Saturday, March 10, 2012

The business

An ex-wife sat across from me in our studio apartment some years ago smoking a cigarette and staring at me over the rim of a half filled wine glass. I hated wine, preferring beer or scotch, and this put me in a bad mood indeed: my worst days had me thinking I was a Hemingway man and that acting genteel would demolish what little self-respect I accrued during our frolicking quarrel of a common law marriage. I told here that I liked movies , books and music to be "fun". She was,and remains, smarter than I am, and had her own idea about what art should and should not be. She extinguished the cigarette in an ashtray and took a sip of wine, saying clearly that she loved me until the mountans became a cottage cheese of indeterminate materials, but she was of the mind to think that my flaw was that I was continually confusing fun with artistry.
"Art" is massive set of aesthetic activities that accommodates 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 you attention and engages you the degree that you respond to it fully. "Fun", in fewer words.
It’s late as I write this, and  I'm listening to "Rush Hour" by Joe Lovano, composed and conducted by Gunther Schuller. A handy group of orchestrated compositions--"Prelude to a Kiss" (Ellington), "Kathline Gray" (Ornette Coleman). Lovano's tenor saxophone work is supreme against the sweeping textures of Schullers' orchestrations: ensemble and soloist work as choice extremes over the moodscapes. There's an ethereal steam brewing amid the extended blues choruses, bop cascades and serial investigations. This is the kind of pure musical work I wish Zappa had more time for.
I am amazed at Lovanos' control over his technique and inspiration: he seems to draw a cool, fluctuating of bends and slurs from his horn: his ability to step inside the tradition and then step out of it again to entertain some grainier abstractions brings Wayne Shorter to mind. Not that one stops at the comparison, only that Shorter comes closest to doing what's evident in Lovanos' inventions.

Credit to Schuller: he project recovers nicely, I think, from his undifferentiated patchwork of "Epitaph", a troubled labor of love.


  1. There was a vast and intimidating pile of rusted bed springs crammed into a cold cement room in the basement of my frightening apartment building that I was told to get rid of in order to satisfy some delinquent rent hanging over my head from six months ago; to help me do the job I decided to contact J.R. Young, a former writer for Rolling Stone who had been living in total obscurity in a town in Oregon whose name cannot be divulged due to profound lack of interest.

    Young responded immediately and promised to come right down. My call had been the first he’d received since Walker Hickel had resigned from Nixon’s cabinet. “You called at the right time,” he said. “I’ve been trying to write about the new Leonard Cohen album and it’s been driving me insane for about four decades. Can you send bus fare?”

    I was standing like an extra from The Road in torn blue work gloves, a filthy pair of industrial overalls and goggles in front of the room full of bed springs when Young arrived. We stared at the red flaking coils in endless rows before us – they extend outwards like teats on the belly an enormous metallic sow. Our slightest movement forward sent greasy dust motes dancing in the air – motes like notes from a fuzztone guitar played by some stoner nobody who got to make an album for Warner Bros. in 1971 because his manager also had a piece of Edison Lighthouse’s publishing, we both thought simultaneously.

    We both lifted a set of bed springs out of pool of slimy standing water, producing a piercing shriek from the shivering coils. “So…what about Leonard Cohen,” I said, picking up the thread of an ancient conversation that, in fact, we had never actually had.

    “Cohen is a serious writer,” Young began after a slight and rather formal throat-clearing. “His lyric exhibits the discipline and economy of academic poetry, which is both a hindrance and a virtue to his work in the folk-pop music idiom. A lot of people place what he does in opposition to Dylan, which I think is something of a mistake. When Elena Dilbaum finished her master’s thesis on the latter works of Swinburne, she thought of calling up her ex-boyfriend Seamus so she could listen to his copy of Songs of Love and Hate again, but she knew it would only throw her into a spasm of existential self-dissection…”

    I knew Young had fallen into his zone of rock criticism-as-fiction, that discursive, absurd yet unmistakably sweet place where the early school of Rolling Stone writes sometime lingered to shake off the confining effects of commenting on the aesthetics of guitar solos and drum fills – a development I expected and in fact thought would aid us in clearing out the filthy, tentanus-infused bed springs by virtue of the wry, tongue-clicking humor they would bring to this fundamentally unpleasant activity. I realized that mulling over these unsolvable critical issues involving criteria of a hopelessly insular nature would slow down our efforts to clear out all the junk in the cellar but quickly reminded myself that I would have probably done nothing to remove it at all without the ability to simultaneously follow Young down the labyrinthine twists of his mind in pursuit of that micro-inch which separates brilliant insight from utterly useless grad-student mind-wanking dross. That’s just how it was.

    “Seamus cracked open a bottle of Boone’s Farm and poured two shots into juice glasses he’d "borrowed"’ from a McCarthy for President fundraiser at some professor’s house a couple of years ago,'" Young continued as if reading from an invisible sheet of paper held in front of him."‘I don’t think we are quite ready for Leonard Cohen today,’ he told Elena with the serious mien of a Pulitzer Prize committee member or a dog show judge. ‘Each line in every song is the wrung of a ladder taking us down into the Uber-Canadian angst of Cohen’s soul, informed by the Franco-Anglo tensions of his upbringing not to mention the Hebraic cantorial tradition of perpetual expiation…’

  2. “’…Can’t we just dance by the light of the cracked Philco like we used to?’ said Elena in a voice pitched somewhere between a plea and a grumble. “Aren’t I still your Sister of Mercy and aren’t you still the Stranger with the hand full of the Holy Game of Poker?’

    “’Outside Seamus’ window, a hysterical sneer poured out of a dented AMC Javelin. They both recognized Dylan’s “I Want You”: “…your dancing child with his Chinese suit, he spoke to me, I took his flute…”’

    “‘Dylan kills everything!’ Seamus erupted. ‘He’s a punk playing a man’s game! He’ll have to live ten thousand years to be able to find the garbage OR the flowers in Cohen’s back yard…’”

    Young continued on in this vein for a long time, enough time for the Earth to revolve around the sun and the sun to spin in the galaxy and the universe to reach some sort of reset point in the great wheel of cosmic existence. God was slamming the typewriter keys and whacking the return bar hard; we were a footnote in an endless review that was in fact Existence Itself.

    We piled the rusted bed springs in a dumpster and watched the car styles and hemlines changed around us. The Soviet Bloc fell and the Republican Party developed paresis. And still Young went on, skating on blissful shoals of parable…

    “’Dylan went country, got domestic, raised a litter of kids and still couldn’t give back that Chinese flute,’ said Elena, sitting on the side of Seamus’ bed at 5 in the morning as he slumbered like wet laundry on laudinum. “’I’m gonna put on some Cohen and put on some coffee and burn some toast as black as the heart of pure hopeless martyrdom…’”


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