Monday, December 25, 2006

James Brown Gets Off on the Good Foot

James Brown has died and with that a very large part of my music listening history has gone. Much will be said by critics and others desiring to bolster their hip credentials , but the only thing I'll add is a mention of the first time I experienced Brown. In all his funkiness. Little did anyone sitting in the room realize that we were witnessing the birth of contemporary rhythm and blues, black music without a compromise to a white audience.Much as I loved Motown, relishing the thought that was a hometown product, company owner and overseer Barry Gordy made sure that the songs were strong on melody, with substantial orchestration and traditional themes of teen love; there was nothing angry or offputting in Motown's early phases, and all his artists were scrubbed, brushed, preened, cleaned and coiffed for the Caucasian middle class, where the Big Money was.Not for James Brown, and the funkier, leaner, sweatier his music, the better. Live, as it were, in your face, or whatever part of your body he wanted to insinuate his funky rhythms in. (Brown was the Funk Borg; resistance was futile, and additionally very white).

It was in 1965 or so, and the family was in the den, watching The Ed Sullivan Show,  expecting yet another Sunday night of Topo GIGO (the Little Italian Mouse), Robert Merrill baritoning something from an Italian opera, a man balancing fifty or so plates spinning on the top of high, wobbling rods, and maybe something for the teens, a pop band from England , or maybe the Four Seasons. We were in store for something else, a tsunami of smashed expectation, a hurricane of what the fuck?. James Brown and his Famous Flames came on and did fifteen minutes (if I recall correctly) of pivotal paradigm shifting, a black man in tight shark skin suit, a high pompadour on his head glistening like polished tar, hoarsely belting lyrics that neither my brothers and sister nor our parents could make out. Brown wasn't just standing there but was rather kinetic, frenzied as angry bees from a disturbed hive, doing splits, dropping to his knees, doing running slides from the back of the stage to the front , where he'd catch the microphone stand and continue his coarse pleading, the band pumping up an endless, minimally 
applied rhythm, full of hard punching horn riffs, chicken-scratch guitar fills, brilliantly insistent bass lines, drumming that was tight on the accents like shrink wrap around a steaming hot steak. It was aggressive, hard, flailing, wonderfully anarchic and yet disciplined by any number of music traditions I wasn't yet aware of when I was fifteen. What was important that it was physical, real, and that voice of his, giving rise to images of the deepest ravines of pain , rage and the scarcely habitable terrain of lust, concentrated my still-current notion of what good soul and rock vocalizing has to amount to:DAMN THE AESTHETICS, GIVE IT THE GAS.

Mom and Dad were stunned , bemused, disgusted (or maybe just one of those three adjectives) and my brothers and sister were all gabbing and laughing and getting into arguments about whether it was time to go bed. A headwind had just blown through the den, which was hard, considering that it was in the basement of our Michigan house, compact and snugly packed in all that hard concrete and cold dirt.But I was essentially self involved through no fault of my own; I was hard of hearing and had a lot of time to ponder and nuance my teenage awkwardness, and I tended to respond to things other than reading that were loud, frenzied, given to spectacle. Thus my love for rock and roll. Brown , that night, had blown all other things aside; I hadn't the vaguest idea of what it was I'd just seen , but I knew it was important, and had something of a premonition that it would be James Brown and not Topo Gigot nor the man spinning fifty or so splits on the top of long, wobbling rods who I'd continue to talk about in years to come. It turned out that I was right, not bad for a fifteen year old kid, but I had no idea that James Brown would remain worth talking about for so many decades.

Good show, James. Get off on the good foot.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

John Lennon and the end of the Beatles

A repost of an old essay on Lennon and the Beatles, suitable in view of the final FBI files on Lennon being recently released, and that this month is the anniversary of his murder. We will not see his like soon.-tb
This past December 8th was the twenty-sixth 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 egomania that overrode 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 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. Many magazines and other 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 the contemporaries had.

Monday, December 11, 2006

"Underworld", a novel by Don DeLillo

On the subject of the greatest 100 novels written in English the 20th Century, I was momentarily smug when I realized that I'd read 75 of the group compiled by the folks at Modern Library. 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 written in America in the second half of the 20th Century, I vote for "Underworld" by Don DeLillo.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 Nobles. 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 predetermined 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. Nice work, great work, magic.It's never occurred to me not to consider DeLillo a postmodern writer, since his work, especially Great Jones Street, the Names White Noise and especially the hugely brilliant Underworld has outlined and defined the postmodern terrain and its most compelling attributes. As discussed earlier in this thread and in other threads where DeLillo figured largely to the subject at hand, his world is about characters trying to adjust to and survive within a universe filled with Invisible but Irresistible movements that threaten to finally take them in.

DeLillo is often critiqued by some readers and critics (perhaps weary of his name being intoned when the subject of greatness arises in their conversations) for writing characters who all sound alike, unnatural, distinct from real life. I would hope so."Natural" ought to mean an idiom that's believable for narrators and characters to be speaking in, an idiom whose success depends on how well the author constructs the fictional world they're entertaining us with. Underworld has several idioms that DeLillo plays with well-- an awful lot of this novel takes its narrative energy from the minds of characters who are thinking their way through their predicaments, a perfect and virtuoso blend of Faulkner association and Italian American cadences -- so it's a matter of vernaculars, plural, that makes up the weave up the novel.

But the DeLillo "voice" -- detached, musing, aware of some melancholic finality at the end of the storylines that belie the rationalizations and worldviews of the characters--the artists, the ballplayers, the trash disposal capitalists, the nun-- that winds up in an endless chain of ironies. It's a tone of expression that seems quite right for DeLillo: natural, in other words. What makes it into a style is his ability to modify, alter, or disguise it's timbre, pitch, and density so that he seems to create a universe that seems completely and desperately besotted by a whispering anxiety of aimlessness. The usual voice flows quite well, smoothly in fact; it's not for nothing that DeLillo is praised for writing the best sentences in American English. I don't hear any of Mamet's style in DeLillo. Not a trace. Faulkner, perhaps, especially noticeable in Underworld, but nothing from Mamet, whose rhythms are those of a dropped bag of hammers.

We end up with novels dealing with specialization seen not as a way to understand how the world and history work but rather as delusional and distracting activities that keep us as consumers. It is a body of work where what we say about the world we live in is deflected and abstracted, absorbed into larger things that are beyond our antennae. Whether the tales are about a rock artist who has millions hinging on his every lyric, a professor of Hitler studies finding himself powerless, despite his special knowledge, in light of an unexplained catastrophe, or about a risk-management assessor analyzing local political situations to minimize the the chance of ruin for potential corporate investment, DeLillo's' work  imagines the existence after modernism's' promise of better living through constant, violent change has turned into a documented set of fiascoes, disasters, wars, and genocides. 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, all mantras, to give the world a 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 paintbrush, 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 whose hero could be Dylan, Bowie, or Cobain), and ultimately "Underworld" 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 press 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.

No one maintains topicality alone makes for greatness. Great style twined with keen insight makes the argument for great riches more convincing. A flair for the poetic, a grasp of imagery that enlarges one's sensibility in the world settles the issue. 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 sidestep victimhood as a consideration and force readers, and critics for that matter, to study the performance of literature, the literary act itself.

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 it's 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.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

New Mailer Due

Norman Mailer is due to have his latest novel , The Castle in the Forest, published on his 84th birthday in January; it's about the life of the young Adolph Hitler, narrated by a top lieutenant of The Devil.The philandering and rationalized dysfunctions characterizing prevailing Hitler Family Values in the future Fuhrer's early life gives us a vivid, arresting depiction of the making of a Monster.Incident after incident, ranging from his father Alois's incestuous infidelities the youth's rapt fascination in a village blacksmith's theories on how a Will Of Iron is galvanized, Mailer's use of the narrating demon gives a feeling of when the worm had turned.

It's good, wonderfully seductive, a tale you can't turn away from. Among Mailer's life long themes has been various examinations of the gaining and use of power, for purposes good or ill, and The Castle in the Forest's imagined portrait of a world scourge emerging from a festering mess will give one something to ponder , perhaps in a pause of action when one is deciding whether to be a bastard by exacting a revenge for a slight, real or imagined, or whether will be mature enough to let the irritation fade and thus not make the world a more sour place. The beating of butterfly wings indeed; our good works, enacted in good faith, has an effect on how history turns out, but the sad fact is that our worst deeds seem to swell faster and sweep aside all good intentions in their tsunami like rush.

At heart, Mailer is right about journalism being mostly bad writing, but it's worth nothing that some of Mailer's most praised books have been produced under the loud and loathsome shadow of deadline. Armies of the Night, Miami and the Siege of Chicago and most his novelesque journalism are what many consider to be Mailer's best period, and it may said that the brazen and often spectacular results of his work-for-hire supports his suspicions that he was the best writer of his generation. Quick, expensive remarks said in haste, with a particular habit of mind that could make the incidental bit of crankiness into something more memorable. But Mailer is a singular talent and his gifts are not given to the hard sifting, grilling and grind that a professional reporter must do as part of his their daily professional lives; Mailer at heart remains the critic, the observer, the fancier of the behavior of men in large crowds jockeying for advantage. It wouldn't be inaccurate to describe much of Mailer's journalism as one comedy of manners after another, Ala Trollope or Jane Austin; what he couldn't reveal as scandal or creeping evil could be suggested with his fiction-wrting gifts in the telling detail, the deft psychology of characters through the subtle reading of how the actors carried themselves.

Mailer has remarked that he considered "the Internet the biggest waste of time since masturbation", but it's likely that he would have taken to blogging if he were younger. Certainly, it fits what had been his preference to send dispatches from the front lines of an event, and it would have given instant and unlimited access to an audience that wanted to hear his unique and twisting views. Blogging itself is an even faster generator of bad writing than traditional print media--I include myself in each and every crime against syntax committed for the sake of getting my name on one more web page--but it's a safe guess that Mailer would have excelled in the medium just as he excelled in print. Or maybe not; Mailer writes in longhand, and submits it to an assistant for typing. After that, the manuscript is poured over again for editing. Knowing this, you wonder if Mailer had ever learned how to type. Perhaps that will be an issue that will be addressed in a future doctoral thesis.

Sunday, December 3, 2006

Got Stress?

There's nothing to say at the moment about which trends in popular media or literature please me or offer me a prickly kiss, but I did come across an old sociology book, from the fifties, called "The Stress of Everyday Life" at D.G.Wills Books . It was less the subject matter that made me pick up the used book than it was the title's type style; blocky, bold,all capitalized, one word up upon the other like a tottering tower about to give way to lethal gravity. The Word "stress", as you see it here, was askew, cracking under strain , as if , well, under stress.Suitably, I grabbed it and virtually yelled "STRESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS" to ride the rest of the a-ha! wave. I bought the book, scanned the cover, and cropped the single word you see above. It's become a seasonal mantra, a one-syllable
password to a fellow human being likewise feeling pressed upon by the Holidays and news events that have no real bearing on their life.