Thursday, July 19, 2018


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MADE IN OJAI—Smitty, and Julija

Soulful, soul searching, soul-bearing, soul matching, all terms to describe the singer-songwriters who write tunes less as candidates for hard rotation on the radio or various streaming services and more like updates on the status of their psyches. Much of its endearing, attractive, depending on the melodic craft and canny poetics of the artist we might be considering. Joni Mitchell? Yes. Paul Simon? Of course. Jackson Brown? Perhaps, provided what here from him is low dosage and brief.  A little bit of information from the annals of someone’s psychic equilibrium goes a long way. There is a propensity among many a self-revealing artist to overshare, to dwell, to paint their remembrance in thick coats of idealized colors. Ecstasy or perpetual despair.Made in Ojai by the duo Smitty and Julija (Smitty West and Julija Zonic) is a tuneful disc, well produced, lushly arranged and highlighting the soulful vocals from the pair. The record is a mixed bag of results, with a few of the songs taking a long time to evolve into something more intriguing. “I Just Wanna Sing this Song with You” begins with doleful piano, simple arpeggio figures that dwell a shade too long, with the song easing in slowly to some crystalline vocal harmonies from West and Zonic. It is, though, a longish ballad of laying one’s heart to the glorious presence of another. In the choruses the duo’s harmonies elevate the words and soar over the hesitant piano, infusing the lyrics with heartfelt emotion. This song, though, drags when, I think, it should pick up the pace and rhythmically engage a listener in their joy, and regrettably he is an element that hampers many of the other songs. Particularly the next song, “Let Her Go”, where the philosophical lesson of letting go of past loves, regrets and missed opportunities to grow are lost in what becomes an inevitable tedium.   Zonic has a fascinatingly vulnerable voice, suggesting a quiver, a quake, a certain fragility that suggests a trammeled soul that has to gather its wits and finds the words, the voice, the eventual wisdom to push on over the horizon.  One wishes the song were more melodically y proactive in the sentiment and less dirge-like. There is an element in 12 Step communities called Rule 62, which is ‘Don’t Take Yourself So Seriously”. Just when you think Smitty and Julija are without humor, we come across a sprite bit of satire, “Trust Fund Hippy”, West’s suitably and incisive to an obnoxious hipster indulging his counter-culture aesthetic with inherited money, oblivious to his own absurdity. Following suit, the music is up-tempo, with an old-time feeling, rather remindful of the Phil Ochs classic “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends.”  There is quite a bit to enjoy and admire in Made in Ojai, but one does wish they would have varied the fare, taken it beyond the confession box they seem comfortable in, and engaged their wittier instincts.

(Originally appearing in The San Diego Troubadour. Used with kind permission).

Friday, July 6, 2018

Sue Palmer rolls it out

Sue Palmer | Gems, Vol. One
GEMS, Volume One - Sue Palmer
San Diego’s Sue Palmer is a pianist known to the world as the Queen of Boogie Woogie, and throughout the 20 selections on her dealer’s choice anthology, Gems Volume One, we find the sobriquet is hers alone to wear. A constant and vital presence on the local music scene for 30 years plus, Palmer’s energized style of blues, swing, and jazz has delighted fans with keyboard work that is a wonder of rhythm and delicacy, two-fisted swagger and moaning blues holler, straight ahead improvisation and sweet doses of country and torch songs to make the evening’s entertainment a diverse delight. These tracks are choices Palmer has selected from the 20 albums she has recorded since 1980, recorded with a broad array of superlative musicians including Rob Thorsen, Candye Kane, April West, Gilbert Castellanos, and a slate of other players who add their distinct personalities to Palmer’s dedication to swing, stop and boogie.

There is a mad stride boogie mania of the opening track “Down the Road a Piece,” with Palmer’s left hand maintaining a rock steady baseline on the keyboard, and the right hand irresistibly trilling, riffing, and gliding along over the changes. Simple and elegant, against a backbeat of drums and bass that will not let up until Ms. Palmer says it is. Johnny Viau takes a fine honking saxophone solo, growing, wailing, gruff in all the right ways. What makes Gems so engaging is that the tracks and styles catch you by surprise as they play through; more than a revivalist, more than curator, Palmer, and her bandmates are practitioners of the diversity of the blues, swing, and boogie traditions, and will, at times, throw you a left curve that delights gloriously. In this case, it’s the rousing gospel of “I’ve Been Walking,” with a soul-stirring vocal by the irrepressible Missy Anderson, a pumped-up band creating waves, a solid rhythm and fleet beat for Palmer’s thick, rich chord work and percussive phrasing.

Blues, boogie, and swing, the core of Palmer’s musical soul, are a music often associated with the woes of the road, with hard traveling and the search for a place to rest, if only brief. Perhaps coincidentally, two very fine tracks involve hospitality, hotel, and motel, first with a sly rendition of the chestnut “Heartbreak Hotel.” Skewing closer to the Big Mama Thorton original than the classic Presley version, the song combines the laconic fatalism of a good country ballad and the mournful minimalism of the most despairing, dead-end blues. A bit later, we drive past the track “Motel Mambo,” a lament, a confession, a tell-all in lithe mambo syncopation. Deejha Marie’s sexy, casually jaded vocal outlines the characters and their storied comings and goings. Gilbert Castellanos takes a scintillating trumpet break, fast tonguing and rattling trills that give this song a short and inspired moment of scorch, taking full advantage of Palmer’s rattling piano work. All told, Gems, Volume One is a 20-course meal, the work of a fine musician dedicated to the genius of the blues. Blues, swing, blues, country, gospel, it’s all here, a diverting collection of what Sue Palmer considers her best work since 1980. 

This was originally published in the San Diego Troubadour. Used with kind permission

Tuesday, July 3, 2018


Related imageJohn Mayall is an occasionally inspired band leader of a group that has long bared his name. He is, though, an awful harmonica player, a mediocre musician, a pedestrian musical intelligence. His main talent is as a talent scout, having an acute ear for the talent of better musicians that would make his marginal efforts to compose a tune and blow a solo seem halfway substantial. Context, in this case, the packaging really, is everything when the center of a concept barely sustains the virtuosity that surrounds it.Mayall is a multi-instrumentalist in the sense that someone in an office or retail situation is a multi-tasker. As they have the ability to do several things at the same time poorly, so Mayall is someone who dabbles on harmonica, guitar, keyboards, having a tentative command on blues basics and not much else. I wouldn't even call him an instrumentalist--dabbler pretty much gets what he does. His penchant for finding tasty and distinct blues guitarist was, no doubt, aimed at fleshing out what otherwise would have been a thin, brittle sound from the blues breakers had he featured himself as the featured soloist. Mayall is not an interesting musician. He's hardly a musician at all. I give Mayall full credit for putting together crackerjack bands that have, at times, made it possible for Mayall to release first-rate albums. The albums I listen to especially are USA Union featuring the sadly underrated Harvey Mandel on guitar, Larry Taylor on bass and Sugarcane Harris on violin, and, of course, turning point, with the splendid, Desmond-y sax work of Johnny Almond and Jon Mark on acoustic guitar. Mayall's harmonica work was more texture than anything else, save for the nice workout he accomplishes on" Room to Move". These were band albums with credible, blues-based tunes with jazz used as texture, groove and pacing. Too often, much too often for me, though, Mayall has pushed his harmonica work to the forefront, usually following a hot guitar solo or sultry work out from a reedman, and the effect is like a blowing out a tire when you're cruising at a comfortable rate of speed. It's my view Mayall was playing catch up with what the Butterfield band was doing with their jazz-rock ventures. What Butterfield and his band did on East-West with  Cannonball Adderly's "The Work Song" and the long title improv, released in 1966, is so profoundly ahead of its time that I consider Mayall's contribution to the fusing of jazz, blues and rock as a bit less important than you do. It's a matter of taste, I realize, and I'm just stating mine, perhaps obnoxiously so. It may well be an unrealistic expectation of mine for musicians described often enough as "band leaders" to be strong, confident, soloists no less than the musicians they hire. 


If there had been conditions, standards, and requirements for "real blues" in the days when the basis of the music was being created, we would not have blues at all. It was an organic activity, a happy consequence of the evil people do to each other (slavery, oppression, exploitation), and it was a style of music that changed as black people migrated from country to city and experienced other kinds of situations, experienced new music forms, came across new instruments. The music changed, and rules, as such, were made up as musicians went along, integrating their experience into the blues they played. It is a relentlessly subjective question and the postmodern response is perhaps the best one, which is to say that that I may not be able to tell what "real blues" is, but I do think I can hear real emotion and feeling in music that I hear. For me, that is the only criteria for authenticity; does it move me in some way?

Monday, July 2, 2018

"BOTH DIRECTIONS AT ONCE": Lost John Coltrane Magnificence Discovered

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Both Directions at Once
--John Coltrane 
Incredibly, what comes to be full-length album of mostly new, previously unheard material from John Coltrane has emerged lo these many years since the man's passing, and it is masterful. Both Directions at Once, the title, comes from a discussion Coltrane once had with Wayne Shorter at some point, in which had come up the idea of starting their solos in the middle and working their ideas backwards, toward a calmer section that would have been the casual, tentative build up, and then the other way, toward greater fluency, acceleration, intensity from the tenor saxophone's horn, going "both directions at once." You get what they were talking about in mere minutes; Coltrane's playing is serpentine and advances effortlessly through the registers with rail-splitting chromaticism. On hand were the members of his Great Quartet, Elvin Jones on drums, McCoy Tyner on piano and Jimmy Garrison on bass. This is a quartet that has weathered time, circumstance and hundreds of hours playing together, with the sinewy yet agile poly-rhythms of the ever-brilliant Jones and the no less masterful Garrison buoying and propelling Tyner's color-rich harmonies and Coltrane's thick, sonic weaves. There is nothing tentative about his disc. It's quite a bit of music from this epoch-defining unit, and there is, of course, nothing better than coming across Coltrane you've haven't bared witness to yet.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

West World

Image result for WEST WORLDSo, what about the season finale of HBO's sci-fi head scratcher West World?I've given up on this series for the simple reason that it's pacing is absolutely glacial. Even with all the repetitive scenes of androids going berserk and murdering as many foul human exploiters as they can get their hands on, the program remained mired in a metaphysical murk, with the whole conceit of androids becoming self -aware and seeking a larger reality and, hence, the freedom to actualize themselves , free of human manipulation becoming a tiresome series of conversations, episode to episode, between different characters, human and android alike, that added more clouds than clarity to the purpose of the ongoing sludge.

Admittedly, the production values, the practical effects and general level of acting and cinematography are spectacular, but plotting is sluggish and, worse, repetitive. Episode to episode, you feel you've spent a week in a motionless traffic jam, staring at the same scenery for days on end. Blade Runner , both the original masterpiece and the equally ingenious sequel 2049, follow the same basic premise--A.I.s searching for freedom and their own identity--but they do so in a manner that involves more questions of social and philosophical dilemma, and do not freight their plots with stultifying chatter. They blend the action well with the dramatically perplexing rather well; they maintain your attention in ways that do not cheat the narrative. West World is an expensive showcase that drags its feet and mumbles when it should be clear.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Brand: nervous phony

Image result for russell brand as idiotYeah, he's a bright fellow, but Russell Brand is a blithering, blurting idiot who seems constitutionally incapable of having a conversation. His lefty-anarchist talking points are well and good as far it goes, but they are old ideas, old rhetoric, old insights. He has all the wretched traits of someone who regards them-self as smarter than his or her fellows because they have a library card, by which I mean that Brand is an autodidact who cannot help but talk over those he's in nominal conversations with, and that he cannot resist fatal doses of sarcasm against who ever is hosting the show he's been invited on. Sarcasm is a piss-poor substitute for wit, and it's a defensive posture. It is meant to keep others at bay so closer scrutiny of provocative statements is well-nigh impossible. It sends people away rather than invite them to interrogate the notions with piercing questions and counter-assertions. It's the mark of a nervous phony.

He reminds of the kind of the sort who reads Ayn Rand at 17 and is convinced that they are a genius being oppressed by collectivists and freeloaders; the sad part is that they never grow out of it. Brand, in his variation of bad manners, is similar because he discovered Marx, Chomsky and all manner of post-Soviet leftism and used the abstractions to inflate a personality that has the charm of a box of rusty zippers. It's not that I'm not sympathetic to much of what Brand is talking about. I and everyone else, though, have a choice as to who we listen to about issues and solutions for intractable problems.

For the good of the causes he says he supports, Brand is their worst enemy, a self-regarding brat with a vocabulary who cannot or will not get over himself long enough to test the merits of his notions in honest exchanges. His recitations of much smarter left-wing theorists, be they Guy DeBord, Marcuse or Foucault, the rich litany of social contradictions and self-confliction does not really register more than the accelerated data spew an eidetic savant would relentlessly hose you down with; fidgety as he is, raggedy as he looks, Brand is the poster boy of the man who forgot to refill his prescriptions. He is manic, perhaps he should be under professional care. The tragedy is that sooner or later his audience will find a new shiny object to distract themselves with and Russell Brand will be consigned to the Hollywood Squares ghetto of used up celebrities. But even that doesn't exist as an option anymore. As more people die of disease, gunshot wounds , unnatural disasters and the like, this braying donkey will sicken the audience that deigned to lend him an ear and both eyes.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Snyder and Rand

Image may contain: shoes and outdoorI am a  fan of filmmaker Zack Snyder 's movies. Also, I hold Ayn Rand in low regard.  Yes, those two statements have a relationship, if only for the purposes of this minor rant. His reported intention to do a new film version of that miserable human's novel The Fountainhead ways heavy on my soul and forces me to admit that for all his graces as a visual stylist who is able to bring the baroque dynamics of the graphic novel to the big screen as very few can, the man, it seems, find's Rand's fascination with rabid individualism irresistible. My background was in liberal arts, with a heavy concentration in Literature and intellectual history; Rand, however compelling her notions can be too many, is a wooden, cliché-prone writer, and her worship of genius and the provision, outlined by Howard Roark in the trial scene of the novel and film, is that the work of geniuses must never be interfered nor tampered with by the masses. This sets up the rationale that billionaires and corporate heads are geniuses by definition, and nothing they are responsible for in their accumulation of capital can be tampered with, restricted, regulated, or otherwise be subject to the scrutiny of the public interest. It's a slippery slope--the libertarian quest for absolute liberty meets an anti-democratic, totalitarian impulse in a dark, intellectual back alley. Rand's apparently admires these men to the extent that she condones sexual assault of powerful men of "genius", as in Roark's taking of Dagny against her protests, and terrorist destruction, as in Roark's destruction of the Public Housing projects when he discovered officials altered his designs against his wishes. 

Synder's admiration for the novel is problematic; his Superman was a hero struggling to find himself as he tried to Do the Right thing expected of him; despite the travails of what the public through at him, he found a way to act in good faith, to serve the public good in selfless fashion. Howard Roark is a self-involved egotist willing to destroy projects dedicated to helping the needy if his personal code were transgressed upon. That defines not a hero, but a sociopath, a menace to civilians and democratic social order. It's my hope, down the line, that a director with Snyder's huge gifts as a film artist finds a better subject for a film.
There's not really much Snyder can do to interpret Fountainhead; it's meaning and intent are pretty much cemented in place ; also, it's highly unlikely the estate of Ayn Rand would allow any film director, no matter how famous, to deviate from the propaganda points that the novel’s mainstay and create something legitimately artful. In Watchman, he took Moore's ideas that are those who exceed societal norms and concluded, I think, that the consequences of that were dire that society paid for as a whole. Both BvS and MoS were matters of some going from doing things his way, by his own counsel, and learning to serve a greater good where the results were tangibly good for the lives of others. By the time JL came out, we get the idea of rugged individualists and egocentric recluses learning to be part of something greater than themselves, very un-Randian.

King Vidor did a brilliantly over the top version of The Fountainhead in 1949 starring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal, based on Rand's original screenplay. Though I hate Rand's ideas and consider her one of the worst things to happen to American culture in the 20th century, the film is a guilty pleasure, full of phallic symbolism and visual equations that sex is power, and that power belongs to powerful men. She was phallocentric and constructed the pathetic fallacy with obvious, groan-worthy metaphors for her beliefs--architect=MALE, architecture/buildings= ERECTIONS. Her imagination was nearly pornographic. Her story ideas or cardboard intellectualizing wouldn't survive Snyder's extravagance and spectacle, and Snyder would never be taken seriously again by any of his fans who regard him as subtler than the critical culture currently thinks. Snyder is brilliant, but Ayn Rand is awful, not a friend of democracy who worships powerful men. She is an awful prose writer, a lead-footed novelist, and a sorry philosopher who offers a thin intellectual veneer to being mean, callous and ruthless in the pursuit of your own ends. Her quest for liberty winds up with autocratic or fascistic leaders. I would have thought Snyder had a more sophisticated view of all this than this cute – rate rendition of Nietzsche’s most misrepresented ideas.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

A man without limits is not without wanting

Image may contain: textVidal is alternately over rated and under rated as a novelist, but it is his genius as an essayist that will cement his reputation in place. Literature, politics, films, theater, social custom--his was the work of the true public intellectual, considering trends, ideas , schemes that effect the social body.It's easy to think Vidal likes a certain amount of humanity in his scouring of the culture , but I think that might be one of his blessings. 

He does not, over all, pad his essays about literature, film or other cultural phenomenon with an expected Liberal Arts tic of insisting that what he's inspecting is an advancement . Instead of rose colored glasses, he prefers coated in Crisco. On politics I think he is rather bloodless and elevated in his No pronouncements--at some point it seems he felt he had to out do WF Buckley for patrician airs, but from the Left. 

It's essays on literature I find rewarding over and over and over again as I go to him for judgments from a man who is well read and who regards the writing of fiction to be something of a sacred trust , owing to art but finally meant to present readerships with complicated tales of complicated, comic, tragic characters in hairy times , folks whose tales help readerships experience something new and provoke to think outside their comfort zones. He was cranky in this regard, and its here I find a fiery advocate for the well written novel.

His prose style is perfect for his essays, especially his literary cave diving, but his fiction wordage is High Competence . Not horrible, not awkward, occasionally evocative, but rather flat so far as euphony is concerned. He is a good novelist, not a great one, a professional writer who, though not a genius, has written some masterpieces . I would say Burr, 1876 and Lincoln are in that arena. He wrote things, many things, that are just exercises, novels he wrote as though to win a bet. I have always found his satire to be mean, smug and fatally unfunny.

Friday, June 22, 2018

The train keeps a rolling

Image may contain: 1 personSad, but remember that the talented and insightful Anthony Bourdain was a bad heroin addict before he got clean and began to write books. He continued to drink, alcoholically according to some who knew him, which makes sense. If one is addicted to one drug, they are addicted to them all, and abstinence and a good support system are the best ways to learn to live a fulfilling life without depressives of any kind. I suspect the alcohol, fueled his depression  , I have , incidentally, nearly 31 years sobriety and "clean time", and have yet to see a junkie who kicked dope and then go on to drink successfully. There were two results of those who drank after quitting dope, they either sobered up entirely, or they died too soon. I feel the loss --he was fine man. But I suspect his lot would have been better had he not continued to drink so copiously.
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The Doors were a mixed bag for me; the first two albums are among the most important rock albums of all time, with the remainder alternating between the proverbial poles of brilliance and balderdash. As a band, they were simply sublime and unique, with the odd combination of blues, flamenco, classical, jazz , Artaud and epic theater being crafted in their hands to create a sound and feel that was singular and instantly identifiable . As a vocalist, Jim Morrison was often as evocative as the greatest fans proclaim, and it fit the half-awake twilight that seemed to be his constant state of consciousness. As a poet, though, I thought he was simply awful, fragmented, crypto-mystic surrealism that , save for some striking and memorable lines, collapsed from its flimsy elisions and obtuse vagaries. In his posthumous collections ,, the pieces read too often like the notebook jottings of an introspective 17 year old. I say that as one who was an introspective 17 year and is now an introspective 65 year old. Morrison might have become the poet he wanted to be had he been able to write, edit, and finesse his work as he desired when he left for Paris. What I will say, though,is that being the vocalist in the Doors gave him opportunity to go through his writings, his poems, and select many of the stronger passages for the band's more theatrical songs. The Doors , ironically seemed to be an institutional editor for Morrison's words, forcing the bard to decide which of his jottings was actually the most powerful, concise, emphatic. In all, a fine and well researched piece, Jon, another fine piece of historical journalism.


The Yardbirds and Aerosmith effectively took this song behind the garage and reupholstered it until it was nothing but a bulldozing paen to rape mentality. Tiny Bradshaw's original reminds of something more sensual, fun, swinging in the sense that we have analogy of dance partners working here, not combatants.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

two paragraps

1.The American was the first Henry James novel I read, and it's a great one, about a nouveau riche American named Christopher Newman who, on his first visit to Europe, rather naively seeks respite from the vulgarities of his native country, only to learn of the great and gross things about Europe in the course of his search. One of the first writers to deal with the American experience in the Old World, and a relevant one it remains. And I love the slippery syntax of James' prose. American business , arrogant and smug in its focus on pragmatic efficiency, meets the Old World, which hangs on to tradition , custom and class in the face of rapidly encroaching Internationalist modernism.  


2. I've been harsh on Ezra Pound's poetry since my first full exposure to his work in college; as a lyricist I thought he was grandiose without rhythm, diffuse without those pockets of lyric genius that make critical interpretation worth the effort, prolix without purpose. There was more poetry in his critical rants , really, and he was a good scout for poets far superior to himself. Lately, I had the idea that maybe I would revisit him by picking up the Selected Poems of Ezra Pound, the same text I used in college , and see if being forty years older has allowed me to catch up with this man's fabled genius. Two days later, the ground beneath Pound's reputation remains charred and lifeless. This crypto- fascist was as much as a poet as Trump is a brilliant business man. What those two share is one tangible skill, that of self promotion and making millions your greatness is genuine. And both, it seems, harbor an affection for political strong men.

Thursday, June 14, 2018


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Not a slam dunk choice, deciding which was he better crime series, The Wire or The Sopranos. Some hasty reflection and equivocation, of a sort, are called for..Both are crime dramas, but both are entirely different creatures and sensibilities. The Wire was complex and multi-level on the society tiers it included, like a Dickens novel. And the show was contiguous in its complicated story line; it was more in league with the tradition of the police procedural , where the actual police work was always in the forefront. Characters all had their complexities and distinct personalities, of course, which made for compelling dramatic conflict, but no situation in any of the social levels--the street, the cops, the upper class, the press, the politicians--was unrelated to the criminal activity being committed and being investigated.The Wire was a true, crime drama. 

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The genius of The Sopranos was that they seemed an inspired parody of the kinds of families you find on the vintage family saga dramas on broadcast tv, but in this case it was crime families instead of oil barons. Toss in the notion that a crime boss has a therapist and we have a show whose creators take license to introduce sudden shifts in moods, style, point of view, ranging from surreal and comic, seen in their frequent use of dream sequences, to comedic, to tragic and genuinely moving, those moments when our sympathies are truly with Tony Soprano. Since the show dealt so amazingly well with the issue of loyalty to family, both real and crime, and adherence to an inverted kind of tradition and notions of the right thing to do, I would also make a tenuous connection to King Lear, with Tony as the addled , ego-driven monarch whose demands for full obedience to his skittishly arrived at decisions creates the seeds of his eventual demise,

As mentioned, the show creators also liked abrupt changes in tone, and were mindful to remind us, just when we begin to feel that Tony or any of his colleagues are redeemable and wholly sympathetic, we witness again that these people are monsters, cruel, venal, and emotionally distanced  from the harm they cause others.For complexity of story line and epic scale of narrative accomplishment, I will take The Wire. The Sopranos, though, has its own kind of genius that no other show has 

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Norman Mailer's 'The Deer Park,' Discussed by David Thomson | The New Republic

Norman Mailer's 'The Deer Park,' Discussed by David Thomson | The New Republic:

The authors argues that The Deer Park was one of the best novels ever written about Hollywood. I find it less so, and lesser Mailer at that, written in a period where the divisions of what Mailer wanted to do as fiction writer hadn't yet found a workable style. At times it is succinct to the point of resembling stammering, other times the passages meant to evoke nuance, speculation, self reflection in the poetry of longer sentences are overworked, over rehearsed, bordering on purple prose. And the character names were far too ridiculous for me to not laugh when the psychologies Mailer was trying to reveal and present in conflict demanded monikers that were less distracting. Mailer was still working toward his original style. David Thomason, though, makes an intriguing case for the novel and finds that it resonates into the new century.

2 books I read while an Undergraduate

"Let be be the finale of seem..." Wallace Stevens, The Emporer of Ice Cream".

Image result for wallace stevens poemsWallace Stevens was the quintessential American Modernist, a man whose muse allowed him to consider the perfection of forms and the imperfections they garner as the human mind considers them and attempts to transform them. This is metaphysics with a memory , deconstruction with euphoric recall. There is a subdued music under the lithe lyricism of Steven's tuneful imagery, with varying degrees of joy, melancholy, desire, loss. The world he writes of is here because he was in the world. Heidegger likely would have admired Steven's reconsideration of Ideal and Idyll formations.

Read this in college both as undergraduate and graduate literature student, sociologist Goffman's "frame theory" of how people interact in various situations, people from diverse backgrounds both in public and private spaces, interacted according to what roles they were expected to play. As a curious student interested in digging a few layers deeper into the Southern and Russian novels I was reading, this analysis came in handy as a primary tool to interpret character motivation and how such characters could switch tones, loyalties, moral outlooks in short order. So far as I know, no one else, including faculty, were using Goffman or his dramatically analysis as a means to discern the narrative complexity of particular writers. In any case, I found Goffman's ideas , examples and terse writing style compelling, essential elements to interest a would be know it all.

Michelle Wolfe : This is me not giving a fuck that you don't give a fuck

Image result for THE BREAK MICHELLE WOLFI took a wait and see stance regarding comedian Michelle Wolfe in the hubbub that followed her controversial at the White House Correspondent's Dinner earlier this year, Suddenly famous, she was thrust into the spotlight for a group of jokes that impaled the reputations of President Trump and those who worked in close quarters with him. I'm hardly a Trump fan, but there was something disconcertingly sub-par about her performance; she seemed as if she'd just walked in from the bar across the street and ad-libbed a series of punchlines she thought of on her cab ride over to that imaginary tavern. Her persona was the quintessence of don't=give-a-fuck, a quality that makes hipster-ism the most repugnant quality of those under twenty-one who have a year or two of college. Maybe I was missing something, I thought. Turns out I was looking for something that wasn't there, the funny. Wolfe's Netflix show "The Break" is a dud. Her sudden fame seems more a case of a person being in exactly the right place at the right moment in history, elevating her to a pay scale far beyond what her actual talents merit. Her anti-trump, anti-racist, anti-misogynist stances don't hide her glaring problem, which is that she's not consistently funny. Little effort seems to have gone into the writing, rehearsing of the material, and that may be the point, to give the thing an air of an undergraduate box theater class project where every idea, actually funny, half-baked and dead on arrival, are tossed into a set up where flubs, awkward pauses, word slurring and cold readings from a teleprompter are supposed to add an edgy element to the proceedings. I am attracted to the idea of an anti-aesthetic, but I suspect even Brecht and Artaud would have Wolfe and her fellow fellows, of the crusted-snot nose variety, go back and learn, finally, that comedy, however pure your politics may seem, is not easy.

Monday, June 4, 2018


(This originally appeared in the San Diego Troubadour. Used with kind permission.)

Café Europa is a bar and restaurant tucked away between a car wash and a VFW hall on Pacific Beach’s Turquoise Street, a seldom discussed passage the forms the official border between La Jolla and the funkier beach communities to the south. It’s relative geographical obscurity is fitting, in that the Café has tried to distinguish itself from the usual PB drinkery.  Café Europa is dark in tone, deep reds and a variety of earth tones and off kilter lighting cast the room is an atmosphere evoking black and white movie, Bogart smoking cigarettes over bourbon and piano jazz in the back ground, chatter in many languages and accents floating through the air along with the seductive tones of exotic music.

Nothing quite so cinematic, in fact, but that’s what the proprietors are aiming for, and in that respect, providing something different to San Diego’s many choices of nightlife, they’ve admirably succeeded. And as atmosphere is crucial to the venue, the music as well should be unique, possessing the allure of styles oddly familiar, but distinct, different. There is no trance music, no digital disco, so simpering glum rock or agitated rap. Big Boss Bubeleh is the entertainment on this Friday night in early May.

The music stands apart from the typical razzle-dazzle pop that dominate the nightly categories of available live music. Affectionately captured on their new album “A Droite!”, Big Boss Bubeleh music is, seductive and exotic, drawing the rich and sultry traditions of East European and Russian folk music, klezmer, old time jazz and Bessie Smith era blues. Their album has original songs of alluring yet skewed charm. Their sound suggests another era, and yet the music is made contemporary, performed with élan and a sense of movement. It swings, it rocks, it grooves and morphs through a splendidly blended. Above all else, they are as fun to see live as they are engaging to listen to.

Big Boss Bubeleh hails locally from Encinitas, and centers around the husband and wife team of Yael Gmach and Vladimir Yarovinski. She was born a French Jew in Paris, France, and he was reared a Russian Jew raised in the Ukraine. As with many wonderful stories of future soul mates who meet, marry and become creative through confounding circumstances, the families of both Yael and Vlad migrated to the United States, both households eventually landing in California. They met, at last, some years ago at an event Vladdy was playing music with friends. In attendance was Yael, who was sufficiently inspired by the music the ensemble played.

Recalls Vladdy:” I was playing at an event called the Encinitas Art Works out on 101, playing with a couple of people. What we did was play music that was based on Middle Eastern and Jewish/Arabic styles, with blues influencing the whole sound. At one point the guitar player needed to take a break, so he left his guitar on the chair he was sitting in and Yael came up, picked up the guitar and began to sing and play. When she sang, we just played along. It was very sweet, very nice, and we began to play together after that. We played at the East Street Café in Encinitas.  At first, I was just playing guitar on her songs, but then we started writing together, which was important. I showed her some things on guitar, some new progressions from the blues and jazz, so she’d be able to write songs in the blues form.”

“I was trying to confuse her a little. We came with this one song which seemed impossible to play, there was a lot going on in the song, and she was forced to listen to the changes that were coming up, and she did it!  She does it, she’s great! She was playing four chord progressions, like in Israeli and French music, and my idea was to twist it a little bit and show her elements from jazz and blues, and extend more colorfully between songs. Like what you do is like extend a simple song by inserting a twelve-bar blues progression in the middle of the song, so now instead of having three or four chords, the song now has eight.”

With time, Yael and Vladdy married and increased their musical collaborations resulting in the eventual formation of Big Boss Bubeleh, with them as the creative center. To be sure, the band highlights a fine ensemble of musicians that bring their experience and personality to the uniqueness that is this band’s stock and trade. Not surprisingly, musicians this dedicated to their art are able to draw on a wealth of talent from among their friends that add flavor and texture to the intoxicating swell of sound. In live performance, Big Boss Bubeleh calls on the serenely expressive vocal talents of Daryn Belinsky and Erica Adams. On any night one happens to see them, something wonderful and unexpected might unfold, some little miracle of circumstance. Two months ago, performing at Café Europa, a touring, uniformed group of Mariachi Musicians were in the venue, instruments, and joined in, guitars and trumpets, in the extended jam Big Boss Bubeleh was already cooking on. The temperature in the room increased a tad, and couples rose from their tables to dance. Later, in late April, again at Café Europa, a trumpet player asked if he could sit in. The evening had an unexpected ten minutes of superb blues, warm, deep, mellow as light rain. The improvisational aspect of the music draws from many sources, and it’s an element that works with glorious results when musicians are into the music, in the moment.

Yael Gmach and Vlady Yarovinsky, a North County duo performing and recording under the rubric Big Boss Bubeleh, are a flavor quite apart from what one would expect from local original music. Avoiding the obvious choices of styles, flavors, and stances that local original artists might assume, these two dig into the roots music they obviously love, an intoxicating alchemy of Gypsy jazz, torch songs, blues and swing, as well as calypso and assorted Latin references. And, to be sure, the grainy textures of American music one recollects from the Ozark Mountains to the Mississippi River,
Their new release, A Droite! (a French phrase, “on the right; to the right”), brings this myriad of influences to fruitful perfection, a selection of 14 original songs that, through uncluttered instrumentation and a natural feel for the varied grooves and uncommon weave of genres, makes it easy to willingly suspend disbelief and imagine, for a while, being in an Bohemian cafe on a side street of an East European capital, getting lost in the tales and bitter sweet melodies.

Especially effective is Yael Gmach’s wonderfully adaptable vocals, at once making one think of a Dietrich-like chanteuse from the film Blue Angel, a playful, bubbling style with eccentric elongation of syllables and vocal emphasis where you don’t expect them. Her voice is a low, seductive rumble, a hook that brings you for a full measure of Old-World immersion, particularly on the song “Recalling,” an ironic recollection lessons learned in an enticing minor key, wonderfully supported by Vlady’s precise guitar work and the lyric, ironic musical elaboration by guest violinist Marguerite-Marie Sort.

“Coffee” continues the sweet otherness of this duo’s marvelous world view, a more traditionally folkie number with Yael—in another gloriously alluring accent—lists the tribulations and work ways of doing what one must do on a daily basis only to come to the reward for one’s efforts: a cup of coffee and the caffeine therein. The epiphany of this odd lyric is that a cup of coffee, for all the energy and nervousness it might jolt the nervous system with, is merely coffee, a drink over which the life’s lessons, if any, can be pondered. Again, Sort’s violin commentary over Yael’s wide-eyed vocals lures you even deeper, closer into this unique world. Relatebly exotic, honestly off-beat, funny, and ingratiatingly wise in ways that suggests a intimate sharing among friends, Big Boss Bubeleh’s A Droite! has an effortless and persuasive eclecticism that makes this one of the most delightful entertainments I’ve encountered for a good while.

Says Vladdy of all this music making:

Many like to stretch, to improvise, to let it breathe. You create cues, places other musicians recognize, and you’re able after a while to stretch the songs into a natural. Extending the songs, improvising around the changes, was something I picked up in playing with reggae musicians. I played with a reggae band from Barbados. It helped me keep a groove going, when it happened.”

The musical connection between Yael and Vladdy seems extra sensory at times. Yael tries her best to describe on why their musical bond is as strong as it is:

We meet on the Jewish Side. My dad survived the Holocaust, and at the deepest level of it all is just the joy of living. My father feels a profound joy in being alive. He has the French joi de vivre. I am pretty sure it’s the result that at four years he saw the horrors and maybe his brain said okay, what else can be as awful as that? So, he feels joy in being alive.  Vladimir has the same upbringing; his mother and father survived the Holocaust. So, the music we play is the feature of Jewish people, like black people with the blues, you know?    I would adapt Russian chord progressions, I didn’t even know what they chord were, but I would feel them out on guitar, it was a natural thing. And since I became a musician I noticed that a normal American doesn’t understand those notes or the feelings, they’re not with it. They don’t know the breaks or understand them, Americans don’t know when a song changes back to A minor and gives us the mood of the song a twist.

Vladimir is the one who introduced to how poetry has a relationship to the song, how it applies to the rhythm of the song, and how it can make something into the sort of universal song you’re grateful someone about grass or wind, something, making something common seem profound. He has that ability. As a young man he was considered a fine poet in Russia, he went to a special school for having the ability to write the way he did. BBB has the elements of me and Vladimir, who is kind of the old tree, who is obviously beautiful, Just old…. He’s an old soul. And it’s just that he’s an old soul, because he’s been focused on music for so many years without deviating into drugs or anything else. Never deviated, never bored with the Beatles, he was always gathering more information about music and musicians. It’s like anthropology and music when you meet Vladimir. You would not be bored for a week.  Our relationship is because of music, and that’s because Vladimir is of music. That’s really what he wants to do all day, play music with friends. If you’re hanging out with him, you’ll be playing music.”

At one point, Yael deftly explains her attraction music and her desire to make music and write songs.”I realize it’s a language and its one I wanted to learn. My influences growing up in a Jewish family, whether singing, playing. The whole family sang. I was born in Paris, France. It’s a French-Jewish upbringing. By the time we got to the United States, I had listened to everyone in the Eighties, like Duran Duran in rock and roll. They were cute boys. At some point I picked up the guitar learned to play James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, it was like holding a magic wand, when you got the feeling inside you want to release, and it does the same thing for everyone around you. You can feel it. I see it in people who are getting into the song.  I had discovered the feeling of being able to be a songwriter. It was a life change. I the first song I wrote by myself was “Song for Easy”, who is my niece. Suddenly, at the age of 38, I realize there was a new life that was going to be born to by little sister and her husband, it was there was this new life growing in my little sister. I put it out there about what life means to me…. It was amazing, it was like my first child, in a way. I felt like I’d a contribution somehow. How did I feel about that, after I wrote the song and performed it? It was like trees…I just looked suddenly. I was always planted, but after I wrote the song for my niece, I felt even more planted but also…beautiful. I felt as though I made a contribution.”

Contribute she did and continues to so with husband Vladdy in the wonderful troupe Big Boss Bubeleh, aided by a splendidly diverse and gifted support cast.
Big Boss Bubeleh plays frequently at Café Europa in Pacific Beach and at select venues through out the county. “A Droite!” is available from CD Baby.