Sunday, October 29, 2023

BOOKS

 

There are books that have nothing to do with reading but are only about other books lost in the marsh when the land fill finally sank after generations of having its soil stolen by viciously false currents generated by power boats tropical disasters crawling over the coastline like splatter expressions of tearful contempt on damp missals and newspaper throw rugs, so many books that exist only to become furniture for those years in households of college couples striving to make the past useful as furniture and  by association, anything these pages might have told in words that form poems and adages and philosophy on the fly are only reminders that all material dissolves eventually and that it is never beautiful, the horror language tried to disguise now exacting it's vulgar inevitability. And the house and the books and the scythe like limbs of many dead, leafless trees seeming to lurch for a thumbnail moon sink under the black water, into the murk, centuries of argumentative disquisitions married to the muck and mire.

Saturday, October 21, 2023

SHORT RANTS FROM THE NEAR PAST, MOSTLY ABOUT MUSIC

 

There was a time when, halfway through my teen years with two years worth of blues harmonica wood shedding behind me, I too often felt inferior for reasons maybe obvious, that I didn’t feel my chosen instrument was legitimate against whole orchestras of devices that could be performed without instrumentalist shame. But I got older, and I kept playing, obsessed with learning despite my minor case of self-loathing, and find myself in a position of being too old and actually too good a harmonica player to care what the rest of the universe thinks of the sounds I make. Worrying about the “relevance” of the harmonica in today's world is to miss the point entirely. The assumption behind the question--is it still relevant--implies that playing the harmonica is regarded more as a status symbol than as a tool for the legitimate and humanly necessary pursuit of making music that expresses, in music, the emotional life of the musicians playing. The question degrades the state of the instrument from being a tool to create some space for joy and wonder in the world, a thing that should be incorruptible, to that foul thing that only furthers our neurotic obsessions with our social standing. If one has survived the fads, concerns and the warring of stale ideologies over a long period of time, decades, say, if you've come to the point where what people think of your harmonica playing is meaningless and merely a reflection of their sense of irrelevance, then yes, harmonicas are relevant in today's world, your world, the only world that matters, finally, when you put the harmonica on the microphone and let loose with a timeless 1 1V V. Beyond that, worries about whether the instrument still matters seem a species of introspect that arises when there is nothing good on cable TV.

Some time ago, in the early internet days, I remarked on a music forum over in Salon’s old Table Talk readers comment section that I thought Mick Jagger was a horrible singer, but he was a vocalist of great genius. Stalwart Jaggernauts attacked me outright while I tried to make myself understood, but this was no use and really an event I should have seen coming. In fact, I wanted to stir up the conversation that was underway, which was a droning exchange of the usual accolades heaped on the Rolling Stones. The topic was sealed finally by forum moderators who tired of trying to control an angry mob of netizen Jagger fans poised to supply more poison posts. Text Box: sOMEI ought to have clarified because my point is that there are white singers who have technically awful voices who brandish blues influences all the same and who have managed to fashion vocal styles that are instantly distinct, unique, recognizable. Mick Jagger is a vocalist who learned to work brilliantly with the little singing ability God deigned to give him: knowing that he didn't have the basic equipment to even come close to simulating Muddy Waters or Wilson Pickett, he did something else instead in trying to sing black and black informed music-- talk-singing, the whiny, mewling purr, the bull moose grunt, the roar, the grunts and groans, the slurs and little noises, all of which he could orchestrate into amazing, memorable performances. One Plus One (Sympathy for the Devil)Godard's film of the Stones writing, rehearsing and finally recording the song of the title, is especially good because it captures the irresolute tedium of studio existence (in between Godard's didactic absurdist sketches attempting to address the conundrum of leftist media figures being used by invisible powers to squelch true revolutionary change). More than that, we see Jagger piecing together his vocals, his mewling reading of the lyrics from the lyric sheet; his voice is awful, in its natural state. But we do witness Jagger getting bolder as the song progresses through the endless stoned jamming, a grunt added here, a raised syllable here, a wavering croon there. Finally, we are at the last take, and Jagger is seen with headphones on, isolated from the others, screaming his head off into a microphone while the instrumental playback pours forth, in what is presumably the final take. Jagger, all irony and self-awareness, created something riveting and for all time with the marginal instrument he was born with, and is part of what, I think, is a grand tradition of white performers who haven't a prayer of sounding actually black who nonetheless molded a style of black-nuanced singing that's perfectly credible: Mose Allison, Van Morrison, Felix Cavalari (Rascals), Eric Burdon (early Animals), Peter Wolf, late of the under appreciated J.Geils Band.We cannot underestimate Keith Richard's contribution to Jagger's success as a vocalist. Someone had to know how to write tunes Jagger could handle, and Keith was just the man to do it. Richard's guitar work, as well, riffs and attacks and staggers in ways that match Jagger's strutting and mincing. Writing is everything, as always.

 

 It's an inescapable fact that blues is an African American art form , as is jazz and, for that matter, rock and roll at its most vital, and that there are talented, brilliant and exciting black musicians who continue to play the music, innovate within its historical definitions and extend those definitions to keep the music contemporary, alive, and most important, relevant to the way people, players and listeners, live today. It's my belief, inscribed deeply in the most fundamental set of moral convictions I have, that to ignore the plenitude of black talent, whether they are young, middle-aged, or elderly, if you're a music editor, a record company executive, a promoter specializing in blues festivals, a club owner highlight blues and roots acts, is racism, clear and simple. Likewise, it's racism on a subtle level, but damaging all the same; a decision was made to exclude black musicians from this list. Compiling a list of the worthy is always problematic,fraught with all sorts of dangers because any number of readers can be offended for insular reasons no writer can predict. But what's offensive about this list is the laziness of the selection. I happen to like a number of the artists here and believe musicians like Black Keys, Joe Bonamassa, Susan Tedeschi and others are legitimate blues musicians.Their skin color isn't their fault, and , to me,the quality of their chops and the authenticity of their feeling are "real". I will also give the writers credit for including a good number of women on the list.

Still, the lack of black musicians is inexcusable and reveals a conspicuous , egregious choice by the editors to remain loyal to their skin hue. Where was Sugar Blue? Lucky Peterson? The Eric Gale Band?Shemekia Copeland? Alvin Hart? Sapphire?Gary Clark Jr? Keb Mo? These players deserve wider recognition no less than the ones who made the list; I have a strong, strong suspicions that an inexcusable laziness directed the selection process, formed, no doubt, by a profound lack of curiosity on the part of the "critics" who, by the definition of their job, are supposed to knowledgeable and curious about things that fall outside their comfort zone. I suspect also that those making the selection were entirely white; as such,they stuck with the skin color they are most comfortable with.

 

 

Jefferson Airplane was a side of psychedelic rock I found most appealing, being in their short-lived prime a volatile and imaginative forced marriage of folk tradition, jazzy "mystery chords", Joycean/Eliot/Huxlyian versifying, and piercing harmonies provided by the bulldozing Grace Slick and Balin's soaring, bittersweet tenor. Their albums were a fascinating, eclectic mess, indulgent and snotty and harsh; I would put them, along with the Stooges, MC5 and the Velvets, as stylistic forerunners of the punk rock anti-aesthetic. Balin was the ballast for the band, a balladeer, a genuine folk singer, a romantic who never abandoned his tendency for the oddly effective lyric that emphasized an actual relationship rather than a worldview. I liked this band up to Volunteers album.Afterward, the devolution set in, when Paul Kanter's sci-fi libertarian fantasizes turned JA into a plodding monstrosity of ego and half-measured music.

Those among the readership who followed the career arc of this band through the 60s and the 70s will recall, perhaps stifling a gag reflex, the slew of Jefferson Starship albums that evolved from the original band. It will suffice to say for this short note that the best thing the Starship ever did was recording and releasing Marty Balin's fabulous song "Miracles", a sensuous, radiant paen to making love with a partner. Alluring melody, a vocal aching with a combination of passion and a more primal lust, all of it buffeted by swirling guitar lyricism from the able-fingered Craig Chaquico. It was the best thing Jefferson Starship ever did, a masterpiece of pop-rock sexuality that rose to canonical heights over the increasing vapidity and knuckleheaded irrelevance. The band, or at least the management and record company, hung their heads in shame all the way to the bank, and it remains, I suppose, the supreme irony of things that a band beginning as Jefferson Airplane, counterculture revolutionaries singing of a society without pretense, class structure, false morality and , by implication, cash, evolved into the Jefferson Starship, a cash cow for corporate interests. So yes, money changes everything. That said, it should be mentioned that the guitar work of Jorma and Jack Cassidy's basslines were among the best teams of the era. And Balin was a fine musician, singer, and songwriter who might have done better if he had a less dicey means to bring his music to the public.

Friday, October 13, 2023

Louise Gluck, RIP

 


Sad day for poetry. 2020 Nobel Prize winner for Literature Louise Gluck (pronounced "Glick”), the first America non-songwriting poet to garner the award since T.S. Eliot in 1948. Bob Dylan, I suppose, ought to be included in that slim roster of bards, but his 2016 award in the category always smelled fishy, more an award for being famous and influential and being a musician who has made indescribable amounts of capital. Small wonder he won, as his work, whether you liked his songwriting or not, could be listened to rather than read. He deserved something of a lifetime achievement award for all the brilliant and nitwit tunes he's both blessed and cursed the world for over a half century. But he is a songwriter, a complaint I lodge often enough here, he is a songwriter and not a poet and the dimensions of what genius has displayed belong in another category. No, I do not think his lyrics transcend their genre and ascend to the vaunted standard of page poetry. If it did, they'd be giving literary awards to composers who specialized in operas . But they don't give awards meant for book writers and page poets to opera composers or songwriters, and they ought not to have given Dylan one. And for the late Gluck? She is someone I admired more than enjoyed, as I was awed by her ability to deal with the history of her own critical times without lapsing into sef-mythologizing or solipsistic meandering. Her writing was clear and lyric, her tone firm but not inflexible, and she could render her personal verse in subtle virtuoso pieces that framed her experiences as bits of recognizable mythology or graspable folk tales. Her clarity gave her best work a certain lyric sharpness not often seen among contemporary poets who, one may suggest, dress up even their good work with linguistic window dressing and fashionable tropes and phrases that age none too well. She wasn't fearing a reader finding out what she was writing about , let alone who. She was the other side of spectrum from John Ashbery, who's closed off signature style is one I sometimes favor quite a bit. But Gluck was different and she was great and now she's gone.

Friday, October 6, 2023

RANDOM FILM NOTES REDISCOVERED

I enjoyed Ridley Scott's Aliens prequel Prometheus, proposed as a first step in the franchise that would establish the beginnings of this sci-fi saga up to the point where we first meet the fabulous action-babe Ripley. Scott's return to the franchise, and to space operas in general, was a joy to behold, with great acting, stunning special effects, a fascinating premise and, yes, a general feeling of creepiness as the hoary warnings against corporate greed and attending evil are made tangible yet again. Not a perfect film, but the scale and power of the storytelling, albeit incomprehensible at times, made it an entertainment worth revisiting. Not so much for the follow-up effort, Alien:Covenant, again directed by Scott. Where Prometheus added some new twists to the Alien mythos, this new effort offers intriguing little ; it is a make – work project. We do discover the origins of the Xenomorph and are expected to marvel at their many manifestations , different kinds, shapes, purposes. But there is something dispirited about this film. There is no spectacle to speak of, no real wow factor, conditions not improved by the pacing, which is strangely led footed. Especially surprising for a director of Scott's caliber: an inconsistent director for quality, even his worse films had a great veneer and, most of , all moved well. Covenant shuffles
along.

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The movies that DC Comics have made so far in their efforts to establish their franchises in contrast to that of their competition, Marvel Comics. The uniform negative responses, to be sure, have their points that deserve to be discussed, but the wave of hate seems more a product of the internet's tendency to encourage an echo chamber effect; nervous fans, not sure of what they actually desire from a movie, suspend their critical faculties and dive head long into the noisy bull run of nay saying . Objections are over stated, insults are hurled, feelings are hurt. And still, I like what DC and Warner Brothers have done, for the most part. Not to get off on a longish defense of particular films, I will assert here that Zack Snyder is one of the few directors who gets the dynamism and flair of the graphic novel and produces resolutely beautiful and exciting action sequences, however dark and grim they may be . And, of course,, "Man of Steel" is a masterpiece, in my view. You can find my longer defense of that film elsewhere on this blog. The fact that “Wonder Woman” is presently at 94 percent critic approval on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes makes me smile. Director Patty Jenkins directs with a sure, firm and confident hand, efficiently and effectively establishing the WW mythology as it relates to a re-imagined Greek mythology, the origin story of the young girl who would become the eventual superhero, and the first adventure of Wonder Woman in full costume, in the WW 1 trenches, fighting with the British against the Germans, searching for her foe Ares,the God of War. It works remarkably well, I think. A wonderful cast featuring wonderful work from Chris Pine and Robin Wright. Gal Gadot as WW, a controversial casting when first announced, is excellent here. Athletic, naive, ironic, fierce in combat sequences and sweetly ironic in the comic parts, she turns in a star-making performance.