Saturday, April 8, 2006

The Gospel According to the Son

The Gospel According to the Son
a novel by Norman Mailer
(Random House Trade Paperbacks)
Norman Mailer has had a radical trajectory through the course of his career, and now, at age 75 with fifty years as a professional writer behind him, a summary collection is the fashion, and The Time of Our Time is the door stopper through which posterity should judge either his ascension, or decline in our literary Olympus. It's amazing, actually, how Mailer has controlled the course of criticism of his work, as he did with "Advertisements for Myself" and later with the Prisoner of Sex, both books through which his aesthetics were linked with a peculiarly Maileresque cosmology.There is much to argue with in The Prisoner of Sex, and though I'm in sympathy with the aims of the women's' movement, I cheer Mailers' defense of the artists right to use their sexuality and sense of the sensual world as proper fodder for poetic expression. What makes the book important is precisely the fact that Mailer felt there was a need for a man to stand up and have a word against and about the rising tide of Feminist theory; while many male writers were too confused, adrift in daydreams of irony or bottled up rage, and while the academy was surrendering its arms without a shot being fired, Mailer spoke up and wrote that there was a profound and important difference between the sexes, and that while social justice must and will prevail regarding the rights of women in the work place and overall social sphere, one cannot maintain, straight faced, that the only difference between the sexes has to do with genitalia.

There are times when Mailer- the- mystic clogs up an otherwise lacerating argument, where his romanticism veers dangerously towards a lunatics hallucinations, but his defense of Miller, Lawrence and Genet against the clumsier moments of Millet's' original critique in "Sexual Politics" is literary criticism at its most emphatic. "Prisoner of Sex" is, I'm afraid, incoherent at times, but there are long passages of rich knock-out prose that demonstrate why Mailer is thought by many to be one of the premiere stylists of the times, and if nothing else, his lyrical defense of D.H.Lawrence is worth the purchase by itself. One might despise Mailer and his philosophy, but a critic was still trapped discussing the work through the author's obsessions. And that is the mark of brilliance, Mailer could get is readers to talk about things he wanted to speak to, because his language is strangely persuasive, at his high point, even as it addresses the dark and obscene corners of the imagination, and the baser instincts of American power.
The Time of Our Time again makes us consider his entire career through Mailer's filter, and understandably, it can be aggravating for someone expecting an easy in to the body of work. But it gives us the rewards, with generous selections form his best work, Naked and the Dead, Armies of the Night, Executioner's Song, An American Dream--and like wise long excerpts from slighter efforts, like "Gospel According to the Son" and his recent Picasso biography. What there is an impressive reach over the five decades that he's been in the public eye, an early brashness turning into a combative and provocative brilliance that at times trips over it's own eloquence that later turned into thoughtful, epic scale story telling through which the previous ego centric prose vanished behind the tragedy writ in the Gary Gilmore saga.

It's difficult not to be impressed with the range of Mailer's topics, in fiction, journalism, and essays! --World War 2 in the Pacific, Moon Landings, Black power, Women's Rights, Hunting, Reichian sexuality, the failure of Marxism, The Kennedy Assassination, Ancient Egypt, masculinity and American Literature, the dread of Modern architecture, the real meaning of the right wing, Boxing--and while Mailer at times seems breathless and throat clearing in his writing, that he's spreading a style too thin to cover the feeling that he's , for the moment, is bereft of anything interesting to say, you note the way he changes tact, changes styles, and ushers in another period of solid books that stand as his strongest. The Time of Our Time provides an over long reflection of a career that has been victim of the author's proclaimed desire to be the champ of his generation, but it also gives us a chance to appreciate a brilliant talent that found expression in spite of Mailer's the self-annihilating quirks. Controversial, problematic, self-absorbed, but quintessentially American, and one of the best witnesses we could have had for the second half of the century

Had Norman Mailer written "The Gospel According to the Son" forty years ago, in the middle of a decade endlessly divided against itself, we would have a very different novel. Jesus, our narrator here, probably would have been another Maileresque hero, like Rojack in "An American Dream" or DJ in "Why Are We in Viet Nam?", a marauding, secret voice driven White Negro Hipster, committing miracles in hot, violent frenzies, a visionary on the verge of beholding the clarifying image , yet at the sacrifice of his sanity. It might have been that Mailer's obsessions and theories would have followed him into this book like a stray dog he couldn't lose and made the story as ungainly and problematic as the most congested pages of D.H. Lawrence. Unlike Lawrence, though, Mailer lived long enough to get over the brash brilliance of younger days and brace himself for a longer march. "The Gospel According to the Son", has Jesus writing his own story from a place somehow outside history, neither heaven nor hell, for the purpose of modestly correcting the gospels of his scribes Mark, Matthew, Luke and John.

The writers, this Jesus insists, have buttressed the saga in order to enlarge their fold, and declares "What is for me to tell remains neither a simple story nor without surprise, but it is true, at least to all that I recall." The same may be said for Mailer's tact in writing the story. Unlike page bombs like "Harlot's Ghost "or "Oswald's Tale", both of whose considerable merits are had after long, sluggish pages , "Gospel"is brief, a succinct 242 pages, with language that's spare and almost miserly in the use of verb and adjective.

The minimalism succeeds , as it gives the narrating Messiah a credible voice, and underscores a genius that's little discussed even by Mailer's defenders, his mastery of first person singular. As in other novels, specifically in the characters of Rojack in the heady "An American Dream", or, closer to the new book, Marilyn Monroe in the guise of her private diary "Of Women and their Elegance, *we have a character whose voice is divided against itself. One, there's the aspect of a young and skilled carpenter coming to knowledge that he is the Messiah and touched with duty that's beyond himself, but there's the human trait as well that and dreads, not wholly sure of the mission.

This Jesus at times occasions doubts of the reasons and effectiveness of his instructions, wonders often if God's voice might actually that of Satan's speaking too sweetly in his ear, or if he really is a madman as some call him. We are even introduced to the notion of that God Himself is not all powerful as the gospels exclaimed, but finite, as Jesus feels depleted of His power after days of performing miracles in the Temples. Credibly, there is even doubt from the weary Jesus about the wisdom of dispensing miracles at all, as the razzle - dazzle of Christ as serial healer proves a growing distraction from the teachings. Humans remain humans and concern themselves more with material comfort instead of the care of their souls, and our Jesus finds himself loathing the whole activity .This dualism is easier discussed as theological precept than it is conveyed as motivating literary action, but Mailer controls his pen with a sure hand. The spare and exacting cadences of the narrator's tone is matter-of-fact and achieves a kind of lean poetry. Both the glory of God in Heaven, and the dry, brittle facts of an earthly plain are addressed as facts of equal consequence. Because Mailer's intention is literary instead of heretical, we have a believable past that is convincingly made of hard soil upon which miracles are being dispensed.

The character of Judas is brought out splendidly in a crucial dialogue between himself and the reticent Savior. An anti -Roman agitator desiring the liberation of the Jews, Judas announces that he does not believe that Jesus can lead any people through the gates of Heaven, and that he follows Jesus solely for the political potential to galvanize a movement to toss off the Roman yoke and force them from their land. He declares he will be loyal only so long as Jesus embodies that potential . In turn, Christ responds to Judas' entreaties that he can only tend to the spiritual needs of his people, charged by his Father to bring Man back to the practice of a living faith. The opposing declarations set into motion the mechanism of an inevitable betrayal by Judas that will ironically fulfill Jesus' divine and quixotic purpose on earth.

It is written in the gospels, and repeated in Mailer's novel, that God so loved the world that He gave his only son for it's redemption. The fleeting, spectral essence of love has been a major subject of Mailer's other fiction, especially in how obsessive quests for getting and giving love become wrapped, distorted and demolished in struggles for power and influence. Mailer has investigated how these rudely combined energies result in self-made disasters through which his past heroes and heroine - -Rojack in "American Dream", Tim Madden in "Tough Guys Don't Dance" ,and yes, Marilyn in "Of Women and Their Elegance" need to trust the expanded authority of their senses and earn for themselves a personal philosophy they can live with and, presumably, die for.

"The Gospel According to the Son" brings this wide current in Mailer's novels to the forefront and enlarges it vividly, and ironically, in the briefest book he's written in years. This book, finally, is about the hardest love of all, a quality of love that forces anyone to consider again if they have any capacity to be Christ -like. Mailer's superb telling of the story convinces that there's nothing heavenly in being in the slightest way divine.

Friday, April 7, 2006


I was saddened to hear about the passing of singer Gene Pitney, dead of "natural causes" the day after he'd given a concert in Cardiff. Fittingly, he received a standing ovation, and this comes with the old saw that he "died with his boots on." Timing is everything, I realize, and it's a kind thing that God in His wisdom allowed Pitney to finish the performance; better to leave an audience stunned with news of an unexpected death than traumatized with a witness to a singer's last tortured high notes.
Tortured high notes were precisely what Pitney's music were about, observable in the operatic, compressed, grandiose and florid teen angst songs he sang with a voice that could start out low, smooth, slightly scratchy with restraint, and then in the sudden turn in tempo and a light flourish of horns or sweeping , storm-bringing violins, slide up the banister to the next landing and again defy gravity to the yet the next level as he his voice climbed in register, piercing the heart with melodrama and perfect pitch as the most banal love stories became the raging of simultaneous tempests. It was corny on the face of it, but Pitney had the voice and he had the songs to pull it off and make records that still have that stirring hard hitting effect; "Town Without Pity", "It Hurts To Be In Love", "Twenty Four Hours to Tulsa", "I'm Gonna Be Strong", and an substantial string of other hits he had ( 16 top twenty hits between 1961 through 1968) took the tear jerker to the next level. As mentioned by someone the other day in the British press commemorating his music, his tunes weren't love songs, they were suicide notes. Pitney's multi-octave sobbing qualified as Johnny Ray turning into the Hulk wherein the sadder he was made,
the stronger his voice became. All this was enough for me to buy his records in the early Sixties when I was just making my way to developing my own tastes in musicians and their sounds.
Most of the early stuff I liked--The Four Seasons, Peter Paul and Mary--I dismiss as charming indulgences of a young boy who hadn't yet become a snob, but Pitney? I kept a soft spot for his recordings in my heart, and defended him in recent years when those verbal battles about musical tastes found his name impugned in my presence. The Prince of Perfect Pitch deserves respect for turning the roiling moodiness of teenage love into
sublime expressions of virtuoso emotionalism.

Wednesday, April 5, 2006

The Unfortunates by Cates Marvin

"The Unfortunates" by poet Cates Marvin, is a sad tale of sensitive people who are overwhelmed by life's cruel tricks to make them feel bad and keep them awake at nights contemplating what is horrible, ugly and unfortunate in the cities they live in. It is not to my liking , mostly because the poet, Cates Marvin, tries to find some equal ground between herself (and those she presumes to speak for) and the homeless she espies who's misery gives her the jitters and attending guilt feelings, to which I say no dice. These steamy, cold streets are the mean ones better writers than Marvin, or myself have walked down before, and they've managed to absorb the seaminess and squalor of their life and, depressed or no, didn't obsess on their frayed nerves. Their anxiety wasn't the subject matter, but an entree to another topic. Marvin sticks with the frayed nerves, and that makes the poem a chore to read even once.It's a straining, over stocked equation; after spending the first stanza presenting the pathetic detailing the doings of the sad creatures he pities in ways that make them sound exotic, alien and strange, the second stanza smacks us across the face with slippery buckets of self-reflection in which Marvin, or the poet's stand in, waxes and whines on how this saps the vitality, makes the soul sink, and essentially turns sleep into a rehearsal for death:

Those hours we haggle,
wondering when the sincerity of sky's blue
will arrive, how come nobody's bothered to
repair the loose latch on the front gate, and
what kinds of eyes melancholy lovers have.

There is enough baloney here to make a hundred Salvation Army sandwiches. And for his sleep, one wonders why she doesn't buy ear plugs and a new mattress.Fragile poets are nothing new to verse and one ought not condemn them outright for their confessions of bad serves and upset equilibriums, but Marvin is neither Eliot nor Plath nor John Berryman , all three of whom could do more with their depressed witness to harsh facts and resulting sets of despair with remarkable self-reflection; the result was an honest poetry of personal exploration, and none of them, I recall, used the facts of poverty or squalor as a pretext to wallow in the kind of makeshift misery Marvin has concocted. It helps us to remember that Samuel Beckett's plays, novels and poems were about those situations that have sapped us of our will to live creatively and makes a continued life of drudgery unthinkable to bear and yet we do, getting up each day to face the same repetitious humiliations not from any courage to stay the course but because, more plainly, less gloriously, much more banally we cannot think of anything more interesting to do with our days. From this Beckett gives us great comedy and creates a language of men that is more animal instinct than discourse; he digs within the sour mood of dread and drudgery and reveals sentences as loud and fragmented and repeated at odd intervals to kill what small spark of truth still rests in us, dormant. Beckett , unlike Marvin, reveals nothing other than antics and absurdity, the rituals and recititations of
characters keeping themselves distracted against a yawning chasm. Marvin can't stop talking about it and her feelings, and this quality, this yakkity yak she provides us does nothing to make you care or make you stay interested in the struggle.

The heavy intent of subject matter makes her lines lead-footed, with some comically awful alliteration.",,malice moves like mice.." is noteworthy not for evoking states of depression and ennui, but rather of old cartoons where the mice come out their hiding places after the lights are out and throw one hell of a party). It's not a good fit at all, and somehow I'm dubious to Marvin's intent with the poem. The message is less about economic injustice than it is Marvin's feelings of powerlessness, which is fine in itself, but powerlessness per se should not result in this kind of static, powerless writing.

Monday, April 3, 2006

Philip Levine's Free Radicals

It would be one thing for Philip Levine to write a comic narrative about his college days and his hanging with nominally radical friends and eccentric cohorts, but you think the novel or the short story is the superior form for what he's trying to do here. His poem,"Our Reds", gets nothing is done that is worth mulling over longer than it takes to send email. This reads like notes and character sketches for longer work where the real writing takes place.

Let us bless the three wild Reds
of our school days. Bless how easily
Gaunt Vallejo would lose control,
the blood rushing to his depleted face
while his mistress in a torn trench coat
stroked his padded shoulders to calm him.
We'll call him Vallejo after the poet
only because he vaulted into speech
in such a headlong rush. (In truth
his name was Slovakian.) We'll call
her Lupino after the film star
because she was more beautiful
in memory than in fact, her cheeks
drawn over fine bones, her hair
tumbling down from under the beret,
hair we loved and called "dirty blond."

This is a not a poem, but a pitch for a movie script that hasn't been written yet; you can nearly hear the index cards sliding one over the other.   

Levine should have rethought his premise--a group of friends bored to death during a college lecture--and may be conceived this as a dialog piece, the sort that William Gaddis would have done in his novel JR, or Elmore Leonard in any one of his choice Detroit crime novels. Fellow Detroiter Levine has the material here, and I could imagine the absurdist four-way dialog between the exasperated professor and precocious radical undergraduates in a cavernous lecture hall on the Wayne State Campus; it needn't be along piece, requiring an ear tuned for human speech, and an eye for the spare, telling detail.

The poem fails because it strives to be a condensed and potent summary, fast and punch like vivid recollection itself, but it winds up being merely crammed. This is too many items for a suitcase this size, an imbalance that negates the intended pleasure this reading was meant to induce. Rushed is the word I would use where others might say "breathless"; Levine's writing here sounds like he's rattling off a schedule of things he wants a receptionist to get done while he's hurrying out of his office, one arm in a coat sleeve. It would seem he was trying his hand at an Albert Goldbarth ramble and rant, without the crucial talent to keep the string interesting to the reader; in Goldbarth's poetry, it is the process and commentary that is the point, not the final argument. Many poets try their hand at this style, and very few are anywhere as interesting as he is. Levine isn't one of them, not in this instance.

It's a sure bet that Levine meant the lecture sequence to be comic, bad as it came off, and the sudden sentimentality in the last stanza is abrupt and unprovoked. The mock-blessing of the names, their deeds, and their personalities as they separated and cast their fates to the wind seems nothing more than a disguised exit sign over a door leading you out of a poem that doesn't work from the first sentence. Ken Kesey has a great short story called "The Day Superman Died", a fictional recreation of his friendship with Jack Cassidy. It's an incredible story, funny, sharp, bouncing with lively writing, spirited conversation and engaging weirdness when, at the end of the story, Kesey goes soft and drifts into a long coda that invokes the names of fifties writers and artists and comes as nothing more than a sorry, nostalgic cry for a return to innocence. Innocence cannot be regained, of course, and is a permanently rich subject for writers to wrestle with, but not at the expense of crucifying their good art for the sake of cheap sob over a brooding beer.

Would that Levine brought Aristotle into play in the poem. Hard to do, yes, but not impossible. Levine's problem is that he tells more than he shows, and the telling isn't that interesting. It has the vague nagging of a droning voice at the end of phone conversation you don't want to have. Mention of philosophical forbearers here--Aristotle, Hegel, et al--are window dressing. Subtle manipulation of their ideas through movement might have made this compelling, but the references just sit there. Like unread books, or unused barbells. The comic element is here, and of course one can make a case that the poem lampoons, or tries to lampoon each generation of would-be radicals and avant-gardists, but the success for this kind of work is in the delivery. Timing is everything, and timing acknowledges and makes use the skewed rhythms of human speech, especially speech that's improvised when there is a disruption the normal give- and- take of comfortable, banal banter. It's Levine's voice that does this piece in for me; his narrator is mirthless and does not seem to understand pacing or a punch line's religious reward if done right. He's not Woody Allen.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

V for Vacant

V for Vendetta is being touted as a radical vision of not-inconceivable future, but what we get is an admittedly handsome mixture of 1984 and Zorro, where we witness a caped revolutionary in a steel Guy Fawkes mask slice, dice, pummel and commit demolition crimes against a fascistic British government. The problem is that V has characteristics of both and none of the virtues. The principal problem is the expressionless mask that V (Hugo Weaving) wears throughout the film; better if the character hung back in the shadows in the otherwise agreeable comic noir atmosphere, where the darkness might have lent him some mystery and a suggestion of character. In the plain light, he is impossible to relate to, and you just wish he would be quiet with his nattering puns, vacant alliteration and arch speeches.We are given some hints that V is a survivor of government viral warfare experiments gone horribly wrong, but so much of that is tossed off as back story premise setting constructed ham handily , from a obligation rather than sheer narrative zeal. You don't feel V's searing rage, and for all the speeches made back and forth about security, terrorism and revolutionary impulse, you cannot escape the desire for everyone to get on with it; blow something up, please. Natalie Portman is amazing in this otherwise talky, inconsistently motivated adventure--she manages to read the prolix Wachowski Brothers script (adapted from Alan Moore's graphic novel) with impressive conviction; you await her to do great things with great scripts that have yet to come her way.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Match Point , directed by Woody Allen

I happened to get a look at Woody Allen's recent and much praised film Match Point and thought it quite a bit a less than what it was supposed to be. It's at tale of conniving treachery and bad faith, along the lines of Allen's masterfully layered Crimes and Misdemeanors, although this new one is sparser, less resonant. Without giving out too much information, it deals with the doings of an emerging British tennis super star(Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who quits the game in order to become a tennis pro at a London health spa; with his good looks and surface charm, he soons finds his way into the good graces of a rich industrialist's family and becomes engaged to his daughter while nearly simultaneously having an affair with a brash American actress(Scralett Johannson). A note here, shorter than it ought to be, is that the actors and their performances are generally superb, but this is more a tribute to their professionalism than any great dialogue or gestural moments provdided by Allen's script. Always a determinist more interested in revealing the baser instincts that continually triumpth over protests of virtues, Allen's world view sometimes hits dead spots, and depth of character here isn't
this film's strongest asset. They are clusters of tics and twitches and flat affect,
and when emotions do come to a pitch, it sounds more like whining, Woody Allen kvetching with upperclass London accents.

The convolutions our tennis playing protagonist goes through in order to preserve both his houses gets mildly comic, and leads to an unavoidable tragic complication by the film's end, and it plays well once the final nuances are served, but I never got beyond the filling that I was waiting through a shaggy dog story waiting for the punchline to arrive, with or without laughs.

Here, you mutter "oh wow", admire director and writer Allen for the efficiency of his work and marvel at the care with which he shot London, after which the film leaves you with virtually no memorable scenes. It is dry as kindling, and very much a formal excercise. It has the efficiency of a well run bus line, but you wonder if this kind of movie Woody Allen is destined to make from this day forward.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Read "Ask The Dust"

The film version of John Fante's classic Los Angeles novel Ask the Dust is due to be released in the next week, and my advice for anyone interested in the story line is to buy the novel and read the book prior to seeing the film. The film version bodes well, despite the presence of the egregious rude boy Colin Farrell in the role of Arturo Bandini, the young , self-absorbed writer who is appealingly complex in his crazed vacillations between global egomania and desperate self-loathing. Robert Towne, the writer behind Roman Polanski's glorious Chinatown, writes and directs this effort, and has demonstrated an ability to convey LA in the thirties. But in the event that the movie is a stinker, you should arm yourself by reading Fante's novel; hard boiled, lyric, skewed and comic, this is a coming of age story that takes believable twists and turns. The story is of a very human scale, and the seeming bipolar rages of young Arturo are moving and nuanced. He is a very flawed and complex character, and he stands as a significant creation the canon of American literature. Everyone who cares about a good story and great writing should experience Bandini on the page, lest the film version arrive flat line and motionless.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Kerouac is a Dead Beat

It was during a bloody argument about merits of Jack Kerouac's writing when the woman I was arguing with,a twentyfive year old who planned to be a penniless , winedrinking mooch like her hero Jack told me
You know Ted, your very extreme opinion of him stinks of jealousy.

I have no reason to be jealous of a man who drank himself to death before the age of fifty while living with his mother. It is impossible to be jealous of a man who wrote so poorly. The truth is that after spending nearly
twenty years trying to accommodate Kerouac's work with by reading many of his books and a good many biographies and secondary sources about he and his fellow beats, I admitted to my innermost self that my gut instinct was right, Jack wasn't a good writer and that his continued popularity has more to do with a cultist hype that surrounds the work and persona of Ayn Rand; there's an invested interest in making sure that the author is always spoken of in the most regaling terms.

Others like me, cursed with literature degrees, broad readings and an appreciation of craft in the service of real inspiration, regale him far less, finding his writings charmless, undercooked, ill-prepared, all sizzle and no steak. Those willing to say that Kerouac's oeuvre was wholesale bullshit are in the minority,
as the Jack Kerouac Industry shows no sign of slowing down. Every smoke stack is fired up, and what might have been clear skies are blackened
all the more with his loopy circumlocutions.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Crouch Mummifies Coltrane and Davis

Image result for notes of a hanging judgeI came across Stanley Crouch's ten or so years ago when his collection of essays "Notes of a Hanging Judge" came out, and thought he had a wonderful fluidity as a writer. It was something else to see him link a number of subjects together and to extol the virtues of sustaining a black intellectual class, but what I enjoyed was his bomb throwing. He wasn't shy at attacking thug-rap, and certainly not reticent to announce that he thought the caliber of work being done by Cornell West or Henry Louis Gates was the least amount of scholarship for the highest paycheck. Crouch, though, is not Adorno, and soon enough his outrage becomes boilerplate nay saying. You know his remarks on a given subject before he even opens his mouth, and this article on Coltrane is typical of his column work; advance praise for early work, decry the waste, and grumble in depressed terms that the race is going to hell in a handbag because it walks away from its best cultural habits and traditions. Lately, America’s favorite conservative black bomb-thrower has been writing about jazz for Slate, most recently tucking John Coltrane and Miles Davis under his values-pronged umbrella. The problem with assessing Coltrane's career is the fact of his early death; pressed for time, he experimented relentlessly and furiously with his material, attacking it in performance from differing angles. The amount of studio work his band released during his brief life is astounding, and daunting to the novitiate. All told, the saxophonist's headlong dive into freer structures, more open-ended improvisations, more atonal and intense harmonics, would seem natural, and inevitable investigation for a man he was likely aware that he was playing music on borrowed time. It's a mistake to consider this late experimentation as a jump into the "abyss" since Crouch uses it as a way to close his discussion and wax poetic on the days when JC could swing like the rest of them.

I like a good amount of the late work and regard something like A Love Supreme to be on the greatest jazz pieces ever set to tape; it's an emotional blow out that no one has equaled since, and I've no problem placing this with other 20th century music, from Ives through Berg through Zappa and Cage, where stridency was a virtue and another kind of pleasure. So now we ask ourselves the questions we pose as well when considering Parker or Hendrix; what would the musicians have come up with if they'd lived ten or twenty years longer? There's never a satisfying answer, although it would seem to me that Coltrane would have reined in the screams and the skronk and concentrated on composition, finding still newer ways to expand beyond bebop's formalist rigour. My last guess would be that one would have to consider him, had he lived, to have grown beyond the comfortable limits of jazz as a definition and blazed a trail that would lead to a different kind of international music. My principle beef with Crouch is that he speaks of Coltrane's experimentation with free jazz structures and atonality as a total tragedy, and puts the period right there as if his "outside" work were a final, irreversible ruination and doom. I don't suppose I should be surprised at such a confidently Spenglarian view from the Bill Bennett of jazz, but it is goading that he sees the final work as an end, not wondering at all what might have evolved from all this restless experimentation. I think Coltrane would have merged with other musical cultures and gone on to create a new, international musical language. As such, I cherish all of 'Trane's phases and wonder how he might have added to an already crowded legacy of genius.

Crouch's approach to black history and culture has been to invest much of the same narrow argument in the way he talks about black artists--writers, musicians, composers, actors, educators. Like Wynton Marsalis, he will insist that the best of the culture contains the living example of virtues younger generations of blacks can learn from and are at risk of losing sight of. Needless to say, he is not a fan of hip-hop culture nor much else that post-50’s black musicians have done. He and Bennett are monotonous explicators on art and culture; neither seem as though they derive much pleasure from the things they write about, though one may observe that Crouch enjoys eating and Bennett is not above a gentlemanly bet, or many of them, as the moment moves him, Crouch obviously prefers music from an older, done daily, and that's fine, but that is a matter of taste, which he will bring forth as moral righteousness. He will tailor his discussions of Coltrane, Ellington, and Billie Holiday with generous hypotheses as to how the spirit of their work is a high essence of human virtue from which audiences and generations to come can learn civics lessons from. Crouch hangs back on the religiosity, but his agenda is clearly to form an African American canon that adheres to a culturally and politically conservative line, just as Bennett seeks to counteract and remedy, as he sees it, the preponderance of left-tilted discourses that view literature as a form of progressive social criticism. Lost on both of them is the beauty of art; they do not address the core issue as to why we make or are attracted to art; it makes us feel good. 

It's more a matter of a tendency that Crouch shares with Bennett, attempting to demonstrate what is creative, brilliant and influential in black American culture (in itself a worthwhile mission) and using this as evidence of morally conservative, "values-based" tradition that has always been there. It is, of course, foolish to hypothesize that there's a monolithic political consensus among black Americans and that they are no less diverse in views and experience than any other population group, but Crouch's agenda insists that who he writes about be treated as moral philosophers, and not artists, a habit that overlooks far too much. This is the reductionist tendency Crouch shares with Bennett.

I'm less inclined to expect a commentator to be expert in both older and newer forms, only that they are genuinely interested in developments, find something interesting to talk about, and find a convincing, hopefully, compelling way to link past and present trends. Crouch does not do this, by Eric Michael Dyson does rather brilliantly, even though he does tend to accelerate his way through his reference points--bebop, postmodern indeterminacy, hip-hip self-definition, outsider traditions--at speeds that hinder ready comprehension. Robert Christgau finds something to talk about with each new form that comes at him. The task of the critic is one that requires a personality that refuses to stay stuck in a particular area of expertise and regards their knowledge and assertions as views under constant construction. I could do without Christgau's star system and would prefer if he wrote more extended essays, but at least it is an attempt to keep abreast of the bands and artist that come his way. I even borrowed (read stole) the method when I had a record review column in my college paper; it was an efficient way of disposing of ten albums in a single piece, sending off tear-sheets to record promoters so they'd have something to show their higher-ups, and so continue my flow of albums. 

Of course, I sold the albums for beer and burger money, and there's not a record reviewer who was working then or now that doesn't do something similar with their excess swag. What I like about him is that he's been writing reviews since the late sixties for this magazine or that, and wasn't afraid to poke around, investigate and examine the margins of pop and rock music. As is, his discussions are more cogent and, dare I say, perceptive than those of his fellow Pantheon critic Greil Marcus, who approaches music not as humanly formed aesthetic expressions that any number of interested listeners may approach and discuss in useful ways, but rather as sacred texts, scrolls written in a dead language that only he can extract articulate wisdom from. For all his hermeneutic maneuvering, however, Marcus is himself barely coherent, and one is left with such books as "Lipstick Traces", a purported secret history of the 20th century where the efforts of Elvis Presley, Guy Debord, The Sex Pistols, Walter Benjamin and Cabaret Voltaire are all discussed in long born pauses and rolling cadences. Some of the writing Marcus does is beautiful as prose, but the point one awaits is not delivered. Christgau at least makes good on any thesis he advances by at least coming to a point, which makes his kind of wide referenced tastes an interesting methodology. 

I can't fault Stanley Crouch for his assessment of Miles Davis's style and accomplishments during the fifties and early sixties, but this critic rather conveniently avoids the reason for the trumpeter's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which was the generation-spanning innovation, experimentation and refusal to look back, all of which influenced music outside and beyond the tidy definitions of jazz Crouch prefers. It's ironic that Crouch continues to write eulogies for great jazz musicians, giving eloquent voice to what he finds beautiful, holding in reserve the boilerplate regret that his artist of the week didn't remain faithful to a perceived moment of true voice. Crouch likes to write as if these artists have personally betrayed him, by either taking on new avenues or dying too young, and this allows him to live in a long-ago country of old men.

Obviously, he sees history as a series of self-contained compartments, each separate from one another with no fluidity between eras, no cross-fertilization of ideas between generations. While Crouch is obsessed with the days when black artists were emerging from the margins and appearing as matinee idols as well as dignified artists, what Miles Davis continued and improved on wasn't the legacy of Charlie Parker nor Clifford Brown, but rather of Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone, mixing and matching differing cultural approaches to electronics and coming up with sounds that hadn't yet graced the bandstand. Stance and persona matter less than Crouch gives it credit for; music accomplishment is everything, and the directions Davis made music at large, and not just jazz, turn to is a greater legacy than the nostalgically waxed moments Crouch will put forth.

Tuesday, March 7, 2006

A poem by Sharon Olds

The first thing to be said about this week's poem concerns the recording of poet Sharon Olds reading her poem, "The Worker", currently posted on Slate. The sound quality, as usual, is sexless, nasal, a suffocating voice with nostrils plugged up invoking verse from behind a cellar door, but there is something more this time, a listless spirit of languor and defeat, as Olds reads the lines , the succeeding details without a hint or pretense of inflection.

The writing, to be sure, wants to get the feeling at being at a psychic remove while one watches a parent processed and disposed of in death, yet Olds makes us feeling nothing at all, there is no drama in her reading, no momentum, just a list without a lilt.That is because the poem is in essence a run on sentence, and the lack of emphasis or portent is conspicuous by its absence. Even in reading the poem several times I don't know what it was Olds was trying to get at. The problem with writing poems that lack stanzas is that unless one creates an image or a flurry of lyric combinations that underscore a narrative point, as shifts in tempo and harmonic structure would in a musical piece, one is more or less stuck with someone who is in a state of shock, verbalizing each unassimilated instance in a grueling circumstance. This claustrophobic, clustered, a sense of out of body experience in all, but given the fairly flat,almost clinical language Olds proffers, her writing would have benefited from the breathing space stanzas provide, hence making the poem more in line with a black out experience--one surreal barrage following, unconnected, from the other--that this line of boxcars racing down the mountain side:

Nothing had been burned with my mother,
even the tiny, blue snowflakes
of her cotton hospital gown the floor-nurse took
back, and kept.

The rows of tongues of
flame inside the mortuary
incinerator were given bone,
flesh, blood, wedding ring
and hair.

Suddenly I'm glad I do not
have that job mother after
mother after father after
father, a child, baby, to scrape
out of the firebox into the urethane

I always forget the worker,
the one instead of me who picked that
dewy, rigid corpse up,
and slid it in the body-sack and zipped it to;
the one who lifted it out of the bag
and put it in its tray on the conveyor belt;
the one who pushed the button to move her
into the enclosure; the one who flipped the
switch to fire the jets.

For a moment,
I almost see it, my mother's body
made of a feeding frenzy of fire,
and then the scraper scrapes her—and a few
ashes of the one before, and a grain
of the one before that, and the one before that—
into the box, and the secretary
labels it, and puts it in the ball-bearing
file drawer, by her desk, and the little
carton of my mom abides, the office
calendar page of April is torn,
May, June, July, August,
out she rolls,

I do my amateur
teamster featherbedding, the minister
does his work of magic respect,
taking the heat of the eternal
for the rest of us whose
fingertips and nails break into the
harsh, purplish, Molokai sand
and convey a handful out over the rail and
give her to the wind and sea,
roughage for the fishes' work of
seeding the deep,

we give her to the
hard-laboring moon, we give her
leave, and permanent furlough.

The white space gives you pause to refresh yourself and perhaps constructing a cadence which would give these flatline phrases rhythmic verve. Even with the suggested director's seat, Olds veers wildly between many items: flames, paperwork,
consuming jet flames. This is a three year old with an 8mm camera.The key problem is that the poem has a warmed over feeling to it,like stale toast one tries to revivify in the microwave, as if this were the work of the Professional Poet who needed to compose something to keep their hand in the game and dredged up an overworked subject they most likely have had better success with in earlier years, in earlier books. This reads less as a poem and more as a journal entry or a post on any one of the millions of lonely blogs someone puts up in a spate of enthusiasm only to abandon after a few posts.

The internet is filled with billions of ghost home pages and blog offerings, and filled as well with billions of chapbooks and thin poetry collections filled with strained and pale expressions of real sorrow or joy; there is no compelling reason to return to them exactly because they are banal. A writer as well known and potentially potent as Sharon Olds ought to be able to make us care about this cremation, or relate to the detachment with stronger, more ironic language. This is a sad note to oneself or one's therapist, unleavened by art, which is a shame, since art is that quality that makes us care about whatever the poet might be trying to come to terms with.There remains the obligation to make this compelling to the reader; there is an argument to be made, there is a conversation to be started with writing, there is something to be given the reader who leaves the page with something they hadn't when they began to read.

Wednesday, March 1, 2006

The Triumph of Simulacra: The Real World Turns 17

The Real World, MTV's pioneer reality show wherein, season after season, a half dozen or so young people fulfilling various stereotypes--the poet, the slut, the gay guy, the sensible minority member, the capitalist, the alkie--are given plush digs for six months, financial stipends, and are filmed as they flail about
in multi-tasking demonstrations of self-seeking, enters it's seventeenth season this year , and all I can think about is the seemingly irreversible atrophy of our collective common sense and good will. Barnum famously (and perhaps allegedly) remarked that no one lost money underestimating the intelligence of the American people, and by extension MTV hasn't lost a dime producing The Real World. It was a neat trick with their variation, which was pawning stupid teens and young adults as objects of entertainment, and it's even a neater trick that they've been able to sell their demographic the same sack of crap for seventeen years. The conceit with the show is that audience derives the simple and pure sense of superiority over a house full of stereotypically shallow, vain,
whining and rudderless gatherings of unmotivated youth, a tawdry distinction that enables them to watch the episodic disasters with a smug remove. This
underscores the audience's willingness to settle for less and accept fathomless half hours of moping and doping as entertainment, some even going to the extent of discussing the events as if the ongoing seasons of selfish bad faith are instructive of some higher point. It's the willfully dumb watching the willfully numb, and it's the kind of convoluted narcissism, that view of the very familiar, that brings audiences back again and again and allows MTV to sell back a downgraded version of their lives at top dollar.