My Favourite Things (MFT): July 10
Painting with John Lurie, live-streaming Dead & Company's final farewells, wit and wisdom from Irish centenarians, Bruce Cockburn's latest, the enchanting musical legacy of an Ethiopian nun, and more.
This week’s MFTs are available exclusively to paid subscribers. If you’re not already a paid subscriber, you’re in luck as I am running a promotion for the month of July where any annual subscription (for yourself or given as a gift) is 15 percent off. Additionally, through Substack’s Refer a Friend program, if you refer a friend or two or a dozen and they subscribe to This Numinous World, you get additional time added to your paid subscription.
John Lurie’s Wonderful Watercolors and Weirdness
Once upon a time there was something delightful….
One summer about 25 years ago, my lifemate, Maury, and I were visiting New York City when our friend Allen, knowing Maury’s fondness for angling, asked if we’d ever seen the short-lived television series Fishing with John.
We had not. Allen insisted we had to find it. This was the late ‘90s. And I’m not sure how we did it, but eventually we tracked it down on, I think, VHS. Although maybe it was a set of DVDs. Or both. They’re still in the house somewhere. I promise to find them before we move. But I digress…
Fishing with John, which it now apparently can be found on the Criterion Channel, followed the polymath musician, performer, actor, and enigmatic founder of the Lounge Lizards (among many other musical, artistic, and cinematic credits) John Lurie as he went fishing in exotic locales including for red snapper in Jamaica with Tom Waits, ice fishing in northern Maine with Willem Dafoe, and a two-episode adventure involving giant squid and Dennis Hopper in Thailand.
It was mesmerizing (if somewhat indescribable) television. Weird and wonderful, much like Lurie, aka Marvin Pontiac, himself. We watched the fishing episodes several times over the years and forced more than a few friends to do the same.
A couple of decades go by, and then suddenly, unannounced and unexpected, like a gift from the gods, in late January 2021, just as the global pandemic was turning into its second year, Painting with John appeared on HBO.
We didn’t know what it would be. It was unscripted. It was Lurie. We had no idea he even was a painter.
We asked Wikipedia, which told us the show was, “Part meditative tutorial, part fireside chat, musician John Lurie shares his philosophical thoughts while honing his watercolor techniques.”
Sure. OK. We can’t imagine Lurie doing a “fireside chat,” but whatever. We’re in.
Anything could happen and it did. But this time, the chaos unfolded with a more magical effect. There was painting and talking, opining and kvetching, but there were also dream sequences, running gags with a drone and eventually in later seasons a toaster, too, and occasional Terry Gilliam-esque animation using Lurie’s artwork.
Lurie is an accomplished painter, favoring watercolor and gouache with pen and ink to create whimsical, intricate, almost shamanistic, and sometimes hilarious tableaus loaded with finely detailed flora, fantastical icons, and outsider-art-meets-fairy-tale creatures formed in the mind palace that houses Lurie’s seemingly boundless (and boundary-free) creative reserves.
You can see some of his artwork HERE. I hope some day to own one of his originals. I’ve had my eye on the one he calls “They were weird. But they saw something weirder,” for a couple of years. I just read recently that it was partly inspired by a scene from Peaky Blinders, which makes me love it even more. But I’m also fond of one he featured in the Season Three finale, “A Goat says fuck.” And I’m fairly certain I want to design a poetry reading nook in our next house around his painting “Blue boar head.” And then there’s “We buried the elephant in the sky,” which is just … both adorable and delightful, to borrow a couple of adjectives from the artist himself.
For the first two seasons, Painting with John was pretty much as advertised: Lurie painting at a table on his patio somewhere in the Caribbean. (He’s famously cagey about saying exactly where he lives. He had a bad experience with a stalker a while back.) Each episode is about 20 minutes long and always leaves us wanting more. It’s the closest thing Maury and I have to appointment television anymore. We wait for the strike of 8 p.m. PT, refreshing the HBO (now MAX) app until the little triangle appears and we can watch whatever Lurie’s cooked up for the week.
After the first season, I bought Lurie’s wild and wooly (and thoroughly enjoyable) memoir, The History of Bones, which we listened to on a long road trip. Like me, Lurie battles chronic Lyme disease. He started writing his memoir when he first got sick 20 years ago with what eventually was diagnosed as advanced Lyme. And he began painting when the disease flared and impeded his ability to play musical instruments. I get it. The joint pain can be horrendous and debilitating. Although it ends sort of abruptly, I thoroughly enjoyed the memoir and would recommend it, though not for the faint of heart (or delicate of sensibilities.)
This season on Painting with John, Lurie welcomes a few guests to his island home (including Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers) and makes a field trip to New York to record music for the series, which he writes, directs, and scores himself. The last episode of Season Three aired last Friday. In it he revealed that he and Nesrin “Scooch the Oocher” Wolf (his partner, co-star, and a producer on the show) were in New York City for the first stretch of COVID lockdowns. I had no idea and assumed the show had sprung from his fertile imagination as he sat in his tropical perch riding out the pandemic on an island that wasn’t Manhattan. That he created Painting with John after being confined to a tiny apartment in a city far from home for months makes the gift of it all the more precious.
Lurie, 70, ends his third season of whimsical wonderful weirdness with this monologue shot as if he’s talking in his sleep:
Once upon a time there was something delightful. Yeah. OK. I’m OK with this. Hope you’re OK with this. Once upon a time there was something that was delightful. Ahhh. That was good. Ahhh. Ahhh. Ahhh. Don’t you think? We’re OK now. We’re alright. We’re OK. Alright, I’m goin’ back to sleep. See ya.
Will Lurie’s unlikely TV show return for a fourth season? God, I hope so.
See ya later, John. And thank you.
Bruce Cockburn’s O Sun O Moon
Bruce Cockburn is my very favourite solo artist and has been since I first stumbled upon his music as a teenager lying in bed late one Sunday night listening to the King Biscuit Flower Hour on a transistor radio hidden under my pillow.
I’ve had a number of conversations with Bruce over the years—beginning with one of my first “celebrity” interviews when I was a very young journalist writing for my college paper and perhaps most famously on stage at the Ann Arbor Book Festival in 2006 when I was touring to promote my first book, The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People. (You can read AND listen to that interview HERE.)
Bruce, who was not in the book, drove himself down from his home in Ontario to join me onstage for a live God-Factor-style interview. We spent a couple of days together in Michigan and have done a few proper interviews, which you can find HERE and HERE, and stayed in touch over the years.
Bruce and I haven’t seen each other since The Before Times, something I hope to remedy in the autumn when he swings through Southern California on his latest tour supporting his new wondrous album, O Sun O Moon.
In the meantime, since its release in May, I’ve wrapped myself in O Sun O Moon like the embrace of a cherished friend you haven’t seen in way too long.
Like Paul Simon, Bruce’s music has always been spiritual, and like Simon’s stunning Seven Psalms, O Sun O Moon —his 38th studio album — is perhaps Bruce’s most overtly spiritual in a long time if not, perhaps, ever. Bruce isn’t a God-botherer in the traditional sense, but he is someone who’s wrestled angels and had his fair share of shouting matches with the Almighty. The musical breadcrumbs he leaves on the new album seem to lead to a place of disquieted spiritual contentment. Whether my read is accurate and if so, whether it’s because he’s sure of more or less than he was earlier in his journey, is something only he knows for sure.
The album is full of delights and a few surprise guests. Why yes, that is Bruce’s pal Shawn Colvin (another of my longtime favourites) you hear on the first track, “I’m On A Roll,” which he wrote on July 27, 2020, at the height of the first wave of COVID.
I had a dream. There was a storm
And all the earth was without form
The sun was cold, the ether warm
Pressure building left and right
Timer ticking, just out of sight
I’m taking shelter
In the light
Time takes its toll
But in my soul
I’m on a roll.
I love Bruce’s plainspokenness about the state of the world, justice, politics, culture, and how his mortal coil is cooperating or not. Bruce, who turned 78 the month his new album dropped, is a force of nature, always a quiet storm brewing there, but he’s never been afraid to show his vulnerability. That’s a big part of why I love him as I do.
Perhaps my favourite track on the new album speaks to that, literally and metaphorically. On “All Of Us,” Bruce’s voice stretches to reach the top of his register and the result is imperfectly perfect, so much so that it moved me to tears.
Here we are, faced with choice
Shutters and walls or open embrace
Like it or not, the human race
Is us all
History is what it is
Scars we inflict on each other don't die
But slowly soak into the DNA
Of us all
I pray we not fear to love
I pray we be free of judgement and shame
Open the vein, let kindness rain
O'er us all
It’s an ideal I can embrace wholly. It’s a mantra I will repeat in my heart, with my breath. It’s my prayer today, ever and always.
The vinyl edition of O Sun O Moon, which will be released on July 14, has four additional tracks, including “Bird Without Wings,” a song Bruce wrote and that was released in 1968 by the group 3’s A Crowd (of which he was not a member); “Going Down the Road,” a demo Bruce recorded for the soundtrack of the 1970 film Goin’ Down The Road — a cult classic in Canada that follows two friends who “leave the picturesque yet rural province of Nova Scotia for the nightlife and culture of Toronto” but soon “end up wistful and nostalgic about Nova Scotia though after finding out that Toronto isn't as fun as they'd hoped.” (You can watch it HERE.)
The vinyl edition also includes two previously unreleased Bruce songs: “Grinning Moon” written in 1995, and “Waterwalker” written in the mid-1980s with timeless lyrics that might have been written yesterday instead of four decades ago —
Accept the gift of circumstance
No more careful stepping plans
Everything holds out its hand
Gonna hold you up and love you
Gonna hold you up and love you
Needless to say, I have ordered the vinyl and if you’re lucky enough to have an actual record store nearby, as I do, please order yours from them.
In my life, Bruce has been a kind of oracle-troubadour who sees things as they are (often well before I do) and tells us stories about what he sees. He’s always paying careful attention and has a finely calibrated bullshit detector. O Sun O Moon feels prophetic in that inimitable way and I am so grateful to have it as a season of seismic changes approaches in my life and in the world at large.
Thank you, dear Bruce, for these and all the other gifts you’ve given and continue to lavish on an imperiled planet and her nervous inhabitants.
I do so hope to see again you soon.
Older Than Ireland documentary
This gem of a documentary charmed our socks off a few weeks back when I happened upon it in searching, as I am wont to do, for “new Irish film” on our various streaming services. This 2015 film by writer/director Alex Fegan tells the story of 100 years of life (and a century of Irish history) through the stories of 30 Irish centenarians.
We laughed, we cried, and when the film was over, we spent at least two hours Googling various centenarians profiled in the film. As you might imagine, most are no longer with us. At turns hilarious and poignant, I cannot recommend this quirky little film to you enough, whether you’re Irish or not.
You can find Older Than Ireland on Amazon Prime HERE.
Amazing Grace: The Musical Legacy of an Ethiopian Nun
At last count, I am approximately 187 copies behind in reading The New Yorker. But Maury is not. In fact, he reads them religiously, and is famous in our extended circle of family and friends for tearing out articles from the physical magazines and mailing them to the recipient with a short note.
“Thought you might like this.” “An incredible story.” “Reminds me of you.” Etc.
Of late, I am often the recipient of torn-out pages left for me on the dining room table weighted down against the ever-present breeze this time of year by whatever can or bottle or heavy bobble he might find at hand and by an accompanying text message alerting me to their presence. Other times, I may get an email with a PDF of the article attached.
I am also woefully behind in reading my New Yorker PDFs, which is how one of my favourite reads from this week is an article by Amanda Petrusich about the late Ethiopian musician and Ethiopian Orthodox nun Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou that ran in the April 7, 2023 issue of the magazine under the headline “Amazing Grace.” (You can also find it online HERE.)
The story Petrusich tells is one of an interview she sought but ultimately didn’t get. I have a similar tale about Seamus Heaney. And like my seemingly missed connection that was anything but, Petrusich eventually realizes that, while she was unable to interview the vanguard Ethiopian pianist before Emahoy Guèbrou died in Jerusalem in March at the age of 99, the writer had all she needed to know in the music the nun left behind.
Emahoy Guèbrou (“Emahoy” is an honorific akin to “Sister” given to women religious in the Ethiopian Orthodox tradition) is as fascinating a character as anyone could imagine. I hadn’t heard of her or her music before reading Petrusich’s story (so, deep bows of gratitude to Amanda for the introduction), and I quickly became besotted with both.
I won’t do Emahoy Guèbrou justice here in a few sentences, so I’ll encourage you to read Petrusich’s piece as it’s nearly perfect IMHO. If you’d like to know more, her obituary in the New York Times written by Neil Genzlinger has additional biographic whats and wheres and whens and some interesting quotes from admirers, including the musician Norah Jones.
Perhaps better than anything any of us can say, we should let her music do the talking.
I’ve also created a playlist of all of Emahoy Gebru’s music that’s available in digital form on Apple Music HERE and on Spotify below.
Dead & Company’s Farewell Tour Livestreams
I went to my first Grateful Dead show in 1988. I saw their penultimate show live at Chicago’s Soldier Field in 1995 before Jerry Garcia died and the Grateful Dead’s 30-plus-year run ended. For the last eight years, I’ve truly enjoyed the band’s latest iteration as Dead and Company, with the pride of Fairfield, Connecticut—John Mayer—stepping into Jerry’s shoes on guitar and vocals. The Dead and Company’s not-quite-as-long-or-strange, yet still miraculous trip is ending this weekend as their farewell tour draws to a close with three shows at San Francisco’s Oracle Park July 14–16.
Six weeks ago, I went to see their last Los Angeles show at the Forum and it was an unforgettable, dare-I-say-perfect night of music and community/communing. I went alone, it was the first time I’d done that—gone to a concert on my own when I wasn’t on assignment writing about the show I was seeing. It also was my first time back inside a big, indoor concert venue since COVID, and I enjoyed every moment of it.
It was my last Dead show. At least for now until maybe the guys regroup and become a new kind of Dead. Again.
Happily, I’ve been able to watch many other nights of the Dead and Company farewell tour via Nugs.net, which covers the shows from pillar to post, with an interview segment that airs during the intermission, and great camera work on both the band members and the crowds. It broke my heart not to be able to make it to the shows at Wrigley Field in Chicago last month, but Nugs allowed me to watch every minute and occasionally catch a glimpse of one of my dearest Chicago soul-friends, Julie, dancing in the front row. (There she is!)
If you’re a Deadhead, you undoubtedly already know about Nugs.net. If you’re a passive fan, you might have heard but not yet given it a try. Even if you’re just curious, you might want to hop on, pay the $30 or so for access, and watch one of the last shows (or all three, as I will be, from my elliptical machine on the back porch.)
And a big heartfelt thank you to Bobby, John, Mickey, Oteil, Jeff and Jay for a magical, magical summer.
Fare thee well, fellas. For now.
Nom Noms: Trader Joe’s Gluten-Free English Muffins and Apricot Chia Smash
For those living that gluten-free life, the Holy Grail of food items is a hamburger bun that doesn’t feel like a tasteless glob the approximate consistency of a Nerf ball.
Many months ago, Mara, the lovely woman who trains me, let me in on a secret: Trader Joe’s Gluten-Free English Muffins make the PERFECT burger bun.
When I first saw the extremely pale buns, I was skeptical. But then I lightly toasted them, as Mara suggested, and sandwiched one of my beloved’s patented blue cheese and shallots burgers between the halves and … she was 100 percent correct. They are magic. We buy them by the arms full and keep them in the deep freeze (they tend to go moldy quickly if you don’t refrigerate them. But they also don’t usually long enough around our house for it to be a problem.)
And for those of us keeping an eye on our sugar/fructose content, finding sweet things that aren’t artificially amplified with sweeteners (“natural” or not) that either sound like extraterrestrial surnames or potentially degrade our DNA, when I find a lovely dulce, I like to share it.
I give you, Chia Smash, a brand of no-sugar-added jams, thickened with ground chia seeds instead of pectin. They’re lovely. Not too sweet and they do the trick, whether on a piece of gluten-free toast or drizzled in some plain CoCoYo dairy-free yogurt, it’s become a staple in our pantry and fridge. I’m particularly fond of the apricot, but the stone fruit and various berry flavors are also pleasing. If it’s too runny, stick it in the fridge for a while and it thickens up.
Let’s be as brave and kind as we muster. Don’t forget, beloveds, that we haven’t met yet everyone we will love, and we haven’t met yet everyone who will love us.
Much love from me,