Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Famous Diarists: Jeff Buckley

There's something intriguing about catching someone writing in a journal. This is especially the case when that someone happens to be of the artistic temperament. The late great musician (and son of likewise late-great musician, Tim Buckley) Jeff Buckley embodied the essence of the Bohemian movement that was once a thriving part of the East Side of Manhattan in New York City during the 1980s and 90s. 

The area was a haven for artists, upstart fashion designers, musicians, and social activists due in part to its (by New York City standards) inexpensive rent rates and its historic architecture. The area was once home to a large multi-ethnic community with many Puerto Rican, Indian/Pakistani, Eastern European establishments. It was also, arguably, the birthplace of the New York punk-rock scene with CBGBs (frequented by Patti Smith and the Ramones among others).

It was into this scene that Jeff Buckley arrived, andthough his music is often tinged with the helterskelter of urban living ("The Sky is a Landfill"), he often referenced the more bluesy, folk-rock revival of previous decades ("Lover, You Should Have Come Over"). He is most famous for his cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" - and rightfully so. It's an amazing piece of music with an intense, almost meditative quality that takes you to some heartbreaking, ethereal place. 

These neighborhoods were, unfortunately, also high crime areas (especially Alphabet City, made famous in the musical RENT). A campaign of intense gentrifcation has since forced out much of the artistic community. But these images reflect a man who relished the lifestyle that embraced art and embraced this sort of existence.

Notice the wild flyway hair and the pensive posture and expression. But also note the ambience of his environment. The man wrote everywhere: clubs, hotel rooms, his apartment, the recording studio, even on the street. You don't need to be quaint Parisian cafe or placid lakeside hill to journal. In an interview he remarks: "I have these notebooks that I fetish daily. Run to. I always have one with me." 

It's apparent that Jeff wrote in various types of notebooks - most likely whatever he could get his hands on or what he could find for cheap (let's face it - the Bohemian lifestyle was defined in part by just skirting the poverty line). Most seem to be common spiral notebooks or memo pads of the drugstore variety. You don't need a Moleskine or expensive Italian leatherbound tome, either. In fact, if judging by the quality of his writing in the excerpts that appear in the liner notes for his posthumous album, Sketches for My Sweetheart The Drunk, he wrote eloquently, intensely, and almost compulsively. 

The world lost Jeff when he drowned during a swim in the Wolf River on May 29, 1997 at the age of 30. His following has only grown since. 

(Thanks to Vancouver over at the Jeff Buckley Community for tracking down this collection of photographs.)

Monday, June 9, 2008

Moleskine: A Cult Brand and the Renaissance of Journaling

"The Legendary Notebook of Hemingway, Picasso, and Chatwin" proclaims the propaganda from Modo & Modo, the Italian company that produces the current Moleskines. Frankly, I think it's all a load of bollocks. The ORIGINAL "moleskine" stationery was manufactured by an obscure French firm in the city of Tours. The company was apparently not called Moleskine, but British novelist Bruce Chatwin dubbed the little books they manufactured "les carnets moleskines" - or "the notebooks of artifical leather" - in his own writing. That company ceased to exist when its owner passed away in 1986. "Le vrai moleskine n'est plus," Chatwin was told, which translates to: "The true moleskine is no more." How true.

Years later, someone had the brilliant idea of creating an entirely new brand name, completely making up a fake back-story and fabricating a pedigree, and marketing it as a sort of niche, lifestyle brand. "Buy a Moleskine, and you'll be in the company of such artistic greats as Van Gogh, Picasso, Hemingway, and Bruce Chatwin!" Now the original "carnets moleskines" from the Tours stationer WERE of course used by Chatwin. However, anyone who bothers to look into the history of this company will realize that there is no evidence that Hemingway, Van Gogh, or Picasso ever purchased from the little French company. What's more, the new Moleskine brand name is not even a direct descendent of the original company. No one involved with the original "vrai moleskine" is involved with the juggernaut it has become today. (And Chatwin passed away several years before the Modo & Modo's recapitulation. Modo & Modo would have you believe that his endorsement of the ORIGINAL notebooks transfers over to the present brand. It does not.)

The truth is, these are just notebooks. And not really exceptional notebooks at that. The paper is of a rather temperamental, onion-skin variety, making them unsuitable for visual journaling or even many fountain pens. Granted, Modo & Modo has their own line of sketchbooks under the Moleskine branding. These, however, are essentially common cardstock. Furthermore, there are precious few pages per (overpriced) book.

The Moleskine's claim to fame rest on three little "innovations" - an elastic band to keep it shut, a cloth bookmark, and a pocket in the back. Granted, these features lend a certain portability to these notebooks... but who are we kidding? None of it justifies the steep pricing and the pretentious, self-congratulatory smirk that comes along with it. There are much finer and more spiffy notebooks out there by the likes of ClaireFontaine, Levengers, and Ciak - which are pricey but, unlike Moleskine, actually worth the money. And if you're really adventurous, you might follow Chatwin's example and find your own little obscure stationer to patronize. Or, if you are strapped for cash, just buy a simple spiral Mead notebook or a humble Canson sketchbook (a company whom Van Gogh and Picasso DID purchase from; for journaling purposes, I recommend the 8 1/2" by 11" Basic Sketchbook in a sturdy, threadbound hardcover). They do just fine.

Now, thing is, I can't be too mad at the people at Modo & Modo. If nothing else, the Moleskine has been a sort of impetus for a Renaissance of journaling. For better or worse, people have bought into this sleek, streamlined, pursuasive marketing campaign with an insatiable vigor. Many turn it into some sort of manifesto of their life's philosophy. As of this writing, entire blogs are devoted to these little black books. The Moleskine fan club has reached near cult proportions.

But if this is what it takes to inspire people to pick up a pen and start documenting their lives, who am I to complain? People on these blogs and websites are actually excited about journaling! Artists have created beautiful works of art out of the sketchbooks or line drawings or painting that stretch from one page to the next. Check out this example from artist Valeria Petrone.

People decorate the simple black books in creative ways with stickers, decoupage, vintage art, and inspiring quotations. There's even an entire section on the site 43folders devoted to Moleskine "hacks."

All in all, it seems like there's a whole lot more journaling going on and it's all thanks to these little black books. Whodathunk? 

What's So Hardcore About Journaling?

Hear the word "journaling" and you immediately imagine either an angst-ridden teenage girl scrawling out maudlin poetry in a composition book, a middle aged housewife scrapbooking the family trip to Oregon, or a self-indulged hipster typing away at his/her laptop in a conspicuous corner of Starbucks.

But, believe it or not, journaling isn't just for angst-ridden teenage girls, middle-aged housewives, or self-indulgent hipsters sipping Starbucks. Really, it's not. It's a powerful yet simple and inexpensive practice, dating back centuries and centuries. Throughout history, journals and diaries have been privy to the most personal confessions of some of the world's most fascinating individuals: Leonardo Da Vinci, Mary Queen of Scots, Ulysses S. Grant, Charles Darwin, Virginia Woolf, Bob Dylan, and Kurt Cobain kept them. Soldiers and generals, courtesans and ladykillers, musicians, politicians, poets, philosophers, actors, and businessmen as well.

But the fact is, you don't need to be a famous war general or rock muscian to write one hell of a journal. In fact, journaling can have the uncanny capacity to show you just how interesting your life actually is. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke once gave this advice to a young man who had asked him for advice: "If your everyday life seems poor, don't blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is not poverty and no poor, indifferent place."

You don't even need to be a good writer. You just need to be honest. Be honest about yourself, and you'll be rewarded for it. This is harder than it sounds. You need to write about the things in your life that make you angry, sad, or frustrated. You need to write about the people in your life that get you horny, hot, and bothered. In other words, the journal is a place for you to be hardcore. What does that mean?

Pronunciation: \-╦łkȯr\
Function: adjective
Date: 1940
1 a: of, relating to, or being part of a hard core <hard–core poverty> hard–core unemployed> b: confirmed, die-hard <hard–core rock fans> hard–core liberal>
2 of pornography : containing explicit descriptions of sex acts or scenes of actual sex acts — compare soft-core
3: characterized by or being the purest or most basic form of something : fundamental
hard–core French provincial style — John Canaday>

Source: Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition

The closest definition for our purposes would probably be 3. I want you to be your complete, pure, unadulterated self. Not the you your mom and pop expected you to be. Not the you your girlfriend, boyfriend, domestic partner, boss' wife's uncle's great grand-niece thrice removed wants you to be. Not the You your current life situation is threatening to turn your into without your consent. I want you to be you, to the best of your ability.

Who are you? Well, it's sort of like St. Augustine's answer to the question "What is time?" - "I know, but when you ask me, I don't." You know who you are because you feel it every minute of your life. That joy you feel when your favorite song from sixth grade comes on the radio is you. That resentment you feel when your boss gives you the "I know you can do better" lecture for the umpteenth time is you. That euphoric excitement you feel when you finally meet someone who gets you... that's you.

This all involves being accepting of all parts of yourself - the noble, loving, and intelligent part of yourself, but also the angry, the infantile, and the insecure. Most of us don't want to see these aspects of ourselves memorialized permanently before us in black and white in a book or on a computer screen. Many of us actively ignore or repress them, which can lead to depression, substance or psychological addiction, or compulsive shopping or overeating. But, if you're willing to put up with yourself, you'll be rewarded.

I know I personally have found I get "stuck" a lot of the time, when there are certain topics I don't want to write about or certain things I regret writing. But, then I remember: a journal is not real life. It's only practice for the real deal. It's these these very imperfections that make us human and interesting. And it's our ability to overcome, understand, or heal our imperfections and wounds, that make life worth living.