Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Conway Con

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So is this how it's going to be ? First the White House Spokesman Sean Spicer glaringly misrepresents the numbers of the Inauguration attendance by saying the crowds were the "biggest ever". Now Trump's chief apologist Conway announces that the Spokesman gave "alternative facts" about the numbers instead of simply saying that Spicer was mistaken, or more simply, was wrong. That would have given this faux pas a fast, if embarrassing, arrest, but it creates more concern and justification for more scrutiny on these rascals. 

"Alternative facts"? This phrase pretty much reflects the magical and impulsive thinking of Trump's campaign rhetoric, where the first thing that came into his head at a speech was the next thing he said, without vetted proof of any sort, surreally incoherent declarations he would double, triple and quadruple down on when pressed as to their accuracy. There are, of course, no such things as "alternative facts". There are facts that are not accounted for, matters not yet discovered, recorded and verified, but all the same, there are no "alternative facts".  There are facts known and facts unknown, and if there are facts that demonstrably disprove that what previously thought was true, you change your assumption, you change your theory of how the world works. 

You begin to think that Trump's hallucinatory grasp of things is contagious among those who've been in close quarters to him for too long. Might this be a case of Elvis Syndrome, or Michael Jackson for that matter, where rich and deluded men are surrounded not by friends or concerned family but rather by hired henchmen who's job it is to reinforce the leader's slanted cosmology? It would a good time for us to re-read George Orwell's brilliant essay "Politics and the English Language", a trenchant piece that exposes how propagandist on the Left and the Right usurp common place words, phrases and concepts and find ways of using the language to advance their ideological goals.My worry about Conway's use of the phrase "alternative facts" comes that her use seemed reflexive, not performative. She sounded as if the distinction made any difference. You wonder if she knew the difference at all.  

Meaning and murk in modern poems

Experimental poetry used to be the kind of stuff that broke with established forms of verse writing, both in form and aesthetic. A good survey course in Western Poetry will pretty much be the history of one school of poetry arising in response and/or rebellion against forms that had long been dominant, with the more daring and expansive poetry influencing younger poets to the degree that the experimenters over time become the old guard. This goes on and on, exceptions to rules becoming rules until another generator of impatient experimenters come along with their contrarian notions of what verse should be, usurping fusty older poets and becoming the dominant ones themselves, fat, complacent and ripe for overturning. I don’t know if that’s a working dialectic, but it is something that has continued since literate men and women sought to express grand and vague inspirations in language that did more than merely describe or paraphrase existence. It’s my feeling that experimentation has become the norm and that we have these days are recycling of previous avant gard ideas and gestures, names if theories and practices changed ever so much.

 But not so much. It's gotten to the point that the school of poets who are referred to as the New Formalist, poets who’ve tired of free verse and variable feet and the several generations of “open forms” in poetry and compose poems that rhyme and which employ traditional meter, have become a controversial matter in that they threaten to usurp the hegemony of the experimental tradition.

To each their own as to what they prefer to put in front of their eyes, and to each their own for developing a critical rationale for their what sorts of peculiar phrase deformations give them pause to stroke their chin, scratch their head and laugh or cry as the case may be. Emotional responses reconstituted and subjected to the marginalia that makes even recipes for stone soup resemble nothing less than unappetizing exercises in gratuitous brain power is, to an extent, another sort of poetry. It's a condition that admits, tacitly, that we're unable to get to the actual heart of our states of being, fluid as they are, but we are capable of conducting our recollections through a lexicon that most closely resembles whatever idealized paradigm momentarily fits the fleet-footed of a perception. It's guesswork of a kind, never on the money, never finalizing the dissension among the talkers who wait their turn to speak their world into existence, but still, something that brings a quality we cannot live without. A love of process, of trying to come up with means, methods, and ideas of using language that is as fluid and predictable as the experience itself.

  Myself, I am attracted to any kind of poetic writing that has that rare quality of being dually fresh and unique; I am less intrigued by the theory behind a poem, experimental or traditional than I am on it reads, on whether it works. If it produces a reader’s satisfaction, then it becomes useful to investigate what a writer has done as an artist in this odd medium, bringing skill and on the fly inspiration to bear in the writing. This can be the case with Ron Silliman, John Ashbery, two poets who are arrested my attention with their creation of indirect address of the living expression, and it is the case for Thomas Lux and Dorianne Laux, two other poets who are not averse to letting in you follow their line of thinking and who still lead you results that are unexpected and extraordinary.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Spider's out to get ya

I pretty much thought the 70s Midnight Special program on NBC was as cheesy as most of the pop rock they presented from that musically sorry decade, but they did raise their game once to glorious heights by presenting a mini-concert of David Bowie and band, in full glam regalia, on their show. Recorded at the legendary Marquee Club in London's Soho, it is Bowie at his most compelling and bracing. The first song in particular , 1984, is especially notable, a lean, stripped-down hard rock version that has all the things Bowie's tunes have for us, nicely turned changes, suddenly menacing riffs, a combination of industrial grind, gay disco and hard rock brutalism. The drummer was Aynsley Dunbar, who plays like man determined to make that kit he has is never played again; hard, furious, fast, he has the power of Keith Moon and the efficient virtuosity with the tricky time signature. Bowie, of course, is odd, compelling, still something to look at all these decades later, a presence with talent to match his audaciousness.

"LIVE BY NIGHT" : Affleck is not the auteur he thinks he is

Ben Affleck rebuilt his reputation mostly on the strength of his skills as an able and savvy director, having directed the successful and justifiably praised films “Gone Baby Gone”, “The Town” and ‘Argo”, for which he won the Oscar for Best Director. Affleck is a marginally good actor, good when the scripts and casting are on the moneythink of how wonderful John Wayne was in “ Red River” and how awful he was as Genghis Khan in “The Conquerorand his evolution , during his time off camera, into learning the craft of film direction (and the obligations of being a producer) seems to have given a sharp and canny sense of what kind of material he can be credible in as an actor and director. He’s been doing good work in films he hasn’t directed but starred in, such as “Gone Girl”, “The Accountant” and “Batman v Superman”; he has gotten praise from critic and fan both for his sharpened sense of the camera lens. As with Wayne and fellow actor-director Clint Eastwood, Affleck has learned to do fine work within his limited range as an actor.
But the 4th time is the charm, the warning, seen in his new period crime drama “Live by Night”,where we come across him as a petty criminal in 30s era Boston, finding himself caught between a war between the Irish and the Italian gangs that are vying for domination. Long story brutally abbreviated, our hero finds himself working for the Italians as he heads up their Miami rum running operation. What unfolds after that is a string of gangster movie cliches and hackneyed melodramatic plot turns that cannot fool you into thinking that what’s happening between the characters on screenwhether the premise is love, lust, betrayal, revenge or philosophical convictions that become endlessly compromised by real life complicationsis anything more than mere mechanics. The story is a machine running on the fuel of over familiar parts. The script, based on a novel by the estimable Dennis Lehanne, is credited to Affleck alone , and this where the blame for the film’s listless wade through lifeless plot turns must fall; he displays a tin ear for fresh dialogue and is unable, in this effort, to create anticipation, a sense that a viewer does not how any of this will end.
That I was able , many times, what was going to happen ten later in the picture based on the heavy-handed foreshadowing of both image and chatter doesn’t make me smart, only that “Live by Night” has the predictability of a sub-standard television cop-drama.(It may mean, also, that I spend too much time watching movie.)There are several plotlines that attempt to create an eventual ironic consequence that would cast the respectable coat of Tragedy around this production, but such elements and effects work only if the writing hand is subtle and nearly invisible in the laying out of the story elements that will eventually turned one’s assumptions about what’s happening on their head, elements that are seen, noted, and then nearly forgotten about until they emerge again and consequently change the tone and meaning of the story, unexpectedly but credibly. What the movie lacks in cogent transformation it makes up in plot demarcations being hit squarely (and without grace). 
Affleck’s writing and direction hasn’t the patience nor grace to make this work. Glaring as well is Affleck’s casting in the lead role. Affleck is too tall, too squared jawed, too muscular; he looks uncomfortable in the suits he’s put himself; worse, often times he appears about to burst out of them, Hulk style.And again, about Affleck’s acting limits come into play, which is to say that his facial expressions are not subtle nor do they lure you in to read the lines of his face or the shine or lack thereof in the eyes; Affleck seems to have fixed expressions for happy, sad, angry, raging, laughing, crying, mostly robotic and seeming unmotivated by the tragedies, murders and raging extremes happening around him. Much as I've defended Affleck in the past as an actor, this time he seems aware of only where he he is in relation to the camera. 

It’s worth noting that the praise for writing on Affleck’s other efforts as director“Gone Baby Gone”, The Town” and “Argo”were for efforts where there were collaborators in the scripting, in the persons of Chris Terrio, Aaron Stockard and Peter Craig. The implication seems clear, that what the author scribes provided were a sensibilities that could carve Affleck’s contributions to the respective project’s line and and theme into something sharper, less obvious. The dispiriting stream of over used tropes in ‘Live by Night” is such that it blunts the efforts a fine cast , Zoe Saldana and Chris Cooper in particular. This is cool professionalism from actors trying to eke out small moments of good craft from a script that gives  them no love.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Your sponsor is not a trained professional

I dislike the self-help phrase "Feelings are not facts." The people who say have smiles that are so tight that it makes you think those rigid smirks are the result of a string of psychotic breakdowns;no one who utters the convenient adage truly seems convinced that it’s of any real use to someone who’s losing their emotional equilibrium. One has to do a bit of interpretation to get a sense of what the author was trying to say. I refute this cliché thusly: if I am sad, elated, angry, in love or grieving, it is a FACT that I'm feeling that way. The knee jerk bootstrappism of the cliché, on the face of it, discounts feelings and implies you ought to ignore them. Bad advice, dangerous advice. If you're feelings are out of hand and seeming too much to handle, one is advised STRONGLY to get help to understand the feelings and what one can do to recover. Feelings are not facts" is intended to tell sufferers that one should not let their feelings overwhelm them and prevent them from being proactive in their life. That I am feeling depressed, bereaved, elated, et al, however, are, in themselves, facts, and excessive states of each or in combination thereof that prevents the sufferer from engaging their daily life fully cannot be dismissed with this smug phrase. There are reasons one continues to be overwhelmed by fear, grief, anxiety, angst, a feeling of impending doom; if ignored, these feelings can become truly immobilizing. The danger in this is that the phrase seems to have morphed from being a part of a psychiatric / therapeutic treatment modality where distinctions are explicit and the aim, guided with professional aid, is to repair and reinforce a patient's coping skills, to make them increasingly resilient in spite of their feelings. The phrase implies a short cut and, sadly, I see many who would otherwise benefit from a more therapeutic situation vying for a faster fix. Generally speaking, they don't appear to be making progress. I see a lot of this and, in fact, have my own issues to wrestle with as a sober alcoholic. There is an AA phrase, an unfortunate one I think, that states that alcohol is merely a symptom of an underlying disorder. I know precisely what the author of that phrase meant, that there are reasons why we drank, emotional distresses and such that are now triggers toward the temporary and potentially terminal relief booze supplies, but it is said so often by members without thought that it implies strongly that if one attends and corrects the causes of the symptoms, one may return to normal drinking. It undercuts the importance of remaining abstinent. Alcohol, in my experience, was not a symptom, it was (capital was) and remains (capital remains) the problem itself. Generally speaking, all the other things that AA offers effective help in--making amends, righting wrongs, developing a workable spirituality that allows one become a better person, a sober person--are impossible to achieve unless one adheres to permanent physical sobriety. I just don't appreciate complicated problems being trivialized by way of bumper sticker slogans.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

More old record reviews

Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) - Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band (Warner Brothers) This is one of the few times tha t all of Beefheart's freaky talents have been . captured successfully on record, easily the first time since 1968's Trout Mask Replica. The music is as crankishly idiosyncratic as it's ever been (jump-cut time signatures, a free mixing of "free-jazz" randomness and pop song structures, blues and neoclassical shades blending into thick atonal texture) and Beefheart's vocals, one of the raspiest voices anywhere, de liver his dadaesque, free-associative lyrics with the same kind of off-kilter verve.(One would be remiss in thinking that Beefheart's lyrics are without substance or lack meaning: no less than Wallace Stevens, who explored his dreams of a world of perfect arrangements and their contradictions, Beefheart, nee Don Van Vliet chooses to inspect a terrain of imperfect things, material and organic, and forge connections and conversation between them with nothing but the force of applied and intense whimsy. )

The effect sounds like an Unlikely super session between Howlin' Wolf and Alfred Jarry (costumes designed by Max Ernst) . His new Magic Band, featuring ex-Zappa sidemen as Bruce Fowler (trombone) and Art Tripp (drums) , handle the demands of the music with disciplined ease, executing Beefheart 's quixotic time  signatures and self-deconstructing arrangements with a professionalism  that tends toward both perfection and liveliness, usually an unlikely symbiosis in art-rock groups. However cerebral Beefheart's music sounds, though, it should be POinted out that Shiny Beast  is a fun album, full of good humor and strong material. This time out, The Captain is out to entertain and beguile, a work of art that does what any object of scrutiny must do, which is to offer a genius's blend that confuses, edifies, confounds and elevates the individual attendee . 
Image result for k scope phil manzaneraK-Scope - Phil Manzanera (Polydor)- Though K-Scope lacks some of the rhythmic interest and angular improvisations that made his previous Diamond Head record one of the more interesting experimental rock releases of 1976, Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera 's new album one is still intriguingly off the beaten path. The music is a bit more human this time out, i.e. more easilty accessible to a broader listenership, and Manzanera himself keeps a relatively low profile throughout, keeping his guitar chores to setting mood, rhythm duties and occasional fills. The saxophone work by ex-King Crimson member Mel Collins adds an agreeable jazzy drift to the instrumental tracks. 

Image result for tokyo tapes scorpions Tokyo Tapes - Scorpions (RCA) Recorded live in Japan (the new hard-rock capital of the world), the German Scorpions play their way through four sides of machine-shop heavy metal. The songs are generally undistinguished (this band exhibits little originality in the songwriting department) , the drum work tends to be as rigid as rigor mortis, and the singing, in phonetic English, approximates the sound of a barking dog_ What makes the album a delight, though, is the guitar work of Ulrich Roth. Like Edward Van Halen, Roth's style combines flash (ala Jeff Beck and Johnny Winter), technique (Allan Hold s worth and Harvey Mandel), power (Leslie West a and Hendrix) and taste (Ritchie Blackmore). His solos are swooping, over-powering sorties, with dizzying sonic riffs, fleet-fingered note configurations and screaming obstinate sustains. This leads to a monotonous virtuosity that begs to be paid attention to, though. As  is the case with most fret masters in rock and roll, the harmonic palette is limited compared to the full chromatic smorgasbord classical or jazz formats afford musicians given to playing many notes; after a bit , all those scurrying steeple races up and down the guitar neck resemble inspiration and melodrama less and the mechanical fury of factory machines more. Maybe that’s the point.

Thursday, January 5, 2017


(from the UCSD Guardian, where I was bloviating for a few years as Arts  Editor during the late Seventies, early Eighties.-tb)

After a modicum of meditation, soul-searching, and late-night phone calls, I've decided that this annual autopsy we call a "year-in-review" won't be as grisly as I imagined. In fact, the most outlandish generalization one could make about the state of pop music in 1979 is that it was merely "okay." As in any year, there were plenty of decent albums that passed through my hands on to mine and my writer's turntable, but there was a sizable proportion of discs from new and established artists that fall well below what one wants to hear. In any case, rock and roll don't seem to be dying at the present moment, though I, like anyone else who's been involved with the stuff too much for their own good, would have to have heard more records that reached the high watermark. What follows are my annual hit-and-run comments on the previous year's more or less notable releases.

1) Armed Forces — Elvis Costello (Columbia): Although Nick Lowe's production is at times heavy-handed and strains too often for effect (too much piano, echo chambers, an overkill of vocal over dubs), Costello remains a formidable talent that no amount of cheap garnish can obscure. At best, (more times than not) Costello is dead on target. At worst, he's utterly incoherent and artlessly paranoid.
2) Nice Guys — The Art Ensemble of Chicago (ECM): By definition, avant-garde or "free" jazz is supposed to be difficult for the uninitiated to warm up to, but the Ensemble's latest seems (to me at least) to be the one '79 release in the genre that even Mangione fans can find enjoyable. Nice Guys is a brilliant crazy quilt of styles and strategies, with the shifting textures and colorations of saxophones, trumpets, drums, bass, and a plethora of more obscure instruments proceeding through a fascinating session of unconventional improvisation.
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3) Trevor Rabin — Trevor Rabin (Chrysalis) Rabin is a singer-songwriter-guitarist from South Africa who's same-named debut album supplies the kind of mega-rock that Todd Rundgren's been promising for years. Rabin proceeds through a far-fetched array of styles, from Mountainesque heavy-metal, syrupy ballads, McLaughlin-inspired jazz-rock, Zappa-like ensemble virtuosity, through disco and reggae, often blending these incongruous strands into the same song. And, incredibly, it works.
 4) Van Halen II — Van Halen (Warner Brothers): Edward Van Halen plays flashy hard rock guitar with admirable vengeance and ingenuity; that is enough for me.

5) One of a Kind — Bill Bruford (Polydor): The former Yes, King Crimson and Genesis drummer deftly leads a band of superb musicians through a session that combines the best of progressive rock (compositional organization with a rich sense of harmony and counterpoint) and the best of fusion rock (inventive soloing meshing hard-rock dynamics with fleet-fingered technique). Guitarist Allan Holdsworth performs as though in a state of grace, and bassist Jeff Berlin is someone to watch out for.  

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6) New Values — Iggy Pop: Iggy, who is the godfather of punk if anyone is, has finally transcended the problems that've too often stopped him from delivering that all-purpose knockout punch. The music is crunchy, cantankerous rock and roll, Iggy's vocals have the appeal of the off-hand remark, and the lyrics succeed in being anti-intellectual without the obnoxious posturing that is the calling card of many whom Iggy has influenced. Iggy proves here that he is the main-man.

 7) Shiny Beast (Bat Pull Chain) — Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band 
ner Brothers): Beefheart, rock's most idiosyncratic avant-garde individualist, is refreshingly in place for once, seeming to have hammered his worrisome kinks and quirks into a form that benefits his talent for constructing fractured, asymmetrical, dada-derived music. Splendid use of free jazz tonalities, urban blues, Caribbean rhythms, and rhythm and blues. (Warner Brothers): Beefheart, rock's most idiosyncratic avant-garde individualist, is refreshingly in place for once, seeming to have hammered his worrisome kinks and quirks into a form that benefits his talent for constructing fractured, asymmetrical, dada-derived music. Splendid use of free jazz tonalities, urban blues, Caribbean rhythms, and rhythm and blues.
8) Fear of Music — Talking Heads (Sire): Talking Heads, I fear, is more of an alliance with art-rockers like Eno, Roxy Music and John Cale than with the New Wave, but that hasn't stopped me from liking them. Their music has a cleverly controlled graininess that puts them half-way between garage band amateurism and the post-twelve tone rigors of the "new music" conceptualists. David Byrne's lyrics, sung in a voice that sounds as though it might evaporate at any moment, expresses the tortured holistics of the paranoid mind while allowing as little self-pity as possible. This is the work of a refreshingly straightforward sociopath.

9) Rust Never Sleeps — Neil Young (Warner Brothers): Young, who, like Norman Mailer, has been producing advertisements for himself for years to little advantage (self-revelation must attain the universal, not the therapeutic, it's to sit well as something I'd like to investigate), has released a masterpiece of a kind, a rock and roll testament that deals with American icons, institutionalized violence, and the sand-trap of self-love (among other themes). And Crazy Horse helps Young play some of the dirtiest rock and roll of the sear.
 10) Squeezing Out Sparks — Graham Parker: Parker bites the head off of everyone who's ever done him dirt with music and lyrics that have the mainstream kick of the old Rolling Stones. Blunt, uncompromising stuff.