Saturday, October 30, 2021

FIRST I LOOK AT THE PURSE

The steadfast confusion of reason and emotion, and, let's add, the Hamlet-like state of ambivalence and hesitation when attempting to decide which direction to lean in, which road to follow,  is precisely the kind of writing literature should be engaged in, whatever slippery pronoun you desire to append it with. Tension, anger, conflict, a war between impulses that are global in scope but local in context. The goal isn't the resolution of conflict, as that would be mere preaching and the extension of convenient dogmas; what's more exciting and likely closer to the cold shiver of recognition is in how things end. Being neither philosophy nor science of any stripe, fiction is ideally suited for writers to mix and match their tones, attitudes, and angles of attack on a narrative schema to pursue as broad, or as narrow, as maximal or minimal a story they think needs to be accomplished. 

The attack on modernism's arrogance that it was the light to the "real" beneath the fabrications that compose our cosmology, is grossly overstated, it seems, vastly over regarded: Pound, Eliot, Joyce, and Stein, arguably literary modernism's Gang-Of-Four, did not, I think, tell us in any specified terms precisely what that actual reality was, or what it was supposed to be, but only that the by dicing up, challenging, making it strange and making it new could we challenge ourselves, as artists, and as readers that new perceptions and new ideas about the nature of the world could be had. Individually, each writer had a different view of heaven that they wanted the world to become--Pound was ultimately a befuddled, albeit fascist sympathizer, and Eliot became a conservative Royalist (and their anti-Semitism is problematic for anyone looking for real-time heroes)-- but so far as the principle thrust of their work, which was away from the straight jacket of accumulated literary history and toward something new and different that renewed the possibility of art to engage the times in an aesthetically relevant manner, is scarcely diminished in power merely because it came before.


I agree with Fred Jamieson on the point that Post Modernism, in effect, is a restating of the modernist project., although I suspect the critic was as much interested in preserving his own relevance as a critic as he was in establishing new distinctions to a topic that has, if nothing else, perfected the practice of topic drift. His implication is that postmodernism is critical of the culture it ironically reflects; this stance would keep Jamieson, a dutifully abstruse Marxist variant, in things to write about. Or write toward, as the excellent critic's style is, to introduce things he intends to address and then to defer, endlessly it seems, until some clarity is brought, by him, to the terms and context of his impending discussion. He is, it may be said, the lecturer's image who assumes the podium without his notes organized, considering he has noted in the first place. Jamieson, in fact, is something of an ironic example of postmodernism less as a stylish choice or determined practice than as the result of trying to wear too many hats; it is more important to act as though you have a point than to actually have one, to begin with. Jamieson has his insights and critical genius, of course, but too often, it takes a good while for him to warm up to his actual set of talking points.
 Writing is an argument so far that the central impulse to write is to make a series of statements about oneself and one's experiences in the world and reach a satisfying conclusion, some "meaning" at the end of the chat.

Roland Barthes noted that the effort to achieve fixed meaning is doomed, as experience is not a static event but a fluid movement through time that a writer's perception of changes moment to moment, text to text. They attempt to resolve the contradiction, arrive at something absolute in a universe that seems to permanently withhold its Absolute Meanings during this lifetime, and to achieve, somehow, some peace, some satisfaction. But no: the argument persists, the imagination soars, the old certainties cannot contain either the unset of new perceptions or can soothe a writer's innate restlessness. In literature, the conflation continues, reason and emotion color each other, the eyes shut, hoping for vision, a clear path, but the writing continues, the sorting through of experience continues, the unease continues, the world changes radically and not at all. Postmodernism's overall mission is to notify us of the limitations of our tropes, our schemes, and our historicized absolutes seem redundant to what literature already does.

Friday, October 8, 2021

MEDIOCRE MEDIOCRITY

 Yes, I agree. Musical styles, genres, you name, need to change to remain relevant in the march of history scurries towards an always uncertain future. The idea is that whatever art one loves that had its origins in the marketplace will remain relevant and, dare we say the word? relevant. That's the hope, and it's a fact that popular music styles have been altered, adapted, extended, made simpler by younger artists picking up the task of creating sounds for the ears of the buying public. Still, the mergings of whatever "old school" with the taste of the current crop of teens currently glutting the marketplace haven't always been smooth, pleasant, or, bottom line, interesting.  Cruel to say, but heavy metal under any of its specialized micro-genres is a dead end. Rap and hip-hop are fashion cliches these days. Jazz, it can be said, is graduating to the classical concert hall, elevated as art music, which means smaller audiences and grants from whatever federal or local government agencies. Speaking of the evolution of country-rock fusion, it seemed some years ago that the movement has gotten to the point where the songs, the arrangements, are painted by numbers affair, a kind of assembly line professionalism where songs contain elements of rock and country--power chords, blues guitar licks, hard backbeats for rock, pedal steel guitars, fiddles, harmonica flourishes for the country--that lack all authenticity or conviction. I am thinking specifically of Shania Twain, a Canadian who is an outstanding example of country pop-rock that has been grimly calculated to appeal to a broad audience. Quantity, remember, reduces quality. It seems the same thing that happened to the exhilarating genre of jazz-rock when in a short period, it got formalized to a very recognizable set of riffs, solos and resolutions, all-flash, speed, and no improvisation. "Rock this Country" likewise is all riffs and no heart, teeter-tottering between the rock accents and the country lilts. It is a Frankenstein monster, neither alive nor dead, merely ganglia of nerves pulling the beast in different confused directions. It's an apt metaphor; the producers are so obsessed with making sure the dissimilar parts are balanced that we think of the hulking movie monster learning to walk.


Thursday, October 7, 2021

ONCE WAS MORE THAN ENOUGH

Interestingly, it's been two years since Joker came out, and while I tend to rewatch movies I liked in the theaters when they come to a nearby streaming service, I haven't had the interest or the patience to view Joker again. I would modify my initial praise for the movie being well made to it being "slickly avant-garde," with the experimental aspects of that last phrase reduced to being the name of a style a bright film student can study and mimic at will. There is a discussion of this film having a sequel, which would be disastrous. It was a gutsy move by Warner Brothers to allow this extreme (if overcooked) take on one of DC's major characters; it garnered them good reviews, a billion dollar box office. But what story would there be to build on? Ultimately Joker was a fluke and I suspect there is no demand to visit this cynical and arty take on violence and insanity again. 

Friday, October 1, 2021

RICHARD THOMPSON SEEKS HIS VOICE

BEESWING:

Losing My Way and Finding My Voice  

 By Richard Thompson

 

It seems to be a reasonable expectation that people of genius with extraordinary lives and stories to relate would be able to tell their tale in a manner as robust as the lives they've lived. A slight sour truth to accept is that not all extraordinary songwriters aren't the best narrators of their journeys. My expectations were raised by the revelatory musings of Rolling Stone guitarist and songwriter Keith Richards' memoir Life, a memoir that was all sex and sizzle and jaw-dropping revelations.  Richard's witty, regaling truth-telling about his life on the edges of rock and roll had me insisting that any future musical remembrance be equally careening and in your face. 

The demands were cooled considerably by other biographies I read after the vicarious thrill of Richard's enthused embrace of his wild ways. Bob Dylan's book Chronicles, Vol. 1 had the Maestro speaking obliquely about his life, influences, not revealing much that wasn't already in the dedicated fan's knowledge base. That wasn't wholly unexpected since Dylan has been cagey about talking about his personal life. When he wasn't making things up, he simply out large chunks of his coming of age.   Similarly, Jorma Kaukonen wrote of his time as lead guitarist for the San Francisco's iconic Jefferson Airplane in Been So Long: My Life and Music, a memoir of his life growing up in the fifties and thriving as an artist in the swirling 60s counterculture. His prose was flat, and his feelings influences, friends, politics, and the free-love spirituality of that pugnacious decade are soft-spoken. The detachment from his history made it seem like he talked about someone else's life and career. Kaukonen, perhaps, would instead have not been charged with writing about them at all. I suppose the lesson was that although there's an overabundance of rock stars with stories as horrid, funny, and chaotic as Keith Richard's. Some of the stories are quieter in the telling, deservedly so.

  Beeswing: Fairport, Folk Rock, and Finding My Voice, 1967–75, a new book by acclaimed Richard Thompson, guitar hero, songwriter, and singer and co-founder of the influential British folk-rock band Fairport Convention Richard Thompson, is appealing, soft-spoken but overly cautious telling of the facts of his life. Not without sin, sizzle, disaster, or tragedies that need to be overcome as eventual success comes to the music and the music maker. His style is reflective, meditative to a degree, choosing his words and descriptions carefully. There's also a tangible air of hesitancy while he recounts his story, a seeming concern to avoid the dramatic, the sensational. Too much caution, however, as there are moments where eloquent rumination on incidents would have given Beeswing greater philosophical heft. To this day, it's one of my low expectations that old guard rock stars have something resembling a pearl of elegant and lengthy wisdom that's formed over their years of music-making on an international scale. Thompson is the soft-spoken sort, it seems, and the soft written as well. Elegant in his brevity and occasionally minimalist prose, he trades not in a scandal, gossip, or revenge snark; he goes forth like Joe Friday in Dragnet, just the facts as best he remembers them, told as well as he can manage. The album sold meagerly, but it was a fruitful starting point for the legendary band as they progressed. Sandy Denny, a woman blessed with an ethereal and silver-toned voice, replaced original co-lead singer Judy Dyble, Thompson's girlfriend. The addition of Denny to share lead vocals with singer, guitarist, and songwriter Ian Matthews coincided with Fairport's burgeoning desire to grow conspicuous American influence and instead explored and made use of their own rich of British and Celtic music folk styles. The following three records-- What We Did On Our Holidays, Unhalfbricking, Liege, and Lief—marked a band that had invented a new kind of folk-rock, based on a fascinating combination of blues, jazz, and rock filtered through the gossamer textures of British and Celtic melodic construction and overtone. Fired by the unique sensibilities of Thompson's guitar work, the songwriting collective in this band gave the world that singular thing in pop music history, a distinct body of work.

 

Thompson doesn't belabor song meanings or origins nor deep dive into the tricks and techniques of his laudable guitar skills, preferring to limn lightly through the scuffling days of the years 1967 through 1975. Again, there isn't much in the way of sordid detail, strong opinion, or linguistic scene-chewing, but the book does provide a breezy, montage-like feel of Fairport and the bands they knew gigged in the same towns at the same clubs, pubs, and meeting halls. The elements of low paying gigs, the band's eventual adapting an abandoned, unheated pub as band living quarters and rehearsal space, creative tensions in the band, and having a singer in Sandy Denny who was as strong-willed and undisciplined as she was brilliant, and alluring are the ingredients of a rich tale that here seems told only by a third. Beeswing has concise and breezy pacing that the book gives off the feeling of being a treatment for a motion picture music biopic. The chronology of events has the air of a "greatest hits" list with the details scantily fleshed out to satisfy the requirements of a screen screenwriter who can squeeze everything into an entertaining and pat 120-minute feature. You want to know more and can't but feel a bit cheated.

 

What might deeper feelings there have been within Thompson when he had to fire Denny from the band? He makes a note of the difficulty in weighing Denny's great talent against her insecurity and hard-drinking. At this point in a much-detailed story, we witness a conflicted choice to make sure that the band he co-founded remains a stable entity for the sake of his free expression and reason to exist. It's apparent that as much as he loved Denny and cherished her talent, he felt it better that he and the rest of Fairport move ahead without her. Thompson writes of this deftly but is sketchy on the emotional details. The book is full of matters that cry for a fuller accounting, episodes such as Thompson's eventual conversion to Sufism, meeting his eventual wife and songwriting-performing partner, encounters, and music with John Lee Hooker and Van Dyke Parks, and Linda Ronstadt. Incidents get mentioned, briefly described, sometimes with significant poetic effect, but too often being a glancing overview of a crowded with meaningful encounters and musical landmarks. In the end, the style and amount of details are suitable for a making-of-the-band movie or an outline for a limited series for a streaming service. As a book, though, it's a slight effort often poetically expressed. Thompson has a reputation as a potent lyricist who condenses emotional states and situations to brief, evocative epiphanies. It may be the case that his habit of compositional mind influenced his decision to avoid revealing too much of his inner life.  The subtitle of Beeswing: Fairport, Folk Rock, and Finding My Voice, 1967–75, tells us that the book covers only eight years of the author's career, hinting that there's another part of the story to be told, another volume forthcoming. With one book done, it would be a sweet deal if Thompson warms up to the idea that he's now a writer and composes the next volume fearlessly, with verve, detail, and nuance.  Thompson is a magnificent talent, and the world needs him to tell his tale of a critical and enthralling time in popular music history with the vividness it deserves.


(Originally published in The San Diego Troubadour. Used with permission).

 

 

 

 

 


THE MUSE IS SOMETIMES LOUD, IS SOMETIMES MUTE, IS SOMETIMES VERY TIRED OF OUR BABBLE AND CANT

  Most of the time I write to find out what comes after the sentence after the one I just wrote. I have a particular set of strategies, noti...