Saturday, May 16, 2020

WEASELS RIP MY FLESH --The Mothers of Invention

Weasels Ripped My Flesh - WikipediaFrank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, along with King Crimson, are my two favorite bands from the "prog rock" school of making things busy, although my appreciation of both bands is that they are both outliers from the form. Before anyone was aware of it, there seemed to be a dozen bands that sounded like Yes, ELP and Genesis, so many of them with similar riffs, oddly regimented time signatures, fantasy, sci-fi or cosmic muffin levels of grandiose lyric baiting. I admit the truly committed prog partisans could tell the difference, as could I in most blindfold tests, but the really issue was what exactly the point of all that repetition of effort was. 

The answer was clear, which was sales of  records and tickets, no less than the disco movement. It wasn't all mercenary , as it's unlikely anyone begins to play music of any kind without a love of making instruments produce sweet sounds, but the idea was that prog rock was selling and that despite the protests that maintain that it was a new art form, or a natural expression from musicians who'd grown up listening to the ref ined stuff, which  it was in both cases, choosing to be in a prog band was a commercial move, not an artistic one. Zappa and KC, though, had other things in mind, a certain kind of monomania that made the music, morphing, argumentative, diverse and truly "out there" in both bands, than anything else. Weasels Rip my Flesh is my favorite Mothers/Zappa release simply because it pretty highlights the leader's astounding range, from gritty atonal classicism, free jazz cacophony, old school rhythm and blues, electronic skroinksterism  and a good amount of Zappa's flying dagger guitar improvisation. 

 It's a resume album, you might say, a release of what had not made it yet to album release, outtakes they used to call them, music from both studio sessions and live dates sublimely edited together in such a way that it becomes a jaw dropping realization that the styles and moods this record masterfully presents, the crankiest avant garde experimentation coexisting with humdinger fanfares,  an obstacle course of rapid and bizarre meter changes, the sustained scream of a deranged arrangement for reed instruments, you begin, perhaps, to appreciate the genius Frank Zappa was. Prelude to the Afternoon of a Sexually Aroused Gas Mask, Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue, My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama, Oh No--these titles provide a good idea as to the peculiar landscape that is Zappa's imagination, which is satirical, vulgar, entirely surreal using the commodities of consumer capitalism rather than the convenient mythos of  psychology to poke a sharp sick into the vulnerable and obese sides of  our collective American fetishism for gadgets, fads and trends. An admirable facet of Zappa's work as a librettist is that he has no interest in creating poetic/philosophical/spiritual constructs that operate as Fire Exits for the consumer who wants a safe space for his psyche to believe, however fleetingly, that everything is okay and that he's doing just fine. No such luck, as Brother Zappa distorts the chaos you're already in and aware of and makes it his goal to give you the shock of recognition. That is , what am I laughing at?  With the disconcerting variety and collision-course eclecticism  the Mothers of Invention so brilliantly maintained, it would seem to have been Zappa's goal to shame a few folks in his audience, at least, to recognize the softness of their thinking , turn off the TV and get a library card.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

STARLESS AND BIBLE BLACK --King Crimson

Revisiting King Crimson's Sorta Live 'Starless and Bible Black'Historical revisionism is a wonderful thing in matters that don't involve public policy or the fate of humanity, and the last few years has emerged a movement among able-voiced factions of the 70s music audience, fan and writer alike, who have become emboldened to say great things about Progressive Rock. I won't argue the point, although I was not the most enthusiastic listener of the stuff. As a sucker for instrumental competence leading all the way up to virtuosity, tricky time signatures, dissonance and bold eclecticism appealed to me greatly, although my tastes have changed course significantly toward jazz improvisation, a wider, less calcified field were virtuosity is put to the service of improvisation, an area where you do something unique , your own and the likes of which cannot be exactly duplicated by any means. Prog, in the brief time it owned the FM radio band and record charts, soon became self parody --everyone sounded like everyone else playing overly arranged music , although adherents will claim the immediately distinguish-ability of Yes from ELP from Hatfield in the North from ...--and much of the lyrics were so much mush, Tolkien by way of Dungeons and Dragons. But Starless and Bible Black by King Crimson?  Though starting at the beginning of the Prog Rock ordeal, KC never really sounded like anyone, and anyone trying to sound like them did so at the risk of being ridiculed, reviled, rejected. This record is densely layered, putting forth fetching, entrancing segments of gamelan percussive improvisations, a rather angular approach to Heavy Metal atonality, atmospherics for processed electric guitar and violin, breakneck Mahavishnu temps and firestorm soloing. Robert Fripp, who I would consider the Miles Davis of Rock as he is the only constant member of this band in its fifty plus years of existence and who made sure that the contributions of new members changed the sound and direction of KC--leads an outstanding troupe this period, especially Bill Buford on drums, David Cross on violin and John Whetton on bass and vocals . Whetton, I believe, is one of the forgotten bass heroes in the rock domain. Atmosphere, frenetic ensemble playing, exploring texturing. What more does one need, And the lyrics by Robert Palmer James are first rate, a real poetry tht does not embarrass your senses with naive horse droppings.

Friday, May 8, 2020

LOLITA


Lolita 1955.JPGIt's odd to imagine that Vladimir Nabokov's serpentinely sensual  1955 novel Lolita is 65 years old. Oddly, you come across younger readers who think writers began writing about sex until the mid 60s; I have no desire to ask where they've been or how they might have recieved (or not) their information. But oh well. On topic, it's a little more  unnerving to realize that I am the approximate age of that tale's cringe-causing protagonist, Hubert Humbert, that sad, grey character who wooed the twelve year old title figure with such a beautiful and odiously applied poetry. Re-reading it, I feel Humbert's physical aches and pains and even some measure of his longings for the touch of a women's skin against mine--I remain a romantic sensualist when all my protesting about the the course of the world are said and done with--and yet there is a horror, trepidation in a minor key as Humbert's fanciful seduction of the girl proceeds. I remember reading this in my early twenties thinking it erotic and wonderfully alive with what it made my young soul  yearn for, but thirty seven years hence the same novel is a little unnerving. I have lived long enough to have experienced a bit of the adult obsession that our author put to page in 1955, and it's not nostalgia or another manner of euphoric recall. Lolita is Nabokov's peculiar masterpiece that indicts us along with Humbert in the foul pursuit of young Lolita's virtue.
 
The novel endures because Humbert's interior-designed arousal has not been mitigated by the art of the writing nor a change over time about what is allowable between the sexes. The novel is a joy to read for the rare genius of Nabokov's writing, and the grime-crusted salaciousness of Humbert's game is still revolting. This the novel's great achievement, a comedy that indicts the reader as being likewise culpable in the seduction of a seeming innocent.I think it's more a matter that Lolita has aged well because the subject of a middle aged man's infatuation with a very young girl continues to give us the creeps fifty years since publication, and that Nabokov's writing remains musical, full of light, and wonderfully seductive in it's conveying of sensation.Nabokov was not an optimist in thinking that his characters would rise above their instincts and desires and do something selfless and noble, and with Lolita he hands us a masterpiece that is ageless because it retains the capacity to corrupt the reader and leave them feeling less certain in their moral stance for the pleasure they've just taken from the author's artful description of gamy undertakings.The tension is purposeful, I think, to the end that Nabokov's comic pessimism was directed not to instruct a moral lesson, but rather to show that our personalities are problematic things in that we acknowledge what is wrong and what is bad for us and yet pursue our worst inclinations with sweetly rationalized zeal. We are entranced with Humbert's poetics as he waxes about the authority of his senses , and it is there we find ourselves seduced, willingly surrendered to beauty created to describe what is morally unsettling. This is Nabokov saying "Gotcha"!Where Nabokov got his inspiration for his  "gotcha", but all the twists and turns in his relationship (or lack of relationship) with  his wife Vera is academic in the most anemic sense, since what we continue to have finely diced ambivalence toward is what he finally imagined in the novel Lolita, as alluring fiction. It remains the job of the indexer and the hagiographer to draw the precise and mathematical formulations as to the relations between the author's failings as a human being and the deceitful decorum of his elegant and untrustworthy narratives; for the reader seeking a distraction and an amusement the important matter is the complexity of our response to Lolita's seamless pulling from two directions. This isn't the only fiction where he's artfully drawn situations and casts whose multiple duplicitous all create mischief of varying degrees of transgression in the erstwhile pursuit of a mutating Ideal.Pnin, Pale Fire,Ada, Look at the Harlequins are all wonderful deliberations on bad faith. I am willing to accept that Nabokov was a personal bastard himself to be able to write so richly and so well of so many spoiled, privileged and vainly deluded creatures; his moral lesson , if there was one he presented, was that one ought not assume that there are firms moral lessons or insights to deep seated truths from the exposure to beauty and elegance; beauty is only a condition of our need for pleasure, and in itself does not make the gamier stuff in this life--the lying, the cheating, the ill will and violence we do toward one another-- sympathetic or defensible merely because it happens to be filtered through an attractive lens.
 
Humbert is a man of self-made pathologies and lacks anything of the Tragic Hero, a great man who, despite great deeds and good works, offends the Universe with exclusionist pride. He is perhaps a Pathetic Figure, someone objectively without redeeming virtues or qualities who willfully and blissfully contrives a habit of thinking to make their pursuit of gratification seamless and undisturbed by an intervening conscious. Tragic Heroes who started out as individuals who have the potential to make the world a better and more just place, but who have a fatal flaw that will ensure their demise. Humbert is all Fatal Flaw, a ruinous example of errant humanity. The novel is a unrelenting study in sheer pathology, made more disturbing by Nabokov's willingness to grace certain thinking with a sweet music.
 

MICHAEL McCLURE

Beat poet , playwright and essayist Michael McClure has passed away at the age of 87. I had the honor of getting to know him sometime back in the 90s when he read at D.G.Wills Books , when we had the great fortune of having a string of great Beat writers, at different times, grace us with a reading. Along with Michael, the bookstore also featured readings by Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Ted Joans and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Michael was an especially affable fellow in the days he spent with us; of calm demeanor but intense feeling, gracious, curious about those around him, willing to suffer what I thought in retrospect were naive questions. What he spoke of during our brief chats, and his remarks during his reading , was what I had always marveled at with respect to several writers and their ilk, a seamless integration of the moral,the political, the spiritual, and the artistic. He as a strong,restless poet who had a riveting, muscular lyricism that pierced untouchable mysteries and allowed light ,wisdom and humor to bear on the darker corners of the soul. He was interested in a myriad of things that have no reason to be connected other than the vivacity of McClure's interest and imagination. His body of work, his poems, had a broad range of subject matter, expression, musical and of the well phrase, and then it could be explosive, declarative, oracular, even anthropomorphic, the giving of human traits to animal figures. His interests were varied, and those varieties ran deep, and were deeply felt/ Again, a longer tribute to him is warrented because the wealth of his writing deserves better than a cramped and generalized description of what he did as a poet and spiritual seeker. But I will this to my musings: Michael McClure's life as a writer, revealed in his many books of verse, plays, novels, essays, memoirs and collaborations was an admixture of rigor and intuition. And McClure wore these elements like a loose fitting garment, a man completely at peace in his own skin. Here's a poem I rather like he wrote about trying to make note of the world as it speeds by .


THERE ARE HILLS LIKE SHARKFINS
                                  and clods of mud.
The mind drifts through
in the shape of a museum,
in the guise of a museum
dreaming dead friends:
Jim, Tom, Emmet, Bill.
—Like billboards their huge faces droop
and stretch on the walls,
on the walls of the cliffs out there,
where trees with white trunks
          makes plumes on rock ridges.

My mind is fingers holding a pen.

Trees with white trunks
             make plumes on rock ridges.
Rivers of sand are memories.
Memories make movies
             on the dust of the desert.
Hawks with pale bellies
             perch on the cactus,
their bodies are portholes
             to other dimensions.

This might go on forever.

I am a snake and a tiptoe feather
at opposite ends of the scales
as they balance themselves
against each other.
This might go on forever.
--  Michael McClure,
"Mexico Seen from the Moving Car"from Of Indigo and Saffron: New and Selected Poems.
Copyright © 2011 by Michael McClure.  Reprinted by permission of University of California Press.
Copyright © 2011 by Michael McClure.  Reprinted by permission of University of California Press.

Of course I plan to write something longer and more concrete in a few days, but this note is say thank you to a great poet, a grand man, for a measure of fellowship and credible consul.

HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED

Of course there had to be a Dylan record on a list of albums that had a high impact in the manner I put my straight shoulder to the wheel, and its this one, HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED. This is less a music collection than a weapon, a dual- edged shiv that brought everything that songwriter was interested in--Burroughsesque nightmares, the plaintive flatness of rural folk traditions, a carnivalization of the inane and crucifying obligations we've bought into to rationalize lives based on a religion comprised solely on the idea of debt. It was a glorious anarchy as well, a chamber of blues, boogie, electric guitars , guitars and drums thrashing forward without penance with a momentum that ripped the seams of whatever structure these songs had to begin with. Dylan is nasal, braying, mewling, nasty in his vocalizing, which is to say that he's pissed, a combination of gotcha!, dead-to-rights broadsides against what is false and based on distraction deception and deceit and outright school yard finger pointing, an aggrieved creep ranting at others about how unfair he's been treated. 

This is a fantastic combination, folkie Dylan backed by an electric band getting the tracks done fast, taking little time for finessing the brew. It's worth mentioning that while blues guitar genius Mike Bloomfield was on the session (with Al Kooper as well, late of the Blues Project and later to found Blood Sweat and Tears), Dylan, jerk/punk/asshole/speed freak he was, told Bloomfield that he didn't want "any of that B.B.King shit..." Or words to that effect. The disc is full of rawboned, ethereal masterpieces like JUST LIKE TOM THUMB'S BLUES, FROM A BUICK SIX, BALLAD OF A THIN MAN, QUEEN JANE APPROXIMATELY, and his epic Masterwork DESOLATION ROW, which may be the most convincing evocation of Dante's 9 Circles of Hell. One can enthuse, elaborate, abstract from and wax philosophical upon these keen nihilistic odes, but it will have to suffice to remark that I consider this record one of the albums that needed to exist for the birth of punk rock to take place, along with the KICK OUT THE JAMS by the MC5, and the first albums by the Stooges and Velvet Underground. . 

Everyone seems to start and end at different places, tempos are ragged, sometimes tentative, the pace is bludgeoning, the instruments are often out of tune, and its all glorious,brilliant Dylan in the middle of it all, snarling, burning through his genius and abusing his muse for the greater glory of what would become a definitive record. It is raw and spiky and gives you a perspective that says that there is no proof because there is no pudding.You'd be right, I suppose , in linking Dylan's early cynicism about the motives of people and the institutions they represent to his dalliance of brimstone Christianity. It does seem a natural progression, although I've expanded my view on is SLOW TRAIN COMING album and would equate it closer to the fatalistic Christianity of Flannery O'Connor, a writer who was obsessed with the vision of Christ, the afterlife, as a strange way of thinking that you've cut the spiritual requirements to sit at God's right or left hand,which ever comes first. Her's was a body of thinking about Christianity that was too weird and personal to be of any use to any to anyone except those readers of American Southern fiction who marveled at the writer's skill at imagining the worst while dealing, even in submerged form, on matters of Belief.Her measure of Christian love was a love of Christ himself, not so much for the fellow man. 

What had been pure in intention, spreading a gospel of love and service to others--to be genuinely 'Christ like"--had been perverted and become ritual, fetish and an excuse to gather material riches and oppress others in the name of silent God and savior. O'Conner was cynical, and her stories in many ways reveal how characters sacrifice their best interests and the good of others in pursuit of that goal. Wise Blood had a preacher who very much made me think of a young, venomous preacher who founded a Church that had no God. God is a brand-name and the institution is the thing itself, its real purpose being only to perpetuate its own existence. She is closer to Dylan's finger wagging than most of us care to think about. Dylan's Christianity is likewise too weird to be of any use to any evangelist who might to cite him as a saved celebrity. His view was apocalyptic and I think no less nihilist than when he was a mad lad surrealising the universe with his skill at saying profound sounding things that no one honestly understood. But for HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED, it's more profitable , nay, more enjoyable to take this on its own terms and it's own era-defined conditions of composition and again get wowed by the spiked punch of insight, insult, revelation, resentment, love , rage, the general rampage of impulses he contained with the simple guitar chords he had in his armory. The wonder of the album is that unlike so many discs by great artists at the time, including, this one hasn't aged.

------------------------------------------

BARRY ALFONSO: I sniff off-the-cuff nihilism, crank-'n'-reds know-nothingism and wink-twitch name-dropping glibness, though it IS better to drop T.S. Eliot's name than, say, Stevie Nicks's.You can trace our current era of Trumpean meanness right back to the unbridled rudeness and insensitivity of "Like A Rolling Stone." That song is arguable the first pop hit featuring a man insulting, belittling, shaming and humiliating a woman in front of the world. Fast-forward 51 years to Trump's behavior towards Megan Kelly at the first GOP debate and look at the naked lunch dangling at the end of the populist FORK.I disagree that O'Connor was cynical -- she believed than man was fallen and helpless and blind as the bats of Jehoshaphat -- but there was the possibility of redemption. She wanted to shock people into realizing their utter need. Dylan has spent most of his career looking for a stick to beat people over the head with, whether it is poor Mr. Jones (who isn't "with it") or unbelievers during his Jesus phase. O'Connor used dark satire to point out truths about humanity -- I don't hear ANY truths about humanity in Dylan's three Christian albums except that you are all going to burn in Hell unless you submit immediately. I would say O'Connor was profound. Dylan? He was a sour, nearly burned-out rock star who needed a new nozzle for his bile. Dylan wanted the applause of the crowd so he could piss on it, causing his sopping-wet fans to worship Bob the Bard all the more. A dump truck for an overloaded head and a cold, cold heart. I can see Reed now, wringing out his own neck like a dishrag wrapped around an old biddy's broom handle...


Wednesday, May 6, 2020

GREATEST ROCK GUITAR ALBUM OF ALL TIME

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High impact,yes it was, but I need to say that in decades that followed this followed genius's death, I've come to be weary of Hendrix when his name comes up in conversation. It's a matter of those from my high school graduating year all over the world turning this innovative musician into a deity, making him less an artist and more of a fetish item. Hendrix more or less gave us five studio albums of finished work --I am including Cry of Love and Rainbow Bridge , both released posthumously, because the songs there upon are as good as the ones released during his lifetime. I think these songs are heard by us more or less (that phrase again!) as Hendrix intended. His body of finished work is a little broader than we might remember.ELECTRIC LADYLAND IS, in my view, the best double record studio release from a rock musician. It's often guessed at what Hendrix might have expanded his guitar sound into had he not gagged on his own wretch while asleep--jazz? cosmic funk? jazz fusion with Miles Davis? electronic music? orchestral material with larger ensembles? 

Ladyland gives us indications that the power trio format would not long hold Jimi-- the variety of styles, the shimmering brilliance of the production and mixing, the exhilarating guitar improvisations and the multi-tracking of guitar parts to produce a nuanced weave of sound, textures and short riffs and counter melodies playing tag in in even the strictest arrangement. And Hendrix was about to emerge as one of the most important songwriters of his generation, not just a windup guitar hero, but an actual auteur. His lyrics had by this time taken the street grit of the urban black experience, combined it with equal doses of Muddy Waters, Miles Davis, Sun Ra, Bob Dylan, The Impressions and, yes, his good friends in Cream and created a vibrant, always engaging eclecticism that remains, soothing, bracing, energizing, whatever you need it to do all these decades later. Burning of the Midnight Lamp, House Burning Down, Crosstown Traffic, Gypsy Eyes, 1983 (a mermanI should be)...These songs were the work of a writer coming into his own as both melodist and lyricist. Yes, lets give credit for his interpretations of Dylan and Earl Hooker, but the attraction of this album is as much about Hendrix's own compositions as it is his guitar prowess. And make no mistake, I am one who thinks that this is a rock guitar record that is unlikely to be equaled by anyone at any time. This album makes me think that the loss of Jimi Hendrix is about the only instance where the world was robbed ; we lost fifty years of genius with his departure.