A great musician has passed. Allison's was a name that flew below the radar when one started counting influential singer/songwriters. It's in retrospect that you realize his style , his originality in an African American art form, were the epicenter of whatever legitimate Caucasian version of "cool" might have developed during his prime period. He didn't attempt to sound or act black in music or manner, and he didn't hide from his white, Southern background. His singing remains a godsend in an area of blues, the sort played by well intentioned white players , who mostly sounding like rude noises from an garbled idea of American culture. Allison's voice was cool, reserved, talk-sung with the barest hint of blues inflection; where others got loud and raspy when the emotions poured down thickly, Allison remained calm, his voice hanging as far to the edge of musical phrase while still remaining , in some way, on , before or just after the beat. This was he subtle insinuation of skepticism, reserve, of keeping a center amid the chaos of events and conflicts and contradictions around him. Part Southern Gentleman and part Sonny Boy Williams, it was a style of singing that was clear and articulate but still made you think that was the voice of a man heavily marked by experience. Like wise his lyrics, which were cool, ironic, sardonic, spare but full of implication. I don't there have been many other songwriters who displayed as much wit with so much rhyming brevity. He was, of course, a unique pianist, cross referencing classical and hard bop with a seamless elegance and energy.
Wednesday, November 16, 2016
Friday, November 11, 2016
Bob Dylan is, in essence, and in fact, a song lyricist who has a particularly strong gift for the poetic effect, while Cohen is a poet in the most coherent sense; he had published several volumes of poetry and published two novels prior to his taking up the guitar. Dylan's style is definitely the definition of the postmodern jam session, a splendid mash-up of Little Richard, Hank Williams, Chuck Berry and a long line of obscure or anonymous folk singers whose music he heard and absorbed. His lyrics, however arcane and tempered with Surreal and Symbolist trappings--although the trappings, in themselves, were frequently artful and inspired--he labored to the pulse of the chord progression, the tight couplets, the strict obedience to a rock and roll beat. This is the particular reason he is so much more quotable than Cohen has turned out to be; the songwriter's instinct is to get your attention and keep it and to have you humming the refrain and singing the chorus as you walk away from the music player to attend to another task.
Chances are that you are likely to continue humming along with the music while you work, on your break, on the drive home, for the remains of the day. This is not to insist that Cohen is not quotable or of equal worth--I am in agreement that Cohen, in general, is the superior writer to Dylan, and is more expert at presenting a persona that is believably engaged with the heartaches, pains and dread-festooned pleasures his songs take place. His lyrics are more measured, balanced, and less exclamatory and time wasting, and exhibit a superior sense of irony. Cohen is the literary figure, the genuine article, which comes to songwriting with both his limitations and his considerable gifts. All is to say that Dylan has Tin Pan Alley throwing a large shadow over his work. Cohen, in turn, is next to a very large bottle of ink and a quill. Cohen tends the words he uses more than Dylan does; his language is strange and abstruse at times, but beyond the oddity of the existences he sets upon his canvas there exist an element that is persuasive, alluring, masterfully wrought with a writing, from the page alone, that blends all the attendant aspects of Cohen’s stressed worldliness– sexuality, religious ecstasy, the burden of his whiteness– into a whole , subtly argued, minutely detailed, expertly layered with just so many fine, exacting touches of language.
His songs, which I find the finest of the late 20th century in English–only Dylan, Costello, Mitchell and Paul Simon, have comparable bodies of work–we find more attention given to the effect of every word and phrase that’s applied to his themes, his storylines. In many writers overall. Unlike Dylan, who has been indiscriminate for the last thirty ways I would say Cohen is a better lyricist than Dylan because he’s a better years about the quality of work he’s released, there is scarcely anything in Cohen’s songbook that wasn’t less than considered, pondered over, measured for effect and the achievement of the cultivated ambiguity that made you yearn for some of the sweet agony that accompanies a permanent residence in the half-lit zone between the sacred and the profane.
Monday, November 7, 2016
Jethro Tull was a band of superb musicians who played music that was decidedly more work than pleasure to bear with. There's no denying that leader and chief composer Ian Anderson could cook up artful and impressive ensemble pyrotechnics for this or any number of the other versions of Jethro Tull to blaze through, but the leader's ideas were limited and one-note throughout the band's peak and into their decline. English folk traditions wedded with baroque fussiness, wheezy flute solos over craggy hard rock interludes, much of it seasoned with the admittedly agreeable sweet and sour fills and riffing from longtime guitarist Martin Barre. Skill and discipline aside, though, the plentiful progressive/art rock elements of JT's music was directionless, a trait that worsened as soon as Anderson responded to the grandiosity of Yes and Emerson Lake and Palmer by going for the long format of single-song projects such as Thick as a Brick and Passion Play.
Bits and pieces create sparks and actually ignite on both discs, but soon enough you're in a maze of a tricky time- signatures and agitated changes that are less inspiring and moving thematically. It was at this point in their career that Tull became a cure for insomnia. I'm the first to admit that Jethro Tull had "pretty parts", but I would reserve that classification for those musical moments where a shining bit of ensemble work actually clicked and highlighted a fine band raging happily along with some problematic time signatures. In that vein,
I rather like the Martin Barre - composed introduction to "Minstrel in the Gallery", a tour de force of quirky transitions and sculpted dissonance that rises to actual art. Compression and brevity are the keys to those instances when JT catches my attention, but as often as not Anderson refuses to move from his signature amalgam of styles he likes and provides then is needed, or even effective, in the then-mistaken belief that length of composition and promiscuously convolutions of theme equals serious art. I was always one who preferred their progressive rock not to drag along the road. Lyrically, principle songwriter Ian Anderson is not so stunning; he had an effective light touch with imagery in the early work like "Living in the Past" or the particularly riveting tune "Nothing to Say"; 'though perhaps guised in a fictional persona, Anderson, all the same, connects with a convincing humanity as matters of being alive without certainty are sussed through impressionistically and, yes, concisely, closer to true poetry . The man had a knack, in the day, of getting to the point and getting you to think about things other than material gain. That wordsmithing, I think, has been far less in evidence since their career took off, from 'Aqualung" onward.
Thursday, November 3, 2016
Norman Mailer fancied himself to be many things, some of them he mastered grandly and other roles not so grandly, embarrassing in truth. He was not just a public crackpot along the lines of Russell Kirk, Dwight McDonald or Lionel Trilling, he was the Public Crackpot. His theories, emboldened by his fame and reputation for being edgy, if not actually on the edge, lead him to opine, pontificate, huff and puff theories that would make a white man weep and all others laugh. So why have I stuck by someone who's had a career of nearly dedicating equal amounts of energy between his worst habits as his best virtues? Well, no matter the idea he put forward, Mailer was never dull, and I rather liked the way he could take over a conversation and require the fussy right wing and left wing gadflies pull up their pants and stretch their well-heeled dogmas in defense of their concepts of society, history and reality should work . Mailer was a born usurper, in Gore Vidal's words. The key thing to remember is that Mailer is a literary artist above all else that did, and since making words express those notions and impulses that don’t have coherent expression is what Mailer happened to excel at in his most inspired writing. It’s fair enough to loved language enough to abuse it in order interest to get his oft-script impressions across. But this is not a case where Mailer’s appropriation of the selected terms can be dimly understood by those reading him , a lot or just a little; he took pains throughout his books to make clear what he meant by his use of the terms cancer, hip, existential and totalitarian.
Mailer , of course, had odd ideas as to the cause and spread of disease and , in to paraphrase Joyce Carol Oats, was dangerous with some of his opinions because he expressed them so well, but I’d venture that “cancer” in particular was a metaphor he applied liberally to a social condition that set in on the collective spirit in of America during the Post War period. Strictly speaking, there’s something crackpot in how long he held on the Reichean notion that bad faith causes the cells to go berserk, but I think, for Mailer, it was a rather good spring board to his fabulous metaphorical flights; the absurd notion that too much comfort and lack of risk taking increases our chances of become cancer ridden is fairly much forgotten as those bits of fevered lyricism take over your attention and manage to do what a great poem ought to, engage at the level of the line where it reveals the substance that’s under the assumption of accord our daily routines by and to realize that much of what we assume is fixed is subterfuge , socially constructed restrictions embedded in culture, institutions and even the language we use to critique our assumptions. This leads us to his use of the word “existential”, which , while lacking the systemic critique of the philosophical idealism that preceded its rise in a Europe ravaged by world wars, revolutions, and genocide , all the same coheres nicely with the notion that existence has no “meaning” independent of what one brings to their life span in terms of deeds performed in good faith, actions for which the active agent, the Hemingway hero, the Sartrean doubter, takes responsibility for. It’s a personalized brand of existentialism, and Mailer offers his adjustment to the term a number of times through his books.
You have to stop sometimes so you can appreciate what the senses have given you as you go your way through the world . You have to stop in order to write about the need to pursue the seductive logic of never stopping . But you have to stop before you go forward, as the brain absorbs only so much ; you stop , you breathe, you think, you connect what has happened recently with the narrative of a life already recorded. This engages you with the world, truly, this is where the poetry comes from, not gushing hot lava adjectives and verbs while writing that the world is made more real by moving forward, with out apology, without pause or reflection, following the string where ever it leads. But this is not poetry and it is not lyricism. The writer in those times they stop agitating the gravel and take pause to reflect, meditate, consider the thingness of the world they’ve blazed through a little too quickly, there arises the sense that one forgets that they are a writer, the self-appointed priest of making things happen on the fly; the writing becomes about the world , the people, the places, the things that occupy the same space as you, the same patch of land your visiting. It becomes less about the writer, the seeker of knowledge attempting to gain knowledge through velocity , the impatient explorer more concerned with inflaming their senses rather than being genuinely curious about and teachable within the world. You have to stop , take a breath, create a language, a poetry, a prose style that convinces the reader that they’ve actually encountered something extraordinary in their travels through hill and dale, river and inlet, village and burg, that they’ve actually learned something they didn’t know before. Otherwise , I believe, nothing is revealed because nothing was learned and, despite all manner of ranting and such protests defending one’s unique view, that view is forgotten and another opportunity is lost to move a reader in ways you might not have expected.
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 ownself 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.