Tuesday, July 31, 2007


Barry Goldensohn offers up a poem titled "War Work" here, the intent being to bridge childhood memories of Manhattan thunder storms that he mistook for a nuclear attack, and how his parents consoled him that his small world still held its comforting center. A moving sentiment ,perhaps, if told in real life, but horrid and malnourished as a poem. The poem confirms the tired complaint that too many poems are bad prose broken into irregular lines--the reader is given the worst qualities f both forms and must surrender to vague critical asides that claim there is more in the ambiguity than the unguided eye can connect. Or the reader must suffer the personal insult, by implication, that manage to live despite the fact that they have no heart. I suppose I have no heart.This poem is so weak that if on the off chance that this incident is true , I hope his parents made fun of him from that day forward, into his adult life. Writing this poem the way it is seems like an attempt to ennoble a childhood embarrassment by dressing it up in the unseemly character warping issue of Nuclear Destruction and General Apprehension. This has interest if one were to read it as a single entry on a blog, or paragraph out of a long letter, but as a poem is slight and repulsive for being so unambitious. It's the equivalent of being a bad mood while on the way to work early one mid-week day and seeing homeless men gathered at bus stops, smoking mooched cigarettes and drinking , and then having your mood uglier. You want to throw these guys in jail for being lazy, shiftless, drunk and leisurely at 7 in the morning while you and your fellow wage slaves go off to work to make a wage and eventually pay a tax that pays for the bench that has become their reclining point. It has nothing to do with fairness, logic, the like, and it goes against my professed belief in social justice, it's just an emotional response, hitting me like a sucker punch. I feel the same way about this poem; it irritates me that this half-baked pot of gummy sentimentality gets the exposure (and the poet gets the paycheck) while the rest of us work hard for our muse, producing better work in the responses to this gruel than the what the actual poem contains. Again, fairness, balance, reason has nothing to with this reaction, and it's obvious there are other things under the tight lid of my personality that makes me want to slap Goldensohn for being so shiftless in my presence (in a manner of speaking). Envy, resentment, arrogance? Well, yes, all those pesky defects. But beyond it all, beyond all my failings on this issue of being a wordy critic of other people's poems, this poem has the appeal of a small toy after a baby as finished slobbering and puking over it. It mights the bag, it chews the root, it sucks long, deep and with braced teeth. This poem is so bad it hurts.

Monday, July 30, 2007

More Notes on Lennon and the Beatles and others crowding my record collection

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 had a dim view of the putzy, hippie-flake dilettantism of his later work. 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. I think 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. 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 clichés as some of the contemporaries had. Yoko 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 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. put Lennon's decline much sooner than the house-husband thing and it seems to me that Ono hindered his work directly and rather obvious. But Lennon being who he was, it probably would have been someone or something to come along and misdirect him. Something in the quizzical murk of a personality needed someone like Yoko: his love for her wasn't fake, and I cannot fault him for that. It's just too bad that following one's heart is no guarantor of good work or even honest work. The only honest thing about Lennon in the latter part of his career was his love for his wife. But Lennon being who he was, it probably would have been someone or something to come along and misdirect him. Something in the quizzical murk of a personality needed someone like Yoko: his attraction and love for her weren't fake, and I cannot fault him for that. It's just to bad that following one's heart is no guarantor of good work or even honest work. The only honest thing about Lennon in the latter part of his career was his love for his wife. "In My Life" is simply one of the finest songs of its kind has ever done, a marvelous melody, sterling harmonies, and an elegantly stated lyric that suggests dually an appreciation of memories for their equal measure of bliss and pain, but also an acknowledgment that on the present and future times matter. The song smoothly sidesteps a noxious nostalgia that would have been easy to slip into and makes the song reflective, places it on another level. Sorry, but the early Beatles albums have some great songs, but are marred by sappy, dippy love songs like "It's Only Love," "Love Me Do," etc., and too many perfunctory covers -- for every "Twist and Shout," and "Money" there's a "Mr. Postman" and "Besame Mucho." The late period albums are more consistent. Sappy and dippy, or straightforward and fresh in their alertness to their real, unvarnished yearnings?

More than ever, the early Beatles songs have a vibrancy and directness that no longer exists in rock and roll, and though one may prefer the later, mature work, the earlier albums remain unique and, for the most part, great rock and pop music. And the Beatles covers of oldies are anything but perfunctory. No one ever did Carl Perkins, The Isley Brothers, or Chuck Berry, et al, like they did. The sound was unique. This is an era where both Lennon and McCartney shined especially well as vocalists. grant the importance of the Plastic Ono Band album, and regard it as a one-off, when the blunt-speaking egotism and skeletal instrumental work achieved a bracing statement about what it means to be a celebrity in a culture that demands genius with every new turn, but it was a direction that rapidly went sour, redundant. Lennon had been passionate about the one thing he knew really very well--being rich and famous and beset with demons no one could imagine -- and after that, the limits of his worldview ran aground. His utopianism was sincere, no doubt, but he wasn't particularly interested in the way he came to write about peace and harmony--give me "Across the Universe" for better poetry, better singing, a better imagination about a better world. My point was that the admirable gustiness of releasing an album like Plastic Ono Band does not compel me to listen to the album again. I never replaced the vinyl with a CD.


That's the problem with dead musical geniuses who die abruptly: we're left guessing what direction they've might have taken, and left as well to wonder if that direction would have been worth the wondering. Lennon might well have found something new to write about, as other songwriters his age have, such as Lou Reed, Bowie, Randy Newman. You can't count someone out while they're still breathing. But it is the mootest of moot points. 

Charlie Watts is a great rock and roll drummer, a timekeeper with sharp instincts of where to lay down the stick on the drum head. He isn't the flashiest or the most technically advanced, but he is absolutely perfect in his field, not a wasted beat or stroke, every motion adding to the unexplainable greatness that the Rolling Stones have been: the Hemingway of Rhythm. Much the same applies to Ringo Starr, someone else who's often dismissed as more loveable oaf than real musicians. In either band, both were exactly the right fit for the music that was being made. McCartney was certainly a better drummer than Micky Dolenz, but in comparison with every other drummer on the planet, he came up seriously short. He usually sounds like he's hammering nails. "Adequate" is almost an exaggeration, and I wouldn't be surprised if Buddy Miles himself took a sneaking pleasure in knowing that there was an even less-capable celebrity behind the skins. 
With the exception of parts of Hearts and Bones and Graceland, Paul Simon has been unexceptional. His work for the last decade has been boring in the extreme. Boring to you, perhaps, but Simon, in fact, has been quite clever and adroit in the last decade, with much of Rhythm of the Saints and Music from Capeman being among the best and varied work of his career. Not being in a rush to release new albums keeps his averages high. Granted, although saying that Simon's work in the last decade or so has music is "... among the best and varied work of his career" isn't an unreasonable statement, since in my skewed take there is more than a little that’s on a par with his best work, career wide. It's a reasonable statement. Simon easily beats the rap of being a dull artist for the last decade. "Boring in the extreme" is implausible, taken as a whole. But no matter. Comparing Lennon, or anyone, to Simon hardly amounts to a description of decrepitude. But it's not likely Lennon would have been anything remotely like Simon: it's a bad comparison when hazarding that kind of guess about what he would have sounded like if he lived. The elliptical feel to some of Simon's lyrics isn't quite the same as him being obscure, a quality in lyricist that too much of the time is ploy by lesser lyricist that disguises a lack of anything to say, or at least an interesting way of talking about what it is they think they know about the world. "Evocative" is the better word for Simon. I like a good number of the songs you've mentioned precisely because he selects his images and detail well, and creates a strong sense of the personality and tone of his situations rather than telling us how we're to respond. 

Again, a listener has a fighting chance of bringing their own ideas to the narrative span in order to complete the scene and the sentiment. It's not always a success when he undertakes this, but there is little of the abstruse density you find in Dylan, or Beefheart, or Cobain, the saddest of all the sad cases. In any case, writing about marriage needn't be Hallmark cards: it's one of the central events in anyone's life, a consolidation of the complicated strands that make up love between two folks, and marriage is indeed a place to find even more inspiration as one finds out more about oneself in relation to the world. It was within Lennon's scope as a feeling artist to suss through these matters: it's a bigger shame that he never had the chance to express more of what he might have found out. You sit and wonder, after listening to the engaging, if unspectacular love songs on Double Fantasy, what interesting moods might have pushed him into his next Great Period. Dylan, Lou Reed, Joni Mitchell, Costello are songwriters who entered into new and interesting areas of writing as they came into the later periods of their life, each after some time wallowing and casting about with albums that seemed undecided, repetitive, played out. In each case, some things in their personality and personal circumstances gelled finally and gave them the legitimate voice they sought, the rebirth. Double Fantasy was a transitional album, I think, and one feels the cheat of an honestly seeking and imperfect artist finding that set of riffs and inspiration that would have enlarged his life's work.
My life became richer after over fifteen years of constant record and concert reviewing simply because I survived the accompanying trappings of what I thought a critic needed to have; certainly, plain old burn-out is a factor: what I loved was killing me, and the habits I had to enhance the listening experience became mere habits, after all, booze and copious drug taking. I was a drunk, rattled, a chain-smoking wreck of a pop pundit by the arrival of the early eighties, scarcely able to keep my rants on Monk, Beefheart or Phil Oches on separate tracks, I couldn't keep deadlines, and I couldn't show up at interviews my editors had scheduled. As the free albums stacked up and my trash can filled with empty vodka bottles, nothing really seemed worth having a passion for. Anyway, I sobered up eventually, taking note of friends and others I knew started to turn up dead by various means and checking into a world famous drug and alcohol treatment center in California. In any event, let us just say that my life is richer because I'm still breathing and I've had the benefit of being the rare alcoholic who has a chance to start over and reappraise what's really of value. Music, indeed, is a richer experience for me, wider and far more curious than it had been, and there is a freedom from not having to construct an instant analysis of usually unattractive people who make exotic sounds for a CD release. Another benefit is that friends don't cross the street when they see me coming since I'm not in the habit these days of laying on them spontaneous rants about Miles Davis' racial theory regarding drummers, or how Wallace Stevens' notion of a Supreme Fiction undermines Steely Dan's surface post-bop cool. It's been more fun actually talking to associates about music (or art, books, film) rather than attempt to deliver a lecture every time I opened my mouth. I'm even invited to places these days. I

Tom Snyder

I was sorry to read that Tom Snyder, maverick and generously egocentric talk show host for NBC in the seventies with his late night Tomorrow Show program, has died of leukemia at age 71. In the same period it was the hipper choice to prefer Dick Cavett's brand of chatter with writers like Mailer, Vidal and Kingsley Amis, but there was something controlled about Cavett's manner that was at once appealing and off putting. You wanted him to get steamed when a rude or inane guest was getting on his nerves, but he didn't, falling silent for a moment instead and adding a fast quip or witticism to defuse the tension. Snyder, on the other hand, was all gusto, having something of a Marine attitude in a conversation that made him charge forward with a barrage of questions towards a guest whose work or notoriety our late host seemed positively clueless about. In a constant grey ribboned haze of cigarette smoke, he'd bluster, laugh, wave his arms, slip into rather pointless anecdotes about small TV or radio stations he used to work (complete with suggestions about what bistro served up the best steak, and the like) and ask questions that at times seemed to mystify his guests. Best of all, Snyder often blew his cool. Actually, he never tried to be cool, as MacLuhan's dictum of what a "cool medium" demands of a personality. Snyder was hot, hot tempered, hot blooded, a loose cannon. One of my favorite television memories during college was his attempt to interview Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols; Snyder would field some questions, seeking some information on which to base the rest of the interview. Rotten, noted malcontent and general purpose Antichrist, rebuffed Snyder again and again with a host of Anglophone vulgarities. Snyder in turn fumed and told Rotten as much, with the result being an effective deconstruction of the talk show format. Johnny Rotten refused to play along, and Tom Snyder refused to pretend that nothing was wrong. Good show, Tom. Fire up a colortini for me.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Frost Bitten

Robert Frost is better than Edgar Guest, I suppose. But he drives me crazy with all these slant rhymes and pastoral silences. I wish he could make me think that there was something horrible going on over that hill, in that cabin covered in the snow, in that grove of trees, by that still lake highlighted by moonlight. But he doesn't, and too bad. This is a world of someone who doesn't need the company of others,and that, frankly, is so quaint it's insufferable.There are those who will rightly protest the unfairness of my dismissal of this revered poet and correctly point out that are poems he's written that are darker, more complex than the winter and fall landscapes I characterize his verse as. But it's to no avail.

All the same, I just never cared for Frost's brittle diction and solitary pluming of his darker side; if there was something horrible going on behind the shrewdly arranged stillness of his poems, and if that something were in his house, then it was all in his head. I thought it was corny and contrived and airless when the nuns had us all parse his efforts and then write papers on the constant presence of death that pulses under the surface of his unadorned lines, but even at that age I distrusted the writers' persona. Bitter, depressed and solitary he might have been, but there also seemed to something machine-made about his poems; it was an easy style for the larger public to like and for the critics to praise and extol upon without seeming like they're blurbing merely for the sake of being quoted. The result, in my next to worthless opinion on the matter, is a poet who is over rated, over praised, over anthologized. I have never cared for the old boy's brand of grumpiness, and I never will.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Edward Hirsch Turns Pro

This is a weepy little exercise, written by a professional poet who knows the audience he was writing for, an intimacy having less to do with shared values than knowing which subjects and words can move a reader to awaken some easily agitated nest of sentimentality. Hirsch is one of the better grey-suited lyric poets of our time, but there times when his professionalism kicks in when his inspiration is flagging, and we end up with stanzas that seem to exist only to push buttons and bring the unexpected tear, the reverse of Billy Collins, who’s mastery more often than I care to admit make him serve up the easy laugh, the conceited snort. “Conceit” has everything to do with Hirsch’s “Green Couch”, drawing upon a poet’s life of homes and apartments filled with bookshelves and tacky furniture, a life characterized by the fact that the narrator remembers personal milestones by what turns his reading habits took:

That was the year I lived without fiction
And slept surrounded by books on the unconscious.
I woke every morning to a sturdy brown oak.

That was the year I left behind my marriage
of twenty-eight years, my faded philosophy books, and
the green couch I had inherited from my grandmother.

Smart man, reflective, in the center of a dissolving relationship, leaving through the door of three decades of marriage into unknown adventures. There’s a visual style here that is too obvious, an all seeing eye that not only gets the details but comes complete with flashbacks and back story; this is a cluttered storyline that is presented in orderly fashion, but reminds one of desk drawers that are artfully arranged and superbly organized that, for all their tidiness, look overstuffed all the same. You suspect there are things in the drawer that need to be tossed out, shredded, gotten rid of finally, not folded and placed in a pile of junk, according to size. The Hirsch poem reads like a outline for a two hour film, or a pitch for a miniseries, or a sketch for a middle brown romance where people in late middle age have their lives disrupted and discover that everything they know was conjecture after all, wishful thinking. Hirsch knows his audience the way a professional songwriter knows their market. The green couch, abandoned, stored, rescued and now awaiting a final disposal, becomes that immaterial thing that rather conveniently turns out to be the place where Hirsch’s narrator found the link between the expectations of having a life that makes sense and an education that warned he and generations of other readers that what we take for granted is not embedded and fixed.

All my difficult reading took place on that couch,
which was turning back into the color of nature
while I grappled with ethics and the law,
the reasons for Reason, Being and Nothingness,
existential dread and the death of God
(I'm still angry at Him for no longer existing).

The counterpoint here is one of those stray bits of detritus that fell from the drawer that’s been opened too many times; the drawer we figuratively speak of, as well as the poem itself, slides into disarray. All the neat symmetry falls away from use and scrutiny, and Hirsch, the professional, imagines time is money and that one, being professional, must bring this project in on time and under budget. We get rushes of biographical tidbits that haphazardly attempt to show us that the green couch, that molding and reeking remnant of a life that no longer exists, is both the symbol of the narrator’s deeply felt convictions, and is also an empty signifier, merely an aging assemblage of wood frame and spring with which the narrator has unattended issues.This is the kind of poem that inspires critiques that are more exciting than the actual art ; an analysis is fine and subtle, edging on brilliance hell, let's say it, it is brilliant, and so saying this illustrates for me the problem with the poem, something that inspires sympathetic responses more an application of generic technique than a guiding inspiration, and results in commentaries that are far more arresting and intriguing than the poem they try to illuminate.

For all your sympathetic and incandescent explication on how things are arranged in this poem and how they appear to be having a dialogue with the writer through the decades, I never shook the feeling that these were instructions for a montage in a weepy soap opera in which each frame and item within the frame is arranged for pure, suggestive value. Only in this case it is less the suggesting than the telling t I likewise think it is an underperforming work from a poet with as much talent as Hirsch. I had worked in bookstores for years, and it was expected by my managers that I'd read four or five books a week, novels mostly, and in the near decade of having to do that in the interest of making informed recommendations I found myself reading a number of novelists who's fictions of irritable middle class folks seemed sheared from the same, unruly cloth. You begin to sense when things are going to turn specific ways by conspicuous signifiers--blinking answering machine lights, someone espied in the distance for no particular reason who shows up thirty or forty pages later with a life changing challenge for the hero or heroine--and though one can learn to enjoy these mechanized movements in prose fiction (something about prose helps you accept suspend disbelief and enjoy the yarn on its own terms) it is disquieting to see the same moves in poetry, a form that many writers claim eschews the obvious in favor of the original. All writing has formula, of course, all writing comes down to a structure that will help a writer finish a sentence and come to their point, the effect they want to have. Aesthetic preference, though, insists that such things be invisible, undetectable. This poem is an occasion where Hirsch wasn't able to hide the map he was using to fill up the page. hat gets me. This poem is film like without at all seeming cinematic.

That was the year that I finally mourned
for my two dead fathers, my sole marriage,
and the electric green couch of my past.
Darlings, I remember everything.
But now I try to speak the language of

the unconscious and study earth for secrets.
I go back and forth to work.
I walk in the botanical gardens on weekends
and take a narrow green path to the clearing.

And so, the last recall of a dying father plus one, a lone, forsaken marriage, a loud resounding sigh, a whispering metaphor at the end suggesting a psychic departure from the city and a migration to the country to “study the earth for secrets”. His life is reduced to the comings and goings of his profession, persisting against loneliness, bitterness, disappointments in the exactitude of his routine, yet retaining the hope that he might grow and achieve yet more insight, perspective, by walking the short lengths of botanical garden and green paths. This lets readers off the hook Hirsch was impaling them with; he retains hope, his is still a romantic, tomorrow will be another day!!

Fiddlesticks. This might be marvelous if Hirsch had spared us the tangents and conditional ironies and provided rest spots along the way. The poem, though, is tight as a drum head, and just as airless. “Green Couch” would work well if it had been boiled down to essentials, fewer details that would have more plausible secret history of the things we own. But what we have instead are several plots to many "B" movies.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Is Painting Dead?

Painting will be dead when artists stop painting and when art lovers stop desiring to look at the work of past, recent, and current artists. So far, there are no so-described symptoms of paintings' impending demise. In any case, why is with the impulse for some of us to declare entire categories "dead", as if a literal body had been discovered somewhere, knife in back, bullet in brain, i.e., "the death of literature", "death of the subject", "death of the novel", "the death of the author", "the end of history", "jazz is dead”,” history is dead", "rock is dead", and so forth. I've read these declarations over the years, some with, some without arguments, some articulate, others ruthlessly abstruse, and save for a momentary rush of certainty that the many threads of history are suddenly woven together to the precise moment that the respective professors are making a case for, one realizes that the activities still go on in strength. Humans have a way of tending toward their business and their pleasures, in the ways that suit their needs and personalities, quite despite the cloudy forecasts of aesthetic morticians. There seems to be an easy habit-of-mind that wants to advance a more recent set of techniques, usually attendant on new technologies, only at the mortal sacrifice of older mediums.
Co-existence seems a concept that makes a self-conscious avant-garde nervous. In any event, shall we say that there are things that can only be done with paint that nothing else, really, has come close to? Even if it did come close to achieving the effects, a good oil or watercolor can, what makes the new medium anything other than an advanced species of clip-art and simulation. The body is greatly exaggerated.
Art making is not devalued by new mediums, technology, if the aim of new art is to re-create, faithfully, effects produced by painters. Sadly, this seems to be the only motivation behind many competently technologized artists whose work is often little more, really, than the reproduction of painterly effects. I'm willing to think these new medium artists are still woodshedding and experimenting with what they can do with their "new canvas" and "new palate", but it's plain that many have yet to make Real Work. We have fascinating results that have an inescapable crisis of its own, an utter soullessness coming from any intrinsic lack of character apart from the shiny, showroom sheen of simulacra. Clipart is the result, I believe, if that is the only impulse motivating the particular artist. Newer methods can indeed co-exist with older--it's all around us--when artists drop the show-offy instinct of duplication and instead reconcile themselves to the limits as well as the advantages of their particular form. The crisis, I think, festers on the other end.
The death of painting notwithstanding, it seems that painters long ago accepted the terms and strictures of their chosen craft, and are in a long and envious history that they can play with at will, add to, diminish, broaden, contract, what have you. No painter I know feels crunched or sickly because of the imagined malaise --human need to express itself persevers and is acted upon whatever revisionist rhetorical brackets are set around them, trying to diminish their worth, relevance, or health. The death or crisis of their art is meaningless to the working artist. The announcements that arts or particular mediums are "dead" or in "crisis" are melodramatic inventions that come from bad, over-generalized criticism that's in a hurry. It's better to get on with the honest work of art making and focus commentary on the interaction between art styles and periods. Technologized, digital art is the art that is having the crisis, if anything: a personality crisis and one wonders what his new art wants to be when it grows up. What makes a form of art-making grow are artists who dedicate themselves to their process, their work, and who focus their energy on how the medium they've selected for themselves.
A healthy self-criticism probably doesn't hurt the production of new work either, as with the notable artists who can tell the difference between pandering to an imagined niche market, or a specialized audience that inoculates the work from honest appraisal, and the real work that is made quite apart from anyone's expectations or demands, except the artists'. Good art-making is a rigorous activity, playful as it is, in whatever mode one operates out of. Everything else seems to take of itself if the art is good, worth being noticed.
Work that artists manage to do that's unmindful of having to illustrate a critics' or a harried art historians' criteria. What that evidence is endlessly subjective, and will vary artist to artist, medium to medium, but it will be the work, I think, that seems the most self-contained, mature, and complete, with all influences assimilated and artists experiences and personality full enough to inject an individual intelligence into the work. It will be the work that utters precisely the ideas the artist has about ways of seeing. It is art that works as art, not demonstrations of yet another manifesto.
Less that democracies are anti-artistic than they are resistant to the notion that aesthetic concerns and artistic expression are reserved for a cultivated elite. Democracy rejects this sublimated priesthood on principle, and opens the arena, the galleries so that more who wish to do so may engage in the intuitive/artistic process and keep the activity alive in ways that are new and precisely relevant to the time--this is the only way that the past has any use at all, as it informs the present day activity, and allows itself to be molded to new sets of experiences. Art is about opening up perspectives, not closing them down, and that is the democratic spirit at its best. Otherwise, the past is a rigor-prone religion, and history is an excuse for brutal, death wish nostalgia.
One advances into their art with no real concern about making history--their obvious concerns are about making their art, with some idea of what it is they're advancing toward, and what past forms are being modified and moved away from. But the judgment of history--as if History, capital H, were a bearded panel viewing a swimsuit competition--will be delivered piecemeal, over the years, after most of us are dead, and our issues and concerns and agendas are fine dust somewhere. The artist, meantime, concentrates on the work, working as though outside history, creating through some compulsion and irrational belief that the deferred import of the work will be delivered to an audience someday, somehow. That is an act of faith, by definition. The artist, painter or otherwise, also cast their strokes, with brush or mallet, with the not-so-buried-dread of the possibility that the work will remain unknown, shoved in the closet, lost in the attic, and they will be better known for their day job rather than their manipulation of forms through a rarefied medium.I'd say the artists whose work lasts are those whose obsessions are about their process, their art-making, not their notices, their contracts, or the amount of air kisses and flattery one of their shows inspires.
History, however, it comes to be made, and whoever writes it, is a metaphysical dead end the better art makers sidestep, and instead make the punch and panache of their invigorated wits count in the strokes of the brush, the curl of the paint scudding over the surface, the blurring and clarifying of forms, shapes, colors and its lack: painting, coming from the modernist angle that still seems a sound and malleable way of handling the hairier knots on the chain, comes as where the world ends, the limit of what the eye can see, the forms the eye is blind to but the mind, muddle that it is, tries to imagine in a sheer swirl of perception. It is about the essaying forth of projects that strive for a moment of perfection that suddenly dies with the slightest re-cue of temperature, it is always about the attempt to convey a new idea. The articulation of the fresh, original perception may end in inevitable failure, but the connections made along the way, the bringing together of contrary energies made the attempt and its result worth the experience. This seems to be the material that the shrouded groves of History recalls, the earnest and frenzied strivings of artists who are too busy with their work to realize that history may, or may not, finally absolve them of strange rage for paints and brushes.
It wasn't much different in the late seventies and early eighties when I was in college and then graduate school. We were very busy announcing how outmoded conventional art techniques and writing styles were. We were all so keen on having a cool sounding, heavily coded vernacular with which to discuss our projects with that some of us forgot the pleasure art making can give you and hence involved themselves in projects that were so dry you could use them for kindling. There are times when I miss those days, being a sophisticated artiste and bohemian sophisticate, but I sublimate instead with this blog, where my opinions have a chance of seeming ridiculous in public rather than echoing inside my own head.
History, for that matter, is not some intelligence that has any idea of what it's going prefer in the long run--the best I can offer is that history is news that stays news, to paraphrase a poet, which implies that the painter who survives the tides and eddies of tastes and fashion and fads will the one whose work has an internalized dynamic that is felt long after the brush is dropped and the breathing stopped Art" is a massive set of aesthetic activities that accommodate a lot of agendas in its generalized practice, the practice of "having fun" not the least of them. "Fun" is that sense of something that engages and provokes in someway a facet of one's personality that makes up the personalized and skewed way that one understands how the world works in actual fact.Whether Cage piano recitals, James Carter solos, Fassbinder film festivals, or whatever gamier, tackier sounds cleave to ones' pleasured ganglia, the quality of fun, that fleeting, momentary state that defines an activity, is why we're attracted to some kinds of music, and not others. It's a legitimate definition for an aesthetic response, but the problem comes in the description of the response, the articulate delineation of what made a set of sounds "fun". The point, of course, being that everything that is entertaining or distracting from the morbid sameness of daily life cannot be said to be exclusively in the domain of the willfully dumb, conceived in a massive expression of bad faith: what is entertaining, from whatever niche in the culture you're inspecting, is that activity that holds your attention and engages you the degree that you respond to it fully. "Fun", in fewer words.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Dave Eggers, again

The rambling and dissociated charm of David Eggers continues to hold me in several links of ambivilence as I was selling my first editions of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and his novel You Shall Know Our Velocity, two books by him that I read and endured, as opposed to enjoyed. All the proverbial flashes of talent are there, knock out metaphors, grace sentences, but then there is the winded wheeze of the man in a hurry, telling is tale and details too rapidly. It was less that I was giving up prestige holdings for filthy lucre than it was that Eggers can't wait to get the end when he happens upon an interesting notion for a narrative, a story.
David Eggers tries to disarm readers with the ironic intention of the title, and it's worked, it seems. I smell bullshit, though. For all the self-reflective contrivances he forces himself to build, for all the zany-escapade tone he lets rip through the pages, Eggers doesn't sound as if he's able to get a handle on his own story, and in fact, I sense a certain glee, underneath the expected incomprehension and shock of the death of both his parents and the sudden weight of responsibility, that all this bad luck was happening to him because oh boy, I have something to write about, oh boy boy oh boy!!!
In my college days, I used to go out with friends and get do all kinds of fucked up things so we can have "experiences" to write about, and any kind of bad luck streak that would happen to one of our future-Hemingway pals would make us perversely envious: that raw material would make for some fine writing. We used to joke, in fact, as to how many pages a particular stunt or even would avail us. The actual writing his mindset produced among us was , in large part, arrogant, grandiose, inflated, mannered, untempered by real empathy, clotted up with bookish conceits that made reading them a dreary endurance. My apologies to those I inflicted these pages on. Egger's book is the shock of recognition. It's a pity, however, that this story had to become material for yet another book that short-sheets the strength of the story line in order to wallow in the psuedo-problems current brands of lit-crit have created. This is a case where neither the tale nor the teller can be trusted. If he'd saved this narrative and did the harder work of transforming it into a novel, a deliberate fiction of some kind, this Mad-magazine style autocritique might have worked: it does not, and what we have is a tone of constant anxiety: this kid wants to get off the stage, but keeps talking anyway, incessantly, hoping something clicks. What Eggers needed here, and will need in the future, is an editor who can use the blue pencil, and is willing to send pages back for rewrite. Eggers problem is stylistic rather than factual. The grating , unearned irony he structures Heartbreaking with simply makes his personality unreadable. I am an ogre for stylish writing, but the preening Eggers has here simply destroyed the story. Eggers book is something I endured, not enjoyed. The shock of recognition. "Unearned irony" is the deployment of a dominant narrative line that is the nominal subject of the story, while at the same time winking and whispering and nudging the reader that it's ,like, so wierd. This eye-rolling irony dominates the book , and avoids the work needed to make real irony work, which is that real irony is the result of several situations in the narrative being developed, over time short or long, that result in nuanced epiphany where a character in the story is at odds with the "real world" he inhabits. It's power resides in the not knowing when the effect takes place: the point is that you're not supposed to see the irony approaching, best shown in The Recognitions by William Gaddis, or The Horse's Mouth by Joyce Carey. The effects here are worked for artfully. Eggers stops just short of announcing that he's being ironic. A magician who shows how their tricks are done perhaps ought not to be a magician: maybe an editor. Or a literary critic. Now that would be ironic. For editors, it is precisely the job of an editor to make manuscripts into books, to eleminate the fat, to blue pencil digressions and areas of receding interest and, believe, send pages back for rewrite. The tendency is to let manuscripts, "experimental" or otherwise, get sent to the press without editorial oversight. It's a waste of perfectly good forest. Wisdom needn't be the censor that kicks in after a certain age, but it can have the effect of giving one a sense of how an interesting life can be told in an interesting way, ironic or otherwise. Best of all, though, an acquired wisdom ought to avail one with a self-editing instinct and to realize the difference telling a story and committing coffee talk to paper.

What Ails Rock and Roll?

An expanded version of an essay I wrote a few years ago.-tb

Rock and roll is the great escape artist of the century, a genuine Houdini of an art form. I go back to what was posted before, that the desire to play the guitar with hurricanes of passion, and rage cannot be killed. Whatever else happens, Spirit prevails. What stinks, it seems, is the obnoxious certainty in the use of the word "dead": rock and roll is as its always been in my experience, mostly "trendy assholes" and an intriguing swath of credible acts, bands and solo, who keep the edgy rigor of the music in tact, and vital. The dustbin of history is always full, what survives the clean sweep is anyone’s' guess. In the mean time, I reserve the right to be excited, engaged but what is honest and, to whatever extent, original. If I'm tired of dead things, I should leave the grave yard.

Rather, I think it's criticism that's ailing, if not already deceased as a useful activity. Rolling Stone abandoned itself to gossip magazine auteurism, Spin gives itself over to trendy photo captions and for the scads of "serious" commentary , much of it has vanished behind faux post- structurualist uncertainty: criticism as a guide to larger issues at hand within an artists work is not being done. Rock criticism, taking its lead , again, from the worn trails of Lit/Crit, has abandoned the idea that words and lyrics can be about anything. But rock and roll, good and ill, cranks on. The spirit that moves the kid to bash that guitar chord still pulses. To say that bad, abstruse writing can kill that awards too much power to what has become an inane, trivial exercise.

The sooner I accepted that, the easier it became to listen to music I didn't grow up with. My frames of reference are less broad musically--I'm a harmonica player of thirty five years gasping experience in some times bands--but it seems to me that the difference falls between techniques versus talent. Technique, I'd say, is sheer know-how, the agility and finesse to get your fingers to execute the simplest or the most difficult of musical ideas. Talent, though, resides somewhere in the grey mists of the soul, where there is an instinct that, or lets say intelligence that knows how to make the best use out the sheer bulk of technical knowledge: making it all into music that's expressive and new.

Rock, like the blues, its closest elder relative, is principally about feel, and citing Dylan, Young, The Beatles and others as great musicians is to address the feel, the subtle combination of musical elements and lyrical blasts that result, at best, in the sheer joy drums, bass and guitars can provide. Rock criticism, when it's performed as a practice that seeks comprehension, and hearkening back to it's early days as an outgrowth of Lit Criticism, probes these elements and addresses why a blues guitar lick, roller rink organ, nasal vocals, over-miked drums and abstruse lyrics convey meanings and provoke responses whose origins are mysterious. It is feel, or Spirit, that connects Coltrane, Hendrix, Dylan, Little Feat, Hip hop, a sense of where to put the line, when to take it away, when to attack, when to with hold. Feel.

Rock, perhaps, is about trying to address the inexpressible in terms of the unforgettable. That is what I think writers like Christgau, Marcus, and even (sigh) Dave Marsh aspire to do. Christgau and Marcus, at least, are inspired most of the time. Marsh remains a muddle, but then again, so are most attempts to talk about the extreme subjectivism of art making, be it music or other wise. Influence is an inevitable and inseparable part of being an artist, and a rock and roll musician is no less subject to the activity of borrowing from something they like. Without it, going through the eras, right up and including the debate about hip hop and its artists proclivities for Borg- style assimilation of others music onto their likeness, we would have no music to speak of. Or so it would seem to me. Our respective selves may be locked behind cultural identities that make it hard for us to interact, but our cultural forms mix together freely and easily.

I'm sympathetic to the crowd that prefers the soul of an instrumentalist to a sound board jockeys' manipulating of buttons and loops, but I do think that this is the advent of a new kind of canvas. Most new art seems profoundly ugly when first perceived, at least until the broader media brings itself up to speed.

I think that hip hop, rap, what have you, is an entrenched form, and is not going away. It will co-exist with rock and roll, and will mix its particulars with it, and generate a newer, fiercer noise. As music and musicians have always done. Anyone who argues that rock musicians are somehow responsible for the tragedy in Colorado are themselves a rock critic in the narrowest sense, and there we have an impassable irony, and more ironic, this is where some leftist brethren meet the Christian Right square on in what they gather is the source of all our social eruptions: popular culture in general. Neither the quacking vulgarists of the left nor the quaking apostles of the right like it very much, and both in their separate ways, and contrarily reasoned agendas, have attacked it, the source of whatever grace there was to fall from. The left will emit a squalling bleat about an "artists' responsibility" for the defamiliarizing "aestheticization" of real social problems , thus robbing working people of real political consciousness and maintaining the force of the Dominant Culture and Capitalist Imperative.

Such is the kind of no-neck culture-vulturing as a I listened to a Marxist lit professor critique "Guernica" or Frieda Kahlo’s' portraiture as though the modernist formalities Picasso and Kahlo put upon their canvases were the reason, and only reasons, that bombs go off, that babies die, and why woman get raped by art-sickened men. The Right, in turn, finds evidence of decay and decline in everything not sanctified in the Bible or in limitless free market terms, and everything that occurs in society that involves a tragedy on a spectacular scale is reducible, in their view, to the errant need for self-expression. Much of this is old hat--its been going on for years, and again, its the job of thoughtful critics, critics or are genuinely provocative to bring a larger analysis to bear on complex matters, to strive for truth that stirs us away from the intellectual panic that some of our pundits seem to want to fire up. We have another case of left and right agreeing on the basic tenet that artistic freedom is wrong headed, and that it must be hemmed in my so many conditions and restrictions that its practice would be practically pointless. We have a pining for a world of Norman Rockwell small towns and church bake sales.

How pathetic. The rock and rollers duty, as it is with any artist, is to seek and express the truth they perceive in the comprehensible in terms that extend our notions of what the human experience is.

Parenting is part of that profound experience. Might some people still be alive today if parents paid attention to what their sons were up to? Marylyn Manson is only the messenger of what's already in place: to shut up artists because the message is some times vile and ugly is, at best, cutting off our antennae to what the rest of the world is feeling.

Yet its curious here: the original claim was that rock music was dead, slain by critics, by extension Big Media, corporate America, which has turned it into a commoditized vulgarity through which it sells back a teenagers sullen notion of empowerment one CD and one Concert ticket at a time, reaping billions. But yet:
We're still out here playing, and teaching the unnoticed, the unheralded, and the unfashionable kids who, in spite of everything, want to be able to play to. So, I gather, rock and roll does live after all, it lives on because others, dedicated idealists like you from thirty years ago, continue to play and instruct younger players who want to play with an accomplished and feeling voice. I'm sure your idealism is real, Clint, and your CD collection enviable, but you've back tracked right into the opposition’s camp: rock and roll is a human activity that survives and persists despite marketplace distortions, if you're inclined to lazily call it that, and in fact even thrives because the market is open and unrestricted toward content. We insist, and you affirm by clarifying your sketchy autobiography, that it is force that continues in the places where people live and practice, not in high towers, corporate or academic.

As for Dylan and Marylyn Manson, I don't think that what they're doing is any less honest than a searing Allan Holdsworth guitar solo: it's a matter of making distinctions, and that is precisely the function of able criticism that David Smay makes in is superb post. The music, like all living art, changes constantly the more individuals from different experiences play with it, and commentary, at best, is an on going project that brings coherence to the phenomenon. It's an on going activity, it’s not done. Rock and roll is a large part of show biz, rebel-sanctum that is, and the comeback gambit is as old as drunk driving. Joan wants us to think that she remains teetering on the edge of the culture, is, in fact, more dangerous than she was before, is ridiculous at best, and to be expected. The results must be dreadful, though one wishes her well, and an audience. Chrissie Hinde , though silent for awhile, has managed to sound her age and still brandish a cutting gutter and verbal jibe, and others aging gracefully are plenty: Lou Reed, Bowie, Stones, Piggy, Grace Slick, who refuses to perform at all regardless of the offers. Even Blondie, who sound invigorated in their reformation. Debbie Harry, no longer the debutante, older and wiser, and wider for it, remains an intoxicating vocalist: her work with the Jazz Passengers didn't hurt a wit.
The Stones are ageing gracefully with respect to their studio work: the newer songs, I think, have a strong kick; Keith Richards remains an amazing source of riffs and melodic turns, while Jagger manages to turn in one impressive vocal after another. Live, all I can say is that they're workman-like, completely professional, and dull as white chalk. Boring. Pure show-biz.

Ditto on Eddy Vedder's yearning to be the moral voice of grunge and beyond: if he and his band mates wanted to avoid the cruel truth of big business, they well could gone with a smaller label to begin with, and spend their days driving to gigs in small alternative clubs, playing for car fare, integrity unsoiled. In lieu of that, he could just give all the money away and join a monastery. It would improve Pearl Jams' mu

Thursday, July 19, 2007


There are scads of songs that take turns occupying my Most Loathed Tune list, but the perennial chart-topper is Iron Butterfly's "Inna Gadda Da Vidda". Those readers who are my age and brave enough to admit having been driven within a inch of homicidal rage as a result of this aberration of hard rock can relate to the image of someone in a group of middle-aged rock and rollers trying to one-up (or down) each other with descriptions of the most hideous music they've had to endure, only to have someone in their giddy midst halt the proceedings with a grinning rendition of the ultimate Stupid Guitar Riff:Da-Da-DADA-da-da-DA!-DA!-DA!!!!! Rafters shook, babies cried, boyfriends broke up with girlfriends for no reason when the first distorted note squalled from whatever torn speaker was about to fill the room with the quintessential groan of bad fuzztone guitars and fat, lazy baselines simulating what has been called a soundtrack of a Monster Sewing Machine on a stitching rampage infamous Japanese coastal cities. Yes, the song is that bad. Bear in mind that the song was released when I was just getting into the thickest portion of my rock-as-art form obsession and wasn't in a mood to kid around or make exceptions to my criteria about what made for acceptable particulars in a smart band arrangement. It was as if the band had purloined a copy of my conceits and went out of their way to make a record a song contrary to the requirements just to ruin a long run of my day son the planet. Clubfooted riff, bong-fury drum solo, screech and scrape solos, plodding pace. This describes a large measure of what was being sold those days by many different bands, but Iron Butterfly held the distinction of being one of the most universally loathed bands in history, at least in my circles. No one I knew would cop to owning or liking the song --I only found IB fans when I ventured out of my own neighborhood in search of select drugs. What was irritating mostly about "Inna Gadda Da Vidda" was that it was a song so awful that drugs didn't improve the listening experience, or even make it tolerable. It was worse, in fact, the wrong soundtrack for the pursuit of bliss. It was my luck to find other ways to happiness, and better kinds of music in the transaction.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

James Reiss at the Precipice

James Reiss’s poem "Bureau of Missing Persons" disguises itself as a Borgesian fable where we have the superstructure and the casual filaments of narrative structure foregrounded, and what we would expect is a clever and disguised fable where once again our methods of explaining ourselves to ourselves and presenting to others is composed of an endless stream of fictions, and meta-fictions pretending to be true.
It is a tired conceit at this point in the 21st century, where each fanciful bit about surfiction, fabulation, self-reflectivity and late modernist pastiche have inched from the experimental margins of literary art and have been absorbed into the supremely commercial mainstream; it’s a wonder anyone would want to try yet again to get something fresh from the ritual disassembling and debunking of the last gallery of useable allegory, i.e., literary style and it’s attendant metaphors.

From the terse whispers of Borges, Rod Serling(our Supreme Ironist and The Only Moralist Who Matters) to Thomas Pynchon’s satiric welding the beams of History, Literature, and Science together and positing them all as manifestations of the human need to create and sustain mythological structure and thus have a means to believe that there is a Plan our random experiences are connected to, and onward through the humorless deconstructions of postmodernist twitches and glitches, we consumers of culture have gotten the message after all. We are ciphers at the end of our imagining, we are cursed with a genetically-inscribed instinct to insist on metaphysical certainty only a means to sustain the race, we are, finally, merely dust in the wind (to coin a philosopher’s salient point), producing books, paintings, poems, movies and the like that get nothing at all except demonstrate our own vanity in thinking we could explain ourselves in front of our Maker should such an afterlife moment come to into being.

Reiss, though, keeps it simple, keeps it smart, and is subtly subversive in utilizing the metafictional gimmick. What strikes me as peculiar, and unique, is what seems like a reversal of the standard self-reflective ploy; where a rigorous and torturously unreadable novelist like Alain Robbe-Grillet would foreground his narrative elements to the extent that his novels were more about the sheer description of everything contained within a writerly frame, items and cracks poured over again and then again from different angles and habits of mind, all to the exclusion of characters, who, if they existed at all, were only cogs in a fathomless fiction machine needed solely to make the apparatus run , Reiss speaks of characters who wish to be absorbed by the machinations of narrative structure , plot devices, and symbolic meaning, those

holiday shoppers, taxicabs yellow
as sunset, and swear they'll find dog walkers
dreaming up haikus, day-trader night readers
of eBooks—all stalking the sidewalks.

In any sense, those being looked down upon, from the conceit of having those who reside in a skyscraper perched library that contains, from implication, the sum of human learning, are in the middle of the roil and rush of life, going about their business, anonymous to one another on the street, perhaps, but obviously coming from places where they were with purpose and now off to other places where their presence is desired, required, in any event, absolutely essential. The resident caretakers of the high rise archive, the presumed custodian of Knowledge and who all, of course, seemed drabbed and despairing given their nuanced insight, thanks to their study of said books and scrolls, that all this running about is pointless and without greater, nobler purpose, look out the windows, over the ledge, mesmerized by the commotion:

In the dead writer's last short story the characters
have no names. They speak without quotation
marks in a setting that looks less like a penthouse
than a storeroom for books and old scrolls.
Still, when they stride out to their terrace
and peer over the city, they swear this
is the ultimate high-rise, the true resolution
to a plot involving disappearances..

A superb and unforced contrast here, subtly put forth; those on high, an elite force anonymous in their own right, viewing the external events as if there vantage point, arrogantly cast as sophisticated and wise, were the only correct perspective, the only lens through which truth could be read. We are witness here to a myopic hubris, the unresolvable contradiction of those with so much alleged insight into how life works that they see nothing at all, that they’ve completely missed the point of literature, art is to enhance life, not embalm it. Reiss puts forth an anti-intellectual message that I find a shade off-putting—why can’t we just leave that for the Rush Limbaugh’s of the world—but he has written a clever, subversive little poem here that finds a new spark in an used-up idea. One may argue with him over a club soda in real time, but there is still the last lines to enjoy, and savor. Hamlet spoke to Horatio that "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy" , and Reiss’s floating narrator, noting the purposeful bustle if the citizens of the street and the contrasting gloom who are convinced that humanity is governed by deterministic laws, illustrates the how the archivist’s goal of making experience fit into finite defintions will only become more unmanageable thusly:

Each evening
the atmosphere deepens. The short story loses its way.

Every night life will continue to unfold in inexplicable complex and unpredictable ways, and the theoretical narratives some of us attempt to tie it down with will just collapse from it’s own bloat.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Clapton: Used Up Before He Was Half Way Through

I'll never say that guitarist Eric Clapton can't play the blues; it's because of this particular brilliance he has in his wrists, where he gets that ghostly vibrato and stinging, bittersweet bend just right, that keeps me listening to him since seeing him with Cream at one of those ballroom dances in the late sixties. The man can play; he has, though, made the sad decision of pop stardom over integrity, not a thing he can be blamed for, since who among us can easily declare they'd do otherwise if such fortune were ours? The fact remains, though, that one wishes Clapton made better choices. This is an old review I wrote in 1990 of a Clapton box set, Crossroads, and herein we find me opining in what seems like the reading equivalent of monotone that Slow Hand was sucking in the Nineties.
I would have to say that I have relished the idea of having the works of many favorite rock musicians gathered in grandiose, multiple-disc packages, complete with exhaustive biographies, obscure photos and important dates, for no better reason than to affirm my vanity that rock and roll is art, after all, and that we’d better take notes and cram for the final. Reality settles in fast after initial enthusiasm over this notion, leaving two leveling considerations: one, how many of us want to get mundanely scholastic about music that free us from mendacity and two, how many rock artists have there been whose life’s’ work merits obsessive inspection and a fifty-dollar vocabulary? On the second point, one of those artists isn’t Eric Clapton, whom the six-record (four CD) box set, Crossroads (Polydor), manages the opposite of what its compilers intended. A generous overview of the British guitarists’ twenty-plus year career, ranging from well-known songs, classic performances and out takes from past sessions, this collection, over all, confirms my suspicion that Clapton is an artist with obvious and appealing attributes who have been over-promoted to solo-artist status, placed in a league where he’s plainly out of his depth. Consider the sequence. From his early work with The Yardbirds, with their roaring blues experiments and off-kilter riff rock that gave us some of the more angular pop tunes of the era,  and more significantly, with John Mayall's Blue Breakers, Cream, Blind Faith and Derek and the Dominoes, we saw the progress of a gifted instrumentalist evolving in sympathetic contexts. With Mayall, he’d taken on the mantle of Chicago blues tradition head-on and personalized it, soloing with such vengeance, confidence and depth of feeling that matters of race, nationality or accent ceased to be issues. With Cream, he fused his traditionalism with the experimental impulse of Sixties British Rock and, along with Hendrix, re-invented the mode and method of rock guitaring. Through his work with Steve Winwood in Blind Faith (a regrettably under-rated band that was never given half a chance by either critics or listeners) and with late American guitarist Duane Allman in Derek and the Dominoes on the seminal Layla two-record set, Clapton was on a continual upward spiral. In each case, He situated himself among mentors and collaborators clearly his equal who could provide a means for the guitarist to continually lay out his best efforts. These efforts have stood the withering and eroding test of lime, and we have here some tare examples of music that still cuts a fresh path even by today’s’ jaded, audio-glutted sensibilities, The upward momentum stops, though, by the time Crossroads racks pass these hallmarks and proceeds through the remains of Clapton's’ later work. Seemingly embarrassed by the adulation and financial windfalls his early work gave him, the later work decidedly lost its’ aggression, affecting a laid-back manner that was an anathema by his previous standards. Country blues, rhythm and blues, reggae and country western were the touch stones of the new approach, and indistinct olio under which his playing was subsumed and de-fanged. Save for and occasional foray into straight blues, where the essence of his brilliance shone through with no regrets—the mournfully sustained notes, the slicing. Taciturn runs, the embroidered phrasing that spoke volumes about pain, joy and growth, with scarcely a lick issued for its own dubious sake. Clapton seemed all but anonymous through these tracks, It was as though he were flying for a zero-degree of responsibility for the work, as though the previous Clapton hadn’t existed at all and therefore, there was nothing for him to live up to.

Not that there hadn’t been hits along the way, such as “I Shot the Sheriff’, cocaine”. “After Midnight”, “Lay Down Sally”, but even these gems underscore the difficulty. His later career is best remembered more by songs rather than albums. For an artist who’s the subject of a retrospective as exhaustive as Crossroads, with its claim of documenting legend and legacy, the fact that none of my friends (rock and roll zealots all) have been unable to name just three from the scads of his post-Layla releases tells me there’s something wrung with this picture. Boxed sets by their nature imply memorable music... But if a major portion of the musicians work draws either a blank or sketchy impressions on a collective level, we might assume that we’re operating under the wrong set of assumptions. The real problem with Crossroads, is that it doesn’t add clarity to Clapton’s’ work, but tells rather where his bad choices have been over and over, but which also gives an idea of what he might do about his situation. My advice, made simple, is for Clapton to get a little more honest with himself and admit that he needs a band of equals to move beyond this particular rut. It’d be a simple admission that the unchanging core of his talent is as a side man, collaborator and band member not as a band leader. Clapton needs to be a member of a team that plays rock and roll whose whole is greater than its individual parts.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Gibson Drinks,I Don't

Mel Gibson Hits The Bar In Costa Rica
Tonight I celebrated twenty years of continuous sobriety, and it's instructive to see that photo of Gibson, fortified with copious amounts of goon juice, smirking like the clueless nitwit who'd drank again to silence the noise that's clamoring between his ears. Gibson is an artist and all that claptrap, but no one really buys that it is a condition we must accept and tolerate if we're to see him continue making films. The mad artist who is so sensitive to life's crushing awfulness that he or she has to drink and take drugs just to stay alive and reach the soulful part of themselves is a romantic crock fans and some critics have used to excuse the drunk, slovenly assholism of Kerouac, Bukowski and a slew of other sloshed scribes, a generational habit of mind that was enabling in two distinctive ways; it made the artist feel that they had to drink, that it was their responsibility to drink in order to stay true to their art and audience, and it give a perfect escape for the audience from confronting the blunt fact that alcoholics , when they drink, are jerks, assholes, reprobates, completely unpleasant people when they part take of hooch. Gibson, of course, is a disturbing personality and artist whose continuous stream of good reviews has more to with financial matters than with merit, and he's someone given to some problematic religious beliefs that can't help but get him into controversy. The actor/director might well be a creep sans alcohol, but it must be said that having it in his system brings that character trait to full volume. This is why it's instructive for me to see his smirking drunkenness this night of a landmark anniversary, as I have several photographs of myself with that same graceless grin, that same
look that makes one appear that they're being propped up, lest one's face wind up in the chips and guacamole. And lest I take too much credit for the felt miracle of my sobriety, I can see that face and that bottle can be mine again anytime. posted 07/17/2007 at 01:31:41

Saturday, July 14, 2007

No poems about Poetry, pt.2

A friend opined over a soft drink, responding to my misgivings against poems about poetry, that it might be argued that all poems written are about other poems.I drew one of my hair-splitting distinctions.There are indeed good poems about poetry, but they are rare and the product of genius, which is also rare. That it can be argued that all great poems are about poetry, I doubt this can withstand close scrutiny.A poem about a poem forms a dialogue, which implies a basis in felt experience. Empathy for the human condition, to risk a cliche. Poems about poetry, as form, amounts to no more than studying the instruction manual and never taking the driving test.It's a form of mystification that gets in the way of good writing.

The point, however, is that what we're talking about are poems by modern bards that forefront poetry as subject matter and hedge on their duties to their craft by euphemising about their inability or their unwillingness to engage experience. I am not anti-intellectual, and I am not one who pillories the Academy each chance available, but there is something odious about the way poetry has been institutionalized by Universities and turned into a Profession, a situation that has caused many contemporary poets to take themselves too seriously, ie, serious in ways that have little to do with art and everything with to do with status.

Writing poems about poetry is symptomatic of this thinking, a tenuous boosterism designed to convince the poet, his colleagues and the small audience for that sort of self-congratulating offal that what they do really is important, it really matters, honest, we as poets have hard time of it, swear to God, I mean, no one knows what we go through, right?, no one knows how terrible it is to bear the strain of having a muse and a Geiger counter sensitivity, you know?, yeah , you know, you know what I'm saying, yeah, yeah... You get the idea.

All this furious scribbling , much of it has appeared here as Pinsky choice in the four or five years I've been here, is vainglory, art without valor, a template of maneuvers where one quite literally fills in the blanks or shifts around some plot points or shifts the expected alienated and alienating effects.It always reads as false, contrived, nervous,unmoving.It is tragic that so many young writers have gotten degrees in creative writing only to write such witless drivel.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

blues, bra

The loneliness of the long-distance sophist

It's a slow week, I suppose, when someone has to visit a venerable landmark like Shakespeare and Company in Paris and then attempt to elevate the piece from being mere tourist journalism  and dig out some of the hair-encrusted residue of undergraduate post-structuralism and it's attendant postmodern shell game to argue the obvious and dated insight that the S & C of legend is not the same thing as it once was. Lee Rourke's exercise in summarizing the bad ideas of mediocre thinkers meets, I suppose, the minimum requirement of a blog post, but it simply won't suffice as real thinking. It might have been one thing to simply assert that the quaint shop exists solely as a link to an era that gone past us and it's stock and trade these days is nostalgia, not book selling or advancing the cause of exposing the world to emerging authors; someone cannot be blamed for resenting the way an exotic past one was not a part of ) known only through proxy or through a reading of the literature and histories of the era) is fetishized, gormandized and sold again as to would be bohemians seeking the golden age of deep, envelope pushing thoughts.One complaining of the mere consumerism surrounding the enterprise at least has a foot on real ground and can make a point and sling a devastating metaphor that makes sense in this world, not the reference library.But dredging up the image of the tediously redundant crypto-neocon Jean Baudriallard smacks of preciousness; JB was aggravating enough with his mock oracular pronouncements and anchorless Marxism , and these days listening to those after him invoke his names and his phrases reeks of a phoniness one suspects when words like “Existential”, or even”postmodernism” are uttered. Let this French gasbag remain buried, and let Lee Rourke find a bookstore that doesn’t give him the heebie jeebies.

You eat what you think you're eating: a prose poem

Since this blog ostensibly concerns itself with contemporary poets and their work, I'll post one of my own and invite all responses, yay or nay. This is a nod to my beginnings as an ersatz surrealist, not as an effort to regain youthful vigor and more an effort to recollect the pretensiousness with which I started writing poetry.--tb
A knife , fork and a cracked plate don’t constitute a meal , though all three items are handy for show, as are empty frames on the wall when there is any kind of company visiting , who demand our attention, taxes, documents of your legal rights, you just say it’s the wall you wanted to highlight, the frame is only a, well, a, well, uhhhh,a framing device!to bring a viewer’s attention to the rub of the paint, the embedded fingerprints, the light switch in the center. Likewise, it’s knowledge we’re hungry for, isn’t it? Knife, fork, cracked plate are about the idea of eating as others go without forks, knives, or cracked plates. Dead ethics professors choke in non-intrusive urns and French deconstructionists blow kisses from balconies and any perch they can secure, Appearances are misleading, explanations are fictions worth listening to for the way the words are warped and wrap around each other until it’s not reasonable descriptions of a material world we are listening to, but rather melodies flitting about like nervous birds trapped in a small cage, a messy page of tuneless songs, all this for a description of my house that now seems to rest on top of a giant hill, bracing clouds and tree tops, a form I’m filling out asking me to describe myself and all the desires I would bring into the world if finances would allow, I would allow everything is what gets written, and everything not forbidden would be inscribed in the rhetoric of future tense, when software anxiety rules the body electric.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007


Grank stared at the microphone that was staring back at him, and as his eyes adjusted t the dark, he could see a room full of hooded, shaved, tattooed and love starved waifs and curbside geniuses looking at him, clutching notebooks of assorted thicknesses, scraps of paper, waiting their turn on stage, waiting to see what he had. Grank tugged at his collar, dropped his neatly typed sheets, and began to rant. Horrible feedback washed up to the stage from the coffee bar. Grank made the most of the vibe he’d been given.


Grank was in a trance, raised his arms as if receiving great wisdom from cloud gods watching from just above the whirling ceiling fan that only seemed to make the coffeehouse hotter, he was in the groove , he had the élan from Ceylon, he was indeed the PaduchaBazooka©, and as he lowered his arms and raised his head, ready to open his eyes and witness the stunned silence that was is genius’ calling card, something struck him in the head. He opened his eyes in time to see a coffee mug come flying at him and then feel it , painfully, smash him in the nose. Then someone hit in the back of the head with the microphone stand. His eyes were closed again as he collapsed to the stage and curled into a ball as the steel toed tips of a dozen Doc Martin boots dug their treaded thickness into his ribs.

“Your poetry poetry blows donkey dongs in H-E- DOUBLE HOCK STICKS” someone screamed before they kicked Grank in the head.

“Tough crowd” was what Amos said as he leaned over the table to make the remark to Shelltone. Shelltone closed her notebook and took a sip of her Hammerhead.

“Yeah, these Fray fuckers are a real tense bunch”.

“Uh huh” said Amos, who then arose to get his licks in.

Rhymed poems for the most part chew the root, but then most poetry is awful anyway

It's hard to write good poems, period. I have to admit that I've generally little or no use for most rhymed and metered poems, basically because there are so very few poets who are able to compose as such without seeming like they sacrificed emotion for a metronome and a rhyming dictionary. It is not something that pleases my ear under normal circumstances. Free verse, in turn, is in large part willful obscurity and arbitrary line breaks where the point is to disguise one’s lack of anything interesting to say. The drone replaces the metronome, and a cuisinart of unconsidered images and arty inferences take the place of an interesting arrangement of materials that, though quite different, find an atmospheric and tonal coherence in the hands of the genius, that rarest thing among us all. The dirty little secret is that most poems written by most poets are mediocre, substandard, self satisfied little noise machines composed by scribes who are, to some degree, either delusional or self-aggrandizing

Lisa Russ Spaar and the Leveling Effects of Memory

Lisa Russ Spaar’s poem "I Consider My Mother's Mind" makes me think of something that that has been suddenly and violently emptied after a long time of neglect, a wallet crammed with too many business cards, gummed encrusted post-it notes, receipts, expired credit cards and coupons, small scraps of paper with phone numbers attached to first names whose faces you've forgotten. Or maybe a drawer in the farthest end of the kitchen, just over the lower shelves with the cooking irons and sauce pans , with the evidence of a life lived for decades in the same four walls, with more receipts, creased photos, frayed or snapped rubber hands, recipes clipped from Family Circle, report cards, bank statements, more photographs, notes of congratulation and condolence, an overwhelming mass of paper work that has been confined and added to by a stern-fingered determination to consign these things to the margins, documents of no practical use which one keeps nonetheless and despite the clutter for fear that their presence and life force will be diminished, fall under erasure. This what struck me about the poem, that there is a considerable amount of unattended facts and figuration that have been stored, unrecorded, experience really unspoken, now faded, faint, vanishing with the failing of memory, whole chunks of decades missing between what is remembered not so much as memories but rather as sharp, clear, bright and sense-compelling parts of an incomplete narrative; there is the sense here of what the daughter hears an aging parent telling here, visualizing the details , hoping the tactile bits, the tangible references, can somehow become clear and full in the mind's capacity to form an oracular whole;

Stars of the Great and Small Bears, 

lost in a cobalt padlock above Detroit,

the orient coruscations of car factories,

skating ponds, six-lane highways,

now lumbering across decades

into my childhood suburb, that rimed ruin—

picnic table, dispirited shucks and obeisant leeks of our winter garden, homunculus at the mind's edge--

Spaar’s narrator seems to be interiorizing hours of listening to the sort of wandering, diffuse, grasping monologues an elderly parent might drift into when endeavoring to respond to simple , direct questions; the process of endeavoring to remember what is nearly gone from recall creates intriguing associations that are verbalized and followed on their own. Soon the answer to the question is not the point, and one is left to confront a narrative that is being told, spoken before it fades and is lost with the dying brain matter. One is witness to a personality trying to recreate one's life , to remember and perhaps feel something from the past yet again before the last moments of coherence are over, and the daughter, finally, accepts , grudgingly brutal facts of what happens with aging, and attempts to see the terrain of the decades her mother mentions in various pockets of lucidity.

The landscape is an intense blur , a montage; Spaar captures the feeling of Detroit I remember flying into my hometown where one can, if fortunate enough to have a window seat, witness the industrial city and it's suburbs, a gray, flat spread of factories, suburban sprawl, highways the width of mighty rivers, a hard land to raise a family in; I am impressed with Spaar's masterful contrasting of elements with simple put details, the faceless city stooped shouldered and hardened through bitter weather and economic disaster, and a terse description of a family garden that attempts to thrive regardless of a downbeat outlook. The human element is many-layered here, struggling through the impersonal forces of inevitability and insisting that such a life matters; the mother who speaks of her life in defiance of the loss of re-collective powers, the daughter who attempts to imagine her mother's life as full and real based on the fractured and collage quality of the recall, and a family giving the home a human, “homey” touch that expresses the need for an abode to be welcoming , even in a city as violent and embittered as Detroit.

At this point I get the sense that Spaar’s narrator has wandered the tableau she has mentally constructed from her mother’s tersely phrased murmurings, has allowed herself to feel a rush of sensations the streets, the factories, seasons, and winter gardens might arise, and to become overwhelm, melancholic in what becomes a witnessing of another’s life caught in the movement of small-scale history, formed from coincidences of context and personal choice. There is a feeling of helplessness, of wanting to give warning and consul and coming to the sober realization that there is nothing to do with the past except remember, draw from it what lessons one can, and try to use the experiences as useful touchstones for living in the present tense. But living in the present tense, in the now of the noun, does not sever one from the past and the sway it holds over us, no matter how much be busy ourselves with hobbies and acquiring more material things we don’t need. Some almost forgotten thing will make the knees buckle, cause the eyes to blur with tears that form, something will remind you of who you are, what made you, and will make you feel vulnerable and sense regardless of the layers of maturity and autonomy we grant ourselves.

I can't return to you, though I believe you're calling me

from the polar house of hibernal fear

with its skirted vanity table, its angry mirror

& Bakelite brush, bristles up, still fleeced

with a child's hair, a wavering frequency

in the key of oblivion, mammalian, contracting.

This is the “Rosebud” scenario, where an insignificant detail, a banal trace of material good, arises and is amplified in the waking mind, setting forth a cascade of sensations and impressions that humble you inspite of the strength of your limbs or the power of your will. One learns , if one is fortunate , that the past is always present and constantly influencing the future. The death of one’s kin does not mean that they’ve moved out of our lives.