Tuesday, March 26, 2019

MITCHELL

Image result for joni mitchellBrilliant as she has been, Joni Mitchell has also had made nearly as much music that is, shall we say, in equal measures underwritten, bombastic, pretentious, just plain pretentious. She coveted the sobriquet "genius" more conspicuously than any pop star I can remember--even self-mythologizer Dylan rejects the application of the word to his name. and has suggested. She complains of Dylan's lack of authenticity when the whole notion of art and being an artist is based in large part on creating things that are inauthentic; the very words "art" and "artist" are linked with the word artificer, a term that means some designed, made by hand, an unnatural addition to what is already in place. She bemoans the lack of authenticity and forgets, perhaps, that she, Simon, Dylan and Leonard Cohen, poet-songwriters of the Sixties, were storytellers more than anything, fictionalizing their feelings, their politics, their biographies in the interest of a good yard, a good line, a good insight. Authenticity, I would argue, has more to do with a feeling that a writer creates, not the emotion he or she in fact feel. She is grumpy, to be sure, but this will not suffice as a justification for her ire. She is famous and cranky and frankly, it's a tedious dirge she replays every chance she gets. 

She not so subtly demands she be taken seriously as a musical artist, and she has produced albums that have tried to force the issue. She stabs at art song, serial music, jazz material, and feminist surrealist have given us mixed results. The fatal flaw in these ambitious efforts was that the worst elements of them were so impossibly precious and self-important that they summarily dwarfed what fresh ideas she might have had. Her ongoing arrogance and bitterness leave a bad taste. Listeners have taken joy in Joni Mitchell's continual insistence on changing her musical approach, so it wasn't unusual that I hailed the release of Hissing of Summer Lawns, mostly, as a bold step towards personal and artistic growth. But while Hissing, and her subsequent and less successful Hejira, showed Mitchell expanding herself to more adventurous motifs - broader song structures, an increasingly impressionistic lyric scan, jazz textures - the trend toward a more personalized voice has virtually walled her off from most of her fans. Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, her now double record effort, takes the ground gained from the last two albums and converts it into a meandering, amorphous culmination of half-formed concepts. 

The primary emphasis, musically, is towards jazz modernism, with several songs exceeding ten minutes in length as they ramble over Mitchell's vaguely comprehensible piano chords. She reveals a tendency to hit a strident chord and to let the notes resonate and face as she vocally ruminates over the lyrics - while her side players, Jaco Pastorius and Wayne Shorter from Weather Report, and drummer John Guerin, do their best to add a definition. The lyrics, following suit, are an impressionistic hodgepodge, a string of images, indecipherable references, and gutless epiphanies that should have been edited with a blue pencil. While the more hard-nosed defenders may defend latest with the excuse that a poet may express his or herself in any way they see fit, one still must question the worth of any effort to dissect Reckless Daughter the way one used to mull over Dylan albums. Though many matters that Mitchell chooses [sic] to deal with may have value to her audience - spiritual lassitude, the responsibilities of freedom, sexuality into middle ages - she supplies nothing resembling hooks, catchphrases or accessible points of reference for them to latch onto. Instead, she gives them art, whether they like it or not. The paradox in Mitchell's stance is that she has thrown craft well outside the window while trying to measure up to "Art" in the upper case. She has gone from being an artful songwriter to being merely arty, which is a state of mind that takes hold of many of the public personalities who think they know it all and who conceive themselves as no longer being bound by conformity. In her own way, Mitchell has joined the ranks of John Lennon, Yes and other bright talents who've over-dosed on their own importance.  

With her subsequent album Mingus, we find ourselves having to admire Mitchell’s willingness to expand and reach beyond the merely chatty confessionalism she come to be known for and serve up art that is truly artful. “Arty” is a more telling description, though, as her ambition to impress outstrips craft. There is an aroma of the untutored dilettante banging away on a piano she (or he) doesn’t know how to play; the smarty pants assumes we’ll think it bold and experimental. But she is not Mingus, the composer, the musician, the artist, and I pray she doesn’t think she is his equal because no one is.  I've nothing against an established artist trying to break away from the stuff they've already done so that they might "advance their art," but I protest artsy experiments in areas where an artist has no business being. To be specific, Joni Mitchell has little justification to be futzing around with the moody expressionism of jazz, as she does on Mingus. Though the music and lyrics jell better this time than on her previous Don Juan's Reckless Daughter (a bottomless pit of amorphous atonalism and free-associative lyrics that expressed the forgettable in terms of the incomprehensible), Mitchell's primary problem on Mingus is that she's not much of a jazz singer. Her voice sounds thin and attenuated when it should sound alive, brassy, and full-bodied, pallid when it should have color. You find yourself longing for Annie Ross, or Patti Waters. And as a tribute to the late Charles Mingus, this record doesn't quite wash. The bits of dialogue between songs, featuring Mingus reminiscing with the musicians and ever pondering his own death, don't give the album any more depth than what the music - some of it quite good, most of it half-baked - already supplies. It smacks of tackiness.

Monday, March 25, 2019

THE VAULT: two reviews from the Seventies

Image result for GOLD JEFFERSON STARSHIP
GOLD--Jefferson Starship

The Jefferson Starship are ·one of the more remarkable Jobs of a late Sixties acid rock band re-tool their image so that they might fit in the Seventies marketplace. The original Airplane, if you· remember, were a group of LSD crazies who espoused the glory of chemically expanded consciousness years before Carlos Castaneda got Into the act. In their original conception, the Starship became paranoid revolutionaries (on paper anyway) who'd lost any grasp they had on reality, and whose political broadsides resembled a Psychedelic piece of hate literature. (The peace and love gleam had faded from the Jefferson Airplane’s collective gaze and the first Starship album, Blows Against the Empire, was a quizzical and quixotic way of trying to rouse their fans to act of resistance. I’m still hesitant to say that writing a semi-rock opera centering around hijacking a starship and heading out some a cosmic place where longhairs, dopers and select people of color wouldn’t be hassled by the man was the best way to change one’s lived-in circumstances. Ah, the Sixties…)  In this age of lower expectations, though, it's understandable that the Starship's rebel stance has wizened, and that their music has become more commercially approachable. They've placed themselves safely on the record charts with a series of hit singles and albums, the sounds of which border on the easy-listening lilt of Fleetwood Mac, Peter Frampton, or The Eagles. Lucidly for old Airplane fans, the new Starship has produced several well-crafted hits, most of which are on Gold. The standout track is Marty Balin's "Caroline," a superbly produced and arranged song that screams for radio programmers to include it on their playlist, "Miracles, " a stunningly layered ballad with an elusive, captivating melody that is , besides,  perhaps the greatest  song ever written with oral love references, and "With Your Love." There will be those die-hard rock and roll counterculture adherents who’ll feel that the Starship has betrayed the cause, whatever that might be. One must remember, however, that the Airplane/ Starship has a formidable body of work complete with stratospheric highs and the lowest lows, and their momentary upswing on the record charts is more than anyone could expect from a band who, by rights, should have burned itself out years · ago. 

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Image result for ry cooderThe more I thought about it, the less I wanted to attend the Nov. 16 Ry Cooder concert in the UC gym. Cooder, I knew, made a name for himself for the slicing slide guitar work he did on the Rolling Stones Let It Bleed album, a record I enjoyed. But word had it that Cooder was a dyed-in-the-wool folkie, someone who does songs they've learned from hillbillies, blues pioneers, sailors, and other sources. In other words, Cooder wasn't any Hollywood pretty boy stroking his Ovation guitar while singing self-penned tomes to his own sensitivity, like Jackson Browne (though Browne's stylistics  their own reward),  Rather, Cooder was strictly bucolic, with rough edges In both voice and guitar work, not a virtuoso but engagingly honest in presentation to an audience that I suspected picked up on folk music as part of a collective rejection of high art in general.  But while my admittedly dour presuppositions could have turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy ("The old and still adolescent school of making up your mind before being in possession of facts), I realized I needed to switch off the contempt. It was a bit like culture shock in your own culture. Cooder, without the band he's been using for most of this tour, ambled sleepily on stage!! and sat in his chair and goaded the sound crew to "goose” the volume up in the monitors, finally imploring them to " crank it. Don't be afraid." The height of his performance was his guitar work. Basing his styles in rural blues inflections and country picking techniques, Cooder's approach is an enticing hodgepodge of effects that don't fall into any category, but rather rest between the boundaries. His picking is quick and firm, with the vigorous pulling of the strings, and his chord mix ragtime jazz progressions, classical chording, and blues phrasings with egalitarian ease that's positively organic. His slide work, his strongest forte, avoids the dying dog moans that neophyte players, mostly British, manage, and _ maintains a solid flow of incisively slashing riffs. The fact that he seemed affable and good-natured worked in his favor as well. He seemed to enjoy the songs he did, avoiding the sort of inverse snobbery I thought pervaded this genre and its audience. Cooder debunked that prejudicial nonsense. Opening the show was Mike Seeger, Pete's brother, who played banjo, fiddle, autoharp, harmonica, Jew’s harp, as well as guitar, set the night's mood with an amicable way of going about his job. The highlight of his set was his Jew’s harp playing, which with the utilization of the University's super fine sound system, approximated the unearthly buzz of interstellar insects, a ploy Pink Floyd might consider next time they take their million-dollar quad system on tour. It's astounding that sometimes the strangest emanations come not from smoky, sparking, colicky electronic amplifier banks, but from the recesses of man's musical past. His concert was refreshing to remember that not everything we’ve done as species is ugly and created with it in mind to stomp on the next guy.





Saturday, March 16, 2019

ROCK THE SHAM

March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, is upon us, and being of Irish descent those who know my last name and aware as well that some consider me a poet, a lover of words used fully, have asked me what my plans were. What party are you going to, what Irish Pub will you be drinking at, what Irish poet will you recite at the Open Reading of Irish Poetry? Attending the idea you would want to celebrate a culture rich in the greatest ringing glories of the English language comes the question about how drunk you intend to get, and will you remember the way back to your bedroom at your mother's house if you become unable to utter a comprehensible sentence?

There are times I hate being Irish; the jokes at the expense of this culture make it obvious that White European Americans are the only ethnic group one can offend with impunity. The Holiday is a match to a conspicuously open can of gasoline.On The Day itself, many will inquire “Where’s your green?” All these questions on the single topic become nagging of a kind, the persistent inquiry into what someone else takes as an imperfection. My imperfection seemed to be that I didn't feel Irish enough. I don’t wear green on any day, it’s not my favorite color, and there’s a deep resentment at others who expect me and any other Irish American to play the shaleighlei -stroking trick monkey with green paper hats, green beads and affecting brogues as bogus as paper forks. There’s a scene in Woody Allen’s movie “Annie Hall” when his character Alvy Singer berates a woman’s Jewishness with several wisecracks at the expense of the ethnic heritage he imagines her identifying with. The woman says nothing and Singer, feeling he’d crossed the line, gives a half-hearted apology for his jokes, to which she replies (and I paraphrase here) “No, it’s all right, I don’t mind being reduced to a cultural stereotype”This was a “eureka” moment, since it articulated a foul mood I’d been in for years each time St.Patrick’s Day rolled around and Americans, of Irish Lineage and otherwise, rolled out their boxes of stereotypes: green beer, whiskey, green beads, glittered cardboard shamrocks, the whole disgusting offensive lot.St.Patrick's is a day on which those of us with family connections to the Emerald Isle is to relish the contributions of Ireland to the world through it;s poets and dramatists and novelists, whether Joyce, Yeats, John Millington Synge or Roddy Doyle and Seamus Heaney, an activity of worth if the proceedings were low key and attentive to what Irish writing sounded like and what cluster of emotions and experience it collectively expressed; it's a literature at war with itself and conflicts and tensions such as that results in a major poetry. Bombast, bottles, and bullshit about all things Irish follow the lip service to the Literature and St.Patrick's Day become only respectful of its cultural namesake than does Cinco de Mayo or Halloween.

It's an excuse to drink to excess and behave badly and be a lout. Someone assumed it that because of my last name and that I made a living both writing and selling books I would be all over the Holiday and partake in the lugubrious, drunken wallow. I remember yelling at some partying moron with an Italian last name who was doing a miserable Barry Fitzgerald impersonation I had it in mind to come to his house late at night and do some patently offensive immigrant through a bullhorn if he kept up with what I thought was a cultural slander. He didn’t get what I was getting at, and I never showed up in his driveway to deliver on my promise, but the upshot is that he's never forced his face into mine after that with that wavering brogue.I resisted the temptation to ask if he Minstreled Show impersonations for black people on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, as the point was both overkill and would be lost on him. Say what you might about me, but I pride myself on the quality of issues I waste my breath on, a perverse pleasure that might reaffirm the cliche of the Irish being masters of futile eloquence. Doubtful; I just love the sound of my voice and don't compelled to credit cultural determinism for what is a gift or a cursedepending on circumstance, inspiration, and the quality of the coffee I might have been drinking when inspired to place a few words on the page, in rhythmic order, declaring war on the latest peeve or pestering pustule of aggravation). It that despite that small country’s amazing contributions to World Literature, I’ve never felt much kinship with Ireland, nor with the native Irish I’ve met. What I've felt like through my life is a middle-class white guy, Irish American, emphasis on the American. Irish-American.It's a different tribe.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

JIM IS STILL DEAD AND STILL SEXY

Image result for the doors five mean years
THE DOORS:
A Lifetime of Listening
to Five Mean Years
by Greil Marcus
Marcus is one of the remaining first-generation Rolling Stone rock critics who, in his old age, has evolved into something of a Methuselahian sage for the artist and band's populating the Rock and Roll Canon. He is a fine writer, beautifully evocative at times, a widely read gent who brings his far-flung references of history, aesthetics, politics, and mythology into his generalized ruminations on the movement of human history and how it was reflected and/or caused by the emergence of pop, rock and soul music. His idea, if he has any thesis at all, is that these were not merely forms of entertainment and distraction, they were cultural forces that changed the way we live. Marcus, as fine a prose stylist as he can be, and as momentarily persuasive as he can seem in his richer passages, actually puts forth little in the way of criticism; he rarely in his late writings spends the time to convincingly let you how songs, lyrics work internally. Craft is not on his agenda. With the Doors, though, he does a good job of explaining what I've always felt for some time, that Jim Morrison was pompous,, vacuous to major extent, a mediocre poet, a pretentious intellect who happened to have some things going for him: good looks and sex appeal, an appealing baritone voice could bellow or fashion a slumbering croon, and that he was in a band of good musicians that compelled him, in the songwriting process, to peel away the mostly dreadful riffing in his poems and boil it all down to the genuinely strange, exotic and provocative. The result of that combination of Morrison's affectations and the talents of the other band members made for a number of first-rate original songs. Save for the near perfection of their first two albums, it also made for some mostly uneven records where Morrison's drunk insistence on being a drunk put his worst tendencies on full display. Marcus is smart and remarkably succinct here, rendering shrewd judgments, the key one being that while saying up front than in any other life Morrison would have yet another counter-cultural tragedy left for dead and forgotten, rock and roll made him at least briefly pull his resources together and give the world something memorable beyond his pretentiousness.

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