Monday, May 25, 2015

The past refuses to forget who I was

(My mood hasn't been the best lately, downright awful in fact, bordering on outright depression. Oh, alright, I've been depressed over my current state of mind, no pun intended, that state, ironically, being that my performance has suffered at work due to errors, the same damn errors, occurring over a period of time. It's the old Steve Martin routine in the flesh, the one where he screams "I FORGOT" as an acceptable explanation to the IRS as to why he hadn't filed income tax returns for several years. At work , at least, I am forgetting thing constantly, making mistakes, creating more work for those I work with as they mend the ruin I brought those cash register  cash register disasters.   I had to be given a written warning earlier this week. Not fun, let me say. So I might be having memory problems, it may have an organic origin, I am making doctor's appointments after the holiday to have myself assessed by professionals what my state of mind is, present and future, and then weigh options, medically and professionally. It sucks. But I did get a poem out of it. It's about the contrast to what I was like and what I am like now and the creeping sense that talking about one's past becomes a greater fiction each time one opens his or her mouth. --tb)

 The past 
refuses to
forget who I was

when I  lingered
and lounged

in bars, sleeves rolled up,
awaiting a free drink

a ride home ,
anyone's home but my own.

I don't own a car
and driving's for queers
said I, thirst unslaked
and pants 
angular with lust
and sins
of the father
and his father's great aunt.

Ain't it shame
this hooterville
is all feathers and felonies,
i could show
Jeezers a time
to make time
to where you thought
the night was going.

I am in dress shirts now,
ties, pants pressed
and full of old knees
that make velcro noises
when I reach
for something I dropped
to the floor.

You look at me askance
as I speak
and sip your coffee,
you want to ask me a question,
i quit my speech
and take a breath,

"Ted" you ask me,
"why do you
always speak
with your hands?

Thursday, May 21, 2015

So Long David Letterman

It has been remarked that  David Letterman, who last night broadcast the final episode of his long running CBS program Late Night, had become cranky and dour in his last few  years on the air, to  which I say yes, he had been a grouch a time  or a   dozen times when I   stayed up late to  catch his program. 

But that was part of the man's appeal as a talk show host. There was the elusive Everyman quality about  him, liberally laced with a slickly restrained version of the Last Angry Man. Not angry, exactly, but more like fed up with the voluminous ego baiting that passes for notoriety and letting the air from the media's hot air balloon with three decades of sharp, absurdly accurate darts. There a sense in Letterman the way  he managed the helm of the Late Show, someone who kept his smile for the most part, who maintained his formal courtesy as  best he could , and yet we could see the ice  creak, we could witness the calm within get sullied by the winds of celebrity bullshit and the institutionalized idiocy of  those who deign to govern us. Letterman might have been cranky , but so are all of us at the end of the day, but rather than complain bitterly and without end that the bastards are at it again, he applied humor, much of if brilliant, in my view, that let a lot of the hot air from the problem-filled world that goes out of its way to ruin our serenity. 

Letterman, as well, was among the first television host to expose the whole lie of show business and the false fronts millions are spent just so we don't see the facade breaking. The culture of celebrity is odd and odious and it was Letterman, before anyone else on the tube, really, who brought as sense of the absurd, the surreal and the genuinely strange to a medium that created a phony baloney image of reality and poisoned the culture with. Letterman, from his NBC show to his years on CBS, was the remedy to the on going simulacra that passed for entertainment. And, interestingly, he became more human as time went on, being very open about his heart surgery, the birth of his son, his extra marital affair and the attempt to blackmail him. 

He was rarely mawkish about any of this, but he was, it seems to me, genuinely sincere in the feelings he expressed about the events. But most of all he was funny, he was smart and better read than even fans thought, and he a good conversationalist. He was the needed at the end of the day. Not a drink, but a good laugh, someone as bemused with the world as you were and who had the wit to say something about it that made an off kilter kind of sense.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Can White People Sing the Blues?

Image result for corey harris

Corey Harris, a fine blues guitarist, songwriter, and singer in a neo-traditionalist blues  style, writes a provocative column on his blog  Blues is Black Music entitled "Can White People Sing the Blues?Harris, a musician, specializing in a style of blues that's been around much longer than his years on this earth, insists it's an important question. His primary objection of whites playing what is a black art form is this: that while listeners are entertained by technical competence and show business bedazzlement, they do not have legitimacy because the music is robbed of historical context and is, as a result, merely ornamentation, not art that convincingly interprets personal and collective experience in a cruel, problematic existence. There is no culture without the long, collective memory to inform it and keep it honest. 

 " Without culture there is no music.  Music is the voice of a culture.  Separate the two and the music can never be the same.  Of course, it may be in the same style as the original, but the meaning of a song such as Son House's 'My Black Mama' will always be changed with a different performer.  This is especially true if the performer is not from the Black culture that gave birth to the blues." 

I agree that those aspiring to perform blues, jazz, or soul should forever know what they are picking up is black music created by and defined by black artists and the culture, twisted as it may have been, that contained the forces that brought together elements of African and European tradition that otherwise would not have met. Would that the institutions that created the genius of African American music hadn't been the racist and economically determinist demon of Slavery? Harris, though, assumes that culture is static and implies that black culture has remained still. The creation of Black American culture regarding art, education, literature, music, theatre, speech, theology refutes that rather handily, as it arises, through forced circumstances, from a system of oppression; oppressed classes create counter-institutions.

The new black culture gradually arose and developed as the response by black communities to the decimation of the institutional, social and spiritual traditions that had been theirs in their own land. The new culture, in turn, influenced the larger culture, the culture of white people. One can single out exploitation, minstrelsy, racist practices, blatantly bad, and watered-down imitations of popular and emerging black art forms, especially musical idioms. Still, there is the area of the personal, localized, and influence of blues culture on white musicians apart from record companies, promoters, and agents where the younger musician is influenced and, in effect, being mentored by the Black musicians they admired took their cues from.  Harris makes a powerful argument based on a series of cherry-picked conceits to the exclusion of glaring contradictions. He speaks that the metaphysical essence of blues is feeling, emotion, the ability of the human voice to convey true experience, and yet he speaks in racial absolutes, denying the capacity of individual musicians, black and white, to transcend, mature, grow out of the imitative phase and achieve a true feeling, a true vision of the music they love. 
The case is that while self-righteous revisionist scolds like Harris is articulate will limit the range of blues to exclude all who are not black from having true blues authenticity, art does not sustain itself by remaining in a vacuum. No matter how righteous the music's argument belongs to, without the constant input from musicians attracted to it and performing it according to the narrative of their personal lives, the music ceases to grow. It shrivels up and dies and becomes only a relic, notable mostly for its distant and antiquated sound.

  We will admit without reservation, upfront and unconditionally, that blues and jazz are Black-American creations. It's important to keep that fact in mind. Still, the blues, being music, is something that catches the ear of the blues lover, regardless of race, and speaks to those people in profound ways, giving expression to perceptions, emotions, personal contradictions in ways that mere intellectual endeavor cannot; it is this music these folks come to love, and many aspire to play, to make their own and stamp with their own personality and twists and quirks. That is how art, any art, survives, grows, remains relevant enough for the born-again righteousness of Harris to reshuffle a less interesting set of arguments from LeRoi Jones' book "Blues People." 

There is the aspect that blues is something in which anyone one can play the game, an element that exists in any instance of art one thinks ought to be restricted to particular groups, but what really matters is less how many musicians have gotten in on the game as much as how many are still on the playing field over the years, with great tunes, memorable performances, slick licks, and most importantly, emotions that are real, emphatic, unmistakable. There is no music without real emotion and new inspiration from younger players bringing their own version of the wide and dispersed American narrative to the idiom. There is no art, and it dies, falls into irrelevancy, and is forgotten altogether.


Friday, May 8, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ulcers

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) - IMDb:

We can agree that director and writer Joss Whedon had done a brilliant job of coordinating the cinematic Marvel Universe efforts, both amazing--Iron Man, Captain America:The First Avenger--and lackluster (Thor) so that that they all lead up to the gloriously noisy, jokey, jivey, dynamic and breathtakingly awesome Marvel's Avengers movie. This was a magnificent first movement in a plan that is said to be composed of three different phases of how Marvel comics plans to bring their comic book characters to the big screen and much smaller streaming device. Action,  insults, just enough dramatic interaction between nominal heroes, hammy performances by central villians and, true to the Marvel comic book heritage, a devastation of a good part of New York City while good guys and invading aliens  battle one another. Now what?

A full blown, energetic sequel, of course,   but this is where the momentum leading up to the Avengers goes slack. There are quite a few critics who see this as an inspired and vigorous follow up to the triumph that was the first film, but much like Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, his follow up to the wonderfully scatter shot chase that was Raiders of the Lost Ark, the premise of this film seems more asea and improvised through second guessed rewrites rather than making us think of  a true adventure where the labors of the good guys lead to some sort dynamic justice being applied.  Matters are handled well--Whedon is one of those film directors who understands comic book action sequences and, of course, has a handle on the sort of characterizations make up a typical Marvel hero--but the second act of this ongoing melodrama lacks real purpose. It arises more as a need to add more zigs and zags in the ongoing battle to make all the Marvel movies a unified film reality where different franchises can convincingly mashed together. There are wonderful set pieces, and the final battle concerning an elevated European city has some genius to it, a wonderful combination of special effects, editing and pacing.

Still, I sense much huffing and puffing and frantic, hurried chatter coated in faux-science jargon to insert another plot twist, another impending danger, and then the assembled heroes scrambling into action, from place to another, trying to rescue  civilians, quell disturbances, defuse doomsday machines, the whole sink. The sense of let down is inevitable, I guess, when it comes to sequels--Godfather 2 was an exception, truth be told--but bear in mind that Avengers:Age of Ultron is worth seeing. It's fun, it's noisy, it has that "wow" factor. In all, not so bad. But not as good as you want it to be.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Whitman or Pound?

Who was more modern, Walt Whitman or Ezra Pound?For myself, it's Whitman over Pound. Walt W. could have used a better sense of when to end a line, or developed more efficient method of getting to the true genius his lines could contain, but he was always the more interesting poet. Pound was in love with life, of being American , and thought it vest to invest his need to write with a vernacular that could crackle,hum , storm and sing in it's own voice. Well, Whitman's idealized American Voice, which, as often as not, was amazingly brilliant. Pound was too in love with a past he idealized to the point of creating the cult of impenetrability when he tried to revive it in his own creations. 

Poet and critic Bob Perelman writes about Pound, Stein, Joyce et al  in his book "The Trouble with Genius",and the contradiction of poets who, sharing a mission to change the way readers (and civilization in general) saw reality , with the emphasis being on trying a near clarity in how we discuss, describe and seek to change the world we live in, were themselves too brilliant for that purpose. The writing was thick, opaque, difficult by design as the early modernist poets tried, in general, to change the way populations regarded the world and the true relations between the emotional and the political. In all, it is a poetry worth reading and regarding, but Pound seemed tone-deaf in what he wrote as poetry; I always regarded him as one of those who had ideas and theories that were more usefully provocative than the poetry itself, which seemed to exist solely to demonstrate ideas he had formalized prior to the composition of lyric and epic verse. Pound seems truly less Modern than Whitman for that reason. 
Pound had a fascinating career tempering his taste for fascist politics and racism with a cherry picked set of  theoretical pleasures cherry picked from the writings of  ancient Asian poetry and Greek classics in the attempt to make them relevant to contemporary situations that has evolved , most foul, from what he deemed was humanity's fall from greatness. He was nostalgic for eras he didn't live in. Pound had no interest outside the world in front the of him, the people in it, and his experience and perceptions of them both. He embraced what was right and wrong and worshiped the passion and lust for life it took to make it through the rigor of the moment and settle down , at the end of the work day, or the end of a working life, tired, satisfied,  with the time one has been allotted filled with gusto, verve, a need to test resources and extend the limits of what can do and who one can love. 

Finally, I would ask who is more readable and provides more pleasure?Pound was sane, of course, but he was more a literary critic than poet. As for poetry , I would cite Eliot as the superior influence as to how poets of succeeding generations formed their sense of what actual verse should sound like and achieve. Eliot was a better artist, Pound the better cheer leader for the movement.