Thursday, December 29, 2005

The Decline of Elvis Costello

I had the faint hope that Elvis Costello's most recent CD,"The Delivery Man" , would be a solid and tuneful set of punchy rock and roll and sharply writ lyrics as was Costello's previous "When I Was Cruel" from four years ago, but such is hardly the case. Well, no,that understates the disappointment, which was something akin to questioning my tastes when I was in college and feeling compelled, fleetingly so, to apologize for all the positive reviews I'd given his albums in the Seventies and early eighties when I felt I still had some purchase on informing the culture and the people in it about the best work the best of us were doing. Fortunately, I stopped drinking some years ago and avoided anything so rash; I went to sleep and the worst despair was gone, but I was still irked, cheesed off, madder than a wet hen. Elvis Costello has been sucking for years now, and I was tired of waiting for one of those "return to forms" one anticipates aging rockers to do, hoping they live long enough to make one more disc that has half the kick
such musicians might have had back in the day, or the night, or just back when they cared. One way or the other it amounts to waiting for someone to die, yourself or the artist in question. It's a very slow game of chicken.

It's been long enough to wait for Dylan or the Stones decide that they want to make music again that sounded like they still enjoyed their work as much as the money they make from it. Costello isn't that old, and he hasn't lost his talent; his ambition just got in the way of it. The songs are wandering bits of amorphous mood setting, vaguely sad, melancholic, inward drawn. The worst of "Painted from Memory", is irresolutely medium tempo collection of muzaked dirges with Burt Bacharach (both of whom apparently forgetting that Bachrach's work is marked as much by quirky, uptempo tunes) meets the pulseless shoe-gazing sniffling of "North".Costello has been trying to show everyone how much he's matured and grown as an artist and writer, but unlike someone like Paul Simon, who improved dramatically in his solo work after he finally bid adieu to the collegiate poesy of Simon and Garfunkel's too-precious word mongering, Costello tries to get it all in, to say it all in one song, and then again in the song after that. His songs tear at the seams, and there is not the overflow of talent you'd like, but rather an uncontainable spillage. Simon, through "Rhymin' Simon" and onward, knows the meaning of restraint, containment, care in image and metaphor. He remains a songwriter with an especially strong sense of pop structure, a matter that forces him to make each song the best he can do at the moment. Costello is, on occasion, a better melodist than Simon and a more interesting, verbally dexterous lyricist, but it is his lack of care that sinks him here and throughout most of his output in the 90's. Tom Waits, his closet in terms of sheer talent, does the sloppy and the unrestrained with the kind of genius we reserve for Miles Davis and Picasso. Costello is shy of genius, is a brilliant craftsman when he applies the technique and reapplying himself is exactly what is called for. The songs on the new one are unfocused and drift in structure--Costello seems to be trying to convince that playing being indecisive about how he wants a melody to unfold, or what mood and psychology he wants to get across is enough to evoke Hamlet-like assumptions of deep thought and artful equivocation on key narrative points.

He sounds like he's trying to be artfully oblique, but what Costello forgets is that his greatest talent was his ability to absorb the styles of fifty or so years of rock, pop and rhythm and blues styles and then compose a fantastically buoyant music that was at once subtly argued in the lyrics and intensely rocking with the music. Costello must not like to dance anymore, and has entered middle age with some overblown assumptions that he needs to be artier, moodier, more depressed, more diffuse, more obtuse than he was when he was a young punk trying to make a buck off his bad attitude. There are those die-hard fans who would counter that Costello's lyrics are the subtlest and most literary of his career, something I would argue against, but all the same, this is a weak defense of the general torpor that saturates "The Delivery Man". Even if it were so, albums that are more interesting to read than to listen to are fit, on principle, to be used for target practice at the next skeet shoot.

Thursday, December 8, 2005

John Lennon and the End of the Beatles

Today , Thursday, December 8 2005 is the twenty fifth anniversary of John Lennon's assassination by that ignoble cipher Mark David Chapman, and as much as one wants to deny that they remain obsessed with the great glory of their fiery youth, a day of this kind makes me none the less want to meander around the old and overgrown ground of the past and wonder how things might have been different. But the motives are selfish, as they always have been with me, and I am less concerned with the winsome utopia Lennon wanted to bring us to had Chapman not found his gun and his target, but rather with the decline of Lennon's music, post-Beatles. My position is simple and probably simple minded; Lennon was a pop music genius during his time with the Beatles, collaborating or competing with Paul McCartney, definitely at the top of his songwriting and performer game, and with the introduction of Yoko Ono into his life, we see a lapse into the banal, the trivial, the pretentiously bone-headed.

Yoko Ono did much to make Lennon the worst example of wasted genius imaginable. Though he did make some great rock and roll during his post-Beatle time, and wrote and recorded a handful of decent ballads, his artistry took a nose dive he never had a chance to pull out of. He was monumentally pretentious, head-line hungry, and cursed with an ego mania that over rode is talent. He stopped being an artist, and a rock and roller, and became the dread species of creature called celebrity; the great work that made is reputation was behind him, and there was nothing in front of him except brittle rock music with soft headed lyrics, empty art stunts, and drugs, drugs, drugs. A sad legacy for a great man. The fact of the matter is that Lennon's greatness was possible in large part because of his collaborations, full or partial, with Paul McCartney. Both had native musical instincts that balanced each other: the proximity of one to the other kept them on their best game. The sheer genius of the entire Beatle body of work versus the sketchy efforts from both Lennon and McCartney under their own steam bears this out. Lennon never found anyone to replace McCartney, and certainly never had anyone who challenged to do better, smarter work. Yoko certainly didn't give him anything that improved his music, and her lasting contribution to his career is to give him the errant idea that performing under your ability equals sincerity. It equaled excruciatingly inadequate music.

What's amazing for an anniversary as seemingly monumental as this is the paucity of new insights, previously unavailable information, or especially interesting critical estimations of their estimable body of work. It is a topic that has been exhausted, it seems, since scrutiny on all matters and personalities pertaining to the Beatles has been unceasing since their demise. We have, essentially, is reruns of our own memories, repackaged, remodeled, sold to us again, and endless of things we already know intimately and yet consume compulsively because we cannot help ourselves.It cheapens the term, but "addiction" comes to mind.

There is nothing to add to the Beatles legacy except perhaps add our anecdotes to the ceaseless stream of words that seek to define their existence and importance even today. It's no longer about what the Beatles meant and accomplished in altering the course of history or manipulating the fragile metaphysical assumptions we harbor, for good or ill;we've exhausted our best and largest generalities in that regard, and the task will fall to historians, philosophers and marketers after most of us are dead as to what The Beatles and their songs are worth as art and commercially exploitable assets. For us there remains only a further dive into autobiography, where we might yet find some clue and excitement as to how these guys became an informing influence on our individual personalities.John Lennon and the Beatles changed my life in a major and unalterable way during their existence, and this was something I came aware of only after watching two hours of CNN wall-to-wall coverage of the assassination. I broke down, tears came, I was a senseless, doom-stricken mess, even though at the time I loudly bad-mouthed the pasty, hippie-flake dilettantism of his later work. None of what I thought I mattered mattered in that instance.John Lennon was dead and it was like losing some essential part of myself whose loss would never be filled with anything even half as good or worthy.He still mattered to me in my life quite despite the fact that I'd had what amounted to an argument with him over is politics and his music during the length of his solo career, but despite my best efforts to break off into new sounds and ideas and leave Lennon and the Beatles behind, his death hit as would the death of a family member.

 For good or ill, his work and the crude course of his ideas helped in the formation of values and attitudes that still inform my response to celebrity and events, no less than Dylan, and no less than reading Faulkner, Joyce , or viewing Godard films. The deification that he's had since the killing is the kind of sick, fetish culture nostalgia that illustrates the evils of unalloyed hero worship, a need to have a God who once walked in our midst. This bad habit turns dead artists who were marginally interesting into Brand Name , icons whose mention confers the acquisition of class and culture without the nuisance of having to practice credible discernment: every weak and egocentric manuscript Kerouac and Hemingway, among others , has been published, and the initial reason for their reputations, graspable works you can point to, read and parse, become obscured as a result. Lennon, in turn, becomes less the musician he was and becomes, in death, just another snap-shot to be re-marketed at various times, complete with booklets containing hyperbole-glutted prose that , in essence, attempts to instruct me that my own response through a period I lived in is meaningless. Such hype utterly refuses to let newer listeners come to their own terms with the body of work. It is no longer about Lennon's music, it's about the promotion machine that keeps selling him. This is evil. Lennon, honest as he was most of the time when he had sufficient distance from his antics, would have told us to get honest as well and admit that much of his later music was half-baked and was released solely because of the power of his celebrity. This may well be the time for an honest appraisal of his work, from the Beatles forward, so that his strongest work can stand separate from things that have a lesser claim to posterity. Magazines and online media have used Lennon and the Beatles for no than their value as nostalgia icons in an attempt pathetic glimpses of their own history. It's only business, nothing personal, and that is exactly the problem. Risky to assume what Lennon might ultimately have sounded like had he not been killed, since he had the ability to switch games suddenly and quickly so far as his musical thinking went. 

This was a constant quality that kept him interesting, if not always inspiring: there as always a real hope that he would recover inspiration, as Dylan had after some weak work, or as Elvis Costello had after the soggy offerings of Trust or Goodbye Cruel World. Even the weaker efforts of Lennon's' late period were marked by his idiosyncratic restlessness, and the songs on Double Fantasy, domesticated that they are, might well have been transitional work, a faltering start, toward new territory. It's laughable that Lennon might ever have become as lugubriously solemn as Don Henley, but there's merit in saying that Lennon's work might become par with Paul Simon's: Simon's work is certainly more than screeds praising the domesticated life, and he is one of the few songwriters from the Sixties whose work has substantially improved over the forty years or so. If Lennon's work had become that good, on his own terms, it would have been a good thing, though it'd be more realistic to say that a make believe Lennon rebirth of great work would be closer in attitude and grit to Lou Reed and Neil Young, two other geezers whose work remains cranky and unsatisfied at heart. Since his death, it'd been my thinking that Lennon would have transcended his cliches as some of contemporaries had.

Tuesday, December 6, 2005

burning house

i put my glass down on the tablewhen the house was sold and caughtfire then, there should never behot drinks served near loose lace and drapes.we were walking past a burning houseas shadow animals barked at one anotheron the wal in the awful red light, flaming birdswith wings made of flingers flockling toa spot on the ceiling, we kept walkingwe made a phone call, sirens were looked at the reciever and found yourselflost in the small holes in the ear piece, thereare so many voices passing on wires and through
the air that are connected to lives with histories oflove and diaster that all goes without saying whilewe report crimes and sparks we see coming froma wood shingle roof, you tell them your nameand take my hand.there are trucks singing in strident keys
as sparks and smoke make an edge of the night glow
as if something were alive or ceasing to be,
we return home and prepare for bed, i go into the kitchenand find no kitchen, nor glasses
i drank from nor was wearing,
i twist around, the room is dark,i cannot breathe, and your voice is far off likesinging heard through windows in a tall buildingfrom where every burning house can be seen.

Friday, December 2, 2005

An Incident with Small Talk

The quiet of the breath taken, then held, then expelled really like nothing else than a gasp and release scattering the particles into equal portions. The cars parked in the rear chew the asphalt with relish, a stationary address to the puddles formed beneath them (a man with a large hose making it look as though it just rained).
All the way from Michigan the landscape alerted me to a vista fluctuating in a firm allegiance with the exigencies of variety, different lunches in small towns down the stretch, brand-names like home assuaging the intrusion of new accents Though we may be quibbling over the rites of Scrabble the information is good enough to show that the word perambulates does not mean a description of what we did before we learned to walk on the twin limbs under the distinguishing genitalia.
Blood courses coarsely from the lip that caught the ball with the old college try, a hard knock that really rocked some sense into the meaning of duck. Preferring instead the bed of attention, I studied the knot holes in the planks of the ceiling, never high enough to manage the adjustment; I was a bug on my back trying to get up. A quality of life maintained in all courtesy to a hand stretched for all the copper you could spare, no matter, even the meters spit them back.
“Do you want to know a secret” she asked, “Do promise not to tell?”
Her voice was light, a small gasp of air, with shade of a whistle that blowing through her teeth, and I nodded the best I could.
“Well" she began,” one night I was in the Alpha-Beta to buy some wine and this kid who couldn’t have been anymore than eighteen was behind the cash register. I gave him the money and he gave the change and then put the bottle into a bag for me. He sold me wine. That’s illegal, you know? ”
I said that I did know, although it hadn’t bothered me for some time.
”Anyway, his name is Ken and I said I wouldn’t tell anyone. Promise not to tell?”
I said yes, of course, nary a soul will hear of the deed.