Showing posts with label Genius. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Genius. Show all posts

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Marianne Moore

Marianne Moore's "Poetry" is widely anthologized and often cited, and it shouldn't be a mystery as to why this poem among the hundreds she wrote is the one that an otherwise indifferent audience remembers: it's a poem about poetry. She rather handily summarizes an array of clichés, stereotypes and received misgivings about poetry a literalistic readership might have ,feigns empathy with the complaints, and then introduces one crafty oh-by-the-way after another until the opposite is better presented than the resolution under discussion. This is not a subject I warm up to in most circumstances--poets, of their accord, have demonstrated the sort of self-infatuation that many of them, left to their means-to-an-end, would remove themselves from the human scale and assume the ranks of the divine, the oracular, the life giving, IE, develop themselves into a priesthood, the guardians of perception. Moore's poem, though, presents itself as a contracting string of epigrams that seem to quarrel, a disagreement between head and mind, body and spirit, and a larger part of her lines, as they seemingly across the page away from the statements preceding the line before it, is that no really knows what to make of poetry as a form, as a means of communication, as a way of identifying oneself in the world. It frustrates the fast answer, it squelches the obvious point, and poetry adds ambiguity that would rile many because of lines that start off making obvious sense but which leave the reader in a space that isn't so cocksure. Little of the world seems definite anymore once a poem has passed through it, and the reconfiguring of imagination , the retrenching, the retooling of perception a required of the reader to understand a bit of the verse (the alternative being merely to quit and admit defeat) is bound to give a resentment.

Moore's poem seems to be a response to Dorothy Parker's ironic declaration "I hate writing. I love having written". The reader may hate not understanding what they've read, but love the rewards of sussing through a poem's blind alleys and distracting side streets.

Marianne Moore

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in
it, after all, a place for the genuine.
Hands that can grasp, eyes
that can dilate, hair that can rise
if it must, these things are important not because a

high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because they are
useful. When they become so derivative as to become unintelligible,
the same thing may be said for all of us, that we
do not admire what
we cannot understand: the bat
holding on upside down or in quest of something to

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless wolf under
a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse that feels a flea, the base-
ball fan, the statistician—
nor is it valid
to discriminate against "business documents and

school-books"; all these phenomena are important. One must make a distinction
however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the result is not poetry, 
nor till the poets among us can be
"literalists of
the imagination"—above
insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, "imaginary gardens with real toads in them," shall we have
it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand, 
the raw material of poetry in
all its rawness and
that which is on the other hand
genuine, you are interested in poetry.

The agony, the contradictions, the dishonest sleights of hand that deceive you in the service of delivering a surprise, an irony, an unexpected image, all of this is worth resentments a reader suffers through. One is, after all, made better, made stronger by the exercise of the will to read and confront the poem on its own terms. Moore is a shrewd rhetorician as well as gracefully subtle poet. Clever, witty, sharp and acidic when she needs me, Moore is clever at playing the Devil's Advocate in nominally negative guise, saying she dislikes it but mounting one exception to the rule after another until we have an overwhelming tide of reasons about why we as citizens can't exist without its application.

It works as polemic, indeed, crafted as she alone knows how, and it adds yet another well-phrased set of stanzas that want to turn poets into more than mortal artists, but into a priesthood, a race of scribes attuned to secret meanings of invisible movements within human existence. It sort of stops being a poet after the first jagged stanza, not unlike all those pledge breaks on PBS that tirelessly affirm that network's quality programming while showing little of it during their pleas for viewer money. It's not that I would argue too dramatically against the notion that poets and artists in general are those who've the sensitivity and the skills to turn perception at an instinctual level into a material form through which what was formally unaddressable can now find a shared vocabulary in the world-- egalitarian though I am, there are geniuses in the world , and those who are smarter and more adept than others in various occupations and callings--but I do argue against the self-flattery that poems like Moore's promotes and propagates.

I wouldn't regard this as a polemic of any sort, nor a manifesto as to what the writer ought to do or what the reader should demand. Reading it over again and again after that makes me think that Moore was addressing her own ambivalence toward the form. After one finishes some stanzas and feels contented that they've done justice to their object of concentration, some lines appear contrived, other words are dull and dead sounding aligned with more colorful, more chiming ones,
 Poetry that however grand , beautiful and insightful the resulting poems are in a host of poetic attempts to resolve the problem the distance between the thing perceived and the thing itself, we still have only poems, words arranged to produce effects that would appeal to our senses that are aligned with this world and not the invisible republic just beyond our senses. Poetry is a frustrating and irritating process because it no matter how close one thinks they've come to a breakthrough, there is the eventual realization of far one remains from it. Poetry as Sisyphean task; one is compelled to repeat the effort, and not without the feeling that they've done this before.

The commotion of the animals, the pushing elephants, the rolling horses, the tireless yet immobile Wolf, seem like analogues to restless mind Moore at one time might have desired to have calmed by the writing of poetry. There is the prevailing myth, still fixed in a good number of people who go through various self help groups, that the writing of things down--poetry, journaling, blogging, writing plays or memoirs--is a process that, in itself , will reveal truthful things one needs to know and thereby settle the issues. Writing, though, doesn't "settle", finalize or cement anything in place, it does to set the world straight , nor does it resolve anything it was addressing once the writing is done with. It is, though, a useful process, a tool, one may use as a means to get one out of the chair, away from the keyboard, and become proactive in some positive way.
The expectations of what poetry was supposed to do--create something about the world that is permanent, everlasting, reveal a truth who's veracity does not pale with time, whether a century or hour-- are crushed and a resentment when realizes that the world they're attempting to conquer, in a manner of speaking , will not bow to one's perception, one's carefully constructed stage set where the material things of this earth are props to be arranged on a whim, and that the mind that creates the metaphors, the similes, the skilled couplets and ingenious rhyme strategies is not calmed, soothed, serene.
The world continues to move and change, language itself changes the meaning of the words it contains, the mind continues to tick away, untrammeled. Moore's animals, in the restless paradise, are themselves restless, non contemplative, instinct driven toward species behavior that is about propagation and survival, creatures distinct from the contemplative conceit of the poet who thinks he or she is able to sift through the underbrush for secret significance. I've always heard a weary tone in Moore's poem; a mind that in turn wrestles with matters where poetry doesn't reveal what's disguised but only what the poet can never get to. Her poem echoes Macbeth's famous speech rather nicely
She should have died hereafter; 
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

She seems not a little dismayed that poetry is only part of our restless species behavior and that the language we write and expound to bring coherence to the waking life are only more sounds being made in an already noisy existence.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Michael Jackson and the fatal spirit of the true artist

A telling side effect of a celebrity's death is the degree to which it prompts some people towards autobiography, memoir, or to indulge the urge to examine their own history as a parallel course to the trajectory of the more famously deceased. Those of us over fifty have only to recall the unending tide of essays and books where Americans recalled where they were, precisely, the day and moment that John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The effort, of course, was more than merely paying tribute the brilliance the departed embodied; more than that, it is a recollection of how they'd been made to imagine greater possibilities for a  world they otherwise couldn't challenge.It's the tiresome ode to a dream deferred . There is something to the notion that celebrities cease to  be human in our estimations once they acquire certain saturation in the culture--they become, in a sense, a personal god one measures their best and worst qualities against. It is a tendency that can become pathology  Patti Davis, daughter of the departed President Ronald Reagan and someone who knows something about growing up in a fishbowl, weighed in with a brief commentary in Newsweek last year  about the unexpected death of Michael Jackson. The piece isn’t as cloying as one would have suspected—she notes the similarities between Jackson and another child star, Judy Garland, reasonably speculating reasonable that these talents were essentially raised in a bubble by a horde of managers, executives and an unlimited variety of sycophants whose interests weren’t those of their nominal employer, but rather their livelihoods. There’s more than enough evidence to support for Davis to make her case, which we find in the case of Jimi Hendrix and certainly Elvis Presley, two major talents and money makers who , it seems, lacked the discerning voice in their midst to say “no”, or to give advice that was free of enabling. Davis, though, spoils her entry with a rationalization that absolves Jackson and a host of other bright unfortunates who’ve met with untimely demises of any responsibility for the odd choices they’ve made.

Michael Jackson, Jack Kerouac, , Jack Kennedy, Charlie Parker, Sylvia Plath, Jimi Hendrix, and the lot died of causes that had nothing to do with the fact that each of them had varying degrees of talent. People die daily who haven't distinguished themselves as singers, dancers, writers, poets, jazz improvisers; they drank themselves to death, they overdosed, they committed suicide due to untreated clinical depression, they were merely in the wrong place at the wrong time. No one, though, latches on to a single name of the average anonymous drug casualty or suicide and speculates as to the nature of the sad, early death, no one really wonders about the soul of the everyman that just might be too sensitive to deal with the harsh facts of life and is driven to end the endless pain. Rather, we shrug, we say”ain't that shame" and then go about our business, mildly annoyed. We love celebrity hood, though, we are obsessed with as a culture, and indeed celebrity has become our religion--we create a mythology about the doings of the famous Gods and wonder about their inner lives, their moods, and their ability to cope.

Davis, a marginally well known artist/writer herself, picks up the stalest cliches around, the most exhausted of all tired tropes, the most insipid of perspectives by wondering aloud if there is something in the tortured psyches that compels the brilliant and the intensely gifted to short circuit themselves and bring an end to their lives. The implication is that sensitive artist types are sentenced fates even an enemy shouldn't suffer, an especially perverse elaboration that artists are not really the source of their talents and the inspiration that comes with it, but rather a channel of a Higher Power's wisdom and good graces. Davis not only gives absolution to doomed geniuses and near geniuses,but offers up the notion that for them Free Will is impossible. One always has a choice, though, and anyone of the people named in the second paragraph, not least of all Jackson, all the the ability to choose what their circumstances would be and the company they could keep; brilliant or not, they, like the rest of us, make bad decisions and they, like some of us, make choices that sooner or later prove fatal. Assuming without question that the tragedy was inevitable due to predestination only makes the tragedy deeper. What freedoms and insight the work might have provided us is negated by an overwhelming assumption that divine forces were at play. The circumstances, though, are human, all too human.

It's  irritating  enough that Davis concludes her commentary so insipidly, but it is also aggravating she's given such a big microphone from which to entertain her morbid hero worship. This is the same worship of the Celebrity Dead that had surrounded the discussion of the Confessional Poets for so many years, the not-so-subtly disguised attitude that a poet so categorized would only be regarded as great if they met with a tragic death, preferably by their own hand. Only in that instance do they become poets worth taking seriously. Serious as in examples to avoid , I think, and what's to be avoided as well is Davis' unfortunate comment, in a subordinate clause, that " true artists", by in large, are burdened by the creativity God or may not have blessed them with and lack the stamina to survive a life in any of the metaphorical food chains the celebrity culture creates. Davis handily enfeebles artists in general, poses no counter argument that art is more likely to make the artist more resilient in their daily struggles, and she seems willing to let the issue rest in a bed of sighing fatalism. This won't do.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Jackson MacLow

In the late seventies, Jackson Mac Low came to read and lecture at the University of California, San Diego. At the same time, I was an undergraduate there, a benefit of having a Literature Department whose poetry doyens in presenting experimental artists. The reading was in a basement room of a large University facility that doubled as an undergraduate art gallery, with Mac Low, in a dark coat and a fine head of long hair, standing before a screen as slides of odd numeric and word sequences and arrangements flitted by when he clicked on a control. The word combinations came in spurts, punctuated, quite literally, with silences, stammers, elongated repetitions, until it became clear (to the few in the room who might have been truly curious) that MacLow had his allegiance with the earlier Modernist poets, especially William Carlos Williams. The reading, we can say, was not the sort of thing that would-be Ed Dorns or erstwhile Ginsbergs had been prepared for. Although latent with meaning and associations that cannot be wholly deferred, words still have tonal properties that can be organized in ways other than literal meaning.
MacLow's "chance system" theories of composing verse satisfied few readers/listeners, but there is a rigor in the method he used in a lifetime of work and a genuine curiosity of what one can do with poetry than reaffirm the old themes. At the time, I was more or less baffled, taking it in as future banter and bullshit for a student party, and the others of my station seemed to be smiling a little too hard, too earnestly as they jotted various notes in the crowd, making smart talk with their attending faculty. MacLow, as I remember, seemed perfectly amiable, although he seemed not to feel compelled to explain his ideas in more straightforward language. Good for him. Stating that poems are "unreadable" is slippery here since it's an accusation tossed about by too many readers describing difficult poets. As an experimentalist, MacLow hardly forgot about aesthetic pleasure; in fact, it's safe to say that he was bored with the standards that were in front of him, had no use as to what the general concept of beauty was, and went about seeking the company and energies of others who shared an interest in seeing how new art can be created. Granted, there is nothing less appealing than yesterday's Avant garde, but there are several artists, Cage and MacLow among them, who merit serious attention after their passing.

Mac Low is hard to read--a better term-- essentially, he was given to experimenting with new compositional techniques, "chance systems," as he called it. The result was meant to challenge the reader/listener to approach the work differently. I happen to think that quite a bit of his writing is perfectly readable if closed on its own terms. But MacLow's work, like Cage's, wasn't about delivering pleasure wrapped in a consumer-friendly package, but rather about the unexpected things, the noises, the random words, the accidental pairings, the overlaying of contrary sounds, that lay in the spaces between the words and the notes on a page. One either opens up to the possibilities, or one does not, but even here, one's reservations and resistances are important to explore.

Cage and MacLow both read about and around, if not through, and look at. Cage was among those, like MacLow and earlier modernists like WC Williams and Stevens who thought that a poem "...should not mean but be..." (Archibald MacLeish, "Ars Poetica"). Cage, of course, was less materialistic than his earlier American poets and was attracted to the chance formations that Zen study gave him the stamina to imagine containing in particular compositional systems wherein the natural sound and tonal value of each element in a limited terrain find a new aesthetic arrangement, the aesthetic of what the eye sees, and the ear beholds for that fleeting moment and then vanishes. In any event, MacLow's work as a poet, composer, and collaborator was a lifetime endeavor. He sought beauty and new perception in his own fashion for his work.

My favorite thing about that McLeish quote that gets trotted out all the time is how its mania for defining poetry defines itself right out of the category. That is precisely the meaning of the quote: poets have to write their pieces "out of the category" of conventional verse and create new ways of writing and reading poems instead. It's about ways of seeing the world and recording the experience in a manner that would revolutionize perception. Bob Perelman addressed this whole notion of experimental geniuses who sought to revolutionize the way readers came to experience the world in his book The Trouble With Genius; sussing through the writing and aims of Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Louis Zukofsky, and others, Perelman caught the usually undiscussed detail that these experimentalists,
preparing the literate world to reshape their thinking about writing sequence, had in fact isolated themselves with their own genius from the public they wanted to influence. The bold originality of their work had made them geniuses, but of a different sort than one regards DaVinci, Einstein, or even a Henry Ford. Perelman's modernists were writers and aesthetes and were geniuses of poetic form, not practical application. It might be said that there was advancement in the sort of difficulty poetry and prose could encompass. Still, these were problems of interest to already marginalized audiences, other aesthetes, poets, and academics. The modernist project was a failure for reconfiguring the world through a radical expansion of the senses. But as literature, this generation produced their masterpieces, problematic though they were for a wider audience. This is the great conceit of the experimental artist, a project doomed to failure so far as the universal revolution is concerned, but what remains in the resistance to old categories are, nonetheless, new ideas of what poets ought to be doing for their own time.

Modernism's experiments with Imagism and Vorticism and a host of other revolutionary projects might not have reconfigured our audio and visual senses. However, they have given us some newer ideas about image, theory, rhythm, scope, and subject. Much of what we take for granted as the given of modern, conventional verse wouldn't be possible sans these seemingly indecipherable experiments, which isn't to say that poetry not have changed with the times. Without our savant grades and experimentalists, though, it would be substantially different. Well, let's look at the poem itself. The spirit is the same for Mac Leish as Cage and MacLow. That poetic language needs to find new ways to address the world we experience. Mac Leish wants words to have a particular "thingness" that can get the substance of the objects it strives to be about; that the thing -in and of itself is its own adequate symbol. MacLow and Cage were more interested in the lost arrangements of the hidden world, the sounds and objects one finds in those odd moments where the mind fixes on seemingly ephemeral details of daily endurance. In either case, there is a search for a more accurate way of getting perception across to a reader. What separate them are strategies, not sympathies.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

"HEAT", a movie by Michael Mann

I've seen director Michael Mann's three-hour masterpiece Heat four times, thanks to HBO and Netflix, and a recent review the other night has convinced me I ever was of its greatness. Maybe it's just a guy thing where the typical male obsessions, like guns, cars, violence, are elevated to potentially embarrassing levels of reading, but the ironically named Mann has the relaxed style to pull off the task. "Cool" and "style" are important words to remember. It's a heist film as tragedy, and it's particularly arresting to seeing the un-bottled rage of Pacino's dogged cop contrasted with the coolly methodical criminal of DeNiro set against the vast, cluttered, overlit loneliness that constitutes Mann's idea of Los Angeles. Mann is in control of his materials, and his decision to limit the amount of shared screen time between his top-billed stars was wise indeed; rather than a conventional vehicle plot geared to accommodate big stars in uninteresting situations, we get ins to study in distinct, and not-so different contrasts as the competing personalities and their agendas head to an ending where only one, or neither of them is standing. Mann, at his best, gets the hard-boiled genre where all a man has going for him is his professionalism and the personal code that comes with it, and Heat, to me, is an intriguing extension of the style.

Some critics were alarmed by what they felt was Mann's reluctance to have a feeling for human relationships –we are in the country of stoic individuals conducting themselves by codes of honor and conduct that places weight on the action, not words and their adjectives--the movie is about human relationships reduced to the occupations that command everything; emotional attachments are a luxury the characters, cops and crooks alike, cannot afford. This is a given in heist dramas, but tiny, really, has been done to show the devastation that The Life has on the personal level. Pacino has grudgingly accepted the isolation his work has forced him into and pursues DeNiro without let up, whatever the cost to himself or those around him. DeNiro's character, in turn, has a code that says, in effect, that someone in the life needs to be ready, always, to abandon whoever and whatever is around them the minute they know the "heat" is around the corner; the tragedy is slowly set into motion as he violates his own code, his rules for existing in the life he's chosen and attempts to take his girlfriend with him. His end is inevitable. For me, Heat's success is how Mann expands the minimalist conventions of the narrative line and examines the irrevocable ruin in human relations that the characters' choices result in.

I don't know about the characters being unrealized since I think this is in the tradition of Hemingway wherein blatant introspection is nil. Still, much is conveyed through a series of small details, glances, scars. Perhaps you don't see it, but there's a lot that is said between the lines here, and the acting--Jon Voight is particularly effective here with his restraint, among others--creates a tangible feeling of emotional attachment being hammered into silence by a rough trade. The bit with Pacino's daughter is the least convincing thing in the film; my impression is that Mann had four to five hours of film he had to edit to an hour. This is obviously a truncated storyline that should have been excised from the film. But it's a flaw I can live with. Mann has been taken to task for not making his case about alienation by subtler means, without resorting, as one critic wrote, "….to extremism because the vast majority of people never get so mesmerized by their jobs that they lose their humanity the way De Niro does." The complaint, of course, is that Mann loves the build-up to a grand explosion of feeling where only a character's capacity for ballistic reaction can satisfy the need. Mann, though, I think is well in the tradition of dramatic tragedy, as DeNiro's character's, master thief, thorough professional, a planner who makes no mistakes in his agendas, assumes that he can defy the odds against getting caught and thus assumes his carefully articulated professionalism will shield him from unlucky happenstance. He is a sufferer of unwarranted pride, a carrier of hubris who claims credit for all that great around him. The tragic form demands that the Universe correct itself; since one thing corresponds with everything else within the dramatic frame, equilibrium must be reestablished.

Heat is a tragedy, and tragedies require extremism. There is no more extremism here than you'd find in Shakespeare. This isn't saying that Mann's work here equals The Bards, but only that the outsized action we witness is in perfect scale with the tragic form. It operates at the appropriate level. Heat is a movie, and movies generally demand "extremism." Films are required to be "larger than life," perhaps, but "extremism" here is a general requirement of both tragedy and the noir aspects Mann is working in. The conventions of the narrative style don't allow for the middle ground, the kind of emotional richness reserved for the world's civilians, with straight jobs that have regular hours. The minimal and the maximal are the options in this case, and Mann does what I think is a credible job of getting something operatic from this story of two men, bereft of other human satisfaction and nuance, plunge ahead to an inescapably lousy ending. The scale of the Heat works beautifully. 

The Wire, as I said, is one of the best television dramas ever, period. It comes from writer/producer David Simon. His book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets inspired the edgy, quirk-ridden genius of the late Homicide: Life in the Street, produced by Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson. Simon has a genius for getting the stories of all involved just right. Under his direction, he creates complexity, grey areas and flaws, and other gripping nuances in characters that make his unique style of crime fiction fascinating, arresting, and moving. The distinction between The Wire and Heat, as you've alluded to, is the difference between TV and movies as forms; a continuing weekly drama can develop characters over time, and layers can be added without straining credulity. Movies, even long ones, have to be more efficient in how their characters and plot mechanisms are deployed. In any event, I think both projects are fantastic pieces of work. 

I have an affection for some films that have intractable flaws, along with the works of odd and flawed novels and messily writing poems. There is much I find to like and admire in Apocalypse Now and Heat, enough, indeed, to make them worth initial and subsequent viewings. A good deal of what these two long and notable films deal with is an idea of a character's humanity getting wrapped around a Big Idea, whether it's seduction with origins ideological or professional. The drama, which I do believe is convincingly put across as a felt experience in both these films, comes as characters find themselves making decisions to finish the tasks and duties they've set for themselves, no matter how profound their regret and misgivings are. Style, of course, has much to do with how watchable these outsized actions are, and both Coppola and Mann managed watchable movies that caught, manipulated, and sustained their respective tones. Heaven's Gate, though, I found singularly unwatchable, the problem is that Michael Cimino isn't a particularly interesting chronicler of people's lives as they move toward their destinies. Vincent Canby called worse than a forced tour of your own living room, and I'm not one to argue. The Deer Hunter, in turn, was pretentious, vague, structurally incoherent from the get-go. This aggravating movie was like someone continually clearing their throat to make an Important Statement but never delivers anything the least bit edifying.

Getting human beings as "they actually are" is a conceit and is an impossible task. Characters in narratives, regardless of genre, are all ideal types. The question really needs to be whether you appreciate a particular director or writer's creations in a terrain more or less created out of whole cloth. Different genres have different givens as to what sorts of nuances and backgrounds characters have; this leads us to stereotypes, of course, and what we respond to is how well someone might avoid the obvious and give us new wrinkles, twists, turns, and habits of mind. David Simon is terrific at this. Mann, in turn, has his moments too.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Awarding genius for the right reasons

It was a fortunate circumstance in 2006 that the long denied Martin Scorsese finally won his Best Director Oscar for The Departed, luckier all the more because the star-driven crime drama was actually one of the best movies that year, and a strong effort from Scorsese himself. One may name their own example of a important artists being belatedly honored by their peers and critics with an award given to something that is not their best work. The Academy dodged the bullet that time, and Scorsese can make the legitimate claim that he did the best job of directing a film last year.Following suit, the Pulitzer Prize was awarded to long time jazz maverick Ornette Coleman for his 2006 album Sound Garden. Nothing ages worse than yesterday's avant gard, so it's said, but Coleman's work survives fashions that have gone to the wayside because of his uncompromising singularity of concept. Sound Garden, uniquely fractured with funk, twelve tone colorations, skewed bop references and a full host of energized against-the-grain improvisation, continues a
hot streak the saxophonist and music theorist has been for the last decade. The Pulitzer Prize folks have been seeking to make their awards for best music composition less Eurocentric, and here picked an outsider genius who, fate of fates, might now have to make peace with the cultural mainstream.

Monday, December 25, 2006

James Brown Gets Off on the Good Foot

James Brown has died and with that a very large part of my music listening history has gone. Much will be said by critics and others desiring to bolster their hip credentials , but the only thing I'll add is a mention of the first time I experienced Brown. In all his funkiness. Little did anyone sitting in the room realize that we were witnessing the birth of contemporary rhythm and blues, black music without a compromise to a white audience.Much as I loved Motown, relishing the thought that was a hometown product, company owner and overseer Barry Gordy made sure that the songs were strong on melody, with substantial orchestration and traditional themes of teen love; there was nothing angry or offputting in Motown's early phases, and all his artists were scrubbed, brushed, preened, cleaned and coiffed for the Caucasian middle class, where the Big Money was.Not for James Brown, and the funkier, leaner, sweatier his music, the better. Live, as it were, in your face, or whatever part of your body he wanted to insinuate his funky rhythms in. (Brown was the Funk Borg; resistance was futile, and additionally very white).

It was in 1965 or so, and the family was in the den, watching The Ed Sullivan Show,  expecting yet another Sunday night of Topo GIGO (the Little Italian Mouse), Robert Merrill baritoning something from an Italian opera, a man balancing fifty or so plates spinning on the top of high, wobbling rods, and maybe something for the teens, a pop band from England , or maybe the Four Seasons. We were in store for something else, a tsunami of smashed expectation, a hurricane of what the fuck?. James Brown and his Famous Flames came on and did fifteen minutes (if I recall correctly) of pivotal paradigm shifting, a black man in tight shark skin suit, a high pompadour on his head glistening like polished tar, hoarsely belting lyrics that neither my brothers and sister nor our parents could make out. Brown wasn't just standing there but was rather kinetic, frenzied as angry bees from a disturbed hive, doing splits, dropping to his knees, doing running slides from the back of the stage to the front , where he'd catch the microphone stand and continue his coarse pleading, the band pumping up an endless, minimally 
applied rhythm, full of hard punching horn riffs, chicken-scratch guitar fills, brilliantly insistent bass lines, drumming that was tight on the accents like shrink wrap around a steaming hot steak. It was aggressive, hard, flailing, wonderfully anarchic and yet disciplined by any number of music traditions I wasn't yet aware of when I was fifteen. What was important that it was physical, real, and that voice of his, giving rise to images of the deepest ravines of pain , rage and the scarcely habitable terrain of lust, concentrated my still-current notion of what good soul and rock vocalizing has to amount to:DAMN THE AESTHETICS, GIVE IT THE GAS.

Mom and Dad were stunned , bemused, disgusted (or maybe just one of those three adjectives) and my brothers and sister were all gabbing and laughing and getting into arguments about whether it was time to go bed. A headwind had just blown through the den, which was hard, considering that it was in the basement of our Michigan house, compact and snugly packed in all that hard concrete and cold dirt.But I was essentially self involved through no fault of my own; I was hard of hearing and had a lot of time to ponder and nuance my teenage awkwardness, and I tended to respond to things other than reading that were loud, frenzied, given to spectacle. Thus my love for rock and roll. Brown , that night, had blown all other things aside; I hadn't the vaguest idea of what it was I'd just seen , but I knew it was important, and had something of a premonition that it would be James Brown and not Topo Gigot nor the man spinning fifty or so splits on the top of long, wobbling rods who I'd continue to talk about in years to come. It turned out that I was right, not bad for a fifteen year old kid, but I had no idea that James Brown would remain worth talking about for so many decades.

Good show, James. Get off on the good foot.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

John Lennon and the end of the Beatles

A repost of an old essay on Lennon and the Beatles, suitable in view of the final FBI files on Lennon being recently released, and that this month is the anniversary of his murder. We will not see his like soon.-tb
This past December 8th was the twenty-sixth anniversary of John Lennon's assassination by that ignoble cipher Mark David Chapman, and as much as one wants to deny that they remain obsessed with the great glory of their fiery youth, a day of this kind makes me none the less want to meander around the old and overgrown ground of the past and wonder how things might have been different.

But the motives are selfish, as they always have been with me, and I am less concerned with the winsome utopia Lennon wanted to bring us to had Chapman not found his gun and his target, but rather with the decline of Lennon's music, post-Beatles. My position is simple and probably simple-minded; Lennon was a pop music genius during his time with the Beatles, collaborating or competing with Paul McCartney, definitely at the top of his songwriting and performer game, and with the introduction of Yoko Ono into his life, we see a lapse into the banal, the trivial, the pretentiously bone-headed.

Yoko Ono did much to make Lennon the worst example of wasted genius imaginable. Though he did make some great rock and roll during his post-Beatle time and wrote and recorded a handful of decent ballads, his artistry took a nose dive he never had a chance to pull out of. He was monumentally pretentious, head-line hungry, and cursed with an egomania that overrode is talent. He stopped being an artist, and a rock and roller, and became the dread species of creature called celebrity; the great work that made is reputation was behind him, and there was nothing in front of him except brittle rock music with soft-headed lyrics, empty art stunts, and drugs, drugs, drugs. A sad legacy for a great man. The fact of the matter is that Lennon's greatness was possible in large part because of his collaborations, full or partial, with Paul McCartney. Both had native musical instincts that balanced each other: the proximity of one to the other kept them on their best game.

The sheer genius of the entire Beatle body of work versus the sketchy efforts from both Lennon and McCartney under their own steam bears this out. Lennon never found anyone to replace McCartney, and certainly never had anyone who challenged to do better smarter work. Yoko certainly didn't give him anything that improved his music, and her lasting contribution to his career is to give him the errant idea that performing under your ability equals sincerity. It equaled excruciatingly inadequate music.

What's amazing for an anniversary as seemingly monumental as this is the paucity of new insights, previously unavailable information, or especially interesting critical estimations of their estimable body of work. It is a topic that has been exhausted, it seems since scrutiny on all matters and personalities pertaining to the Beatles has been unceasing since their demise. We have, essentially, is reruns of our own memories, repackaged, remodeled, sold to us again, and endless of things we already know intimately and yet consume compulsively because we cannot help ourselves. It cheapens the term, but "addiction" comes to mind.

There is nothing to add to the Beatles legacy except perhaps add our anecdotes to the ceaseless stream of words that seek to define their existence and importance even today. It's no longer about what the Beatles meant and accomplished in altering the course of history or manipulating the fragile metaphysical assumptions we harbor, for good or ill;we've exhausted our best and largest generalities in that regard, and the task will fall to historians, philosophers and marketers after most of us are dead as to what The Beatles and their songs are worth as art and commercially exploitable assets. For us there remains only a further dive into autobiography, where we might yet find some clue and excitement as to how these guys became an informing influence on our individual personalities. John Lennon and the Beatles changed my life in a major and unalterable way during their existence, and this was something I came aware of only after watching two hours of CNN wall-to-wall coverage of the assassination. I broke down, tears came, I was a senseless, doom-stricken mess, even though at the time I loudly bad-mouthed the pasty, hippie-flake dilettantism of his later work.

None of what I thought I mattered in that instance. John Lennon was dead and it was like losing some essential part of myself whose loss would never be filled with anything even half as good or worthy. He still mattered to me in my life quite despite the fact that I'd had what amounted to an argument with him over is politics and his music during the length of his solo career, but despite my best efforts to break off into new sounds and ideas and leave Lennon and the Beatles behind, his death hit as would the death of a family member. For good or ill, his work and the crude course of his ideas helped in the formation of values and attitudes that still inform my response to celebrity and events, no less than Dylan, and no less than reading Faulkner, Joyce, or viewing Godard films. The deification that he's had since the killing is the kind of sick, fetish culture nostalgia that illustrates the evils of unalloyed hero worship, a need to have a God who once walked in our midst. This bad habit turns dead artists who were marginally interesting into Brand Name , icons whose mention confers the acquisition of class and culture without the nuisance of having to practice credible discernment: every weak and egocentric manuscript Kerouac and Hemingway, among others, has been published, and the initial reason for their reputations, graspable works you can point to, read and parse, become obscured as a result.

Lennon, in turn, becomes less the musician he was and becomes, in death, just another snap-shot to be re-marketed at various times, complete with booklets containing hyperbole-glutted prose that, in essence, attempts to instruct me that my own response through a period I lived in is meaningless. Such hype utterly refuses to let newer listeners come to their own terms with the body of work. It is no longer about Lennon's music, it's about the promotion machine that keeps selling him. This is evil. Lennon, honest as he was most of the time when he had sufficient distance from his antics, would have told us to get honest as well and admit that much of his later music was half-baked and was released solely because of the power of his celebrity. This may well be the time for an honest appraisal of his work, from the Beatles forward, so that his strongest work can stand separate from things that have a lesser claim to posterity. Many magazines and other media have used Lennon and the Beatles for no than their value as nostalgia icons in an attempt pathetic glimpses of their own history. It's only business, nothing personal, and that is exactly the problem. Risky to assume what Lennon might ultimately have sounded like had he not been killed, since he had the ability to switch games suddenly and quickly so far as his musical thinking went. This was a constant quality that kept him interesting, if not always inspiring: there as always a real hope that he would recover inspiration, as Dylan had after some weak work, or as Elvis Costello had after the soggy offerings of Trust or Goodbye Cruel World. Even the weaker efforts of Lennon's' late period were marked by his idiosyncratic restlessness, and the songs on Double Fantasy, domesticated that they are, might well have been transitional work, a faltering start, toward new territory.

It's laughable that Lennon might ever have become as lugubriously solemn as Don Henley, but there's merit in saying that Lennon's work might become par with Paul Simon's: Simon's work is certainly more than screeds praising the domesticated life, and he is one of the few songwriters from the Sixties whose work has substantially improved over the forty years or so. If Lennon's work had become that good, on his own terms, it would have been a good thing, though it'd be more realistic to say that a make-believe Lennon rebirth of great work would be closer in attitude and grit to Lou Reed and Neil Young, two other geezers whose work remains cranky and unsatisfied at heart. Since his death, it'd been my thinking that Lennon would have transcended his cliches as some of the contemporaries had.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

New Mailer Due

Norman Mailer is due to have his latest novel , The Castle in the Forest, published on his 84th birthday in January; it's about the life of the young Adolph Hitler, narrated by a top lieutenant of The Devil.The philandering and rationalized dysfunctions characterizing prevailing Hitler Family Values in the future Fuhrer's early life gives us a vivid, arresting depiction of the making of a Monster.Incident after incident, ranging from his father Alois's incestuous infidelities the youth's rapt fascination in a village blacksmith's theories on how a Will Of Iron is galvanized, Mailer's use of the narrating demon gives a feeling of when the worm had turned.

It's good, wonderfully seductive, a tale you can't turn away from. Among Mailer's life long themes has been various examinations of the gaining and use of power, for purposes good or ill, and The Castle in the Forest's imagined portrait of a world scourge emerging from a festering mess will give one something to ponder , perhaps in a pause of action when one is deciding whether to be a bastard by exacting a revenge for a slight, real or imagined, or whether will be mature enough to let the irritation fade and thus not make the world a more sour place. The beating of butterfly wings indeed; our good works, enacted in good faith, has an effect on how history turns out, but the sad fact is that our worst deeds seem to swell faster and sweep aside all good intentions in their tsunami like rush.

At heart, Mailer is right about journalism being mostly bad writing, but it's worth nothing that some of Mailer's most praised books have been produced under the loud and loathsome shadow of deadline. Armies of the Night, Miami and the Siege of Chicago and most his novelesque journalism are what many consider to be Mailer's best period, and it may said that the brazen and often spectacular results of his work-for-hire supports his suspicions that he was the best writer of his generation. Quick, expensive remarks said in haste, with a particular habit of mind that could make the incidental bit of crankiness into something more memorable. But Mailer is a singular talent and his gifts are not given to the hard sifting, grilling and grind that a professional reporter must do as part of his their daily professional lives; Mailer at heart remains the critic, the observer, the fancier of the behavior of men in large crowds jockeying for advantage. It wouldn't be inaccurate to describe much of Mailer's journalism as one comedy of manners after another, Ala Trollope or Jane Austin; what he couldn't reveal as scandal or creeping evil could be suggested with his fiction-wrting gifts in the telling detail, the deft psychology of characters through the subtle reading of how the actors carried themselves.

Mailer has remarked that he considered "the Internet the biggest waste of time since masturbation", but it's likely that he would have taken to blogging if he were younger. Certainly, it fits what had been his preference to send dispatches from the front lines of an event, and it would have given instant and unlimited access to an audience that wanted to hear his unique and twisting views. Blogging itself is an even faster generator of bad writing than traditional print media--I include myself in each and every crime against syntax committed for the sake of getting my name on one more web page--but it's a safe guess that Mailer would have excelled in the medium just as he excelled in print. Or maybe not; Mailer writes in longhand, and submits it to an assistant for typing. After that, the manuscript is poured over again for editing. Knowing this, you wonder if Mailer had ever learned how to type. Perhaps that will be an issue that will be addressed in a future doctoral thesis.