Saturday, June 24, 2017

Does "Okay Computer" give good Radiohead?


Ok Computer-Radiohead
After several years of  young fans and assorted bright acolytes telling me that I must have a listen to Radiohead's "Okay Computer" to experience one of the most important rock (or post-rock) albums ever committed to the ways of digital distribution, I finally did so, a close listen (or at least an earnest one), and found their enterprise wanting. Begging for attention seems more the appropriate response;through out the awkward angularity of the guitar bashings and inchoate mewlings  of  singer-songwriter Thom York's seeming parodies of a gruesomely awful poetry that needed to be placed under arrest in order to make the mendicant mediocrity cease, all I get is the callow ambition of some aging hipsters operating under the assumption that reframing, sort of, old modernistic gestures and blurring their glaring amateurism , we might come across Art, finally, and perhaps a relevant statement or two.  Far less the game changer claimed by defenders, it never distinguished itself from the other skeins of slow-coursing sludge that one finds at the extra musical margins. It's Super Mope, the mostly unassembled tunes framed by accidental associations of chord, tempo, tuning. I've absolutely no doubt that Radiohead worked diligently, night and day, for hours and hours until there were no more hours, to make sure "Ok Computer" was as close to their ideal before they released it into the wild. That, sadly, does not make this an enjoyable or  anything less than irritating. Few things in music listening are trying to some make sense of some feeble ideas that sound labored over. And yes, there are lyrics, and awful ones, to match the dopey dissonance Radiohead favors. 

Writing from the center of a depression one cannot shake is an honored tradition, at least in 20th Century American and British poetry, with the works of John Berryman, Plath, Lowell and too many others to mention attest. And certainly, manic lows are the source of a good many lyric writers who sought to write their way out of a bad head space. Their collective goal was, if one can use such a presumptuous term, was to leave something after them that would remain as art, instances of inspired writing, even if they failed to alleviate a malaise. Radiohead's rhymes, half rhymes and no    rhymes seem more symptoms than wit, more fidgeting with a notebook and pen than a focused attempt to get at a fleeting set of moods or insights that won't quite lend themselves to common speech. 

It's a generational thing, I'm sure, and I reveal my age without having to tell you, but it actually is a matter of having seen this before, heard this before, having had this discussion before. The last five decade are crowded with thousands of nameless creatures at the margins of popular culture, convinced of their genius but unsure what that self-diagnosed brilliance consists of. The difference is that Radiohead caught a break. Well, good for them on that score.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The 10 Best John Ashbery Poems

The 10 Best John Ashbery Poems:

John Ashbery is one of those poets who,being keen on creating an alluring style while at the same time denying a topical center in his poems with which you may create your interpretation and fashion a handy analysis of how the poet operates as an artist, that I've found myself arguing with for forty plus years since I first encountered him. Exasperating, revealing, dense,at times effervescent and transcendent, maddeningly private in references , sometimes just plain incoherent,other times transcendent and brimming with unreal clarity, Ashbery writes as if in a continual state of just arising from a deep and murky sleep. I'd hate to reduce describing him to "stream of consciousness"--that would be too easy for a reading population that , mostly, hasn't read Woolfe, Joyce, Faulkner or Stein--but his work does deal with the idea of the mind perceiving the material plain, concentrating on the objects being beheld, assigning associations from a memory that instinctively attempts to make connections between dissociated sensations, and then returning to the material world, and back yet again to the mind. It's a back and forth dynamic where in any thing that comes to mind comes also into play, attached to an image, made mysterious , poetic, glaring and anonymous at once. At his best, Ashbery has that effect, and that is where his greatness, hard to describe as it is, lies in plenty. And, of course, he has done more than a few pages of things that remain on the the page, untrammeled sentences that ought to have been trammeled. Here is a thoughtful selection of what one could consider his 10 best poems, with clear and concise comments from Ashbery's biographer Karin Roffman, author of the new biography The Things We Know Best: John Ashbery's Early Life.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

"Mummies to Burn": the future consumes history





Charles Harper Webb's poem "Mummies to Burn" reminded me, perversely, of a cheesy 1973 science fiction movie , Soylent Green,,starring Charlton Heston, where we witnessed the tale of a resource strapped, overpopulated civilization feeding the hungry masses with a mysterious synthetic food stuff called, soylent green. The movie goes through it's dirt cheap production clumsily, as I recall, until it comes to the pay off, when the protagonist sees how the sausage is made. His last helpless cry to a hungry, unyielding mass, was that "SOYLENT GREEN IS PEOPLE!!!" It's gallows humor, I guess, worthy of William Burroughs or Philip K.Dick, where the State handles the overpopulation and food scarcity with a single, sinister, brilliant move; arrest an over enlarging group of an underclass no one would miss if they vanished without a trace, and feed the momentarily privileged with the compressed and processed energy bars made from the departed homeless. It was an ecology themed science fiction film, made at a time when activist demanded a strong government hand in matters of overpopulation and hunger.

It was suggested to me that Webb seemed to be on a creaky anti-West riff, using the anecdote as reason enough to rehash a favorite harangue. There was a further suggestion that since the poem is a critique of Western technology strip-mining a culture for the sake of economic expansion, Webb wouldn't be inclined to criticize Egyptian history. Their record, it was asserted, wasn't Edenic and absent of cruel events. Had I came across the sentence that he had, I too would have been struck, surely, but the irony of the fact--white people converting human corpses into fossil fuel--and would have been motivated to write my own mediation on the severely negative side of Imperialism. His concern wasn't whether Egyptian history was noble or ignoble, but that European exploration into the area was intended not to learn but to discover exploitable resources. What he gets at, his intent and success, I think,is that the mentality is a pervasive attitude in the invading culture, and that the psychology extends to a narrowly set pragmatism; short of coal and timber, need to save money. 


Blimey, burn these bandaged cadavers, there not doing any good just laying around as they are. The fault with Cameron's visually magnificent Avatar , is that it relies on tropes that are too obvious, especially on the Pocahontas / John Smith tale. Webb, on the other hand, is riffing on an historical fact, and provides a provocative argument that it's not an isolated instance. I don't think he's anymore anti-West than , say, Jonathan Swift or , say, H.L.Mencken, two writers we praise for their critical eye and caustic wit, as well as their willingness to speak an unruly version of Truth to whatever gathered assemblage of thugs happen, at the moment, to constitute Power. You could say that Webb is a satirist in someway, a wiseacre, but whatever he is in spirit, he still notices how things that are said clash with things that are done, and that, like George Carlin, he has a willingness to push codified interpretations to the point where they become absurd. He is a poet, I think, who is keen on exposing contradictions and revealing the lies and embedded evasions we use to ease ourselves through the daily dose of cognitive dissonance.

The film had a paranoid take on government intervention in any social problems, and here posits, by way of Heston's flinty visage, a scenario where the State committed itself completely, with genocide and cannibalism being sane and logical methods to use in problems that have to solution. A nice , if sick joke, on the whole idea of recycling. Webb's poem proceeds from the same metaphor, extending to the idea that a capitalized idea of progress has to not just break with the past in order to extend a civilization's reach, but must be willing to consume it by any means. The present is only a waiting period for that thing that really matters, the future; everything else is a merely a means of getting there.

The companies didn't think of kas whimpering, "Woe,"
when the bodies where they'd meant to spend eternity
dispersed into the desert wind. Nor did the companies care

how many children weren't conceived because workmen
pictured their wives among the desecrated dead—
how many woke, shuddering, at night, imagining

the gaping mouth; the yellow, glaring teeth;
the mummy stench.

Nothing else matters , indeed, and there is a lack of love, concern, interest in what has come before, the deeds and lives of generations who created families, communities, a sane commerce, a culture. Nor is there an interest in appreciating the time one is actually in; appreciating what one has , in the moment, in the time of one's time, is merely to stand still and fall part. We gets the language of this mindless drive toward an unreachable future perfectly, deftly, highlighting the early modernist fascination with the power and drive of machines that will shape the time not yet arrived like were a malleable material, an easily pliable clay.
Nor did the companies care

how many children weren't conceived because workmen
pictured their wives among the desecrated dead—
how many woke, shuddering, at night, imagining

the gaping mouth; the yellow, glaring teeth;
the mummy stench. Those were not days (except
in print) for tender sensibilities. Mobs howled

for hangings. Corpses cluttered the streets
in that time of White Man's Burden—of Drag
the Wogs to Western Ways, and Make Them Pay.

So to the flames the mummies went. Earth
spewed them forth, plentiful as passenger pigeons,
common as the cod that clogged Atlantic seas.

No fear the supply would ever end. No need
to save for tomorrow mummies abundant as air,
mummies good for turning water into steam

to drive the great iron trains that dragged
behind them, in an endless chain of black, shrieking cars,
the Modern Age.

Aptly, this describes a sort of gluttony where there is no hunger except for a need to feel that one is powerful and headed toward a destiny who's rightness will become clear at some undisclosed date.It's insanity, though, a rage to plough through, smash, grind, conquer, burn, smash, and otherwise both nature and the archive of human endeavor to the irrational sense of destiny that there is a greater world coming, a final stage of perfection that requires the severe, violent divorce from what's come before. Webb draws a fine string of images from this one historical tidbit, and makes an argument without the shrieking harangue of a less talented writer. His aim , I suppose, is to have us laugh, shudder, straighten our shoulders, and to be aware of the avarice toward nature and life that gave us our diminishing margins of comfort. From there, I think, some of his readers might decide to do something about it.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

a short note after watching "The Matrix" again, years later

Image result for the matrix
An important sci fi action movie, yes, as with the original viewing back in 1999, it is without heart or soul.What it does have is spectacle and momentum--the special effects, ground breaking back then, remain impressive, and the pure action scenes are sure winners all around. I found myself sticking around on yet another viewing , even through the flavorless philosophizing of Morpheus as he attempts to instruct the neophyte Neo of his true calling in the "desert of the real". Admittedly, listening to Laurence Fishburn's crooning low tones invoke this ersatz mixture of post modernism and Zen is guilty pleasure, but for all the technical wonder the film makers bring us, there isn't , at any point, where I felt anything like empathy for any of these characters. The characters,the actors, seem only in service to the Wachowski Machine, which controlled screenplay and direction; it's an irony worth pondering for a minute or two. What is for certain is that this the only Wachowski film that entertained me; everything else was but more spectacle, momentum, and reams of speculative exposition that seeks to make you to understand the fictional worlds they create. That's the problem with their work: the Wachowski siblings wanted us to understand their ideas more than make us care about the story they were allegedly trying to tell.

The Mummy is a very bad movie

Image result for the mummy
A minor secret, not dirty at all, is that I've enjoyed Tom Cruise's late career situation as a wind-up action hero making flashy, well crafted smash and dash melodramas for the popcorn and blow job crowd. His participation in onerous spiritual platforms aside, he's a Hollywood Star, a man, in his mid fifties, who retains his boyish charm and good looks and  who demonstrates, from appearances, a remarkable athleticism for a man close to entering the last quarter of his years. Knight and Day, War of the Words, Edge of Tomorrow and, of course, the last couple of Mission Impossible installments,  show this man to be a aware of himself as a man   with attributes that won't remain there all that much longer and who is, understandably, eager to make as many solid actioneers as possible before flesh and spirit wane more than wax gloriously. That apology made, let me assure that the Mummy, his new film intended to kick start Universal's "Dark Universe" film  brand in which they make use of legacy monsters they have claim to and make films that highlight them terrorizing the world in a connected fictional globe, is in indeed as awful as the critics have reported. Nothing emerges above the noise and cluttered commotion this film puts forward; the story is a muddled execution of what might have been an intriguing variation on this movie's otherwise other tried premise of an ancient mummy returning to life, sort of, to convert the present world into idealized sphere where the traditions and spiritual /political ways of a fantastically fictionalized ancient Egypt become the way of all things. We may, to be sure, gag in response to how this new project continues and perpetuates the racist and xenophobic premises of this horror franchise in all its iterations, but that is another discussion, albeit a more important one than the testy protest I'm lodging here. My point is how abjectly irresolute this intended franchise kickstarter was; Cruise himself goes through his brash-boy mannerisms, schticks he normally deploys with an effective, if calculated charm in other films, but here seems distracted, distanced, seeming as unconvinced as he his unconvincing. Russell Crowe is a  variation of Dr.Henry Jekyll here, a scientist heading a secret organization with a nebulous mission to contain and control the hidden monstrosities that threaten the civilized world, and there is not much to recommend his performance other than come away with the impression that he realized how listless the script was and opted to enlarge his mannerisms to levels more suitable for old cartoons blaring away in a cold basement. Note that this film has five stated writing credits, seldom a good sign. That may explain why the movie does not give us the slightest reason to stop resisting the fantasy it offers, as there seems to have been no attempt to smooth over and blend one writer's ideas with that   of the others. The scenes change tone and intent with jarring effect, comedy in one instance, gruesome horror the next,  hammy emotionalism inserted through out. Bad films are normally things I disregard quickly after I leave the theatre, out of mind , into the dustbin. The Mummy is one where it's hard not to talk obsessively with how incompetent a film it turned out to be.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

stray notes: Mumbling small talk at the wall

Charles Bukowski is some whom very little of his work goes a very long way. I admire the absence of all unneeded images, and do place somewhere in the Hemingway league as a writer who can be spare without being chintzy. That said, his minimalism gets monotonous after awhile, and his lonely-old-drunk persona, declaring over again and again to speak for the dispossessed and the marginal, becomes its own sort of sentimentality: the fact that Bukowski became aware, early on, that his constituency expected certain types of poems from him forced him, I think, to stylize himself into a corner he never managed to get out of. Not availing himself of different kinds of writing made him, finally, a bore. The truth of his loneliness, of his drunkenness, made him into a patsy for an audience that was too young, by and large, to have enough life to write their own stories. Bukowski became a one trick pony: his best material is his earliest, like Henry Miller, and like Miller as well, became a self parody without knowing it.

Ezra Pound is out of fashion these days, but I enjoy his adaptations (translations is too generous a word) of different oriental writers. In fact, I think that before Pound's adaptations, oriental poets and poetic forms were largely unknown in the West. I know it's an anthology warhorse, but I love "The River Merchant's Wife." I just find the way her feelings change towards her husband throughout the poem so touching--first they're childhood playmates, then she's a frightened, ignorant bride, then she falls so deeply in love with him that she longs for her dust to be mingled with his forever. 

I also get a kick out of the line "The monkeys make sorrowful music overhead." The line is almost comic to us, but obviously monkeys had very different connotations for the Chinese at that time. An interesting example of cultural differences.
Ezra is someone who has given me eyestrain and headaches in college, something I can't forgive him for. He didn't give me anything that was remotely connected to the idiomatic language he idealized, the truly modern voice that was to be of its own time, a period sans history. It's a totalitarian impulse to try to live outside history, or to lay claim to its reducible meaning, both matters Pound thought he adequately limned, but the problem was that his verse is leaden, dressed up in frankly prissy notions of what The Ancients had been up to aesthetically. The effect was perhaps a million dollars of rhetoric lavished on ten cents of inspiration. I didn't like him, I'm afraid. 

Unlike Frank O'Hara, dead too young, but with such a large and full body of brilliant--yes, brilliant--lyric poetry left in his wake. O'Hara, influenced by some ideas of modernists, got what Pound tried to do exactly right: he mixed the dictions of High and Low culture in the same stanzas with an ease that seemed seamless, he juggled references of Art, TV, movies, jazz , theater along with the zanily euphemized gossip of his love life, and was able to render complex responses to irresolvable pains of the heart--and heartbreak is always a close kin to his rapture--in lines that were swimming in irony, melancholy, crazy humor. This is poet as eroticized intelligence.

If Pound's poems work for reasons other than how he wanted them work, fine that can be explicated interestingly enough with entirely new criteria extraneous to the author's aesthetic/political agenda, but it begs the question, really. It confirms my belief that Pound was talking through his hat most of the time. In this case, based admittedly on my learned dislike of his poetry, I think he gussied up his theories in order to usurp the critical commentary he knew would follow his work: no matter what, all critics had to deal with Pound's flummoxing prose before they could render an assessment, a trick he garnered from Poe, and one deployed by Mailer, a somewhat more successful artist/philosopher/critic (though failed poet). 

Eliot had better luck combining the two virtues: The Sacred Wood and some of his other critical assessments have merit as purely critical exercises, self-contained arguments that don't require Eliot's work to illustrate the point. Eliot's poems, as well, stand up well enough without his criticism to contextualize them for a reader who might otherwise resist their surface allure. The language in both genres is clear and vivid to their respective purposes. 

Pound, again, to my maybe tin-ear, really sounded, in his verse, like he was trying to live up to the bright-ideas his theories contained: The Cantos sound desperate in his desire tobe a genius.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

stray notes: The perishability of the Great American Novel

Debates about literary worth often become perfectly ridiculous, a blurry food fight at best, playground taunts of a lower grade. On the subject of the greatest 100 novels written in English this century, I was momentarily smug when I realized that I'd read 75 of the bunch, but appreciated the misgivings of reader factions who felt that their groups, their "voices" had been ignored, shunted to the side, 'marginalized" , with the editors making inadequate efforts to broaden the Canon. But the real use of such list, I think, is to start a controversy, to get a debate going about what makes a good novel, and, I suppose, to have at least part of the public sphere be about something other than whether a sitting president did the wild thing with an intern in a broom closet just off the White House pantry. Not least of all, I've had more conversations, well-mannered debates (!) as to what constitutes a great novel, and most of these chats have gone a step further and dealt with, oddly, why literature is important to a society and culture such as ours. The talks have been stimulating, and, since I work in a bookstore, sales of novels have been brisk, and this due to a high-flying list that pleased no one. Let's have more, and let's rescue literature from the academics, who've abandoned any certainty in their analysis. 

For the greatest novel in America, I vote for "Underworld" by Don DeLillo. Really, no one writes better prose than he does, and the scope of this novel, comprising a hidden history of America in the second half of the century, races past Pynchon and Gaddis and Mailer and Oates, all writers deserving of Nobel Prizes. DeLillo's efforts to show America as a multi-platformed myth, is grand and achieves a sustained poetics. DeLillo's plotlines mirror a sense of America itself, being less a collection of lines that meet to some pre-determined point where greatness is conferred at the completion of heroic tasks, but rather than as mass of intersections that criss-cross one another, each with a version of the story told in a personalized language that stems from a world that is complete unto itself, a race of voices and noise that is a churning vat whose parts won't meld. DeLillo's work, it seems, will survive the withering dismissals of affected yokels, and "great American novels" continue to be produced yearly, quite despite our obsession to narrowing the field to only a handful of worthies who fulfill criteria no can state for sure. But DeLillo stands poised for world-greatness because he brings Americans into the larger world, where qualities of being American, imagined by our civics teachers as being divinely granted, has no bearings in a world that seems incoherent and supremely foreign. DeLillo's work, in "The Names", "Mao II", "Players", have Americans of a sort--professionals, artists, intellectuals, poets, usually white, privileged--losing themselves amid the shifting and renegotiated narratives, collective and personal, that are repeated, ala mantras, to give the world as sense of reason and purpose beyond the hurly-burly of the phenomenal world. This is a sphere where the sense of the world, our strategies and accounts to deal with it, are fed to media and then sold back to us with conditions attached. I imagine a work that is equal parts Henry James, for the aspect of Americans confronting the non-American world, and Orwell's "Animal Farm", where we have the pigs, in the dead of night, with ladder and paint brush, changing the wording on the social contract painted on the side of the barn. 


DeLillo, as well, deals with Americans in America, thankfully, and masterstrokes like "White Noise", "Great Jones Street" (an amazing rock and roll novel whos"Underworld e hero could be Dylan, Bowie, or Cobain), and ultimately " sift through the loss ourselves in our own country. Our stories are modified and changed; our Gods change their minds about ultimate truths as technology forces more secrets and incompressibility upon us. "Underworld" is a tour where history is not just forgotten, is not just pushed to the margins in favor or a Grand Narrative, but is in fact disposed of, thrown away when the metaphysical argument no longer suits the immediate need. The search for the baseball is analogous to a journey back to some Eden that never
existed. DeLillo, to my perhaps exclusionist sensibilities, has all these elements. But topicality is not what DeLillo is about; the currency of his plots is believable starting points for his investigations into the nature of our language, of how we address ourselves. His books, I think, have enough for generations of readers and critics to study and discuss for decades to come. He writes broadly enough, and well enough, to side step victimhood as a consideration and force readers, and critics for that matter, to study the performance of literature, the literary act itself. There is no "last analysis" to be had just yet, and for DeLillo's sake, I hope he writes a few more novels before we start issuing forth career-ending appraisals of his body of work. I am an obvious DeLillo partisan, but I don't think everything he's done is fully rendered, satisfying every idiosyncratic standard a "serious" reader might contrive, but the fact is that DeLillo is not a novel-a-year contestant with Updike or Joyce Carol Oates, or recently, Mailer, all of whom seem in a rush to consolidate reputations and make themselves nice and shiny for Nobel consideration. DeLillo has published a mere 11 novels since 1969, hardly an overload for almost thirty years as a professional writer. 

That he has themes that re-emerge from work to work is to be expected from a writer, and for DeLillo, his investigations into what we too- easily refer to as post-modernism (yes, I am guilty as charged) and its accompanying paranoia have produced major fiction, which is about, in too-broad a summary of his work, the difficulty of living in a world that has been stripped of any resonance of meaning, any suggestion of Truth, capital "t". This is a kind man-made environment that stems from the make-it-new innovations of High Modernism, and entering the next century with a sense that we have not learned anything despite high-speed technologies that shoot raw and indigestible mounds of data from one place to another. 

It's not a matter of us finding our "Moby Dick" for this century, because that places a false premise from which we expect writers to operate from. Yes, there is the anxiety of influence and the desperate writing younger scribes do to escape from under the long, inky shadow of the geniuses of the recent and less recent past, but I think each period is unique, and that great work is produced in some concentration of creative frenzy that dissolves the anxiety.

Readers looking for another "Moby Dick" for this century are better served to consider their period unique and regard the tradition as a lineage that is not a straight, paved highway that vanishes into a classically defined set of particulars every would be master adheres to, but is rather a broken, dotted line that threads and weaves through a loose cluster of tendencies in the culture, filled with writers who redefine themselves and their art each time out. Melville himself had to break with his own habits, transcending his discipline as a clever crafter of sea stories, a venerable genre he arrived at, to write the masterpiece called "Moby Dick". The best writers today do no different, living up to the nothing else other than the authenticity of their process. 
Faulkner and Joyce have comparable greatness, I feel, but I cannot escape the feeling that Joyce was the brainier of the two. Joyce’s' infinite layering of literature, history, theology and myth in to the molecular structures of Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake demonstrates someone with a sensibility that subtly wishes to have Art supplant the Church as the institution men may comprehend a Higher Truth( whatever it turns out to be). 

His own dialectic method, perhaps. I tend to agree with the remark of Faulkner being much blunter, though he is scarcely a brute: the sensationalism Faulkner could give into was also linked to a patch of swamp that released his language, and allowed him to master the interior monologue. This gave us novels like "Light In August" and "Absalom, Absalom" that had with diverse psychological density.” The human heart at war with itself.  “Bullshit
has its place, and in fiction, it can be the sole redemptive element of any other questionable writing enterprise. Depends on the bullshit being slung, I guess, which again reaches back to how well one can sling a yarn. 


What Joyce slung certainly vanished over the horizon and broke some windows in transit. 

stray notes:A treatise on some mostly white blues guitarists

Stevie Ray is no more a wanker on the blues than are/were Albert King, Guitar Shorty, Buddy Guy or Vernon Reid, Blood Ulmer, Michael Hill or Sonny Sharrock, nor was he any less inspired by the pitched, aggravated dynamics the style demanded. He could keep a solo going, he could extended the sheer reams of bent notes, shadings and feedback into reams of pure, sustained rapture, a pain that does not subside--he was easily continuing the work Hendrix started, by bringing the blues into something that was as emotionally relevant to the times he surveyed, and he kept his guitar heroics honest--one can listen to Gary Moore, for example, and be impressed and overwhelmed by the sheer velocity and speed of his technique, yet not be moved by it, but with Vaughn, the heart of his feelings found their way to his finger tips and their calluses and managed a voice out of some dark night of the soul that exclaims, in high notes and low, rolling rumbles along the bass e string, that he has survived another midnight, another patch of bad luck, another bad fuck and worse drunk to see the sun of the following day again just to live the next twenty four hours on the promise of more blues, the one thing that doesn't lie, the one set of notes in any scale and key you please that renews itself endlessly as long as there remains some capacity to feel deeply and longingly in that arena that is the province of being human alone, to find another reason to live another day. Stevie found his reason, a day at a time, with his guitar .I for one and mighty glad he was around as long as he was. The idea that race alone , by itself, independent of any other considerations, determines the profundity of an artists' emotional credibility, is dangerous non-sense: similar kinds of arguments, with a different emphasis, have dominated the thinking of white supremacists for decades. It's about feeling, pure and simple, and human feeling transcends the ugly definitions we insist on giving ourselves and each other. The ability to play blues has more to do with style than racial origin ,I believe, style being the culminated expression of a personality that reverberates through an individuals' manner and presence, their conduct in the world. The very idea of idea is that an artist has some taken a medium and stamped with the evidence of his experience: their fingerprints are on every note, brush stroke, and drift of the poet's pen. Style, I think, is the intelligence and wit that translates accumulated technique into the felt art, experience. LedZep, in fact, were the last in the wave of British blues bands that slammed American shores in the late 60s; Page's original name for the band was going to be the New Yardbirds, in fact. On that score, many critics, myself included, at the time were brutal in their accusations that Page and Plant had ripped off the format of the original Jeff Beck Group, which featured Rod Stewart. In any event, Zep's starting point was American blues, as it was with an entire generation of musicians, but Zep ceased being a blues-dominated band by Led Zeppelin 3 : all kinds of influences, musical and lyrical, came to define their middle to late work, and though there would be a signature treatment of blues tune here and there, and blues roots were always apparent, Zep had become as musically diverse as were other top British groups. As with most rock and roll wonders, blues is the origin of much, if not most of their inspiration, but the point is that inspiration takes an artist to their own identities and interest, distinct from the point of inspiration. I suppose Robert Cray is morally remiss in having the Beatles as his first guitar influence, and BB King really should have kept his mouth shut about how Django influenced is single-note style, or Chuck Berry should have stayed away from those country pickers and writers from whom he gleaned something about twang and storytelling, and Kevin Eubanks should purge himself of the John McLaughlinisms that pepper his solos. Wouldn't our listening habits be so much better if Hendrix had never seen/heard the Who? Jefferson Airplane, in their best work, more than most think, sound as edgy and quirky and ahead-of-the-curve as they did back in the 60's. Jorma is a unique guitarist whose style is quite adventurous, and it has the added virtue of being distinct--unlike today's schooled technicians who might have been popped out of the same mold, his electrified folk-blues-raga improvisation and chord are instantly recognizable as coming from only musician. The same cannot be said of many other rock and roll guitarists. For the rest, the albums I mentioned already sustain interest and are very listenable today, especially to anyone interested in grinding, splintery, avant-gard rock music laced with a sense of psychedelicized paranoia that , for a time, invigorated their albums. Johnny Winter And Live is one of those rock and roll albums that will stand as everything rock guitar work ought to be: fierce, aggressive, assured, stylish, technically beyond reproach, yet full of the feeling that makes your heart with courage. "Mean Town Blues" is an absolute masterpiece of slide guitar work, where Winter extends the art form and establishes himself as it's greatest player , and the shoot out on Good Morning Little School Girl" delivers the dueling guitar epiphanies that the Clapton/Allman team fell short of with Derek and the Dominoes. 

Image result for stevie ray vaughan
And speaking of Clapton, it's my less than modest Opinion that Winter's blistering , probing slow blues on "It's My Own Fault" set a standard that took EC over two decades to match , in the Nineties, with is suddenly guitar assertive From the Cradle. Kenny Wayne Shepard has been wrecking my speakers lately. Yeah, I know, another white blues whiz kid, but this time with a difference, being that where Jonny Lang tries too damn hard to wedge a simulacra of feeling into his playing and singing -- unseasoned grunting and rasping and thinly sustained ostinatos do not make for an emotionally session -- Shepard tears it up without seeming to try. His bends and sustains cut and slap with a convincing sting, and his chops are sure and expressive, like Vaughn and Winter at their most inspired. And over him is the long shadow of Hendrix, who dosn't his shadow fall over. Also, and I insist, anyone interested what blues guitar might sound like in the next century ought to give a close listen to Michael Hill: I've been playing his Michael Hill's Blues Mob's album Have Mercy, and it cooks: an extension of the urban blues voice in the hip hop generation, his songwriting draws on Percy and Curtis Mayfield and strong gospel roots, and his guitar work is where Albert King , Buddy meet and Vernon Reid meet. Hill can tear it up with the best that comes against him. He ought to be better known. The reason Clapton has thrived , while the lamented Sharrock languished is that Clapton decided he would be a pop star with just strong blues influence, while Sharrock continued to play out of the mainstream, and off this planet. Mass audiences always go with the slicker, shinier, whiter package. The fact that Clapton is a white pop star doesn't diminish his chops as a blues guitarist, though. Nothing is that simple in this life. Unlike another white Pop Star, Sting, Clapton has mastered his instrument in the style he loves, when he actually plays the music he loves. I think Layla would have been better than that, but the real matter is my original point: Clapton is gifted collaborator, a band member who can contribute vocals, lead and harmony, tasty solos, and other ideas, in union with other band members. Layla is the proof of this. Clapton fused with Allman creatively, and the album, whatever I think of Clapton's gilded career as a purveyor of radio-friendly glop is a classic. This underscores three decades of missed opportunities for someone who is essentially a talented fellow traveler, not a leader of men, ala Hendrix. If you like the late Sharrock--what a loss!--you might like Larry Coryell's Live at the Village Gate, released in the Sixties. It's a power trio set up, bass, drums and guitar. The rhythm section is okay but unexceptional throughout, but they do leave a base for Coryell's noise making--blues bends in off-kilter passages, fleet runs, feedback extravaganzas, psychedelic mayhem. I don't know if it's currently in print, but it's worth seeking out: nascent fusion flash, inspired noise mongering.  There is a spontaneous bone in DiMeola's body: good as he is, fast as he is, he sounds mechanical whose playing is saved by some frequently exquisite writing. His solos, though, sound rote, and he bores me after a while. Vai, I think, is brilliant on many occasions, but I think of him as being the equivalent of Jose Feliciano, all flash, no substance. I know he can do better. There are many people still alive who are actually deserving of being hated. Hating Stevie Ray Vaughn for playing a Hendrix tune is a waste of a powerful emotion, and defeats the reason, I think, that Hendrix played guitar to begin with. Vaughn's rendition of "Little Wing" is beautifully done.It's a testament to Hendrix's genius that Stevie could find an identity very much his own even under a shadow as long as the Masters'. Brilliance inspires brilliance. This version of "Little Wing" is as good a take as any that Vaughn released when he was alive, and it seems to me that it would have been released, death or no. A key attraction to art is for someone to find who they are , in their search, as an artist. It's part of the process. It's a beautiful thing to listen to a musician find a voice of their own after being inspired. The Clapton version of "Little Wing" isn't my favorite version, but it was an honest one, and Clapton deserves credit for doing an arrangement decidedly un-Hendrix like. Great songs, which Hendrix wrote, survive their treatments. Holdsworth , ever since I first heard him with Tempest (with Jon Heissmann), Soft Machine (get "Bundles", if you can find it, the tune "Hazard Profile" is one of the busiest and most fluid jazz/rock improvisations of any sort), Gong ("Espresso") and Tony Williams, I've yet to come across another live guitarist who can match his constant state of inspiration, his ability to play fleet and soaring and maintain a musicality in his improvisations. He is the closest, I think, that a guitarist has come to Coltrane. "Taste" is a sensibility that a player brings to his playing, not some device; it's an intuitive ability to make a series of split second decisions about what note to play, how to play it, how many notes, how fast, how to to phrase the riffs, and so on and have what one does in that that brief window make musical sense, to create a mood, to convey an emotion. Taste, as you use it, sounds like it's a mechanical method one practices the way they would scales, or study for a driving test. It aint. Taste is that nearly indefinable something extra an artist has that sets their work apart. BB has it, Hendrix and Winter have it, Buddy Guy has in, indeed, and y es, or yeah, Clapton has it. "Taste" is a sensibility that a player brings to his playing, not some device; it's an intuitive ability to make a series of split second decisions about what note to play, how to play it, how many notes, how fast, how to to phrase the riffs, and so on and have what one does in that that brief window make musical sense, to create a mood, to convey an emotion. Taste, as you use it, sounds like it's a mechanical method one practices the way they would scales, or study for a driving test. It aint. Taste is that nearly indefinable something extra an artist has that sets their work apart. BB has it, Hendrix and Winter have it, Buddy Guy has in, indeed, and y es, or yeah, Clapton has it. Eddie Van Halen does not have it, and that's tough shit.




Monday, June 5, 2017

Wonder Wonder brings it on

Image result for wonder woman gal gadot
I'll say from the start of this rushed diatribe that I've enjoyed, vastly, the movies that DC comics have made so far in their efforts to establish their own franchises in contrast to that of their competition, Marvel Comics. The uniform negative responses, to be sure, have their points that deserve to be discussed, but the wave of hate seems more product of the internet's tendency to encourage an echo chamber effect; nervous fans, not sure of what they actually desire from a movie, suspend their critical faculties and dive head long into the noisy bull run of nay saying. Objections are over stated, insults are hurled, and feelings are hurt. And still, I like what DC and Warner Brothers have done, for the most part. 

Not to get off on a longish defense of particular films, I will assert here that Zack Snyder is one of the      few directors who gets the dynamism and flair of the graphic novel and produces resolutely beautiful and exciting action sequences, however dark and grim they may be. And, of course, "Man of Steel" is a masterpiece, in my view,a compelling show of a young man with the fabled powers greater than that of mortal men who awaits the right moment to emerge, that moment arising only in great need and when his moral compass is formed an inextricable part of his emotional DNA. If you like, you can find my longer defense of that film here  and post your thoughtful dissents in the comments section. 


The fact that "Wonder Woman" is presently at 94 percent critic approval on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes makes me smile. Director Patty Jenkins directs with a sure, firm and confident hand, efficiently and effectively establishing the WW mythology as it relates to a re-imagined Greek mythology, the origin story of the young girl who would become the eventual super hero, and the first adventure of Wonder Woman in full costume, in the WW 1 trenches, fighting with the British against the Germans, searching for her foe Ares, the God of War. It works remarkably well, I think.  A wonderful cast featuring wonderful work from Chris Pine and Robin Wright. Gal Adopt as WW, a controversial casting when first announced, is quite good here. Athletic, naive, ironic, fierce in combat sequences and sweetly ironic in the comic parts, she turns in a star-making performance. Gadot hasn't the broadest range as an actress, a fact that led the objections to her being casted in the role of the defining super heroine, but what she does here is akin to what other limited-commodity screen thespians have worked well with, which is to perform splendidly within the limitations.

 Emerging from the vapor and gusty disgust of all the protests, we have director Jenkins making make strong use  of Gadot's strengths: the athleticism in the combat scenes are a wonder to behold as she her debut in the world of men, and she more than delivers with the dialogue she's given to handle. Naivete, rage, a hint of vulnerability, a nicely turned bit of comic timing, Gadot establishes a superhero personality that is convincingly conflicted yet firmly dedicated to ridding the world of the evil that fouls the potential of men to do better and greater things. It's not the case that Gadot is carried along by the superb     cast of Wright, Pine, Connie Nielsen and others, although those assets are a large reason why this movie moves as well as it does across the screen. It is an ensemble effort. Wonderful work by all involved.  

Friday, June 2, 2017

album review: Elvis Costello cracks a smile

(This review originally printed in the UCSD Triton Times in 1980. Not that I've become a paragon of flowing prose since that time, but anyone half way familiar with my style might note be this piece's tone, which is that of bright boy who wanted to sound better read than he actually is. Lucky for me that the music was as good  as I claimed it was. -tb) 
GET HAPPY!! --Elvis Costello
and the Attractions
As a seeming majority of music critics, reviewers and assorted ill-cultured taste mongers have exhausted their supply of superlatives in justifying rock critics defending their declaration that  The Clash's London Calling record the hottest double record set since Exiles On Main Street, I've been tempted to retaliate with my own half facetious   declaration. Elvis Costello's new record, Get Happy!! (I would have written) is the greatest double rock record since Blonde On Blonde. With the gauntlet thrown to the floor, warring factions would man the ramparts and try to pick each other off with sniper-tongued pot-shots. Nonsense on two counts. First, despite the fact that Get Happy!! contains 20 songs, it is in fact a single record with 10 selections per side, where Dylan's double set Blonde On Blonde, with several songs going well over three minutes, holds less material. More importantly, however, is the nonsense rock reviewers in general (myself included) indulge in when they sling about comparisons that pale once separated from the heat of the moment. Common sense and sober thinking shows that the Clash are an earnest band who haven't developed the stylistic subtleties that the Stones used to manage, and that Costello, apart from a shared genius for non-sequiturs, has little in common with Dylan. This brings us to what Get Happy!! really is: neither a masterpiece nor a landmark to be prematurely canonized, but instead a firm confirmation of the major talent his audience suspected he possessed.
The major revelation on Get Happy!! is that Costello, like many had hoped, has transcended the slight trappings of new wave and has become a songwriter, an artist with a firm grasp on his material who can write songs using an encyclopedic array of song styles to their full measure. The 20 songs on Get Happy!! comprise, something of a brief course in the history of pop music style. Costello, it should be pointed out, is hardly a new wave dilettante who plagiarizes other people's art because he's unable to develop his own voice. Rather, Costello shares methodological affinities with the patron saint of the French New Wave film school, Jean Luc-Godard. Godard, who through his young life had been surfeited with American genre films by John Ford, Howard Hawks, Nicholas Ray, Sam Fuller and other Hollywood directors, took to making his own films during the late 60s, using many of the same camera stylistics of his American influences. Godard, aware that he was a French intellectual first and that he couldn't make "American" films no matter how much he admired the visual gracefulness American directors occasionally managed, ended up subverting the genres, inserting heavy doses of philosophy, Marxist literary criticism, semiological dissertations on language, and other notions stemming from the French proclivity for spinning theories, concepts that Godard's American film influences would doubtlessly stand gap-mouth at. Film genres to Godard, then, were a medium he could use, alter, retool, change, subvert.
Costello is a songwriter of course, and one wouldn't belabor a comparison between him and Gdard beyond a simple point: like Godard, Costello shuffles music styles and makes use of them the way he wants. He does this through his lyrics, which along with Steely Dan's are the most disturbing, dense and difficult in rock. Often times, Costello enjoys writing a lyric with no literal meaning against a melody that evokes something else entirely. In "Secondary Modern," with a soft croon over a melody that could pass for some of the blander efforts of Jackson Browne, Costello sings: "This must be the place / Second place in the human race / Down in the basement / Now I know what he meant / Secondary modern / Won't be a problem / Til the girls go home..." The melody, as pleasing as anything else could be, says one thing, but the lyrics, full of sparse details and indirect innuendo, deny that pleasure. Costello's aim seems to be to set us up in the visceral plane, and then to pull the rug out from under us once the words sink in. Dangerous activity.
Lack of space makes it impossible to go into a song-by-song account, but here are some of the choice tracks. "Motel Matches," set in a gospel vein, is abstracted teenage heartbreak, an implied story of a lover's concern for his girlfriend's loose ways. "Opportunity," a jaunty tune in a stiff gallop tempo that concerns, incredible enough, the Hider and Mussolini baby boom campaigns. "Man Called Uncle," is an excellent hard rocker where Costello condemns beautiful people who've resigned their free-will so that they could become mere sexual play things to rich people, and expressing a tacit yearning for real love without usury.

Costello's main theme throughout is that he's against anything that keeps people from becoming the human being he'd like to see them become, against those institutions that divide people, denatures them, turns them into a mindless horde that consumes, kills, and continually destroy each other.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

album review: "So It Goes" with Gregory Page

(Originally published in the San Diego Troubadour. Used with kind permission).
Image result for so it goes gregory page
So It Goes - Gregory Page
It’s an often told tale that young Gregory Page, having no interest in academics or a future in business, developed a fascination with his grandfather’s 78 rpm records. It’s a quirky tidbit, hardly worth the mention for the more conventional lives of lawyers, clerks, and cashiers, but it merits attention in discussing the intriguing Mr. Page. No mere rocker or folkie savant, he’s an agile channeler of music styles gone by. Jazz ballads, torch songs, gospel-tinged testimonials, elements of folk and such things, Page is a man of constant dreaming, yearning, pining for the better day, one who succinctly expresses the perceived failures of his romantic expectations with a sense of irony and wit. So It Goes, his newest release, is a rich and textured set of original songs by Page, each song radiating a soft focused nostalgia, the softly curving turns of Page’s melodies framing his supple voice that reveal his capacity as an expressive singer. He is a crooner in the great tradition of vocalists who perform their songs not so much as professional renditions of harmony and lyric, but rather as a short drama, an inspired short story .The aspect of Page’s singing that grabs me is the way he varies his emphasis, line by line, never losing the golden tone but seeming to sense how a change how a line is sounded, waxing poetic with a quivering warble on one image and then undercutting his own regret with an ironic aside by lightening his approach, lifting his voice up to an optimistic pitch. It is, over and over, Page’s theme that we’re wedded to the past and cannot forget who and what we have loved and lost, but those memories cannot be allowed to turn us into bitter and grouchy lay-abouts.More than once he declares the fundamental lesson, that our experiences make us who we are and that there is nothing to do but go on and embrace the life that unfolds in front of us. He is, of course, and speaking for himself and his own faniful recollections and insights, but the songwriter-songwriter is so adept at his craft and presentation that there isn’t a hint of self pity. Page is a fatalist, perhaps, but he is not a defeatist. The album’s title, So It Goes ,is a refrain from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Slaughterhouse 5, repeated at various points when the story’s events undermine the vain philosophies of the protagonists; despite plans and preparation, life itself upsets one’s agenda and puts one in a position to reflect and rethink and create a reason to get back in the game. 

A private and meaningless experience: stray notes


Rock and roll is a species that nearly died from the self- inflicted wounds  of pomposity and virtuoso bombast and the cruel and curdling surfeit of junior league posey that passed as significant and meaningful lyrics. This is a form that manages that, for every major innovation and epoch-changing trend, a condition that revitalizes the promise of rock and roll being music that can remain relevant to the times new musicians arise in, there emerges the inevitable and seemingly unending waves of imitators, pretenders and merely technical after thoughts we desire to hitch their  wagon to the next money making star. It was about the money, not the emotion, and while ambition is required for anyone insisting on inching toward a permanent spot center stage in our collectively short attention spans, the emphasis is more toward a severely un-soulful reliance on technology than acquired technique. 

Acquired technique,as in matters regarding learning an instrument, learning to sing, becoming excited by musicians and their work and having that inspire to create something your own, from your own life, and present it to an audience that in turn desires something genuine, felt, real, as well as being musically intriguing, catchy, that thing you can dance to while your existence is made worthy by music and other kinds of art. It is less and less that as each day goes by and is lost,  unreclaimable for a do-over. Music seems pieced together, strands of riffs, beats, bleats, phrases, tempos, vocal textures culled from a digital library, pureed at the mixing board until another vaguely musical hit is made and sold on the internet    for download to any device you please. Music , more and more, is a  private and meaningless experience. Honestly, those of us in cars, on buses, or just walking down the streets wearing the ear buds , their phone at the ready, moving and gyrating and gesticulating as resisting the temptation to express something truly joyful in response to the songlist, resemble a passel of  creeps to me, emotional privateers actualizing an ambulatory fuck you to their fellow citizens. 

For Every Dylan and Leonard Cohen, we get Billy Joel or Harry Chapin, for every Iggy Pop,David Bowie or Velvet Underground we get the Dead Boys and the Jesus and Mary Chain. What had been inventive becomes a shelf of hardened cliches and, as such, make me think of nothing more than old sidewalks remarkable only for the shattered slats that are cracked and creviced with the inevitable wear of moving earth, tree roots and car accidents. It all needs to be dug up and replaced with something new and humanly usable. I might have said an old abandoned building for a more fitting metaphor. Better someone take a wrecking ball to the edifice before it falls under its own creaking weight, useless and pathetic.  Or maybe to burn it down? Does the eradication of monetized mediocrity require a specific way to be figuratively gotten rid  of? Is that matter made better if a new generation of young musicians respond to the troubles of their trying to make sense of a life that will not announce its game plan not with another reiteration of the style archive from the last many decades of pop music, but rather find something in their allusively termed collective soul and manage to re-awake the spirit of questing for an existence that is enlightened and creative and bringing purpose to  one's long term designs?  We can ask ourselves that til we drop dead, of course, but I certainly desire my last thought before my last breath isn't "where did we go astray?". 


 I never thought the Sex Pistols weren't called for, as the pretentiousness of the musicians and the gullibility of the audience had choked off the life force that made rock and roll exciting and worth caring about. Some of it might be laid at the feet of rock criticisms, since the advanced discussions of Dylan's relationship to Chuck Berry's everyman existentialist demanded a musical technique and lyrical concept just as daunting. This is the danger when folk art is discovered: it stands to become something distorted, disfigured and bereft of vitality. I was lucky , I guess, in that I was a fan of the MC5 and Iggy and the Stooges a decade and half before the Sex Pistols caught the punk wave. They , and bands like Blue Cheer and Black Sabbath were a grounding principal--rock and roll is beautiful because it's energetic, awkward, and stupid, but profoundly so. There are "concept albums" I admire and still like, if not listen to, but I won't name them here. I am pleased, though, that the idea of the Album being a literary object has been dropped in a deep grave and had dirt thrown over its water-logged remains.