Tuesday, March 6, 2007

This Was Your Life


Nothing makes the soul sink faster than witnessing the conversion of youthful idealism and passion into new ways of getting yet more money from our wallets. In the midst of a world that is insane with immoral wars, terrorism, and increasing occurrences of natural disasters, we seem ready to have our past sold back to us, and worse, retold to us, as if our own recall and reports from the front lines were inadequate for the purpose of History. Apparently, you can sell refrigerators to Eskimos.

No matter, I suppose, it's a discussion I'll join anytime, venturing forth opinions on The White Album being a greater double record set than Exile on Main street, whether Dick Cavett was actually any smarter than Johnny Carson, or if Norman Mailer ever got those bossy feminists about what's really important in this man's world. We are eager to surrender our disbelief and fight the battles over again, reciting song lyrics and mounting arguments about the inevitability of a Revolution that will change the meaning of everything. Everything has changed, yes, but not even remotely as we might have imagined. So the passing of every artifact and every minor player from the Fifties and Sixties becomes significant, if for no reason other than to remind us that we all inch nearer the end of our individual tethers. So we distract ourselves and glory over the memories of the formerly great and the inconsequential with the same indiscriminate vigor.

Presently we are in a moment of time when Bob Dylan is set to be deified; a benediction is underway. His memoir, Chronicles Volume One, sold well in hardcover and has just been released in trade paperback, Martin Scorsese has prepared an extensive documentary on his life and career that will be broadcast over PBS at the end of September. Perhaps a Supreme Court nomination should be offered to cement the idea in place that Dylan has become the most overexposed and overpraised man of verse since the glory days of Robert Frost. The mention of the evokes so many associations that have little or nothing to do with his art, songwriting that we are in danger of losing all honest perspective on his writing, and the elements that gave it the power to begin with.

Someone posted his lyrics to his middle period song "Shelter From the Storm" online as a way of commemorating the ghastly devastation of New Orleans, something I thought suspect because this happens to be particularly weak lyric; unfocused, unsterilized, cryptic without being evocative, the cliches and the desperate overwriting to avoid cliche make this a twisting bitch of tune to parse in any convincing way. I was about to write something to this effect when the same person posted a stronger lyric, the brilliant "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall". The strength of Dylan's best writing became clear again, momentarily liberated from image, innuendo and celebrity worship.

"Hard Rain" is one of Dylan's greatest lyrics, and certainly packs more poetic power than the much later "Shelter from The Storm". "Hard Line", inspired by the Cuban Missile Crisis, was written in a pitch of national anxiety as to whether we were about to enter a Third World War, a fact that gave Dylan's lyrics a honed edge and a kind of Biblically inspired surrealism whose images suggest the sorts of undreamed things occurring just prior to a last day of reckoning. We might have averted the nuclear holocaust back in the day, but the song's genius is such that speaks over the decades and resonates louder and less ironically than it did in 1963; it is potentially even more political today than it was so many years ago.

"Shelter from the Storm" is much later Dylan, and it has never sounded more than someone trying to get up a full head of steam again, only to end up parodying their own best work. It might seem weird today, but I could never figure out what it was Dylan was talking about, or why any of the rustic fantasies and idylls that dominated much of his middle work were worth constructing. Suspend my disbelief as hard as I might, I could never buy into the image of Bob Dylan as a wayward traveler, rambling from town to town, taking odd jobs and having strange affairs with cryptically inclined women who end their affairs with morals that are enshrouded in magic-ball vaporings. It's not that the lyrics in "Shelter" were merely enigmatic--that would be a relief--but that there's an implausibility so conspicuous that I sometimes wondered about Dylan's mental health. It occurs to me that such worries demonstrate a inner stability on my part, and that is something I ought to thank Dylan for someday, but not before I max out yet another credit card acquiring as much thirty-year arcana as a man in his early fifties can stand to have.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Poems and Prayer



There are times in the middle of the afternoon after I've finished what I think is an inspired poem when I have the momentary sensation--fleet! is the world--that all those wonderful metaphors and inverted oppositions were given to me by God Himself. I've sober nearly twenty years, though, and I have a strong feeling that if I ever heard God speak, he'd tell me to go ahead and have a shot of hooch. Faith I have, but not to the degree that I think a higher power uses me as a mouthpiece for his left over tropes. The feeling passes, and I disabuse myself that poems and prayer are linked in degrees more bountiful than rare. I think the distinctions between the two things are clear and crucial, as both modes of address are for distinct purposes.

The key distinction between poems and prayers are that poems are almost invariably written from within experience, and as a form, is under no obligation to detail and highlight it's rhetoric toward any obligatory pitch or prejudice. The poet, distinct from the praying person, has the freedom to invoke God or invoke him not at all; the poet might even insist that the wonders he or she comes to write about are phenomena in and of itself, independent of anything divine.

Poetry allows for the religious, the agnostic, the atheist and the indifferent with regards to God. The single requirement is that the poem meet the needs of literature, however the poet lands on the issue of the divine; what constitutes literary value, of course, is subject to a discussion that is nearly as abstruse and premised on unprovable suppositions as theology, Literary criticism might be said to be it's own sort of religious dogma.

Prayers, in contrast, start outside human, terrestrial experience and beseech a higher power to intervene in human affairs. While poetry , in general, glories in all things human and is obsessed with the mystery of perception (finding that miraculous enough ), prayer assumes human experience is flawed, in error, and needs a strong hand to right itself to a greater purpose. Prayer in essence is an admission of powerlessness or one's situation and one's instincts to cope with the difficulties presented; the varieties of spiritual inspiration vary and are nuanced to particular personalities and finer or lesser nuanced readings of guiding sacred texts, but prayers share a default position that human existence sans God is incomplete and in need to surrender itself to the Will of a variously described God.

It is possible to write a poem that addresses god that is not an entreaty, finding His presence in the world as we already have it, not as we think it was.
"Question" by May Swenson does this.

Body my house
my horse my hound
what will I do
when you are fallen

Where will I sleep
How will I ride
What will I hunt

Where can I go
without my mount
all eager and quick
How will I know
in thicket ahead
is danger or treasure
when Body my good
bright dog is dead

How will it be
to lie in the sky
without roof or door
and wind for an eye

With cloud for shift
how will I hide?


It's a fine poem, and Swenson is speaking from within experience, finding something wondrous in the world as it is. Her poem is about finding God in the details of this existence, and does not beseech a higher power for guidelines about how to live a more righteous life according to
scripture. Prayer assumes that human life, in essence, is merely an audition for a seat in Heaven. Swenson assumes we already have our seat and seeks God's inspiration in making the place where we live purposeful and fuller.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Hemingway and the heart of the matter


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 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.



Delillo’s work, it seems, will survive the withering dismissals of affected yokels, and "great American novels" continue to be produced yearly, quite despite our obsession to narrowing the field to only a handful of worthies who fulfill criteria no can state for sure. But DeLillo stands poised for world-greatness because he brings Americans into the larger world,where qualities of being American, imagined by our civics teachers as being divinely granted, has no bearings in a world that seems incoherent and supremely foreign. DeLillo's work, in "The Names", "Mao II", "Players", have Americans of a sort--professionals, artists, intellectuals, poets, usually white, privileged--losing themselves amid the shifting and renegotiated narratives, collective and personal, that are repeated, ala mantras, to give the world as sense of reason and purpose beyond the hurly-burly of the phenomenal world. This is a sphere where the sense of the world, our strategies and accounts to deal with it, are fed to media and then sold back to us with conditions attached. I imagine a work that is equal parts Henry James, for the aspect of Americans confronting the non-American world, and Orwell's "Animal Farm", where we have the pigs, in the dead of night, with ladder and paint brush, changing the wording on the social contract painted on the side of the barn.


As has been said, there is no "last analysis" to be had just yet, and for DeLillo's sake, I hope he writes a few more novels before we start issuing forth career-ending appraisals of his body of work. I am an obvious DeLillo partisan, but I don't think everything he's done is fully rendered, satisfying every idiosyncratic standard a "serious" reader might contrive, but the fact is that DeLillo is not a novel-a-year contestant with Updike or Joyce Carol Oates, or recently, Mailer, all of whom seem in a rush to consolidate reputations and make themselves nice and shiny for Nobel consideration. DeLillo has published a mere 11 novels since 1969, hardly an overload for almost thirty years as a professional writer. That he has themes that re-emerge from work to work is to be expected from a writer, and for DeLillo, his investigations into what we too- easily refer to as post-modernism (yes, I am guilty as charged) and it's accompanying paranoia have produced major fiction, which is about, in too-broad a summary of his work, the difficulty of living in a world that has been stripped of any resonance of meaning, any suggestion of Truth, capital "t". This is a kind man-made environment that stems from the make-it-new innovations of High Modernism, and entering the next century with a sense that we have not learned anything despite high-speed technologies that shoot raw and indigestible mounds of data from one place to another.



--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
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 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.

Ann Coulter plays the cheap seats


It's official now, Ann Coulter has given up the illusion, believed or otherwise, that she is an important political intelligence and has now acknowledged her status as a Republican party clown. Calling Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards
a "faggot" at a recent conservative convention, her routine becomes transparent, and she now becomes the equivilent of a third rate stand up comic who never got their shot on the Tonight Show, trading in the same boiler plate tastelessness for a
marginalized crowd of like minded dimwits.Witness this nitwit's floundering quip here, courtesy of Salon.

Perhaps is the neocon version of bad poets and gratingly neurotic bohemians sitting around cafes flattering each other with quaint left wing jargon, horrendous poesifications of so-called verse and various versions of how "The System" is keeping everyone in the toilet. Coulter seems the first instance of a generation of right wing shills who, having no second act, will join the assorted other "edgy" alternatives in the vast dustbin. But not before she can squeeze a few more dollars from her pose and convince herself a few minutes longer that she's still relevant.

I suppose she's trying to pass herself off as being edgy against "political correctness", but that's a standard complaint that has lost an urgency in the godawful long time since right ring attack radio took up the call. Coulter is for hire for anyone who will pay her to do her tricks and recycle her bile. It's someone's idea of fun, I suppose, though one can't shake the feeling that there's anxiety thick enough to spread with a shovel inside that equine face of hers. Two things are clear in view of her use of the F word against Edwards:

1.The shriller she gets, the more her Adam's Apple bobs.
2.One remembers Truman Capote describing a best selling woman author from the Sixties as resembling "a truck driver in drag."

Friday, March 2, 2007

LED ZEPPELIN and others...


It was after I slid into my forties where the other songs and albums by Zeppelin reemerged on my radar and revealed a band that was more diverse, musically, than the popular invective allows. Where I lived at the time, Zeppelin fans were just as likely to be listening to the Band, Van Morrison and CS&N, along with other folk "sissy" artists as they were the macho sounds of hard rock. Now in my mid fifties, how I perceived the world at 18 - 21 is irrelevant to the fact that they've made some good, sometimes brilliant tunes. Hardly perfect: the lyrics are an embarrassment, but the band is about riff and sound.It was after I slid into my forties where the other songs and albums by Zeppelin reemerged on my radar and revealed a band that was more diverse, musically, than the popular invective allows. Where I lived at the time, Zeppelin fans were just as likely to be listening to the Band, Van Morrison and CS&N, along with other folk "sissy" artists as they were the macho sounds of hard rock.
Zeppelin was uncanny in their ability to keep it simple and yet seem sophisticated musically;it is something I think is crucial to their rock and roll success: riffs and sounds over laid on a varied set of styles and influences that work, sonically, more often than they don't. The lyrics, with the vocals, were just part of the overlay, a part of the texture, the assault on the nervous system that gives us pleasure and empowerment. Dispite the interest in musical ideas far afield of the blues, the band kept it visceral, punchy. They were like a friend of yours who was already ready for brawl.

Like the Beatles, or Steely Dan, Zeppelin was a studio band, where the studio was the proverbial third instrument. Live, they were one of the worst bands I've ever seen--though they sounded pretty damned good when I saw them in '67 (?) on their first US tour with Jethro Tull--but in the studio , their music was finessed and honed, typical in those days. For all his faults as a faulty technician in live circumstances, he is a producer who brought a fresh ear to the recording process, and came up with ideas that circumvented the routine dullness and rigor that's become the bane of less able hard rock and metal bands after his Zeppelin's break up.
Led Zeppilen 1V is their high water mark for track-by-track knockouts and variety of sounds, but Houses of the Holy is where the band really stretched beyond the comfort of the hard rock style they created. I think they do reggae fine, and "The Crunge" is quite funked up-- Plant's Brown vamping is inspired, and the lyrics are , in turn, somewhat surreal with out losing a greasy, fry-cooked crease in the seam. The Song Remains the Same is an unfortunate release , album and film, and confirmed my feeling that Page had devolved to the worst live rock guitarist extant. The BBC sessions, recently released on a two CD effort, shows Page and the boys in full throttle: the guitar work is rangy but crisp and cutting. Plant, likewise, is in full voice, a plus if you liked the way he sang.

The attraction, though, is the guitar work.The only real bad after shock of Sgt Pepper's and other "concept albums" from the period was the mistaken notion by other artists that there had to be one grandiose and grandiloquent theme running through out both sides of their albums in order for the their work to be current with the mood of the art rock of the period. The Beatles succeeded with "Sgt.Pepper", "Magical Mystery Tour", and, and "Abbey Road" ( easily their most consistent set of material, I think) because they never abandoned the idea that the album needs to be a collection of good songs that sound good in a set: over lapping themes, lyrically, are absent in the Beatles work, unless you consider the reprise of the Pepper theme song on a leitmotif of any real significance (it's use was cosmetic), although musical ideas did give the feel of conceptual unity track to track, album to album.

Lennon and McCartney and Harrison's greatest contribution to rock music was their dedication to having each one of their songs be the best they could do before slating it for album release. For other bands, the stabs at concept albums were routinely disastrous, witnessed by the Stones attempt to best their competitors with the regrettable "Satanic Majesties Requests". The Who with "Tommy" and "Who’s Next" and the Kinks , best of all, with"Muswell "Lola", Hillbillies" and "Village Green Preservation Society" , both were rare, if visible exceptions to the rule. "Revolver" and "Yesterday and Today" are amazing song collections, united by grand ideas or not. I buy albums with the hope that the music is good, the songs are good, not the ideas confirm or critique the Western Tradition.


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What makes The Beatles' "Revolver" an album? Good, varied songwriting, inspired performances, and production that rises to the task at hand. Albums have always been song collections, regardless of what the current press hype might have been. What Brian Wilson introduced with the Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds" introduced were specific musical and production techniques that changed the sound of rock albums to come after his pioneering work, but the work on "Pet Sounds" and other releases are linked sets of songs, period. The genius is what he does within each song, and where those songs get placed on the album. And actually, that is not that much different than what artists and producers had been doing all along. The crucial distinction is that the artist finally had some say in what was released under their name. Authenticity is such an elusive quality that it's mostly useless when judging as subjective as whether someones music is legitimate. It's a nice way to chase your own tail, though, which is what many like to do. Better to consider whether the music is at least honest, or better yet, if it's done well: whether music , lyrics, voice, style work on their own terms, makes for a more interesting set of topics, and a more compelling record collection. Interesting art doesn't “make you work”, but it does render more rewards if one considers it at depth deeper than a Rate-A-Record session on American Bandstand. But for rock and roll, the interesting "art" ought to be imbued with significant amounts of fun that should , seriously, inspire nothing more in a listener than to dance, thrash, get wild and make a fool of themselves, with the hopes they don't get killed in such a
lowbrow rapture.

Two by Don DeLillo

*The Body Artist
by Don DeLillo
*Cosmopolis
by Don DeLillo
__________________
DeLillo is perhaps the best literary novelist we have at this time, which the career-defining masterwork "Underworld" made clear to his largest readership yet: at the end of all those perfect sentences , sallow images and and long, winding, aching paragraphs is a voice whose intelligence engages the fractured nature of identity in a media-glutted age. A central concern in DeLillo's novels has been a perfect description of what his characters surround themselves with as they construct an integrated identity within an existence, creating a poetry as those items fall into disuse or are fetishized to the point where there is only faint nostalgia , not a direct address of a romantically conceived world. Melancholy pervades DeLillo's work, even his comic ones , as the material things that are made, sold and purchased fo the purposes of fixing individuals coherently in communities large and small are
reduced to competing streams of wishful thinking.
The Body Artist has him contracting the narrative concerns to a tight, elliptical 128 pages, where the Joycean impulse to have a private art furnish meaning to grievous experience is preferred over the dead promises of religion and philosophy. What exactly the woman character does with her performance body art, what the point is of her ritutalized , obsessed cleansing of her body, is a mystery of DeLilloian cast, but it's evident that we're witnessing to a private ritual whose codes won't reveal themselves, but are intended as a way for the woman to again have a psychic terrain she can inhabit following the sudden and devastating death of her film maker husband. The entrance of the stranger in the cottage turns her aesthetic self-absorption , slowly but inevitably, into a search into her past in order to give her experience meaning, resonance, a project she quite handily ignores until then. The sure unveiling of her psychic life is a haunting literary event.

DeLillo's language is crisp, evocative, precise to the mood and his ideas: you envy his flawless grasp of rhythm and diction as these traits simultaneously make the cottage on the cold , lonely coast seem sharp as snap shot, but blurred like old memory, roads and forests in a foggy shroud.A short, haunted masterwork.
Don DeLillo again shows that he's our best novelist of American absurdity with this strange off-kilter comedy that centers around the events of an eventful day in Manhattan.


Cosmopolis
makes the same obsessions with the erosion of certainty into a bizarre comedy of bad habits and quirks.Against a backdrop of raves, a Presidential motorcade, a rock star's funeral, mysterious street demonstrations and the constant, ghostly electronic feed of news of pending financial disaster, a young billionaire asset manager limousines uptown to get a haircut in order to embrace his sense of inevitable, personal apocalypse. DeLillo's writing is outstanding, funny with a cool lyricism, poetic when you least expect it.

The brillance here, as with "White Noise" and especially "Mao ll" is the way characters seek to reconfigure their metaphors, their assuring base of references , once their world view is rattled and made less authoritative by unexplainable events and human quirks. This is semiotics at its best, an erotic activity where DeLillo probes and glides over the surfaces of ideas , notions, theories and their artifacts, things intellectual and material emptied of meaning, purpose.

It's a hallmark of DeLillo's mastery of language that he gets that psychic activity that constantly tries to re-infuse the world with meaning and purpose after the constructions are laid bare; Eric, here in this world of commodity trading, which he regards as natural force that he's mastered and control, attempts to reintroduce mystery into the world he is trapped in. He is bored beyond the grave with the results of his luck.

His efforts to live dangerously , spontaneously and thus get a perception he hadn't had and perhaps secure a hint of a metaphysical infrastructure that eludes, all turn badly, but for DeLillo's art it's not what is found , discovered, or resolved through the extensions of language, but rather the journey itself, the constant connecting of things with other things in the world; this is the poetry of the human need to make sense of things in the great , invisible state beyond the senses, a negotiation with death.

His majestic tilling of the semiotic field yields the sort of endless irony that makes for the kind of truly subversive comedy, a sort of satire that contains the straining cadences of prophecy. The city, the place where the the hydra-headed strands of commerce, history, technology and government merge in startling combinations of applied power, becomes an amorphous cluster of symbols whose life and vitality come to seem as fragile and short-lived as living matter itself.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

"Fight Club" By Chuck Palaniuk



A contemporary masterpiece. An underground fight club goes from a way for frustrated men to vent their rage over the variety of emasculations they think they've suffered and becomes a stealthy, destructive movement sworn to topple a false and dehumanized consumer culture. In the thick of the anarchism is the mysterious Tyler Durden, who's
charismatic brand of evangelical destruction alternately attracts and repels. Clearly , he is someone you cannot take your eyes off of as he exhorts his troops to
pull the rug from under the engines of Industry. Chuck Palaniuk's satire is vicious, masterful, a vision of a bloated culture set on the cutting board , inspecting with a dissecting eye.

This is the perfect novel of terrorism, and Palaniuk extends the violence aesthetic of Mailer's "White Negro" and the various therapies encouraging the psychically wounded to vent until they heal or when the things that are killing them disappears. In both instances, the aim is to free the body from the sterile consumerism its shackled to and to feel alive, and advocates of this sort of expulsion would be quick to add that the violence assumed in their rants and manifestos is metaphorical only; poetry to make a point. Paulaniuk , though, is having none of this grandstanding equivocation on the point; a male either feels that he's had his manhood commoditized and removed from his being, or he does not, and he's willing to take direct action against the symbols and systems of oppression, or there are complacent with a status quo and, hence, part of the problem.

The genius of the novel is the author's decision to take the talk of mortal liberation at face value and to follow the logic. Aggrieved males attacking each other , fighting as hard as they can, blows to the body, the head, the groin meant to help them feel something real and independent of programmed responses and advertised results, and in achieving a bond and formed a community, there becomes the united purpose of bringing down the towers of business, the arrogance of faceless, soulless capitalism. Palaniuk's novel is fiction and it is satire, but it is also potent social criticism and disturbingly presents a mindset of a collective for whom acts of grandscale violence, of terrorism are the only sane action possible because they are the only things one can do that means anything. Fight Club is a rousing, disturbing read.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Some Poems I've Recently Read


Sometimes a writer tries to protect him or herself against complaints by attempting to theorize their work’s shortcomings, as we seem to witness in Slate’s recent weekly poem. It's a neat trick for James Longenbach to title his poem as "Draft of a Letter" , since it would inoculate him against the expected criticism and outright sneering that the poem makes no sense. Faced with the carping and complaints, he can fall back on the title and announce that the poem is an abstraction of a draft of a communication, a literal letter half written and half still in process, percolating in the author's head, with ideas and images and associations jumping between streams like so many dozens of digital fish one might imagine in a rather pointless computer game. The poetry, he would say (and probably does) lies somewhere in the spaces between the lines where our own imaginations construct our own connections between sentences that are hermetically sealed against coherence.

The preemption ploy might be believable if what was actually written were more intriguing, but Longenbach's parts are the sort of undergraduate experimentation and emulation one reads endlessly by the time a workshop gets up to reading The New York School. I see nothing here that wasn't written better by a dozen or so of my poetry buddies in college--Steve Farmer, Melanie Nielson, Shelley White, David Sternbach-- before they abandoned their spirited emulation and forged their own styles. Or anti-styles, depending on what you're attempting to make language do. Longenbach's poem doesn't read as if he's trying to make language do anything except lie there in it's tentative frame, hoping someone will stare at it (nee read it over and over) until a white spotlight shines down and the unspoken relations between Longenbach's skeletal remains of a poem are revealed. In this case, it is less an interpretation of a poem, less a parsing or evaluation than it is, in fact, an autopsy.

This might have been a healthy piece of writing at some point in its compositional history; there may well have been some rather sleek and alluring connections between the suggestions of dream imagery, sexual awakening, the conflict between wanting to fly and the rules of gravity that hard earth that enforces them

Clouds
From the invisible
Mountaintops,
Then mist.



Rain soaked the ground

Until it swelled,

Lifting

My body



Flat on its back.

Delicate fingers,

Voice fair.

In the end



I found myself drawn

To what was neither very large



Nor very small.

In heaven,

If you say the word death,

Nobody understands.

I have no reservations diving into the heart of allusive poems; it's my preferred style, as you might have noticed. But I demand that the writing, however fragmented and subjected to whatever fashions, trends and hot button theories about poetry, at least have a surface quality, a snap and a way with a phrase that makes the work of sussing through and reassembling the disconnections worth the labor. I think poetry needs music and rhythm no matter what the approach, and Longenbach is as musical as flat iron being pounded with large steel hammers. Even fans of Industrial would cry enough and beg the DJ for some Mahler. There are the beginnings of an interesting poem here, and I suspect that there was something much more substantial when Longenbach got started, but then the most casually advanced advice and admonishment one gets from workshop situations--- prune, prune, prune--took over as operating principal, and we can say, safely, that tactless and unfenced trimming of a poem often times leaves us with something that is malnourished, chintzy and cheap in it's minimalist array, stupidly arrogant in its incomprehensibility. The title is the tip off, an admission that this hardly a poem at all, but a murder. What stream of ideas our author was trying to bring together died on the way Slate's poetry page.

****

Two poets published in the last two months in Slate’s weekly poetry series have respective strengths and deficiencies which center on similar habits of composition, which ought to show that individual skill matters more in this game than the stylistic ideology a writer would throw at you in defense. The idea of having a musical ear plays strongly here.

First, one should know up front that Nadia Herman Colburn's reading of her piece “Love Poem” the poem is a buzz kill. Already hindered with the least appealing sound quality, she reads her verse blankly, stiffly, to the beat of the metronome and not the speaking voice. Remember movie scenes where the character is on the phone and the person at the other end of the line is made to sound as if they were speaking from a closet, yammering through a gag? Colburn doesn't sound much better; the reading and the sound quality have less audio appeal than what gets from an answering machine. Too bad, too, because this is not a bad poem when read alone, without sound, a series of elliptical images and sudden memories, seeming to come to the narrator in fast rush. There is some lovely, if diffuse writing here.

A lake flickers after snow,

and I enter the refraction,


like playing the piano—

fingers moving under hand


the hour stretched with Chopin.



A confluence of sensation, a shiny lake surface, a recall of music, a suggestion that the body remembers where it is and what do as would the trained fingers on a keyboard. Something in her responds, is aroused, bits of place and incident brought together in new configurations, just as the fingers themselves never know what music they might play under fingertips actually touch the ivory.


In children, too, it's habitual:


a group mazes its way along the street
like an amoeba under a microscope—

but once when the day still held us
to itself, there was a sudden turning towards—

as when, in Wisconsin, from the back of the car,
I first saw the man in the moon:

An interesting jump here, children in winter crossing the street, a sense of driving forward, to the center of some mystery so far unknown. But then the revelation, some sight observed from the backseat of the car, as if witnessed for the first time, eyes open, and alert.

those craters, the eyes, the wide shadow at center
the mouth. It was so obvious!

Now I'm always trying to forget
so it can come again,

naturally, like the cat through the crack
in the window over the garage,

or the fallen leaves
that collect each night by the door.


This is an intriguing string of images, one stanza said and laid over the other like oft-kilter whispers or distinct melodies performed slightly out of sync. The main point, that one's whole body and being will respond to triggers and cues and make one feel that there is meaning and resonance in places that cannot be spoken, is successfully gotten across, but what strikes me is the chain of association that reflects the short cuts of thinking, quick measurement, fluid framing of context and detail, yet malleable, in flux, unfixed. Her language is musical, graceful, and strangely enough provides us with a dissociation of sensibility that retains a delicacy that is rare. It is an elegantly wrought poem

For the time being we have seen fewer poems-about-poetry and have become witness to another notable tendency for the Tuesday poetry selection, poems of intense narcissism. It's not necessarily a bad thing, since last week's poem by Nadia Herman Colburn both outlined and made sense of fleeting images of a faint past without forgetting that her task was to be lyric and evocative with the material she chose; Colburn's wonderings and bemusements of the sharp synapses her environment provoked involved us in a poem that precisely and unpretentiously captured the intensity of the perceptions, the rush of recall, and avoided an understandable seduction of placing a lecture in the confines of her choicely selected words.

This is not true for Louise Gluck's poem "A Myth of Innocence", which is lecturing, nearly hectoring, and weighed down by a ridiculous solemnity that reminds me of the pinched nerve seriousness of elder priests at mass whose ruthless lack of cheer or life would make a nine year old boy or girl want to liven things up with arm farts or gum popping. Gluck's writing is so weighted with unbelievably padded writing that it reads in slow motion, like a funeral march, through all the obvious paraphrases of overplayed myths and the cumbersome attempt to bring a universal concept into a private moment when ones loss becomes the sadness of the world.

She stands by the pool saying, from time to time,
I was abducted, but it sounds
wrong to her, nothing like what she felt.
Then she says, I was not abducted.
Then she says, I offered myself, I wanted
to escape my body. Even, sometimes,
I willed this. But ignorance
cannot will knowledge. Ignorance
wills something imagined, which it believes exists.

This syntax is tied into knots and hamstrung loops of unfulfilled metaphor and allusion that it makes you think of a distracted chef who cannot complete a single plate of an artfully prepared meal. I get a strong feeling that this poem is likewise composed of scraps, items intended for more complete poems, wholly coherent and perhaps fresher in their utterance. So many indefinite and transcendental qualities flow back and forth in this writing, mentions of myth, reflecting pools, a yearning for a younger self and an unsigned future. It's a traffic jam of references, none of it particularly musical or convincing beyond nudging a reader with strong hints as to what Gluck has been reading all these years.

I have a feeling that this may be a poem that Gluck worked on quite a bit in order to give a semblance of poetic content, but no matter how she tailored her first draft the writing remains lifeless and unconvincing. I've written hundreds of poems that I hoped to make evocative with a mannered strangeness of phrase and allusion until I realized I had only produced a variety of convoluted poesy. Gluck should have moved on, cleared her palate, and gone for a simpler, less cluttered tongue to speak what her muse presents to her.

I don't think that there's a gender gap concerning like or dislike or dislike of Gluck's poem. As I said , I rather enjoyed last week's "Love Poem" by Nadia Colburn even though it treads much the same territory Gluck is traipsing about in--both poems concern a narrator's vivid glimpse of an acutely missed past--and I think the preference is about style, not gender. Colburn writes as if she's aware of the pitfalls and pratfalls of incessant concentration on the modulations of one's emotional temperature and rather smartly, I think, veers her line to that of William Carlos Williams ' that there be "no ideas but in things". The surface quality of her words are absolutely true to a gone moment in time, tactile, physical instances that trigger a rushing recall; her sensation is real, felt, and there is something in the elegant sparseness that allows a reader's mind to enter into the scenes and "finish" the poem, to diffuse the intrigue with the resonances of their own experience. Colburn is smart as well in with holding what she knows about larger matters, and keeps her literary fore bearers out of the stanzas and on the shelves where they belong. In mind, but out of sight.

"Love Poem" is a marvelous and careful composition, a neat composition. Gluck, who, I have to admit, has rarely written a poem I wanted to reread is someone who’s vaunted jaggedness and open ended writing I find somewhat prosaic and all-thumbs in her attempts to seem daring and innovative."A Myth of Innocence", perhaps more approachable than the host of her other poems, is the least interesting thing I've read by her; it is an exercise on a routine and not so compelling theme, and whatever emotion she might actually have been drawing from to write this is leeched out by a characteristically ill-thought involution of syntax, and a need to instruct the reader as to how to respond. Her poetry is a glacier paced assortment of ponderous bits that strike me as remote, abstract, and cold, and there is strain in her associations that makes the muscles in my arms tense. I never get beyond the feeling from reading her poems that an overworked muscle is about to tear, and some real pain is about to begin.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Martin Scorsese Gets His Oscar


I caught the last hour of the 2007 Oscar Awards last night, just in time to see Martin Scorsese finally get his overdue award as Best Director for The Departed. The conventional wisdom and the buzz was that this was to Scorsese's night to finally take home a statuette, and I'm pleased the speculation bore fruit, but I can't help but think that they gave it to him for the wrong movie. Well, sure they did. Martin Scorsese should have gotten a Best Director award for Raging Bull, King of Comedy, or Good Fellas.

While I don't argue with The Departed being Best Picture and Scorsese's efforts here as the best of 2006--there was some strong competition from Children of Men and Letters from Iwo Jima-- the three films already mentioned are better examples of what Scorsese can do as a film maker when he takes us into his world of stylized character studies of those who live at the margins of the culture and the collective
psyche. Winning for the Departed should have been an addition to Scorsese's Oscar garnerings. In a fairer world, this would have been at least the director's second nod for the award. Anyway, good going Marty. I was also pleased to note that The Departed won for Best Picture as well.

It's assuring knowing that the Best Director helmed The Best Picture, as I've never understood the logic of splitting the decision in years past between two different films.Of course, it's all business, a chance to assuage superegos and to lend more Oscar buzz to potential box office returns. But it's glaring on the face of it. Oh well.This is Show Business, where cognitive dissonance isn't a disorder, it's a job skill.

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
ideas..."
"You're fantastic..." I stammered.
"Thanks for letting me play your harp. Dinner time, bye
now..."
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
paint.


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
intricate.
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.
"STOP PLAYING THAT HARMONICA!!"
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,
?"STOP PLAYING THAT HARMONICA!!"
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
coffee..."
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
with..."
"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
clarity.
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
Center.
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
tips.
"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
halves.
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
you'
"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
fingerprints.
"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
back.
"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
Rephael.
"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
drawers.
"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
panhandlers.
"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
2nd.
"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
functions.
"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
strings.
"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
fingertips.
"Brother Burke" he said, "you have to stop smoking that
poison. It's no good, and it just fucks up your harmonica playing.”