Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Stop being stopped up


Grey and grousing poetry readers, by whom I mean writers of poetry without book contracts or publications of note who happen to be in the early stages of seniordom, say, 60-63 years old, like to stick to a talking point that poetry is dead. We've all had this conversation to the point where we can mount the arguments on either side of the proposition, yay or nay. There is too much bad poetry out there the self-selected judges would say, there are too many writers who have gleaned the wrong lessons from poetic tradition and give us, the readers, eager of eye  but shy of purse, a third or fourth rate renditions   of ideas of past , more brilliant generations. Do you roll your eyes when these complaints meet your ears?

 Do you wish the live complainer in front of you were a web page you could close with a left or right click of the mouse? I wouldn't be surprised if you've had similar encounters and reactions and share a distrust , distaste for and have allergic reactions to blanket statements , regardless of subject, whether it be art, politics, food, or music, or the kind of person you are attracted to.

The cure for the negativity, if there is any, is to push ahead and stay keen on the search for new poems, new movies, new books, indeed,new friends who can brighten your life and make you a smarter , better person by benefit of having conversations with them; that would be a stream that flows in two directions , and that is the miracle of that happenstance. Whitney Balliet,  jazz critic for the New Yorker from 1951 until  2007 (a very long time to be the one commenting on what musicians are creating in the moment and never to be heard quite the same way again) collected a book of his essays called "The Sound of Surprise", a title that beautifully summarizes the art of jazz improvisations and which , at least for me, crystalizes a particular philosophy I am trying to cultivate as I edge into the aforementioned  zone of elderhood, the capacity to be surprised.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

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

Harmonica playing can be dangerous


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

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

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Strictly speaking, the blues

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

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

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

The path will be cleared

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

Monday, July 21, 2014

The blues aint chump change

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

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Johnny Winter, RIP

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


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

 I saw Johnny Winter at the Detroit Rock and Roll revival at the Michigan State Fair Grounds in Detroit at about 1969, and what he did was transcendent; vicious, slashing slide guitar, fast, fluid , wickedly insinuating slow blues, manically accelerated boogie and shuffles where his swarming notes attacked from all sides and showed a musician who had learned his lessons from the master guitarists he learned from--T Bone Walker, Freddie King, Elmore James--and combined it with the volume and electronics of rock and roll and in doing so made it his own. Winter was singular in his devotion to blues and roots music, he had an    aesthetic that basically to serve up music that was raw, honest, unadorned, the basic elements for his guitar work, which     was, often times, simply stunning its speed,  rawness, the occasional bit of delicacy .

 And always, its ability to channel emotion , to lift the spirit from the greatest pain, to make you want to dust yourself off and pick up a guitar, a harmonica, to sit behind the drum set and get into the groove. Yes, Johnny Winter could play the guitar, that was all he had to do. Few ever did it so well and I doubt very much few will ever match him as a distinct voice in a    genre where duplication of traditional licks is the norm. Johnny, thank you.