Monday, July 29, 2013

Tom Jones meets CSN and Y

I saw this when it was first broadcast and thought even then that it was an inspired mismatch of musical sensibilities. Jones is one of the greatest white rhythm and blues singers of all time--range, power, nuance, texture echo Otis Redding, Ray Charles and Solomon Burke with stunning ease and feeling--but he is incapable of just standing still and singing the notes. 

He over sings this tune--too much melisma on a song requiring a less projective approach is melodramatic, not dramatic, and can seem silly although it  is fun to hear Jones give an overwrought reading of the warning that the listener ought to be ready to cut their hair should things get hairy with the Man. 

 The swinging, swank,  tight slacks wearing Jones, that guy who has to keep that pelvis in motion regardless of subject matter, mood or prevailing fashion and decor, gets down with The People! Odder things have been aligned, I guess, but not many. Interesting band reactions as well; David Crosby looks amused and looks to be suppressing a snicker, while Stills sounds inspired by Jones' gospel inclinations to be a soul man himself. Neil Young appears thoroughly unamused.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Reading dull novels make you dull

 The Darling
a novel by Russell Banks

Russell Banks is one of those novelists who gets considerable mileage out of his character's capacity to make themselves miserable, to attract misery without necessarily seeking it out, or being born into a miserable world that makes the bringing of each and every sunrise a cue to begin again for someone to arise and then debate whether to make coffee or slit their wrists.I've read some of his novels--Affliction, The Relation of My Imprisonment, The Angel on the Roof, Trailer Park--and I have to say that while I find his prose often times gorgeous and genuinely moving, his fiction is so persistently dire, dour and depressed that it's hard to say that I enjoyed the books I finished and put on the shelf. The misfortunes visited upon his characters are constant to the point that they become nearly comic in their overwrought attempt to create a saddened tone; the works are quite simply emotional melodramatic.The Darling, concerning a rich young daughter who joins the Weather Underground during America's revolutionary mid-century who becomes involved in terrorist bombing that winds up killing people, we follow this poor soul as she flees the USA and winds up in Africa, in Liberia, where she gets a government post carrying for chimpanzees in a State Run field station. She winds up falling in love with a government minister who has taken pity on her and helps her, marries him and has sons. She becomes friends with Charles Taylor , the ruthlessly cruel President of the country and , strangely, she narrates at considerable length how she she seems to be communicating silently with the apes who are in her care.Disaster , revolution, race hatred, genocide follow , she flees back to the States and returns to her estranged parents and reconnects with friends from the political days. It was at this point where I closed this book and did not open it again, even though I was but 75 pages away from finishing. The improbable circumstances piled atop each other too quickly, too bluntly; Bank's prose stopped being graceful in construction or moving in emotional impact and became labored. You could here the strain and sense the tedium of a plot take its toll. This reads like a novelization of the most pathetic button-pushing mini series imaginable, circa 1973. The novel is a gargantuan bore.

Friday, July 26, 2013

It used to be that "hero" and "jerk" meant the same thing...

Truthfully, 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. The words “hero” and “jerk” meant pretty much the same thing, a person, usually male, who lacked social grace and /awareness and would subject the community around him to eruptive demonstrations of a personality that  was the breathing variety of spray-can graffiti, bold, smeared, runny, jagged and stupid as a bag of wood chips. Luckily, yes, luckily, I survived the  best I could do in those days and learned that there were more interesting ways to make art, to have a conversation and woo a potential lover, subtler forms of conversation and chatter, smarter ways of making your presence known. But we all have to start somewhere; I was lucky enough to have wanted to aspire to being somewhat more than a farm-league lout.

The combination of riff -craft and professed cocksmanship was made to order for any frustrated 20-year-old genius yearning to abandon his book learning' 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 drain pipe 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 not 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 backbeat. 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 .


 All I would say is that 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 muisic--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 middlin', 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. 

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

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Photo copied genius

Plagiarism seems a sociopathic activity, like other forms of theft, petty and grand. The thief, due to whatever contorted world view, finely ratcheted system of rationalization and a dependable lack of conscious that they're doing any something wrong, will merely take someone else's writing and assign their name to it, no problem.

The only labor involved was the discovery of the writing that's about to be absconded , and whatever effort it took to cut and paste the material. What is especially aggravating isn't the big names that have been caught pilfering from other authors--Goodwin, Ambrose and Haley can at least fall back on laying the blame on harried research staffs--but rather t

I ran a poetry series for years in the seventies and eighties, where open readings were featured, and among the other poets, good, bad but definitely original in their work, where three regulars who read Dickens, Blake, Eliot, Marvel and Johnson , each of them claiming to have written the poems they just voiced. Others in attendance at these readings couldn't believe what they were witnessing, but no one said anything, fearing a fight or some such thing, until finally I cornered one guy, a forty year old, at the end of the last open reading I would MC. He'd just read a thick, awkward Canto by Pound, and I could see a dog eared copy of Ezra's poems crammed in his backpack. He taken the time to type out what he was appropriating , and introduced the poem as "the hardest thing I've ever composed..." I told him he has to stop taken credit for poems someone else composed. Not blinking, he stared at he, zipping his backpack shut, obscuring the Pound volume I conspicuously made note of. "Fuck, you man," he said,"language is free and genius isn't understood
in it's lifetime."

"Ezra Pound is dead for decades" I said,"and I still don't like him. But you gotta stop saying his stuff is yours."

He walked out, the cafe owner turned out the lights,  and I stopped hosting poetry series that night onward, and that is precisely the reason I'm still able to write and read poetry without losing a lung. 
he thievery of the truly mediocre scribe who continually gets caught using other people's writing as his or her own, and yet continues to claim authorship for the work of others.

A personal note

photo by Jill Moon
Two milestones came and went by earlier this week, the first being a routine promotion in the ranks of early citizenship by my turning 61 years of age, the second being the miraculous achievement of 26 tears of consecutive sobriety. Grouse as I might, my dismay at getting older, of garnering more birthdays while 

I'm still able to breathe, is because of what happened the day after my natal birthday 26 years ago,which was to finally just abandon the jail cell we call the ego and admit that nothing I was doing was working out and that, in short order,

 I would face the likely prospect of joblessness, homelessness, and a likely death. That hasn't happened yet and to this day, despite my frequent eruptions of personality (materializing the form of tantrums, arguments, curmudgeonly lectures and unexpected flair ups of tasteless repartee) I am awe of what happened to me two and a half decades ago; to this day, again,

 I haven't quite figured it out other than I stumbled into a community of sober people whose collective experience matched and exceeded mine and that they had found a solution to their alcoholism and addiction with a spiritual means that they gladly shared with me. This is not to say that I got religion and that's my intent to preach--I am loath to be lectured to, and I remain agnostic with regards to the consolidated concepts of organized religion--but I think it suffices to say that I've adopted a set of principles that have kept me on course for a good number of years through celebrations and tragedies, good news and bad news and no news at all. I look around and find myself blessed with friends, fellowship, good health, a personality that is happier more often than it was no that long ago.

 What a strange ride it's been, what a wonderful journey it remains.