Wednesday, November 27, 2019

PUNK CRITIC JOHN SIMON CROAKS

Image result for john simonJohn Simon, America's meanest critic is dead at age 93. It will be noted over and over that he was of high IQ and sublime erudition, quite, quite fluent in the popular arts, low, middle and high. Though his writing had genuine mean wit--he was on occasion a remarkable phrase-maker--and his prose very often was drenched in knowing references to poets, novelists, philosophers and composers, I rarely discerned a discussion of the artist or their medium that rose above the provincial.For all the interior decoration he gave his critiques with the names and words of genuine thinkers, Simon's judgements were the worst sort of offensive, which was that of being dull-witted despite admirer's praise for his rumored brilliance. I say this as someone who read him for decades--there is a generation of literary, film and music critics I've followed because criticism is something I regard as artful and crucial when it's done well-- when I assert that the man's mind, despite the high-octane breadth, was flat footed. 

His analysis was peculiarly pedestrian. His was the most useless sort of criticism, a style that was noisy, aggressively mean spirited, freakishly untouched by an illuminating idea. Ordinarily I would say some tactful remarks about recently passed writers whom I read quite a bit of,but those readers familiar with the cartoonishly patrician persona and tone Simon created and polished over many malevolent years as a framer of the national dialogue of culture and art will understand this rude send off. Finally, my guess for this deceased essence of lizardly snark's maintaining the insults, the misogynistic, homophobic, anti-semitic and racist bile over the years is that he  knew he was no Gore Vidal, no Elizabeth Hardwick, no Norman Mailer, no James Baldwin. Flawed though those writers and reviewers  could be in their expressions, they provoked debate, inspired discussion, instigated dissent --all of them , in their best and worst moments forced the engaged reader to think harder on what they'd just read. Even talking about them today can land one in along conversation in which the pondering of what the Muses avail us begins again. Simon, in that regard, was such a routine naysayer that you regarded him like he were a man with a persistent cold who could no stifle a loud, garish cough, or perhaps someone given to chronic flatulence who vented his odious stinkers when he was in the center of a center of a party of attendees cheerfully chatting away.  Once he made his noise and raised his stink, all you could do was wait for to go away and then not think of the sheer worthlessness of his existence from that point on. 


Well, John Simon has left us, and now we may get on with forgetting he was a part of any conservation. 

Saturday, November 2, 2019

a note or two about my mother

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My mom, Maxelle Reed Roberts Burke, was a tough and intelligent and a pretty brilliant woman who didn't sit around waiting for things to happen. She raised the five of us with a firm but loving hand, and did me the favor of telling me the truth about how the world worked. She knew she had a dreamy, half-deaf romantic on her hands in my presence and would caution me against going the whole hog into relationships, and to be prepared for disappointment when things didn't work out to my heart's content. Besides family, she was a community activist at different times, particularly, in a campaign to get Harper Woods a public swimming pool all its own. She was an artist, an interior designer of the first rank along with our Dad, and was the brains and the brilliance behind a successful interior design business she ran with Ed Burke. She was a doer, a questioner, a person who would find out things for herself and did not suffer fools at all. More than once I've seen take apart some poor chump who thought he could "man-splain" some matter to her, whether professional, political or territorial. 

And she was wonderfully hip in ways you didn't expect; time was a family dinner in the 80s and we wound up watching a Dick Clark music award show. Jefferson Starship was one of the artists, with Grace Slick dressed conservatively. Mom shook her head and said that Slick looked like a drunk housewife. Next was punk band X, loud, grainy, distorted, too fast and definitely not hippie music. Mom liked them a lot, bobbing her head in time with the raucous noise X made. Mom was edgy in the smartest ways and had many interests, particularly in people. She had many fiercely loyal friends. What I most remember, though, was that she encouraged my love of books and music, bought me my first harmonica when the guitar lessons yielded no fruit and that she used to read to me when I was very young and would answer my questions when a story didn't make sense. And she had a beautiful voice--she sang often as she made dinner when she thought she was alone listening to the radio. It was a softer side of her that wasn't often on display. 


And did I mention that she had the best laugh in the world, a loud, robust burst of hilarity? My sister Julia inherited that laugh and it makes me happy every time I hear it.