Sunday, July 27, 2014

 Now, it is fine to create entertainment, but the highest form of communication is undoubtedly that which can express the broadest concept (or the most concepts) as effectively as possible.The height of literature is, therefore, the same. This isn't meant to imply that  entertainment is neither Art nor valuable, but that is inherently a weaker or more limited form of literature. Simply  stated, merely entertaining people is not the end of literary aspiration by a long shot. I am trying to define and defend the most complete and efficient literature: that which can express the most most effectively or complexly. This means that there are, buried within the uncertainties, objective principles of literary art. Aesthetics, briefly, can, rather than an inquiry, be a artistic doctrine or principle. There were, in fact, several aesthetic movements. And finally, I should argue that hedonism is very much a part of the Western culture: that the freedom of doing one's own thing, or the illusion of it, is the general propensity of this society, yours and mine. It has been a long time since Emerson wrote of his ideal man, a man slave to his impulses, but that ideology has buried itself deeply in our culture.  We think that we've woken up from the retrograde slumber, but  we notice, in some sense of   collective twitching, that our dreams are filled with the likes of us facing open windows overlooking drive in theatre movie screens that emit the sound of thunder and the rattle of buildings being battered  by high winds, and yet no images appear on the flat surface of the white leviathans.

Harmonica playing can be dangerous

I worked in the carnival during the seventies, one of those guys in an orange shirt in a line up game covered in checkered and striped tarp and festooned with dusty stuffed animals who badgered you to play and win your girl friend "the big one". What a tale that is. After work one night in Costa Mesa, a bunch of us gathered at the "carnie entrance" to drink beer, bullshit and do whatever drugs were on hand. I usually played my harmonica, someone with a guitar would usually show up and a jam would ensue, which the other carnies, lumpen proletariat all, enjoyed quite a bit.

One night, though, I was playing  as usual, after work, kicking a slew of Butterfield and John Sebastian riffs, when I saw this large, beefy ride jock (the guys who operated the carnival rides) saying something to me. I leaned closer and asked him to repeat, and he repeated, but I still didn't understand him because I went back to riffing on the harp. I leaned closer still, turning my good ear toward him. He staggered a little , gave me a stare that would make fish float to the top of the lake, and croaked "how'd you like that thing crammed up your ass?" I set my beer down and pocketed the harmonica and then left through the carnie gate back toward the motel room.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Strictly speaking, the blues

I am blues musician because I am a professional grade blues harmonica player who plays mostly blues music. I am not a "bluesman", however. That term is covered in so much mythology and wishful thinking that it has come to represent qualities and essences that are intangible, inestimable, and vaguely metaphysical. That is to say I think the term "bluesman" is a little pretentious when applied to most good, honest musicians who specialize in blues styles. I am a blues musician, verifiable in fact, not dependent on someone else's criteria. The definition of "professional" is slippery, and perhaps I shouldn't have mentioned it.

 That is why I qualified my remark with the attending term "grade", meant only to say that I am good enough to be paid for playing the harmonica if I wanted to go that route. Alas, I do not have a recording contract, but the world is full of working harmonica players as good as or better than I who are similarly unattached to a record label. That fact does not diminish their professionalism, nor diminishes their skills as harp players. I would say a professional grade blues harmonica player is knows the changes, knows the key differentials, gets the tone and emphasis right, and is able to fall back, accompany, or lay out altogether when he or she is not taking a solo; this is to say the professional grade blues harmonica player listens to what the others in the band are doing and adds to a quality musical experience, not dominate it. 

Mostly, though, the professional is paid, and the amateur is not, strictly speaking.

The path will be cleared

I do believe that one can learn the feeling and the craft of the blues and make legitimate, moving, innovative blues music mostly from listening to recordings and attempting to emulate what's being heard. Unlike a good many graduate students who attended college the same time I did, I believe in the metaphysics of presence, which means, simply, that great music, great art, great novels and the like embody the virtues and nuance of the artists who made them and that those qualities can be transmitted to others who are likewise interested in expressing their emotions and experience in ways more beautiful than snippy complaints. I can only speak of my own experience, of course, but once I heard Butterfield, my choice was made for a life time. What is essential for a blues harmonica player to get to the level of conveying great emotion through an original take on familiar blues structures is to play, play, play and play again; if the student is determined , the path will be cleared.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The blues aint chump change

Change is the only possible constant in this universe, and those things that humans create that have the capacity to change have the capacity to survive, flourish to some extent, and remain expressively relevant to modern experience. Blues, like any other art, cannot remain fixed, in stasis.Those "traditional" forms of blues that well meaning players attempt to preserve and often preach the absolute virtues of, were themselves inventions who took their inspiration and building blocks from older forms that preceded them. It's desirable to listen to, appreciate and perform older blues styles as a means of staying clued to what an older generation of musicians can tell us, but it's folly, I believe, for anyone to insist that the best music peaked there and , in fact, stopped developing.There are only so many kinds of narratives we have in this current life, not so different from the experience of generations before us and, I suspect, hardly so alien to what a younger generation will come to live through. Conditions change, though, economics, the influx of new cultures and ideas, politics, technology, all these change and inform and influence the blues players who are learning now, or who will learn. Change is the only constant, change is inevitable, and those institutions that don't have the capacity to absorb change and grow as a result will turn into a creaky, crumbling artifact. The blues is about life as it is lived and felt, present tense. As long as there are players who feel, cry, laugh hard and feel deeply, I am fairly sure the tradition of the blues will continue to thrive. It won't be the same, of course, but the point is that the history of the blues will ask you this: when was it ever the same?

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Johnny Winter, RIP

Johnny Winter Dies At 70, Blues Legend Was On Tour In Europe:


It was easy to play the cynic when first confronted by the fact of Johnny Winter when he appeared on the national music  scene back in  in  1968. It was a an era where one of the ironic novelties that happened to be a money maker for record companies and concert promoters was white guys playing the blues. Bear in mind that it wasn't all a gimmick, as time has shown that some of the early Caucasians taking up the black man's art form     were legitimate contributors to the tradition. Still, it was a gimmick and it still was a money maker , a lure for the larger rock audience, and it was easy, too easy to dismiss Winter as a contrived, the ultimate White Guy Playing the Blues, an albino. This had the makings of an Al Capp caricature. And then there was the witnessing, the revelation.

 I saw Johnny Winter at the Detroit Rock and Roll revival at the Michigan State Fair Grounds in Detroit at about 1969, and what he did was transcendent; vicious, slashing slide guitar, fast, fluid , wickedly insinuating slow blues, manically accelerated boogie and shuffles where his swarming notes attacked from all sides and showed a musician who had learned his lessons from the master guitarists he learned from--T Bone Walker, Freddie King, Elmore James--and combined it with the volume and electronics of rock and roll and in doing so made it his own. Winter was singular in his devotion to blues and roots music, he had an    aesthetic that basically to serve up music that was raw, honest, unadorned, the basic elements for his guitar work, which     was, often times, simply stunning its speed, it's rawness, the occasional bit of delicacy , and always, its ability to channel emotion , to lift the spirit from the greatest pain, to make you want to dust yourself off and pick up a guitar, a harmonica, to sit behind the drum set and get into the groove. Yes, Johnny Winter could play the guitar, that was all he had to do. Few ever did it so well and I doubt very much few will ever match him as a distinct voice in a    genre where duplication of traditional licks is the norm. Johnny, thank you.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

IN OUR TIME, part one

Fifty years after the death of Ernest Hemingway, a curious reader still has to hack their way through the thick foliage of bluster, posturing and self parody that remains a strong part of the late Nobel Prize Winner's legacy. I came across Hemingway originally after I discovered Norman Mailer's collection of essays, "The Presidential Papers", and in my growing obsession with Mailer's brilliantly self-declaring sentences I made note of his own obsession with both Hemingway's style and philosophy. In pursuit, I purchased a couple of the author's books and sought what had made Mailer a conflicted partisan of the man's approach to writing; what I found was something else altogether: a crow in a tree with a machine gun.

Monday, June 23, 2014

They left us hanging on.

Man oh man, what a band. Vanilla Fudge was a band of  competent musicians who came up with one good production, their inspired production of "You Keep Me Hanging On". It was an inspired move to slow down the Supremes' most jacked-up hit . Instead of the ringing -telephone shrillness of the original, this became instead a mock-fugue, building tension and releasing it effectively erotic explosions. 

Sometimes I still thrash around the living room with this song in my head, miming Vince Martel's clanging power chords with broad sweeps of my hand. VF's arrangement of this song became the standard approach for the most part; Rod Stewart did a credible take of his that borrowed heavily from the Fudge's initial recasting.

 Sadly, though, the band relied too much on that one idea, too often. Their songs, original or reinterpretations, tended to be dirge like and down right pompous, dullsville , a drag. And their album "The Beat Goes On" beat Yes to the punch , producing the single most pretentious and bombastic concept album years before the British band mustered up that three disc Hindenburg they titled "Tales from Topographic Ocean." Vanilla Fudge has a mixed legacy, but the one thing they did well, the storm and thunder that comprises their version of "You Keep Me Hanging On", they did brilliantly. It is a thing forever and so few of us accomplish that even in our most inflated fantasies.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

This Poem makes me think of no poem in particular

This poem makes me think of coming back late from a party in the late 70's and discovering that the phone has been off the hook for a least half the day. To this day I wonder who might have called, what good news or ill omens they might have had to tell me, what my  life might have been like if I left the phone on the hook, had been home to pick up the receiver as the  ringing filled the apartment with its clanging sonata of anxiety, if I had only  scraped together the coin to buy a Radio Shack answering machine. Those of of us with nerves even the sniffling drivel of bad poets at sparsely attended open readings cannot rattle know the anxiety of the phone off the hook, the screaming, whining, whirling sirens of hell filling an empty room from shag carpet to cob webbed ceiling corner, satanic variations within the monochromatic scale, bristling fingers on a blackboard amplified with Glen Branca's Fender Twin Reverb, a sonic variety of nerve gas that is nothing less than the hungry ID demanding more pie, or that you bake one right now if no slices remain. 

This  poem is sound intended to kill appetites and interest in community affairs; all one needs are books from which to paraphrase metaphors and contextualize the evidence of one's life until there are only footnotes and marginalia where a pulse used to be. There is the scraping of fingertips across a page of paper irritating to the touch, there is a click, a rattle in one's throat as instinct commands you to say something to void the emptiness, but there is only phlegm, a congealed incoherence suitable for a celebrity wedding. This poem is a compost heap of vowels and their modifiers that was left in back of the garage in the wan hope that they'd be rich with meaning by the time spring air altered the way clouds form on the morning and evening horizons. Often enough we write things down so we would have ad libs and occasional poems to utter when the plumbing groans and the siren rhyme of the cold water streaming to tub and basin obscures the pleasant voice of a lover you remember through the concrete of missing minutes in the day.  
 
This poem is like that noise, a constant string of phrases that are a constant noise textured with static and prickly heat. I would prefer to listen to someone continually busting open the Velcro fly on their old Members Only jacket. I imagine the being someone who would find placing his thumb on an old record turntable to be great fun, a reminder to himself and a warning to the world that entropy trumps ambition, needless ejaculations of fear and panic beat a massage and after dinner sex. 



This poem is finally about itself, not who ever he might have been addressing in whatever simulation of a life there is on the other side of his apartment door; we cannot, of course, escape the prison house of language, but there is a point where self reflexivity is merely a dodge, a distraction that we have yet another poet who is tone deaf to the art of collage, cannot construct an ear worthy pastiche, is unwilling to abandon the disguises and borrowed phonics and consider his future as an author of writing with uneven line breaks. This poem is the test pattern staring at you after you come out of a black out. The national anthem has been played and the stadium is empty, like this poem.

Monday, June 16, 2014

SIMPLE GRACE

Simple grace
would do the trick
if there was anything
simple about grace.

I've tried drinking soft drinks
perched like an ill bird on a limb, but there is
as much spill as thrill
as the horizon teeters
and telephone poles
out number tree tops
of likely places to land.

Walking on glass and hot coals
likewise get me nowhere near the center of things
where all the tension is released from my muscles,
the headaches abate, and my appetite returns.

You asked me once
what made me happy
and i imagined
an empty glass and
 calendars stacked in the attic
next to the noise makers and paper slippers.

Your eyes, i said, your eyes
make me happy, the blue and green pools
i fell into when i lifted my head from
books, magazines, airport novels,
when i turned my face from
the television
and saw you writing letters,
talking on the phone,
staring out the window
to what might over the hill,
the tree tops, imagining who makes their way home
and pays what's come due
'though the world seems
to dissolve like
sugar wafers dipped
in
Where was the grace we wanted,
walking between bullet streams and falling bricks to the end of the day
where ever after
was a calendar without pages?

On the other side of the street,
a bike chained to a bus stop signed,waiting for its master
for as long as it takes.

WHAT I'VE BEEN READING

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Ted's bookshelf: read

The Tortilla CurtainU.S.!: A NovelSlaves to Do These ThingsCrackpots: A NovelThe Incentive of the MaggotFrantic Transmissions to and from Los Angeles: An Accidental Memoir

More of Ted's books »
Ted's  book recommendations, reviews, favorite quotes, book clubs, book trivia, book lists