Thursday, September 21, 2017

Gritty, clammy, unresolved:Mailer vs Germaine Greer, Jill Johnson, Diana Trilling

Germaine Greer
There are perverse types who think that if one places a group of people in the same room who've sworn, metaphorically or literally, to destroy each other, the reflex to go for one's gun will subside and what will result is a frank exchange of opinion, insights and life stories. And after the participants have learned that they're not nearly as distant from each other as they had thought, they'll lock arms, brothers, and sisters all, and stroll down the beach into the fiery sun of a higher revolution. All eyes raised, shoulders broad, worker and intellectual, farmer, and chemist, all eyes upraised and looking to the top of the mountain we will climb, as one, united in cause and spirit. Anyone of us can, of course, say 'posh' to the .and know, ' smirking. that enemies remain antagonists to the bone despite the demands of decorum.  The results of these situations are inconclusive and crackling with uncertainty, a heap of hot laundry alive with static electricity,  neither side abjuring to the points made by an opponent. A lot of us like to watch a spat, a public argument of bright people trying to keep their personal views out of a heated grousing about matters that concern us all more so than the entertainment value of raised hackles and arched backs might otherwise indicate on first view. These are situations where otherwise reasonable people are reduced to the level of kids fighting over the use of a prized toy. As in hack-and-slash horror films, many of us get a cheap thrill over blood being drawn for no good purpose.  Or, one could postulate, no one looks good in a shouting match if that passes as a good purpose. That is a reminder to the rest of us to pick our battles and pick our venues in which to have them.

Norman Mailer
So was the case with the film Town Bloody Hall, a documentary in the cinema vertie mode by director D.A. Pennebaker,  a little view film I had the good luck to see at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art in the early 80s. Filmed in 1971, it is an account of a debate between writer Norman Mailer and an impressive panel of prominent feminist  polemicists  including Germaine Greer (author of The Female Eunuch), radical lesbian Jill Johnson, literary critic Diana Trilling and a representative from The National Organization of Women, whose name I am unable to recall. Pioneer 2nd Wave feminist writer and critic Kate Millet had viciously vilified Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence and Mailer himself in her tract Sexual Politics as outstanding representatives of an elitist male literary culture that has oppressed women by distorting their image so that the imaginations of male fictioneers might be better served. Mailer. whose pugnacious reputation has at times dwarfed his writings in the public mind, countered with The Prisoner 0f Sex, a scathing attack on Millet's lack of literary critical skills and her deliberate misreading~of the texts she was dealing with. It is also at turns a brilliant defense of Millet and Lawrence and a convoluted agonizing over the "existential" aesthetic in male/female relationships.

 Mailer's book sparked a fair amount of public debate, and some enterprising souls thought it would be a neat idea to have The Prisoner confront representatives from the opposition. To be expected, the event was hardly a shining example from a Kansas debate manual, but was rather a riot of rhetoric, name-calling, heckles from an unruly crowd and public spectacle. In other words, an intellectually worthless few hours, but, I'd say, a rousing good time. much like a TV wrestling match on a Saturday afternoon. With Mailer officiating, each speaker was to be given ten minutes to speak, after which Mailer would pose a question. Things got off to a proper start. First to talk was the NOW representative, who offered a list of moderate feminist proposals: housewives should draw a living wage, women should get equal pay for equal work and other less than incendiary ideas. Greer spoke next, eloquently attacking the premise of Mailer's literary heroisms and poetically called for an art of the collective, not of one voice but many. Then matters derailed and declined to the point where the night got permanently off-track. Reading from a text composed in the stream on conscious manner that has always sent me to pounding my head against the wall, Jill Johnson rhapsodized that all women are able to love all other women and until men are able to love all other men, the hopes of an all-embracing social revolution will be scuttled like pipe dreams. Mailer, poking a pencil through a cardboard coffee cup, his face a mass o( downturned lines, cut Johnson off at this point, saying that she'd done five minutes over the time limit. Johnson stands motionless while the audience heckles Mailer, demanding that he let her conclude. After an exchange of curses, he initiates an audience vote and concludes that the 'nays' have it. Someone heckles Mailer again. and Mailer, agitated. points to the crowd and says "If you think you can do a better job than me, then come up here (the stage) and take this microphone from me."Johnson effectively undercuts Mailer's angry-dad tantrum as she begins to make-out and grab as with a woman-friend on stage while Mailer demands that she "act like a lady." When the audience cheers the pair on, Mailer says "You people paid twenty-five dollars to see two pairs of dirty jeans wrestle on stage, which seems odd to me because you can ee all the cock and cunt you want down the street for four bucks." Johnson and friend leave the hall, not to return.

Picking up the pieces after Johnson's psycho-theatrics was hard, and for the rest of the debate the panel split hairs on Mailer's "poeticized" understanding of biology, whether vaginal orgasms were possible, Mailer's warnings that Women's Lib has the potential of becoming a leftwing totalitarianism, why the women's movement must concern themselves with their own lot over all other causes and a host of other feelings, all accompanied by the interjections of an audience. With that, the night was ended, with no one's mind changed and few friends gained. What fascinates me about Town Bloody Hall isn't how concisely it's members articulated their views - in the long run, everyone loses their cogency as tangent pin out faster than a car on a greased blacktop- but just how the women's movement will have to shore up their own politic. In 1971, when this film was made, the movement was just beginning to develop a coherent analysis of the society that was oppressing women. At this time of theoretical splendor,  a clumsy and clammy argument over vaginal orgasm, a pertinent citing of a housewife' right to draw a wage and a far-reaching critique of the culture and politics of art and literature were the order of the day. In the ten years since the debate, the right wing in the country has managed to shore up its own resources and have shown themselves to be astonishingly effective. The fact that Ronald Reagan won the presidency on a platform that opposes abortion and the ERA and holds a grab-bag of other. " Conservative sentiments means that the women's movement is faced with a crisis, a crisis that means that the advancements women have managed over the years could be handily wiped out, setting them back to square one. Town Bloody Hall quite unintentionally reveals what the women's movement must do: hipster bohemianism must be doffed and women must more than ever enter the gritty, un-scrubbed ruthlessness of mainstream electoral politics. And that will be the next test on the movement. If it's to have a lasting effect on the culture in which all of us live, it must be affirmed at the voting booth. A sudden, un-decorated realism is cast upon all of us.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Chick Corea and Friends pay tribute to Bud Powell

I've been a avid Chick Corea fan since meeting him (as a listener) on the M. Davis Bitches Brew, where he tag-teamed with fellow keyboardist Joe Zawinul to give that masterpiece its funky, layered, modal fever dream grounding. Corea since revealed in his solo and collaborative efforts to be a peerless pianist, fluent, fast, inventive, unflagging, and one of his generation's protean composers. It wasn't that,as a composer, he could merely switch styles with acceptable aptitude; his excursions into rock, classical, pop, and Avant Gard were full throttle, probing, finding more similarities than one might expect, and when there weren't elements so similar, relishing in the contractions and producing intriguing music all the same. 

I am not one to say, perhaps, but I would say that Corea's body of work as a jazz composer match up against the greatest the Canon has awarded us with. That said, it's a pleasure to listen to Corea's tribute to one of his central influences, both as composer and improviser, Bud Powell, with his "Remembering Bud Powell" release from 1997. As a pianist, Powell's fingers knew precisely how to be dynamic when and where it counted; as his tunes were melodic but hooky, full of sudden but smooth shifts in tempo and direction, BP seemed to extemporize the composition at will. Matters beheld are unfailingly evident by the energy and the inventive required by Powell's nicely involved songs. Corea, in tribute, positively swings on this session; lithe, percussive, bright. His band--Wallace Roney on trumpet, Ray Haynes on drums, Kenny Garrett, Christian McBride on bass, Joshua Redman on sax--take the opportunity to swing this batch of progressions and augmentations for all the marvelously flowing improvisations they can collectively muster.

This Corea Bud Powell collection is notable for, besides dense and cutting improvisations, is the quality of Powell’s' compositions. Corea resists the temptation to Latinize or fusio-nize the material and instead plays the charts straight--Powell’s' sense of harmonic build-up and resolution is loopy, easing from sweetness to tart dissonance. All of which is the canvas for some good blowing. Corea reins in his extravaganzas and weaves around with a now untypical sense of swing. The efforts of Garrett and Redman are a reed lover’s idea of heaven. Roney has a cool, crystalline tone, and his phrasing is meditative, reserved, nicely so, though one desires a Hubbardesque scorch at odd times. Haynes and McBride are champs. Straight
 ahead jazz fans need to purchase this fine album, and then treat themselves further by acquiring recordings of the florid and exhilarating Mr. Powell himself.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Swing for the fence

T.S.Eliot wrote in a time when the Universe seemed to be rent, with heaven and hell bleeding into one another. His was  a career on the heels of two world wars that shattered optimism one may have had for the promise of technology to replace a silent god, is hardly different that the dread that lurks under the covers of the post modern debate over language's ability to address anything material, or have it convey ideas with any certainty. There is simply the fear that the names we give to things we think are important and worth preserving are, after ball, based on nothing. Grim prospects, that, but Eliot, I think, seeks to provoke a reader's investigation into the source of the malaise, the bankruptcy of useful meaning, with a hope that the language is reinvigorated with a power to transform and change the world.

Eliot's response was real art though, and if it did turn into resignation and nostalgia for more-meaningful past times, his articulation at least provokes a response in the reader, and operates as a challenge for them to make sense of his language, and understand the complexity of their own response. This adheres to Pound's modernist ideal that art ought to not just be about the times in which it's made, but that it needs to provoke a response that changes the times: transformation remains the submerged notion.

There is beauty because there is power in the imagery and the emotion behind it and it's powerful because it rings true; a reader recognizes the state of affairs Eliot discusses with his shimmering allusions, and responds to it. The material does not lie, and he certainly isn't being false by saying "this is my response to our time and our deeds". Rather, it's more that one disagrees with Eliot's conclusion, that all is naught, useless, gone to ashes. Better that one inspects the power of the truth that is in the work and develops their own response to their moment. It's less useful to try and argue with someone's real despair. A depressed expression does not constitute lying.

Eliot was not lying in any sense of the word--lying is a willful act, done so with the intent of trying to make someone believe something that is demonstrably untrue. As the point of The Quartets and his plays have to do with an artful outlaying of Eliot's seasoned ambivalence to his time, the suggestion that "beauty lies" is specious. One has license to argue with the conclusions, or to critique the skill of the writer, but the vision here is not faked dystopia Eliot contrived to a good amount of trendy despair--that comes later, with artless confessional poets who lost any sense of beauty to their own addiction to their ultimately trivial self-esteem issues. Eliot, however one views him, sought transcendence of what he regarded as an inanely short-sighted world, and sought to address the human condition in a lyric language that has, indeed, found an audience that continues to argue with his work: the work contains a truth the readership recognizes. Eliot was following suit on the only prerogative an artist, really, has open to them: to be an honest witness to the evidence of their senses, and to marshal every resource in their grasps to articulate the fleeting sensations, the ideas within the experience.

This is the highest standard you can hold an artist to; any other criteria, any other discursive filter one wants to run the work through is secondary, truth be told, because the truth within the work is the source of that work's power. One need to recognize what it is in the lines, in the assemblage and drift of the lyric, in the contrasted tones and delicate construction of vernaculars, what is that one recognizes and responds to in the work, and then mount their response.
There is more to the Four Quartets or the plays than what assume is an admission of defeat in the hard glare of uncompromising , godless materialism--there is hope that his work inspires future imagining greater than even his own-- but I cannot regard the poems as failures in any sense, even with the admission that there is great beauty in them. Eliot renders his consciousness, his contradictory and ambivalent response to the world he's grown old in with perfect pitch, and it's my sense that his intention to provoke the imagination is a sublime accomplishment. As craft and agenda, the later pieces work.

What does Eliot's despair have to do with postmodern writers and writing? It's less about what one can call his "despair" than what his operating premise has in common with the post modern aesthetic: Eliot, the Modernist poet extraordinaire, perceives the world the universe has having any sort of definable center, any unifying moral force formally knowable by faith and good works. There is despair in the works, behind the lines--one responds to them emotionally and intellectually--and the power behind the images, the shimmering surfaces the diminished, de-concretized narrator feels estranged from, comes from a felt presence, a real personality. Eliot, though, turns the despair into a series of ideas, and makes the poetry an argument with the presence day. There is pervasive sense of everything being utterly strange in the streets, bridges over rivers, strangeness at the beach, and we, it sounds, a heightened sense of voices, media, bombs, headlines competing for the attention of someone who realizes that they're no longer a citizen in a culture where connection to a core set of meanings, codes and authority offers them a security, but are instead consumers, buyers, economic in a corrupt system that only exploits and denudes nature, culture, god.
Eliot conveys the sense of disconnection rather brilliantly, reflecting the influence of an early cinematic editing styles: Eliot is a modernist by his association with the period, though at heart he was very much a Christian romantic seeking to find again some of the scripture’s surety to ease his passage through the world of man and his material things. There has always been this yearning for a redemption of purpose in the vaporous sphere, and much of his work, especially in criticism, argued that the metaphysical aspect could be re-established, recreated, re-imagined (the operative word) through the discipline of artistic craft. Modernists, ultimately, shared many of the same views of postmodernism with regards of the world being a clashing, noisy mess of competing, unlinked signifiers, but post modernism has given up the fight of trying to place meaning in the world, and also the idea that the world can be changed for the better. Modernists, as I take them in their shared practice and aesthetic proclamations, are all romantics, though their angle and color of their stripes may vary. Romanticism, in fact, is an early kind of modernism: the short of it is that there is a final faith in the individual to design of the world, and in turn change its shape by use of his imagination

Eliot's turn to religious quietism isn't so surprising, given the lack of self-effacing wit in his writing that might have lessened the burden of his self-created dread of the modern world: a tenet of modernism, shared by any writer worthy of being called so, is that their work was to help the readers, the viewers, the audience, perceive the world afresh, from new perspectives, in new arrangements, to somehow help get to the "real" order of things behind their appearances, and, understanding, change the world again. Temperaments among poets varied as to how they personally responded to their need to live aesthetically--and in all cases, living aesthetically was a viable substitute for a religious rigor--Stevens chose his Supreme Fiction while being an insurance executive, Pond toyed with fascism and economics, Joyce opted for a life in the eroticized parlors of France and Britain, Williams found connection through his medical practice and biology, related, absolutely with his poetry. Over all, what keenly separates the modernist engagement with meaning creation was that it was the things of this world, this plain, this material reality, that were the things that would help us transform individual perception; the thing itself is its own adequate symbol. A nod to Husserl and phenomenology, the meaning of things in the world, as things, was mysterious indeed, but their form didn't come from the mind of a God who, at best, was an absent landlord. Eliot, though, sought religion, and I don't see that as a failure at all: the work is too powerful to be regarded as either a personal failure, if that's a claim one might, nor as a poet. Eliot, as you say, is a poet of ideas, among other things, but ideas are useless in a poem unless they're seamlessly linked with an emotion, an impulse, and it's possible, I think, to see where the work was going: the kind of world Eliot described, with the kind of intelligence and personality that described it, was a bleak and unlivable sphere, requiring a decision, to commit to something that supplies meaning, fits the personality that needs direction. I don't regard Eliot as artifact at all: I've commented previously on how the work still inspires readers to engage the world in new ways: he is a permanent influence on my work as a poet.

The early modernists rejected the romantic label--for a variety of reasons. I'm sure they had good reasons, but Modernism, in many respects, is an old project with a new label. Can we really place Joyce and the Futurists and Eliot and Pound and Yeats and Gertrude Stein, Hemingway and Fitzgerald in the same box? Yes, but it is less of a box and more of a tent; there is a lot more room to around and get your teeth knocked out.

Monday, September 11, 2017

The failure of most 9/11 literature

Image result for the scream 9/11
Artist: Patrick Nevins
Are disasters, natural or man made, ever the thing for satire? Is it appropiate that the creative and satiric spirit find humor in revealing humans at their most self-conceptually  eviscerated, when their individual and collective sense of pride, competence and confidence in a world that works sanely is torn from them suddenly, no warning, leaving them to scramble and behave by instinct, not philosophy? A better question would be whether the comedy was funny and, of course, whether it created a distance , of a kind, through   which we can learn more about this problematic  quality informally termed "being human". In White Noise, the effect was comic, funny, and all ironies laid in the day were comedies of the clueless trying to make peace with the nagging changes that cause everyone to avoid the void as they try to retool old habits with new explanations, theories, contrived proofs that the world will return to normal. Now it's tragedy, and the quality of irony finds itself made ironic. The attack on the World Trade Center puts us beyond abstractions like comedy or tragedy, on which one can grasp onto something fixed in their minds as a normality they can get back to. All is muted, rendered mute. Rationalization is deferred. And our expectations of what DeLillo would make of the penultimate attack on America's symbolic sense of being the world's best asset mounted to levels that were nearly toxic with glee.

DeLillo, however, is a writer who might have played out his themes and investigations of a hyper-technological democracy whose inhabitants are searching for a useful past as a way to make the fractured, reshuffled and de-centered present to at least seem to have thematic continuity. "Falling Man", the 9/11 novel, strikes me as a book of riffs from a musician who can barely muster the energy to run through his songbook one more time. In the odd sense, in the cruelly ironic sense, it's a tragedy that the attack on the World Trade Center attack happened after DeLillo hit his peak with "Underworld", as masterful of novel of America our propensity for distracting ourselves in ritual, obsessions, insane hobbies and esoteric systems of knowledge--performance art, baseball history, high finances, unrepentant consumerism, ceaseless works of charity--to keep the suspicion that all our material gains and assumptions are based on no fixed moral platform.

There are some fine sentences here, some splendid descriptions, but there is listlessness as well. "Falling Man" is finally dull, and even DeLillo's prose mastery can't make this alternating saga of survivor despair and terrorist preparation rise above the merely serviceable. DeLillo is overwhelmed by the topic, not so much for the impossibility of writing a brilliant novel in the post-attack atmosphere, but because all the themes he has relevant to the present condition are expressed more powerfully, poetically, with larger and surer measures of canon-making genius than the comparatively provincial exercise the author has issued here. It’s also a matter of whether beautiful writing is appropriate for a novel specifically concerning itself with the physical and psychic costs of 9-11; folks like Laura Miller, Meghan O’Rourke and Frank Rich have wrestled with the issue of whether drawing metaphors and similes for larger contemplation is somehow immoral when addressing the events so catastrophic and fatal. Art, in the uppercase, means framing the materials and objectifying them, taking them from their contexts and positioning them in ways that will force a deliberation over their existence; this is the aesthetic distance, beauty removed from our hands and set aside so we can contemplate some feelings in absence of real world distraction. 9-11, though, is thought by many to be above such contemplation, that this date cannot be abstracted as material for art making, literary reflection.

Brat Pack novelist  Jay McInerney  got urge to step up to the plate and write a Great American Novel, a work that would raise him finally from the middle rungs of the literary ladder and allow him to reach the top shelf where only the best scribes--Hemingway! Fitzgerald! Thomas Wolfe!-- sit and cast their long collective shadow over the fields of aspiring geniuses, furious scribblers all. McInerney has selected a large subject with which to make his reputation, the catastrophe that was and remains 9/11. Acutely aware that the minor league satires and soft coming of age stories that made his name were less commanding than they had been because "9/11 changed everything" (a phrase destined to be the characterizing cliché of this age) he offers us The Good Life, a mixed bag of satiric thrusts, acute social observation, two dimensional characterizations and wooden generalizations about the sagging state of society, of culture, of our ability to understand one another, locally and globally.

I agree that Jay McInerney is a better writer than he's been credit, but history will judge his novels as minor efforts at best. Witty and observant, yes he is, but the manner in which he conveys his best lines, his choicest bon mots have the thumbed-through feeling of a style borrowed. Fitzgerald, Capote and John Cheever are his heroes, true, but there's nothing in McInerney's writing that honors his influences with the achievement of a tone and personality that is entirely his own, an original knack of phrase making that makes a reader wonder aloud how such wonderful combinations of words are possible. His influences, alas, are visible and seem to be peering over his shoulder. Even what one would praise as sharp and elegant observations from his keyboard creaks not a little. The style sounds borrowed, and our author sounds much, much too dainty to make it really cling to the memory:"The hairstylist was aiming a huge blow-dryer at his wife's skull, which was somewhat disconcertingly exposed and pink--memento more--in the jet of hot air ... "
McInerney is compared to Fitzgerald relentlessly since his career as a professional writer began, in so much he, like Fitzgerald, was bearing witness to a generation of conspicuous consumption and waste, but one notices that any random paragraph from The Great Gatsby contains more melody by far. The writing genius of Fitzgerald, when he was writing at his absolute best, was his ability to make you forget the fact that you're reading elegant prose and have you become entranced by it. It was a means to put you in a different world altogether. It's this simple, really; you didn't see him writing, and you didn't see him sweat. Able craftsman as well as peerless stylist when he was performing best, Fitzgerald's prose seemed natural, buoyant, unstrained. McInerney's writing reveals that strain, that slaving over phrase and clever remark, and often times the effect seems calculated. In his best moments, he rarely sheds the sophomore flash; after all these years our Manhattan golden boy still writes like the most gifted student in a Kansas City composition class. After all these years he is still trying to outrace the long shadows of those who brought him reading pleasure.

This is a wandering and traipsing along the subject matter like a drunken tourist gawking at the bizarre ways of the big city, a laughable and loathsome tour of Corn's intellectual baggage.   "Windows on the World", a poem written by Alfred Corn and published in Slate on September 11, 2003,is an ill conceived poem commemorating the attack on the World Trade Center that would seem to confirm the skeptic's view that poets are willfully suffering narcissists who think everything in the world is in play in order to disturb their peace. In other words, to fuck with them. It's strange, odd, perverse, and somewhat immoral to write a poem using the 9/11 attack as a pretext to write another self-infatuated poem that really is more about how much the writer thinks about himself and his assignation as a "poet"; whatever the god damned what Corn puts on his tax return as "occupation" has to do with the still barely speakable horror this day has come to mean is beyond any sense I can find, and worse, it is beyond anything useful to others.

Connecting the attack with the crashing of Windows operating system is a ploy him to remain a thousand miles from any connection with real emotion; it is relentlessly ironic and snobby in its form as a poem. The subject matter, the real horror is aestheticized out of mind the way a narcotic lulls one into a stupor and then a nod against a world that still must be faced and made sense of. Corn does none of that at all, but what he does do is give us a long, wavering and arrogantly ambivalent stretch of muddled semiotics where everything is a straining reach, a forced association, a willful perversion of real imagist reach. Had the subject not been so grim and disheartening, this would seem more parody than anything else. This poem angers me to no end. If Corn was paid for this piece, he should feel honor bound to donate the sum to a cause that actually gives hope to others in the human community. Following that, he might quit whatever teaching job he as in the instruction of writing and get a job in the receiving area of a Salvation Army Thrift store.

Blade Runner

Ridley Scott's film Blade Runner, based on Philip K. Dick's novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep," stands out as a visually stunning and thought-provoking work. The film successfully captures the essence of a future Los Angeles, employing a stylish film noir aesthetic. It skillfully plays with light and dark contrasts, utilizing a subdued color palette that evokes a sense of decay and pollution, which suits the futuristic thriller genre. However, Blade Runner's significance extends beyond its visual appeal.

The film tackles a range of compelling issues, encompassing spiritual, sociological, and philosophical themes. From the androids' quest to meet their creator and extend their lives to the exploration of immigration, urban congestion, cultural blending, and the unscrupulous introduction of dubious technologies into the consumer market, Blade Runner delves into thought-provoking subject. While Ridley Scott has directed other notable films such as The Duelist, Black Hawk Down, Gladiator, Matchstick Men, and The Martian, none of them possess the combination of ideas, tone, and visual allure that made Blade Runner a truly unique masterpiece.

It is intriguing how Blade Runner, with its elegant design, encapsulates a wealth of substantial ideas, capable of sparking numerous discussions and generating an abundance of scholarly writings. This resonates with Philip K. Dick's fascination with how societies willingly surrender their humanity, the innate qualities of curiosity, adventure, and industriousness that drive humans to explore and push boundaries. In Dick's novels, technology often represents a force that diminishes human essence by gradually eroding their free will. As machines assume tasks previously exclusive to humans, those who prioritize convenience and leisure over a more gritty existence may not appear tragic. It becomes challenging to empathize with individuals who exist solely for sensory pleasure, devoid of genuine concerns.

In summary, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner remains a cinematic gem that surpasses his subsequent works in terms of its captivating visuals, profound ideas, and engaging atmosphere. It aligns with Philip K. Dick's exploration of humanity's surrender to technology, portraying a future where the loss of genuine human experiences is a tangible consequence.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

In the early days of t.v., which is to say my generation, as youngsters, eyeballs affixed to the black and white screen, experienced a succession of celebrities, minor movie stars and character actors once regular visages of the big screen now finding homes on old game shows and back lot westerns like Rifleman and Rawhide. In the case of the TV westerns, you simply felt good, even as a child, that these old actors, pushed more or less from feature films, were able to continue to make their  expenses by the plethora of work weekly dramas gave them.It may have been a lapse in  status,but not in work. Paychecks are another matter, of course. For those who found jobs as permanent celebrity panelists on To Tell the Truth , What's My Line and the rest, I kept asking the grown ups who Arlene Dahl was, why was Tom Posten showing up drunk all the time, for the love of God, someone clarify exactly what an Orson Bean is? 

This was the class of the Professional Celebrity, C.Wright mills category of human who was famous for being famous; something , in some faraway past, had caught the eye of critics and the public initially,there had to be some arguable   contribution to the arts and therefor society they were making, but in the long run,they were given paychecks less for work than for their availability to be visible. Audiences, consumers, felt better when elements of their youth remained with them as they   aged, gather deep lines and sagging chins, talking about the old days . The tradition of the Professional Celebrity continues. What you might say about Steven Tyler is that he's in the great tradition of technological show biz, in that he's a professional has been , more famous than we'll ever be and more irrelevant than even a Monkees reunion could withstand. All that griping, bitching and carping to the side, it's not the old musicians that make me cringe than it is the adults,the old dudes and hip grannies who allow the mediocrity to continue to sit on the collective counter space like an open jar of grey mayonnaise, something so foul even the flies are dropping from their dive bomb runs on the crumbs and morsels left behind on the gathered retching of best ideas. 

Raging becomes something one does for its own sake; all of us have the ability make choices that ultimately can influence the tides, eddys and currents of will make the future, but , provided we don't die , we live long enough to realize we are powerless to undo what's we helped put into place. This president? This war? This number one album for 124 weeks ? Do we say we're sorry or become mumbling Methuselahs invoking names of cheap sequined gods in Cootie shades drinking from the tall glass of refined and spit polished discontent, looming presences in the background, lurking, hovering over the commotion of the latest mutual buzz, fading gradually, rattling chains and empty soup cans that make less noise the more we practice our disgust? Currently and forever, we realize that we are little more than tubes of toothpaste or some similar glop,squeezed from the bottom of the tube , rolled up to the aperture until there is nothing but off color residue ,congealed paste, finally dropped into the waste basket along with each musician, poet, professional cynic we might have fashioned ourselves after.

Saturday, September 9, 2017


Truthfully, I had to walk away from a conversation in late December that rock and roll are was dead as a boot;  saggy skinned Boomers like myself have the feeling that last bit of authenticity ended as we came into our late twenties and had replaced avocations with careers. I’m  just tired of anyone declaring whole art forms as “deceased” merely because they’ve gotten older; rock and roll seems healthy to me, as it goes, and however large a segment of the marketplace it holds, those who play it and those who listen to it, young and not so young, think the music is alive and, well, kicking ass. The complaints come down to this, The Fall from Grace; the Garden of Eden was so much nicer before the corporate snakes moved in and loused it up for everyone. Regardless of musical terms and the perfumed detritus terms that are tossed about like unraveling  throw rugs over a  lumpy and foul-smelling assertion, is the kind of junior-college cafeteria table thumping that is the least convincing of expression of what is, at root, matters so trivial in the larger scheme of what ought to concern is that it wouldn't rate as dust. It's less an argument than a Leviathan of overstatement those who make wish would materialize through a sheer act of collective self-pity, tall, heavy, portentous and haphazardly mounted, and wish further that it would topple over and smash the dull reality of adulthood to bits. Make the world go away, Eddy Arnold sang

...And get it off my shoulders

Say the things you used to say

And make the world go away
Do you remember when you loved me
Before the world took me astray
If you do, then forgive me
And make the world go away
Make the world go away
And get it off my shoulders
Say the things you used to say
And make the world go away
I'm sorry if I hurt you
I'll make it up day by day
Just say you love me like you used to

So we have men in their 60s and 60s, blowhard know-it-alls like myself, walking around in long grey hair despite receding hairlines and the gradual erosion of jawlines as they are absorbed by folds of flesh that are cursed with lines, ruts and rumors of veins that make parts of our once taut testimony resemble nothing so much than a collection of old road maps folded the wrong way too many time for too many years. Aerosmith, Yes, J.Geils, the goddamned Stones, the Grateful Dead, fucking Bob Dylan, the poets and prophets of our youthful idealism reduced to corporate logos sponsoring one overpriced nostalgia tour after another. Our best memories are sold back to us, authentic as Bakelite gemstones. Reading any good history of rock and roll music will have the music develop alongside the growth of an industry that started recording and distributing increasingly diverse kinds of music in order to widen market shares. The hand of the businessman, the soul of the capitalist machine has always been in and around the heart of rock and roll: every great rock and roll genius, every jazz master, each blues innovator has the basic human desire to get paid. Suffice to say that some we see as suffering poets whose travails avail them of images that deepen our sense of shared humanity see themselves still as human beings who require the means to pay for their needs and finance their wants, like the rest of us. 

There has always been a marketplace where the music is played, heard, bought and sold--and like everything in these last months, the marketplace has changed, become bigger, more diffuse with new music, and new technologies. Some of us are vaguely, and snottily mournful for an era when only the music mattered, and something inside me pines for that innocence as well, but innocence is the same currency as naivete, and consciously arguing that the way I formerly perceived the world was the way it actually worked would be an exorcize in ignorance, as in the willful choice to ignore available facts that are contrary to a paradigm that's sinking into its loosely packed foundation. I suspect that for the typical young music listener now, this is the Eden they expect never to end, which means that it’s the best time in the world for rock and roll for some mass of folks out there.

Thursday, September 7, 2017


Discussing Little Feat, music critic Robert Christgau ventured to say that the dedicated group wasn't just another jam band from  Los Angeles but were, in disguise, Euro progressive-rockers at heart. Little Feat had slide guitar, soulful vocals, and boogie well enough to satisfy anyway speedway inclination to get in the T Bird and gun your engine. Still, Bill Payne's slippery keyboard work's modernist jazzy and sly sound and the sneaky switching of time signatures amid the funk-riffing improvisation, and odd and provocative melange of jazz, blues, rock and soul influences,  made them hard to classify.  Christgau pegged them as a brighter version of the Continental art-rockers. Plainly, Little Feat wanted their music to be something that reflected the best use of their musicianship. Their sound was skilled, never busy, lyrically evasive and evocative at the same time, never far the American mythos of Robert Johnson country-blues or Bukowski/Selby/Algren take on seeking transcendence as well as survival in a post-war American city. 

To Christgau's point, I would add Steely Dan,  perhaps the most inscrutable band to achieve a long line of radio hits, platinum albums, and sold-out tours. More so than Little Feat, Steely Dan was incredibly sharp at composing great hooks for their songs, those brief introductions at the start of tunes or coming midway during the chorus, or appearing else, unanticipated, that lures you into the story and the musical moods that underscore the emotional journey. Beyond hooks, though, Steely Dan was eclectic in the styles they drew from inputting their albums together--great bouts of guitar boogie for the stadium crowd, a mid-tempo bottom of jamming funk keeping matters on a constant low boil, Ellington like tone poems where the horn players managed brass and reed orchestrations only to give way to alone, searching cry and lilt of sax improvisation. 

All this and the hooks, and the lyrics, managed by keyboardist and lead vocalist Don Fagin, an opaquely and vaguely presented universe of people, places, things, and situations that rarely come into sharp focus; surreal, witty, allusive, cruel, and kind in different turns of mood, Fagin didn't have a large world he wrote about, or instead, wrote around. But his wordcraft was generally superb, like the music, artful but not crowded, bright but chatty. 
The recently deceased Walter Becker, dead at age 67, Steely Dan co-founder with Fagin, a writing partner in a beautifully realized team effort, made this work all of the pieces. He arranged  the music, turning mere hooks and stray ideas into whole pieces. 

As often as not, centering an arrangement around Fagin's keyboard, with its affection for minor-key flirtations at the end of chord progressions that just as often seemed like an awakening and eventual arousal from the dream you wish you could return to. Becker's work on the arrangements showed that he knew how to extend and compress sections of a song under construction. His was the ability to have their best material to be immediate clarity of riff, flourish and hook. He had a discerning ear for things more diffuse, abstract, opaque informal response to emotional states under an artist's scrutiny, made Steely Dan unique even in a time when there was scarcely a shortage of quality musicians and experimenters advancing their way to their respective versions of true and only heaven. 

Add to this surrealistically pleasurable slurring of motifs, literary conceits, and hard-bop resolve. We have Becker's signature guitar work, stinging, serpentine solos, short fills, and spatially sublime solos with phrasing that seemed to move in a coiling, sideways motion. Becker was never in a hurry with his fretwork; his note choices investigated the chords and space between them, popped, stung, and soothed as motif and mood required. Becker co-created something priceless, alluring, daunting, yet readily approachable in pop music. It's a pity there is no real equivalent prize such as the Nobel for rock and roll. 

Monday, September 4, 2017

A repeated appreciation of JOHN ASHBERY

John Ashbery, America's greatest, most singular, and most entrancingly elusive poet, has passed away today, age 90. The glory of Ashbery was that he didn't seem to care whether others found his poems attractive or not and cared not a whit for what dubious critics and other species of know-it-alls who habitually found fault with his confounding mixture of lyric diction and confounding segues, abrupt transitions, zany intrusions of cartoons movie lore and sports weaving there way through hermetic anecdotes,  sudden confessions, astute observation, quick-witted jabs and softly emerging tones of melancholy and a need to fill the emptiness with talk, ideas, beautiful ideas, things, beautiful art, and beautiful people who could shoulder the burdens of the world preferred a harsher, more blunt way of unfolding. He was content with how he wrote and was puzzled why many readers were bewildered by the non-sequitur surface of his poems. He drew pleasure from the writing of the lyrics. He felt readers ought to derive pleasure from reading something interesting, provoking, poking one's own memories into their own cascading and overlaying associations, the material and the abstract contemplated at one instant. 

His task, his project, was less the hidebound and starchy resolve to make sense of the world, to convene a narrative where every bit of happenstance and coincidence falls prey to a divine hand moving the worldly pieces around a cosmic chessboard, but instead developing a sense of the world as it happens, as it has happened, accepting celebrations and mistakes, youthful and elan and the aches of aging as matters to be marveled at and no more minor a part of one's definitive biography in this existence than the names we are given us when we are born. Discussing Avant gard art in an essay, Ashbery gave us a quote I find wonderfully wise and innocent even though it's meant to unfasten the grip of arthritic thinking from our habitual ways of thinking about how artists should deal with the fleeting phenomena of life itself. Behave  and feel as if there is no certainty to any proposition regarding the metaphysical structure of the seen world: "We would all believe in God if we knew He existed, but would this be much fun?"  Ashbery wrote believing that how he wrote mattered and that it would change the way this life is regarded, but never without the lurking suspicion that his true kingdom might well be the fool's paradise. That is what made his poetry, unfathomable though it may seem when wading into its currents, a sustained joy to read. This paragraph follows bits of other pieces on Ashbery I've published before, revisited again, my best words for a great artist.

It comes down to whether you appreciate the conflations Ashbery artfully manages as he penetrates the psychic membrane between Steven's Supreme Fiction, that perfect of Ideal Types and their arrangements, with the material sphere that won't follow expectation, nor take direction. I happen to think that much of the interstices he investigates are results of artful wandering; Ashbery is a flaneur of his own musings, and the Proustian inspection provides their idiosyncratic, insular joys. Had I thought Ashbery over rated and a bore, I'd have turned my back on critical praise of him and left him cold; I have a habit of keeping my own consul regarding reading preferences, as I'm sure all of us do. But continue to read him I do, over several decades.  

Not a rebel, not a polemicist, hardly a rabble -rouser who makes speeches and writes incendiary essays against injustice, Ashbery is an aesthete, a contemplator, an intelligence of infinite patience exploring the spaces between what consciousness sees, the language it develops to register and comprehend experience, and the restlessness of memory stirred and released into streaming associations. Ashbery's are hard to "get" in the sense that one understands a note to get milk at the store or a cop's command to keep one's hand above their head, in plain site. Ashbery's poems have everything the eye can put a shape to in plain site, clouded, however, by thoughts, the cloud bank of memory. He wrestles with the still-engaging problems of Aristotle's metaphysics, that the things in the world are only the expression of an Idea of that thing, which exists prior to manifestation. It's a slippery metaphysics, a guarantor of headaches, but Ashbery wears the problem loosely; he pokes, prods, wonders, defers judgment, and is enthralled by the process of his wondering. Reaching a conclusion for him seems to mean that he is done writing, and no poet wants to think that they've used up their vocabulary.One might think that the mtvU audience might be more attracted to arch romantic and decidedly urban poet Frank O'Hara, whose emphatic musings and extrapolations had equal parts rage and incontestable joy which gave a smile or a snarl to his frequent spells of didactic erudition. He was in love with popular culture, with advertising, movies, the movies, he had an appreciation of modern art, he loved jazz and ballads, and he loved being a City Poet.  
He was more the walker than Ashbery, I suppose, or at least he wrote more about the going to and coming from of his strolls. unlike Ashbery, O'Hara loved being an obvious tourist in his own environment, and didn't want for a minute for his poetry to leave the streets, cafes and galleries where he treads. Ashbery is more the stroller who gets lost in his associations triggered by what he beheld. Ever more the aesthete than his fellow New York Poets, he was interested in things a little more metaphysical, that being that the reality that exists in the inter-relations being the act of perception and the thoughts that are linked to it, which branch off from the perception and link again with another set of ideas, themselves connected to material things observed and remembered. O'Hara was immediate, like the city he loved, while Ashbery allowed his senses the authority to enlarge his perception, to explore the simultaneity of sight and introspection. In a strange way, Ashbery is the more sensual of the two, willing to examine that even the sacrifice of immediate coherence. I’m not a fan of difficulty for the sake of being difficult, but I do think it unreasonable to expect poets to be always unambiguous or easily grasped.

Not every dense piece of writing is worthy by default, of course, and the burden falls on the individual talent. Ashbery's writing, for me, has sufficient allure, resonance and tangible bits of the recognizable world he sees to make the effort to maneuver through his diffuse stanzas worth the work. Poetry is the written form where ambiguity of meaning and multiplicity of possible readings thrives more than others, and the tradition is not a parsimonious use of language, but rather a deliberate expansion of what words pieced can do, what meanings they can evoke, and what sensations they can create. Prose is the form that is, by default, is required to have the discourse it carries be clear and has precise as possible. Poetry and poets are interesting because they are not addressing their experiences or their ideas as linear matters subject to the usual linguistic cause and effect; poetry is interesting because it's a form that gives the inclined writer to interrogate their perceptions in unexpected ways. The poetic styles and approaches and aesthetics one may use vary widely in relative degrees of clarity, difficulty, and tone, but the unifying element is that poetry isn't prose, and serves a purpose other than the mere message delivering that is, at heart, the basic function of competent prose composition.

A poem should not mean, but be.---Archibald MacLeish

That's what MacLeish said and that's what Ashbery holds to, which places smack in the middle of a tradition in American poetry that's been with us since the rise of Modernist practice with Pound, Eliot, and especially the esteemed Wallace Stevens. I find it puzzling that there are those who continue to harp on Ashbery's difficulty and summarily dismiss him as an enemy of "meaning"; it's hardly as if the poet is a foe of the capacity of humans to make sense of their lives through language, and that such use can furnish oneself and one's community with purpose and, perhaps, an ethical structure that would instruct and aid said community against expressing it's worst instincts. What Ashbery would opposed, if he were a polemicist (which he is isn't) is the idea that the "meaning" that language is capable of creating through writing and, in this instance, poetry, is the final destination, the last stop on the route. 

Ashbery isn't interested in the hidden meanings that one might pull from a text like it were an archaeological artifact, but rather in the fluidity of perception; his poems are filled with man made things in a natural world , and it's here his power as a writer, for me, takes hold. Our homes, our cars, factories, the shape of city streets , are custom designed with purposes to help us settle and "conquer" a raw landscape, nature, who's metaphysical presence eludes our conventionally dualist approach to dealing with the world. The contradiction between our ready made distinctions and a Nature who's essence is constant change unmotivated by rhetoric comes clear. We age, we change our minds about ideas, our store of memories expands, and we cannot view the same things again the same as we had; Ashbery's is a poetry of the concrete world,solid, dense, of itself, and the consciousness taking it in, associating sights, smells, gestures, personal possessions in conflations, synthesis. Wallace Stevens imagined the Supreme Fiction and wrote of the balances the perfect shapes of the objects and attending senses in his most ecstatic work, and Ashbery effectively extended the project. The supreme fictions and the imperfect physical things that represent them commingle, inhabit the same space. The result is not the easiest of writings to parse , but what the poet is doing is less undermining the province of language to provide meaning and structure useful for both community stability and expression than it is an affirmation that the singular idea of "meaning" , often times spoken of as if such a thing were a monolith on which all communities and individual sensibilities can ride, does not quite exist. Social constructions have a stronger hand than some folks would care to examine. Examine Ashbery does, and brilliantly at that, if confoundedly so. 

For me, poetry is very much the time it takes to ;unroll, the way music’s not a static, contemptible thing like a painting or a piece of sculpture. – John Ashbery 

Exact meanings of things, of this world we live and grow old in, changes with the introduction of both our years and new social arrangements brought on by new technologies, wars, any number of things. But the aim of Ashbery’s poems isn’t to declare that legitimate meaning cannot be had; he wants to instead to inspect the way an interaction between our thinking, our interior life, and the world external to it exists as a kind of permanently placed negotiation between our expectation and the change that comes and which is inevitable. Ashbery embraces process more than anything else, but not at the sacrifice of a meaning that makes what’s desirable and repugnant to us recognizable. He wrestles with the still-engaging problems of  Platonic form,  that the things in the world are only the expression of an Idea of that thing, which exists prior to manifestation. It's a slippery metaphysics, an guarantor of headaches, but Ashbery wears the problem loosely; he pokes, prods, wonders, defers judgement, and is enthralled by the process of his wondering. Reaching a conclusion for him seems to mean that he is done writing, and no poet wants to think that they've used up their vocabulary.

What Poetry IsJohn AshberyThe medieval town, with friezeOf boy scouts from Nagoya? The snow That came when we wanted it to snow?Beautiful images? Trying to avoid Ideas, as in this poem? But weGo back to them as to a wife, leaving The mistress we desire? Now theyWill have to believe it As we believed it. In schoolAll the thought got combed out: What was left was like a field.Shut your eyes, and you can feel it for miles around. Now open them on a thin vertical path.It might give us--what?--some flowers soon?

This poem talks about representations of things captured at particular moments of aesthetic iteration and speaks to our expectation that things, as we actually experience them, adhere to a narrative we’ve assigned them. But where many despair at how real places, things, people stray from the fine lines that tried to get at their essential nature, Ashbery wonders and finds something remarkable . There is that “it” that we’ve been instructed to seek out, the moral, the lesson to be learned, but the poem asks us, in oblique yet alluring images, are we to give up the quest for meaning because the world is not the static place one might have assumed it was the goal of poetry to confirm? He calls it here, as close as he ever has in his career, when he writes “In school / All the thought got combed out: / What was left was like a field. “ We have been trained to quantifying the content of our experience, we have been instructed in many ways of quantifying sense perception and turning into data that, in turn, is given over to endless narrative strategies –literary, scientific, ideological, economic—that promise a lump sum of a Larger Picture. The task after that, the obligation of the poet afterwards, is to know something more about experience by gauging the fluid nature of our responses to it. Ashbery in his many good moments gets the dissolution perfectly, beautifully. Confounding, but beautiful.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Peter Sprague lets it fly, fleet and fancy

LUCY IN THE SKY--Peter Sprgaue
Ever the versatile and prodigious musician, jazz guitarist Peter Sprague has been on a strong creative streak, with the relatively recent release of his fine collaboration with vocalist/ percussionist Leonard Patton Dream Walking (2016) and the 2017 issue of his collaboration with singer Rebecca Jade, the superlative Planet Cole Porter.  The respective releases reveal again Sprague’s particular joy in collaborating with skilled vocalists on a set of well crafted tunes, whether from the Great American Songbook, or songs more contemporary.  He never loses track of the melody or the vocal line; even in Sprague’s furthest reaching improvisations, you sense a player who’s responding to a fuller concept of the material. 

 So now we have his newest album, Lucy in the Sky, an album of Sprague, performing  on solo guitar, a varied set of songs, --from “My Favorite Things”,  “Oh Shenandoah”  “Trieste”  and several  Lennon-McCartney compositions—with a marvelously delicate touch . There is a discipline here that emphasizes the euphony over cacophony.  Sprague is skilled both in finger picking and in using the pick, and varies his approach with a compositional sense of dynamics.  He does a remarkable job disassembling the familiar melody of the title track and modifying the tune into something wholly fresh. The melody morphs slowly, gorgeously, and his fleet embellishments contrast well against his unique voices of the songs dreamy themes. Not that this album is solely meditative or prone to tone poems. The record, in fact, swings and sways quite a bit, a major amount of commotion for one musician to generate. “My Favorite Things” comes into consciousness as the album opens with punchy rhythms and brooding guitar figures, subtly coming to the main theme and seamlessly giving way to some wickedly sprite 16th note flurries , brief, enticing, a subtle rise in the song’s sense of anticipation. “Etude Z”, a Sprague original, is a choice romp, a swing progression with a firmly implied walking bass highlighting the guitarist’s mastery of sliding between full, diminished and half chords and adding elegant and elaborations on joyous blues. In the same vein, the last track, the Beatles “Can’t Buy Me Love”, gets an arrangement that hints at Sprague’s abiding interest in many guitar styles that inform his playing:  a strong strain of bop, a sexy taste of bossa nova, a bit of the blues.  And, to say again, Sprague does not lose the sense of the human voice in his impressive demonstrations of technique, lyric and mindful or accelerated and quick witted.  Peter Sprague is a modern master, in my view.