or "downtempo," but Garza says at the time the easy listening labels of those early years were just fads. What they wanted to do was put some old roots music on steroids, borrowing from Bollywood to Buenas Aires, especially from the bossa nova movement in Brazil in the 1960s, "and get a different take of some of this different music," Garza says.

     Those early efforts were basic experiments. In the years since Moby's "Play" became a permanent monument on the radio and television landscape, beyond the go-go internet days of 2000, electronic dance music has taken over the night club scene in urban America. The recordings of this century by Thievery Corporation have shown the willingness to move into undefinable directions of sound accompanied by the voices of many nations. And more than having fun with samples, which got them into the game to begin with, their music has taken on themes of political and social immediacy on a world-wide scale.

     Playing dub, acid jazz, space rock to the chill side of Pink Floyd, as well as a fusion of reggae, Indian classical, and Middle Eastern styles, all to the predominant, insistent beat of hip-hop, Thievery Corporation is a politically progressive act intent on opening listeners' minds to foreign sounds so they no longer feel foreign. Remarkably during their career, they have created songs with lyrics in English, Spanish, French, Italian, Persian, Portuguese, Romanian and Hindi. Ranging from a kind of romantic elegance to dark and perilous tracks full of intricate details caught in a minimalist web, each album is a kind of urgent trek across many musical horizons, often to a dub or bass beat, then jumping into reggae or a cosmic jazz suite: music that can be played at low volumes but still make you feel like you are living on the edge.

     "Having music that is coming from a global perspective opens people's minds, gives them a broader view of the world," Garza says. "It makes you think a little bit. I don't think our music is necessarily political. It is inspired by music from bands like Public Enemy, Fugazi, the punk stuff, bands like the Clash. There's something liberating about being able to say anything."

     If recent records have contained, from track to track, multiple styles of music, the most recent album, "Saudade," released in 2014, sticks to the Brazilian and bossa nova side of things. Garza says it was a way of going full circle after 20 years.

     "For us, we have always been influenced by Brazilian music and for that record, rather than jumping from style to style, we would take a break, choose one particular form," he says. "With the next album we are going to release later this year, we recorded it at Point Antonio in Jamaica. There's a Jamaican theme throughout and we are very excited about it."

     Of course, to keep all of those musical influences under one band's roof, Thievery Corporation has grown beyond Garza and Hilton into a larger band of supporting musicians including Rob Myers, Loulou Ghelichkhani, Natalia Clavier, Frank "Booty Lock" Mitchell, Mr. Lif, Jeff Franca and Ashish Vyas.

     "We have great musicians from all over the country, people from Argentina, Iran and Jamaica," Garza says. "It really feels like a circus with a great cast of characters."

     But don't ever think it's chill or downtempo or lounge music, he adds, if you come to see it live.
     "I hope people see it as Thievery Corporation music," Garza says. "A lot of songs might seem chilled out when you play them at home, but get it pumping into a live sound system, really gets the heart going."

     If you like posts by Douglas McDaniel and Mythville, or simply like this post, contribute to the writer's Tip Jar at http://www.patreon.com/douglasmcdaniel