Sunday, February 25, 2007

Harmonica Story

It was a hot, breezeless night, and there were no dry arm pits at The Javanikin, Pacific Beach, a beach town that hugs the shoreline in the San Diego area. The Grand Avenue coffee house, two blocks south from the goony bar crawl of Garnet Avenue, has a location that has the mutual benefits of being quieter and more isolated: you can actually hear the sticky roll of tires nearing the corner from a block away. The isolation isn't the best for foot traffic, but it's ideal for the music policy, as
the venue is a converted bungalow, intimate as an elevator. The
the room fills with music the way air rushes into lungs The
attraction this Friday night was Rephael Harp, a sweet playing
folk blues guitarist who additionally is a genius harmonica
player, maybe the best San Diego has.
A grand claim,, but tonight proved the point. Harp pivoted
on a stool besides the small stage while a guest guitarist played
a Delta-style blues, slow and simple. Harp had a harmonica at his
mouth, looted the archive of blues riffs. Brushing away the
microphone he'd been using, his playing full winded enough to
fill the room, the music was a revelation, a history lesson in
harmonica styles. Bar fight Chicago blues, with their punchy
notes and drum snapping changes, morphed into quick and clear
bluegrass runs and the accelerated rhythms of runaway trains
going in different directions. Harp played a rapid scale to his
highest note, twisting it until it's bends and turns slithered
down the scale.

Rephael and the guitarist took the improvisation out as far
as they could, and then brought back again to it's snaking Delta
beginnings, guitar and harmonica fading off in a trail of sad
notes. The crowd, hardly a crowd at all, offered a smatter of
claps. Rephael shook hands with the guitarist and smiled, and
turned toward the serving counter, chatting with friends who'd
come to hear him.
"Can I have my pie now, George?" he asked finally..
"Up in a minute, " said George, ringing up a coffee sale.
I walked up and stuck out my hand, which Rephael looked at
quizzically and then gripped it, mischief and exhaustion swimming
in his gray-blue eyes. Short, about five foot five, and bald with
a blond crescent of hair that rings his scalp. He gripped my hand
and gave it a shake you'd expect from some who hammers
nails. His hands were calloused, layered in dead skin,
evidence of work.
"That was a brilliant solo," I said, unable to think of a
less obvious way to start the conversation.
"Why do you think that? I was only playing old licks, I
wasn't playing anything new."
George came up a hot pie , a fork, and a napkin. Rephael
sat down , spread the napkin on his lap and stabbed the pie with
the fork.
"What key of harmonica did you bring you tonight?"
He brought the fork to his mouth , a hot slab of chicken
speared on the tines, and took a bite, his eyes looking up, a
lacy curl of steam coming from the plate.


Memories of the Mission Beach Board Walk in 1973 are the
blurry at best, but it seemed that there was often fog and mist
lingering on the right of way, in all seasons. It was usual for
me then to start my day of lounging against the sea wall in the
brightest, postcard sunshine San Diego could manage only to have
the drifting mist gather by mid afternoon, culminating in a
bleached haze that made the area look spectral.
I was hanging around the board walk and the short, congested
courts of salt licked beach houses for a year, and it was on one
of those drear nights that I ran into Boz, in front of the
Surfer Hotel at the end of Pacific Beach Drive where the Mission
Beach Board Walk unofficially started. He wore a Mexican wedding
shirt, his hair reached his shoulders, and he was in the center
of a group of young people who formed throng that pushed
itself into the narrow walk. Boz seemed to be addressing them,
his eyes calm as bath water. I saw the group ahead of me as I
walked up from the lifeguard tower, and, true to my habit, I
pulled my harp from a vest pocket and started to play a wayward
blues progression. My intent to impress them, get compliments,
take a toke of whatever they were smoking, and then move on to
the Belmont Park Roller Coaster.
Boz looked up, cupped a hand to his ear.
"Hey brother, come over here and play that thing for us" he
called, waving an arm. The harmonica was at my lips as I came
over. The group, a random assembly of earthen mellowness, parted
their circle a bit, bringing me within inches of Boz, whose head
was cocked at an angle, looking at the harp in my hand that I'd
taken away from my mouth. No one was smoking anything, nor was
there a bottle of grog anywhere. Boz smiled, his eyes widened
curiously, and nodded for me to go on playing. Hindsight tells
me that I played with the gasping hubris every beginner has,
good ideas swamped with a glottal grinding of the gears.
Boz and his entourage nodded in what looked like appreciationas if they were tuned to a silent, low key rapture. A strange
slew of smiles.
Boz held a leather wallet he was sewing together and he
placed on the sea wall when I was done playing. He gave me a
beatific smile.
"You've got some good chops there," he said, pointing at the
harp and then lifting the finger to my chin, "little rough and
messy, but you have a good tone, and you got the notes coming out
right more times than not..."
Who was this guy?
I spent a year on the boardwalk, flashing my stuff at the
the drop of an E chord, memorizing all the enclaves and establishing
myself as ”the• harmonica guy, only to have a cipher a tell me that
my notes are played "...more right than not"?
"....but you need to work on your rhythm, counting the time
to a song, you'll make it sweet and pretty, all your ideas will
come together, not come out like a rush...."
Though bristling, I gave Boz my harmonica.
"Show me what you mean," I asked, "I mean, I work hard at
getting this shit right, man..."
He took the instrument. The group rested against the
clammy sea wall, with only Boz and I standing . A late mist
crept in off the ocean , silent as shade on old brick.
"I dig it, man" he said, " your licks are solid, but the
rhythm can be smoother, like knowing where the beat is going to
go so your good ideas stay good when you play them. Like this..."
It was a revelation. Boz placed the harp to his lips and
spent the next ten minutes playing the best harmonica I'd ever
heard, the sassy sound of Butterfield meeting Sonny Boy
Williamson's graveyard moans, John Mayall crossing over to Little
Walter. It wasn't just that he was played better: within a few seconds I realized I was in the presence of a world
class player ,but that he could use only one hand much of the
time, his control of the harp being such that he could achieve his
affects with only one hand while with the other he'd demonstrate
how the beat was going. Everything I knew was wrong again.
"Like this" he said. His left hand held the harp his mouth
as he snapped the fingers of the other, illustrating the time
keeping , melody and improvisation.
The group drifted away in different directions while Boz
played leaving him alone with me as he gave me the lesson.
It was night now as the street lamps tried vainly to burn
through the fog. Boz stopped playing, pounding the saliva from
the reeds, and gave me back the harp.
"Dinner time" he said.
"You're goddamned good"
"Thank you, bro. You see how that counting time works?
Gives you something to but the songs on."
"Yeah.yeah. When are you around here, man? You hang out here
a lot? I'd like to learn some of that shit..."
"I'm around most times, you'll see me around. You got good
"You're fantastic..." I stammered.
"Thanks for letting me play your harp. Dinner time, bye
He turned and walked into the shifting murk. I felt
ambivalent about what he said. I was hungry, cold vapor poured
from my mouth and nostril.The South Mission Beach Jetty was
nearly erased where the coast line curved.And the world being a
chance operation at best,I wouldn't see Boz again, I would remain
king of my sandbox.
"Go fuck yourself" I said.
****************** ********************************************”•
The decade was a string of jobs that had nothing to do with
each other, from arts editor and free lance critic to prodigal
carnival barker, singer in occasional hard rock bands, hotel desk
clerk and ware house manager to UCSD literature geek. What I
accomplished was to acquire an over sized affinity for booze, and
I filled up book shelves with wasted harmonicas, flat and rusted
and full of sour notes, lined up like the green beer bottles
college kids stacked in their dorm windows.
Harmonicas were the running theme through the time, and
Rephael,nee Boz from the boardwalk who'd taken a new name in
succeeding years as an iniation rite for a religious sect he'd
joined, was the one I kept running into at. Whenever I thought
that there was nothing in the lexicon I couldn't utter, fluid as
tap water, Rephael turned up and confirmed my amatuer status.
I was in Pacific Beach one night looking for a bar to
tanked in when I walked into a Mexican Restaurant on Garnet
called Rudy Garcia's. Rudy I knew from high school, and that
night he hosted at the door, greeting diners with semaphore hand
gestures and a smile that looked tighter than two coats of

The smile shrank to a puckered 'o' when he saw me, vague
resentments still smarting , and offered a cursory greeting. The
smile returned to his rubbery face by degrees as the restaurant
filled with people waiting for tables. I pointed to the stage
area , a small platform, where Rephael , incidently, was playing
his harmonica in a neck rack, ala Dylan, while he played Dobro.
"Gotta bar I can sit at?" I asked.The place was full and
noisy and I just wanted to get out of the way and widen the buzz
I'd been working on since that afternoon. Rudy nodded, pointed
to the rear of the room, where there was a service bar next to
the kitchen, patting me on the back with a kind hand that turned
into firm push as I walked by him.
Rephael's playing was no one's business. This was the first
time I'd heard him play guitar, and his slide playing on "Dust
My Blues" had the sexy shimmer and strut perfectly. The
harmonica work was what I'd always remembered, fine and
Rudy was class clown during our 1970©71 senior year at La
Jolla High School, a guy quick with a quip and a punk with a
prank who prowled amongst the sweet©sixteens at weekend parties,
cracking up and busting up like a one man hysteria . He was
always on and filled the lulls in conversation with a stunt, a
joke, some funny voice . He treated his business no differently,
than the way he turned living rooms into comedy clubs in a
desire to be the After School Special.
Rephael had finished a bone tired blues when Rudy ran up
to the stage and whispered in his ear. Rephael nodded, crooked
his neck, rolled his eyes and gave a bemused smirk. He removed
his harmonica rack and took another guitar from a case laying
next to his chair . He started playing "Runaway", a schlock hit
for Del Shannon in the early Sixties. Rephael sang it gamely, the
the blues journeyman reduced to dime store bathos. I was at the
bar, sipping a long neck Bud, wondering how the cheesy,
roller rink organ solo from Shannon's original recording would sound on
the harp, but instead the crowd got Rudy, who'd raced back behind
the bar while Repheal sang and had climbed on top of the bar and
knelt, two plastic slide whistles in his mouth. Strange as it
sounded, Rudy had the solo down note per note, a double dash of
shrillness spewing over a crammed panorama of big steaming
plates of refried beans and tacos, cigarette smoke and
waitresses wedging themselves through the mere inches between
chairs to serve the orders. Rephael brought the song an end, Rudy
attempted a bow while still kneeling on the bar top, and the
diners clapped between munches of the soggy food.
Rephael put the guitar down, sorted through his brief case
of harmonicas, selecting one finally.
"How about some 'Whammer Jammer'?" he asked, referring to
the J. Geils Band hit of the time that featured their harpist
Magic Dick in a tour de force of jive, boogie and speed. There
were grunts of approval, belches, a fist pounding a table, a beer
bottle falling over.
"Magic Dick, eat your heart out" he said, and started
playing, harmonica flat on the microphone.
He essayed on the tune, double timing the tempo, whizzing
through the jump -cut changes. I was good and goosed by this
point, three empty long necks in front of me. My vision doubled
to Rephael's double tempo. Swimming in warm thoughts, I took a
harmonica from my back pocket and started to play along, elbows
on the bar, going off willy nilly, cupping the harp so no one
else could hear me, a private duet between The Muse and myself.
A roar, a protest, a laughing bellow only seconds after
Rephael played a last dazzling run up the scale and that
culminated on a piercing high note. I was drunk, shaken as
though wakened from a hard sleep. I looked at the bartender, who
pointed to the stage that was at my back. I turned around and saw
Rudy in the center of a group of tables in front of the
platform, where he was leading customers in a cheer. Rudy waved
his arms in a sing along manner, saying "One more time, let's
make sure he heard us..." He waved again, looked at me, smiling,
œRephael strapped on his guitar, giving me an embarrassed
shrug, eyes wide as terrace doors that opened to an empty field.
I don't remember much after that point, except to guess that it
involved sliding from the restaurant, buying a bottle of cheap
hootch with the nickels and dimes remaining of my mad money,
and finding an underground parking garage to play the harp
against the deep echoes of grainy cement walls, and slug from the
brew as hard as I wanted to slug Rudy.


By the summer of 1983, I graduated from UCSD by the barest
of qualifications, drank my way out of a long term
relationship, and had a job that was at risk because of my habit
of pounding three Club can cocktails on my lunch break. I was
sitting at the La Jolla Pannikin on a day off, an Anchor Steam
beer on the patio table in front of me, swimming in the eddies of
my fluid, grandiose thinking under the bright and broiling roast
of the sun,when Rephael pulled up alongside the cafe on a racing
bike. He looked healthy, I remember thinking, the son of bitch is
probably still a better harp player than I am, fuck him, I
wonder what's UP remember my mouth was dry and had the taste of
a trench.
Rephael locked up the bike at the stand in front of the cafe and
was walking up the walk to the serving counter inside the
converted cottage that served as the Pannikin Cafe proper. I
shouted his name, standing up.
"Rephael" I called, sticking out a hand to be shaken. He
looked over his shoulder , lowered his sunglasses and squinted,
crows feet branching out from the ends of the eyes.
He stared for a second."I'll be out" he said, "I need an ice
The rest of the encounter is a smudged charcoal comic strip
of images, but what is vivid is an image of an outdoor table
filled with people having conversations that overlapped one
another like strewn sections of a Sunday newspaper. Rephael,
hardly ever seeming the shy one to perform, had taken a harmonica
from a dock kit he carried with him and again played music I could
only dream of. I had no harp and sat there, getting increasingly
drunk and witless, slugging on the luke warm beer.
It was late afternoon and the sun was setting, and the patio
was clearing slowly. Rephael rose finally to leave.
"Rephael" I said,"you sound great."Rephael's grimaced, his
face tight as a drumhead.
"Thanks" said, pushing his hands into his fingerless riding
gloves, "It's, you know, something I don't know what to do
"But you're good, you can do..."
He took the empty chair next to me, leaned over, saying
almost in a whisper
"Playing music is something I don't know what to do with.
I've been living from town, from San Diego, I needed to get away
from the old places, and I'm only here doing a job of work"
He paused, looked down."I've had a bit of an alcohol problem,
and it's gotten me down, so I moved away, to try to hold it
together. I'm going to see what comes next, I don't know..."
He rose again, tugged on the gloves for a last fitting, and
waved adieu. He unlocked his bike from the rack and rode into
traffic on Girard, going south, toward Pacific and
Mission Beach.The old places he sought to get away from? What I
did the rest of that day and into the night is a vague as
Rephael's account of his then recent history. ?œ

The years from that meeting flew apace and my life , boiled
to the essentials, was a tiresome chronicle of heavy drinking,
and barflyism and rote disasters. Things were lost, opportunities
missed, talent wasted, speech incoherent. I was reduced to
sitting on the sea wall at the La Jolla Shores boardwalk, two
bottles of Spirit Shop vodka in the pockets of the grubby and
torn tweed jacket I took to wearing everyday, playing the blues
through a battered 'c' harmonica that was held together with
creased duct tape and thumbtacks, the music coarse and tentative,
the harp reeds straining through gathered dirt and hair from the
bottom of filthy pant pockets, staring up the La Jolla coastline
as the sun set and the lights of the village lit up million
dollar homes, the point and the calm water and the soft magenta
of the falling sun indicating a perspective that was farther than
anything I could imagine. Later, with half a bottle of vodka
left, I'd squat in a batch of untrimmed bushes in the park,
drinking, waiting until I thought everyone at my parents house
had gone to sleep and I could sneak in as best I could, make my
way up the condominium stairs and tread past all the closed bed
room doors to my room, where I do nothing except pass out into a
nightly abyss where there were no dreams.
The scenario repeated itself more times than not until July
of 1987, when I came home late one night, drunk again, and found
my sister waiting up for me. This was an intervention, a one
sister attempt to try to save a brother she loves, and for once
I listened. I was too drunk to come up with any answers, the
brain stalled and slurred and I just sat at the dining room table
while she read me the riot act. She got me to agree to call a
treatment center the next day, and I agreed, hoping everybody in
the house would ease back into denial and forget the whole
thing.My sister didn't forget. Late morning the following day,
she knocked on my door, and , hangover and shakes and all, we
went down stairs, drank coffee and had breakfast and then called
Rancho Mirage treatment center.

I was admitted into the Betty Ford Center July 16, 1987, the
day after my 35th birthday,, and from there spent twenty eight
days of having the burden as to how I'd get drunk that night
lifted from me. Yes, I was interviewed, diagnosed, made to go to
group encounter sessions, attend meetings of an alliterative
association whose purpose was to help others and themselves get a
handle on their problems relating to alcohol, and generally put
through the therapeutic grind in which every raw nerve of an
unresolved issue was exposed and dealt with in reams of
treatment-speak. Although I'd effected a surrender to my
alcoholism and went along with the handlers advice in a vague
hope that I wouldn't have to drink again , in truth I was gagging
on the platitudes and the peer group hectoring about having to
deal with unresolved core issues, bed checks inventories and
steps, the need to get intimate and vulnerable and peel away the
onion layers. Truthfully,sometimes I wanted to hit someone, but
at least two things kept me going, though they sound trivial in
the telling. ‰
One, the case managers did not want the patients to isolate
themselves from anyone else in the treatment group, and made a
habit of confiscating head phones, unauthorized books, magazines
and musical instruments that might distract an alkie's attention
from their recovery. I brought a harmonica with me, the usual
key of "C". For reasons that remain unexplained, they didn't
seize the harp, and, following suit, I stood nearly each night
at the dorm entrance, after the in-house twelve step meetings,
the group encounter sessions, the completion of the work
assignments, and played the blues into a night air that had the
texture of car seat leather.After half and hour, I'd go back into
the dorm, go to my room and lay on my bed and stare at the
ceiling, eventually falling asleep.
The second instance was a question asked by the last case
manager to see me. His name was Nick, eight years sober and a
member of the alliterative association. I sat in an office one
night while he looked at a forty page file on me that comprised a
week of intake interviews. He flipped through the pages like
rustling through a morning paper, scanned the data, and then
dropped the file. He looked at me over the desk, head tilted,
hand flat on the plastic folder that contained the story. ‰
"You know you can't drink anymore, don't you?" he asked
simply. No bullshit, no patronizing. The question had snapshot
I think I nodded and said "Yeah, I know".
That was the conversation that comes back to me almost nine
years later. I haven't had a drink since my first day at the
There is a line from the basic text of the alliterative
association that there are absolutely no coincidences in the
world, that everything happens for a reason that will be revealed
to us with time.
In December 1994, I was in the front row of a large Sunday
night twelve step meeting in a church hall where people shared
about there problems relating. With the customary materials read
at the start of the meeting , which outlined a suggested program
of recovery, the group came to the special occasion portion where
members celebrated sober anniversaries, a ceremony that involves
a birthday cake with the number of years being celebrated
represented by the number of candles. The meeting's secretary
would announce the number of years, the name of the celebrant,
and the name of the sober friend who was presenting it to him.
Three celebrations had already gone by, and my attention
drifted like it often does to other things I want to be doing
as over a hundred drunks and druggies sang "Happy Birthday"
and the gratitude from the podium poured forth .
"Our last special occasion tonight" announced the secretary
as he lit the candles with a palm size Bic, "is Six years to
Repheal Harp..."
This all made sense. The group applauded, sang an off key
"Happy Birthday,Rephael blew out the candles, the presenter said
some simple and nice things. I don't remember what they said.,
only that it made sense.

Rephael Harp was born with the name Mark Bosworth in 1951 in
Salt Lake City, Utah. He took a bite of the steaming pie after
he told me this, surveyed the Javanikin and noticed that more
kids have filtered in, all of whom seem to be at the end of a
long bad hair day.
"Maybe they'll get their coffee for here and listen" he
offered, wiping his mouth with a paper napkin," maybe that
thing'll get so full it'll burst." He was referring to the
oversize cognac glass at the skirt of the stage that's meant for
"Anyway" continued, "I was born in Salt Lake City in 1951,
and my family moved to Pacific Beach in 1953 after we lived in
Idaho Falls. Next stop, Loring Street. I went to Einstein Jr.
High School, and then my family and I moved to Huntington Beach.
We lived there four years.
"I think I started playing harmonica when I was 14 years old,
music was always my first love. My father introduced me to John
Mayall's music in 1968, and I went 'yeah', because I'd been
listening to the Lovin' Spoonful and the Rolling Stones and I was
ready for the next thing. Both those bands had songs with
harmonica on them that I liked, but it was Mayall's 'Room to
Move' from the 'Turning Point' album. It was classy,
unadulterated harmonica, not distorted in anyway, it was just
pure harp."
Rephael finished the pie , to the plate back to the counter
and reassumed the stage. He took his Dobro out of it's case, back
the harmonica rack around his neck and ran the slide up the neck,
a slippery coil of blues.
"I got my first harmonica in Christmas stocking" he said from
the stage, " I wanted the drums really bad, I think maybe I liked
my heartbeat, but the harmonica came in my stocking and I
thought what the hell. I liked to play it, and I thought of the
souls of deprived black people..."
Like much of what he says, Rephael's comment drifted into
silence while his eyes seemed to withdraw to study the graffiti
on the walls of his soul. The awkward finally passed and he
cracked into a waltz time version of Leadbelly's "Bourgeois
Town", a song as political as it gets. The harmonica solos were
fast and lacerating, cutting the chord changes into seeming
After the Javanikin , we ate at a Garnet taco stand next to
a 7©11, and later we wound up at his Missouri street apartment.
Rephael wanted to talk, and the tape recorder was running.
"I'd lived all over the place during the late sixties and
early seventies, but in 1971, I came back to PB to do a little
job, to clean up some houses and paint them for this friend of
mine's girl friend's mother, a real lady. I was selling acid at
the time, and I was doing too much of that stuff, and that was
when I met the Children of God family in Balboa Park.
"That was May 22nd, 1971, in front of the Zoo, and I said
I'll go with you. It was miracle kind of thing. When I was a
senior in high school up in Huntington Beach in 1969, I happened
into a coffee house where they were praying. They'd talk to you
and see how you were doing and then they'd ask 'Would you like to
pray with us?'I said 'yes,man' 'cause I was sad at home, I was
smoking a lot of pot and being down because my parents had
divorced. I never felt my Dad liked me, so I got on my hands and
knees with them and prayed 'God , Jesus, let me live my life for
"Anyway, I left there, feeling a little better, and two
years later I run into the same group of people in front of the
Zoo here in San Diego. We talked again, and they asked me if I'd
like to come live with them.Yeah, I said.
"The Children of God were real warm, like a family. We got up
in the morning and said our prayers, we sang our songs, and we
did continuous service work for the people. We got kids off of
drugs, we brought them into the communes, taught them about the
Bible and about love, and we all peacefully interacted. We got
food for people who were hungry from the market, we called it
procuring. We'd go to different businesses and say, "Look, we're
with a Christian Organization and we wanna help kids, and would
you like to help? ' They'd usually either food or money. It was
pretty good, you know, there were good hearts involved, it all
had a good motive.
"I gave up harmonica for a year as part of a vow I took with
them. If I still had the desire to play after a year, it was
thought that it was probably God's will that I should do so.
At that time, they also gave me a new name, Rephael, from a page
in the Bible. I didn't mind that.
"I started drinking when I was with them, because there were
no rules against it, really.
"The Children of God were a sincere organization, and you
have to compare the amount of good they did against what ever bad
might have been done. I mean, the main guy, who called him self
Moses David, was trying to instill a freedom in people, trying
to get them to get them to see, for example, that sex wasn't a
sin, and they he put it was something like that when a women was
witnessing to a man, she could go all the way and do the dirty
deed and she'd be doing it for Jesus, which was unheard of in the
Christian religion."

Rephael was with the Children of God for two years, and I
asked why he left the sect, which he still calls The Family.
"Why did I leave" he repeated, taking a long pause. "I
wanted to surf" he said finally, laughing.
He went on. "Finally I realized that the guy heading up the
Children of God who called himself Moses David was a fanatic,
believing in the end-of the-world thing and the downfall-of-America thing and that right there was whoop-de-doo. He thought
he was a prophet, but none the stuff he talked about came to
pass, and I was tired of it. I gave those guys $3,671 I had in a
trust account, and I still had convictions inside of me that
wanted to have a marriage and children, a family. Marriages were
okay inside the family, but what I felt and what they demanded
didn't mesh.
"I went on a horrible drunk after I left. I was out of God's
will, I thought..."
In or out of God's will, Rephael stayed in the Beach area,
becoming a fixture in the local surf culture, and had a job at
Art and Harmony, a crafts store in Mission Beach that catered to
the counter culture's interior design needs. He worked there on
and off from 1973 through 1983, during an erratic pattern of
moving between San Diego and Eugene, Oregon, perhaps attempting
a geographic cure for restlessness.
"I hung by myself, I was a loner. I played harmonica, and I
surfed, I didn't surf with the others. I was waiting for the next
drink or drug to give me some motivation.
"I met a girl in 1973 and we hung around for a year, and we
had a son together. We moved to Oregon in 1974, which is where I
really began to play music at a the coffee houses in Eugene. I
traveled around Oregon, to different a towns, playing in bars
and stuff, some of them real shit holes, but there was a lot of
hippie stuff in Oregon, restaurants and things, and I started
working on a lot songs that I had going on in my head.
"Oregon was a stab in the dark for me, but I had nothing
else going on, but I did find that the people who heard me
responded well to my playing. I played in a few bands, and I was
getting gigs, though no one could offer to pay me, though I guess
that's okay in retrospect. Music has to be for music's sake."
He rolled his eyes to the ceiling as he said the last sentence.
The music flourished in Oregon but the wallet remained thin,
although Rephael accepted the lack of coin as part of a hesitant
vow he took to not play for money, a hold over his Children of
God days. He played the coffee houses and bars, established
himself as the best harmonica player around.He picked up the
Dobro guitar in this time, affixing his harp in a harmonica neck
rack (the kind Bob Dylan modeled), and rapidly developed a
seamless technique that allowed him to perform on both
instruments at once, with his harmonica soloing retaining it's
clean tone and melodic quickness. So armed, more gigs came his
way, including an opening stint at the first annual Eugene Blues
Festival for headliner Charlie Musselwhite, and an alternative
school class teaching harmonica through a program at the
University of Eugene.

"Oregon was a fresh start" Rephael said, " I was someone
other than who I was in San Diego. I could impress people. Here,
in Pacific Beach, I was surf bum, getting drunk a lot. People
here knew that I played music, and they'd say 'SO WHAT?' They
knew me as a drunk, so I really didn't bother to try to play to
play music for people until I moved to Eugene."
Unable to stay in one place , Rephael started a pattern of
commuting between San Diego and Eugene, coming to California for
various work opportunities.
He was finally had the confidence to perform from his Oregon
experience, and, began to gig around the Beach Area during the
early Seventies, around the time I first encountered him on the
Mission Beach boardwalk.
"Me and the old Lady broke up in Oregon around that time, so
I didn't have any real reason to be up there, not as far as I
was concerned at the time, so I started coming back and forth
between San Diego and Eugene, something that made sense at the
time,and in addition to the work I got here at Art and Harmony,
I got work fixing up houses to be rented for people I knew, and I
started gigging around the area. I felt like a pioneer, playing
at Rudy Garcia's and Jose Murphy's in PB. There weren't that many
good harmonica players then. Lessee, there was Kenny in the King
Biscuit Blues Band, there was a guy named Bruce Harkinson who
made the rounds of all the parties where there was a band. I
wasn't that impressed. I was drinking a lot and was full of my
ego, and I just wanted to blow people away.
"I mean, dig this: I went to New Orleans in 1981 and played
there at Mardi Gras, and Sonny Terry, one of the guys I listened
to a lot when I was learning, was there to. I met him and I got a
chance to play for him, and he was real nice, and he told me
that I was a world class harmonica player, he said that I played
good. It was like, if this guy I listened to in high school is
telling me that I play well, then I must be all right."
Rephael's eyes were at half mast. I checked my watch. It was
late, and soon it would be early. The cassette tape ran out, and
the micro recorder snapped itself off.
"Let's say we pick up whatever we were talking about later"
he said, "I have an early construction job in the morning. I
nodded and gathered my stuff and shook his hands. Again, his
hands had the canvas bag feel of hard work, calluses and deep
"I'll call" I said.
"Just be there" he said.
"You bet".
The following Friday night was cooler, though the Javanikin
interiors were at a fair swelter. Rephael assembled his
performance apparatus of microphone, his guitars, brief case of
harps and amplifier in the short space of the stage. A table
full three young men, looking like State College business majors,
sat at the long table, exchanging what sounded like the full
range of their shared culture.
"What's your favorite breakfast cereal?" asked one , golf
shirt and short side hair.. Golf shirt smirked,
his lips thin as rubber bands.
"Ask a Miss America question" demanded the third, nasal to
the point of felony.
"Okay, okay" said Golf Shirt said, "What would you do to
stop the erosion of the rain forest?"
Reg, who lives in a bungalow behind the Javanikin where he
also has the office for his contracting business, came on and
ordered a house coffee to go. A fellow participant in the
alliterative association and harp player too boot, he's known
Rephael since he sobered up.
He spied me and slapped me on the back where I sat, sinking
into an over stuffed couch, watching Rephael untangle his cords.
"Gonna twist up some notes tonight, Reph" he asked, a wave of
his native New Jersey filling the SoCal interiors. Rephael either
didn't hear him or ignored him. Reg smiled and patted me on the
"How about you, man, you gonna get up there and twist 'em
up?"I shrugged.
He bummed a cigarette and we both went outside to smoke,
the conversation, no surprise, being about harmonica playing.
Reg had been playing harp for a lot less time than I had, but
unlike me, he was an earnest student who continued to master more
of the instrument. I'd met him five years ago outside the Alano
Club at Cass and Law after a meeting, where I heard him playing
rudimentary riffs for some other members. These days, though, he
played as well as I ever had, and I expected him to give me
lessons in short order. Not incidentally, he'd taken lessons from
"Yeah, bro, check it out" he said,"Reph gives lessons, and
they're cool. He charges twenty bucks, and you get an hour with
him where he shows you stuff, goes through stuff bit by bit, and
he also gives you a kind of philosophy of playing, or whatever.
But it's worth it, 'cause he tapes the lesson, and you keep the
tape, you know, so can listen to it later.Wanna drop by the pad
for a sec and check one of 'em out?"
I had nothing to do until Rephael started playing, so we
ducked around to the bungalows behind the coffeehouse and walked
into the apartment. At one end of the room he had his business
desk, a few pieces of furniture, and in the bedroom, a couple of
dozen harmonicas were ordered in neat rows on a cabinet of
"Check this" Reg said, jabbing the play button of his stereo.
The tape was cued half way into the lesson, so Rephael's
playing burst forth from the speakers in full gallop, a harmonica
bricolage, from shuffle to country fiddle music that went as
far as to suggest trains cutting through sprawling Southern
valleys. Reg scratched his chin, pulled a cigarette from his
shirt pocket. He pointed to the speaker. speaker.
"Check this" he repeated.
The harmonica playing stopped. "You gotta remember that
you're feeling your way through the solo" said Rephael's voice.
I imagined Reg sitting on a chair while Rephael played and
discoursed, eyes wide as the master spoke.

"You're not playing to
people to show off your licks, because you wear them out and they
bored and you get bored to, because all you've done if you show
off all the time is not play music, but only practice some
technical things that only impress other harmonica players. You
need to feel what you're doing with the melody. You have to know
the songs and invent something that's new , and carry your
audience along with you. For all the tricky licks, you have to
know where and when to use, at the right place in the playing, so
that anything you play sounds right and it sounds new, fresh..."
We listened for ten minutes, smoked cigarettes and filled
the apartment of with a gagging patina. Reg snapped off the tape.
"Whattaya think,man" he asked and I said that it made me
wanna play the blues.
"Gotcha" he said, and grabbed a harmonica from the row on
his dresser. Putting it to his lips, a billow of blue grey smoke
spewed from the back side of the harp.
"Smokin'!" he said. We laughed , traded riffs for a few
minutes, and then sanity came back to me. We pounded the spit
from the reeds in hard slaps against into our respective palms.
"I'm gonna go hear Rephael" I said.
"Right on, check you later."
At quarter past eight, the cafe had about fifteen people
scattered through out, some listening, others hustling
backgammon. The three original guys had left. The set was a
eclectic, if nothing else, strong doses of Neil Young, Bob Seger
and Hendrix interspersed with original songs that had a surreal
slant on things, and ending up with a solo harmonica of "Dance of
the Sugar Plum Fairies", an amazing, delicate rendition.
During the second set , the music got to the root of all
things. A second guitarist named Mike joined Rephael, supplying a
firm, jazzy set of chords that allowed Rephael to set his guitar
down and place the harmonica straight on the microphone, giving
him the full, warm tone of Butterfield. It was a set of pensive,
grinding blues, "Help Me Baby" by Sonny Boy Williams and others,
with Mike pushing Rephael onto more adventurous escapades, to mix
up what he knew and reinvent blues harp. It would have been a
great scene in a musician film biography, where the instrumental
genius is at last in the realm he is lord of, exposing layers of
a deep soul in sheets of sound, a wordless poetry.
on Friday night,and people cracked their knuckles and scratched
noses,people still hustled backgammon, the traffic still made
sticking noise at the intersection, and Rephael still played as
if nothing else mattered. The cognac tip glass had four dollars
in it, old bills crumpled up like used tissue.

At ten till eleven, Mike packed up his guitar and left to
could catch the waves at Tourmaline Beach in the morning. Rephael
had his guitar out again and harmonica holder back on,and asked
me what key harp I had.
"Key of 'C'" I said.
"I see" he said, and without pause blasted into Little
Walter's "Juke", a classic harmonica showcase.We exchanged solos
for a few bars, trying to top each other with each succeeding
run,and at times some of the trickiest riffs I knew worked,
pivoted by the charge of the guitar. Rephael took one more solo,
and nodded to me to take it away after he was done, but I
deferred to him, doing some Arab stereotype motion of the hand I
assumed was a tribute to my harmonica master. Rephael frowned.
Done, he thanked those who'd stayed for the night, gathered what
looked to be now ten dollars from the cognac glass, and walked
up to me.
"Don't ever do that ,man" he said. He looked to the door his eyes to the
door, where the counterman was taking town the Cinzano umbrellas
outside the cafe.
"Do what?"
"Wave me off like that. If I didn't want you play, if I
thought you had nothing I wanted to hear, I wouldn't have asked
what key your harp was in."
The next day we met at Kono's, a burger joint at the end
of Garnet street across from the Crystal Pier. Rephael was eating
a burger overflowing with onion and flora while outside roller
bladers ran intricate circles around tourists and thirsty
"What's the name of that burger I asked. He stared at me,
spoke with his mouth full. He regarded the bun like it were poor
Yorik's skull.
"Bacon burger with cheese" he said, dropping the sandwich
into the plastic basket it was served in.. He saw me write that
down in a note book I brought. He nodded.
"I see how that works, atmosphere. '...he says, over a
dripping Bacon Burger.' Right?"
"Something like that". I admitted, and then raising my voice
to rise over the noise. Why didn't he liked being deferred to by
younger harmonica players?
He took another bite and chewed the burger and the question
for a minute before answering. He swallowed, he answered.
"Getting over fear, I suppose. The way we perceive ourselves
in a certain way, the way we play, we think that it's all we
can do, and then we hear someone else something else on the
harmonica, and we automatically think that what they're doing is
better than what we can do, that it's on a higher level. In
fact, what they're doing is on the same level, it's just a
different way of approaching the same instrument.
"What I try to do to deal with that phobia is to look at other
people, other harmonica players through the filter through which
I look at myself, which is in a good light most of the time. When
people come to play with me on the harmonica, I don't get off on
people who make mistakes and stumble and then STOP and then say
to me 'Hey, you're really good, I can't do what you do.' I don't
like that, it's not fun. It's fun when they play and they play as
well as they can. You get more experience playing, and you'll
find that there's not much difference between harmonica players
after all, if you know what I mean."
The humility was real, but the unchangeable fact was that
Rephael is scads better than the average reed twister, though it
became obvious he didn't know what do with the talent until he
got sober. He was pulled apart by the competing notions that he
was worthless as well as the grandiosity that he was better than
anyone. Not a pleasant combination,the extremes of a diseased
ego. He continued his geographic cures through the seventies,
piling one drinking disaster on top another, until he landed in
Borrego Springs 1984, where began the long skid to a bottom.

"I went there to dry out, but that took longer than I thought
I was working as a carpenter, construction, using drugs to keep
going, I was getting weaker.I was invited to go out to Borrego
Springs to live by some people who thought that if I got away
from the city, I'd do better. So I worked construction, played
music, kept on drinking.
"What motivated the move was that I'd gotten drunk in Mission
Beach while I was working at Art and Harmony because my girl
friend was dealing coke. I decided not to go to work, except I
didn't have the courage to tell my boss. I didn't call. He later
came to my apartment looking for me where me and my girlfriend
were and she answered the door while I hid behind it. I
eventually came from behind door while she was talking to him and
blew him off not too kindly. When he left, there she was, I'd
just blown off my boss from a job I needed, and I was drunk. It
sounds funny coming from someone who dealt coke, but she said
'Reph, you're an alcoholic.' And the only thing I could say was
'Yeah, I'm an alcoholic, so what?'
"That was in 1984, and I have to say that I was running into
people all over Pacific Beach from the 12 fellowship (©© the
alliterative association we've spoken off) ,friendly folks from
the Alano Club at Cass and Law Streets, and now and then one of
them would say that I oughta go to some meetings.
"But I moved to Borrego Springs , where I continued drinking
and playing music, and that's where I got sober in 1988, December
"Before that, I was drinking in Borrego, having black outs
and hangovers, and getting too fucked to play. I mean,
literally, the band I was playing in wouldn't let me on the
stage, I was too drunk and an embarrassment. I had enough, I was
sick and scared."
Luckily, Rephael had made some friendships with members of
the alliterative association, whom he called and had them take
to a meeting. This was also a gateway situation for him to ease
himself back into the Beach area, the place he left seeking to be
rid of his demons.
"People in the meetings were real nice to me in early
sobriety. I realized from going to meetings how bankrupt I was
because of my addiction. People were nice, eager to help, taking
me to meetings, giving me hugs and inviting me to their
"Socially, I was still a little ant, but I went to meetings
and had a sponsor and worked the steps they talk about.
When I came back to San Diego, I was playing my harmonica and
folks noticed, and I was able to stand up behind my harmonica and
say 'Yeah, I play'. I didn't have to hide behind anything.
"A friend of my mine in the program, Reg, started to take me
around to blues bars and I started to sit in with bands, and that
was how I met Wade Preston, a fine, fine piano player. I sat in
with Earl Thomas one night Reg had to do a lot of talking with
him to let me sit in and Wade was playing with Thomas that
night. The next week, Wade had his own gig at Winstons, and he
hired me to sit in with him at Elario's in La Jolla. That gig
went on for two years, it was great. It'd be a good idea for me
to do that again. Getting out and letting people hear it."
Continuing to work as a carpenter and as a construction
worker to pay rent, Rephael became a fixture on the then
exploding coffeehouse scene, picking up regular engagements at
the Javanikin and the Inner Change as a solo artist, as well as
playing as guest artist with Wade Preston, Robin Henkel. Studio
work has also come his way, where he's added his playing to
commercials and instrumental albums.
The gifts from being a sober harmonica player have been slow
in coming, though, and he has list things he'd like to do in the
coming years, a day at a time. We've walked up from Crystal Pier
up Garnet, past Zanzibar, where the body piercers and old
bohemians are beginning to assume their positions now that the
late afternoon dark falls, and we found ourselves in front of the
Blue Guitar, a music store where Rephael get his harms and guitar
"I'd like to do my own CD, you know, play all the
instruments, harmonica, dobro, steel string, piano, and take the
time I need to record it right, play my own songs, I have a
couple of hundred that I've written. I'd like to sing and play
harmonica in a blues band, but I'd like to do things other than
blues, play a whole range of music. Most of it is in my head, I
can hear them as complete pieces of music. I've lost a lot of
what I've written down because I've traveled so much, but I
still have good stuff left, up here.
"But what I'm most excited about now is the surf movie
soundtracks we've done, one called 'Power Glide' and a newer one
called 'Liquid Sky' that's gonna be broadcast on PBS in June.
It was full group of surfer musicians, like Danny Aaberg on
guitar, John Close on piano, some guy named Murph on drums. We
call ourselves the Coastal Heros when we play together, and the
music is swell, like a wave, some thing you could ride on."
Rephael looked through the security bars of the display
window, seeming to study the guitars hanging on the wall, and
then asked "Goethe, he's a poet, right?". When I said "Yeah", he
turned and walked inside the store while I stayed outside to
smoke, wondering what the last year of hanging out with some one
who used to scare me has come to. Scare me he doesn't anymore,
but he is occasionally baffling, and I wonder why he isn't
shredding at major clubs to big audiences in sexy towns.
I'm not the only one who wonders, and at different times
over the months more than one person told that maybe Rephael is
his own worst enemy.
"I know what he says about feeling a part of it all" said
one musician ,"but he is just too sensitive sometimes, caring
too much of what others think of him. Like sometimes he'll get
something going that's great with other musicians, but he backs
away from it, thinking that he can't do whatever it takes for
whatever reason he can think of. He's getting better, I know,
but he should be somewhere farther with his music than where's at
right now. He's too good a musician not to be."
I thought of a half dozen 12 step cliches to fit our shared
condition, recovering alcoholics slowing getting back in small
increments what our disease took away from us, when Rephael came
out of the music store, handing me a small post card.
"Goethe" he said, " he wrote that and it was stuck against
the door to the back room."
One side had a pen and ink drawing of naked souls on a
mountain side who aspired to ride the trade winds,
and on the other side was this, printed in florid italics:
"Until one is committed, there is hesitating, the chance
to draw back always in effectiveness ©© concerning all acts of
iniative and creation, there is one elementary truth, that the
moment one defiantly commits oneself,then providence moves to.

" All sorts of things occur to help one that would never
have occurred. A whole stream of events issue from the decision
raising in this favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and
meetings and material assistance which no man could have
dreamed would have come his way."

"I saw that when I was supposed to see it" he said, "I
was back there screwing around with some of their new guitars
when I saw it, and it made sense..."
I cocked my head show that I was listening intently, nodding absently, taking long drags from my
cigarette and blowing the smoke away from him.
"You just have to do what you chose to do and stay out of
the results. It keeps me going...."
The breeze shifted . Smoke blew in his face.
He frowned abruptly , waved the fumes away from his face, and then
pointed at the cigarette and the smoke curling around the
"Brother Burke" he said, "you have to stop smoking that
poison. It's no good, and it just fucks up your harmonica playing.”

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth

Well,yes, the novel is three or so years old, but the happiness of reading a great novel one found as a used paperback somewhere in the grimy stacks of a consignment gives one a mission to share the small but powerful joy of it all.
Novelist Philip Roth, always a spiky and unpredictable story teller, creates an alternative history for America, a fascinating and troubling fantasy of "what if": Charles Lindbergh, aviation hero and Nazi-sympathetic isolationist, is nominated by the Republican Party in the 1940 presidential election, and handily defeats FDR. Using his own family as the center of this fable, Roth has written a novel with the impact of a memoir of hard and terrible times,speaking to how easily a homegrown fascism could take root and grow. The power of Roth's novel lies not only in the impressive historical research he brings to the novel, but especially in how creeping Totalitarian persecution effects the lives of characters who are complex, sympathetic, argumentative.

This is not a dry recital of dates, events, names from fading ledgers and indexes, because the novel is a family saga among its several formations, and what Roth has done is highlight a family's struggle between each other and their inner lives while the nation prepares to give in to its worse fears and lay the land for fascism. Several instances -- the family listening the radio during the convention, a hapless father become less powerful in the children's eyes as political forces move against American Jews, the subtly advanced symbolism of the fictional Philip Roth's stamp collection-- gives a reader an vivid accounting of the things that disrupted, destroyed, lost by systematized evil.
The Plot Against America is a masterpiece of the first rank, as relevant as morning headlines, timeless as great literature, qualities that place him, unexpectedly, in the same league with Sinclair Lewis.This is art as a form of truth-telling, of an acute paranoia made comprehensible through a focus of literary skill that gives voice to the unspeakable. Roth was obliviously raised to revere democracy , and this work, tempered by experience and the history of human kind to go wrong and become complicit in evil, sounds off a warning for the reader that is hardly an original thought but meaningful resounds even still: the price of freedom is constant vigilance because the enemies of our rights as citizens are snakes sleeping with one eye open.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Ellington v. Coltrane

Slate has been running essays by Clive James culled from his forthcoming collection Cultural Amnesia, a gathering of pieces combining biography and astute critical comments on the 20th Century's most engaging personalities, A-Z. Typically British and marvelously intelligent, James' goal is not just to inform the uninitiated to new persons and their ideas, but also to provoke a conversation, perhaps controversy among the cognoscenti. He does this effectively on a recent excerpt on Duke Ellington; the essay reads well and describes the composer's particular genius for writing three-minute swing masterpieces, not a point of contention. He then takes the dimmer view of Ellington's later work, when he was composing and performing longer concert pieces, a denser, less swinging arrangements of colors and moods. James is not happy with The Duke's efforts:

The ­art form he had done so much to enrich depended, in his view, on its entertainment value. But for the next generation of musicians, the ­art form depended on sounding like art, with entertainment a secondary consideration at best, and at worst a cowardly concession to be avoided. In a few short years, the most talented of the new jazz musicians succeeded in proving that they were deadly serious. Where there had been ease and joy, now there was difficulty and desperation. Scholars of jazz who take a developmental view would like to call the hiatus a transition, but the word the bebop literati used at the time was all too accurate: It was a revolution.

This isn't an unusual position, since critic Gary Giddins has written at length about why he considers Ellington's legacy resting not on denser, mature work in later years, but instead on the sheer wealth of shorter dance tunes he brought to light; all the invention one might wish in notation and sound are found in the work Ellington performed to keep America dancing. Yet Giddins admits the originality and greatness of much of the larger work, while James is harboring a resentment against the post-swing developments of Bebop complexity and post-Bop envelope-tearing improvisation of John Coltrane. Pretty much implying that one of the greatest betrayals against art was that of a younger generation of improvisers seeking ot expand jazz's lexicon, James cites with endearing relish the great Ben Webster's magical tenor work for Ellington against the wild man arrogance of a younger John Coltrane:

There is nothing to be gained by trying to evoke the full, face-­freezing, ­gut-churning hideosity of all the things Coltrane does that Webster doesn't. But there might be some value in pointing out what Coltrane doesn't do that Webster does. Coltrane's instrument is likewise a tenor sax, but there the resemblance ends. In fact, it is only recognizable as a tenor because it can't be a bass or a soprano: It has a tenor's range but nothing of the voice that Hawkins discovered for it and Webster focused and deepened. There is not a phrase that asks to be remembered except as a lesion to the inner ear, and the only purpose of the repetitions is to prove that what might have been charitably dismissed as an accident was actually meant. Shapelessness and incoherence are treated as ideals. Above all, and beyond all, there is no end to it. There is no reason except imminent death for the cacophonous parade to stop. The impressiveness of the feat depends entirely on the air it conveys that the perpetrator has devoted his life to making this discovery: Supreme mastery of technique has led him to this charmless demonstration of what he can do that nobody else can. The likelihood that nobody else would want to is not considered.

Jazz ought to have stood still.

The most noticeable element of this essay is Clive James' resentment that people and things change over time. Eloquent as he is about Ellington's great early period, there is less a convincing argument for the superiority of swing over more experimental strains of jazz than it is a barely contained lament for lost, youthful elan.

As has been said already, the rhythms of the world changed after WW2, and the kids were taken with rock and roll's back beat rather than what was going on with jazz. Being able to swing was besides the point; the children of the Ellington era audience wanted to rock. The jubilation at the Ellington "comeback" concert was a good and great thing--good art should always cause excitement--but it didn't translate into the fabled return of the Big Band/Swing era. It's doubtful Ellington himself would have desired a return to the Golden Days, as he was far too interested in the new music he was composing and performing with his Orchestra. For such a bright fellow, Clive James has the queer notion that art, jazz in this instance, must not progress some vague peak of expression; band leaders should keep their writing chops focused on producing
limitless three minute dance tunes, and soloists have to remain sweet, lyrical, and brief. Art is only interesting in that it evolves with successive generations of players, and it would be a strange and stale reading world if novelists adhered to perceived rules from the eighteenth and nineteenth century, or if film makers eschewed sound and color. Jazz would be a predictable shtick rather than a creative act.The truth of this is that audiences were turning away from jazz in general.Dispite whatever historicist arguements advanced pitting traditionalists against experimenters in order to explain jazz's declining audience,both Ellington and Coltrane were both playing to diminished fan bases;the record buying public had gotten younger and leaned towards a simpler rhythm and blues style. This was true among black audiences, whose generational switch to Ray Charles, and Rufus Thomas influenced white audiences, resulting in the eventual rise of rock and roll. Everything gets displaced from the center. Clive James objects to both Ellington's widening ambition with his composing, recording and performance of longer concert pieces and to Coltrane's redefining what jazz improvisation could sound like. He seeks to locate the cause and the instance when jazz ceased being the world's all purpose sound track, and for as sweetly as he writes, seeks to attach blame. He forgets a crucial fact of being alive; things change.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

A little house keeping on the Book Shelf

Some house cleaning is in order, as three books have been read in the last month, enjoyed in varying degrees, and now lie in a stack waiting for a summation, a judgement. There are larger problems in life, and the issue of feeling compelled to remark on recent reading is a luxury in actual fact. How the book reviewers, paid and not paid, love to whine and simper of their peculiar burden.

The Road
Cormac McCarthy
Easily the strongest, strangest novel I've read from 2006, a parable set in an unspecified American future, set during an unspecified world-destroying catastrophe.
A man and a boy head up a road , past ruined farms, through scorched forests, alongside ravaged towns, heading to some future that is unknown, dodging packs of subhuman road agents as they forge, hide and push forward on the ruined planet. McCarthy's vision is spare, ashen, terse in the best sense of Hemingway in the
creation of mood and tone that seeps in from outside the paragraphs; this is the same vision of Faulkner of Absolom Absolom, but with the metaphorical link to an idealized past all but burned out of consciousness. This is a novel that will convince you just how tenuous a sane and orderly existence can be.Few craft sentences as powerfully, as effectively as McCarthy, and there are far fewer who create the the sort of haunted poetry The Road abounds in with such a select use of language.

The Discomfort Zone

Jonathan Franzen

Franzen, author of the flawed (and overpraised) novel The Corrections, is a good prose stylist who none the less makes my hairline hurt when I encountered his essays in the collection How to Be Alone. Bright, ironic, discerning, Franzen took off on several topics, filtering his observations through his general air of feeling people, places and things are an imposition on his right to be in a bubble, brilliant and unsoiled by alien hands. Fine , I thought, his itchy irritation with things was worth the toleration due to his finesse as a prose stylist, and the sheer abundance of unexpected insight on a range of items, small and smaller. Franzen thinks a lot, and blessedly he writes well enough to make his slightest notion interesting. The Discomfort Zone, though, brings his antsy tone to a grating pitch, like a plumbing squealing late in the night,These set pieces, recollections of a man who is unhappy he's middle aged and more intensely self aware than he ever has been,use up a readers' empathy. Though often moving--the piece about trying to sell his parents house after their deaths got me by the throat a couple of times--Franzen's writing takes on the rhythm of someone
speaking perfect sentences without the slightest variation in tone. Not a single inflection intrudes. He just goes on about what was and what was there and what it contained and what it smelled like and who made him nervous and who he liked and who betrayed him and what they wearing and what the ordered for lunch...You get the idea.
You wish would shut up.

The Preservationist
David Maine

Wicked and fanciful imagining of the story of Noah's Ark, made into a comedy with sufficiently contemporary allusions and unexpected rents and tears in the familiar
saga of how God destroyed the world in order to save it. Noah and his immense family
squabble, scheme, bicker and connive for some position within the Patriarch's distracted gaze, and all of them try to outwit an Old Testament God who is seen here as insane and mean spirited. The comic flourishes are very fine, pithy, funny.

Derrida and the Dirt Nap of Literature

My slight bit about Derrida is that his central contribution to the analysis of literature was creating a rhetorical means by which a generation of coming literary critics were relieved from having to discuss a book in a way that shows that they've actually read it. I've struggled with Derrida's work for several years, and have absorbed quite a bit of writing by him and about him and his ideas, and evasion of the book, the author's concerns, seems more the game rather than explication.

Many times when one thinks they've come upon an oasis of actual discussion in this varicose discourse , both Derrida or an apostle one might be reading makes a hard turn, left or right, from whatever metaphorical road or river you might have been traversing; in any event, every side road, alley, tributary and inlet was wandered into and prated about until exhaustion drove the reader from the chair and desk they sat at, not convinced of Derrida's and deconstruction's vague premises, but rather resigned that this was a peculiar literary mafia who had no intention of treating literary work like it had an intrinsic worth. Derrida and his supporters argued otherwise, in their few moments of assertive writing, and maintained that the deconstructive process intends to reveal a multitude of interpretations by demonstrating what contradictory positions compose a nominally "authoritative" texts.

It's a grand project on the face of it, an investigative premise intriguing enough to be worth a try, but the results of twenty plus years of post-structuralist theory applied to an arbitrarily termed "canon" produced not clarity, nor comprehension, but only more confusion. One understands why Harold Bloom, a former proponent of Derrida's method, tired of the nihilistic wallow of post-modernism and turned his attentions again to a more fruitful mission of literary criticism and the attending philosophical/religious digressions, how literature gives a reader and a culture an malleable interior superstructure one filters raw experience with.

Derrida's accomplishment , I think, was to take assume an array of philosophical tropes available from credible philosophy survey course , add his own egregious seasoning to the unpalatable stew, and turn what used to the sort of infinite prattle of the cocktail party poser into book contracts, tenured positions, and all the other perks of being a celebrity intellectual. It's significant about Derrida's contribution to literary criticism that his name rarely, if ever, arises when useful quotes about authors and their books are the subject of a conversation.

This is a twofold irony, the literary critic with nothing useful to say about what they've been reading, and an incredibly bad writer as well. That such an awful scribe makes such a dent in the upper reaches of the culture ought not surprise us, just as the success of Jackie Collins is a twofold irony, the literary critic with nothing useful to say about what they've been reading, and an incredibly bad writer as well. That such an awful scribe makes such a dent in the upper reaches of the culture ought not surprise us, just as the success of Jackie Collins no longer distresses mainstream book reviewers. Often times talent and ability have nothing to do with an author's good fortune.

My principle misgiving with Derrida's ideas was his insistence that one cannot argue a point with certainty; there is a lot more to his arguments, subtle, abstruse, and obscured with every evasive trick of the tongue and pen he could muster, but this cluster of notions is at the heart of his life's work. I'm willing to grant that Derrida's intentions were all for the best--that he would expose how the production of meaning, and with it a hazy notion of "authority" comes from a socially constructed set of binary oppositions which, of course, entrenches in constrained ideas about reality-- but his failure to be clearer with his method and aim, and more useful in how readers and citizens can configure a discourse that might lead to ways of ridding the world of its internalized malfunctions has given us instead a sort of relativistic nihilism that advances the severest reactionary premises with what to do with the planet we live on. Baudrillard, certainly, has take the opening as a chance to advance his set of tightly quipped solipsisms that insist, at the heart of their gnomic devisings, that apathy is as effective and meaningful political gesture as any any collective might take on.

Since no definitive or authorially fixed moral argument can be made against racism, genocide, homophobia, imperialism, colonialism , pollution, et al,so the thinking goes, one may as well go about their way in this existence unmindful of what constitutes ethics or responsibility, and fulfill such base desires and impulses that give that transitory definition to one's existence, a fleeting sensation of purpose to be replaced by another fleeting fleet sensation, and so on, until one drops, spent, exhausted, dead. This encourages apathy in the pursuit of truth, I think, and in fact reinforces such paranoid mind sets which needs to witlessly demonize whole sections of a society's citizenry as "other" and "evil". Racism and homophobia are allowed to thrive in the absence of the ability to make a principled statement, to have a debate, to reach a consensus about what constitutes an idea of right and wrong no longer distresses mainstream book reviewers. Often times talent and ability have nothing to do with an author's good fortune. My principle misgiving with the ideas was his insistence that one cannot argue a point with certainty; there is a lot more to his arguments, subtle, abstruse, and obscured with every evasive trick of the tongue and pen he could muster, but this cluster of notions is at the heart of his life's work. I'm willing to grant that Derrida's intentions were all for the best--that he would expose how the production of meaning, and with it a hazy notion of "authority" comes from a socially constructed set of binary oppositions which, of course, entrenches in constrained ideas about reality-- but his failure to clearly outline his method and aim, and more useful in how readers and citizens can configure a discourse that might lead to ways of ridding the world of its internalized malfunctions has given us instead a sort of relativistic nihilism that advances the severest reactionary premises with what to do with the planet we live on.

Baudrillard, certainly, has take the opening as a chance to advance his set of tightly quipped solipsisms that insist, at the heart of their gnomic devisings, that apathy is as effective and meaningful political gesture as any any collective might take on. Since no definitive or author- fixed moral argument can be made against racism, genocide, homophobia, imperialism, colonialism , pollution, et also the thinking goes, one may as well go about their way in this existence unmindful of what constitutes ethics or responsibility, and fulfill such base desires and impulses that give that transitory definition to one's existence, a fleeting sensation of purpose to be replaced by another fleeting fleet sensation, and so on, until one drops, spent, exhausted, dead.

This encourages apathy in the pursuit of truth, I think, and in fact reinforces such paranoid mind sets which needs to witlessly demonize whole sections of a society's citizenry as "other" and "evil". Racism and homophobia are allowed to thrive in the absence of the ability to make a principled statement, to have a debate, to reach a consensus about what constitutes an idea of right and wrong

Friday, February 16, 2007

Some good words about Philip Johnson

Witold Rybczynski takes the usual line against Philip Johnson by insisting that his work were the same old assemblages of old and new welded together, and once again I respond that Johnson had those qualities that are, for the most part, lacking in post-modern architecture; grace, symmetry, style, simple elemental elegance.

Indeed, postmodern architectural style in the wrong hands is a nightmare of bad taste, bad ideas and bad faith foisted on perfectly good pieces of the city scape, but Johnson wasn't one of the dullards. In his best moments he would size up the curious advantages a plot of land would give him, and would render a structure that was a curiously satisfying synthesis of other designer's notions of outrage and an sense of how to make things fit, compliment, enhance as well as challenge a city's high rise profile knew how to make his buildings fit into a skyline, particularly one that studded with structures of historical import; and have his buildings seemingly converse with the history of a given city's urban center. It is not an insult, indeed a compliment, that he had an interior designer's sense of an area's elemental gestalt; what was being added was an organizing principal that could enliven and calm a turmoil being played on the urban eye simultaneously.

His One Detroit Center in my home town does this wonderfully; the elements of the past, particularly the pitched topping and the alteration of cement and glass are an effective and underplayed homage sorts of Louis Sullivan aesthetic from Detroit's great the twenties through the forties, and yet whose lines and playfully exaggerated proportions offers an idea that there is a future for this city that is not cut off from it's past.

Johnson's best work shows that he understood this need for connectedness, and why he felt that the social engineering agenda behind embedded in the modernism in which he started was inadequate. One shapes the future by understanding the best the past has given us, and establishes within institutions a continuity of the best virtues in a manner to motivate the best good one can do for their community. This is a totalitarian impulse at the farthest edge, insisting that citizens live and work a certain way within spaces designed with it in mind to engineer away human shortcomings; the need for order of things made from materials and blue prints contains the conceit that populations can likewise be organized and kept in place. Johnson, though, appreciated the inconsistency of the human element , strong, individualistic despite an innate need to gather in communities and to create shared culture. Rather than regard his buildings as a means to mold human personality, to act as a corrective, he admitted, in the best post-modern spirit, the need for fun, play, surprise with new buildings. Structures needed to amaze, amuse, engage with an elegance that made city life a tolerable concern, even an inspiring locale. His aim wasn't allowing form following function, the cityscape needed to be fun. If function only produced anonymous reminders of corporate power, doing anything at all was , in essence, pointless. Johnson was not a soul killer. Theory of form was reduced to the practical aspects that combined function with an aesthetic grace which
welcomed workers, residents, and visitors to walk within and around, channeling a large spirit of metropolitan life.

It's a lot of bluster, yes, but it's a principle Johnson believed in all the same, and however suspicious his motives might seem in retrospect in view of his youthful dalliance with Nazism, what came from his life's work are wonderful buildings that have more often than not graced downtown areas everywhere one might look. Johnson's instinct was about order and grace and returning style and form as a means in which functionality in urban structuring would achieve beauty and maximum service at once. This is the idea that art can inspire men and women and change them and their society to a higher calling--this is the dread promise and ghost of modernism--and as seductive as the idea remains, it is a slippery result to fascism, the government that comes to worship and deify the individual of genius who is able to inspire legions into an Aryan future. Johnson fell under this seduction, and didn't speak of it much as he began to pick up commissions in American and Europe, but you wonder if he ever had faith in American democracy and its promise of limitless pluralist vistas. I doubt it, but I am grateful that he left the company of evil men and contended himself with what he could humanly do in this world that was a social good, which was to design and build.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Camille Paglia's back at Salon: a floundering wallow of self-regard

Erstwhile firebrand Camille Paglia , a maverick humanities professor who chose some time ago to be equal parts genius and fool in an effort to get a general public to think outside their flimsy catagories and frames of reference, has returned to an old writing gig, as a columnist for Salon. She wrote the column from 1995 to 2000, and then left the gig to concentrate on writing her 2004 book, the punchy collection of poetry criticism Break , Blow, Burn, and now returns to Salon's cyber pages, declaring herself in the first column that she was a pioneer of all that internet geeks and pundits and blogoholics take for granted. She essentially provides the "About the Author" box in the column's first paragraphs rather than at the end of the piece, where it traditionally appears. She has written important monographs, she has appeared on C-Span, she was in the advance guard in speculating our the cyber realm will effect politics and culture, she is a lesbian liberatarian Democratic pro choice aethiest, she wants you to know who she is. It is tiresome, of course, and yet you keep reading knowing that parsing Paglia isn't a waste of time. For all the prate and prolix , there are the fabled "flashes of brillance", ' though I fear, as the late Molly Ivins has said about this claim, that any such glimmers are lost in the yammering.

I'm a fan of Paglia when she gets beyond herself and writes about the culture and the arts it produces. It's here, and nowhere else, where the claims of her intellectual virtuosity and originality have merit. Sexual Personae had more outrageous and wonderfully defended propositions than any bit of academic criticism I've read, and Break, Blow,Burn brought an old school rigor to discussions of poetry , prate and self-consuming criticalese and connecting her selection of poems to the world. With those two books she makes the life of the mind exciting and attractive to someone wondering whether they should bother with Great Books and avant gard posturings. As a columnist, though, Paglia tries her hand at being the public intellectual, or worse,the celebrity intellectual,and comes up seeming comic rather than compelling. Doubtless she has Norman Mailer in mind as the self-aggrandizing firebrand, but strange as it seemes she lacks Mailer's charm and musical finess as a prose stylist.

Mailer might have been a boor and a lout, but he could write rings around his peers and segue into a metaphor rich discussion of war, poverty, women's rights, sexuality , theology, architecture with an intoxicating urgency. One need only compare Mailer's essay collections like Advertisements for Myself and The Presidential Papers to realize that Paglia has modeled her public persona on his amazing self confidence. What she lacks in this fast-paced world of instant opinion, though, is grace or a sense of her own absurdity, a quality that Mailer had , expressed and which endeared him even to this critics. He had a sense of irony about his attempts to light a fire in the conciousness of a post war generation he knew had been seduced by television.Paglia, I'm afraid, is just another typing head as this stage; pioneer she may be as an ur-blogger, but her return to Salon is not a return to form. An extended bout of self-congratulation makes her sound like she's interviewing for a entry position in a new media company. The remarks about Hillary, Obama, John Edwards, et al ,are likewise unremarkable.She sounds like she's the last one to have heard the news; she sounds several beats behind the rest of the band she's trying to join. I hope that Paglia's columns yet to come are better than this slogging mass of egomania and trite conjecture. Sad to say for someone of her daunting intellect, but she seems out of her depth.

Friday, February 9, 2007

"Major Third" by Jeffery Bean

I worked in the carnival for a number of years when I was half the age I am now, and it was a pleasant memory Jeffery Bean evokes with his opening stanza of his poem Major Third, ] the most recent selection by Robert Pinsky for his column in at Slate.

It comes from gravel lots where the state fair
pushes fried dough and bagged fish out the mouths
of red-lit tents. It's pumped out of dunking booths
across the blocks and into windows, up the stairs

My recollections of the carnival are fun and joyous , for the most part, hard work and rough life as it was, mostly because I was young, resilient enough to withstand insane hours, gross monotony, and , being relatively rudderless as a young man, having nothing really better to do. It was an extended lark. Bean's poem, though, does little to reinforce my simpering revelry, as the piece lurks toward the inevitability of death and the details of a departed person's interior life of associations that made his time in life worth the pains it takes to breath comfortably "it" that Bean addresses is undisclosed, but that is the case of reaching for a far recessed memory when one's accumulated life experience becomes crowded and unsorted. It is the essence of experience, perhaps, that sensual texture that is for a second very strong and then recedes as one follows the rhythm of daily life, moment to moment, second to second. "It" , undisclosed, is fluid, ephemeral, but strong in it's allure that we follow it, from one thing to the next, the meaning of that essence, that center of vivid recall, altering as it touches the hems and trouser cuffs of passing phenomena.

...up the stairs

of the apartment where my grandfather is
dying in a room of mums. It's the song of Sunday
traffic, the car horn's hot punch to which he
tunes his hymn, the last tune he remembers.

Something begins to swell, something real is about to emerge from the familiar clanks and clamours of street life, and yet this fades as well, reduced to something tangibly minor and insignificant, puzzling to the casual observer, inscrutable.

It's where the voices in rooms above him drift when
they cheer, or sing, when they ooh and ahh
or rise in anger, say where have you been,
when they call out for help or to mourn—even then.
It's "La Cucaracha".
It's "When the Saints Go Marching In".

"It", after we follow the trail and appreciate the world where it floats on the air, is unknowable to anyone who wants to know the inner experience of a departed they felt they were close to. Sometimes things are revealed soon after the fact that are just baffling and are destined to be just that. Some things are taken to the grave.
Inane songs, quaint aromas, the comings and goings of neighborhoods; all we are privy to are assumptions that these odd elements indicated to the mourned that they belonged someplace in this lifetime. What that means beyond that is a matter for us to infer from our experience, a task too many of us defer until the day before the sightings of daylight. Wonderful poem.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Letters from Iwo Jima: Another Eastwood Masterpiece

Letters from Iwo Jima is yet another addition to Clint Eastwood's late blooming hot streak as a film director, a suitable and splendidly paced companion piece to his earlier WW2 movie Flags of Our Fathers. Bearing in mind that Eastwood had a mere twenty million dollar budget and had to significantly reduce the scale of the battle in which we meet the Japanese soldiers defending the Island against American invasion, we have all the same where character is constantly tested in the face of churning, devastating battle.

Small ironies, nuanced truths, and personality transformation are all to be had in this rag-tag gathering of island defenders, and it is well managed orchestration of story lines. The cowardly, the brave, the sadistic, the conflicted, the insane and deluded make up the character ensemble--what else would one want from a layered war story?--confronting demons and recall a life they've left behind or a life they've never had as the inevitability of American invasion gathers, literally, like dark clouds. Sappy as this may sound, Eastwood is a savvy enough director to pick up the cues of Iris Yamashita 's screenplay and not allow the character development hijack the harder point of war itself; while the performances resonate grandly (especially the performance of Ken Watanabe as the conflicted General Kuribayashi), it serves as texture, not narrative direction. The battle sweeps,blasts and burns regardless of what bonds the audience might have been formed with the pitiful soldiers, and what remains is a sense of what is destroyed as men are focused on destroying one another.

Long, yes, the movie is long, but Eastwood's style is the slow build; one may say that his slow moving films at least move, in the sense that there is a rich development the range of human quirkiness under duress in the shadow of oncoming disasters and fiascos. Letters from Iwo Jima is very , very fine.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Say it, don't splay it

Talking to people about their problems makes for frequent miscues of speech and grammar, a habit stemming from something no more profound than that most of us don't know how to talk about ourselves and our personal problems to another human being. Hence, we come to the habit of trying to sound clinical, distanced, as if we have some clear grasp on what's the matter with our inner lives or internal organs. Either way, it makes for low grade comedy, and it is struggle not to laugh out loud or lecture someone on sloppy usage. I want to keep the friends and acquaintances I have.

One of the most egregious uses I can think is the promiscuous use of "potentiality" when the simpler, punchier, less ambiguous "potential" would do a better job. There's a confusion of the number of syllables in a word with the precision of expression; the more trills the tongue has to
glide over, the clearer the communication.

Another coinage that sends static crackling through my ear is the frequent use of the bizarre formation "uncomfortability". Again, there's that self-concious nervousness that mistakes terms with centipede rhythms to be superior to more succinct words, but this instance is further problematized,(that is to say made more confusing) by an unintended, unEmpsonesque ambiguity. Are we to think the speaker is in a state of "discomfort", which is what one arrives at through context, or is he addressing his ability to be uncomfortability at will?

The literary possibilities are rich, but this is of no aid to someone who needs to make it clear that he needs an aspirin, a therapist, or a
licensed saw bones to alleviate the particular disorder, physical or psychic.

It's not that I object to multisyllabic words in everyday use, since one needs certain words to convey more elaborate ideas, but I do require that
the words exist, in the dictionary if not in nature.

Notes on Hemingway, Kerouac, Melville,

Living in a studio apartment where three of the four walls you have are dominated with bookshelves with nary a spare inch of space will sometimes find you staring extravagant lengths of time at the spines, arranged in neat rows and horizontally atop other volumes, reading the titles, sounding out the exotica of author names and pronunciations, driving through the roads of recalls of the villages, taverns and
great wars that have swept across the bound pages. Sometimes the only thing you can do with to make all this time spent regarding your taste in literary property is to jot down, or type out, some random thoughts, hoping some sentences lead to an essay, or merely work as complete thoughts. The following paragraphs are those kinds of sentences, hoping to make sense and be worth a reader's effort. -tb


Now and then, in passing, not intended to start a war of any dimensions, someone remarks about how Ernest Hemingway is overrated, his books kept in print and his reputation buoyed by conspiracies of tired white academics that yearn, in secret, for another “good war” for America to again assert its virtue. I get irked, bothered, pissed off royal when someone baselessly derides Hemingway’s accomplishment as a storyteller and stylist (but none as a thinker), but I do see the point about the cult of Ernest who’ve come to regard him as a stalwart of honor and reserve forged by the sacrifices of having lived through a World War when the enemy and the Evil they presented to America wasn’t the least ambiguous or murky with runny metaphorical drift.

Now and again I recall essays and lectures about bad wars and bad faith and bad character for the citizenry as a result, and even sighing in exasperation as otherwise intelligent people suggested that America could use a good war, a “just” war in moments of low national mood so that we might collectively have something to rally around, some shared values to swear to protect, some duty to perform. This is a slippery slope to fascism, yes?

I say leave Hemingway out of the war drum circle and concentrate instead on how well his stories convey the experience of a generation of Americans suddenly thrust into and upon the world, pulled from Wisconsin farms, Bronx tenements or California movie lot, and marvel as well at the economy with which he did it. As the moral authority of governments gave way to chaos and slaughters that only burned the earth, ideas of what were of value were internalized, personalized, nearly becoming part of the nervous system.

Hemingway is, in fact, grossly under-appreciated for his best work, specifically "In Our Time", "The Sun Also Rises", "To Have and Have Not". So much gets accomplished in such a stingy choice of words! His was a different world than the one we live in now, and his accounts of the world, is, at its highest, sublime. At his worst, he wrote sentimental gruel whose bathos so thick you could use it for mortar. A string of post-humous novels hasn't helped the reputation, and have served to obscure the real accomplishment. His writing is about trying to learn to be a man when even the teaching father is a madman sacrificing family for blind patriotism.It 's precisely because that he had issues with his masculinity that he tried to work out in his fiction , is a large part of what makes him great. The point of literary study is empathy as well as analytical comprehension. Hemingway may have fallen short of the self-actualization, but his fictive attempts, at best, resonate and move, and achieve transcendence even when he did not.

Perhaps it is a male thing, that these are matters that a reader might have to be intimate with in order to enlarge their appreciation of the work, but I think not. More, I think, it comes to personal taste, as in, if one does not care for the way Hemingway described his universe, fine.

But I don't believe the ability to relate emotionally to a text need be restricted to gender, nor should it be limited to any other smoking gun criteria. The college professors who instructed me through his work were men and women, and the women, I have to say, win for inspired lectures, wedding appreciation with critique, understanding the poetry of the struggle, and why the struggle was futile.
Prospecting for insight through Jack Kerouac’s' journals will be give scholars reason to devastate another section of prime forest, but his novels remain , inspite of it all, maddeningly inconsistent in their best forms, and progressively unreadable in later writing years. Kerouac had his moments of divine lyricism, I admit, but the cult around his grey, sotten visage is nearly as objectionable as the devotion many give to Ayn Rand: the matter is not how good the writing was, but what the author stood for. Once the chatter about writers drifts, or jumps desperately, from concerns with style in the service of great storytelling and lands in the odious camp that insists that a writers' primary task is only to reaffirm a readers' shaky self image of being a rugged and forward thinking individualist, I reach for a good book, or ponder taking a nap. Either option is more fruitful, or both are more interesting endeavors. It galls me that comparatively little attention was given to the passing of William Burroughs, the one true genius of the Beat group, while the easily assimilated rebellion of Ginsberg and Kerouac claims the top half of the literary pages.


It's not a matter of us finding our "Moby Dick" for this century, because that places a false premise from which we expect writers to operate from. Yes, there is the anxiety of influence and the desperate writing younger scribes do to escape from under the long, inky shadow of the geniuses of the recent and less recent past, but I think each period is unique, and that great work is produced in some concentration of creative frenzy that dissolves the anxiety.

Readers looking for another "Moby Dick" for this century are better served to consider their period unique and regard the tradition as a lineage that is not a straight, paved highway that vanishes into a classically defined set of particulars every would be master adheres to, but is rather a broken, dotted line that threads and weaves through a loose cluster of tendencies in the culture, filled with writers who redefine themselves and their art each time out. Melville himself had to break with his own habits, transcending his discipline as a clever crafter of sea stories, a venerable genre he arrived at, to write the masterpiece called "Moby Dick".

The best writers today do no different, living up to the nothing else other than the authenticity of their process. Faulkner and Joyce have comparable greatness, I feel, but I cannot escape the feeling that Joyce was the brainier of the two. Joyce’s' infinite layering of literature, history, theology and myth in to the molecular structures of Ulysses and Finnegan’s' Wake demonstrates someone with a sensibility that subtly wishes to have Art supplant the Church as the institution men may comprehend a Higher Truth( what ever it turns out to be). His own dialectic method, perhaps. I tend to agree with the remark of Faulkner being much blunter, though he is scarcely a brute: the sensationalism Faulkner could give into was also linked to a patch of swamp that released his language, and allowed him to master the interior monologue. This gave us novels like "Light In August" and "Absalom, Absalom" that had with diverse psychological density.

The human heart at war with itself.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Sartre, poetry, itchy side burns

There are those of us who constantly wonder what the worth of it all is, the struggle,the tears,the aging, aching muscle and bone, until we happen a bit of beauty that makes having senses, feelings a wondrous thing indeed. Music, literature, all of it that makes one for a moment transcendent of their earthbound obligations and variegated sadnesses , has a value more important than "cash value" or practical application. The sounds of things and what they suggest to us rather than what they say to us get us in that rare state we can think more intensely, more creatively on our options. I think that beauty, in whatever guise, is the means through which we commit again to conduct ourselves creatively.

This reminds me of the most useful exertion of Sartre's peculiar blend of existentialism and phenomenology, that we have to acknowledge that reality, such as it is, is solid in its existence independent of our senses and fluid in how it pulses to laws that defies our subtle demands and expectations, and only when we realize this and bring ourselves to a "creative commitment" to live fully with the terms and consequences of our own actions can we , at least as Westerners, gain something like freedom or the chance to be happy (which is not to say contented). Meaning is personal, intimate, a creation culled from language and an aesthetic systematization of the senses, but it is not arrived at, willy nilly, from whole cloth; the particular desires for a form that gives us pleasure, brings us joy, and furnishes us with inspirations --spiritual, artistic, mechanistic-- to rise from an ever percolating vat of despondency and bring value to daily existence are unfeasible and practices of a short circuiting bad faith unless the world, as is, separate from our desires to control and command it like God(s), is cold to our desires , dreams and religious longings. That much we bring to the terrain.

Sartre is peculiar and appropriate because of the way he mixes what he likes from the philosophies he came under the sway of, and because his intuitively arrived and difficult to surmise views are fairly much in line with the poet's (or the true artist's) faculty to formalize their imaginings in what we can call , perhaps grievously, a "product" ( a poem, painting, a song, a novel, a film, et al) and hence add to existence a texture that makes prevents life from being merely something we survive. I am taken with his break from the theological existentialist who plied their trade before him, taking from them the notion that it is the act of faith, the action of belief, that has meaning alone, along with the willingness to live with and take responsibility for the consequences (or rewards) of one's decisions. Kierkegaard, Jaspers, et al, of course, were varied in their approaches, but there was God behind their theories, and what intriguing about Sartre was his idea that one had to live authentically in the absence of extra material guarantees of coherence,purpose, or final destination.

Heidegger was a phenomenologist, who had no interest or use in intricate systems of knowledge and who instead insisted that the meaning of existence can only be known through felt experience. Sartre's extension of Heidegger's framework, that existence has meaning only within the activity of participants, included an all important distinction, a continuous set of inquiries of the quality and style of choices one makes in a world bereft of institutional surety. Sartre, of course, took from religious existentialists like Kierkegaard, Jaspers and Paul Tillich, but the revolution in Sartre's thinking was to ponder the ethics of our choices in the absence of a God to micromanage our moral center.This atheism is not unexpected given that Europe had dragged itself through two World Wars that undermined , usurped and disrupted all universal claims as to how the World Spirit operates in a slow, deliberate, inevitable end of History. Sartre, though, wasn't entirely cynical, even if he was a little thick to read; meaning, hope, reason, joy were possible provided we realized the true freedom we always have and practice a creative commitment to the life we're are lucky enough to have; we make our decisions in good faith, take the steps to bring them into being, and we take full responsibility for our undertakings.

Why is Sartre trying to reassure us that feelings are possible without believing in God?Sartre would maintain that feelings, emotions are there regardless of whether one believes in God or not. The over all feeling of aloneness, isolation, he'd maintain, is one that is at the core of our awareness of existence, and what he would advise is grappling with that feeling of dis-empowering solitude, recognizing the source of the despair and (sigh) angst and construct a meaningful existence built around healthy choices about how one defines themselves. Not a quick fix, not a panacea, but it is about an authentic existence where we live in true freedom because our choices are own and we are truly responsible for them.

Is he acting like some kind of infomercial for existentialism?

I'd say no; rather he was a provocative intelligence who posed questions about authenticity, truth, and ethics after a world war where most commonly held assumptions about the Higher Purpose and Meaning of Life were undermined.

Aren't there other ways of finding commonality if there's no God for God's sake?

Sure, whether through art, politics. Sartre himself was his own particular species of humanist, which maintains that the qualities we ascribe exclusively to God are rather erring projections of virtues already latent in us "mere" mortals. He had a hunch, if an abstrusely expressed, that humans would find commonality sans a dictating Deity; far from each man being a lone agent enacting their lives oblivious to others , men would rather spontaneously find that there are enough similarities between the varied arrays of "creative commitment" to form a community, a government, a structure of government both rational and true to an otherwise misty conception of freedom.

Didn't Sartre pimp for Totalitarianism? Sad, yes, that philosophers whose aim is to free men from false constructs fall prey to tortured states of hero worship; where once these fellows might have sussed through matters as to what an individual can do to lead a principled, ethical and creative life now give themselves over to charismatic leaders who seem to them the sole possibility of human redemption and transcendence. Ezra Pound, hardly a friend of capitalism, found much to like in Mussolini's ideas of the Corporate State, with all the attending anti-Semitism and obfuscated racism retained, and erstwhile sophist Ayn Rand, for all her heckling about how the State shackles men and enslaves them to mediocrity, is seduced by the notion of powerful men of genius who will rise above conventional morality and blaze a new destiny for all humanity.

Note, please, that Rand's fantasy approximates the standard misreading Nietzsche received when his work was used as a philosophical argument for the inevitability of Nazi imperialism. The problem for these writers is not the state of human freedom but rather with the most effective, potent and correct use of Power that would rid the slate of man made complications. It's the moral authority of power that is at issue, not the worry that the common people aren't achieving greater levels of political and artistic expressiveness.

The tendency seems to be to convince readers, members of the literate population, to give up their quest and find solace, purpose and place in powers, forces, ideas that are greater than themselves--frustrations coming from, I don't doubt, from a recurring and systemic disgust with the stupidity of human doings, at the failure to learn the lessons of history. Diagnosis doesn't equal cure , though, and the brightest thoughts of of our most brilliant thinkers wind up eschewing the whole idea of personal freedom and responsibility and concentrate instead on ways to make the contentious noise of debate stop .It is fairly clear to me that even though he might have been clearer with his ideas--he was often a muddled writer, repetitious with his insulated definitions of particular words--his efforts were towards having human beings use their imaginations more fully, unencumbered by systems and dogmas that limit and destroy individual potential, places him in the center of the central ethical debate of the last half of the 20th century, which grappled with the problems of power, control, and the use of the imagination to make a world that is meaningful in terms we create, and are free to change given new evidence.

This poem made me madder than a wet hen

It might be said that was impossible to make anger a boring subject for a poem until Aliki Barnstone tried her hand at it. "Anger", Robert Pinsky's selection for the week, is set in situation a good many --too many-- of us recognize as awkward, strained, thoroughly unpleasant, a dinner for two who, sitting presumably at opposite ends of the table as they cut and chew their food with controlled strokes and grinding, manage a language in which they put each other on trial. Each has a turn to outline their argument , to make their case, the casing of civility chipping away with every scrape and jab of knife and stab of fork:

Yet we sit together at the table, each to serve
the other artfully poisoned morsels, point a fork,
and go on and on, watching the widening distance.

This would work, perhaps, if this were a fresher take on a soured relationship, but the poem treads territory that is too familiar, and Barn stone’s greatest mistake here is over writing the scenario her template provides. The poem reads like a set up for a knockout punch that does not materialize from the corner she's trying to fight her way out of.It goes on too long, and the device of comparing this meal and its discontents to a trial is less a metaphor than a reason to write further, to add stanzas.

You say, "You should have listened to me,"
and, "But you had to be you, didn't you?"
Then I become the witness who testifies against me.

We deliberate all night, inventing counterpoints,
narrowing our vision at spears of candlelight
and we go on and on, watching from a distance,

as we appeal, go back to discovery, retry, seek
sympathy by recounting suffering and history,
though this defense may deliver the verdict against us:

The prosecutorial element would have worked if it were brief, even fleeting, and if it were a means to segue into something else about the world this couple thought they were living in contrasted the world they now perceive as they relationship, presumably, slowly grinds to a stop. Barnstone might have managed something genuinely poetic if there were a sign, in images, of how the reality has changed. Rather, "Anger" reads as if Barnstone were too fascinated with the mechanics of making her -trial conceit work; the poem is damaged by repetition, needless volume. It is a mistake of perception, the assumption that the length of a piece is a measure of its value.This length equals a long wait in a doctor's office. It is a drone, as in the buzz of a drill felt through Novocaine's fading distance.

Grating as well is the last stanza, where Barn stone’s woman character, the "I" narrator, has a failure of nerve and instead wallows in the misery she and her husband/boyfriend make for each other:

our embrace will pull us down
through the shades, and we'll hold on to our grievances
and go on, too watchful, unable to get some distance,
reading and helplessly rereading the sentences against us.

Who amongst us does want to yell "get your ass out of there"? Barnstone clings to the relationship less for affection than for a reason to continue writing poems like this one. Poems written in bad faith about bad faith give evidence not just of bad, self-pitying verse, but gives obvious clues to an underlying disorder. I prayer is that Barnstone gets a relationship that is everything she desires it to be, and writes a poetry that doesn't reinforce a pathology.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Elvis Costello's deluge

Here's hoping that Costello doesn't publish a book of poems, since his more elaborate work of the last ten years, save the punchy and rocking' When I Was Cruel ,suffer a kind of Aesthetic Bloat. He wants to be taken seriously, and has weakened what used to be a strong cache of talent by too many half-considered
at complexity, diversity,and sheer musical muscle. Contributing to the diluting of the songwriter's work is his odd multilabel record deal with Polygram Records, with whom Costello seeks to release an album on each of that company's many imprints as it they might suit particular projects. What's informative, at least, is that there's a limit to what used to seem like Costello's unlimited capability; it's a symptom shared by novelist Joyce Carole Oates or poet John Ashbery, where quantity indeed diminishes quality. The voice becomes so ubiquitous and inevitably repetitious that you're left with nothing to look forward to.Sorry to say, that one grows tired of the signature styles with unceasing stream of releases and experiments. You become thirsty for other waters.

Costello's genius lies in square in the pop music tradition, where his fanciful notions of theme and eclecticism were reined in by a sense that a song had to work on many levels and still justify itself as something essentially pop-ish, of interest to listeners. This would the central lesson he could take from the Beatles, who remained tuneful and catchy, for the most part, during their great period of experimentation and lyric irony. So much of Costello's music lately has been reminded me of nothing so much as the sound of a man in the corner, on a cot, moaning and crying over a sadness he can't express. Costello used to be able to get the words
and music to match the heart ache and anger; this is not the case any longer.

Another case in point, Joni Mitchell.

One can go on about the preening seriousness of Costello's quest to wear a bigger
beret; Painted From Memory, his collaboration with Burt Bacharach, works only half as well as it should, since nearly song is medium tempo torch song where heartbreak after heartbreak is detailed to such brutal detail that one stops caring and wishes that Costello and Bacharach provided some the slick, horn accented pop music that was Burt's other strong suit during his strongest period, back in the day. North, truth be told, was so marginal that one had to wondered what brings a man as gifted as Costello to release a disc of leftovers, half thoughts, modest inventions.

I had the faint hope that Elvis Costello's most recent CD, "The Delivery Man”, would be a solid and tuneful set of punchy rock and roll and sharply writ lyrics as was Costello's previous "When I Was Cruel" from four years ago, but such is hardly the case. Well, no, that understates the disappointment, which was something akin to questioning my tastes when I was in college and feeling compelled, fleetingly so, to apologize for all the positive reviews I'd given his albums in the Seventies and early eighties when I felt I still had some purchase on informing the culture and the people in it about the best work the best of us were doing. Fortunately I stopped drinking some years ago and avoided anything so rash; I went to sleep and the worst despair was gone, but I was still irked, cheesed off, madder than a wet hen. Elvis Costello has been sucking for years now, and I was tired of waiting for one of those "return to forms" one anticipates aging rockers to do, hoping they live long enough to make one more disc that has half the kick such musicians might have had back in the day, or the night, or just back when they cared. One way or the other it amounts to waiting for someone to die, yourself or the artist in question. It's a very slow game of chicken.

The songs are wander bits of amorphous mood setting, vaguely sad, melancholic, and inward drawn. The worst of "Painted from Memory", is irresolutely medium tempo collection of Muzaked dirges with Burt Bacharach (both of whom apparently forgetting that Bacharach’s work is marked as much by quirky, up-tempo tunes) meets the pulse less shoe-gazing sniffling of "North”. Costello has been trying to show everyone how much he's matured and grown as an artist and writer, but unlike someone like Paul Simon, who improved dramatically in his solo work after he finally bid adieu to the collegiate poesy of Simon and Garfunkel's too-precious word mongering, Costello tries to get it all in, to say it all in one song, and then again in the song after that. His songs tear at the seams, and there is not the overflow of talent you'd like, but rather an uncontainable spillage. Simon, through "Rhymin' Simon" and onward, knows the meaning of restraint, containment, care in image and metaphor. He remains a songwriter with an especially strong sense of pop structure, a matter that forces him to make each song the best he can do at the moment. Costello is, on occasion, a better melodist than Simon and a more interesting, verbally dexterous lyricist, but it is his lack of care that sinks him here and through out most of his output in the 90's. Tom Waits, his closet in terms of sheer talent, does the sloppy and the unrestrained with the kind of genius we reserve for Miles Davis and Picasso. Costello is shy of genius, is a brilliant craftsman when he applies the technique, and reapplying himself is exactly what is called for. The songs on the new one are unfocused and drift in structure--Costello seems to be trying to convince that playing being indecisive about how he wants a melody to unfold, or what mood and psychology he wants to get across is enough to evoke Hamlet like assumptions of deep thought and artful equivocation on key narrative points. He sounds like he's trying to be artfully oblique, but what Costello forgets is that his greatest talent was his ability to absorb the styles of fifty or so years of rock, pop and rhythm and blues styles and then compose a fantastically buoyant music that was at once subtly argued in the lyrics and intensely rocking with the music. Costello must not like to dance anymore, and has entered middle age with some overblown assumptions that he needs to be artier, moodier, more depressed, more diffuse, and more obtuse than he was when he was a young punk trying to make a buck off his bad attitude.

There are those die hard fans who would counter that Costello's lyrics are the subtlest and most literary of his career, something I would argue against, but all the same this is a weak defense of the general torpor that saturates "The Delivery Man". Even if it were so, albums that are more interesting to read than to listen to are fit, on principle, to be used for target practice at the next skeet shoot.

Elvis Costello is a boomer himself. He was born in 1954, I was born in 1952. The issue isn't his taste in music-- I've been a fan and supporter of Costello since he first appeared in the States in 1977, precisely because it seemed he and I shared much of the same attitude about the world and that we drew from the same musical and literary influences. The issue is the lack of consistent quality in too much of his later work. He's written a good number of good songs scattered through out the uneven and unfocused discs he's released, but it's disconcerting to buy albums on the fading hope that I might be lucky enough to get two or three good tunes out of the average seventy minutes running time per CD.

I bought the record all by myself, listened to it alone, listened to it again alone, generally listened to it for a week by myself, more or less, and found that I liked it better than any record he'd been out in several years. I wrote my review on a now defunct music site I had without the benefit of reading anyone else's reviews; what I found when I did read the notices in The Village Voice and Rolling Stone was that the reviewers thought as I did, that EC was working at full boil once again. Not surprisingly (to me) most Costello fans I talked to about Cruel liked it quite a bit; some even thought it was his best album ever. Anyway, the point is that it's more likely that our man actually put out a great album rather than manifestation of group think. Cruel, actually, bucked the trend, since most of his later work was getting mixed reviews at best. The herd mentality, if there was one regarding EC, was to give him less than unqualified raves. As for the song lyrics, you already named two of them, both "Episode of Blonds" and "45" are punchy, clipped, caustic and wonderfully layered in their nuance, puns and insinuations, and I wish he could write this well more often these days. I would add another favorite, "Spooky Girlfriend".

Waits has a shtick, sure, but everyone does. Packaging and image is a large part of getting the music out there. Finally, though, there is the music
that stands to be judged, and Waits sublime fusing of alien styles --hard bop, delta blues, Brecht-Weil, Beat prosody, and any number of influences one might toss at him--is unique and grandly textured. It is artful, as opposed to arty, and it is unique, and contrary to the notion that he makes the same album over and over again, it's more accurate to assert that he has a style, a set of aesthetic principles he brings into play and expands or contracts as his instinct dictates. The music he's making in the late nineties isn't the same as the relatively modest efforts from the Seventies. He's grown, he's gotten wiser, and he’s become more interesting to listen to. And he's the best "poetic" lyricist currently in the game.
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