Thursday, September 1, 2016

Tom Wolfe wrestles big ideas with an erratic syntax


Image result for tom wolfeI doubt that there's been a writer my age who hasn't been influenced by the hyperventilated prose of Tom Wolfe. He was a must read in the Sixties through the Eighties, journalist, critic, wise guy who got the Zeitgeist. His high octane paragraphs were masterpieces of over statement, a mockery of nonsense and balderdash, a fun read combined with some potent talking points to whatever conventional wisdom happened to be in circulation at the moment. The problem, of course, is that as one gets older , youthful exuberance and stylistic license turn into mannerisms if one continues to use them into their senior years.

Wolfe,84, has continued his manner of composition, ratcheted up his disgust with cultural habits of the moment and has become, in  fact, a crank old cuss who is no longer the refreshing breath of fresh air blowing into a room full of overheated bloviating.  Wolfe's tirades have become the overheated blather he  lampooned. I've not yet read his new book "The Kingdom of Speech", wherein he takes on Darwin and his theories on Evolution and the work and ideas of  Noam Chomsky. I will read it, to be sure, as there is not a Wolfe book that does reward with solid phrase, a brilliant metaphor, even a pertinent question that needed to be asked in the arena of ideas. But when Wolfe, who has a doctorate in American Studies from Yale, decides to get theoretical and trades realm of ideas rather than be the mere journalist or novelist, his reasoning gets skewed, confused, and seems little else than perpetual wallow in sarcasm and an unnamed source of bitterness. The open sequence is distressing for reasons that make you think less of James Joyce, who seems an obvious model ,than it does of a man who lost his glasses, rummaging through drawers and desktops , making a mess until he finds the crucial lenses.  So  that you  know, Wolfe  is attempting to broach the subject of Rice University.A sample of the slew:
 I surfed and Safaried and finally moused upon the only academic I could find who disagreed with the eight failures, a chemist at Rice University … Rice … Rice used to have a big-time football team … the Rice Owls … wonder how they’re doing now? I moused around on the Rice site some more, and uh-oh … not so great last season, the Owls … football … and I surfed to football concussions … exactly as I thought!” 

Admittedly some will find genius , as Wolfe die hards customarily do, but variations of a theme here. Digression is  my middle name with regards to stylish prose concentrating on little more than what interests the author at the moment, but this seems more a stumble or a stall. All told, I will read this book and pray that there is a bit of lucidity lurking under the encrusted sarcasm that has become Wolfe's world view.

Literature's shelf life

Everything and everyone gets forgotten eventually, especially for writers and poets, who's livelihoods and legacies rely less on critics suddenly brandishing them as names we must remember (or rediscover in fits of revisionist apologetics) than on an audiences to sit for long periods and absorb words of description, abstraction, feeling, have a willingness to suspend disbelief long enough to take in nuanced tale of experience they are otherwise unfamiliar with. The period of suspension is getting shorter, I'm afraid, as surveys indicate that fewer than half of adults who read consume literary fiction for "pleasure". That frightfully reduces the potential audience for the Good Stuff to a handful of academics, students compelled to read assigned authors for a grade, and a smaller handful of dedicated booksellers and their shrinking coterie of customers still willing to read deeply and longingly.

The internet, of course, is the go-to villain when assigning blame , but history is a long string of disruptions when new technologies severely intervened in whatever elevated discourses were occurring and forced everyone to change the way they did things and to reassign their priorities. I do feel badly when books I have read and cherished and written and spoke so often for so long fall out of print, or when I encounter younger people who don't know the names of Cheever, Hemingway, Baldwin, Oates, Abe, Faulkner. Part of me thinks that's inexcusable, but then there is the sudden realization that time goes on , inevitably, and each generation gains their own heroes as those new heroes struggle with experiences that seem central to the current decade.

Might these young readers be as curious as I was to investigate older writers from generations prior to their own, as I tried to be when I enrolled in as many literature classes as I could? Memory is a tricky thing as one ages; back in the day I seemed to have been smarter, faster, more daring and curious than I actually was. I was a smug little boy blessed with enough vanity to read authors I wouldn't normally have merely in order to keep pace with what I thought was a competition with my peers. I didn't like not being part of the conversation that ensued. Years later, though, the weight of the experiences and adventures I consumed for vanity's sake takes effect, and I have now something nearing wisdom, or at least a practical realism about my expectations about anything and the flux and flow of the world that churns through populations and their arts and culture . One scratches their head and stares at their own library now that they're in their mid-sixties and , in the flush of memory, pray that such beautiful words find fate more fitting than a compost heap or a crowded, mildewed shelf in an Oregon attic.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Poetry the tease

It's been my feeling that poets express their contempt of poetry by continuing to write poems about poetry. This isn't the garden variety poetaster at an open reading who furiously scribbles breathless , broken lined manifestos about the responsibilities and burden of being a poet in a blind and cruel world; this is poetry as Priesthood, a habit of thinking many who have lapsed from their own religions and seek to imprint their inadequate sense of how the universe functions behind the veil on the entirety of poetry itself. Those blessed (and burdened) with the gift of seeing things as they really are become the cliche's greatest promoter. There is no ridding the world of these good folks.It's the serious poets, the ones with books and reviews of their work, who work teaching poetry survey courses and conduct workshops. 

During my time as member of Slate's belated Poems Fray discussion board, where a good many bright discussants would parse, yay or nay, poetry editor Robert Pinsky's choice for Slate's Poem of the week, I noticed a rash of poems that could not back away from the urge to invoke of some sort; the rationalizations in the critical jargon was rich and insightful in how many of us argue for something without telling anyone how any of it is any good for us, but it never seemed to me to be more than a go-to move for a poet who is stumped at any ironic turning point.

A poet begins the poem talking about being a poet wrestling with reality by poetic means and at the end of linking associations, one after the other, in that essaying forth of getting a peak beyond the mere appearances of the world, some goes awry in the speculation and dreamy thinking that contradicts everything and lo!, the poet finds out that he or she has been relying upon a literary form that will not reveal the thing-ness of things no matter how effervescent the poetry is. We cannot escape the prison house of language, the poet finds, the music swells, the sun sets on the poet as he or she grows cold and melancholy in their realization that their craft is useless for anything other than remind themselves that the senses are fallible.  The end.  

  Every defense has been given  within the confines of the poem itself, not in any  discussion happening in room, at a table, filled with people who’ve read  and seek to discover what is they felt, what they thought, what the thought about how they felt.  The written is written to short circuit our emotional with the verses that have been read—our discussions are guided along a primrose path and little spontaneity  of response, no honestly felt and strongly argued exclamation of “this sucks phallic verbs “.  What it all means not longer matters, not on a group level, not as a pastiche  of  responses culled from a brain storming of interpretations, not from  a sudden image of a time formerly locked away in the deeper recesses of memory that now emerges again to haunt you and further stain your expectations of some kind of renewal through right living and solemn vows. Worse, we discover that may none of it mattered anyway. 

Many stanzas, rhymed, unrhymed, irregular, evocative and  vague ,  have changed nothing in the world. What it has done is make being alive in those naked minutes when dread and  fuck off panic nearly overwhelms you . Poetry, the art of the allusive line and image that seem to  be about something,makes being in this cold light of fear bareable for another minute,another hour, until the fear slumbers agan and you are something like sane again, smiling, eager for breakfast and a walk in the  sun, or at leasta couple of long distance phone calls.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

album review:LEANING IN AND OUT OF THE SUNLIGHT

INTROVERSIONS--Sluka
Introspection, guilt, a wan hope of transcendence through the attainment of a love that cleanses the soul of all sins real and imagined, perceptions of failure that will not relent, a personal paradigm of feelings so deep that the world, indeed the universe, is coded by the severe lack of self esteem, the ever deepening chasm of depression. Those are my impression of what is generally regarded as Goth rock, the decades of stylized gloom and regret and corrosive self -regard that’s made listening to tunes by The Cure, Bauhaus, and the solo offerings of Peter Murphy work to listen to, even in my leisure time; I’m a sucker for suffering poets, outcast lovers standing upon a widow’s walk or overlooking a stormy ocean from a high, jagged cliff. Eccentrics that don’t fit in with the cookie-cutter approximations of normal behavior and attitude spoke to me for a period when I was in my own private hell as a teen who found solace in Dylan and Leonard Cohen and in the deeper metaphors of Romantic Poets for whom the insanity of being ruled by emotion was more valuable than sex or money.
Into adulthood, of course, I eventually got my terminal uniqueness and took an adult approach to matters, but not entirely. Some of me longed to immerse myself in the vats of sadness again, wallow, put on head phones and drink a rank glass of sherry, droning, guitar and synth laced songs making the cruelty of the world a personal matter. It is, in the final consideration, all about me and my feelings. Of course this is the equivalent of picking the scab and taking pleasure in the wound not healing. The seductive tones of Goth placed its tattered shawl around my shoulders more than once.
Sluka, nee Christopher Sluka, is a San Diego based singer songwriter in the Goth mold, ironic as his home base is famous for sunshine and beaches, not cliffs, dark skies or weather that reinforces dark moods. He is, though, good at the style, quite good, in fact. His latest release, Introversions shows us a man who knows the considered craft of writing solid pop tunes and who appreciates the need for variety in the flow of material. Figuring alluring riffs on keyboards and synths and supplying a variety of hooks and instrumental textures, this percolates along, each track pulling you in with a personality of its own. The lead instrument is Sluka’s remarkable voice, at first making you think of David Bowie (or Bowie’s primary influence vocally, Anthony Newley), but the resemblance fades away as this artist convincingly converts existential dread and worry into playfully , soulfully inflected readings of the surreal lyrics. Agonized crooning, Beatlesque harmonies, emphatic phrasing on the harder edged material, Introversions , as the title implies, is a series of testaments of a man investigating his emotions , with the hope that he can transcend them. This is very much about the old adage, reputedly coined by uber gloomster Nietzsche , that if you stare into the abyss, the abyss will wind up staring at you. The hitch, however, is that Sluka prefers a little flavor to his plate, a little color to shine in to the dank vault of a world view. He remembers to rock, to croon, to laugh (if slightly) to lift his voice on high (if briefly) before it it drags along the lower registers again, grainy and unloved.


The stylistic range is impressive, with album opener “Valentine Lies”, guided by pensive piano configurations and melodramatic beats, climbs from the ground up, with Sluka’s voice capturing the mood of a man giving himself over to the sweep of love. “San Diego Zoo” takes a lighter, airier approach, strummed guitar and tasty, short guitar riffs, sweets bits of whimsy and regret, a man looking to move out of the dark house and into the sunshine of the spirit. Sluka’s voice’s, at once nasal, husky, and amazingly lithe, phrases the contradictions concisely. The final track, “Gothic Cavalier”, is the strongest song, a bit of menace provided by chunky guitar chords, a persistent bass and synth textures that overlay an enterprisingly off-kilter melody, the song swells at the chorus as Sluka relates the first person tale of a man seemingly encased in a gloom he cannot shake, an observer, a man of part unable to make lasting connections with the normal life. 
This is, in a word, catchy as anything you’re likely to come across among recent releases. Sluka’s preferred mood, of course, is downcast, the fatalistic pessimism and anesthetized moodiness that are the creative grounds for poets and assorted fans afflicted with swampy temperaments, but what gets me to play Introversions again and again in one day are his hooks, his riffs, his melodies, his skill at varying his moods and styles and thereby modulating his songs through a richer than usual selection of emotions. His music is catchier, his manner is more questing, searching, a man in a dark room braving a bit of sunshine, a little bit of joy. 

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

THE OLD WEIRD AMERICA by Greil Marcus



An admirable facet of Greil Marcus's digressive form of criticism is that he's always attempting--essaying forth, essentially--to demonstrate the unities between the high, low and middle portions of culture, insisting, with an impressive range of references and reading that the separations between are more argumentative than  substantial.Linking mountain and southern music with Dadaism and neo-Marxist student rebellions with Religious bliss with rock and roll and performance art--an exciting project to stake one's career on, which is precisely what Marcus has done. Famously, though, Marcus, one of the first rock  critics for the Rolling Stone publication,the author is given to digression and historical anecdote, musing and abusing the privilege of making metaphor when proofs of his theory are required. Assuming that he had a theory to begin with. Marcus is clearly moving in the dialectical mode, maintaining that opposing forces arise in history that then clash  inevitably in violent synthesis and create a new period of existence with new rules and cultural  distinctions, all of that creating it's opposite and  which will again clash in  violent synthesis. But instead of a theory that one can read and argue with, that is, I suppose, a script one can comprehend and modify as new evidence comes to light, Marcus is more  impulsive notion than theoretical rigor.


 It is the joy of reading him, as he seems to relish the chance to  recreate some blessed moment in music history--the Sex Pistols rehearsing "Johnny B. Goode" (in his book Lipstick Traces)  or the tension on the stage at the Newport Fok Festival when Dylan, assuming the stage with an electric band, was booed and called names by a crowd of stalwart folkies. Just when you think he's ready to provide the skeleton key to his musings, the punchline, the point he's taking a good while to get to, Marcus recedes into the mystify murk of his own  grandiloquence. That is the joy and the aggravation of reading this writer.   I read Greil Marcus because I love the way he writes and admit that his prose has been an influence in the way I take finger tips to keyboard. This is a problematic love of the man's love that has existed for five decades.Lately, though, it's been more prolix than persuasion, as his ongoing effort to make Bob Dylan the central factor of the 20th century hasn't struck a believable insightful note in decades. 


The Old Weird America is an extended reflection on the songs that appeared on Dylan's famous 'Basement Tapes" , strives to provide the secret history behind the songs . In matters of the cross pollination of cultures, racial justice, the mashing together of folk authenticity, rock and roll and Symbolist poetry, Marcus essentially argues that all roads lead to Dylan and lead through him as well. As criticism , it is more an act of imagination than a weighing of elements; Well read and as well listened as he is across a great spectrum of literature and music types, what is lacking here are the dual duties of establishing how the songs and artists within the folk tradition influenced Dylan and how Dylan assimilated the music who's expressive brilliance he could never equal and yet was motivated by to create his own means, and create a new criteria by which to discuss the success or failure of the work. , there are dozens, hundreds perhaps, of critics who have standing to challenge him. The question, though, isn't the most obvious, "what are you talking about?". We know what he's talking about, and around. Rather, someone needs to ask "what are you getting at?" I've done my part in filling in the blanks in Marcus's ideas about how history and culture , high, low and middle, function, but in ad- libbing so much without a frame work that can be expanded, contracted and otherwise modified to fit the evidence under investigation, I think this may be just a case that Marcus has lost curiosity in new things. He treats Dylan the way Harold Bloom treats Shakespeare, a figure who's work created the contemporary ideas of contemporary man, although Bloom is better at his claims in that he takes pains to critically contrast the ideas in the Bard's poems against the theoretical proxies of Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, et al.

 You can argue with his sweeping conclusions, but the book I'm thinking of, "Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human" is a critical delight. It may be that Bloom is luxuriating in laziness of a higher caliber.The difference between them is that Bloom has a thesis that he's worked with for decades, a set of subtle arguments crystallized in his landmark book "The Anxiety of Influence", a brief but trenchant discussion where the Professor posits that Shakespeare is the premiere genius who casts a long and permanent shadow  over the rest of world literature that came   before him, and that his influence is so pervasive that no poet or other literary artists cannot help but be infuenced by him. 

Those great geniuses who've emerged after the Bard's time have either engaged their  influence from him and written great works extending , modifying and altering the system of metaphor Shakespare changed our collective   consciousness with, or there are other geniues who've emerged over the centuries who, being painfully aware of the Bard's embedded influence on how sentences about human experience have come to be written, write    furiously in the other direction, against his style, assumptions and rhetoric, experimenting, taking political risks, deconstructing, inverting, abstracting and de-familiarizing the artful language in  ways only a new kind of   genius would conceive and execute.
  
 But here's the rub: even for those great writers who've made great art with language that artfully  contains the human impulse to  go beyond mere descriptios of the world and peer at what is behind the veil of enumerated appearances, Shakespeare is present, his aesthetic, his metaphors, his language influencing new writers in one direction or the other. That is a rather crude summary of Bloom's basic premise and there are dozens of other notions woven through his life's work, but the point is that his a set of ideas that make the ideas tangible and convincing once the initial "a ha!"  of flashing insight wears off. It's not science, of course, but it is a craft, a profession, this kind of thinking,and what we have in Bloom who has taken his working theory and tested it against new ideas, new  writers who writer literature in cultures other what is routinely aligned in the Western Canon. Bloom, who defends the existence of the canon and wrote a book on the issue, believes dually that there are permanent geniues and masterpieces of Western Literature,   as he is a man who has made a career judging books with imposing standards. The standards are not fixed, though, and Bloom further asserts thtthe Canon is a living thing, like the   American Constitution, a catagory   of books and authors that must   be   continually revised as matters with human existence come to mean something different. As I've mentioned  already, Marcus hasn't put forth a thesis from which his notions can find a more compelling form of argument, a form that would aid others to avoid the frequent bush and thorny bramble that spreads in Marcus's many books and subject his scheme of rock music's claim to art to some respectful but rigorous interrogation.Marcus and impressionistic hot takes on matters of music , and culture in general have been brilliant at times, but the later work is actually regressive and without a central premise or premises. I frankly think he's lost in his thoughts, but without a map.


Dylan is less the artist to Marcus than a saint or something greater, and, even though there is pleasure to ride the waves, cadences and well crafted metaphors and similes of the writer's prose, The Old Weird America is a shaggy dog story at heart. Marcus began this habit of epic digression with Lipstick Traces, a tome not without its pleasures--his connection there of the efforts of Cabaret Voltaire, the Dadaists, Punk Rock and the Situationist provocations of Guy Debord was especially tightly argued-- but now it seems little else than a practiced spiel that's trotted out and exclaimed, regardless of the topic, not unlike an old timer's AA share that is memorized not just by him or her but by the entire meeting that has heard him or her deliver for decades. What I am saying is that Marcus is writing the same book with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Those familiar with how the author thinks on the page will note, also, the lack of real verve in the writing, skilled and flowing as it maybe.

Poetic interpretation

A  young man I was chatting with the other day mistook me for someone who knew something about poetry and put the question to me about  how he can learn to  analyse a poem and receive an "A"for his effort. He actually used the word "effort" when he framed his question, and I began my routine spiel about investigating poems by mention that "effort" is synonym for "work", meaning that he would have to read the poem and pour over the words no less than any endeavor he'd undertake with the intention of getting a more than  satisfactory result.

The basis of what I said is this: What I do is read a poem several times through, completely each time, first for what the poem sounds like, how well it flows, how well the general language goes together, whether images, similes and metaphors both enliven the reading and fit the cadence. In other words, to get a solid sense of the poem’s music and rhythm; that can give you an inspiration, as it often has me, as to the mood and drift of them poem, if not the actual theme. You should also ascertain the context of the poem—funeral? romance? remembrance? 

This gets you to dig harder in your reading and sharpens your sense of why some words are being used and others are not.Successive readings of the poem have to do with language and, generally, the search for key words, antonyms and synonyms , words and images that would both contradict and compliment each other and offer up a solid clue of competing ideas the poet is weighing. Often times poets will address a concept that is antithetical to the theme they may be dealing with as their dominant theme. If you think you’ve grasped a principle idea, be on the look out for those images and tropes that would provide a counter argument. With me, this provides me with a framework as to how well the poet resolves the contradiction in the situation that inspires the poem ; this is where you break down what the poet has written and then argue how well or not the writers has accomplished his or her task.  It is also a a handy way of developing a few new ideas to occupy , resonate and other wise make wonderful intellectual music   in the space between my ears, an instance that often enough renews my curiosity with the world and keeps me from getting morose  and feeling older than the one  one lost shoe you always find behind the sofa when it comes time to move yet  again. 

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Zappa

I saw the documentary Eat That Question :Frank Zappa in his Own Words the day before yesterday and I thought it was a  generally good representation of Zappa the social critic and Zappa the serious musician. The interview segments, which are abundant, span his career , as does the generous inclusion of live performances with The Mothers of Invention. He was extremely intelligent, actually iconoclastic and gifted as a composer, but like many others with vast talents that prefer no constraint and mouths that prefer no editing, you get he feeling he indulged his worst habits as often as he did his best talents. There is a repetition of ideas in his asides, rants and excoriations, a set of notions that he honed and delivered continuously over the years, libertarian-genius bromides that wear you down toward the end of the film. Still, despite the repetition, you do marvel at the way in which he cuts away the fat and gets to the crude, stupid heart that is pulse of consumerist culture.

 But as a fan of Zappa's music, I was very happy, as the film includes generous portions from live performances that make us realize that above all else, Zappa was an artist, a genius of some sort.  Even die hard fans and scholars of his work have complained that Zappa didn’t challenge himself nearly enough and often times released albums that  were sub-par, highlighting musical ideas from bygone decades that no longer seemed fresh, riveting, or daring. His satire, as well, ceased being funny or witty in large measure and was, for a good number of  records released through the Seventies and even through much of the Eighties, merely mean spirited. His cynicism had conquered his inspiration , likely because he realized that he   could make money being this cartoon character “Frank Zappa”, becoming the man his fans wanted him to  be. It was about making money in order to finance his larger orchestral projects, and the irony that he needed to     compromise his principles and act the way new  fans with disposable income expected  to behave was likely not lost on him.T

Orson Wells had a similar  situation, the story goes, as he took a good many demeanng roles in whatever variety   of Hollywood schlock came his way so he could finance his own projects. It's an odd curse, I suppose, a problem the working working world would have considering a bother at all.How would one have challenged Zappa, though? His comfort zone was a strange amalgamation of influences --Lenny Bruce, Stravinsky, Sun Ra, Edgar Varese, Lord Buckley, Musique Concrete-- that it's probable that few would know what to suggest as a way for him to diverge from his rut. He created his niche, proud that he wasn't dependent on grant money, gifts from government agencies and the like. He was something like a home- schooler, nearly irrational in his belief that government couldn't do anything good for the population. There are times when I just have to turn off the rants--truth telling is never the same as music--and crank up his tunes, which has floored me for decades.


Zappa's work as a serious composer already has a fairly full catalog; one could, I suspect, produce a week or two of special concerts featuring Zappa's "serious " work. But I agree that there was much in the seventies I disliked from the man in the 70s. "One Size Fits All" was actually a solid album, firing on all cylinders, but commencing with "Apostrophe", featuring the egregious "Yellow Snow" and onward, his satire degenerated into a a species of juvenile smut. What would have been interesting would have been if he had collaborated with artists of similar stature, on smaller projects, in different musical areas. Not the Elvis Costello grand standing collaborations, but rather real efforts to work toward the best virtues of another artist. That would have been something had he wanted to make the effort, but his personality was controlling, ironically, despite his diatribes about freedom. There was something of Howard Roark in him that his work would be presented to the world on his terms solely, uncontaminated by meddlers, sycophants and their like.

The downside of Zappa's libertarian attitude about his music--my art, my way, at the price I said, or nothing at all--is that much of his output is a remarkably eccentric selection of self-invented cliches. As much as he deserves to be praised for resourcefulness and achieving a crazy amalgam of jazz, classical, comedy and rock , there are go-to moves he never strayed from , bits of business that seemed more treading water than an expansion of established themes. I do wish he'd found time and interest in collaborating with other musicians on equal footing--singers, lyricists, musicians, other composers.. The results might have been interesting and gotten the late FZ out of his comfort zone and lightened the lid on that vacuum packed cynicism that ceased to be amusing long before he passed on.

Experimental or what?

Experimental poetry used to be the kind of stuff that broke with established forms of verse writing , both in form and aesthetic . A good survey course in Western Poetry will pretty much be the history of one school of poetry arising in response and/or rebellion against forms that had long been dominant , with the more daring and expansive poetry influencing younger poets to the degree that the experimenters over time become the old guard. This goes on and on, exceptions to rules becoming rules until another generation of impatient experimenters come along with their contrarian notions of what verse should be, usurping fusty older poets and becoming the dominant ones themselves, fat, complacent and ripe for over turning. I don’t know if that’s a working dialectic , but it is something that has continued since literate men and women sought to express grand and vague inspirations in language that did more than merely describe or paraphrase existence. It’s my feeling that experimentation has become the norm and that we have these days are recycling of previous avant gard ideas and gestures, names if theories and practices changed ever so much.. But not so much.It’s gotten to the point that the school of poets who are referred to as the New Formalist, poets who’ve tired of free verse and variable feet and the several generations of “open forms” in poetry and compose poems that rhyme and which employ traditional meter, have become a controversial matter in that they threaten to usurp the hegemony of the Avant Gard tradition. To each their own. Myself, I am attracted to any kind of poetic writing that has that rare quality of being dually fresh and unique; I am less intrigued by the theory behind a poem, experimental or traditional than I am on it reads, on whether it works. If it produces a reader’s satisfaction, then it becomes useful to investigate what a writer has done as an artist in this odd medium, bringing skill and on the fly inspiration to bear in the writing. This can be the case with Ron Silliman, John Ashbery, two poets who are arrest my attention with their creation of indirect address of the living expression, and it is the case for Thomas Lux and Dorianne Laux, two other poets who are not averse to letting in you follow their line of thinking and who still lead you results that are unexpected and extraordinary.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Archie Thompson writes his own ticket

Archie Thompson, San Diego jazz musician par excellence, leans back in the chair of his office in the First Presbyterian Church on downtown San Diego’s 4th Avenue, in a small office space secreted above the chapel in the balcony, next to the pipe organ. The space is small, filled with his computers, a small drum kit, chairs, microphones, cables and assorted recording devices and various instruments and books filling every inch .This is the creative clutter of a busy man. Fashioning a broad smile and looking casually resplendent in golf cap, black tee shirt and jeans, Thompson is a man thoroughly enjoying this time of his life.  It’s hard to think otherwise.
Article originally published in San Diego Troubadour. Used with kind permission.

He leans forward “I am a journeyman musician myself. I have to pitch myself. I am 54 years old and I have never done anything except play music. I live in San Diego, owned a home for twenty two years, and raised two kids, all through music. I love it.”

“You’re the kind of person I’d ‘the world’s luckiest man’” I offer. Thompson leans back in his chair again while the smile grows wider and he folds his hands behind his head. The smile is ubiquitous, freely offered.

“Yes, that’s what it feels like” he replies. 

What strikes you about Archie Thompson almost at once is that his easy-going persona isn’t a veneer, a fa├žade, but the genuine article. Gregarious, cordial, quick to extend the hand, he seems at once intense and sublimely relaxed, a quality he brings to his dates at various restaurants and clubs that feature live music. A recent appearance with his trio at   Eddie V’s  in Seaport  Village, an elegant eatery where her performs every Thursday ,Thompson and his trio  Jason Littlefield , a melodic and quick witted  bassist,  and   the percussive insightfulness of drummer Charlie  Weller  livened up the with an  set off jazz was the perfect balance of elegance and funk.  Firmly rooted in a blues groove, the trio swung mightily through a surprisingly diverse set list, commencing with a riveting adaptation of Cannonball Adderly’s “Work Song”,    the Willie Dixon penned Little Walter classic “My Babe” and a very fine reconsideration of Albert King’s “Born under a Bad Sign”.

 Thompson sweetens the signature   riffs with rich, ringing piano chords  and short phrases to underscore the humor and the dolefulness of his expressive vocals, often  looking up to both  Weller  and Littlefield as the tempo slows down for a time and then picks up the pace,  or breaks into a different time signature.  Bass and drums weave suitably tight and organic patterns under Thompson’s piano work, which responds with a continually inventive improvisation.  A  combination of styles intersect in his playing, with quotes from classical pieces, pop  tunes, bits and pieces of melody made part of the enjoyable, rumbling eloquence the trio puts forth. 

 Most notably, the music swings while not losing the grounded grit of the blues.  Even on an interpretation of the Turtles pop hit “Happy Together”, a song generally not found in most jazz trio’s book of tunes, these three retained the oldie’s classic arrangement and even excel at bringing forth the song’s signature chorus, the solo section is solid jazz, with a finely composed piano solo from the ever resourceful Thompson over a bass and drums interplay that pushes the tune with a verve only an intuitive grasp of the other’s playing provides.   Thompson, of    course, is an especially soulful saxophonist with a style that combines the honking grit of Illinois Jacquet and King Curtis (too formative influences he speaks highly of) and the hard bop panache of   Nat Adderly and Dexter Gordon.  Thompson though   is one of those players you make note of, where you can simultaneously hear who inspired him in his playing as well experiencing the personal voice built on the lessons he learned.  The combination of Thompson, Littlefield and Weller results in a night of fun, funky, continuously surprising music.

Born in San Carlos in San Diego’s east county and a resident most of his life, Thompson grew up in a musical family, with two brothers who were also musicians and parents who supported and encouraged them with their passions. Archie was the youngest of three boys and it was when he was very young their passion music became his.

“I started on piano at 6” he recalls,” I’m from a musical family. I am really fortunate, I have two older brothers. My oldest brother, eight years my senior, was a real music prodigy. He had perfect pitch and he was quite accomplished by the time I was born. We realized he had perfect pitch by the time he was in second grade or something like that. I was really fortunate to grow up in that environment, in San Carlos out in East County. We all started out on piano and then we all picked up the horn. I wanted to play the horn, but we had to learn piano first, and thank god for that because it’s t he foundation for theory, harmony. We all took lessons from the same elderly piano teacher who had a classical emphasis.

She had a great way of teaching harmony and theory and the basics. If we heard a song on the radio that we liked, she would write it out for us. So we were playing things that were fun to play, which makes a big difference to an eight year old kid. So then saxophone started when I was about ten years old. We all played in Ozzie’s Marching Chargers; Ozzie’s was a music store that put this band together. We did all the Charger half time shows back in the day. That was great experience as well. I wanted to be a drummer as well and my parents bought me a drum set when I was six. And there were guitars, lots of guitars around the house.  My middle brother was a bass player and there were always instruments around. We were always picking them up and playing. My parents were very supportive of us.”

Thompson recalls that the period he spent living in Los Angeles after graduating high school in San Diego was a cornerstone in his    decision to make a career as a musician.

“A huge influence on me was moving to Los Angeles after High School. I was fortunate to tag along on a bunch of my brothers' recording sessions As an 18 year old sax player I wasn't polished enough to compete with guys like Tom Scott, and Pete Christie, but it worked out to my advantage.  I would sit in the control room and watch the producers and engineers work.  Many of these sessions were Motown Records sessions; I learned so much as a "fly on the wall".  Not only technically how a studio operates, but how to work with musicians, and singers, how to get great emotional performances, to get the best out of your musicians and singers.   I worked the clubs on the "chitlin circuit", which was what the black club circuit was known as.  Backing up singers and playing with some of the great Motown musicians that were present at those recording sessions.   It was an education, one that you do not get in college, or by formal training, and it helped to shape me into the musician I am today. I played deep in ‘the hood’, and it was nothing but a positive thing.  My brother and I would be the only white people in the clubs; I played pool with hustlers, drank whiskey with old-timers, and blew my horn with the baldest dudes in town.   I am so grateful for those experiences.”  

Thompson often expresses s amazement and gratitude that he’s been able to earn his keep and, in the long run, flourish through creating and performing the music he loves. He is one of those musicians who make you think of the James Brown honorific, “the hardest working man in show biz”. In any event, a visit to his website (www.archiethompson.com) reveals a musician involved in many projects tailored to different audiences, his many permutations evidenced in his principle group The Arch tones, as well as a with vocalist David Stranger called the New Moon Flyer in the vein of Sinatra, Bobby Darin and Nat King Cole that gives tribute to the Great American Songbook. Ever versatile and expansive in his tastes, Thompson also headlines the surf combo Archie T and the Tidesmen, and a cocktail lounge solo piano/saxophone act. Thompson adds to his schedule with frequent    work as a producer and songwriter and a busy schedule of regular performances. In addition to the weekly Jazz Vespers services on Saturdays at 4:30PM, , he performs at  the elegant  U.S. Grant Hotel Saturdays  from 8pm to  12am,  holds forth with his trio at the posh  Eddie V’s in Seaport Village  on Thursday , at the U.S. Grant Hotel from 8pm to  12am, and appearing  as a solo act   four nights a week  at Truluck’s in La  Jolla . A considerable amount of activity for the working musician, but it’s a full schedule Thompson built from the ground up acting as his own booking agent. It’s a skill he acquired in the earliest days of his professional life.

“What was really cool was I was 14 or so I got into a band and not a garage band. I already had a reputation because of my brothers. And I was pretty good on the sax by then and I joined a band with guys who in their early 20s. They got me in the band, probably, because they knew my family got all the gigs. My mom and dad were managing and booked the gigs for a long time by the time I had started to play live. By the time I was 14 I was in a band and out making money. At 16 I was playing night clubs 5 nights a week starting in high school. That was probably not the best place to be for a 16 year old boy, but you get an education that you probably don’t get in a class room. From my older brothers band my dad would go out and be the band manager on site, or my mom would. By the time I came around they were over it. I was the fourteen year old in the band but I was the one was the band leader.  We played all the Navy Clubs all over, Camp Pendleton, all the military installations. They all had live music, even over here at Balboa Hospital. We played navy clubs, marine bases, sub bases, church dances, high school dances, after game dances every week, Sadie Hawkins dances.  You know live bands in the gymnasium!

I was the point of contact for the account. I was the one who got paid; I was the one they came to if we were too loud. I handled a multitude of problems. I don’t think my brothers got the business smarts as I did because they didn’t have to do it. Basically I tell people that I have been doing the same thing since then, but doing it bigger and better. The booking aspect of what I do led me to working 6 nights a week and twice on Saturday, and I used to give gigs away. I’d get a call for a gig and I would say ‘call so-and-so’. But then I thought after a while why am I giving gigs away?  There is a value in that they’re calling me. I’ve spent 30 years building my brand here so I thought why don’t I just start booking stuff? I book The Grand and other venues and we’re looking to grow that more downtown.”

Thompson is also a prolific songwriter whose songs and instrumental compositions have found a productive and profitable niche in work he’s been commissioned to write for publishers who work in the film industry; particularly in items they call “sound alikes.” It’s clearly something else Thompson gets great pleasure in doing.

“What I’m concentrating on is writing songs for publishers who can then plug them into their productions.  You don’t make music   selling CDs unless you’re Kanye or Beyonce. CDs are    really just business cards. Music licensing is where you can make a living, TV, film, commercials.  I got a contract with a publisher out o Hyde Park in Chicago named Ed Caldwell to produce. He catalogues about 25000 songs in a lot of places. He’s an African American guy, and he loves retro-soul.  He asked me once “Hey Archie, can you do something like Blaxploitation?’ like the theme from Shaft and Superfly?” And    I said “Oh Yeah, I can do that”. I cranked out a bunch a bunch of those, so now whenever he needs authentic black music he calls the white guy in San Diego”. It’s interesting because a lot of the young black musicians are coming from Hip Hop culture, which is not the same thing…”
A lot of times a publisher will request a sound alike, and you have to be very careful. They want a particular sound to   go into a movie, but they don’t want to pay Isaac Hayes for his song, but they want something similar, but not too close. I have gotten pretty good at sound alikes; I go for tempo and overall feel. You have to be   careful.   If you say this a particular artist’s song influenced you, you can be sued. And I mean, come on, every song out there is   influenced by another song by another artists.”
Thompson has had a checkered music career with regards to the kinds of music he played as he learned his craft both as musician and performer.  His words make you think of someone who is glad he played each and every lick of each and every kind of music on his journey to being a full time, flourishing musician.
“The first band I got into was around 75-76, right in the heart of the disco era, and I was the sax player and we played a lot of 7os stuff. Tower of Power, Earth Wind and Fire, Average White Band. I loved all that stuff. I always loved Black music. We played rock like Peter Frampton and Doobie Brothers and all   that stuff. But we’d throw in some jazz stuff, like Les McCann and Eddie Harris and their song “Compared to What.” But while I was playing that pop stuff I knew I really loved black music and really just got into it, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Coltrane. I remember the first time I saw Ray Charles on the Cher Show and he did “Georgia on my Mind” and that was it! So then I really got into Ray, and I was a huge James Brown fan. While other kids were listening to Boston, I was in my room wearing out my James Brown records, as well as Parliament Funkadellic and Coltrane and Pharo  Sanders. I was a bit of a freak compared to most high school kids.
“I wanted to be a jazz musician. I remember in  7th grade they had a vocational fair where they tried to find your aptitude and what you wanted to be. You would choose your occupation and research it. I wanted to be a jazz musician. Other classmates wanted to be doctors and I remember being told I would make really lousy money and be out at really smoky clubs. I wanted to be a sax player . I loved playing piano and had to keep it  up in order to work, especially with the advent of new wave music. there is no saxophone in most of that stuff. I’m a bar musician.

“I was playing more rock up and I was drinking a lot. I quit drinking at 27  in 1989. I’d been fired from one of the popular working rock bands not because of my musical skills but because of my shenanigans. It’s an occupational hazard. Then I decided that I had had it, I wasn’t working as a sideman anymore. I started doing a solo act. I was going to leave the past behind and concentrate on the music I loved. I started the solo act in 88 and booked a gig at Humphries in  89 playing solo piano at happy hour five nights a week.  I played some sax a little bit, cheating by using some tracks I created.  You can’t just played unaccompanied sax.  That’s where I put my sound together. I was there from 89-2001, for twelve years. 90-91. the name of the first band was Archie Thompson and Team Moro.  I got a gig at Croce’s Top Hat. And playing the Jazz Room, around 2002, the trio concept came into play. Playing Piano, drums and bass, acoustic. We play everything. A million standards, Ray Charles, a great song is a great song, we play “Happy Together “ by the Turtles, Johnny Cash, but we swing it up. “

With their two children now grown and moved out of their home in San Carlos, Thompson and his   wife Trish moved to downtown San Diego a few years ago and enjoy the growing hustle and   bustle of an area where the urban experience is constantly improving and becoming more exciting for both San Diegans and visitors.  As with any person who has had the good fortune of making a decent livelihood doing what they love, Thompson’s ability to thrive as a working musician, producer, and songwriter has much to do with taking a realistic assessment of the city he wanted to work and live in.
“San Diego is a good gigging town,” he says, “There are a lot of gigs here. But is it a great jazz gigging town? Here’s where the line gets drawn, though. True jazz musicians look down upon the working musicians. When I play most of the time, it’s to enhance the atmosphere. My niche is upscale lounge and fine dining venues. People are not there for the music, they are there for a thing the establishment offers and my job is to enhance the environment. Basically, I’m a liquor salesman.
 “Not all, but for a good many jazz musicians it’s about the art who want audiences to pay attention to their solos. I don’t care about that. I want to go play my music and get paid for it, play what I like. There are perimeters I have to stay inside, not too loud, of course. It’s a great gigging town. Now, is it a great jazz gigging town? I’m not so sure.  If you’re able to put your ego in your back pocket and play the rooms that do feature some jazz, then yes, it’s a good gigging town. You can make a living supporting yourself. But if it’s all about your artistry and you want people transfixed upon you, then no, I don’t think you’re going to make it.”

In the 70s and into the 80s San Diego had a number of clubs with solid jazz policies, such as Elario’s and Chuck’s Steak House in La Jolla, the Catamaran Hotel in Mission Beach and the Crossroads Bar in downtown’s Gaslamp District, all of which are closed.

“It’s sad that those types of rooms don’t really exist now”, says Thompson, “The kinds of room that do exist…take Eddie V’s for instance, they have eleven or some odd number of restaurants around the country and they have a live jazz trio every night at every restaurant. The owners are from New Orleans and they love jazz music and their concept is that they don’t want karaoke or a pop singer; they want a bass, a piano and a drum, with some vocals. Those are the types of rooms you can do well in. They are steady and they make good money. They are able to pay pretty well.”

 As you talk to him, it becomes clear that playing music is not just a means to make a living, but also a spiritual foundation. Among the many hats he wears, he is music director for the First Presbyterian Church on Fourth Avenue in Downtown San Diego, where he’s presented the Weekly Jazz Vespers for the last six years. An evening prayer service highlighting Thompson and his band The Archtones and various guest musicians, the music is jazz, blues and gospel. The services take place in the church’s chapel with its near perfect acoustics and, as Archie advises, everyone is invited. “You can come just for the music, that’s just fine, or you can participate in the   service and take communion and fellowship, that’s perfect as well.”

 Founded in 1860, the Church has been a constant in downtown life, witnessing both growth and decline in its congregation as downtowners moved to the suburbs and subsequent growth again. Pastor Andrews , witnessing the rapid growth  in the downtown area over recent years  and aware that  there was a diverse population of citizens  ranging from the  upscale , middle income, seniors on fixed incomes and the too- many who make their  homes  on San Diego streets, became interested in establishing a jazz service, a Jazz Vespers. Such services have been long established in Detroit, Kansas City, Chicago and Los Angeles, usually scheduled on a monthly basis. The San Diego Vespers became that rarity, a religious jazz service presented weekly, every Saturday at 4:30pm in the Churches 4th Avenue Chapel. Around 2011, Pastor Andrews began asking musical friends and congregation members if anyone knew of local musicians who would be the best fit to organize and conduct the music for ongoing jazz service. Thompson’s name was mentioned, and Pastor Andrews went to see he and his band at the belated Croce’s restaurant and jazz club on 5th Avenue in downtown’s Gaslamp District. After the set, Andrews approached Thompson. They spoke and Andrews made his proposal.

“I have been affiliated about six years now; I grew up in a Methodist church. Jerry Andrews, the pastor for First Presbyterian, had the idea for Jazz Vespers and asked Kevin Womac “Hey do you know anybody who can lead a jazz service?” Jerry tells the story that Kevin began to answer the “A yeah    I do…ah, no…

Then Jerry said ‘It’s on a Saturday night, and Kevin said ‘Oh yeah I do’. Jerry came down to Croce’s where I was playing and asked me there. We did a few pilot programs in the spring  2011 to get some feedback  from some folks to  see if it was going to work , and after that  we started to do Jazz Vespers in  September of 2011 year. We received a grant from the Presbytery for Jazz Vespers a couple of years after that which was a nice grant, we received $45,000. With that we recorded and released the three Jazz Vespers records. We might do another record.

If you told me 20-25 years     ago that I would be leading a church service; I would have told you were   crazy. I love it, it’s great, and the chapel where the services are performed as great acoustics and the people are paying attention… We had Matt Hall in here, this guy  on trombone, last week  at last   week’s service, and he did ‘Memories of You’ , his    featured tune written by Eubie Blake .I just love it. 86 years old and he put tears in my eyes   on the trombone, it’s more than just the musician, it’s the context, and it’s the reverb. It’s a solemn atmosphere, you know, and I have had some of most beautiful moments here. For me, anyhow, this is what worship should be like.”

To those words, I might add that the quality brings to his live gigs, a combination of imagination, technique and contagious joy that impresses and moves the listener and which elicits the best work from the superb roster of musicians he works with over his broad swath of projects and collaborations, is what music should always be: expressing the inexpressible in terms of the unforgettable.

















Monday, July 11, 2016

album review
THE FRESHMAN-Revolushn
Revolushn is a San Francisco -based psychedelic band that offers an enticingly eclectic kind of rock and roll, and their first full length release, coyly titled The Freshman, gives listeners a variety of moods, tempos and attitudes that are the stuff that inspires you to push the ear phones closer to the ear canal so as to groove deeper and harder to this band’s flexing turns.Band members David Kendrick (drums and lyrics), Schubert (keyboards and vocals), EMC (drums and percussion) and Wayne Coyne (guitar and vocals) are what original music bands should be, resourceful in their influences, varying the levels of aggression and sarcasm with softer, more reflective songs, a tight unit that fades in and out of rich funk and punk inspired bits of awkward grace, yet never going soft in either attitude or musical panache. Revolushn is adept at adding craziness that inspires ideas that this is a band that has conquered the distance between immediate sensation and expression of that multiple perspective rush in songs that are sure footed, fractious, and anxious to rock and cause a ruckus.They are blues based, aware of their roots, an element that keeps this music grounded and connected in The Freshman’s easy flow; however much the shredding psychedelia guitarist Wayne Coyne pushes his solos to the margin and no matter how caustic, sardonic and at times ethereal David Kendrick’s lyrics tend to be, Revolushn wastes no moments on The Freshman. Coyne is a new guitar star here, fluid and free, with a bluesy fusion of jazz and grunge , creates the best kind of tension and release.This is a solid, galvanizing debut album from a band that collaborates in ways that ought to a model for other new bands; bring your influences to the table, weave them together, mix up the approaches, tune for tune, don’t forget the blues, and don’t forget to rock over all. This smart, vibrant effort, and highly recommended for those desiring nothing less than a knock out release to add to their library.