Saturday, December 26, 2020

SUDDENLY REALIZATION

I had for some time refused to get a cell phone and preferred rather to rage at the yakking philistines who couldn't stand silence in public places like bus stops or airline terminals , nor be bothered to bring a book or a magazine with them if they knew they might be alone at some period in the day, between stations, with no one to confirm how goddamned bitchen they were. It was a satisfying arrangement; overworked and underpaid and yet with so much unfulfilled promise that I could bare speak when my anger welled up like some dystopian stew blowing off the oppressive lid, my contempt for cell phones and the tech-addicted jerks who diluted the language with the odious devices was just the thing one needed to get a psychic leg up in the world. I was smarter, I was old school, I revered books and the words printed on them by great writers who took their mission seriously, I cherished meditative quiet and loathed boorishness, I was a man of the ages (or at least the Seventies), I was an arrogant jerk. Arrogant and a jerk, yes, but it fed my ego, made up for whatever perceived failures I might have brooded over and over as the years wore on. In the meantime, a mixed clutch of exchange students drifted toward the curb as the wayward bus finally emerged in the horizon and now approached the red painted curb, every other one of them rambling with a dead pan earnestness in the narrative tongue into cell phones wedged between shoulder and tilted head while they fumbled for bus passes or exact change. Doubtless who ever these folks were talking to knew when their phone mates would arrive, and how to reach their party if they didn't show.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

LESLIE WEST RIP. ONLY THE RIGHT NOTES

 Leslie West, guitarist for Mountain , has passed away, age 75. The musician  was at the center of the  since my high school senior year, circa  1971 , which makes this especially sad.  His playing on the song Dreams of Milk and Honey, the live version from  their  ' 71 Flowers of  Evil album, was a I track I    listened to obsessively , all  20 or so minutes of it, for years to come.  Suffice to say that I  pretty well had the performance memorized, every note, every phrase, every transition from one  theme and variation to another, each change in tempo, each down beat and  uptick in volume. Or so it seemed at times as I remember miming West's guitar work in the dresser mirror while the song blared . It seemed I could write a bit of memoir, autobiography let us  say, to each five minute segment of this track and have enough writing to fill a book. I thought I would reprint this here, an appreciation of what I thought the song sounded like to me, something entirely subjective. Leslie West could play guitar.    

What song is going through my head? An old one, old, "Dreams of Milk and Honey" by Leslie West and Mountain, from the second side of their album Flowers of Evil, recorded at the Fillmore East in NYC in 1971. It is one of the great moments of Hard Rock guitar, with a great, lumbering riff that distorts and buzzes on the low strings with crushing bends and harmonics squealing at some raging pitch that might make one think of natural calamity, a force no power could withstand. West, never the most fluid guitarist, had, all the same, a touch, a feel, a sense of how to mix the sweet obbligato figures he specialized in with the more brutal affront of power chords and critically rude riff slinging. The smarter among us can theorize about the virtues of amplified instrumentation attaining a threshold of sweetness after the sheer volume wraps you in a numbing cacophony, but for purposes here it suffices to say, with a wink, that is a kind of music you get and accept on its own truncated terms or ignore outright. His guitar work was a brick wall you smashed into at an unheard number of miles an hour and, staring up at the sky, you noticed the bloom of a lone flower, not to mention a halo of tweeting birds and la-la music. 


 There is an aesthetic at work here, but it might as well come to saying that you had to be me, at my age, in 1971 when I was struck by this performance to understand a little of why I haven't tossed the disc into the dustbin. He is in absolute control of his Les Paul Jr., and here he combines with bassist Felix Pappalardi and drummer Corky Laing in some theme and variation that accomplishes what critic Robert Christgau has suggested is the secret of great rock and roll music, repetition without tedium. There are no thousand-note blitzkriegs, no tricky time signatures, just tight playing, a riffy, catchy, power-chording wonder of rock guitar essential-ism. I've been listening to this track on and off since I graduated from high school, and it cracks me up that my obsession with this masterpiece of rock guitar minimalism caused a few my friends to refer to me listening yet again to my personal "national anthem." This is the melodic, repetitive grind I wished life always were, endlessly elegant and stagnant, shall we say, in perfect formation of the senses, hearing, smell, taste, the arousal of dormant genitalia, all big and large and grinding at the gears that sing sweet mechanical song of intense love heavier than any metal beam you might care to bite into.  The combination of Felix Papalardi's whiny voice singing his wife's bullshit lyrics can ruin any buzz you have going for you. It's the live material that kicks it, with lots of fat, snarling Leslie West guitar work twisting around a punchy set of slow, grinding, distorted hard rock. Yes, arrangements do count, even in rock and roI might have even lit a Bic lighter for this tune. is something beautiful in that as well but, alas, the end result of that is the end waxing poetic. Alas. Sing it, Leslie.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday, December 5, 2020

WHO WAS HERMAN J. MANKIEWICZ?

 

Mank, the new David Fincher directed feature film on Netflix, answers a question for many fans of the Orson Wells masterpiece Citizen Kane, who exactly was Herman Mankiewicz, the screen writer? Effectively portrayed by Gary Oldman, managing to be both flamboyant, folksy and occasionally enigmatic , the film lays out in flashbacks and fast-forwards the tale of a gifted alcoholic playwright and screenwriter who, in financial arrears, agrees to write a screenplay for Wells  and take no screen credit for the writing. All told, I thought it was a fine motion picture, with sharp writing, a well selected cast who perform admirably, and solid direction from Fincher who, I believe, knows exactly how long to linger and when to leave a scene for another piece of the story. From my recollection of other of his works--Fight Club, Zodiac, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl-- the man has a superb sense of how to pace a film drama. And, as with the case of Gone Girl, he is especially effective with the ever problematic flashback ploy; it's my view that he was seamless in the transitions between the present-day storyline and past events in Mank's life without losing coherence. And the film is visually gorgeous, a beautiful black and white composition that provides a well-shaded, dreamy quality without lapsing into over stylized unreality. And I don't particularly mind that there is not a particularly heavy dramatic arc the lend this film a contrived gravitas. Mankiewicz is an interesting personage involved with the creation of what's considered one of the finest movies ever made, and partially fictionalized or not, the level of attention brought to his personality serves the subject splendidly. This is , to be sure, the kind of movie engineered, however artfully, to allow the leading man to chew up the scenery with a bravura performance, but it is a relief that Gary Oldman's portrayal of Mankiewicz is steady and consistent, the quirks and mannerisms fluid and understated. There is a wonderful cohesion between all the movie parts. I thought Ma nk was a satisfying watch.

The trailer makes it seem that there is something more sinister afoot , but what we actually have is a splendid and finely written portrait of a gifted man limited in his work and production by an alcoholic ennui and cynicism  ; Mankiewicz .  a presence that is droll, melancholic, ironic, erudite , truth telling , is seen in the Fincher film ( interestingly, the screenplay is by David Fincher's late father Jack Fincher, who wrote the script about fifteen years ago) who views himself as an artist dedicated to truth, beauty and authenticity and yet finds himself  making deals and compromising his idealism in order to scrape by financially. Oldman brings his is best set of talents to creating the intellectual shambles that is this screen version of Mankiewicz, and it is rather a pleasure to see recreations of L.B.Mayer, William Randolph Hearst , Marion Davis and John Houseman, names from the film and California history books, brought to the screen dramatically but not cartoonish. Fincher , the director, effectively creates the period and mimics the baroque style of Wells from KANE--lots of deep focus, a black and white style with any manner of shadings that make this whole thing seem other worldly . The center of this story, though, is Mankiewicz,  Mank,  an interesting character who's story  is of a man who ought to have achieved far greater fame and renown by dent of his talent, but who seemed intent on sabotaging his future with drunk escapades and a compulsion to speak of things political and ethical that didn't sit well with his higher ups. 

Friday, December 4, 2020

Maxing out Maximalism


 It's been one of those weeks when there's little else to do after the laundry is done than to stare for long periods at the bookshelves and make provisional decisions about to keep on hand and at the ready and what to box up or bag and take to the local used bookshop for trade credit, which means trading in old used books with all my dog eared ages and marginalia for new used books, with dog earing and marginalia rendered by people I've probably never met.Sometimes the mind seems like nothing less than a noisy circular file, a recycling bin of metaphors that are parted out and tweaked to meet new situations which one's brain has to accommodate, lest the world unhinge and roll down some celestial bowling lane. The "maximalist" writers, authors who cannot tell you the time without addressing what's amiss in our insular cosmologies, have not fared well in these separations. Where minimalist , spawned by Papa Hemingway's tight, skinflint style and buoyed by Raymond Carver's art of of making the convolutions of alcoholic despair crisp and lean as polished steel rods, sought the fewest possible words to express the smallest though deepest wounds to the psyche, maximalist are intent on exhausting every observation, each crazy idea, pursuing every tangent and tributary as it marginally relates to what would loosely be termed a plot. There are no story arcs in these tellings, only the literary equivalent of urban sprawl. It is often times genius untouched by a good editor's sane blue pencil. 

I exchanged the David Foster Wallace tome Infinite Jest last week for a half dozen John Updike and John Cheever used paperbacks, vainly staking my claim for writers of longish sentences who are actually revealing something hidden in human behavior rather than running away from it with the distractions rudderless prose potentially affords you. I prefer my shaggy dog stories confined to movies these days, which one can witness in The Big Lebowski , written and directed by Rob and Ethan Coen. Wallace has his uses, and at times hits pay dirt (Oblivion, his collection of stories, gives one hope that he has abandoned the Exhausting Novel and is ready, just maybe, to use shorter sentences), but his books over all tend to rob the room of the air I need to read better books. Each book he's written since Genius has been variations on a jet stream of language, a set of gasping, agitated sentences that are all jabber and no communication. Incredibly, his writing seems to mimic the way many characterize the way many in his generation actually talk, rapidly, long word ribbons filled with undiscerning details, asides and anecdotes, all uttered at a pace and high-strung pitch that attempts to make you think that something incredible is about to happen. 

Or, more on point, that a point is about to be made,all of this, virtually all (no exaggeration) presented with an unmerciful and even arrogant lack of emphasis.Experience is spoken of as if everything regarding storyline depended solely on the present tense, all memories, history, details, relegated to the same junk pile of references that are never gone through or made to construct a nuanced effect or make a scene that achieves emotional complexity. There is, however, clutter, an amassed set of things brought together indiscriminately, pack rat like. Clutter, however, isn't the same as complexity, and the sorry state of Egger's writing is that there is no inner life in his characters--Genius, being a memoir, is that rare exception in his body of work--that gives you a sense of inner life and struggle on the character's part. Theodore Dreiser was a less adroit stylist, perhaps,but An American Tragedy and Sister Carrie particularly made up for the lack of grace with massive amounts of humanity that made us think about nagging notions of Destiny, Free Will and Duty . Dreiser's topics remain with us, and what he offered us remains part of that discussion. Eggers The suggestion that he read Tom Wolfe, pre-Bonfire of the Vanities,is well taken, since Wolfe in his journalism showed away to adjust and mold his style around the subject matter. A more recent model for Eggers to go to school on is Esquire writer Mike Sager's collection of magazine pieces Scary Monsters and Super Freaks, where the writer brings a wonderfully subtle literary personality to his portraits of spectacular American failures at the margins of the mainstream. Eggers writes well enough in short bits, patches, a paragraph hither and yon, but he does so without shining any light, nor casting any shades of darkness for that matter; what the world doesn't need is a political satire that cannot convince you that it's an exaggeration of the real thing.

Jonathan Franzen, another mad bomber of the language whose weighty and over worded The Corrections won praise and best seller status for a turgid family comedy that everything going for it except the niceties of heart and editing, is presently at the top of the next stack of titles that will find their way to the used book dealer, to be either sold, traded in donated outright. Franzen, remember, isn't a bad writer, but he is an under edited one, since their are sentences and even whole paragraphs in The Corrections that just give up in the middle, or wrecked like speeding cars meeting head on as he tries to manage one metaphor after another with which he attempts, over and over, to contain the perversions and anomalies of American family life in as short a space as possible. Not graceful stuff, this, and an astute editor would have blue penciled the offending pages out of the final book, reducing its bulk by at least a fourth. How to Be Alone, a fine collection of essays he published two years ago about the reading life, fares better at sentence management and poise, but one wonders of what kind of writer Franzen turns out to be if what he composes remain congested fiction or essays essentially praising himself and those few like him for being introverted, geeky and bookish. It's an act that gets old, a voice that wears out. I intend to trade him in for some Tom Robbins, a novelist who can have fun with his convolutions, although he is not without risk. The cutie-pie , Zap Comix surrealism and the far flung similes (here's a writer still in competition with Raymond Chandler!) will often times crowd out development; as a friend once remarked about The Grateful Dead, sometimes his writing amounts to "what the fuck"? In one instance it can be something spiritual along the lines of uttering "let go and let God", meaning that one needs to pick their battles wisely, but on the other hand, the other hand being huge palm upraised as if asking for a five spot, is that it simply amounts to defeat by way of being too spaced out. Robbins likes to drive the car only so far, and is likely to take his hands off the wheel and listen to the radio with his eyes closed just as his vehicle is merging with freeway traffic. Not good.

Fellow maximalist David Eggers little better in the sorting and prioritizing. Out the books go . A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius , a memoir of his assuming the parenting role for his younger brother Toph after the back-to-back deaths of their parents, is a bit of masterpiece of the hurried voice; a stammering and rushing narrative of someone having to shed the remains of teenage slacker-tude and learn adult behavior in a hurry, Eggers' style was appropriate to the subject. Given circumstances that made his reality seem to collapse upon itself, Eggers could do nothing else except move forward, as if running up the hall from a burning house, instinctually moving toward the daylight coming from a door at the end. AHWOSG , breathless, impatient, agitated and at times staggering, as it were, in it's balancing act of grace and wit and awkward locutions and shotgunned transitions, remains a real document of a writer having to leave his cozy assumptions of living the bohemian life and take on the weight as family head.

The desperation was real, and was interesting for the way the author didn't assume the disguise of narrative know-it-all. Beguiling as that was, one would have thought he would have changed his style, suitable to idea and subject, but he has not. It's about the hurry, the haste, the speed of writing coming as quickly as the speed of perception. It is the speed of the Internet generation, and the result is broad banded mediocrity. Every book he's done up until now has been a set of gasping, agitated sentences that are all jabber and no communication. Incredibly, his writing seems to mimic the way many characterize of his generation actually talk, rapidly, long streams of sentences, filled with undiscerning details, asides and anecdotes, all uttered at a pace and high-strung pitch that attempts to make you think that something incredible is about to happen.

_______________________________________

I still have huge respect for Carver's writing years after college; he is one of  few writers in the post-Hemingway generation who's minuscule language, always sharp, always exact, managed to achieve a profound effect despite the paucity of language. He equals Hemingway in large part (assuming, of course,that the stories that editor/writer Gordon Lish didn't in fact rewrite Carver's work to his own idea of style), and what I admire is that his effect was different that Hemingway's. There's a coarser grit that comes through Carver's prose, through all those closed conjunctions and truncated metaphors. The sentimentality, that of the lonely and brave man abiding by a personal code in a world where World Wars have made morality suspect; Hemingway still held out for the human capacity to find some goodness despite the convenient cynicism that would have made one's social graces easier to move around in. Carver's is that lonely cynicism filtered through Beckett; everything is broken, used up, deracinated compromised and prostituted so far as a protagonist's personal character and ethical strain is concerned. Carver's is the world of the already dead, blunted perception and bad faith all around. A little of him does go a long way, though I will say I think he's a better writer and poet than Bukowski. John Fante is better than Bukowski. 

I don't think Wallace is hollow, only that Infinite Jest was overrated and which operates as an experiment where one is attempting something analogous Keith Jarrett's prolix and lugubrious piano improvisations. The talent behind the book is obvious and sometimes impressive, but is weighed down by lack of focus--others claim that is well the point of IJ, that the narrative is decentered to the degree that it reflects a Bergsonian idea of perceived experience more as spread , like drops hitting hard ground , with it's essence cast over great , diffused distance, that rather than the linear line where the main river of plot dominates, with diversions and subplots being only minor points to bolster the main thesis and world view. I think it possible Wallace may have found himself in some competition with Thomas Pynchon. Anyway, the novel suffers for it. I have greatly enjoyed Wallace's other books , though, especially A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again ,Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and Oblivion. Wallace , contra Carver, seems set to make the sentence do things and hold clauses not normally associated with contemporary prose style, and given his knack of noticing everything, seemingly, in what he's writing about and including it in his flow, I would say that the shorter forms--short story, journalism, the essay, travel writing--are best suited to containing his very real ingenuity. 

I take your point about verbal skills more acute when one is actively disliking something they've read, seen or heard. Why something gives you pleasure is a subjective matter, with reasons undisclosed even to the reviewer, and I think one has to invent a rhetoric in order to make the approval one feels comprehensible to a reader. There is something to be said about reviewers and their positive critiques; they don't seem as surefooted as a well-turned negative notice. It may have something to do with the old adage that beauty might be in the eye of the beholder,but ugliness is universally recognized. I'm not nearly that reductionist, but among certain reader communities, a strong element of what's bad, awful, lame, pretentious and inept is shared, and it's easier, I think, to draw a fresh invective from the common stock. Negative reviews, let me not forget to mention, are more fun to write, and it's a struggle to resist writing them en masse. There is nothing more boring than a bored cynic, no>

Thursday, December 3, 2020

BEND THE NOTES

 Rumor has it that I've been playing blues harmonica for near fifty five years , give our take a half-decade, and that in the time it takes to destroy several generations of Hohner Marine Bands with slippery attempts to master the diatonic scale and achieve something near what my first harmonica hero, Paul Butterfield, was doing, I've learned a few things. All the slobbering carnage I've inflicted on those innocent brass reeds eventually got me to the point to where I could do what I wanted to do like the late Mr.Butterfield, bend a note on the enigmatic "tin sandwich"  and come closer to the moaning, soulful blues heaven an aspiring white boy might dream of. 

Butterfield was channeling all the masters he'd listened to as a younger man, the black geniuses of Little Walter, both of the Sonny Boys, James Cotton, and had, through instinct, natural aptitude and a desire to achieve the emotional power and mojo his admitted masters revealed in their playing ( although it is interesting to wonder if youngman Butterfield knew at the time what "mojo" was) imitated his sources as best he could and in doing so, imperfectly mimicking what he'd heard, developed his own style,his own way of bring a characteristic inflection to his improvisations that were unmistakable. Butterfield achieved his mojo and gave the world a harmonica sound that is his alone, instantly identifiable. So in my time I mimicked Butterfield, trying to hammer those licks into a semblance of blues expression, along with other blues masters and , to be honest, a good number of blues guitarists in the guise of Hendrix, BB, Albert and Freddy King respectively and Johnny Winter, with more than a touch of Mike Bloomfield. From that one note that I managed that day in the 60s to this day in the early twenty first century, I have a sound of my own, my own way of torturing the diatonic scale to express the deep seated joys and anguish that challenges mere words and language itself to bring to the open. It's the glory of bending those notes!

Bent notes on the blues harmonica are like fingerprints ; after a certain point, instruction is pointless to anyone actually committed to getting good and unique on the instrument. With all the available instruction these days via the retching sewer pipe known as the internet, I rather appreciate the fact that I've learned without a single formal lesson. Harmonica players are sounding much too much like one another, competent in technique and execution, but lacking in personality or style otherwise.Teachers I know in real life, even a couple of good harmonica instructors, do not work in the fact that they teach in their daily conversations. As for technical instruction regarding the diatonic harmonica, over reliance on it turns too many players into others who sound precisely like the man/woman before him and the next harmonica after him. The cult of technique crowds out style, personality, originality. It turns established styles into a fossilized canon, a museum of dead things once great, now irrelevant to personal expressiveness. Instruction has its place, of course, but the student leaves the class room soon enough to invent something of their own to bring into the listening world; lectures and authority on the matter of a player's growth can no longer be tolerated.