Friday, October 30, 2015

Awkward teenage blues

Image result for GENE PITNEY
Gene Pitney
Leslie Gore was one of those pure pop singers like Gene Pitney and Neil Sedaka who had an appealing, earnest voice that could manage the hooks and addictive choruses of the songs she performed. Like Pitney, her song "It's My Party (and I'll Cry If I Want To)" was a catchy distillation of teen heartache and anxiety, an age where neither female nor male could help but continually compare their inside turmoil with what seemed cool and calm of the appearances of friends, associates and other hangers-on. Am I good enough? Smart enough? Pretty/handsome enough?  Pitney and Gore were the heralds of awkward teenage blues, that time of life when hormones are kicking in and extending their reign from the brain and the appendages they command, a set of years where self-esteem is rare and fragile where it exists at all.

Not much has changed, just the style of clothes, the music soundtrack, and how far past first base you have to go to fit in, or at least seem to. Pitney, it should be remarked, was pretty much a dour, moody, full-time drama queen in his string of hits, tunes he sang masterfully. He had a range, of course, easily witnessed with a listen to "I'm Going to Be Strong", "It Hurts to Be In Love", but it also had the strange quality of being scratchy, a strange impression of the gruff textured rhythm and blues singers he admired, and a certain "girlishness" as well. He had a fast vibrato, a quiver that would emerge in the center of a phrase, making keywords seem suddenly uncertain, nervous, subject to glandular swings of mood, oftentimes undercutting the stronger voice, the more stoic, stronger pronunciation where Pitney reached down to an unnaturally low register as a means of constructing a solid, masculine calm. The singer was fascinating and melodramatic, and his performances were a clash of emotional raw ends.  But what really hits a nerve with Pitney's voice was the higher register, which he could twist and torture with deceptively able finesse to create a sense of a young and sensitive young man tasting for the wrong time the bitter  fruit of  breaking up. Neal Sedaka's song title "Breaking Up is Hard to Do" offers a clue to the genius of Pitney, who explodes the minor key agony of teenage breakup blues and expand the melodrama to the extent that it's tempting to apply "Wagnerarian" to his extreme style. Maybe not not so dramatic.

Leslie Gore was pop music for young people and I have to say that I found myself liking more than a little of it when I listened to TOP 40 radio. She was pop personified, the girl singing into the mirror as she prepared for a school dance for which she had no corsage nor date, singing her woes and insecurities into the reflection, watching her image, hair parted on the wrong side, watch on the wrong wrist, admit to the worries and dread  of not being in the center of the party,  not being interesting enough for a boy or a girl to talk to, someone for whom being friendless was worse than the death. Death, to her thinking, would be a release from this hell of other people's happiness mocking you without end, amen.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Glass knee

Total knee replacement surgery will be my fate in two weeks, and after that painkillers and, I'm promised, a vigorous rehabilitation regimen. As any person with a sliver of sanity would expect, I am dreading and looking forward to the procedure at the same time, an understandable ambivalence. First, I hate pain, I hate change, I don't like being in hospitals for anything. But I am looking forward to being able to walk without pain, something I've been doing since that time in 1965 when, on a dare, I jumped off a concrete trash incinerator attached to the back of Chippewa Drugs in the alley on a balmy summer day in Detroit. We were looking for trouble, moderate trouble, and looking for cool things people had thrown away, "we" being my brother Hollis, a weaselly friend named Casey, and a couple of others. I  climbed atop the incinerator to see if I could climb, somehow, onto the roof of the drug store, as I thought I could find footholds in various ledges abutting security barred windows. 

None of that came to pass since I looked down and saw Hollis, Casey and the two others turned and run to the main street the alley was adjacent to."Jump, Burke" is what I heard Casey yell, and I did, a short distance to the ground , the cement , a distance I could jump and land properly for all along,and then spring back , ready for action in some imitation of a Batman recovering from a punch before delivering a star and moon inducing uppercut, but I landed wrong, I had slipped it seems to me know, I landed at the wrong angle and felt my left knee twist something horrible. The rest, they say, is a history I don't care to recollect in this brief sketch. I was able to walk to my house, a very long half-block trudge, but an hour later, after the adrenaline had worn off, I was in pain and made quite a bit of noise about it. Crying and whining I think is the correct description. 

My Mom didn't look impressed with the pain I insisted was killing me, but we got in the car, went to the hospital and had an operation. Bear in mind this was 1965 and the procedure for torn ligaments in the knee was not as it is today; the cartilage  and such was completely removed , leaving me to recover with that joint being bone on bone. It's been like that for decades. I made due and accepted it as a younger man; running, dancing, climbing, and other sorts of activities that require me to stand for hours on end were matters I attended to without thought. Now, though , it's beyond the pale. The pain  is bad, and it's time to do something about while I have the means. I am grateful to have the means at this moment while this journey just gets more interesting by the day. It's an existence of uncertainty and cautious optimism. Being able to trudge that road without pain will be a wonderful, near-term result.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

An invisible beyond the senses

a novel by Don DeLillo
Don DeLillo again shows that he's our best novelist of American absurdity with this strange off-kilter comedy that centers on the events of an eventful day in Manhattan. Against a backdrop of raves, a Presidential motorcade, a rock star's funeral, mysterious street demonstrations and the constant, ghostly electronic feed of news of pending financial disaster, a young billionaire asset manager limousines uptown to get a haircut in order to embrace his sense of inevitable, personal apocalypse. DeLillo's writing is outstanding, funny with a cool lyricism, poetic when you least expect it. The brilliance here, as with "White Noise" and especially "Mao ll" is the way characters seek to reconfigure their metaphors, their assuring base of references , once their world view is rattled and made less authoritative by unexplainable events and human quirks. This is semiotics at its best, an erotic activity where DeLillo probes and glides over the surfaces of ideas, notions, theories and their artifacts, things intellectual and material emptied of meaning, purpose.

DeLillo's mastery of language lets him convey the psychic activity that constantly tries to reacquaint the world with meaning and purpose after the constructions are laid bare; Eric, here in this world of commodity trading, which he regards as natural force that he's mastered and control, attempts to reintroduce mystery into the world he is trapped in. He is bored beyond the grave with the results of his luck. His efforts to live dangerously , spontaneously and thus get a perception he hadn't had and perhaps secure a hint of a metaphysical infrastructure that eludes, all turn badly, but for DeLillo's art it's not what is found , discovered, or resolved through the extensions of language, but rather the journey itself, the constant connecting of things with other things in the world; this is the poetry of the human need to make sense of things in the great , invisible state beyond the senses, a negotiation with death.
His imagistic tilling of the semiotic field yields the sort of endless irony that makes for the kind of truly subversive comedy, a sort of satire that contains the straining cadences of prophecy. The city, the place where the hyperactive commotion  of commerce, history, technology and government merge in startling combinations of applied power, becomes an amorphous cluster of symbols whose life and vitality come to seem as fragile and short-lived as living matter itself. DeLillo might be the best literary novelist we have at this time, which the career-defining masterwork "Underworld" made clear to his largest readership yet: at the end of all those perfect sentences , sallow images and long, winding, aching paragraphs is a narrative voice whose intelligence engages the fractured nature of identity in a media-glutted age.

"The Body Artist" has him contracting the narrative concerns to a tight, elliptical 128 pages, where the Joycean impulse to have a private art furnishes meaning to grievous experience is preferred over the dead promises of religion and philosophy. What exactly the woman character does with her performance body art, what the point is of her ritualized, obsessed cleansing of her body, is a mystery of DeLilloesque cast, but it's evident that we're witnessing to a private ritual whose codes won't reveal themselves, but are intended as a way for the woman to again have a psychic terrain she can inhabit following the sudden and devastating death of her film maker husband.

The entrance of the stranger in the cottage turns her aesthetic self-absorption, slowly but inevitably, into a search into her past in order to give her experience meaning, resonance, a project she quite handily ignores until then. The sure unveiling of her psychic life is a haunting literary event. DeLillo's language is crisp, evocative, and precise to the mood and his ideas: you envy his flawless grasp of rhythm and diction as these traits simultaneously makes the cottage on the cold, lonely coast seem sharp as snap shot, but blurred like old memory, roads and forests in a foggy shroud.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Get tasteless

And so this goes: discussing the lack of excitement I feel regarding Jeff Beck's guitar work for the last couple of decades, my associate offers that like Miles Davis, improvisers play slower  and use fewer notes doing so. Okay. Davis is a another thing altogether, but Beck is certainly not Davis. Of course, he never claimed he was.The notes are usually well executed, but his playing lacks  real sense of spontaneity.It sounds dry, calculated, lifeless in their cold perfection.His solos bring to mind the phrase "wait for it" as he goes through his fabled  fingerwork. He makes me think of what John McLaughlin said to me in the Seventies when I asked him after a concert what the thought of Jerry Garcia. "I keep waiting for something to happen" he said,.

His answer to my  next question threw me.  I asked for his opinion of guitarist Allan Holdsworth. Holdsworth, a fretman who I regard as the Coltrane of electric guitar, speed, melody, amazing register jumping fluidity, madly modulated  acceleration, was and remains my favorite guitarist. McLaughlin, who with Larry Coryell jump started the trend for rock guitarists to take on super  speeds, had the view that Holdsworth was cluttering up his improvisations with too many notes,  failing to leave space  and to build tension.
 "You can't sustain beauty with speed alone" was what my friend David Sternbach, a fine poet I knew back in college, He was talking about McLaughlin back in my dorm room days. The point of this digression is just to remark that it is a matter of taste--Christ, I hate that cliche--but at the bottom line I wish Beck would pick up a Les Paul again,  cut his finger nails and use a pick, crank up the distortion and volume  and let the world know what his reputation is based on. I would be very happy if hed did another album as good Guitar Shop. So would a lot of people,

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The House by the Railroad by Edward Hirsch

It's an ideal situation for poets to interpret a painter's world, especially those artists who are both figurative and have content which implies a relationship between the objects and people on the campus, a suggestion of narrative complexity.The basic problem to overcome, though, is finding the equivalent tone and language that relays a strong sense of the visual style , which suggests the narrative thread. I've written of few poems after artist's work, not that any of them have been successful in any terms I'd lay out, but these efforts have been a interesting practice of jumping over the tropes you might normally rely on and instead develop a new rhetoric. Staying with a style one knows when attempting to get inside another man's art can result in a poem that reads more like product, as I noticed in this poem .Normally I like Edward Hirsch a good deal, but this attempt to unearth the hidden essence of Edward Hopper's ideally isolated landscapes makes me think that it is a tad overwritten. The details seem entirely ready made:

This man will paint other abandoned mansions,

And faded cafeteria windows, and poorly lettered
Storefronts on the edges of small towns.
Always they will have this same expression,
The utterly naked look of someone
Being stared at, someone American and gawky.
Someone who is about to be left alone
Again, and can no longer stand it. 
Artifacts from the prop department.This reads more like scene descriptions one finds in parenthesis in a film script's early draft. The camera lingers on the badly lettered sign, the camera pans the closed storefronts, the camera pulls back to a vista that reveals the town in bas relief against a mountain range, with houses huddled in tight clusters that encircle the center of town. It is rather dramatic, visual, and effective , if one were watching a movie film made from our supposed script. 

But we aren't, and Hirsch's descriptions more instructive than revealing. Hopper's advantage is that he could suggest relations between his human figures to one another and to their surroundings with his magnificently broad strokes and his blurred, subdued tones and yet maintain the essential isolation of each element on his canvas; his contexts are subverted by the existential singularity his streets, sunlight, his characters are all shown to be locked in.

The effect is visceral, one gets his mood in a rush, and one garners more perception the more they study his best paintings. The narrative, of course, is implied, and this is where Hirsch's poem becomes mannered, in the attempt to do what Hopper achieves by describing the elements, suggesting the rather obvious relations between them . and back peddling to conclude, finally, that the American malaise is compounded estrangement. It's a poem full of tricks and moves, and it makes one wish for a more plain spoken, less qualified tone poem.

Monday, October 19, 2015

The beauty of our lies

Poet Thomas Lux fairly much defies description, combining the plain speak of dilligent journalism and the eloquence of an other wise taciturn poet who will use an word or a phrase that takes a contrary turn other than where you expect it to go. He is the Poet of Unintended Results, a story teller very much in the John Cheever mode where the omniscient narrator begins yarns of folks with ambitions, intentions, desires for all manner of things making their way through their routines, only to have them interrupted and , as a consequence, find themselves to the larger world ,with what were once nuances and pesky inconviences of fact now looming over them in a crazy state of I-Told-You-So.

Boil it down: feet, skin, gristle,
bones, vertebrae, heart muscle, boil
it down, skim, and boil
again, dreams, history, add them and boil
again, boil and skim
in closed cauldrons, boil your horse, his hooves,
the runned-over dog you loved, the girl
by the pencil sharpener
who looked at you, looked away,
boil that for hours, render it
down, take more from the top as more settles to the bottom,
the heavier, the denser, throw in ache
and sperm, and a bead
of sweat that slid from your armpit to your waist
as you sat stiff-backed before a test, turn up
the fire, boil and skim, boil
some more, add a fever
and the virus that blinded an eye, now’s the time
to add guilt and fear, throw
logs on the fire, coal, gasoline, throw
two goldfish in the pot (their swim bladders
used for “clearing”), boil and boil, render
it down and distill,
that for which there is no
other use at all, boil it down, down,
then stir it with rosewater, that
which is now one dense, fatty, scented red essence
which you smear on your lips
and go forth
to plant as many kisses upon the world
as the world can bear!

This is a poet who witnesses human experience and of life itself as process that goes on regardless of the fine personal and community philosophies we've written for ourselves to abide by. Life is a raw force that will continue to pulse, change, destroy and create anew regardless of how well can describe it. We can describe life's circumstances, we cannot control them. But there is heart in Lux's work, a sympathy, that sense of the struggle of humanity trying to create meaning in a world that defies logic and yet remains a species that continues to dress the world in a wonderful cosmology of expectations. There is wit, dark humor, tenderness, a wonderfully terse lyricism in Lux's finest writing. None are better .

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Vinyl records

Nostalgia is something that cuts both ways across the generation divide. On the one hand we have Boomers, those born post World War 2  who grew up with vinyl records, 45s and 33 and 1/3 RPM, who will insist that the original 12  inch releases of the Abbey Road or Safe as Milk  had a clarity, depth, and warmth that later  digital versions, marketed on the much-loathed compact disc format, ruined by making it flat and sterile. The cry was thus: CDs may not scratch and stand to last forever, but we sacrifice the genuine texture and sensuality of the music therein. The new versions are merely heard not felt. If by that they mean that the full force of Beethoven symphonies or the corrosive caterwaul of Ornette Coleman's extensions of Western jazz improvisational strategies are abrasive only to the degree to which they assault merely the nervous system and not the soul as well, then I am with the naysayers. Sadly, though, there is more to the "felt" description, which is surface noise, pops, hisses, clicks, clacks, the corrosive percussion of the damage and ware that attends the ownership of a vinyl record collection.

 Because I had no interest i the hi-fi freak's compulsion to keep his albums pristine with a ritualized way of putting his albums on the turntable--holding the disk only on the edges with lightly pressed fingertips, wiping the disc with a clean dust cloth in a particular circular motion, no variation, setting the expensive needle on the disc gently, gently, gently, GENTLY GODDAMNIT! , repeating the process in reverse when the record was done playing--I just put my records on and just played them, whatever happened on the record surface. I took heed from my best friend, a bigger slob than I was, who shared  "I don't let my possessions possess me". It was an easy matter to accept the scratches, pops, and skips as part of the listening experience; I joked that the imperfections were bonus rhythm tracks, free of charge. Still, as used as I had become to vinyl albums, it was a matter of time before I had to acquiesce and purchase a CD player because it turned out, the record companies had stopped releasing albums in vinyl formats, save for some independent holdouts hither and yon. I  was amazed at how fast I became a CD convert; the music sounded fine, it sounded clean, it sounded exciting. The digital age claimed another convert. It became the case that saying that we should listen to vinyl only so we may "feel" the music better is like remarking that we should not have paved roads or modern cars because travel means nothing artistically unless we feel every pothole, puddle, rock and uneven patch of cracked earth on our long journey to some goddamned family holiday dinner. It was a dead argument made by grumpy white men who wanted it to be 1968 forever, without end.  The only thing I miss about the vinyl experience was the "thingness" of an album--something to open, to read, stare at, take pride in as you put back in the sleeve and add it your large and varied record collection. I admit vinyl was an inferior medium given the crystal clear digital offered , but there was a value-added quality, where the music on the disc was something I paid attention to, fell in love with or hated and argued passionately with other music fanatics and would be pop pundits about why such things were more important than sex. The vinyl album was something that contained music the way a book contained words that told a story and you had to figuratively live with for a period so the glorious transformation of literature can have on our worldview could take effect. That is less the case these days, much less, as everything is digitized, stored in figurative clouds, seemingly every song ever recorded stripped of context, liner notes, album art, credits, and private jokes and turned into bits of code that one can turn on or off like a light switch, absent-mindedly appreciative of the ruthless efficiency in the retrieval of the music, but not moved to linger on lyric, to pause during a hooked up chorus, to move, shake. That's my experience.