Thursday, August 17, 2017

The fans are rabble

The Fans Have Spoken: Top Ten Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Snubs - CultureSonar | Cool Stuff to See, Hear, Read and Do:

The article linked to above argues the  case for ten acts that have not been included so far in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, an attempt, I suppose,  to drum up some kind of otherwise harmless internet outrage  about a supposed string of injustices that have not, demonstrably, made any one's life worse for the fact of it. Irritating ,however, is that the case is being made for bands and musicians who Really Don't Matter on my grading system   of who     is worthy and who ought to disappear into retirement anonymity. It 's subjective, I hear you muttering, but admit it, won't you, that not all opinions, subjective as they are, are created equal? It's not even the case that I disagree with who this writer argues for, it's that he doesn't give a sufficiently thought     out rationale . This is list has all the taste of stillwater, a lazy assemblage of press releases. The criteria here is whether the groups or artists sold out stadiums, garnered many platinum albums and otherwise made the record companies billions of dollars. 
The premise is as bogus as the Hall of Fame itself. Grand Funk? Moody Blues? Jethro Tull? These are not bands that made rock and pop music change course. They made hit records, not history . My peeve is that the MC5 is still not in the Hall, a band that arguably influenced more artists after them than all three of the bands I've mentioned combined; along with the Velvet Underground, Iggy and the Stooges, the MC5 pioneered the attack, the aesthetic and the philosophical defiance of Punk Rock. It's tragic enough that it took the RRHOF over 30 years to induct the widely acclaimed and hugely influential Paul Butterfield Blues Band. It's just as tragic that witless and bankrupt squibsters like this person from Culture Sonar wants to prate about musicians who mostly have no value beyond their ability to make corporations money. What I'm saying is that the Hall of Fame is a scam. I can't help but think that for every induction ceremony we go through each year, more nails are driven into the coffin and more dirt is shoveled into the grave of an art that is no longer a defining force in the lives of a generation, but only another distraction, like most everything else that is passed off as artistic expression. The secret is this: we haven't been sold out at all. We've sold ourselves out, sacrificing  genuine discovery for convenience and ease of acquisition over discovery. We Google information to settle a bet and cannot remember the answer a minute later. We read books on Kindles and cannot remember plots or character names. We download music for free and use it to retreat, isolate and block out the world as it blasts crudely over headphones and ear buds, and not to engage the world , not to be inspired to create something new, not to sustain a reason to believe in defensible values and moral concerns. We have given up our ability to think critically and given our lives over to 2 bit commentaries and corporately sanctioned views that sell us on the cliches of our times; our conversations are reduced to advertising slogans and photo captions. Moody Blues? Grand Funk?Jethro Tull? Really? Really?!? To be fair to the author, he did mention Warren Zevon, Little Feat and the Cars as artists who should be inducted, three acts I like very much and for each of whom plausible arguments for inclusion can be made.  I am not so convinced the Cars quite merit the award,but I am at least willing to listen to reason   without my routine resistance to canon-formation, but it would a sure bet for Zevon and Little Feat, Zevon for his pugnacious wit and ability to endure pressure with grace and humor, and LF for their artful and literally seamless meld   of rock, funk, jazz motifs into a  fusion that sounds even more organic than what the laudable Steely Dan could do.  What saddens me,if that's the word, is they are on list otherwise studded with profitable mediocrities. Doobie Brothers? Three Dog Night? The Guess Who? Emerson Lake and Palmer? Keeee-rist almighty.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017


Musaic - Simon and Bard (Flying Fish) 

Fred Simon and Michael Bard, a pianist and multiple reedman respectively who ve been around the jazz scene virtually unknown the past few years, here emerge from relative obscurity with their first record Musaic, an effort that strikes me as an example of  playing-it-safe: the melodies are pleasant and draw on a number of recognizable sources, the rhythm section does its chores competently, and the solos display the requisite knowledge of technique. But, the music never takes chances.  Admittedly the skill level is high,  but Simon and Bard s insist on tilling styles that have been farmed  too long to less bountiful yields: their sources sound like an overly-familiar crossbreeding of Paul Winter, Oregon and Bruebeck: with a dash of Ellington thrown in for good measure - makes the stuff on Musaic merely run of the mill. Even Larry Coryell's appearance on the funk jam "Fancy Frog" fails to liven things up. The usually idiosyncratic guitarist sounds more than happy to merely cruise along with the flow of things, content to only dish out cliche blues licks and occasional fast runs instead of really pushing himself or anyone for that matter. Bear in mind, the music is not atrocious. It's nice and would make the ideal backdrop for when your mother was over for dinner. Otherwise, your time would be better spent catching up on your sleep, or staying up all night watching black and white movies highlighting big lizards devastating Japanese coastal cities. 

Are You Gonna Be The One--Robert Gordon

Image result for are you going to be the one robert gordonFor a number of years Robert Gordon has, in his own way, been trying to revive the spirit of rockabilly music. For all the sweat that's soaked his satin shirts because of his efforts, he's hardly scratched the surface of authenticity, let alone come close to the essence of , grease. The problem isn't Gordon's lack of vocal apparatus - his voice is impressively clear and demonstrates a better-than-average range - but rather that he too obviously relishes the. cliches of his chosen form. The title tune "Are You Gonna Be the One" has him affecting a low voice called from one of those baritone backup singers, and "She's Not Mine" is a ballad wherein he offers a fragile Presley-like falsetto (something in Elvis's singing that I never liked, all corn pone and no guts). Obviously the The Guardian list of syllogistic borrowings goes on, and throughout the album, Gordon sounds too exacting, with each phrase sounding as though he's practiced them through a tape recorder so he'd capture the right nuance; he never allows himself to truly mess with the format or defile the expectations of the potential audience. This leaves little to talk about, praise or condemn , really, and makes this more about his skill as an impostor than an artist who can revive styles from decades before his own.This is not the duty of an interpreter of a style. Though the comparison is tenuous, early rock and roll, like jazz, did have an element of spontaneity, and the magic of the best rockabilly was a kind of barely-contained craziness that was reflected both through the singer's voice and the near-anarchism of the band. Gordon comes across like a stand-up comic impressionist: a ' soon a the shock of recognition ion fades, Robert Gordon it's readily apparent that he's not the real thing. Gordon, however, does show promise in another style. "Standing on the Outside of Her Door" is a change of pace. a country and western ballad in the most maudlin sense. Gordon's voice sound comfortable for once, resonating, low and caressing as he milk every bit of tear-in-the-beer pathos from the lyrics, which are 0 sentimentally sticky they drip down on you like stereophonic tapioca. Not exactly my cup of tea - I would like to hear someone do some rockabilly that didn 't 'SOund like a rusty door hinge - but I might suggest t that Gordon shed his rolled up t- 13 shirt and buy an outfit from Nudies.

Escape Artist - Garland Jeffreys 
Image result for escape artist garland jeffreysYou'd think that Garland Jeffreys' multiple-racial identity - strains of Puerto Rican and Afro-American twined with a strong immersion in the White culture of the Bronx - would enable him to devise a cross-cultural rock and roll fusion that would unify the variegated elements of the Big Beat into an exhilarating, cogent synthesis. Things being as they are, however, Jeffreys' never attained the heights critics have long predicted for him, nor the high water mark
aspirations he 's set for himself. Instead, he is a rather likable sort who can deliver, now and again, with a great song and remains naught but an interesting minor talent. Escape Artist, his most recent release, suffers less from Jeffreys' seemingly habitual confusing of identities. His cover of the Question Mark and the Mysterians oldie "96 Tears," is a delightfully tacky clone of the original version, with his voice sounding expressively sleazy against the farfisa organ. "Modern Romance " and "Christine" are straight forward as he deals with the problems of boy ·girl relationship. Some of the other rockers su~est the influences of Spnngsteen and Costello. Jeffreys, though, does again stumble .on his bad habits in his reggae numbers which sound as limp and washed out as they've ever been. His stabs at clarifying profundity, as in "Miami Beach," only tread the obvious polemics. What Jeffreys needs is a sense of irony, a demonstrations of some kind of street- sharpened wit that would reinforce his particular world view. Presently he seems like someone who tries a little too hard with the options in front of him. A little loosening of the music could make Jeffreys more comfortable with himself as a performer, and to us as listeners. B minus.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

A ramble about my record collection in one paragraph. Do not look for a formal thesis

It was after I slid into my forties where the other songs and albums by Led Zeppelin reemerged on my radar and revealed a band that was more diverse, musically, than the popular invective allows. Where I lived at the time, Zeppelin fans were just as likely to be listening to the Band, Van Morrison and CS&N, along with other folk "sissy" artists as they were the macho sounds of hard rock. By the time I turned 48, how I perceived the world at 18 - 21 is irrelevant to the fact that they've made some good, sometimes brilliant tunes. Hardly perfect: the lyrics are an embarrassment, but the band is about riff and sound, as Richard Cobeen said in the Lennon thread by way of dismissing the band, but is something I think is crucial to their rock and roll success: riffs and sounds over laid on a varied set of styles and influences that work, sonically, more often than they don't. The lyrics, with the vocals, were just part of the overlay, a part of the texture. Like the Beatles, Steely Dan, and Led Zeppelin were studio artists, where the studio was the proverbial third instrument. Live, they were one of the worst bands I've ever seen--though they sounded pretty damned good when I saw them in '67 (?) on their first US tour with Jethro Tull--but in the studio , their music was finessed and honed, typical in those days. For all his faults as a faulty technician in live circumstances, he is a producer who brought a fresh ear to the recording process, and came up with ideas that circumvented the routine dullness and rigor that's become the bane of less able hard rock and metal bands after his Zeppelin's break up. It was after I slid into my forties where the other songs and albums by Zeppelin again got my attention. What the new fascination revealed was a band that was more diverse, musically, than what the fidgeting knocks against them at the time allowed.Led Zeppilin IV is their high water mark for track-by-track knockouts and variety of sounds, but Houses of the Holy is where the band really stretched beyond the comfort of the hard rock style they created. I think they do reggae fine, and "The Crunge" is quite funked up-- Plant's Brown vamping is inspired, and the lyrics are , in turn, somewhat surreal without losing a greasy, fry-cooked crease in the seam.The only real bad aftershock of " Sgt Pepper's" and other "concept albums" from the period was the mistaken notion by other artists that there had to be one grandiose and grandiloquent theme running through  both sides of their albums in order for the their work to be current with the mood of the art rock of the period. The Beatles succeeded with "Sgt.Pepper", "Magical Mystery Tour", and, and "Abbey Road" ( easily their most consistent set of material, I think) because they never abandoned the idea that the album needs to be a collection of good songs that sound good in a set: over lapping themes, lyrically,
are absent in the Beatles work, unless you consider the reprise of the Pepper theme song on a leitmotif of any real significance (it's use was cosmetic), although musical ideas did give the feel of conceptual unity track to track, album to album. Lennon and McCartney and Harrison's greatest contribution to rock music was their dedication to having each one of their songs be the best they could do before slating it for album release. For other bands, the stabs at concept albums were routinely disastrous, witnessed by the Stones attempt to best their competitors with the regrettable 'Satanic Majesties Requests". The Who with "Tommy" and "Who’s Next" and the Kinks , best of all, with "Lola", "Muswell Hillbillies" and "Village Green" , both were rare, if visible exceptions to the rule. "Revolver" and "Yesterday and Today" are amazing song collections, united by grand ideas or not. I buy albums; finally, on the hope that the music is good, the songs are good, not the ideas confirm or critique the Western Tradition. Conventional wisdom is often wrong, but not always, and I think the popular opinion that Pepper is a better disc, song by song, than Satanic Majesties is on the mark. Majesties had The Stones basically playing catch up with the Beatles with their emergent eclecticism and failing, for the most part. That they didn't have George Martin producing and finessing the rough spots of unfinished songs marks the difference. Majesties, though does have at least one great song, "2000 Man", and a brilliant one, "She's A Rainbow" For the rest, it sounds like a noisy party in the apartment next door. The album sounds like a collection of affectations instead of a cohesive set of songs. Cohere is exactly what the tunes on Pepper did, good, great, brilliant, and mediocre. The sounded like they belonged together. Authenticity is such an elusive quality that it's mostly useless when judging as subjective as whether someone's music is legitimate. It's a nice way to chase your own tail, though, which is what many like to do. Better to consider whether the music is at leas
t honest, or better yet, if it's done well: whether music , lyrics, voice, style work on their own terms, makes for a more interesting set of topics, and a more compelling record collection.
I would say that "She's Leaving Home" is one of the most atrociously three hankie wank fests ever written, but I would say that "Good Morning Good Morning" has a lyric that is defensible: it serves the purpose, it's lines and images are clipped, fitting the beats, and the words don't address anything larger than what they're supposed to, a bad mood on a fast morning. It's a self contained set of references, locked in a particular frame of mind. It is not Lennon's subtlest work, but it's not embarrassing at all. "Catch the Wind" is a lovely song, with a beautifully tendered lyric. Though obviously coming into public view on Dylan's coat tails, Donavan was no talentless amateur: he wrote good material in his "new Dylan" period, and did, remarkably, go in a direction quite distinct from Dylan's. He had his moments of good work. Anyone who is still complaining about Zep's less-than-Eliot lyrics has spent too much time staring at their lyric sheets while wearing headphones.It's better to consider Sgt. Pepper as a good album as a good album as a good album, with its historical importance set to the side. There are several good songs on it that have worn well over the decades that keep it from become the equivalent of the nutty uncle you don't want your pals to see. Realizing which songs were good after the fact isn't nostalgia, it's common sense. Catcher in the Rye remains what it is, certainly the classic of growing up twisted and feeling put upon. It makes no sense to trash it just because your reading habits became more sophisticated.

Chet Baker's return home in 1977

Image result for you can't go home again chet baker
You Can't Go Home Again-- Chet Baker
Trumpet player Baker has a cool, lyrical, muted style not similar that of Miles Davis from his Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain period. One ought not stop with the maybe too obvious comparison , as Baker is fairly much his own man when it comes to speaking in the hushed , muted tone that Davis also preferred in his best period. Baker's riffs are his own,personalized medals and scars of good looks and good loving gone bad due to women, whiskey and heroin. Baker did eventually succumb to a drug related death, a repeating tragedy among artists as it is among the rest of us , but his particular album was made during one of his periods of getting clean and commencing to make music again. It's a good one, seductive, alluring, not perfect and a bit frayed around the edges of Baker's improvising; some notes are harsher than you know he intends, some ideas are a little clammy in this mood  inclined project. But it works, soulful, intuitive, honest.   You Can't Go Home Again (released in 1977) , applies himself more tactfully and imaginatively than a dozen other flashier players could, Freddie Hubbard (Liquid Love ) included. The music is generally lyrical and moody with heavy orchestration by Don Sebesky (whose career as CTI house arranger has converted many a talent into a white faced, mass market commodity) , but Baker's pensive, searching emotionalism transcends the limits, as well as the efforts of a superb group of sidemen, including drummer Tony Williams, saxist Michael Brecker, bassist Ron Carter, guitarist John Scofield, along with other famous names like Hubert Laws, Paul Desmond, and Alphonso Johnson. The group playing is infectious and allows for a number of sparkling moments, particularly in the solos of Scofield, Desmond and , Brecker. The lyricism here is terribly handled, without  sentimentality. Emotionally, this music is tougher stuff. Baker's power seems to come from a deeper; each note, even when he quickens his phrases as the rhythm section doubles and triples the time, seems like a hard won victory of expression. Today, pain , heart ache and the series of self inflicted wounds that constitute Baker's non-music playing life, cannot quiet this man's need and ability to create a terse and jarring poetry.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Dark Tower

Image result for the dark tower
The Dark Tower, directed by Nikolaj Arcel is a missed opportunity for the next quality sci/fi fantasy continuing series.  Originally a nine-novel sequence penned by Stephen King, it has the ingredients for a continuing saga revolving around protecting the titular dark tower that exists between realities and which stabilizes the varied realities within its domain. This being based on a potent and endlessly unfolding Stephen King narrative, which is to say that the  original series of novels takes side trips and falls into distracting, if entertaining rabbit holes at many turns of the story, has the central element of this problematic phantasmagoria  to be children, one child in particular, who has the power to create all things or cure the ailments that threatens everything that lives. Lots of characters, super   powers, magic, betrayal, good versus evil, a gifted child with abilities far beyond those of men and gods; King certainly provides quite a bit for multi-season streaming drama. 

The film, though, is brutally condensed, curt, and abrupt in transition both in scenery and idea. It would be kind to suggest that the movie is breathless in its pacing and one should be admiring the briskness in which a great deal of thematic material from Stephen King's writing they manage to wedge into the 90 minute time, but do so, for me,would be dishonest. Where others think breathless I say gasping for breath, the singular tone being someone who wants this project done with much  sooner rather than way later. For all the explanations that might be given for how slipshod the story telling is, think of that one kid in high school, yourself   perhaps, who tried to ad lib their way  through an assigned oral report they  hadn't prepared for. This is exactly what The Dark Tower feels like for its duration.

Matters of plot point, explanations of thematic conceptions, and revelations of what's been going on are passed off in hurry through cavalier bits of expository dialogue. The Man in Black, watching the Gunslinger wondrously dispatch minions with his weapons, reveals that legend has it his guns were forged from the same metal that made the mystical sword Excalibur. And that's it, which is annoying, since that's an intriguing notion worth expanding on. Skillful expansion isn't the aim here, but rather contraction, and this feels more like a Quick Notes summary than anything else. I was never beyond the feeling that what I was watching was the usual prelude   before a new  episode of a television drama as to what's  occurred earlier in the season in quick montage. A shame, since the premise is attractive and Movies with Iris Alba and Matthew McConaughey should leave you breathless from their performance, not scratching your head wondering why they bothered with this.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Album reviews: SWING LOW, SWING HIGH

Petite Fleur -Zzmzzy Quartet 
(Art Hurts Records)

This originally appeared in The San Diego Troubadour.
Used with kind permission
The summer of 2017 thus far has heard a good loud, crashing, dynamic music coming from my apartment, speed metal, hard rock and hard bebop, fast and infuriating. With the recent passings jazz-fusion guitar geniuses Larry Coryell and Allan Holdsworth  , I pulled their respective CDs from my collection and played the fastest, hardest, most blistering music I could find from these two. Understandably, noise complaints, frayed nerves and headaches ensued before long, necessitating a change of music, both in tunes, tone, and mood. Rather handily, Petite Fleur by Zzmzzy Quartet came into my possession.  Noise complaints ceased, nerves soothed, headaches abated, and the apartment currently resounds with the mellow gypsy swing of the Zzmzzy Quartet. The first word of the troupe’s name, their web site advises, rhymes with “whimsy.”

And whimsy it is, as this time honored music is performed by four skilled musicians (Beston Barnett on guitar vocals, Matt Gill on clarinet, Paul Hormick on upright bass, Peter Miesner on guitar and lead vocals) who  move through the snaky  and occasionally minor key melodies and occasionally acrobatic chord progressions with contagious good humor . This is hardly a stiff resurrection of an old timey style; this is music that pulses, moves, swings indeed, performed by some guys who continually find the sweet spot in the heart of the songs. Principle in this effect is the sultry and sonorous playing of clarinetist Gill,  who provides a tone that is rich and finds the right emotion a song’s melody suggests, either doleful or exhalting,  gleeful  or meditative. His reading of the title tune, Sidney Becket’s “Petite Fluer”, rises and ebbs fluidly, each note a smooth caress against a steady and sympathetic back up   of guitarists Barnett and Miesner and the resonant bass work of Hormick.

 Zzmzzy Quartet, in turn, sweetens the pot with fine medley of Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood / Solitude”, a beautiful guitar figure framing Gill’s nuanced reading of the melody and a brooding improvisation that joins the contrasting melodies of both songs.  Sweetness abounds again with a jaunty take on “Lazy River” by Hoagy Carmichael, jumping and jamming with piquant guitar and reed making marvelous miracles though out.  There is quite a bit of splendidly played music on this music, not of this time but timeless in the sense of joy very fine tunes provide when played with the love and inspiration Zzmzzy Quartet obviously has. 

Those of you who like their swing jazz rousing, spiky and fleet fingered are in for a treat with the album’s last track, a robust take on “Sweet Georgia Brown”. Guitar, clarinet, trombone (form guest artist Billy Hawkins) take turns twisting and rocking the melody, the rhythm firmly propulsive, all before a wonderfully plaintive vocal from Miesner and Barnett.  This has been playing at least once a day as of this writing, which is to say that Zzmzzy Quartet’s Petite Fleur is cool and keen and a wonderful reminder that there is little in this life that good music can’t make better.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Michiko Kakutani Steps Down as NY Time's Chief Book Critic

Michiko KakutaniMichiko Kakutani has stepped down as the NY Time's principle book critic, an event I say is 38 years beyond the expiration date of  her worth as a culture commentator. Her prose was remarkable for its lack of cadence or rhythm or music of any sort.She wrote to the beat of the metronome, and her  thinking followed suit, hewing to safe formulation, received, recyclings of conventional wisdom.  Her esposusals made her seem  less like  critic than it made her resemble the World's Smartest Typist. I intend no slight to competent typists, but the quality of Kakutani's praise or criticism for author were exceedingly ordinary and seemed, really, to be little more than the sort of compliments one gets from dutiful host, polite and icy, or the complaints one of your friends who has fashioned a better phrased brand of snark and sarcasm. 

Her intentions , too often, were rather obviously not critical thinking but character assassination; her repetitive riffs against Mailer, Franzen, Nick Hornby and Don DeLillo went for quite a few years; a dutiful editor at the Times ought to noted this and instructed her to (1) find some other authors to write about with a much less glaring set of preconceived judgments and (2), to start writing reviews that steered away from the short list of tropes she used without end as a means to praise or damn and instead do some real critical thinking. Kakutani was an ethically bankrupt critic of no discernible into or passion for the literary arts she presumed to judge. She was a long time disgrace to the critic's trade and craft. Banal and annoying are exactly the right words to describe her.  

Calling her a critic grossly  overstates what she did for a living, which was to produce, assembly line fashion, formulaic judgements that riled authors and readers alike for the perfunctory competence she brought to her job. In a paper otherwise blessed with the best staff of arts critics, culture writers and columnists, she was the tone deaf embarrassment.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Valerian: a movie so empty of worth you can use it for a sock drawer

Image result for valerianValerian is among the most boring movies I've ever seen. Two hours long, it felt like three and all the admittedly eye-popping visuals and after a short while give you the feeling of being a frog in blender, the last thing you see being a nauseating blur of bright lights and dark tones before the blades of the machine turn you into minced effluvia. 
The actors Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne are creaking and mechanical in their banter and flirting; they have the appeal of shucked corn. Luc Besson, writer and director of this protracted and expensive sedative, mistakes expense, expanse and excess as enough for a true thrill ride. For this movie, he should have his head placed against a brick so we may throw a wall at it. The primary problem with the love story, or the flirtation that led up to the eventual profession of love, was that it was a major focus in the narrative; I thought the banter was inane and repetitive; an element made more onerous by that  porcelain presence of leads DeHaan and Delevingne, who had zero chemistry. Rather than the matching the qualities we loved seeing in Tracy and Hepburn, Cary Grant and Rosalind Russel l(His Gal Friday)l or Cybill Sheppard and Bruce Willis (Moonlighting), this pair didn't manage facial expressions much beyond his responsibilities to look dreamy and hers to sustain a puckering pout. I don't insist that coherence be central to films I think are brilliant--in cases like Chandler's Big Sleep (novel and the Howard Hawks film adaptation), the author's style and ability to create a nuanced and tangible mood more than compensates for what sense it didn't make. 
Also, I am quite fond of Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch, which I've seen several times; critics and movie goers lambasted its WTF plot line, but the set pieces in the films, the fantasy action sequences, are simply brilliant bits of kinetic visual art, a spectacular recreation of the sort of Jack Kirby style gatefold two-pagers that handily disorient and reorient the senses and makes you aware that this space is not where the usual laws of nature apply. For what Valerian was attempting to do, the kind of story they wanted to tell, we have, I think, is a mess of a project that fails to engage, enthrall, or convince me to forget about how long the film seems. It seemed interminable. One mind blowing visual after another just made this noisy, cluttered and restlessly frantic without any momentum.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Remembering all of nothing

Some years  I posted a poem on a well known bulletin board for an internet news magazine which provoked an unexpected response. I wrote concerning a blurry childhood memory of my Mom sobbing over a stove, the conceit being that I'd first give hints that this was going to be a melancholic memoir and then reveal, through a clever alignment of detail, that her tears were not from a spat with Dad. It was revealed by the last stanza that she' chopped raw onions for what the meal . Someone asked in a response how the memory was so clear, and I explained that the story was not wholly true; I manufactured the narrative thread I couldn't recall, and produce an entity that had a punchline, not a grievous irony. The response was fairly psychotic; I was called a liar and worse with my method revealed, and the inconsolable assailant couldn't get it through his (or her) head that not every poem is factual, therapeutic, journalistic. 

My response was defensive, of course, and typical of the accused bard.It's called imaginative literature, after all.Not a good reading habit for someone who says they love poetry. No, my friend, I didn't lie to the readers, I just told them a story.Poetry is imaginative writing, my brother, and there are those who err in reading this as an attempt at autobiography. The offended party didn't seem to accept any of this and cranked the vitriol higher, at which time I stopped talking to her (or him),You wonder what they missed in grade school when reading and writing was taught ; poets are liars by habit of mind when it comes to their craft; they make stuff up when they feel the need. Critic John Hollander has a useful essay on the matter,The shadow of a lie: poetry, lying, and the truth of fictions

That should give us something to consider.This is a slippery slope, and what it underlines it your unwillingness to admit that poetry is the practice of writing in imaginative, figurative, fictional language. Writers employ metaphors, similes, and varied tropes at times to get to what one can call the "larger" truths,"greater", which is to say that writers, poets especially, try to get at matters a straight forward prose style can't get at. The hidden moral of the story, if you will.Part of this is creating scenarios that are not necessarily factual (autobiographical) or plausible in the conventional sense. Coleridge has a useful principle he calls the suspension of disbelief, which roughly means that a reader needs to leave their suppositions and stipulations at the door as they enter into reading a poem; you need to stop arguing that a poem is obliged to fulfill your personal requirements and instead read it as is, inspect what the writer does. Bandying about words like "lies" blocks us, meaning myself, from the sunshine of the spirit.

An impatient man can't possibly get all that poets and their work have to offer. Exactly what they have to offer is debatable, but that's part of the pleasure of reading poetry,or writing it. It's better ,I think, to leave people wondering for themselves than to try to tell them the facts , Joe Friday style.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

idway cash

Staying alert and regular with The Standells and The Electric Prunes

"Dirty Water" by the Standells is, to my mind, the first bit of punk iteration, predating even the hallowed grind and gassy grint of the Stooges and the MC5 by three years. A blues riff the guitarist was more interested in making irritating than emotionally expressive, a lyric that bad mouthed the narrator's origins who other glories in how grimy and switchbladey his home turf is, a singer determined to brag, mock, leer and sneer in a decidedly juvenile manner--this was the first thing I remember hearing when I started to take rock bands seriously that seemed so sublimely obnoxious and willfully idiotic that it couldn't be anything other than an authentic expression of some righteously immature attitudes. Even today, the rusty and repetitive riff, the snot swallowing vocal, the unintentionally Kurt Weilish lyrics , sound juvenile, fresh, convincingly hubristic, a bunch of drop outs owning their limitations and happy that it leaves you irked and uneasy . This project and other efforts of the dozens of one-shot wonders who cascaded during the period--the Barbarians, The Syndicate of Sound, The Music Machine, The Seeds-- had as much to do with the creation of what we'd later term a "Punk" style, with the ratty guitars, the sub literate lyrics, the construction site style time keeping of the mostly anonymous rhythm sections as were the deservedly praised and expansively influential works of the Velvet Underground , the Stooges, or the MC5. The difference between those last three bands, household names in rock fiefdoms in every cranny of the internet, and the earlier bands emerging  from garages and basements and eventually making their into the studios of local record labels and to appearances at no age limit teen clubs and TV dance shows, was that Velvets,the Stooges and the 5 made a choice to sound and exclaim the way they did; it was a choice backed by   aesthetics and short   order versions of 20th century philosophy , a body of thought heavily seasoned with post WW2 gloom and rootlessness. The other guys just wanted to make noise and meet chicks and expressed world view not far advanced than the average   teen ager's harrowing time of extreme self consciousness and expressions of that in terms no less over the line and loudly presented. Their lives weren't so far removed from the issues Chuck Berry  might have outlined in his classic teen theme masterpieces, but only harder,ruder, with an edge that would only get more cutting with time. 

A little later in the decade, 1967, a band with an equally obnoxiously odd name The Electric Prunes had a hit with a fuzz -tone-y anthem called "I Had Too Much Last Night".  A grating distortion characterizes the ensemble,  guitar tracks played backwards looping through out the song, melodramatic from major to minor keys, drum beats more remindful of heavy shoes climbing loose-boarded stairways, the song is ridiculous in idea and execution, centering on a young man's long night of the soul as he recalls a strange dream about his girl friend. This is a garage psychedelia, or course, and it's to be expected  that the dream is described in words that are over ripe and garish, a first timer's first attempt at a serious poem without first having read Wallace Stevens .I    relate to that , as I read rather a lot of gruesome juvenilia myself after my first encounter with 'Desolation Row". Earnest rhymes and images, yes, but still pedestrian and without a credible pulse of wit. 

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Thank you for sharing, now go back to sleep

So the question that was asked of me recently , yesterday in fact, was whether I considered myself to be on my next leg of life's journey, or the last leg of the trudge. What brought on the question was  two significant milestones came and went by earlier this week, the first being a routine promotion in the ranks of early senior- citizenship by my turning 65 years of age, the second being the miraculous achievement of 30 Years of consecutive sobriety. Grouse as I might, my dismay at getting older, of garnering more birthdays while I'm still able to breathe, is because of what happened the day after my natal birthday 26 years ago,which was to finally just abandon the jail cell we call the ego and admit that nothing I was doing was working out and that, in short order, I would face the likely prospect of joblessness, homelessness, and a likely death. That hasn't happened yet and to this day, despite my frequent eruptions of personality (materializing the form of tantrums, arguments, curmudgeonly lectures and unexpected flair ups of tasteless repartee) I am awe of what happened to me two and a half decades ago; to this day, again, I haven't quite figured it out other than I stumbled into a community of sober people whose collective experience matched and exceeded mine and that they had found a solution to their alcoholism and addiction with a spiritual means that they gladly shared with me. This is not to say that I got religion and that's my intent to preach--I am loath to be lectured to, and I remain agnostic with regards to the consolidated concepts of organized religion--but I think it suffices to say that I've adopted a set of principles that have kept me on course for a good number of years through celebrations and tragedies, good news and bad news and no news at all. I look around and find myself blessed with friends, fellowship, good health, a personality that is happier more often than it was no that long ago. What a strange ride it's been, what a wonderful journey it remains.So , back to the question,am on the next leg    or on  my last leg? A dime store adage, apropos of nothing perhaps, "there are no facts about the future". Well, there are no facts about the immediate future, since all of us succumb to the Large Nap sooner or later.  And quite dispite my basic depressive nature and tendency to drift  toward the grim and the  gory , I have a rich sense of humor , or so my friends say,  and I cannot take my gloom or my fatalism too seriously. I am an optimist because it's required to live meaningfully. So this is the next leg in the journey, which implies more turns of the road to come. At this point I am pleased to be alive  to ponder the question.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

a program note on a music I dislike

I despise smooth jazz, which is not to say that I dislike jazz  performed with smoothly demonstrated technique. Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John  Coltrane, Freddie Hubbard,  et al are "smooth" in the utmost execution of their respectively impressive techniques, which means, for this grouch at least, that they can summon their best abilities at will and spontaneously compose harmonically, rhythmically and euphoniously nuanced improvisations upon a suitably provocative melody or composition. 

That inadequate sentence does not take into account what is now a substantial history of development in jazz, which has became much more than dance music, as all manner of mood, emotion and states of being have found profound and exciting expression from the hands of various masters who've come along over the decades to forge new paths for the form. "Smooth jazz", as I mean it, is an Industry marketing term, a genre that strips elements of jazz, blues, funk, soul to the simplest technical components and proffers mid-tempo instrumentals that are melodically constricted; no strange chords or transitions, no thematic development. The solos, in turn, don't strike you as improvisations at all--to use a horrid cliché-- every solo sounds like the one before it and the one coming after it. 'Smooth jazz", as I define it, is not about a command of one's technique, but how little of one's know-how a musician utilizes in search of sounds that are merely marketable. 

We have, in essence, another case where perfectly useful words are corrupted and meant to convey the contemptible instead. "Smooth" need hardly be synonymous with "mindless". I would quince my thirst for what's smooth in the Pat Metheny Group, who have interesting compositions, or good old Chet Baker, both in the tradition and an improviser with the best muted trumpet tone this side of Miles.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

some words for Charles Simic's poetry

I’m the child of your rainy Sundays.
I watched time crawl
Over the ceiling
Like a wounded fly.
A day would last forever,
Making pellets of bread,
Waiting for a branch
On a bare tree to move.
The silence would deepen,
The sky would darken,
As grandmother knitted
With a ball of black yarn.
I know Heaven’s like that,
In eternity’s classrooms,
The angels sit like bored children
With their heads bowed. -
-Charles Simic, New Yorker 12/10/07

A fine, chiseled ode here. Boredom is those moments when you find yourself that seems to make you heavier with a lethargy that seems to have grown hands attached to big, brawny arms that grab you around the chest and drag you to the floor;ennui turns to terror, as you're too lazy to fight and a passing thought turns into a concrete, concentrated panic over teh notion that the floorboards and checkerboard tile might fall away and the metaphorical hands and arms would drag to a hell where every second of the eternity to come is the precisely the agony you felt on the worst day you ever had while wandering those years in the material world. Time stands slows to an inch worm's slither and there is the feeling of being suspended between dimensions. Charles Simic is a great poet and gets it right about heaven as well; eternal perfection is without dynamics, variation, a constant state of equilibrium.

Don't name the chickens, says poet Charles Simic, because doing so is to find yourself leaning  into  a perceptual left hook. . As the poem details, in  details inspired by the spare , weathered cadences of WC Williams, chickens in the barnyard are not really the kings of their domain as folk tales and cartoons would suggest, but merely a creature inhabiting a niche on which some things depend on; lording or majesty have nothing to do with it.  We have the terrain Simic sets up  beautifully, a small niche in the natural order  that is overlaid with expectations that suit the man or woman gazing from a window, from the porch, on their way to the barn to repair  a machine.


Don't Name the Chickens

Let them peck in the yard
As they please
Or walk over to stand
By the edge of the road.

The rooster strutting about
Will keep an eye on them,
Till it's time for them
To step under a tree

And wait for the heat
To pass and the children
To return to their toys
Left lying in the dust.

For, come Sunday,
One of the chickens may lose its head
And hang by its feet
From a peg in the barn.

This is beautifully done, I believe, a  cold and crackling laugh coming from the throat, and winding up echoing through the nose, a  combination of  bemusement and revulsion with  the vanities  citizens dress themselves in, the  idea that persists even on the most micro level, that the events of the day revolve around them.
Naming creatures implies ownership, that the animal given  a Christian assignation is now part of the family, like the dog or the cat, embedded in the good graces of human social structure until death , a natural death. But again, the power to name things and bestow upon them the complexities of far reaching relationships with kindred human significants are projections of  our collective ego, personalized, brought down from the global to the specific, the back yard, the barnyard.

Charles Simic's poems appeal to me for the same reason you might like a wisecrack someone makes as they recall an incident that  turns into one of  life's little lessons:  whether lost car keys, spilled milk, or walking around a department store with you fly open, a terse, casual summary, vaguely self mocking, with an odd detail tossed in for texture, makes the phrase memorable . We can each supply our own example of things a friend has said we wish we could claim as our original wit. Simic, here, has a poem, The Red Alarm Clock, I wish I'd written.

Red Alarm Clock

"I want to sail down the Nile
At sunset
Before I die,"
You said once, Cleopatra.
The room, I recall,
Had a plank floor,
A narrow bed, and a window
Facing a brick wall,
Plus a chair where I kept
A pint of bourbon,
The coffee cup we used as an ashtray,
And a red alarm clock.

This is a perfect snippet of a longer conversation, the start of something that makes you lean closer for the juicier parts, the contrasting accounts of what was said and done and how both the narrator and the "you" remember each other's response. It is a vivid, brief, alluring tease of a poem that does not drift off as would a conversation between two people fade as the couple walked further up the sidewalk from where you stood. It is cut off, rather, bright, loud, full of hard things, a tangible place. A room with a skinny bed, a window that gazes upon the grain of brick wall, a chair used as night stand to hold pint of bourbon. Simic has the particulars of a James M. Cain novel, he all but suggests a lustful reunion before and the beginning of a bittersweet dissection of an ended affair in the rumpled afterglow.

 It's not unlike some smooth camera work; you can feel the lens slowing panning the stark room,  ending up in on the coffee cup --the additional bit of it being "used as an ashtray" is a precisely brilliant fit for the situation evoked here--and the red alarm clock,  uncluttered with poetic language, it's color alone setting the tone of  an urgency both these characters would rather ignore. The clock, though, is enough to bring home the fact that the clock is ticking all the same and that  time runs out for everything, even regrets and reunions. Simic  concerns himself with neither the back story nor the tale that continues after the last line, he focuses on this slice and creates, I think, a set of particulars that create a mood, if not a meaning. 

The feeling of  that time has expired is made more tangible even by the way the narrator says, lastly, at the end of his sentence, as throw away detail "...and a red alarm clock ."  Unfreighted with meandering metaphors or latch key similes to ham handedly imbue the object with intangible qualities, Simic prefers the physical over the literary and lets the situation as described create the mood from within it's parts; the phone is mentioned,the color is emphasized, like something remembered , suddenly, brutally, an intrusion of truth that seeps into a conversation that reminds you that yes, whatever was the case before is done with and now is the time to move into respective horizons

Friday, June 30, 2017

Bell, Satterfield and all shades of blue (S)

blues (s)--Lori Bell , Ron Satterfield
Lori Bell and Ron Satterfield have spent the last few years wowing and beguiling audiences at large with their vibrant combination of straight ahead, pop and boss nova inflected jazz.  blue(s), their new album, is a welcome release, an intoxicating blend of classic tunes by Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans among others, and three guileful originals by Bell .Flutist Bell and guitarist /vocalist Satterfield are a musical combination that have the shared reflexes of swift and nimble dancers negotiating difficult changes and moving gracefully through a varied and rich field of tempos, moods, tones.  Those of us lucky enough to witness their magic live know the wonders Bell accomplishes during performance. Her improvisations being a sublime compliment of speed and grace, with a skill to interpret material, reshape melodies and play with the requirements of tricky and shifting tempos.  Her technique is meteoric, but the sweetness of the music is never sacrificed in service to mere virtuosity.

Bell’s genius for inventing melodic conceptions in seamless succession fuses with Satterfield’s amazingly adroit guitar work.  Eschewing solos, he instead switches between different comping requirements with ease, verve and style.   He gleefully alternates between   straight   up walking bass lines and shuffle patterns to the subdivided syncopations of bossa nova, and shows the dulcet intuition of a pianist on more somber material.  (It’s worth a reminder that Satterfield is a fine pianist as well with an agile and delicate touch, a quality that informs a nearly flawless sense of rhythm and groove.   There’s no lack of variety on Blue(S). Those requiring their music be up-tempo and big league, Bell’s own “Bell’s Blues” begins the album with all cylinders firing. It’s a hard swinging blues with some sweet criss-cross changes with the flutist swooping and pirouetting over Satterfield’s propulsive chords; Satterfield, at midpoint, eases into the fury with a lyric scat vocal, mirroring Bell’s effervescent notes with his own vocalese. Satterfield’s voice is one of the wonders of Southern California jazz.

The pair retook Monk’s “Blue Monk” into a 6/8 time rush, the usually doleful melody transformed into a bit of whistling, scat -happy whimsy.  Satterfield launches firmly from a beautifully clipped Latin groove and propels the material with galloping chords, over which Bell decorates the combustible pace with an airy, sprite set of improvisations, springing off Satterfield’s able time keeping. The racing, call -and -response duet between Bell’s flute and Satterfield’s bright vocal improvs are a wonder. Another high point is a refreshingly sprite arrangement of Miles Davis’ classic “All Blues”. With rare exceptions, later versions of the tune have treated Davis’s original arrangement—slow, somber, casually yet firmly swaying as the trumpeter outlines the spare, diminished theme and limns an n artful solo—as sacrosanct, a steadfast version untouchable for the ages.  Bell and Satterfield prefer to create anew, not reenact an established idea, allowing them to mess with the songs mood, elevating from its muted and brooding essence as a tone poem and turn that swaying motion into something close to a swinging rhythm.  Bell’s mastery is in full evidence, weaving sprite, flutter tongued phrases over and between Satterfield’s brisk and agile chord voicings.  He sings again on this tune, providing his own lyrics, at times matching Bell’s exuberance with his own swift, non-verbal cadences. His voice is a perfect foil and counter point; their harmonies are rich.

Blue(S) is a concept album, I suspect, indicated by the blue album cover and with each song having the world “blue” in the title. More than a blues album, this is a musical examination of the complex and nuanced emotional states the word implies, a state of being that eludes final definition   but which inspires composers and improvisers to write and play music that brings our common humanity to the forefront. Aided by a clean and clear production by Tripp Sprague,  himself a fine Southern jazz saxophonist,  Lori Bell  and Ron Satterfield essay through the varieties of styles, moods and emotions the notion of “being blue” can musically manifest itself. They’re able to address what those feelings in ways mere words seldom can. blue(s) is a very fine work, a collaboration of two jazz musicians at their peak.

(This originally appeared in the July, 2017 issue of the San Diego Troubadour. Used with kind permission).

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Does "Okay Computer" give good Radiohead?

Ok Computer-Radiohead
After several years of  young fans and assorted bright acolytes telling me that I must have a listen to Radiohead's "Okay Computer" to experience one of the most important rock (or post-rock) albums ever committed to the ways of digital distribution, I finally did so, a close listen (or at least an earnest one), and found their enterprise wanting. Begging for attention seems more the appropriate response;through out the awkward angularity of the guitar bashings and inchoate mewlings  of  singer-songwriter Thom York's seeming parodies of a gruesomely awful poetry that needed to be placed under arrest in order to make the mendicant mediocrity cease, all I get is the callow ambition of some aging hipsters operating under the assumption that reframing, sort of, old modernistic gestures and blurring their glaring amateurism , we might come across Art, finally, and perhaps a relevant statement or two.  Far less the game changer claimed by defenders, it never distinguished itself from the other skeins of slow-coursing sludge that one finds at the extra musical margins. 

It's Super Mope, the mostly unassembled tunes framed by accidental associations of chord, tempo, tuning. I've absolutely no doubt that Radiohead worked diligently, night and day, for hours and hours until there were no more hours, to make sure "Ok Computer" was as close to their ideal before they released it into the wild. That, sadly, does not make this an enjoyable or  anything less than irritating. Few things in music listening are trying to some make sense of some feeble ideas that sound labored over. And yes, there are lyrics, and awful ones, to match the dopey dissonance Radiohead favors. 

Writing from the center of a depression one cannot shake is an honored tradition, at least in 20th Century American and British poetry, with the works of John Berryman, Plath, Lowell and too many others to mention attest. And certainly, manic lows are the source of a good many lyric writers who sought to write their way out of a bad head space. Their collective goal was, if one can use such a presumptuous term, was to leave something after them that would remain as art, instances of inspired writing, even if they failed to alleviate a malaise. Radiohead's rhymes, half rhymes and no    rhymes seem more symptoms than wit, more fidgeting with a notebook and pen than a focused attempt to get at a fleeting set of moods or insights that won't quite lend themselves to common speech. 

It's a generational thing, I'm sure, and I reveal my age without having to tell you, but it actually is a matter of having seen this before, heard this before, having had this discussion before. The last five decade are crowded with thousands of nameless creatures at the margins of popular culture, convinced of their genius but unsure what that self-diagnosed brilliance consists of. The difference is that Radiohead caught a break. Well, good for them on that score.