Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Two act comedy

It's a scene any introspective sort will recognize or feel empathy for; one is alone in a cold, dark room, staring out of the window, gazing at the stares and the spectral clouds passing over the face of full yellow moon, contemplating what there is beyond this existence. Is there something one goes to and finds an ironic eternity tailored by one's decided deeds on earth, or is there only dust, silence, a blank slate of non-being? This isn't comedy for self-infatuation by default, but exactly the kind of exercise the mind plays at when there isn't the opportunity to engage with the world beyond one's own skin, and it's not uncommon to wonder, once one is done with the cerebral gymnastics to sort through their obsessions, loves and losses, to finally ask the variations on The Question: when does this all end? What will I say if there is someone /something waiting for me? What legacy will I leave? What will the consequences of what chose
to do and refused to do?

One wonders, one pauses to refresh themselves, one ponders, one writes a poem , one dreads, one begins a hundred different projects for fear of wasting what time remains on the Big Stop Watch.Thanatos brought to the personal level, where it hangs alongside the day's activities at work, lovemaking, paying bills, visiting museums and playing with grandchildren, is that chill one cannot shake from the bones. It is a tone in one's voice that one cannot rid themselves, it is a low grade depression that lingers no matter how hard we laugh. Death doesn't so much stalk us as it waits,in an inside coat pocket as an envelope we cannot open , containing the expiration date of our lives. The sum of many a man and woman's life has been how well or how badly they've adapted to the knowledge of the inevitable deletion of their life force; literature, in it's limitless styles, rationales, intentions, aesthetic rules and origins, chronicles to greater and less greater degrees how well one lives with the sour taste of their own death forever under the savoring of each bite of food and drink.

Death's Doorman by David Bosch, turns this theme into a two voice theater piece, and it works, surprisingly enough, for such a gimmick-tending conceit. I well imagine the introspective sort I described earlier in the bathroom, late at night (although a sunny mid afternoon would do just as well) staring
at the mirror , envisioning all sorts of after life scenarios, asking every question , poetic or merely dumb, that he or she can muster, trying to arm themselves with a knowledge where an unavoidable fate can be made
tolerable. It's as if the interlocutor is trying to reserve the best seat on the last plane out of Hicksville. What returns , we see, are one word answers, like echos coming from a long , deep cavern, warbling refractions of what he or she had just asked, the keywords distorted and changed.

Would this be ambience, or atmosphere?

I hadn't expected such an emptiness!
An empty nest.

Do you open up before or after a good pandering?

Book, Web site, infomercial. Edginess must be catching.

So let me be the first to congratulate—
Too late.

What is it people seek in your utterances?
Other answers.

You knew Mozart. Before he decomposed—
He composed.

And Freud was your plumber. Conscious or unconscious?
Kein Anschluss.

But have you ever crossed over? You know, necrophilia?

This becomes a brief and bitter comedy, and is something Samuel Beckett would have written as one one of his radio plays, the usual scenario of a character frozen in habit or ritual , redundantly trying to revive some earlier sense of coherence from situations or things. Bosch's second voice offers no inside information, provides no clues, but rather deflects the inquiries with accidental puns. This is a piece that doesn't so much ends as it does stops , cold. It's seems that this inquiry could go on indefinitely, right to the grave, as the
peculiar narcissistic loop provides just enough variation in the malformed responses, the echos, that one can proceed with it forever as if they were indeed closer to a Big Secret. Bosch is wise to leave the scene when he does, leaving us with a funny , if minor dramaturgy . One can, of course, seize upon any of the questions and their responses and find layers of implication and hence unearth every deferred meaning, but I think that's part of what makes the poem work so well. Bosch plays on the human brain's insistence on making utterances contain more than surface references, and it is a nice trick he's pulled. The character, the interlocutor , is trapped in infinite regress with his questions, and the reader, as well, might be compelled to parse each pun and skewed return. This might ,then, be a comedy with two acts performed simultaneously.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Flaneur trips over his show laces

Yet another poem about poetry, a category Slate poetry editor Robert Pinsky shows a personal powerlessness to leave alone. And once again the self-reflective twitch proves to be an ideal way to fill a page, a monitor, a notebook with a series of eccentric line breaks. In this instance, Campbell McGrath's"Lincoln Road" offers a twist and merely uses the meta poetry index as a means to jump start a verse:

Browsing, before dinner, at Books & Books,
checking out the new poems
in the new journals, the vast glass panes thrust against
by shoppers and gawkers on Lincoln Road
emit a particular cautionary hum
as they insist upon delimiting inside from out,
tongued and grimed by the fingerless
gloves of the homeless,...

Irritation is the mood here, a man of ideas focused on the latest missives from the competition, seeking either pleasure or taking notes on what
the hot first lines are, when the bustle and commotion of the rude public interrupts him. Damn, I hear him think, now I have to slip into my flaneur costume and observe the cursed details of things in the city and the population who negotiate the hard corners of sales counters and intersections! Damn it all! The descriptions, following suit, are fussy, crabby,too full of small digs and dimunitions of character to seem at spontaneous. There isn't, of course, any further mentioning nor obvious dwelling on the entwined poetry or being a poet, but the tone and pace of the poem, the leaden use of "literary" words to describe banal
circumstances, bespeaks a boredom. This doesn't have the virtue of the boredom become genuine ennui, a variant of despair, a quality that at least might inspire sharper language that bypasses the rote literacy of McGrath's ode to his
prowess as an observer.

...the splash
of modest fountains
in common space, a baby
in green hip-harness
staring back at me goggle-eyed, recording it all
like the tourists with digital camcorders
pre-editing their memories
and the ringing of cellphones broadcasting
a panegyric of need
with whichever hooks and trembles
we have chosen in the darkness to answer.

The problem is tone, of course, and none of this convinces me that what was described was actually seen . Suspension of disbelief comes into play here, since this particular list attempts to get across what was observed in a hurry, while browsing, on the fly, it needs to suggest something fast, mercurial.

You'd think, really, that this sort of matter should catch the rhythm of things that are fleeting, and are fluid. The people, places and things should be made to seem that they have lives or conditions of existence apart from the frame Campbell places around them.The effect in the poem, though, is static, like butterflies ethered and pinned some eccentric's collection. There is a surface beauty to the poem, but all these people, those who've interrupted our narrator's browsing, are stick figures all. Campbell's descriptions are worked over, padded with overly precise detail that sounds mechanical, unnatural. Attitude as well ruins the mood, with the asides about tourists with their cell phones and cameras seeking an unnatural process of memory preservation belonging more in a reckless, full tilt rant rather than a poem that at best would claim to be a skillfully rendered sketch. We have a here a poem that at the least offensive sounds like lines that have been saved and taken out of a drawer.It satisfies as nothing at all, and the material is so dry that these lines could be used as kindling.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Bob Seger v Bruce Springsteen

Why Bob Seger isn't as highly praised as Springsteen is worth asking, and it comes down to something as shallow as Springsteen being the cuter of the two. In areas where we all say it counts--talent--Seger has it over Springsteen by considerable margins; he's a far better singer (one of the most underrated in rock-and-roll), and he's a superior songwriter. It's not as if Seger hasn't had his dalliances with fads and pretentiousness because I have enough old Seger albums to testify that his worst music is as misguided as the grimmest rock music ever released. But he's been a trouper, a constant tour-dog, a tireless professional and eternal journeyman who has always added more tricks and licks to his repertoire. The longer he played, the better his singing and songwriting chops became. Springsteen isn't a phony by any standard, and there's something likable about the man, although I think his music is so much less than rock critics find it. 

His lyrics are occasionally an interesting stew of impressions that are more muddle than the atmosphere, or even mood. For all his musical fanfare, for all his verbosity and blaring dynamics, Springsteen has always seemed like someone who was at the brink of saying something memorable, only to choke. Seger, in mid-career, dropped any ambition he had to become the next Dylan and Beatles and developed a lyric style as natural and sweetly clear-eyed as anything Chuck Berry himself could have worked out. Seger continued to suffer from lapses of taste and inspiration--remember that he never transcended his journeyman status--and produced some albums where he was witlessly trying to rewrite "Night Moves" over and over, proving nothing other than extended bouts of introspection didn't serve Seger well at all as a songwriter. It's not unfair to say that even with his aggravatingly erratic output, the best of Seger's work in a spotty career surpasses Springsteen's consistently middle-brow musings.
Seger did write "Hollywood Nights" in what sounds like a deliberate attempt to write in Springsteen's drive-all-night style, and it displays Seger's fatal flaw of trying to write in a voice besides his own. It sounds like The Boss and likewise sounds crammed with so much pop-culture mythos it winds up being mush-mouthed like Springsteen's grander attempts at significance.

Springsteen, though, has fared better when he pares back his excess and gives us some tub-thumping rock and roll; "Born in the USA" is a great song because it works on a strong backbone of a relentless beat, and The Boss sounds righteously pissed off; "Seger's epochal "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man" is the model for this, and I know other Seger songs --"East Side Story", "Persecution Smith", "2+2=?"--were on Springsteen's mind when it came time for him to write a song that was topical and pissed off. Seger hasn't been the most consistent songwriter of all time, but his best work--and there's a lot of it-- easily bests Springsteen's work for economy, punch, grit. Seger has often equaled the genius of rock and rolls masters Chuck Berry and John Fogarty in writing what constitutes the life pulse of rock; short songs, spiked and fine-tuned rage in the lyrics, and credible, riveting beats to make the two or three minutes memorable, cathartic, and infinitely re-playable. Seger's strength as a lyricist is that he's not introspective and that what he has to say isn't hindered with club-fingered attempts at metaphor;unfortunately, Seger attempts poetry repeatedly, with laughable results, but his ability to recover these gaffes places him over Springsteen, who has not reined in his grating habits of poet-speak. Bruce takes too many paragraphs to say "ouch".

Each of these songs, rockers, and ballads, are notable for their lack of padding, filigree musically--there are no footprints of "grand music" here--and lyrically they are keen examples of the sort of lyrics Seger writes best and straight talk, unmarred by any reach for metaphysical density, in a voice that is something similar to what William Carlos Williams had in mind when he spoke of the American voice. Again, I've already spoken to Seger's faults and inconsistencies as an artist (bloat and bad poesy have visited his muse more often than I care to admit). But he's been superb much more of the time in his four-decade career, and his best work trumps Springsteen's output, which to me is the essence of poltroon mongering.

Where the trend had been for codgerly rock stars to give their careers, a third act with the issuing of albums wherein they croak their way to The Great American Songbook, graying Blue-Collar Hero Bruce Springsteen goes the other way and releases an album of old folk songs. The search for authenticity continues, and the plain-spoken Springsteen--remember when each of his lyrics were interminable operas of an intemperate desire?--sings it plainly, clearly, simply. No swelling melodies here, no subtle segues or seducing counterpoint. The new folk album, some have said, is suitable for Bruce, as he was never a great melodist anyway when he was doing the songwriting. I'm not a considerable fan of The Boss--it takes too much work to reissue the same objections, and after twenty-something years of bitching and groaning, I'm willing to maintain he's done music I've liked without embarrassment. Bruce Springsteen isn't Duke Ellington or even Burt Bacharach as a melody-drunk composer, but that was never the point of his work since his sound is big, brash and in-your-face rather than, catchy, seductive or otherwise subdued with subtler chord selection. His music is equal parts rhythm and blues, Phil Spector, British Invasion and folk rock, with generous portions of Kerouac, Dylan and a wee tram of Whitman stirred into the mix. For the blue-collar exhorting he does about love, death, being broke and struggling for a better future, Springsteen's melodies are exactly as they need to be; at their best, they work any of anything a popular pop-poet has done. When his work is contained and crafted, sufficiently edited, he's easily as good as Dylan as a melodist, the equal of Seger, the equal of John Lennon. I have found too much of his music overworked, grandiose and cluttered with the kind of business indicative of someone who hasn't found the central theme of what they're writing about; we see this in poets who compose at length, leaving no trace of a parse-able idea behind them, and one can witness it as well in novelists--Franzen, D.F. Wallace--who haven't in them to cut away the excess, so the art may show. Springsteen has this problem, a habit of overwriting, and the effect in his longer, louder pieces is a little Maileresque, circa the mid to late Sixties, where he keeps preparing to say something profound and yet, the message is deferred. I prefer the punchier, grabbier, riff-based rockers he puts forth, or the terser, grainier ballads. The big band material he comes up sinks as fast as any Jethro Tull concept album has in the past. It's about songs, not the arrangements.

Springsteen singing old folk songs and protest songs interests me not, although it might be a means for him to ease into the writing of decent material for his next great period. Dylan landed into a profound late period, as did the Stones and the quizzical Neil Young. Bruce would be a dandy addition to the grand pantheon of old guys. Productivity isn't, by default, a desirable trait. Talented artists can dilute their impact and lessen the esteem they've held in with the rapid issuing of mediocre, substandard or half-baked albums. Costello and Dylan are prime examples of this, although both songwriters frequently rebound with strong albums after some artistic lagging. There's an appeal for artists who aren't rushing to release product--I am a fan of Paul Simon's solo career (not crazy about Simon and Garfunkel music, which hasn't worn well) who has released albums at a snail's pace over the last thirty-plus years; he's a careful writer, and his body of work is therefore rich with strong, moving, intelligently evolving music. His musical ideas work more often than not. We may say the same for Steely Dan, a band I've always admired for their consistent excellence in melody, production, oddball melodies and especially well-crafted lyrics. Being slow to release albums of late places Springsteen in honorable company.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007


No poetry, music or movie have popped up this far into 2007 for me to get into a lather about, so here is an odd story I wrote a year ago. It's a bit of anarchic weirdness, and if there's a message, it might be about the anxiety an artist would feel if Art, capital "a", fails him as badly as he or she feels God might have. --tb
I was in the living room with the TV on C—Span that afternoon, waiting for the Furies to visit, when one fly, and then two landed on the rim of my glass of orange juice.

This must be it, I thought. On the screen was another panel discussion by some dais of experts summarizing what they hadn't found out after years of drawing substantial salaries. The flies skirted around the rim, stopping occasionally to inspect a shred of orange pulp that had been congealing for an hour since I last touched the glass, and then skirting around again.

One fly took flight abruptly, performing miracle circles and dives through the depressed haze of cigarette smoke, while the other remained on the room, seemingly entranced by the pulp. I looked at the screen again and listened to a man at the podium who looked to be in his fifties drone on in a voice that was as lifeless and dry as chapped lips pressed against sand paper. Balding, his fringe flowing over his ears and the collar of black shirt, his face oval shaped, his suit an orchestration of wrinkles and color blindness, I had him pegged: a soft boiled egg after a thrift—store binge. I scratched my nuts and then my scalp, thinking that I ought to take shower, as the smoke was no longer covering the body odor but now mingled with it after the while, creating an ambiance that was double the funk.

One fly remained on the glass rim inspecting the texture of the orange pulp while the other one was gone all together. I lit another cigarette and listened to the TV.

"Well, " said the speaker., who was sweating huge globules from his lips, "I was going to address to the problem that Rock Criticism is no~ facing in light of recent advances in digital technology and the emergence of non-white cultures in a main-stream genre which, ironically, was the creation of a vital American subculture. These, among other developments in international popular culture, poses some interesting problems for a generation of mostly white and middle-aged and male rock critics ~who, unless they get with the program, stand to become the next generation of reactionary commentators who, strangely, will relinquish their claim of progressivism and in turn become protectors of aesthetic standards that, in the long view, never in fact existed. BUT--"

The speaker looked up at the audience, stared straight in the C-Span camera, and gave a grin that was roaming all over his doughy, chinless face. He picked up the pages of his prepared talk and flung them in the air. One hand grabbed the podium while the other wrapped; around the microphone as though it were a gun. The pages fluttered downward around him.

"-—BUT--" he continued, his voice louder and animated now, nearly slurred as his syllabic went free—lance, "BUT.. . I've been in the hotel bar since I 'ye checked in this morning to consider the talk, and damn that bartender Jorge has a heavy hand on the pour, and I gotta tell ya I managed to stack a perfect pyramid of shot glasses, and I considered this thing here called rock criticism, and I'm pretty god damned fucked-~ right now, and so I have preface all coming comments by saying that this a pretty fucking lame way to make a living, the other people who're gonna talk are buncha Lit. Crit. drop outs who get their insights from a dime bag and a bong rather than a knowledge of The Unities, and frankly I think it sucks that I'm an assistant professor at Buffalo, NY junior college where the average humanities student LeRoi Nieman is too abstract and that a 7 and 7 is a mans' drink. Whatta bunch of limp dicks! You guys are a bunch of fuckheads because you're paying an asshole like me to tell you something. Have a drink, you fools. Hah! But on with the topic. Let's see, let's talk about blow torch wielding nuns storming the Abbey for a slice of that Communion waifer..."

At this point, the camera cut to the other panel members, who were sitting along a long, battered folding table that was draped with a white, coffee stained table cloth, three white males in grey business suits, carefully cut long hair, and wire framed glasses. While two of them remained shocked and ducked under the table, the third arose and walked of f the stage. The camera remained on the man at the podium, who was waving his arms as though signaling planes to land. He had stepped away from the podium, and was screaming at the audience.


I grabbed the remote control and after flying through the channels, came across one of those half-hour advertisements for a questionable product that's pathetically disguised as a talk show. I turned the sound of f and pulled my harmonica from my back pocket, but became frustrated when the middle notes of my brilliant improvisation came out sounded flat and atonal, a spike in the ear. I buried the harmonica under the middle cushion of the couch, and decided to get out of the house. I pushed the cocktail table out of my way, upsetting the orange juice glass. The fly was gone, though. He didn't want to hear about television, taxes or poets under suspension bridges either. I was standing in the middle of the room.

"Okay, I give up" I said.

Then I sat on the couch again, picked up the remote control and turned the sound back on and watched this guy and that guy and that woman (who I imagined seducing) all take turns at the microphone talking their share of nonsense for hours and hours and hours.

Monday, December 25, 2006

James Brown Gets Off on the Good Foot

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 24, 2006

John Lennon and the end of the Beatles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 11, 2006

"Underworld", a novel by Don DeLillo

On the subject of the greatest 100 novels written in English the 20th Century, I was momentarily smug when I realized that I'd read 75 of the group compiled by the folks at Modern Library. But appreciated the misgivings of reader factions who felt that their groups, their "voices" had been ignored, shunted to the side, 'marginalized" , with the editors making inadequate efforts to broaden the Canon. But the real use of such list, I think, is to start a controversy, to get a debate going about what makes a good novel, and, I suppose, to have at least part of the public sphere be about something other than whether a sitting president did the wild thing with an intern in a broom closet just off the White House pantry. Not least of all, I've had more conversations, well-mannered debates (!) as to what constitutes a great novel, and most of these chats have gone a step further and dealt with, oddly, why literature is important to a society and culture such as ours. The talks have been stimulating, and, since I work in a bookstore, sales of novels have been brisk, and this due to a high-flying list that pleased no one. Let's have more, and let's rescue literature from the academics, who've abandoned any certainty in their analysis.

For the greatest novel written in America in the second half of the 20th Century, I vote for "Underworld" by Don DeLillo.No one writes better prose than he does, and the scope of this novel, comprising a hidden history of America in the second half of the century, races past Pynchon and Gaddis and Mailer and Oates, all writers deserving of Nobles. DeLillo's efforts to show America as a multi-platformed myth is grand and achieves a sustained poetics. DeLillo's plotlines mirror a sense of America itself, being less a collection of lines that meet to some predetermined point where greatness is conferred at the completion of heroic tasks, but rather than as mass of intersections that criss-cross one another, each with a version of the story told in a personalized language that stems from a world that is complete unto itself, a race of voices and noise that is a churning vat whose parts won't meld. Nice work, great work, magic.It's never occurred to me not to consider DeLillo a postmodern writer, since his work, especially Great Jones Street, the Names White Noise and especially the hugely brilliant Underworld has outlined and defined the postmodern terrain and its most compelling attributes. As discussed earlier in this thread and in other threads where DeLillo figured largely to the subject at hand, his world is about characters trying to adjust to and survive within a universe filled with Invisible but Irresistible movements that threaten to finally take them in.

DeLillo is often critiqued by some readers and critics (perhaps weary of his name being intoned when the subject of greatness arises in their conversations) for writing characters who all sound alike, unnatural, distinct from real life. I would hope so."Natural" ought to mean an idiom that's believable for narrators and characters to be speaking in, an idiom whose success depends on how well the author constructs the fictional world they're entertaining us with. Underworld has several idioms that DeLillo plays with well-- an awful lot of this novel takes its narrative energy from the minds of characters who are thinking their way through their predicaments, a perfect and virtuoso blend of Faulkner association and Italian American cadences -- so it's a matter of vernaculars, plural, that makes up the weave up the novel.

But the DeLillo "voice" -- detached, musing, aware of some melancholic finality at the end of the storylines that belie the rationalizations and worldviews of the characters--the artists, the ballplayers, the trash disposal capitalists, the nun-- that winds up in an endless chain of ironies. It's a tone of expression that seems quite right for DeLillo: natural, in other words. What makes it into a style is his ability to modify, alter, or disguise it's timbre, pitch, and density so that he seems to create a universe that seems completely and desperately besotted by a whispering anxiety of aimlessness. The usual voice flows quite well, smoothly in fact; it's not for nothing that DeLillo is praised for writing the best sentences in American English. I don't hear any of Mamet's style in DeLillo. Not a trace. Faulkner, perhaps, especially noticeable in Underworld, but nothing from Mamet, whose rhythms are those of a dropped bag of hammers.

We end up with novels dealing with specialization seen not as a way to understand how the world and history work but rather as delusional and distracting activities that keep us as consumers. It is a body of work where what we say about the world we live in is deflected and abstracted, absorbed into larger things that are beyond our antennae. Whether the tales are about a rock artist who has millions hinging on his every lyric, a professor of Hitler studies finding himself powerless, despite his special knowledge, in light of an unexplained catastrophe, or about a risk-management assessor analyzing local political situations to minimize the the chance of ruin for potential corporate investment, DeLillo's' work  imagines the existence after modernism's' promise of better living through constant, violent change has turned into a documented set of fiascoes, disasters, wars, and genocides. DeLillo's work, it seems, will survive the withering dismissals of affected yokels, and "great American novels" continue to be produced yearly, quite despite our obsession to narrowing the field to only a handful of worthies who fulfill criteria no can state for sure. But DeLillo stands poised for world-greatness because he brings Americans into the larger world, where qualities of being American, imagined by our civics teachers as being divinely granted, has no bearings in a world that seems incoherent and supremely foreign. DeLillo's work, in "The Names", "Mao II", "Players", have Americans of a sort--professionals, artists, intellectuals, poets, usually white, privileged--losing themselves amid the shifting and renegotiated narratives, collective and personal, that are repeated, all mantras, to give the world a sense of reason and purpose beyond the hurly-burly of the phenomenal world. This is a sphere where the sense of the world, our strategies, and accounts to deal with it, are fed to media and then sold back to us with conditions attached. I imagine a work that is equal parts Henry James, for the aspect of Americans confronting the non-American world, and Orwell's "Animal Farm", where we have the pigs, in the dead of night, with ladder and paintbrush, changing the wording on the social contract painted on the side of the barn.

DeLillo, as well, deals with Americans in America, thankfully, and masterstrokes like "White Noise", "Great Jones Street" (an amazing rock and roll novel whose hero could be Dylan, Bowie, or Cobain), and ultimately "Underworld" sift through the loss ourselves in our own country. Our stories are modified and changed; our Gods change their minds about ultimate truths as technology forces more secrets and press upon us. "Underworld" is a tour where history is not just forgotten, is not just pushed to the margins in favor or a Grand Narrative, but is in fact disposed of, thrown away when the metaphysical argument no longer suits the immediate need. The search for the baseball is analogous to a journey back to some Eden that never existed.

No one maintains topicality alone makes for greatness. Great style twined with keen insight makes the argument for great riches more convincing. A flair for the poetic, a grasp of imagery that enlarges one's sensibility in the world settles the issue. DeLillo, to my perhaps exclusionist sensibilities, has all these elements. But topicality is not what DeLillo is about; the currency of his plots is believable starting points for his investigations into the nature of our language, of how we address ourselves. His books, I think, have enough for generations of readers and critics to study and discuss for decades to come. He writes broadly enough, and well enough, to sidestep victimhood as a consideration and force readers, and critics for that matter, to study the performance of literature, the literary act itself.

I am an obvious DeLillo partisan, but I don't think everything he's done is fully rendered, satisfying every idiosyncratic standard a "serious" reader might contrive, but the fact is that DeLillo is not a novel-a-year contestant with Updike or Joyce Carol Oates, or recently, Mailer, all of whom seem in a rush to consolidate reputations and make themselves nice and shiny for Nobel consideration. DeLillo has published a mere 11 novels since 1969, hardly an overload for almost thirty years as a professional writer.

That he has themes that re-emerge from work to work is to be expected from a writer, and for DeLillo, his investigations into what we too- easily refer to as post-modernism (yes, I am guilty as charged) and it's accompanying paranoia have produced major fiction, which is about, in too-broad a summary of his work, the difficulty of living in a world that has been stripped of any resonance of meaning, any suggestion of Truth, capital "t". This is a kind man-made environment that stems from the make-it-new innovations of High Modernism, and entering the next century with a sense that we have not learned anything despite high-speed technologies that shoot raw and indigestible mounds of data from one place to another.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

New Mailer Due

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 3, 2006

Got Stress?

There's nothing to say at the moment about which trends in popular media or literature please me or offer me a prickly kiss, but I did come across an old sociology book, from the fifties, called "The Stress of Everyday Life" at D.G.Wills Books . It was less the subject matter that made me pick up the used book than it was the title's type style; blocky, bold,all capitalized, one word up upon the other like a tottering tower about to give way to lethal gravity. The Word "stress", as you see it here, was askew, cracking under strain , as if , well, under stress.Suitably, I grabbed it and virtually yelled "STRESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS" to ride the rest of the a-ha! wave. I bought the book, scanned the cover, and cropped the single word you see above. It's become a seasonal mantra, a one-syllable
password to a fellow human being likewise feeling pressed upon by the Holidays and news events that have no real bearing on their life.