Let us now praise the mighty force of nature that is Neko Case! Thrill over her insanely fabulous Knight of Swords album cover: is the resemblance not striking?

(Thanks to Learning the Tarot for this particular image.)

In Tarot, the Swords are the suit of air, & indeed Middle Cyclone feels like some serious wind. I have been playing this thing incessantly since laying hands upon it, & sometimes I could swear I feel my hair blowing back even when all the windows in the studio are shut. It’s not news that the girl has lungs & knows how to use them, but wow, how does she keep cranking out amazing album after amazing album? Despite all the air, Neko herself is a rock-solid dependable Virgo, which only goes partway toward explaining why I love her so.

Let me count the ways:

1) The feeling of enormous spaciousness she creates, which has stayed with me as an unflagging overall impression ever since I heard the first few notes of the Furnace Room Lullaby CD. It’s not just the heavy reverb, either.

2) The old-skool, uncompromising defense of her copyright. No Creative Commons for Neko, no way. Don’t get me wrong, I think there can be a lot of good in all that newfangled sharing, but Neko’s hard line speaks to my heart, as in the Canadian Amp liner notes: “THIS IS WHAT WE DO FOR A LIVING. WE HAVE KIDS, BILLS, AND RENT TOO. THANK YOU.” The current liner notes take a more threatening tone, & I love her for it.

3) The constant experimentation & fun & joy & excellence… I never claimed to be a music writer, & enough bytes abound from keyboards more polished than mine. I’ll just say my world would not be complete without her music arriving in fresh batches regularly the way it does, which brings me to

4) The professionalism & consistency. I am in awe of how she runs her operation. How she shows up all the fucking time. No weird drug habit, no moody off nights. No parched, thirsty deserts of endless time between albums. As much as I love Neko, there are musicians who sing more directly to my own soul, & of course they are the ones who dole out an album maybe every 5 years if you’re lucky, maybe because they’re too busy enjoying themselves (yeah, Gil & Dave, I’m looking at you), or maybe because it’s just too hard (I can’t really pretend to know, but Freakwater comes to mind), or maybe it’s just my own natural sympathy for my kin, the unprolific artists of the world. How lucky that we can rely upon people like Neko (& Sherman Alexie, who is going to bankrupt me with his prodigious output) to keep us all going!

5) You know I am a sucker for a really good Bob Dylan cover, & Neko’s “Buckets of Rain” just about breaks my heart. In the best possible way.

I could go on, but I’ll leave it at this: I don’t think it’s any coincidence that I’ve started making souffles just during this last little stretch of Middle Cycloned time. What food could be airier? It’s like eating clouds. Too bad they always collapse before I think to grab the camera. Put on some brand-new Neko, whip up some egg whites of your own, & then you won’t need my pictures anyway.

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The legendary Richard Aoki has passed into history. When I was an Ethnic Studies major at Cal, this picture was indelibly stamped into all of our impressionable young minds. Three bad-ass dudes (of course they were all dudes—it was the 60s) leading the struggle for the very education that we were now receiving, twenty years later!

By the time I fractured my pelvis & was wheeled off to aquatherapy, another 18 years later, the image was still easily called to my mind, but the bad-ass brothers’ names, not so much. Okay, not at all. At aquatherapy other things seemed much more pressing: getting in & out of clothes & swimsuit, hobbling from wheelchair to the funny little elevator chair that lowered me into the heavily chlorinated high school pool. Strapping the weights around my waist & grabbing a noodle? kickboard? (I can’t believe I’m not remembering what I held in my hands for stability!) to walk slowly across the pool & back again, backwards, sideways, frontways until that subtle moment when my body, fussier than Goldilocks, had had Just The Right Amount of exercise.

This is not a digression. You will see. Many other friendly aquatherapy regulars filled the shallow end of the pool: oldsters with the typical variety of oldster ailments, other (relative) youngsters like me who had been in accidents ranging from merely painful to truly terrible, like the man who had been shot up with 17 bullets & required an entourage of physical therapists to escort him slowly, agonizingly from one side of the pool to the other. Since this is an Ethnic Studies themed post, I am even more compelled than usual to point out he was a young African American man & statistically so much more likely to be suffering from bullet wounds than, say, me, the middle-aged, middle-class Chinese American woman who was bucked off a horse.

Anyway. While walking slowly across the pool one tended to fall into conversation with other aquatherapees (not a real word!) who were walking at similar speed & depth, so I started chatting with an older Asian American man who was recovering from a stroke. I don’t remember exactly what conversation bits soon led to me exclaiming with no small measure of excitement, “Wait! You mean that picture of the three bad-ass dudes, you’re the Asian one?!” Indeed, none other than the one & only Richard Aoki, Third World Liberation Front strike leader & Black Panther Field Marshal, was my pool-walking buddy! Awestruck, I gushed, “I owe my education to you!” (I think he appreciated hearing that.)

Water therapy got a lot more interesting. Along with re-learning how to walk, I picked up juicy nuggets of Panther lore, asked him Everything I Ever Wanted to Know About Firearms But Had Nobody to Ask, & played the Do-You-Know game, Ethnic Studies Edition—of course he knew everybody, & was even related to an artist I knew from a completely different department of my life.

He told me of his early heartbreak when his fiancee forced him to choose between the Panthers & her. I was surprised & touched by the bitterness he still expressed about that long-ago disappointment; it seemed to have turned him off to women permanently. While ranting about it, he even quoted Shakespeare: “Frailty, thy name is woman!”

“Hey,” I protested, “you can’t say that to me!” But he ignored my objection & went on & on about how women can never be as revolutionary as men. I held my tongue & thought, “well, not if you have a narrow definition of revolution that involves so many guns all the time…” but I didn’t really mind hearing him spout off about it; I knew it was much too late for anyone, least of all me, to change his mind, so I continued avidly listening to everything he said, history coming alive for me right there in the tepid pool.

Our conversations were casual & chatty but somehow also intense. It seemed to me that his very aura had a Black Panther flavor: that unique blend of militance & community orientation. We discussed the pros & cons of available options for elder care within the Japanese American community. We talked about Carlos Bulosan & Frank Chin. I noticed various aging Black Panthers shepherding him back & forth to aquatherapy, just as my friends & family took turns bringing me. Eventually I graduated to driving myself to aquatherapy, & then finally to swimming again back at my regular pool, where I walked the shallow lanes with a lot less pain, no weights, no noodle, & also no Richard.

I’m grateful for Richard’s open friendliness at a hard time in my life, & for his dedication & leadership throughout his life, sexist blind spots & all. I feel very lucky that fate threw me in the pool with him for those moments, & I’ll always remember that should I ever feel the need to acquire a gun, I would be best suited for a shotgun. Thank you, Richard. May you rest in revolutionary peace.

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What a weekend! I hope you got outside (if you’re in the Bay Area). Time to come out of hibernation.

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