Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Samuel Beckett's Crackling Static

Playwright, novelist and poet Samuel Beckett , better than any other 20th century writer I've read, best expressed the pervasiveness of what one can refer to as the " existential stall". That is say that is the  the state at which one realizes precisely the redundant nature of their existence, the stuff of the everyday being reduced to activities that have gone beyond habit or ritual and slipped into the anonymous functions of organisms maneuvering out of organic necessity, without the philosophical solace of free will. Combined with that is the awareness his narrators have of the small set of rooms their biographies and emotional reservoirs inhabit, but yet even with such acute awareness, done so in fractured, cryptic, half coherent remarks and complaints against a scenery and set of responses that repeat themselves , reliable as brief train schedules, there is not the will, the imagination, the energy to break the chains and do something else all together.
  These elements combined, churning, burning, roiling with their unchanging content , results in a paralysis, the inability to transcend one's despair and ennui and create something new and dynamic for themselves. An old saw of existentialist thought, a notion detectable in even the more abstruse and gratingly opaque writings of Kierkegaard, Tillich, Sartre, and the lot, religious and atheist alike, is that life gains meaning through one's acceptance of the fact that purpose is not given to our breathing and ambulatory ways metaphysically, but only by an act  of creative commitment to a way of living, and and the taking responsibility for the consequences of choosing to live in such a self defined fashion.
 The discussions are lengthier than that in each and all existential authors worth discussing,but the essential notion is that there is an ethical dimension one must achieve with complete awareness of what the world is like, in situ. Achieving this requires work, though, and such work is the sort of thing that causes the proverbial realization of everything you thought you knew about yourself and the life that contains your existence is wrong. Beckett's characters only get half way there and prefer, it seems,the persecution of the hallow echo of their meaningless , repetitive acts than the true freedom that is the adventure of wandering into the truly unknown.

Self awareness in Beckett's world is not the same as free will. Beckett's world is the eternal state of the mind that is too stimulated to sleep and which will not be quieted by lullaby or even the mortal need to rest, shut down, physically and psychically recoup. "I Can't Go On, I Go On" was the title of a superb reader of Beckett's writing , and it crystallizes Beckett's theme of awareness, paralysis. One is weary unto death and wants to surrender and perhaps die , finally, of an exhaustion only the strongest of us can bear, and yet the subject pushes on, repeats the pattern, masters some version of cliche and self assurance to make the reentry into the endless game palatable, but soon enough the protests begin again, the complaints about the trap, the fragments of memory that hint at the happy time when all was whole and fluid, and the trauma that was the fall from grace that removed the salve of hope and purpose from a life and made into a hell of awareness of the sheer futility of pressing on and it's twin state, the futility of abandoning what one is doing over,  and over and over. Beckett's art is the artful display of people in purgatories of their own creating.


why not merely the despaired of
occasion of
is it not better abort than be barren
the hours after you are gone are so leaden
they will always start dragging too soon
the grapples clawing blindly the bed of want
bringing up the bones the old loves
sockets filled once with eyes like yours
all always is it better too soon than never
the black want splashing their faces
saying again nine days never floated the loved
nor nine months
nor nine lives

saying again
if you do not teach me I shall not learn
saying again there is a last
even of last times
last times of begging
last times of loving
of knowing not knowing pretending
a last even of last times of saying
if you do not love me I shall not be loved
if I do not love you I shall not love
the churn of stale words in the heart again
love love love thud of the old plunger
pestling the unalterable
whey of words
terrified again
of not loving
of loving and not you
of being loved and not by you
of knowing not knowing pretending
I and all the others that will love you
if they love you


unless they love you

This is a poem about being broken entirely, where the light of one's life is removed through death, divorce and the cruel metaphorical walls that comprise estrangement, a situation where the other side of the bed might as well another continent entirely. The implication here is death, an abortion, a miscarriage, strongly suggested by the anguishing yearning  of the first stanza. What I take away is the death of the child that was to be the demonstration of the union between a man and woman, a continuation of themselves into to the world and to extend the essence of the two of them into the future which, like many of us do in younger years, assumed would be endless and without limit. But there is interruption, a death, what had been seen before as the bed where love creates life and so ensures a future with an accompanying purpose now becomes the place where it ends ; hope, love, great pleasures experienced in the seeking of greater gratification and purpose are fragile and are collapsed . There is no reason to continue but one cannot stop, so existence becomes the oblong circle of infinite recollection, rage, regret, resignation, none of the elements illuminating anything in the narrator's life other than the moments leading up the fall.

This a lament that goes on forever in dreams one cannot change, a horror of torched land, trace feelings of now absent embrace, tenderness that grew hard as rock, intimacy that became distance, talk that became slogans, things repeated. There is the imagery of what was fruitful now gone barren, arid, what was full of life now bereft of spirit, animation. There are hints of blood, abortion, of falling in love when the sensation was new and suggestive of possibilities that could be fulfilled and renewed without end or resolution, but love that had cooled to mere affection and familiarity, a love that became habit and redundant rhetoric of convenience that rattled the nerves and deadened an already eviscerated soul with the crushing banality of the expression.

 One half asks and half answers their own questions, repudiate their own protests, stifle the roar of rage with a hard, gulping swallow. One wants to destroy the bounds that keeps this a rotating cycle of dread , one wants to walk away from the argument with oneself, that add space in the psyche where inflated sense of guilt and the wan giddiness of redemption and deliverance alternate in informing the nervous system that the war that rages in the center of one's emotional continuum is harsh,  unforgiving, ongoing,
 Beckett's dramas and his novels and his poems as well are resolutions denied, interrupted, a jabbering of frayed tongues uttering repetitive phrases and variations there of as the characters, the narrators, the damned search through images of the past  attempting to locate the precise moment things went wrong , awry, and life became a sequence of competing monologues that cannot , for all their sound and sharp recounting of people , places and things, stumble upon an idea , an inspiration that might avail them like wisdom and insight, This is Beckett's genius.
 This poem is nothing less than a man who has been  figuratively skinned alive by the collapse of his great love; there is moaning to the sky and beyond, a caterwaul to beyond the stars and perhaps to the ear of a God who does not intervene nor offer the intuited clue as to how to achieve closure and to garner the strength to press on with the remains of  one's life once the affair is cruelly concluded. Whether there is God who will do the impossible if he were sought or a God who is sadistic, silent and passive is not the point because all there is is silence and the elements that allow for growth are within, if one, no matter how bereaved and bemoaning , has it within himself to break free of the past they are chained to and dare to imagine a remainder of life that is new, unknown. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

album review: Bryan Deister turns a groove into a rut with "Spines of the Heart"

It’s a cinch that Bryan Deister worked hard on his recent release Spines of the Heart, as it seems this one-man wonder provided every sonic wash, each cradled chord, each vocal croon and cry, every earnest word, each dollop of solemn percussion on his own. There is much here to recommend his music to fans of the brooding likes of Radiohead, late-period Pink Floyd, and the post-Velvet Underground graveyard goth of John Cale. There is not much to recommend to consumers who prefer their traffic to move along rather than remain tonally static. Deister has worked hard, yes, but the range isn't as broad nor genre-bending as his publicity materials suggest with its mentions of the musician's classical training and background in jazz, rock and rhythm and blues and trance modes. Some genuine fusion of ideas might have occurred here.Deister feels deeply, or at least the mulling personas who embody the lyrics do, and there is nary a hint of joy or happiness to come away with. His music, clever in some instances, routinely trudging in others where the tone is downcast and which always seems to require the most plodding instrumental backdrop conceivable, is defeated, finally, by a monotony that results in very little in the way of variety. The experience is not unlike that of playing with one of those toys you find in museum gift shops, a flat plastic casing containing sand of different grades and weight and different colors that, when moved around and viewed with wide eyes and unflagging attention, offers a wondrous flow of sediment flowing in fluid motion to new layers, new striations of variously hued granules demonstrating what sedimentation means. Sadly, though, that is all it does, and what Deister, who we are told is trained in the disciplines of classical and jazz, not rising above the sedimentation, amazing as it might be, and revealing what else his musical garden might yield. For ninety minutes one does not feel they’ve ventured very far in the vehicle provided; one understands that the scenery and the narrative haven’t changed.It would have been a grand thing to break up the mood and the approach and give the listener more wrinkles in the otherwise smooth, if dingy blanket of music he created, along the lines of a truly crackerjack tune “Seven Eight” (referring to the song’s time signature), a jerky, Farfisa organ twist of angular cynicism that features a cool , low tech organ solo that collides,bumps and hopscotches over the jaggedly insistent. It’s the one instance where there is a sense that the narrator rises above morbid moping and like states of psychic status and attempts to re-contextualize his ’til then glum perspective. You have a sense of movement through the accursed weight of reflection, where music and words match and transform the world. Tension and release, a chance to breath faster, a moment when the ambient gloom gives away and something momentary occurs that brings us something that pulses like a genuine human response to otherwise overwhelming circumstances. I imagine there is more emotional variety and nuance in Deister’s experience and, indeed, more colors and shades and means to use them in his possession than what he allowed himself here.

Monday, May 9, 2016



Captain America : Civil Wars is a repetitive bore. Slow to get moving, and then it becomes a long, creaking fandango that alternates between sketchy conveyed expository dialogue and excessively choreographed fights ruined by a combination of MTV editing and a preponderance of seizure inducing camera work that jittered, jostled and in general neared the visual incoherence of a Transformers movie.And, for Christ sake, Tony Stark get even more Bruce Wayne-ish with newly revealed murdered parents issues. What desperate drag this was.Not that it was badly made, to be sure; CA:CW had the Marvel/House style that makes sure that matters of camera angles , cgi effects, fight scenes and editing are executed and presented in seamless fashion. There is a bland professionalism that has taken over Marvel Studios that are making their films stylistically indistinguishable from one another, less so, say, than the sort of factory-assembled cop shows that dominated 70s television.

 This is a shame, of course, because the Captain America tale on film has had a wonderful  arc on screen prior to the latest offering, beginning with the hero's origins in WW2, expanding splendidly in the first Avengers film, and evincing great potential for political intrigue with their plot borrowings from Three Days of the Condor, with the second CA film, Captain America:Winter Soldier. This more closely resembles a Saturday morning cartoon show in the vein of Animaniacs, where there are dozens of recognizable and more obscure pop culture personas running about in a varied states of frenzy and violent upheaval, only to each take a beat to deliver a quip, a joke, an ironic aside. humor blended with accelerated mayhem is Marvel's signature, but the glut of heroes fighting heroes, each with a polished repartee is too much of what used to be a good thing.

 The film seems like watching the last acts at Comedy Store amateur night, and at other times it comes across as characters auditioning for their own franchises. CA:CW seems only in service to set up the future of the Marvel Universe . Under-considered, alternately plodding and manic, hysterically talkative, jittery and jumbled as an action enterprise, this film is a self-distracting mess.

Saturday, May 7, 2016


This reminisce first appeared in the May, 2016 issue of tsandiegotroubadour.com
 Used with kind permission.
Joe Marillo. Photo by Dennis Andersen.
Photo by Dennis Anderson

At La Jolla’s old Chuck’s Steak House, in a cramped jazz lounge off to the side of the main dining room that seemed no bigger than a studio apartment, saxophonist Joe Marillo held forth on a miniscule stage, lifting his instrument above his chest, his back arched, letting fly with a rapid succession of notes that danced atop the pulse of a racing walking bass and the cymbal riding sweep of an earnest drummer. Wild as this might sound, the proverbial box of pots and pans dropped a flight of stairs yet Marillo and group were in the moment, the essence of jazz greatness, the duality of tossing caution aside, of forgetting formal training and the rules of engaging a song, and still finding extemporaneous musical beauty.

Joe in the 1970s
Joe in the 1970s
The hours of wood shedding; practice; and learning from flubs, goofs, and gaffes that were refined until licks and phrases became syntax for a tongue bypassing the logic of words, every slight, insult, belly laugh, fist fight, and love affair insinuating itself in each quarter note pause, each accelerated race of scales, each bluesy bend and gracious strut, turning the mere technique into a very real voice, tempered by experience. Technique is merely a matter of mechanics, skills an aptitude you demonstrate when you’re working for a grade. Talent, though, is what you learn, when theory meets practice. Practice meant playing with out the safety net as you showed the world what it was you’ve learned and the depth of personality you bring to the technique. Joe’s personality was deep, varied, sprite and somber, lyric and abrasive, emerging fully, masterfully from his instrument, the embodiment of a quote attributed to Charlie Parker:
Joe, 1964
Joe, 1964
Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your wisdom.
If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.
They teach you there’s a boundary line to music.
But, man, there’s no boundary line to art….
This was in the seventies, between 1973 through 1975. I can’t locate the exact date in my mind, but it’s a vivid memory all the same. I was working in a string of quizzical jobs—a poet and an occasional rock critic becoming rapidly bored by the calcified likes of rock ‘n’ roll and cautiously investigating jazz, the music of snobs, old people, and tonal chaos. I was watching Joe Marillo, who seemed to transport himself into dimensions without names as he blew and let his fingers fly over the saxophone keys, and then I understood that I didn’t need to understand what he was doing. All there was to do was listen as the allusive complexity of the improvisations cohered and provided the continuous sounds of revelation. I began to grasp the concept I could not grasp previously.

However much Joe seemed to be in a state of transcendence while he was in the throes of improvisational excursion when the music wound down—muted cymbal hisses and piano, bass and guitar fills diminishing in volume and speed as the leader offered one last, rich cadenza that concluded his sortie on a low, richly sustained major note—he stood up, opened his eyes, and looked about the lounge, an overcrowded room of San Diegans fortunate enough to experience Marillo’s bifurcated grooves. He looked squarely in the direction I was sitting. “We’re going to take a short break, have a drink, and let’s keep this scene going, eh?”
Joe with Stan Getz, 1974
Joe with Stan Getz

I sat with two of Joe’s friends, Robert and Jeri, and we were lucky enough to, among the comparative few, have a table inside the circumscribed lounge. They were pals I had since my early days as a UCSD undergraduate literature student and poet in the making. Robert, someone with a detailed knowledge and deep affection for music that was improvised, experimental, full of odd elements and outside the four-chord strictures of pop music, suggested we see Marillo and his band that night at Chuck’s. Robert suggested that Joe might be amenable to letting me sit in with my harmonica for a blues tune. Joe positioned his saxophone on a stand, grabbed his drink, and walked over our table. Fast and animated, Joe brought Robert and Jeri up to speed about what he was planning to do: start up his own jazz series at the Catamaran in Pacific Beach. Robert and Jeri did much the same, the conversation a blur, with rushed words and hasty summations of what had been going on over the weeks since they last saw each other, but altogether amiable, the kind of quick camaraderie among friends who understand the moods of their friends quickly when time was pressing. Joe looked at the “C” blues harmonica I had placed on the table, a cheesy habit I developed: put the instrument in conspicuous view and hope a professional musician would take the bait and ask me to play with him. It worked sometimes; other times the harmonica was ignored. Joe asked one question, pointing to the harmonica.

“What key is that thing in?” I told him that it was in the key of C.
“Tell you what,” he said, his voice a friendly, honking rasp, “you’re going to play a blues with us on the next song, when we start the next set.”
Photo by Dennis Andersen
Photo by Dennis Anderson

Play we did, a slow blues in G, myself trying to follow the augmented I-IV-V progression, Joe’s saxophone seasoning the groove with short fills, blurts, aching squeals, the drummer giving accenting key points of tension, and the pianist tinkling the keys with manic trills and quicksilver runs. Joe leaned over as I held the harmonica to the mic and the mic up to my mouth, likely looking to the crowd like someone who hadn’t eaten in a week who finally got his hands on a Big Mac and a side of fries. He offered these fateful words: “Go ahead, man, it’s all yours.” Play I did, and not all that well, my ideal sound being Paul Butterfield crossed with copious amounts of Sonny Terry, but the crowd provided a visible approval, heads nodding, bobbing, men with their eyes closed as though they were playing the mournful tones, women swaying in their seats, long hair fanning the table tops and overpriced drinks. My first note was a low moan, a bend on the two-draw note, next up to three draw, a construction of textures based on the progression. And so it went for two choruses, me intoning the riffs of the masters, the sounds coming out the house PA system and muffled by the collective sound of the band hammering hard on the grit that made Mississippi great. Joe was yelling “Yeah” at one point, near the last bit of my solo, giving me a start. I missed the groove
The crowd applauded and cheered, though. Joe patted me on the back and gently pushed me from the stage, friendly but firm. The band increased in volume and Joe took possession of the spot again. Center stage was a place where Joe Marillo belonged, gathered with musicians dedicated to making a living playing what is arguably America’s greatest music. In the 40 plus yeas that I listened to him, there seemed to be no style he couldn’t perform masterfully with his horn. There was the Coltrane factor where the register was jumping with steeple-chase changes of “Giant Steps,” which were negotiated with ease and panache by Joe. There was the large, blasting harmonics of Gato Barbieri when the groove went Latin-jazz and the notes assumed extra urgency; there was the delicate, ribbon-lyricism of a Paul Desmond when he did a ballad, his tone subdued, softer, investigating the emotions contained between a composer’s scripted subtle melodic configurations.

It needs to be said here, I think, that above all else, Joe Marillo was a master of his instrument, in my estimation, as well as a the pioneering musician whose legwork convinced a good number of restaurants, clubs, hotels, and cafes to regularly program jazz. Not long after seeing him for the first time at Chuck’s Steak House, Joe created the Society for the Preservation of Jazz, a group that was dedicated to exposing jazz to San Diegans who, at the time, had precious few spots to hear the music performed. He opened his series at the Catamaran and booked jazz legends Sarah Vaughn and Art Pepper among a wonderful string of artists. He had been named “the Godfather of San Diego Jazz,” and it was a nickname he earned. He played all over the county—from East County, Downtown, and the beach area to the North County, spreading his kind of full-throttle jazz to anyone who cared to show up and listen. Something took, I think, all these years later since Joe first campaigned for the music. What we have in our variety of jazz and jazz-friendly venues is due in large part by Joe.

The short and long of it is that Joe Marillo improved the cultural life of San Diego in ways difficult to calculate, which is a more qualified way of saying that he improved life on his planet, period. Had it not been for Joe putting jazz where it had not been before in this sun-glutted burg, my tastes in music would have been impoverished beyond tolerance. Marillo was part of this young man’s education in what makes being alive worth the trudging and setbacks. I thank Joe Marillo for the lessons taught.

Dizzy’s is hosting a tribute to Joe on Tuesday, May 24, 7pm, featuring musicians who worked with him, plus a photo exhibit.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

album review: "ImPossible" is impossibly good

ImPossible--Divinity Roxx
Just as the tributes to the recently departed Prince was causing me to become a shade fearful that we might not witness a comparable talent with his scope and easy mastery of rock, rhythm, and blues, hip-hop, funk, fusion and soul, I came upon “ImPossible” (pronounced ‘I’m possible’), a new release by seasoned bassist, singer, MC, bandleader, songwriter Divinity Roxx.I’ve been playing it all week, amazed at her and her band’s effortless blend of motifs, springing from the expected springs of hip-culture and the polysyllabic bantering of rap, but incorporating the riffy drive of rock, the percussive ebullience of greased-up funk, the slow jam testimonies of a lover’s testimonial, the gospel punch of soul , the truly sobering testimonial of unaffected rap rhythm. Roxx, a precise and quick-witted bassist who’s been best known as band member and Musical Director for Beyonce, has collaborated with dozens of names in an equal amount of varying styles, and with ‘ImPossible” brings the world an album that is beyond infectious or catchy or merely entertaining (although it is all those things); she is conceptualist, a synthesizer, a musician with an actual fusion sensibility who , it sounds like , loves many kinds of sounds with equal ardor , imagines the ways the approaches can fit together coherently, effectively, powerfully, and who reveals the know-how, or “feel” how, to make this diversified project work. It rocks, it struts, it is insistent on the downbeat, propulsive on the upbeat. That is what she shares with our beloved and begone Prince, an impressive talent based on tradition but, in the corniest parlance one can manage, stands on the shoulders of giants to see what vistas lay ahead for the music.

I’ve been playing it all today as I write this. Groove-tacular. The principal shortcoming, if that’s the case at all, is Roxx’s limitations as a vocalist; there are more than one occasion on this fine record that you want to knock the ball out of the park the way Aretha Franklin can or had the husky but feminine baritone of Nina Simone to find the emotional cracks, dents, and imperfections in the words; no matter, I say. Roxx is a different generation, raised and reared in hip-hop, and she makes fine use of her voice in the old tradition of toasting; but instead of boasting, these long, percolating recitals grasp the thorny issues of racism, violence against the black community, self-esteem, the need to remain full of love in both one’s personal affairs but also in the face of the world that is hostile to your existence merely for your shade of skin tone. It does sound a little much, an overkill of I-Have-A-Dream and a stream of sentiments taken off placards, if one was relying on casual description, but Roxx and her special guest reciters, including the esteemed Victor Wooten, reveal themselves, speak truth to power, avoid the strident declarations but insist on strength, resolve, action strengthened by keeping an open heart. The effect is, as well, beyond uplifting, it is transforming. The video above, “We Are”, is a superb representation of an effort that has brightened my week. Driving riffs, blistering, joyous rhyming, determined voices joining in the march toward the day when we all might enjoy our similarities and appreciate our differences.

Sunday, May 1, 2016


 I came into sobriety knowing only one thing for certain , a fact that none of the thousand or so books I'd read nor the many words I'd written could help me feel deep in the bone, in the marrow, where it counted the most. I knew I didn't want to drink again, coming as close I cared to becoming a cheap, delusional , whiny punk petty criminal, gaunt, nervous and doomed to a tragic and end as cipher, a memory no one wants to recollect. But not until I accepted that I was doomed unless something happened was I able to stop arguing with an inevitable and walk the other way, up the hill, toward the sunlight of the spirit. It hardly mattered that I had no plans for the future, if I had any future at all;  all that mattered was not drink today, not steal today, not lie today, not die today. That was nearly 29 years ago, and until I could admit that I was defeated and that my variety of jive was sounding stale even to myself, that I was beyond human aid of any sort, only then was I able to actually do something contrary to the compulsive behavior that made me the saddest sack you'd ever seen. Acceptance, and then change everything you're doing.

Self acceptance is one thing, but it seems to me that changing oneself is required in order to maintain a level of sanity that can return you sanity after the batterings, high and low and in-between, human existence brings us. We cannot remain stubbornly the same as a means of spiting those who attempt to add us to their particularized set of neurosis; learning how to change is an essential skill. Perhaps “change” is the wrong word, as its been co-opted and poisoned by every fad pop-psychology has heaped upon our mass-mediated culture. More appropriate, more useful, perhaps, would be “grow”. Screw trying to change yourself into a internet meme, our tasks is to remain teachable and to grow into new experience, to learn, to become wiser and more full of the love for the world as well as love for ourselves. Too many of us pay a sorry price for having an excess of one or the other. We can grow into ourselves into the world we find ourselves, as individuals, as citizens, as members of a community .

 I realize the phrase “To thine own self be true” is a cliche that makes many cringe, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a bad way to go. It’s a matter of how we do it. Besides gaining knowledge through experience, we should be able to gather wisdom as well. Or one would think.