Showing posts with label Passings. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Passings. Show all posts

Thursday, September 7, 2017


Discussing Little Feat, music critic Robert Christgau ventured to say that the dedicated group wasn't just another jam band from  Los Angeles but were, in disguise, Euro progressive-rockers at heart. Little Feat had slide guitar, soulful vocals, and boogie well enough to satisfy anyway speedway inclination to get in the T Bird and gun your engine. Still, Bill Payne's slippery keyboard work's modernist jazzy and sly sound and the sneaky switching of time signatures amid the funk-riffing improvisation, and odd and provocative melange of jazz, blues, rock and soul influences,  made them hard to classify.  Christgau pegged them as a brighter version of the Continental art-rockers. Plainly, Little Feat wanted their music to be something that reflected the best use of their musicianship. Their sound was skilled, never busy, lyrically evasive and evocative at the same time, never far the American mythos of Robert Johnson country-blues or Bukowski/Selby/Algren take on seeking transcendence as well as survival in a post-war American city. 

To Christgau's point, I would add Steely Dan,  perhaps the most inscrutable band to achieve a long line of radio hits, platinum albums, and sold-out tours. More so than Little Feat, Steely Dan was incredibly sharp at composing great hooks for their songs, those brief introductions at the start of tunes or coming midway during the chorus, or appearing else, unanticipated, that lures you into the story and the musical moods that underscore the emotional journey. Beyond hooks, though, Steely Dan was eclectic in the styles they drew from inputting their albums together--great bouts of guitar boogie for the stadium crowd, a mid-tempo bottom of jamming funk keeping matters on a constant low boil, Ellington like tone poems where the horn players managed brass and reed orchestrations only to give way to alone, searching cry and lilt of sax improvisation. 

All this and the hooks, and the lyrics, managed by keyboardist and lead vocalist Don Fagin, an opaquely and vaguely presented universe of people, places, things, and situations that rarely come into sharp focus; surreal, witty, allusive, cruel, and kind in different turns of mood, Fagin didn't have a large world he wrote about, or instead, wrote around. But his wordcraft was generally superb, like the music, artful but not crowded, bright but chatty. 
The recently deceased Walter Becker, dead at age 67, Steely Dan co-founder with Fagin, a writing partner in a beautifully realized team effort, made this work all of the pieces. He arranged  the music, turning mere hooks and stray ideas into whole pieces. 

As often as not, centering an arrangement around Fagin's keyboard, with its affection for minor-key flirtations at the end of chord progressions that just as often seemed like an awakening and eventual arousal from the dream you wish you could return to. Becker's work on the arrangements showed that he knew how to extend and compress sections of a song under construction. His was the ability to have their best material to be immediate clarity of riff, flourish and hook. He had a discerning ear for things more diffuse, abstract, opaque informal response to emotional states under an artist's scrutiny, made Steely Dan unique even in a time when there was scarcely a shortage of quality musicians and experimenters advancing their way to their respective versions of true and only heaven. 

Add to this surrealistically pleasurable slurring of motifs, literary conceits, and hard-bop resolve. We have Becker's signature guitar work, stinging, serpentine solos, short fills, and spatially sublime solos with phrasing that seemed to move in a coiling, sideways motion. Becker was never in a hurry with his fretwork; his note choices investigated the chords and space between them, popped, stung, and soothed as motif and mood required. Becker co-created something priceless, alluring, daunting, yet readily approachable in pop music. It's a pity there is no real equivalent prize such as the Nobel for rock and roll. 

Friday, December 2, 2016

more regarding Leonard Cohen

(This originally appeared in the San Diego Troubadour. Used with kind permission).
In my mind there was a decades long-debate as to who the best rock and roll poet was, Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen. Being the kind of ersatz pundit who argued passionately for the minority opinion, my champion was Cohen. Critics and audiences and what used to be called Mass Media reached a consensus that gave Dylan the Keys to the Kingdom. All is to say that Dylan has Tin Pan Alley throwing a large shadow over his work. And now, with the death of the Canadian-born poet, novelist songwriter and recording artist on November 10 at age 82 gives the lie to the nonsense of pitting the two songwriters against each other in hypothetical grudge matches; that was the stuff of high school bull sessions, teen age certainty at its most insufferable. Ironically, Cohen’s music was about growing up and, eventually, growing old, if not with grace but certainly with full intent of living fully to the last. This was the rare instance where his work became more profound as I aged, deeper, more nuanced as personal experience matched the literary craft of the songs I admired long and enviously.

His songs were an impetus for me to do the same as he, a callow seventeen impatient, in some sense , to grow up and experience heartbreak so that I might wallow in a notion that mine, too, was a life lived fully, if not well, as Cohen seemed to convey in his lyrics. Dark rooms full of teenagers , a thick odor of pot and incense , Leonard Cohen’s voice, a rumbling monotone that made you think of a man speaking low or softly who had just then raised his volume just enough so that you suddenly heard him speak with alarming clarity of phrase and image, a constant, three chord strum on a guitar, this was my first encounter with the songwriter, an artist that planted the seed in many of us to go into the world and experience it deeply, to contemplate those experiences closely and completely, and to write the inexpressible in terms of the unforgettable. How many of us actually did anything remotely like that is unknown; jobs, marriages, wars have serious ways of side tracking or eliminating careers as poets. But Cohen managed it, in a career that began in 1956 with the publication of his first book, The Spice Box Of Earth.

The sacred and the profane were subjects that were constants in his writing, not so much mashed together, the arbitrary fusion of unlike propositions , but rather intermingling, the aspects of sensuality and solemnity weaving and through each other, elements of the human spirit’s need to experience feel fully alive. Cohen’s chronicle of how he followed his muse over decades, in songs, poems, novels reveals a man who , I think, obviously believed in God, a deity, though, who might possible not have a Grand Plan for good people after this life surrenders us to darkness. His Higher Power, though, has a subtle and power sense of Irony. If God is in the details, He is in laughing, smirking at least, wondering what is we might learn from the collected experiences a life time accords us.

What inspired the poet in me to come alive and chase the muse of learning how to create suggestive sentences was the expansive flashiness of Dylan’s writing, vernacular fireworks that, in their best expression, made no literal sense but still left you with the chilling effect that something was happening that needed a new language to describe the vibe. His songs were public, his lyrics were cast in broad swaths of angular, cubist-bent non sequiturs that were perfect for a generation of youth that vaguely wanted a destiny that would form as all utopias theoretically would, by consensus, without rules, distortions, based on cooperation, in harmony with a natural order that had gotten lost in the rapid shuffle of change since World War 2. Cohen was the other extreme, personal, isolated, reflective to the degree that you felt as though you were invading a private space as you played the albums, the effect of walking into a room you thought was empty only to discover someone in there staring into a dark corner of the space, talking to themselves. Cohen felt deeply, considered his affairs, his pilgrimages, and his constant search for experience that might allow him to grow spiritually and so uncover a more profound notion of a love that does not die.

In poems and especially in songs, songs like “Suzanne”, “Hey , That’s No Way to Say Goodbye”, “Hallelujah “, and “Tower of Song”, Cohen artfully balanced two sides of a persona , the soul scarred and deepened by profound happenstance, and the observer, who wittily and with enormous amounts of bemusement recounting a new subtle lesson or a lesson that needed to be learned yet again. This isn’t to say Cohen is philosophically ponderous or didactic; although his songs are prone to many stanzas, Cohen’s lines and images are crisp, ironic, a masterful use of the snappy line no less agile than what Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe would offer. “Tower of Song”, I think, gives full evidence of this songwriter’s ability to be honest and curtly honestly with his allegories and yet it keep it comical.
Well my friends are gone and my hair is grey
 I ache in the places where I used to play
 And I’m crazy for love but I’m not coming on
 I’m just paying my rent every day
 Oh in the Tower of Song
 I said to Hank Williams: how lonely does it get?
 Hank Williams hasn’t answered yet
 But I hear him coughing all night long
 A hundred floors above me
 In the Tower of Song
I was born like this, I had no choice
 I was born with the gift of a golden voice
 And twenty-seven angels from the Great Beyond
 They tied me to this table right here
 In the Tower of Song
His songs, which I fine the finest of the late 20th century in English–only Dylan, Costello, Mitchell and Paul Simon, have comparable bodies of work–we find more attention given to the effect of every word and phrase that’s applied to his themes, his story lines. In many ways, Cohen was a better writer over all. Unlike Dylan, who has been indiscriminate for the last thirty ways I would say Cohen is a better lyricist than Dylan because he’s a better years about the quality of work he’s released, there is scarcely anything in Cohen’s songbook that wasn’t less than considered, pondered over, measured for effect and the achievement of the cultivated ambiguity that made you yearn for the sweet agony that accompanies a permanent residence in the half lit zone between the sacred and the profane.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016


A great musician has passed. Allison's was a name that flew below the radar when one started counting influential singer/songwriters. It's in retrospect that you realize his style , his originality in an African American art form, were the epicenter of whatever legitimate Caucasian version of "cool" might have developed during his prime period. He didn't attempt to sound or act black in music or manner, and he didn't hide from his white, Southern background. His singing remains a godsend in an area of blues, the sort played by well intentioned white players , who mostly sounding like rude noises from an garbled idea of American culture. Allison's voice was cool, reserved, talk-sung with the barest hint of blues inflection; where others got loud and raspy when the emotions poured down thickly, Allison remained calm, his voice hanging as far to the edge of musical phrase while still remaining , in some way, on , before or just after the beat. This was he subtle insinuation of skepticism, reserve, of keeping a center amid the chaos of events and conflicts and contradictions around him. Part Southern Gentleman and part Sonny Boy Williams, it was a style of singing that was clear and articulate but still made you think that was the voice of a man heavily marked by experience. Like wise his lyrics, which were cool, ironic, sardonic, spare but full of implication. I don't there have been many other songwriters who displayed as much wit with so much rhyming brevity. He was, of course, a unique pianist, cross referencing classical and hard bop with a seamless elegance and energy.

Friday, November 11, 2016

LEONARD COHEN, RIP: the best rock poet

Bob Dylan is, in essence, and in fact, a song lyricist who has a particularly strong gift for the poetic effect, while Cohen is a poet in the most coherent sense; he had published several volumes of poetry and published two novels prior to his taking up the guitar. Dylan's style is definitely the definition of the postmodern jam session, a splendid mash-up of Little Richard, Hank Williams, Chuck Berry and a long line of obscure or anonymous folk singers whose music he heard and absorbed. His lyrics, however arcane and tempered with Surreal and Symbolist trappings--although the trappings, in themselves, were frequently artful and inspired--he labored to the pulse of the chord progression, the tight couplets, the strict obedience to a rock and roll beat. This is the particular reason he is so much more quotable than Cohen has turned out to be; the songwriter's instinct is to get your attention and keep it and to have you humming the refrain and singing the chorus as you walk away from the music player to attend to another task.

 Chances are that you are likely to continue humming along with the music while you work, on your break, on the drive home, for the remains of the day. This is not to insist that Cohen is not quotable or of equal worth--I am in agreement that Cohen, in general, is the superior writer to Dylan, and is more expert at presenting a persona that is believably engaged with the heartaches, pains and dread-festooned pleasures his songs take place. His lyrics are more measured, balanced, and less exclamatory and time wasting, and exhibit a superior sense of irony. Cohen is the literary figure, the genuine article, which comes to songwriting with both his limitations and his considerable gifts. All is to say that Dylan has Tin Pan Alley throwing a large shadow over his work. Cohen, in turn, is next to a very large bottle of ink and a quill. Cohen tends the words he uses more than Dylan does; his language is strange and abstruse at times, but beyond the oddity of the existences he sets upon his canvas there exist an element that is persuasive, alluring, masterfully wrought with a writing, from the page alone, that blends all the attendant aspects of Cohen’s stressed worldliness– sexuality, religious ecstasy, the burden of his whiteness– into a whole , subtly argued, minutely detailed, expertly layered with just so many fine, exacting touches of language.

His songs, which I find the finest of the late 20th century in English–only Dylan, Costello, Mitchell and Paul Simon, have comparable bodies of work–we find more attention given to the effect of every word and phrase that’s applied to his themes, his storylines. In many writers overall. Unlike Dylan, who has been indiscriminate for the last thirty ways I would say Cohen is a better lyricist than Dylan because he’s a better years about the quality of work he’s released, there is scarcely anything in Cohen’s songbook that wasn’t less than considered, pondered over, measured for effect and the achievement of the cultivated ambiguity that made you yearn for some of the sweet agony that accompanies a permanent residence in the half-lit zone between the sacred and the profane. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

a poem for Jill Moon, 1952-2015

From the top of your head

Jill Moon, 1952-2015
  (Jill Moon, the woman I loved more than nearly anyone or anything else, has passed away. This is a love poem I wrote for her back in  1996. It says it all and has nothing close to how deep our friendship was and how deep the loss is and will remain. She was 63 years old, a painter, a set designer, a college professor, a loving mother,  a glass artist, a wit, a smart person who loved beautiful things and interesting people..
Jill Moon was a beautiful, brilliant, funny and passionate person who brought energy, humor,
and wit where ever she went in whatever she undertook. Her art in painting, set design, sculpture shared the qualities of innocence and play, mystery and just a hint of the ominous. Her canvases bristled with activity and color, small items and large that seemed to move about their terrain in some grand dance to keep this world balanced and ultimately serene. Jill was a loving person, gregarious, outgoing, a loving mother and a champion of the talent and virtues of her friends, a believer in social justice, and kindness toward others, someone who believed that harnessing the creativity in all of us makes the world a better place to live in. She was inspired to create and continued her art up to the end, adding glass art and doll making to her splendid body of work in painting, set design, and public sculpture. Being with Jill was one of the richest experiences of my life and her loss leaves a gap that cannot be easily filled, if at all. Jill was a beautifully singular human being. - See more at:
Jill Moon was a beautiful, brilliant, funny and passionate person who brought energy, humor,
and wit where ever she went in whatever she undertook. Her art in painting, set design, sculpture shared the qualities of innocence and play, mystery and just a hint of the ominous. Her canvases bristled with activity and color, small items and large that seemed to move about their terrain in some grand dance to keep this world balanced and ultimately serene. Jill was a loving person, gregarious, outgoing, a loving mother and a champion of the talent and virtues of her friends, a believer in social justice, and kindness toward others, someone who believed that harnessing the creativity in all of us makes the world a better place to live in. She was inspired to create and continued her art up to the end, adding glass art and doll making to her splendid body of work in painting, set design, and public sculpture. Being with Jill was one of the richest experiences of my life and her loss leaves a gap that cannot be easily filled, if at all. Jill was a beautifully singular human being. - See more at:
Jill Moon was a beautiful, brilliant, funny and passionate person who brought energy, humor,
and wit where ever she went in whatever she undertook. Her art in painting, set design, sculpture shared the qualities of innocence and play, mystery and just a hint of the ominous. Her canvases bristled with activity and color, small items and large that seemed to move about their terrain in some grand dance to keep this world balanced and ultimately serene. Jill was a loving person, gregarious, outgoing, a loving mother and a champion of the talent and virtues of her friends, a believer in social justice, and kindness toward others, someone who believed that harnessing the creativity in all of us makes the world a better place to live in. She was inspired to create and continued her art up to the end, adding glass art and doll making to her splendid body of work in painting, set design, and public sculpture. Being with Jill was one of the richest experiences of my life and her loss leaves a gap that cannot be easily filled, if at all. Jill was a beautifully singular human being. I will miss her terribly and will be forever grateful that she was part of my life. - See more at:
I love you, dear Jill. --tb)

From the top of your head
flowers grow that I’ve never seen
in the nature of my asking
the meaning of this thing, so beautiful, the wind.

The wind in all uses highlights
the shift of your hips
leaning against rocks, the meaning of this,
the earth, the mother of the deals
that have us eating out
of  the hands that pick the roots of your hair
that goes on growing like flowers on hills
with all the houses we ‘ve  never lived in.

A clap of thunder is applause enough for pausing
to smell the turpentine that revives the hem and haw
of  the wood under our shoes,
rainy nights are ovations and the trance
of  still looking into your eyes
where I’ve always seen them,
on pyramids, in circles,
thirsty yearning.

From my hands comes ruined meaning
about hammers and nails and the holes that made them,
I’ve stared at your face on the ceiling all night,
water flows where there is no resistance,
insistence makes me forget and remember your names,
every center has a heart
and every heart is broken.
Into your face    t
    all roads split down the middle,
    the wind is a whisper
and a rustle of notes
    coyotes cry
    in the wake
    of our progress,
    so beautiful, the wind,
    and water rolling
in circles, in circles, in peace.

Monday, December 22, 2014


Joe Cocker had a voice that was rust and whiskey through and through, a soulful rasp and a bellicose roar that could make a songwriter's lyric seem to surrender a greater hurt, a greater passion, a more profound ache than mere definitions and vocaliizations, no matter how ardent, would usually reveal. There was something nearly cartoonish in his take on the blues-shouter tradition, the area of gospel-informed geniuses Ray Charles, Otis Redding, and Aretha Franklin came from and changed the way pop singers regarded singing. Where his influences had mastered their technique and honed their emotions to suit the timbre, pitch and range of their voices, and learned the subtle art of varying the use of the shout, the rasp, the corrosive croon, the melismatic technique of stretching words and even elongating syllables within words to suggest the tonal groans, cries and whispers of a human voice connected to unambiguous pain and joy, Cocker tossed much of that out the window when he came to the microphone and let loose a hard, blistering, sustained rage ; his voice was like one large gun aimed at a wall of hard experience, each bunker busting shell intended to blow it all to hell. He wasn't going to tell you about his experiences, he seemed intent to make you live them. It was raw, unnerving, exhilarating, unsullied in its prickly graininess even when he did the most treacly material. In his best moments, his bracing presentation of self-was a thing of wonder that stayed in your memory a lifetime.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

writer / rock critic Paul Williams RIP

"The Father of Rock Criticism" Paul Williams.
Paul Williams had the distinction of being the first man in nearly anyone's recollection to discuss rock music as a substantive art form. He was,I suspect, similar to what Manny Farber was to film criticism,  a writer who insisted that rock music was a fully developed form, with its own aesthetic, qualities and stylistic tangents that expressed ideas, musical and emotional, in a manner wholly unique and deserving of its own critical language.

Rock and roll was no poor stepchild of the other arts. Developing their ideas decades apart, what Williams and Farber shared was a dissatisfaction with the way their respective areas on critical concern, rock and roll, and film, were being treated, as subdivisions of other, more established art forms. Both decided to something about their respective gripes. Both men changed the way millions have come to see the world, at least in some small way. 

Paul Williams brought to the world was a set of propositions that started an international conversation on the nature of popular culture and the defense of art that didn't originate in the university, the cathedral or a think tank. Paul's inspired enthusiasm for musicians and their message, his flashing insights, his visionary notion that art is the means with which we can transcend the brutally inane and experience genuine joy, was a subject too enticing to pass up. He was an influence on my writing and the writing of many longtime friends, and I find it astounding that the discourse he started in the 60s continues today, a  contentious, cranky, frequently brilliant, opinionated conversation on the issue of what we find beautiful and why.  On the subject of rock and roll and popular music, Paul Williams created a critical method where none had previously existed. That is a profound achievement, and it is one that influenced my life. Thank you, Paul Williams.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012


Gore Vidal will be missed because he was, perhaps, the last of the Great Public Intellectuals with the ability to discourse knowledgeably on an impressive variety of inter-related subjects. Let's say right here that Vidal isn't, of course, the last intellectual who will attempt to conquer all media and become on the few anointed by the Infotainment State to appear with bright elucidations on the variety of platforms available in a demonstration of Marcuseque tolerance that resists the codifications which allow corporate coffers to swell. There a number of others who can talk up a good contrarian view on a number of subjects, but none of them are as entertaining as Vidal had been, the cynic, the Wildean wit puncturing holes in the thin balloons of bullshit that his way. His presence on the talk shows throughout my childhood, admittedly, helped formed my progressive views and instructed me, more or less, to think harder on subjects, to be skeptical, to think critically, to be willing to change my mind based on new evidence; all that was good enough on the face of it, but that was essentially a side benefit of paying attention to what Vidal was, in fact, which was an entertainer, another distraction, a decent enough man to utter views half way critical of a racist/misogynist/ /homophobic status quo  who would not, all the same, dissuade viewers from purchasing the sponsor's products. It was a racket and Vidal knew it. But his performances on the talk shows did inspire me to read his books, which makes me thankful that the talk shows of the time--Carson, Cavett, Griffin, Mike Douglas--booked serious American writers as guests , a class of introverts who spoke of great things and ideas while the camera was on them and which, in turn, pushed me to the bookstore, the library sale, the library stacks to get their books. We can run down the list of items he had a nuanced opinion on literature, politics, antiquity, American history, film, particular and peculiar aspects, niches and submerged terrains of popular culture and the currents that ran under it. He was the man to read whenever a new essay appeared or a new novel appeared on the new release table in a local bookstore. He was a lively, challenging read.

Still, there was something about Vidal that struck me as being a mile wide and an inch deep; there are points in both his essays and the many, many interviews he gave where he would cite the same facts, make the same sweeping declarations, offer the same crowd-pleasing diagnosis as to what exactly the matter with American at large happens to be and the same crowd soothing prognosis for the country, citizens and culture at large if his advice were heeded; Vidal would often sprinkle his views with scattered facts, but he rarely cited his sources, rarely delved into a matter and provided substantial, vetted analysis of many of things he spoke. As with many people I've met over the decades, Vidal seemed to be a brilliant writer who can make provocative and well-structured speculations to the origins of our lust for power and the cultural and institutional disguises we disguise our ambition with, but remaining, by and large, an intriguing conversationalist, the center of every cocktail party who offers things more quotable than useful as regards policy.

 That being said, allow me to insist that I agreed with most of what Vidal noted and recommended for the country. Vidal was a novelist, most of all, especially brilliant and grossly underrated by critics who were condescending even when they were giving his books favorable reviews. And I think his intellectual legacy will be less the political writings for which he most noted for and more for the large body of literary criticism and book reviews he wrote during his lifetime. He was a first-rate literary intelligence, powerful, insightful, able to detect fakes, fads, and balderdash in the work of other novelists who were trying too hard to be unique. I am grateful to him for a long essay he wrote reappraising the career of novelist Dawn Powell, author of "The Locusts Have No King" and other novels; she is, as Vidal wrote, the best American comic novelist of the 20th century. His essay helped bring her books back into print. I wound up being doubly blessed, being a man who had the honor of reading both Vidal and Powell in the same lifetime.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Harry Crews, Writer of Dark Fiction, Is Dead at 76 -

Novelist Harry Crews has died. As a bookseller, Crews was among the hardest of authors to recommend to readers looking for a new author, as his themes were steeped, drenched, saturated in the tradition of Southern grotesquery that made Flannery O'Conner and Carson McCullers notable. Crews, though, went deeper, got dirtier, got sicker that all the others and created a surreal, obscene and supremely satiric body of work that featured resilient heroes who were less heroic than they were stubborn, stupid or blessed with the last trace of good luck a cruel God would allow the world. Booze, sex, misfits,random perversion, he was the writer you read after you finished reading Willliam Burroughs  with the conclusion that you have read through the darkest corridors of America's sick sense of itself. Crews is just the writer to give someone a vivid idea that the depths of our rooted irrationality have only been lightly mined. The pure creations of America go insane. So said William Carlos Williams.

Friday, January 20, 2012


Band leader, songwriter, singer and producer Johnny Otis  has passed away. was an American Master, a truly great man who helped bring a fantastic number of brilliant rhythm and blues artists to greater fame and acclaim. I had the pleasure to meet and interview him back in the Seventies, when he had just become a minister and opened up his home in Los Angeles as his church. He was gracious, sane, civilized, believing that the spirit of God blesses all of us and our best talents; he though it was his calling to help his fellow humans become their better selves.

 The service that my associate Barry Alfonso and I attended in his South Los Angeles home back in the Seventies was a long one, with a choir of splendidly tuned vocalists revving up the already considerable spiritual energy in the room while Reverend Otis, citing Gospel, citing the Jesus of his understanding, gently but firmly exhorted his congregation to be more Christ like, that is, to be kind, helpful, loving of others. In attendance was famed jazz organist Jimmy Smith and singer/actress Della Reese, both of whom performed musical numbers at the Reverend's request. Later in the service, Otis asked us to turn to the person on our left and the person on our right and say "God loves you and I love you to."  On my right was Barry, whose hand I shook. We exchanged nods, trying, I suppose, to sustain a veneer of journalistic cool, but on my left was Miss Reese, who took my hand and said with a wide smile that God loved me and that she loved me to. On instinct I return the greeting, feeling that I had just shaken hands with someone who was genuinely connected to the message of love that Otis carried and preached. In some circles, in certain cliques, in specific venues, this view of God and his purpose for us on this planet seems naive, but it occurred to me decades later that Johnny Otis had tapped into a theological proposition more profound than one would at first think. 

It was so subtle that the majority of the religious celebrities miss it, that life on earth matters a great deal most of all; we are not here merely to perform perfunctory good deeds as if  existence were merely a test to get  into a celestial graduate school. Rather, we were here to love , nurture and help one another, to create joy and happiness through creative acts and the practice of a kind of selflessness that brings us a new freedom. During our talk with Johnny Otis in his office before the service, the musician spoke at length about the gift of music and the connection it gives him to the lives of others. about how he could feel the real pain, joy and struggles in the voice of Esther Phillips, the searing saxophone of Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson. It was art as a spiritual calling, a manifest destiny to  let people know that a surrender to the God and Jesus that Johnny Otis and his brethren spoke of could not only make life on in this existence bearable, but better, tangible better. That is the power of love Johnny Otis spoke of and that is the glory of the music Johnny Otis made. 

Friday, December 16, 2011

Christopher Hitchens is Dead

Christopher Hitchens holds forth at D.G.Wills Books in La Jolla, California, 2006.
Christopher Hitchens is Dead: Iconoclast and public intellectual passes away at a Houston hospital after battle with cancer.:

The recently dead Christopher Hitchens was an ornery son of a bitch . That said, I have no doubt that he will be remembered perhaps the last of the great gadflies, a brilliant and fluid essayist who was fluent in the subjects of politics, history, art, literature, philosophy and, indeed, pop culture itself who could then effortlessly, it seemed, essay forth and parse the particulars of his subject with a quick, subtle read, reaching conclusions that pleased and displayed hundreds and thousands of readers world wide in equal measure. He was a contrarian, a supporter of the Iraq War, an aggressively eloquent atheist, a discoverer of elegance, grace and integrity in unexpected places, from unusual sources, defending his positions with a moral consistency that was rare, founded on a bed rock of values he developed as a young man active in the British New Left of the Sixties.

One wishes that he hadn't allowed his hatred of dictatorship and brutality to support a war that was immoral from the get-go; Hitchens argued as much that although the rationale behind the war was a calculated stream of falsehoods, the intentions were honorable none the less --to rid the world of an evil tyrant--and that we might as well go ahead and instill a Western sense of justice on a country that had not attacked the United States; that there were no facts presented by any credible accounts in our intelligence agencies connecting Iraq to terrorists , nor evidence nor discovery of the alleged Weapons of Mass Destruction Saddam Hussein's possession mattered not at all to the intransigent Hitchens, who conducted his pro-war argument on a slippery slope; his willingness to ignore an immoral premise for a war of no coherent purpose , favoring instead a Higher Morality that has yet to justify itself in terms of an arguable Good Result that has been achieved is the mill stone that will hang around the memory of Hitchens for years to come. There will be embarrassed silences when this comes up, heated debate,exaggerated praise and gross condemnations. Eventually , of course, many things will be overlooked, forgiven or forgotten altogether and we can again appreciate the sheer brilliance of Hitchens the journalist, the gadfly, the pundit, the scintillating essayist, the uncommonly astute literary critic.

At his best , Hitchens despised cant, bullshit, received perceptions and championed intellectual honestly fiercely, fearlessly. He did not pussyfoot, he did not apologize, he presented his case, he bulldozed his opponents with hard reason , deep reading and seemingly perfect recall of vetted facts in their sources. One may have disagreed with this Hitchens on various matters and be on solid ground with their opposition to his views, but shame on he or she that dares confront him with a sub-par set of counter moves. You had to up your game to engage this man, you had to up your game to Olympian heights. You also had to succeed in not passing out in the thin air of Hitchens' altitude.

Christopher Hitchens, a damnable son of bitch, and a pleasure to read over these past twenty years.

Sunday, July 24, 2011


This is too sad for words, all the talent that Amy Winehouse had  now silenced because she couldn't muster up the strength to confront what was killing her.  Her song "Rehab"  showed she had an ironic awareness of her drug use , but this shows, again, that self-knowledge unaccompanied by action is inadequate . The insidious thing about being an addict is that the thought of stopping what you know will silence you forever abate quickly after the craving takes over and the first FIX of the day becomes all that matters at the moment. Self awareness vaporizes and you forget or ignore the truth of the matter and wallow in the nod and the eventual panic to get still more drugs. As talented and smart, even brilliant, as Winehouse was, she seemed more or less without a clue to the severity of her situation. Drugs make you stupid, they reduce your life to a banal statistic despite whatever genius potential you began life with, they kill you and make you another deceased cipher. The real tragedy is less that a brilliant artist is silenced too young in her career, but that we are bound to keep reading variations of this sad scenario for the rest of our natural collective lives.

The moral of this tale is simple: Save your own life.
This is a nicely written tribute by NY Times culture monger Guy Trebay on how the recently deceased Amy Winehouse will last, but it presents what I think will be the article that will dominate the flux of Winewhouse postmortems to come: more concern with what she looked like rather than how she sounded. It's a paradox that on the one hand the host of articles are yet to come will praise what were he conspicuous gifts, that unique voice (a combination of Billie Holiday and Diana Ross) and a surreal grit as a lyricist, and yet have the conversation drift, as if directed by gravity, to the matter of her appearance. I sympathize with Trebay, who was required to write so many snappy column inches with so little actual Amy Winehouse music to refer to. It's not as if there was something to surmount in her art as there was in Sinatra's skill set when his voice deepened and grew coarser, darker; he changed the way he sang and selected different songwriters to write for him, to brilliant effect. It's not like she's had an evolution as a lyricist, like Joni Mitchell or Elvis Costello, both of whom started out as an awesomely gifted who, with time, transcended their skills and became pretentious and pedantic. No, there is only a very slight bit of studio work in her brief stay with us, enjoyable , full of promise and , alas, she's dead.  This isn't unusual for an icon who didn't release many studio albums during her lifetime. It was a mere two for Winehouse, and basing a discussion of her work solely goes static before long. The valid conclusion is for us to ponder what might have been and then give a sigh, but since we're not yet finished wringing our hands over her passing, we have pundits applying a slipshod semiotics... to her sense of style , dealing in tortuously strained metaphors to wrench more cultural significance from her departed presence. It strains credulity, and it insults her fans and it insults her.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Betty Ford

Betty Ford:a nice lady.
 I went to a desert town called Rancho Mirage to dry out.

Only July 16, 1987 I was led by the arm, literally, into the admission offices of the Betty Ford Center in the dry flat lands of Rancho Mirage, California, a community in the Palm Springs area. The center was famous for treating celebrity alcoholics and drug addicts and had , from appearances, a reasonable success rates for helping their famed clientele achieve a better existence. And sometimes they didn't. I didn't care much about that at the time, though, as I was a trembling, shot-out drunk who hadn't a coherent thought in his head who knew only one thing, that I couldn't stop drinking on my own and that  my life was a gruesome plate of self-designed misery as a result. A sympathetic manager at the company I worked at the time found a drug-treatment clause in the company insurance plan and, the day after my natal birthday, my sister drove me in my brother's BMW over the mountains and far away into the  egrigious heat of the desert, to that town called Rancho Mirage, to dry out. All  I wanted was to stop hurting and to stop causing hurt.

My prayer was answered. I have been sober since that nervous day.

Ten days into my 28 day stay at the facility, Betty Ford herself came to speak to the current crop of patients, something she did regularly. She was a small woman, surprisingly so, almost frail looking, but she had a sparkle in her eye indeed--I remember at the time that her cheeriness seemed chronic and irritated me to no end--and she had a way of lifting her head , chin up, as she spoke, as if rising from some bad news and tragic consequences to surmount , in large and small bounds and steps, what set backs befell her.  She told us her story, her drunkalogue, as it were, telling us how bad it became for her and then related the redemption and recovery, the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous that supported her when her sobriety was tested.  She related to the varied assembly that she had found a plan for living, something that I was in the market for.  She wished us well and godspeed on our respective paths to sobriety, signed our institution -assigned Big Books, and then left .

After my 28 days at the Ford Center I returned home and went straight back to the meetings I attended before ; as I've said , I have not had a drink since that time and now am mere days away from celebrating 24 years of continuous sobriety. I credit what I've learned and practiced in the already mentioned 12 step group for the relatively easy time I've had of it avoiding mischief, but the Betty Ford Center was something that was available to me at that precise moment in time; the only thing I did was to stop saying no to whatever  good opportunities presented themselves and went into the Center with my ears open and my mouth closed. I thank Betty Ford for the good work she did in establishing the facility. I thank her for helping me get the break I needed to discover something greater than myself.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Captain Beefheart, RIP: Absorbine Jr. for President

The good Captain was someone I struggled with for decades, as  his music kept me guessing whether he was putting me on with the trash compactor surrealism of the lyrics, the swooping, howling, icon-smashing bark that constituted his singing, or the time signatures, which seemed a rhythmic approximation of what traffic might like in a universe that had a trillion miles of road , an equal number of cars but no traffic lights or stop signs. or if he was indeed the genius his supporters claimed he was, a self-starting savant who employed every tic, gesture, sound, click, rattle and hum that caught his attention and assembled them in ways that amounted to a careening challenge to a listener expecting something more down home.

 He resembled no one so much as Ornette Coleman, the jazz player, and composer who kept people guessing through his long decades as a music maker, and in the case of both artists, I am leaning toward the side that consider them major musical forces of the 20Th century. What likely confounded the music fans of the time, perhaps, was the lack of obvious virtuosity in the playing--no extended guitar solos, no unpunctuated drum essays--and the lack of straightforward beginning, middle, and structure on which a band's gratuitous catalog of chops can be displayed. His music was about sound, about the layering of tones and textures, sweet blues juxtaposed against inverted jitterbug temps and "free jazz" dissonances ala Albert Ayler and the lithe,  sliding alienation of a single blues note resonating from a cheap amplifier under one of the Captain's (nee Don Van Vliet) aqua-urban night scapes.All ths in service to a man who was truly one of the very few poets to lead a rock band; while the notable likes of contemporaries Joni Mitchell,  Paul Simon, Tim Buckley or even the Beatles never quite transcended the sense that there was some serious contemplation to the words they would employ to render their "poetic" effects, The Captain was a natural word drunk, a cross between Tristan Tzara, Kurt Schwitters and Howlin' Wolf; a prankster, a conjurer of mood, an organically generated under miner of literal meaning.

Three Months in the Mirror

Three months in the mirror
burning hip
- let's go to the kennel honey
and get one of those cute little moth pups
they flap their little wings
and fly around a light globe
and you can keep 'em in the closet
and feed 'em socks -
six months in the mirror
burning hip
- honey let's go out naked tonight
with our moth puppy
don't forget the socks and the light bulbs
make sure it's not too warm
you don't want to burn his lttle wings -

the lights are soft, streets soft, skies soft,
the mirrors soft
the smell of burnt powder
the moth flies through the mirror
powder falls lightly around around around
and around the sun .
One reads this, finds themselves arguing with the words and the fractured adjectives, the quirky signifiers and surrenders to it, finally, ceasing to ask   "what is he talking about" and asking, instead "what is he saying?". The Captain would answer only in ways that were just as products of inspired c as the poem/lyric he'd just written. As a guess, I would say a momentarily less zany Captain might offer the advice that a listener should take off the headphones, go outside and trust the authority of their senses if they wanted an answer that helped. The beauty of the Captain's music was that he made you figure it out for yourself--these are your senses, build something! Hearing him over time, decades in fact, brought me to one of those low-calorie epiphanies that comes to you while daydreaming at taxi-stand or the bankline in 1976, that what the Captain impresses on my psyche was the sense that I had just  woken up after a long lucid dream during an equally elongated street walk and I  was suddenly, brutally, incomprehensible in a world of familiar things that now seemed alien, detached from the very space they occupied, removed from all function or purpose other than to be played with, reconfigured, reinvented endlessly , constantly evolving in the way that children spontaneously create games and rules and  are away modifying the rules to accompanying new items to add to the play, to accommodate mistakes, to create fairness or give the short shrift to any idea of fairness. To create something and to let those things morph of their own accord by whatever invisible forces brought them to my liberated senses. In a major sense I've to believe Captain Beefheart was a witness to beauty that was fatal to the population's collective sense of pleasure, decorum and social duty; all he could do     was report and to keep us guessing, guessing, one would imagine, until our own sense of a better, achievable reality formed and allowed us to move forward as better citizens without the saber, the gun and the prisonhouse to keep us on the road to deferred bliss.

Barry Alfonso comments:

Like you, I feel a great vacuum-space with the departure of The Captain from this planet. What a rare and exalted being. I had the pleasure of interviewing him back in 1982, when he was hanging out by the La Brea Tar Pits (near his good friends, Smilodon and the Ground Sloth) doing press for his last album, Ice Cream for Crow. There was a lot of wonderful blarney slung by CB that day – I especially treasure his description of the music-consuming public as “fish in a fishbowl eating their own excretum.” But he also said some things that confirm your instincts about what he was up to creatively. Beefheart definitely saw himself as a COMPOSER, akin to Igor Stravinski. In his mind, everything in a song was a part, a movement, not the expression of an individual player – in fact, his guitarist Gary Lucas later told me that after Gary played a part in the studio, Beefheart said to him, “Thanks for the use of your fingers, man.” His musicians were his paintbrushes, his tools. This doesn’t sound very nice or respectful and Beefheart admitted as much. (His musicians – especially those who played during his Trout Mask period – insisted they had more to do with shaping the intricate song-parts than Beefheart gave them credit for. This is probably true. Yet I suspect CB so penetrated their psyches that they didn’t always realize when they were doing his will.) During our interview, Beefheart said that he got his songs whole, in a flash, and that the length of the song was how long it took to describe that single burst. That may account for the odd sense of movement and form in his songs. It also relates to his intense visual sense – CB was a painter and he thought like one when he was creating songs. Everything from “Ella Guru” to “Ice Cream for Crow” can be approached as still-life paintings seen from various angles through the course of the song. You are given a weird scene or portrait and you walk around it, poke at it, sniff it, taste it. As you said, there’s a heavy prankster element in CB. He liked to mess with people’s minds – he gave them a good fluffing, as if he was thwacking a pillow. He re-booted your cerebellum and made the world look cockeyed – or maybe right for the first time.

Thursday, January 28, 2010


Not many authors have one or two of their books become a voluntary right of passage among the moody and quixotic generations of teens and young adults, but J.D.Salinger was such a writer, the author of  Catcher in the Rye, the singular book about growing up while dissatisfied. Holden Caufield, the book's narrator protagonist , is a moody youth , prematurely cynical, impatient with the ways of adults and their habits and institutions . The book has been discussed, analysed , inspected and interpreted over the decades that one wonders whether it can still be read as a fresh experience, and I would say yes, yes. Caufield is cynical with a acute bullshit detector, but he is not wise beyond his years; Salinger's particular gift was for to inhabit the skin of a young man masking his confusion with a collection of fiercely protected mannerisms and borrowed attitudes. He was, though, coming to the moment when more was revealed and his life was transformed, and his perspective altered far beyond his tight little world made visible. Attitude, awkwardness, good humor laced with a handily sense of melancholy, it was the work of a master regarding the slogging progress toward an adult sensibility.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Dickie Peterson, RIP

Dickie Peterson, bassist and lead singer for the proto- heavy metal band BLUE CHEER, has ascended to the giant E CHORD in the sky. His bandsaw -on-steel vocals, joined with guitarist Leigh Stephens' PULVERIZING ATONAL GUITAR SOLOS and drummer Paul Whaley's trash can demolition, Peterson and crew lay the ground work for a generation of metal and punk bands to come: MC5, STOOGES, MOUNTAIN, LED ZEP, RAMONES, MOTÖRHEAD, DEAD BOYS. Even the Velvet Underground, with their feedback skronk , couldn't match Blue Cheer's steel-belted forays into electricfied abandon; the Velvets merely taunted the strings of their guitar, Blue Cheer sounded like they punched holes in oil tankers. And Peterson's vocalizations where the perfect match, screech, rasp and banshee wail all rolled into one bag of verbal outrage, maintaining a punk's slouch . He was the white blues- belter who deserved the praise. Sorry Janis. object width="425" height="344"> It's appropriate to remember that their early manager, a fellow named Abe "Voco" Kesh , bragged that Blue Cheer played so loud that they killed a dog at an outdoor concert. It is true that they played so loud that they recorded parts of their second album on piers in San Francisco, amps and speakers faced toward the bay because they kept blowing out the studio soundboard.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Richard Poirier,RIP

Literary critic and cultural commentator Richard Poirier has passed away. Clarity and diversity of interests made him one of my favorites; Mailer's best critic, amazing on the subject of Wallace Stevens, The Transcendalists, pop culture. He had a genius of connecting popular forms with long standing traditions and could appreciate it when particular artists were blurring distinctions between established fields to come up with a meaningful response to contemporary experience. He was aware that the artist was not separate from history, but realized as well that history wasn't static nor a straight jacked that limited an individual's aesthetic options. He was brilliant. And he could write with an uncommon clarity.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

David Bromige

David Bromige, a poet with an ongoing interest in seeing how the language operates in the many schemes a human mind can present for it to map out, passed away yesterday, leaving behind a large body of work that is, as the saying goes, too broad for a simple explanation . He was, from my too infrequent readings of him over the years, a poet who continued to go the outer perimeters of form , intrigued by how one might come up with new cadences to contain the accelerated rate of experience. He seemed also to be someone who wouldn't allow lazy expression be what represented the emotional core of the poetry, either from dog-eared templates of conventional poeticizing, or hastily contrived experiments that missed a human connection in their haste to be striking. In his best form, which was usually the case when I picked up one of his books, he was a poet who thought we could do better when addressing a remarkable life we've been given.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

UPDIKE AT REST: Our Best Novelist is Dead:

We've lost one of our greatest novelists, John Updike, who died of lung cancer at age 76. Norman Mailer, in a breezy dismissal of Updike's novel Rabbit Run, called Updike the sort of writer who was popular with the mass of readers who knew nothing about writing. Mailer's withering glare, though, was notably fueled with obvious envy (brilliant as he was, the late writer was always obsessed with his literary competition), and what the departed Updike leaves behind is one of the most impressive bodies of work a contemporary writer, American or otherwise, would want for a legacy. His Rabbit quartet of novels--Rabbit Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit is Rich, Rabbit at Rest--is among the peerless accomplishments of 20th century fiction in it's chronicle of living through the confusion of the Viet Nam war, feminism, civil rights and the sexual revolution in the person of the series' titular character, Rabbit Angstrom. Not deep of thought but rich in resentment, Angstrom was an analog of American culture itself, a congested vein of self seeking that never recovered from the raw sensation of youthful vigor; Angstrom, like the country itself, resentfully fumbled about for years ruing the loss of vitality and trying to replace it with new things, the crabby possessiveness of the middle class. 

Updike had been criticized, as had Nabokov, for creating characters who weren't sufficiently heroic in their suffering or sympathetic to any degree, a charge I considered a dodge against the dicier matters of personality Updike was fascinated by and lovingly detailed with his poetically charged sentences. The seduction and allure of Updike's prose was the lush and bittersweet tone he could manage while following the curious circles of sense seeking his creations walked in--within any scene, whether a room, a church, a middle-class home decorated in conflicting schools of tackiness, there would be an order things established, material goods contrasted against modified and enhanced surroundings that would offer up a vivid sense of how intoxicating, self-convincing a character's thought process can be. Updike, though, didn't trust perfect scenarios or theories as to the meaning of life and was well aware of the human quirk that seems compelled to foul the nest with self-seeking. Comic, cruel, resonating with moments that are suddenly enlarged beyond the inane doings of his sweetly deluded antagonists, Updike was the voice of the problematic white straight male libido. Everything was sex drive--love, business, politics--and that realization alone is likely what gave Updike so much material to write books about, captured in an unequaled six decades of novels, short story collections, plays, and essay collections. John Updike was that rare talent who had the capacity of vary his approach to novel writing and still remain vital, alive--the ratio of how many of his novels worked aesthetically and worked structurally within his constant experimentation with form and voice is astounding. What is amazing, as well, is how vital his novels remained as he aged--Terrorist (dealing with the obvious issue), Seek My Face (a novelization of the life of Jackson Pollack), and Gertrude and Claudius (a prelude by Updike to Shakespeare's Hamlet) among others show a fictionist of endless curiosity about things topical, historical, outside his own famous niche of New England suburbs and small towns. Tom Wolfe accused him of being among those American novelists who've missed the vitality of real people, preferring instead the easier job of writing fanciful "writer" works, but that's the sort of comment that shows that Wolfe wouldn't let the facts ruin a chance to pour gasoline on a burning resentment. 

Updike, gain truth, took the pains to research a number of novel ideas and then imagine a world where the characters would live--his range of subject matter leaves one breathless. Joyce Carole Oates impresses us with her energy and her sheer productivity, but one doesn't escape the feeling that she's written the same story, with variations in tone and width, at least sixty to seventy times over in her three hundred plus volumes; Updike, a little slower yet still prolific with fifty books, left his comfort zone and applied the novelist's craft to those situations and people he felt had a story worth telling. So too comes his criticism and book reviews, which seemed to make remarks from any number of writers and subjects; his willingness to consider fiction an expandable craft made him one of the more trustworthy reviewers we've had the good luck to read over the years.

If a writer's task is, among others, to help us understand the actions that cause us to fall down and act badly despite our best intentions, Updike has performed a patriotic service. There should be some prize for that.