Wednesday, October 18, 2017


The length of In the Cafe, appearing this week in Slate, would have you think that author Louise Gluck is a monologist. That's not the case, we find; a skilled monologist will have a a point or an effect they achieve , more often than not. Gluck's poem long lines are merely that, long, un-inflected,without snap or spice. Instead, we have a droning account of a male friend who happens to be a serial romancer--a sensitive male who absorbs portions of women's lives and energy over a period of time and then leaves them for the next adventure. It's not that this isn't worth writing about, but this is more topic drift development, an exercise in killing time. Gluck doesn't even go through the pretense of trying to make this intriguing as poetry and offers up the stale device of disguising undistinguished prose in irregular line breaks.

Gluck's long- form poetry is part of the disparaged School of Quietude, the conservative conglomeration of professional poets who's careerism controls the major book contracts, literary awards and plum teaching assignments who's market-pleasing style, a gush of self-infatuated musings that prefer to leave the reader hanging in murmuring waves of uncommitted relativism--the sort of work that doesn't move you to think beyond your conventional wisdom but leaves you anxiety -ridden in the decorated fringes of your misery. The attitude, among the worse offenders , seems to be gutless, indecisive, reflective rather than reflexive, passive rather than active in the world. One appreciates stillness and the sharply observed detail independent of an interfering ego, but that is not what Quietude, in the worst of it's world, is about; the poets seem to be bothered that they were cursed with compositional skills. You read them time and again and come away with the idea that a requirement among this coterie is to speak of themselves in their work as attempting to have an experience. You can feel the shrug , sense the poet dropping his pen, you can nearly hear the soft swearing under his or her breath about the perception being too hard to convey with wonder, awe, as a miracle in itself. That is to say, complacency wins again and the prospect of changing one's loathesome circumstance is too frightening. One would rather suffer with what they know rather than dare a single foot step in another direction. The worst of this kind of poetry, I've heard, is like a three hour forced tour of your own living room.

Hers is better described, perhaps, as the School of Drone, a kind of outlining of unexceptional incidents involving straw figures wherein a reader suffers what would have been a tolerable three minute on -air NPR essay about a diminutive epiphany stretched egregious lengths. that provoke involuntary teeth grinding. One doesn't really care about Gluck's portrait of a man-in-process; she attempts a neat inversion in maintaining, toward the end, that this man wasn't wasn't a bastard nor a feckless creep. By the time she grapples with her reasons for having sympathy for her comrade's quest for enlightenment, we are out of sympathy with her tale. This becomes the melodrama you switch the channel from.

It's cut-rate of D.H.Lawrence, but without the erotic intensity.She does, retain Lawrence's rhetorical bulk.Like him, she sounds like she's trying to talk herself into believing her basic premise as well as the reader, a trait that makes "In the Cafe" a dry lecture that hinges on a vague and brittle point. This poem is the equivalent of the bore at the party who continues to prate although everyone else has gone home and the lights are turned off .

Adding to the despair over this poem's glacial pace is the promise of the first lines, which are bright, with a hint of witty resignation;

It's natural to be tired of earth.
When you've been dead this long, you'll probably be tired of heaven.

It's a perfect set up for a story of an every man's quest for the place where he might find contentment in love and spirit. But where there might have been a telling comedy that provides the moral that our expectations undercut what we assume are our virtuous yearnings instead turns into a drab recollection. No time is wasted in weighing down the promise of the first two lines with the leaden grouchiness of the second two:
You do what you can do in a place
but after awhile you exhaust that place,
so you long for rescue.

This gives the whole game away.I wonder if this would have worked far, far better if Gluck had written this as a short story. The prose -quality of these lines might have bloomed a little more, breathed a little more air, the scenario might have been more compelling.

The first lines are terrific and they could have been a poem by themselves, a condensing Gluck seemingly wants nothing to do with. Being succinct has amazing advantages.It provides an ending, a place to land. Gluck and other writers --myself at times--often mistake raw length for more substantial writing.Some writers have the gift to go long and reward the patient reader .Most do not, and few of us are Proust, few of us are Whitman, few of us are early Allan Ginsberg.

Special Edition--Jack DeJohnette

Special Edition -Jack De Johnette (ECM)

Image result for special edition jack dejohnette
Considering the line-up on this disc- drummer De Johnette , one of the best· rounded jazz drummers anywhere, alto sexist Arthur Blythe and tenor saxist and bass clarinetist David Murray , and bassist Peter Warren ,you would have thought it would have been a significant breakthrough record, one of those legendary sessions that chart new directions in the art. This ensemble, though, had no intentions of blazing any new trails, as the music stays safely in the boundaries of what we've heard before. confident tone which he sustains through the wildest stretches of his soloing, an unpredictable style that finds nuance and unexpected inroads in a solo space. Blythe, on the other hand , exploits the alto sax for all it's worth, often changing moods from the whimsical and lyrical, to the soulfully anguished . De Johnette plays solidly under their playing, rumbling like Philly Joe Jones one moment, accentuating hard-rock bass· drums another, and continually fragmenting and piecing back together rhythms as the music flows onward. Bassist Warren seems the odd man Which isn't to say that this record lacks spark. On the contrary, Special Edition is fresh and lively, highlighting first·rate at the hands of Blythe and Murray. Throughout the disc, their instruments join in a variety of harmonic settings the fusion-tinged "One For Eric," the rhythm and blues riff of "Zoot Suit," the ethereal texturing on John Coltrane's tone poem " Indian-and at key points branch out to establish their own personalities. Murray, alternating between tenor sax and bass clarinet, offers a strong,confident tone which he sustains through the wildest stretches of his soloing, an unpredictable style that finds nuance and unexpected inroads in a solo space. Blythe, on the other hand , exploits the alto sax for all it's worth, often changing moods from the whimsical and lyrical, to the soulfully anguished . De Johnette plays solidly under their playing, rumbling like Philly Joe Jones one moment, accentuating hard-rock bass· drums another, and continually fragmenting and piecing back together rhythms as the music flows onward. Bassist Warren seems the odd man Which isn't to say that this record lacks spark. On the contrary, Special Edition is fresh and lively, highlighting first·rate at the hands of Blythe and Murray. Throughout the disc, their instruments join in a variety of harmonic settings the fusion-tinged "One For Eric," the rhythm and blues riff of "Zoot Suit," the ethereal extemporizing on John Coltrane's tone poem " India"-and at key points branch out to establish their own personalities. Murray, alternating between tenor sax and bass clarinet, offers a strong example  of the gravitational allure open ended improvisation can result it.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Blade Runner 2049 is a masterpiece

The box office hasn't been promising for Blade Runner 2049, the long anticipated sequel to Ridley Scott's  1980 science fiction masterpiece Blade Runner. That's entirely unfortunate, because director Denis Villeneuve's take on the story , originally inspired by Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, is a sequel in the best and truest sense. Villeneuve works closely with screen writers  Hampton Fancher, Michael Green and draws upon the right story elements from the first film realization of this dark forecast, the right characters are reprised, the right social issues highlighted again through a bleak, rain and shadow cloaked landscape, both urban and otherwise. It's a simple notion that nearly all artistically and thematically coherent sequels --Godfather 2, Aliens--share: enough material for plot possibility,the justification to continue the story told so far, and the instinct to have the next chapter stand on its own , a work onto itself, not a mere reiteration of melodramatic effects or punchlines from what had worked previously.

Ridley Scott never again directed a film as beautiful or as provocative as  film Blade Runner, his adaptation of Philip K. Dick's novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep". Much has been said of the film's look, an evocation of Los Angeles in a a future time, with smart and stylish renditions of classic film noir style. If nothing else,this film does make fine use of the extremes of light and dark, with a muted , earth toned schema for the matters in between that suggest the competing sediments of rust, dust, soot and chemical pollution, a suitable palette for a thriller set in the future. More than the look, however, is the set of issues the movies manages to cogently engage, from the spiritual ---the rogue androids quest to meet their creator and so extend their lives--to the sociological and philosophical. Immigration, urban cluster fucking, the mashing of cultures, the unprincipled introduction of odious technologies into the consumer marketplace, untried, untested, consequences be damned. He's directed other noteworthy films--The DuelistBlack Hawk DownGladiator ,Matchstick Men, and the much more recent efforts Prometheus and The Martian . come to mind--but none of them have the combination of ideas, tone , or visual allure that made Blade Runner a singular work; the odd thing is that it is that rare instance of when an elegantly designed vehicle contains  any number of ideas that are substantial enough for a half-dozen discussion groups and a surfeit of monographs. This follows Philip K.Dick;s fascination with how populations are willing to relinquish their humanity--the kind of inventive, curious , adventurous humanity that isn't afraid of hard work, using it's brain, or risking death in the cause of finding out more of the world. In his novels technology is seen as the means through which the human being becomes less human by having the burden of having to use his Free Will less and less. As the machines take on more of what was exclusively the domain of flesh and blood,the tragedy that befalls those who've chosen convenience and leisure over a grittier essence don't seem tragic at all; it is hard to empathise with the products of pure leisure who haven't a care except for the entertainment of their senses.

In plot, theme, and , especially in the fabulously rendered and supremely controlled visual design which fuses a film-noir sense of bleak anxiety with an unequaled elegance--Blade Runner 2049 is my best film of the year. Yet audiences are not showing up to fill the theater seats. Why?It reasonably be said that 35 years too long for a sequel come out. Much as I think this new film is a splendidly and lyrically executed effort and convincing continuation of the previous film's story line, it's not ;unlikely that those not intimately involved with the film like we BR aficionados don't have much invested in whether self aware androids have the right of self determination or whether Decker was a replicant himself or how a society becomes, less and less subtly, a master-slave society the more of a society's resources are depleted. These aspects were very apparent and powerfully conveyed in Scott's script and visual narrative, but since the film tanked in 1982 at the box office , it's particulars of  a paranoid, dystopic world seemed to be familiar onl;y to the dedicated cineastes, there was not the kind of Star Wars (or Game of Thrones) anticipation of what is doing to happen next. 

What's especially tragic is that the no-show audiences, the current generation of internet content streamers who've little invested in getting deeper into the magnificent , dark murk that is the world inhabiting the darkest recesses of P.K.Dick's steamiest fever dream , are missing out on a film that is full chapter in an ongoing story, the most recent incidents in a fantasy of societal collapse. It's a masterpiece on its own terms, the vision of a particularly sharp and visually astute director, a canny screen play, and an amazing visualization of a film-noir style, with high contrast light and shadow creating moody, angular atmospherics amid  the decrepit architecture of once great cities surrendering their concrete, steel and glass back to the earth .

Not a reboot, not a tricked out and tone deaf "reimagining", 2049 picks up from where the previous film's story line stopped  thirty  years previously. Or rather, the previous tale is revealed as a compelling element after we're already immersed in a new story concerning a second generation "blade runner", agents of the Los Angeles Police Department specializing in the destruction of older , artificially intelligent androids who, because of their sentience have rebelled too often against their wholly human orders, have been targeted for unforgiving elimination. Or, in the film's brutal  euphemism, "retired".  It suffices to say that Villeneuve's Blade Runner 2049 is to the original film what The Godfather 2 was to the first Godfather film.  It's a masterpiece of tone, image, mood, atmosphere.

Turn off your radio if you won't open your wallet

Millions of us who declare their absolute and undying love of music . After the declarations come still more hyperbole, which we can characterize as being , collectively, of the sort that music is what makes us human and that without the music and the people who create it, our lives would much worse , emotionally , morally, ethically. So music, along with arts in general, are regarded , en masse, as an essential for the life worth living, an element we cannot live without. I agree with the thinking,but find it ironic that increasing numbers of the consumers who are consuming what they cannot live without without paying for it. Streaming music, the death of record stores, music clubs closing, flat line CD sales, illegal downloading, popular radio narrow casting a slim variety of styles and approaches, nearly all of it market researched and created like the tasteless recipes that make up a Denny's menu, scores of us acquire music without paying a dime to the musicians and songwriters who create it and, even when albums do relatively well in terms of the number of units sold, contract schemes have made it tricky for emerging and even established artists to get the payment they're due. It's not a new story and I'm sure more than a few of us are aware that things are rotten in the distribution of wealth in the recording industry. The tragedy is that we love the music, but we evidently don't feel the musicians who create those soul stirring sounds deserve to be paid.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Whither film critics?

Where all the film critics gone worries an FB buddy, citing the herd mentality that seems to come upon other wise smart folks when they uniformly declare suspect films as "masterpieces". I see his point, that sometimes we who love the craft and honest appraisal of films-as-art as well as entertainment have reason to be dismayed when the judges seem to going from being a Greek chorus committed to telling the truth to a delusional protagonist to a peanut gallery . Time was when if you wanted to read film critics in different cities around the country, you went to the library and read the out of town papers they might be subscribing to. Now, of course, we have the internet, and every is available, every professional critic nearly, not to mention every blogger, content writer, and social media sycophant . It seems, indeed,that everyone who's review can be used in a promotion has read the same marching orders and commits to keeping the fix in place.Honestly, though, I am wondering how much of this is perception, as the sheer glut and easy access to endless reviews makes it seem that that unseen hands are controlling the puppet strings. Really, was there ever a glory day when working critics, as a whole, had amazingly unique and significantly insightful thing s to say about Hollywood fare.

Yes, we had our Manny Farber, James Agee, Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris, but I'd wager the majority of the print media critics,the newspaper reviewers , that were very similar in style, argument and range of views. While the cineastes paid attention to the true stylists and thinkers in the big city papers, the rest of the world remained middle brow and pretty much mundane in their judgments on films, yay or nay. You just didn't seem them altogether at the same time, gathered together around at an open bar. Now everything is online, at your fingertips, and the deluge of opinion, pouring on you like wet cement, can have the effect that the incidental sameness of views can seem the result of a sinister corporate forces and a decline in critic intelligence. It's my guess that the ration of smart,intelligent , interesting critics to the hoi polloi remains the same as it has ever been; I read whole reviews on Rotten Tomatoes more than I should,I suppose, but a fair number of the critics are literate and sharp and brandish a fine prose style, and are capable of making an interesting case for their view. And, to be sure,there's a surfeit of the mediocre opinion mongers with stale views and writing skills as rank as the very backwater that might claim them as local tax payers.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Aerosmith are rich, clever bastards with their minds in the gutter

Image result for adding machineTruthfully, I used to like Aerosmith quite a bit and still get an adrenaline rush when I hear their best tunes. Guitar-centric rock was my preference in the Sports Arena days, but where other bands of the era now bore me and dated themselves badly, AS were pretty much the best at catchy riffs, savage, terse guitar solos and absurdly clever double -signifying lyrics. These fellas were sex crazed old coots before they left their teens, and it’s an achievement, if a dubious one, that they managed to make their smutty word play the source for inappropriate snickers and wretchedly awful treatment of women for so many years.

The combination of riff -craft and professed cocksmanship was made to order for any frustrated 20-year-old genius yearning to abandon his book learnin' and take up the microphone, center stage, instead.  As you know, my tastes have gravitated, gratefully, towards mainstream jazz and blues over the last thirty five years--classic Miles, Coltrane, Mel Lewis, Wayne Shorter, Joe Pass, lots of Blue Note, Atlantic, ECM, Pacific Jazz, Verve, Impulse, Fantasy record releases--and rock and roll no longer interests me in large measure. But I still get a charge when a good AS is played--I rather like Tyler's rusty- can- opener screaming and I believe Joe Perry is one heck of a good chunk-chording guitarist. It helps, I guess, that these guys never got far from some rhythm and blues roots, even if those roots come from the Stones and not Motown or Stax. This may be damning with faint praise, but they were a brilliant expression of a young glandular confusion. 

What makes this art is this band's skill at sounding like they never learned anything fifty feet past the school yard and no much else beyond the age of 25. As we age and suffer the sprains  , creaks and cancer symptoms, inherited and self-inflicted,  our past gets more gloriously delinquent more we talk about it and we find ourselves gravitating to those acts of yore who seemed to maintain a genuine scowl and foul attitude.  Nearly any rock band based on rebellion and extreme bouts of immaturity just seems ridiculous after awhile--Peter Townsend is lucky enough to have had more ambition in his songwriting with Tommy and Who's Next to have lived down the  dubious distinction of having written the lyric that exclaimed that he would rather die before he got old.  Aerosmith, in turn, still sounds good and rocking as often as not simply because they have mastered their formula. The sound a generation of us newly minted seniors occasionally pined for  remains the audio clue to an idea of integrity and idealism; what is disheartening, if only for a moment, is that this band's skill at sounding 21 and collectively wasted is a matter of professionalism and not an impulse to smash The State. Rock and roll is all about professionalism , which is to say that some  of the alienated and consequently alienating species trying to make their way in the world subsisting on the seeming authenticity of their anger, ire and anxiety has to make sure that they take care of their talent, respect their audiences expectations even as they try to make the curdled masses learn something new, and to makes sure that what they are writing about /singing about/yammering about is framed in choice riffs and frenzied back beat. 

It is always about professionalism; the MC5 used to have manager John Sinclair, story goes, turn off the power in middle of one of their teen club gigs in Detroit to make it seem that the Man was trying to shut down their revolutionary oooopha. The 5 would get the crowd into a frenzy,making noise on the dark stage until the crowd was in a sufficient ranting lather. At that point Sinclair would switch the power back on and the band would continue, praising the crowd for sticking it to the Pigs. This was pure show business, not actual revolutionary fervor inspired by acne scars and blue balls; I would dare say that it had its own bizarre integetity, and was legitimate on terms we are too embarrassed to discuss. In a way, one needs to admire bands like the Stones or Aerosmith for remembering what it was that excited them when they were younger , and what kept their fan base loyal .   it's not a matter of rock and roll ceasing to be an authentic trumpet of the troubled young soul once it became a brand; rather, rock and roll has always been a brand once white producers, record company owners and music publishers got a hold of it early on and geared a greatly tamed version of it to a wide and profitable audience of white teenagers. In any event, whether most of the music being made by Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and others was a weaker version of what was done originally by Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters et al is beside the point. It coalesced, all the same, into a style that perfectly framed an attitude of restlessness among mostly middle class white teenagers who were excited by the sheer exotica, daring and the sense of the verboten the music radiated. 

It got named, it got classified, the conventions of its style were defined, and over time , through both record company hype and the endless stream of Consciousness that most white rock critics produced, rock and roll became a brand. It was always a brand once it was removed from the the black communities and poor Southern white districts from which it originated. I have no doubt that the artist's intention , in the intervening years, was to produce a revolution in the conscious of their time with the music they wrote and performed, but the decision to be a musician was a career choice at the most rudimentary level, a means to make a living or, better yet , to get rich. It is that rare to non-existent musician who prefers to remain true to whatever vaporous sense of integrity and poor. Even Chuck Berry, in my opinion the most important singer-songwriter musician to work in rock and roll--Berry, I believe , created the template with which all other rock and rollers made their careers in music--has described his songwriting style as geared for young white audiences. Berry was a man raised on the music of Ellington and Louie Jardin, strictly old school stuff, and who considered himself a contemporary of Muddy Waters, but he was also an An entrepreneur as well as an artist. He was a working artist who rethought his brand and created a new one; he created something wholly new, a combination of rhythm and blues, country guitar phrasing and narratives that wittily, cleverly , indelibly spoke to a collective experience that had not been previously served. Critics and historians have been correct in callings this music Revolutionary, in that it changed the course of music , but it was also a Career change. 

All this, though, does not make what the power of Berry's music--or the music of Dylan, Beatles , Stones, MC5, Bruce or The High Fiving White Guys --false , dishonest, sans value altogether. What I concern myself with is how well the musicians are writing, playing, singing on their albums, with whether they are inspired , being fair to middling', or seem out of ideas, out of breath; it is a useless and vain activity to judge musicians, or whole genres of music by how well they/it align themselves with a metaphysical standard of genuine , real, vital art making. That standard is unknowable and those putting themselves of pretending they know what it is are improvising at best. This is not a coherent way to enjoy music.      All entrepeneurs are risk takers, for that matters, so that remains a distinction without a difference. What matters are the products--sorry, even art pieces, visual, musical, dramatic, poetic, are "product" in the strictest sense of the word--from the artists successful in what they set out to do. 

The results are subjective, of course, but art is nothing else than means to provoke a response, gentle or strongly and all grades in between, and critics are useful in that they can make the discussion of artistic efforts interesting. The only criticism that interests are responses from reviewers that are more than consumer guides--criticism , on its own terms in within its limits, can be as brilliant and enthralling as the art itself. And like the art itself , it can also be dull, boring, stupid, pedestrian. The quality of the critics vary; their function in relation to art, however, is valid. It is a legitimate enterprise. Otherwise we'd be treating artists like they were priests. 

God forbid.                    

Thursday, October 5, 2017

TOM PETTY, free fallin'

Tom Petty reminded me always of the emancipated minor one hears about , a teen who  is under eighteen who essentially has found a legal way to divorce his (or her) and gain the right to decide the course of their future. There were a few of these feral minors around when I worked the carnival circuit in the 70s during the dread days of summer. I was a college student working midway games for a long shaggy dog story I'd narrate to the end of my days; in the mean time, I had classes and my parents' condo to go back to when it was my time to go. They, however, were suddenly adults responsible for the own direction, solely at the mercy of their wits, the wisdom of their rash decisions, and the kindness of others who gave a good goddamn.

They liked hard guitar rock, good marijuana and a job that paid them a good hourly wage for a solid eight hours of work. And there was that wonderful sense that the world has a moral map, simply drawn, with little grey between the extremes of light and dark. There is the Right Thing and then there is Being a Total Dick. No compromise is the game, young hearts not so much idealistic as much as expecting everyone to be playing by the same rule book.

There was no backing down from this--you followed your path, you moved toward your dreams, you cut    ties to the people, places, and things that fettered a young soul's determination to create and live a life that made sense. Following suit, the emotional life was the sort that took a heart ache and converted it into a world view, a philosophy of hurt articulated in simple sentences and short, clipped rhymes.

 A broken heart, being fired, a flat tire on the turnpike between Sandusky and Stockton, buying a used Van Halen CD and discovering it's a Shaggs record instead, all these abutments and let downs and sorry ass slaps in the face were savored, inspected, kept fresh in memory while one fell into a hard reticence to speak of one's pain . A code formed, the choruses were bellowed while pounding the dashboard between drags of Marlboro 100s, a car full of young men and occasional carnie chick circulating through the twist and shout knots and narrow passage of the Grape Vine making their way to the last of the Still Spots before The Season was over, smoke, open beer cans, eight track tapes and scratched CDs , "Stop Draggin My Heart Around", "I feel like a refugee...", I am free fallin', and I won't back down, so fuck off and get  out of the way  because this life is too short to wait in line....

Tom Petty did not wait in line. He got it done. Grounded, responsive, principled from experience, always aware of who pays his bills, this man worked, he felt, he got it done and then left us, headed into the great wide open. Perhaps we will see his likes again, but , y'know, the waiting is the hardest part. So get it done, pick up a guitar, play your harmonica son. Tom Petty wrote songs about standing your ground, being true to the good things within yourself, of being helpful when help was needed, of admitting when he was wrong and taking responsibility for the results of his decisions, he was a man who refused to be a door mat and would tell you to your face, in terms plain spoken and truthful, stop dragging his heart around. Petty was everything the essential spirit of rock and roll should be and occasionally still is, a kind of realistic world view that was neither abstract philosophy nor stale bromides reinforcing a crucifying relativism, but rather a way of seeing precisely what’s at stake, what’s involved in the dramas, transactions and passions of our time   on earth, and intuitively knowing the best course to take. 

His were the songs of the trials, tribulations of a life he’s fully engaged in. His rock and roll was simple, predicated on anthem like choruses and simple , assertive, thrashing guitar riffs and a honed backbeat, Tom Petty’s voice spoke his plain spoken lyrics with a sound that was an emotional storm working itself out, the hurt and anguish ,the acceptance and the courage and strength to continue to the next day, that  realization that life goes  on and that he’s in and that he has a life that is truly his own, beholden to no authority other than his own consul and the people and values he holds dear. Tom Petty was, I think, everything I had hoped Bob Sager would become the working journeyman rocker with the common man’s experience expressed brilliantly, movingly, in the terse, unadorned cadence of the best rock and roll. Seger, though, caught Springsteen   fever, gravitated to bigger arrangements,  strained melodrama,  grandiosity dressed in a work shirt. Petty never forgot he was a rocker, never forgot what made rock and roll such a powerful medium of self-realization. He wrote about what he knew, what he had done, what he learned, if he learned anything. It was a conversation with his fans he never stopped having.