Monday, July 23, 2007

Is Painting Dead?

Painting will be dead when artists stop painting and when art lovers stop desiring to look at the work of past, recent, and current artists. So far, there are no so-described symptoms of paintings' impending demise. In any case, why is with the impulse for some of us to declare entire categories "dead", as if a literal body had been discovered somewhere, knife in back, bullet in brain, i.e., "the death of literature", "death of the subject", "death of the novel", "the death of the author", "the end of history", "jazz is dead”,” history is dead", "rock is dead", and so forth. I've read these declarations over the years, some with, some without arguments, some articulate, others ruthlessly abstruse, and save for a momentary rush of certainty that the many threads of history are suddenly woven together to the precise moment that the respective professors are making a case for, one realizes that the activities still go on in strength. Humans have a way of tending toward their business and their pleasures, in the ways that suit their needs and personalities, quite despite the cloudy forecasts of aesthetic morticians. There seems to be an easy habit-of-mind that wants to advance a more recent set of techniques, usually attendant on new technologies, only at the mortal sacrifice of older mediums.
Co-existence seems a concept that makes a self-conscious avant-garde nervous. In any event, shall we say that there are things that can only be done with paint that nothing else, really, has come close to? Even if it did come close to achieving the effects, a good oil or watercolor can, what makes the new medium anything other than an advanced species of clip-art and simulation. The body is greatly exaggerated.
Art making is not devalued by new mediums, technology, if the aim of new art is to re-create, faithfully, effects produced by painters. Sadly, this seems to be the only motivation behind many competently technologized artists whose work is often little more, really, than the reproduction of painterly effects. I'm willing to think these new medium artists are still woodshedding and experimenting with what they can do with their "new canvas" and "new palate", but it's plain that many have yet to make Real Work. We have fascinating results that have an inescapable crisis of its own, an utter soullessness coming from any intrinsic lack of character apart from the shiny, showroom sheen of simulacra. Clipart is the result, I believe, if that is the only impulse motivating the particular artist. Newer methods can indeed co-exist with older--it's all around us--when artists drop the show-offy instinct of duplication and instead reconcile themselves to the limits as well as the advantages of their particular form. The crisis, I think, festers on the other end.
The death of painting notwithstanding, it seems that painters long ago accepted the terms and strictures of their chosen craft, and are in a long and envious history that they can play with at will, add to, diminish, broaden, contract, what have you. No painter I know feels crunched or sickly because of the imagined malaise --human need to express itself persevers and is acted upon whatever revisionist rhetorical brackets are set around them, trying to diminish their worth, relevance, or health. The death or crisis of their art is meaningless to the working artist. The announcements that arts or particular mediums are "dead" or in "crisis" are melodramatic inventions that come from bad, over-generalized criticism that's in a hurry. It's better to get on with the honest work of art making and focus commentary on the interaction between art styles and periods. Technologized, digital art is the art that is having the crisis, if anything: a personality crisis and one wonders what his new art wants to be when it grows up. What makes a form of art-making grow are artists who dedicate themselves to their process, their work, and who focus their energy on how the medium they've selected for themselves.
A healthy self-criticism probably doesn't hurt the production of new work either, as with the notable artists who can tell the difference between pandering to an imagined niche market, or a specialized audience that inoculates the work from honest appraisal, and the real work that is made quite apart from anyone's expectations or demands, except the artists'. Good art-making is a rigorous activity, playful as it is, in whatever mode one operates out of. Everything else seems to take of itself if the art is good, worth being noticed.
Work that artists manage to do that's unmindful of having to illustrate a critics' or a harried art historians' criteria. What that evidence is endlessly subjective, and will vary artist to artist, medium to medium, but it will be the work, I think, that seems the most self-contained, mature, and complete, with all influences assimilated and artists experiences and personality full enough to inject an individual intelligence into the work. It will be the work that utters precisely the ideas the artist has about ways of seeing. It is art that works as art, not demonstrations of yet another manifesto.
Less that democracies are anti-artistic than they are resistant to the notion that aesthetic concerns and artistic expression are reserved for a cultivated elite. Democracy rejects this sublimated priesthood on principle, and opens the arena, the galleries so that more who wish to do so may engage in the intuitive/artistic process and keep the activity alive in ways that are new and precisely relevant to the time--this is the only way that the past has any use at all, as it informs the present day activity, and allows itself to be molded to new sets of experiences. Art is about opening up perspectives, not closing them down, and that is the democratic spirit at its best. Otherwise, the past is a rigor-prone religion, and history is an excuse for brutal, death wish nostalgia.
One advances into their art with no real concern about making history--their obvious concerns are about making their art, with some idea of what it is they're advancing toward, and what past forms are being modified and moved away from. But the judgment of history--as if History, capital H, were a bearded panel viewing a swimsuit competition--will be delivered piecemeal, over the years, after most of us are dead, and our issues and concerns and agendas are fine dust somewhere. The artist, meantime, concentrates on the work, working as though outside history, creating through some compulsion and irrational belief that the deferred import of the work will be delivered to an audience someday, somehow. That is an act of faith, by definition. The artist, painter or otherwise, also cast their strokes, with brush or mallet, with the not-so-buried-dread of the possibility that the work will remain unknown, shoved in the closet, lost in the attic, and they will be better known for their day job rather than their manipulation of forms through a rarefied medium.I'd say the artists whose work lasts are those whose obsessions are about their process, their art-making, not their notices, their contracts, or the amount of air kisses and flattery one of their shows inspires.
History, however, it comes to be made, and whoever writes it, is a metaphysical dead end the better art makers sidestep, and instead make the punch and panache of their invigorated wits count in the strokes of the brush, the curl of the paint scudding over the surface, the blurring and clarifying of forms, shapes, colors and its lack: painting, coming from the modernist angle that still seems a sound and malleable way of handling the hairier knots on the chain, comes as where the world ends, the limit of what the eye can see, the forms the eye is blind to but the mind, muddle that it is, tries to imagine in a sheer swirl of perception. It is about the essaying forth of projects that strive for a moment of perfection that suddenly dies with the slightest re-cue of temperature, it is always about the attempt to convey a new idea. The articulation of the fresh, original perception may end in inevitable failure, but the connections made along the way, the bringing together of contrary energies made the attempt and its result worth the experience. This seems to be the material that the shrouded groves of History recalls, the earnest and frenzied strivings of artists who are too busy with their work to realize that history may, or may not, finally absolve them of strange rage for paints and brushes.
It wasn't much different in the late seventies and early eighties when I was in college and then graduate school. We were very busy announcing how outmoded conventional art techniques and writing styles were. We were all so keen on having a cool sounding, heavily coded vernacular with which to discuss our projects with that some of us forgot the pleasure art making can give you and hence involved themselves in projects that were so dry you could use them for kindling. There are times when I miss those days, being a sophisticated artiste and bohemian sophisticate, but I sublimate instead with this blog, where my opinions have a chance of seeming ridiculous in public rather than echoing inside my own head.
History, for that matter, is not some intelligence that has any idea of what it's going prefer in the long run--the best I can offer is that history is news that stays news, to paraphrase a poet, which implies that the painter who survives the tides and eddies of tastes and fashion and fads will the one whose work has an internalized dynamic that is felt long after the brush is dropped and the breathing stopped Art" is a massive set of aesthetic activities that accommodate a lot of agendas in its generalized practice, the practice of "having fun" not the least of them. "Fun" is that sense of something that engages and provokes in someway a facet of one's personality that makes up the personalized and skewed way that one understands how the world works in actual fact.Whether Cage piano recitals, James Carter solos, Fassbinder film festivals, or whatever gamier, tackier sounds cleave to ones' pleasured ganglia, the quality of fun, that fleeting, momentary state that defines an activity, is why we're attracted to some kinds of music, and not others. It's a legitimate definition for an aesthetic response, but the problem comes in the description of the response, the articulate delineation of what made a set of sounds "fun". The point, of course, being that everything that is entertaining or distracting from the morbid sameness of daily life cannot be said to be exclusively in the domain of the willfully dumb, conceived in a massive expression of bad faith: what is entertaining, from whatever niche in the culture you're inspecting, is that activity that holds your attention and engages you the degree that you respond to it fully. "Fun", in fewer words.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Dave Eggers, again

The rambling and dissociated charm of David Eggers continues to hold me in several links of ambivilence as I was selling my first editions of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and his novel You Shall Know Our Velocity, two books by him that I read and endured, as opposed to enjoyed. All the proverbial flashes of talent are there, knock out metaphors, grace sentences, but then there is the winded wheeze of the man in a hurry, telling is tale and details too rapidly. It was less that I was giving up prestige holdings for filthy lucre than it was that Eggers can't wait to get the end when he happens upon an interesting notion for a narrative, a story.
David Eggers tries to disarm readers with the ironic intention of the title, and it's worked, it seems. I smell bullshit, though. For all the self-reflective contrivances he forces himself to build, for all the zany-escapade tone he lets rip through the pages, Eggers doesn't sound as if he's able to get a handle on his own story, and in fact, I sense a certain glee, underneath the expected incomprehension and shock of the death of both his parents and the sudden weight of responsibility, that all this bad luck was happening to him because oh boy, I have something to write about, oh boy boy oh boy!!!
In my college days, I used to go out with friends and get do all kinds of fucked up things so we can have "experiences" to write about, and any kind of bad luck streak that would happen to one of our future-Hemingway pals would make us perversely envious: that raw material would make for some fine writing. We used to joke, in fact, as to how many pages a particular stunt or even would avail us. The actual writing his mindset produced among us was , in large part, arrogant, grandiose, inflated, mannered, untempered by real empathy, clotted up with bookish conceits that made reading them a dreary endurance. My apologies to those I inflicted these pages on. Egger's book is the shock of recognition. It's a pity, however, that this story had to become material for yet another book that short-sheets the strength of the story line in order to wallow in the psuedo-problems current brands of lit-crit have created. This is a case where neither the tale nor the teller can be trusted. If he'd saved this narrative and did the harder work of transforming it into a novel, a deliberate fiction of some kind, this Mad-magazine style autocritique might have worked: it does not, and what we have is a tone of constant anxiety: this kid wants to get off the stage, but keeps talking anyway, incessantly, hoping something clicks. What Eggers needed here, and will need in the future, is an editor who can use the blue pencil, and is willing to send pages back for rewrite. Eggers problem is stylistic rather than factual. The grating , unearned irony he structures Heartbreaking with simply makes his personality unreadable. I am an ogre for stylish writing, but the preening Eggers has here simply destroyed the story. Eggers book is something I endured, not enjoyed. The shock of recognition. "Unearned irony" is the deployment of a dominant narrative line that is the nominal subject of the story, while at the same time winking and whispering and nudging the reader that it's ,like, so wierd. This eye-rolling irony dominates the book , and avoids the work needed to make real irony work, which is that real irony is the result of several situations in the narrative being developed, over time short or long, that result in nuanced epiphany where a character in the story is at odds with the "real world" he inhabits. It's power resides in the not knowing when the effect takes place: the point is that you're not supposed to see the irony approaching, best shown in The Recognitions by William Gaddis, or The Horse's Mouth by Joyce Carey. The effects here are worked for artfully. Eggers stops just short of announcing that he's being ironic. A magician who shows how their tricks are done perhaps ought not to be a magician: maybe an editor. Or a literary critic. Now that would be ironic. For editors, it is precisely the job of an editor to make manuscripts into books, to eleminate the fat, to blue pencil digressions and areas of receding interest and, believe, send pages back for rewrite. The tendency is to let manuscripts, "experimental" or otherwise, get sent to the press without editorial oversight. It's a waste of perfectly good forest. Wisdom needn't be the censor that kicks in after a certain age, but it can have the effect of giving one a sense of how an interesting life can be told in an interesting way, ironic or otherwise. Best of all, though, an acquired wisdom ought to avail one with a self-editing instinct and to realize the difference telling a story and committing coffee talk to paper.

What Ails Rock and Roll?

An expanded version of an essay I wrote a few years ago.-tb

Rock and roll is the great escape artist of the century, a genuine Houdini of an art form. I go back to what was posted before, that the desire to play the guitar with hurricanes of passion, and rage cannot be killed. Whatever else happens, Spirit prevails. What stinks, it seems, is the obnoxious certainty in the use of the word "dead": rock and roll is as its always been in my experience, mostly "trendy assholes" and an intriguing swath of credible acts, bands and solo, who keep the edgy rigor of the music in tact, and vital. The dustbin of history is always full, what survives the clean sweep is anyone’s' guess. In the mean time, I reserve the right to be excited, engaged but what is honest and, to whatever extent, original. If I'm tired of dead things, I should leave the grave yard.

Rather, I think it's criticism that's ailing, if not already deceased as a useful activity. Rolling Stone abandoned itself to gossip magazine auteurism, Spin gives itself over to trendy photo captions and for the scads of "serious" commentary , much of it has vanished behind faux post- structurualist uncertainty: criticism as a guide to larger issues at hand within an artists work is not being done. Rock criticism, taking its lead , again, from the worn trails of Lit/Crit, has abandoned the idea that words and lyrics can be about anything. But rock and roll, good and ill, cranks on. The spirit that moves the kid to bash that guitar chord still pulses. To say that bad, abstruse writing can kill that awards too much power to what has become an inane, trivial exercise.

The sooner I accepted that, the easier it became to listen to music I didn't grow up with. My frames of reference are less broad musically--I'm a harmonica player of thirty five years gasping experience in some times bands--but it seems to me that the difference falls between techniques versus talent. Technique, I'd say, is sheer know-how, the agility and finesse to get your fingers to execute the simplest or the most difficult of musical ideas. Talent, though, resides somewhere in the grey mists of the soul, where there is an instinct that, or lets say intelligence that knows how to make the best use out the sheer bulk of technical knowledge: making it all into music that's expressive and new.

Rock, like the blues, its closest elder relative, is principally about feel, and citing Dylan, Young, The Beatles and others as great musicians is to address the feel, the subtle combination of musical elements and lyrical blasts that result, at best, in the sheer joy drums, bass and guitars can provide. Rock criticism, when it's performed as a practice that seeks comprehension, and hearkening back to it's early days as an outgrowth of Lit Criticism, probes these elements and addresses why a blues guitar lick, roller rink organ, nasal vocals, over-miked drums and abstruse lyrics convey meanings and provoke responses whose origins are mysterious. It is feel, or Spirit, that connects Coltrane, Hendrix, Dylan, Little Feat, Hip hop, a sense of where to put the line, when to take it away, when to attack, when to with hold. Feel.

Rock, perhaps, is about trying to address the inexpressible in terms of the unforgettable. That is what I think writers like Christgau, Marcus, and even (sigh) Dave Marsh aspire to do. Christgau and Marcus, at least, are inspired most of the time. Marsh remains a muddle, but then again, so are most attempts to talk about the extreme subjectivism of art making, be it music or other wise. Influence is an inevitable and inseparable part of being an artist, and a rock and roll musician is no less subject to the activity of borrowing from something they like. Without it, going through the eras, right up and including the debate about hip hop and its artists proclivities for Borg- style assimilation of others music onto their likeness, we would have no music to speak of. Or so it would seem to me. Our respective selves may be locked behind cultural identities that make it hard for us to interact, but our cultural forms mix together freely and easily.

I'm sympathetic to the crowd that prefers the soul of an instrumentalist to a sound board jockeys' manipulating of buttons and loops, but I do think that this is the advent of a new kind of canvas. Most new art seems profoundly ugly when first perceived, at least until the broader media brings itself up to speed.

I think that hip hop, rap, what have you, is an entrenched form, and is not going away. It will co-exist with rock and roll, and will mix its particulars with it, and generate a newer, fiercer noise. As music and musicians have always done. Anyone who argues that rock musicians are somehow responsible for the tragedy in Colorado are themselves a rock critic in the narrowest sense, and there we have an impassable irony, and more ironic, this is where some leftist brethren meet the Christian Right square on in what they gather is the source of all our social eruptions: popular culture in general. Neither the quacking vulgarists of the left nor the quaking apostles of the right like it very much, and both in their separate ways, and contrarily reasoned agendas, have attacked it, the source of whatever grace there was to fall from. The left will emit a squalling bleat about an "artists' responsibility" for the defamiliarizing "aestheticization" of real social problems , thus robbing working people of real political consciousness and maintaining the force of the Dominant Culture and Capitalist Imperative.

Such is the kind of no-neck culture-vulturing as a I listened to a Marxist lit professor critique "Guernica" or Frieda Kahlo’s' portraiture as though the modernist formalities Picasso and Kahlo put upon their canvases were the reason, and only reasons, that bombs go off, that babies die, and why woman get raped by art-sickened men. The Right, in turn, finds evidence of decay and decline in everything not sanctified in the Bible or in limitless free market terms, and everything that occurs in society that involves a tragedy on a spectacular scale is reducible, in their view, to the errant need for self-expression. Much of this is old hat--its been going on for years, and again, its the job of thoughtful critics, critics or are genuinely provocative to bring a larger analysis to bear on complex matters, to strive for truth that stirs us away from the intellectual panic that some of our pundits seem to want to fire up. We have another case of left and right agreeing on the basic tenet that artistic freedom is wrong headed, and that it must be hemmed in my so many conditions and restrictions that its practice would be practically pointless. We have a pining for a world of Norman Rockwell small towns and church bake sales.

How pathetic. The rock and rollers duty, as it is with any artist, is to seek and express the truth they perceive in the comprehensible in terms that extend our notions of what the human experience is.

Parenting is part of that profound experience. Might some people still be alive today if parents paid attention to what their sons were up to? Marylyn Manson is only the messenger of what's already in place: to shut up artists because the message is some times vile and ugly is, at best, cutting off our antennae to what the rest of the world is feeling.

Yet its curious here: the original claim was that rock music was dead, slain by critics, by extension Big Media, corporate America, which has turned it into a commoditized vulgarity through which it sells back a teenagers sullen notion of empowerment one CD and one Concert ticket at a time, reaping billions. But yet:
We're still out here playing, and teaching the unnoticed, the unheralded, and the unfashionable kids who, in spite of everything, want to be able to play to. So, I gather, rock and roll does live after all, it lives on because others, dedicated idealists like you from thirty years ago, continue to play and instruct younger players who want to play with an accomplished and feeling voice. I'm sure your idealism is real, Clint, and your CD collection enviable, but you've back tracked right into the opposition’s camp: rock and roll is a human activity that survives and persists despite marketplace distortions, if you're inclined to lazily call it that, and in fact even thrives because the market is open and unrestricted toward content. We insist, and you affirm by clarifying your sketchy autobiography, that it is force that continues in the places where people live and practice, not in high towers, corporate or academic.

As for Dylan and Marylyn Manson, I don't think that what they're doing is any less honest than a searing Allan Holdsworth guitar solo: it's a matter of making distinctions, and that is precisely the function of able criticism that David Smay makes in is superb post. The music, like all living art, changes constantly the more individuals from different experiences play with it, and commentary, at best, is an on going project that brings coherence to the phenomenon. It's an on going activity, it’s not done. Rock and roll is a large part of show biz, rebel-sanctum that is, and the comeback gambit is as old as drunk driving. Joan wants us to think that she remains teetering on the edge of the culture, is, in fact, more dangerous than she was before, is ridiculous at best, and to be expected. The results must be dreadful, though one wishes her well, and an audience. Chrissie Hinde , though silent for awhile, has managed to sound her age and still brandish a cutting gutter and verbal jibe, and others aging gracefully are plenty: Lou Reed, Bowie, Stones, Piggy, Grace Slick, who refuses to perform at all regardless of the offers. Even Blondie, who sound invigorated in their reformation. Debbie Harry, no longer the debutante, older and wiser, and wider for it, remains an intoxicating vocalist: her work with the Jazz Passengers didn't hurt a wit.
The Stones are ageing gracefully with respect to their studio work: the newer songs, I think, have a strong kick; Keith Richards remains an amazing source of riffs and melodic turns, while Jagger manages to turn in one impressive vocal after another. Live, all I can say is that they're workman-like, completely professional, and dull as white chalk. Boring. Pure show-biz.

Ditto on Eddy Vedder's yearning to be the moral voice of grunge and beyond: if he and his band mates wanted to avoid the cruel truth of big business, they well could gone with a smaller label to begin with, and spend their days driving to gigs in small alternative clubs, playing for car fare, integrity unsoiled. In lieu of that, he could just give all the money away and join a monastery. It would improve Pearl Jams' mu

Thursday, July 19, 2007


There are scads of songs that take turns occupying my Most Loathed Tune list, but the perennial chart-topper is Iron Butterfly's "Inna Gadda Da Vidda". Those readers who are my age and brave enough to admit having been driven within a inch of homicidal rage as a result of this aberration of hard rock can relate to the image of someone in a group of middle-aged rock and rollers trying to one-up (or down) each other with descriptions of the most hideous music they've had to endure, only to have someone in their giddy midst halt the proceedings with a grinning rendition of the ultimate Stupid Guitar Riff:Da-Da-DADA-da-da-DA!-DA!-DA!!!!! Rafters shook, babies cried, boyfriends broke up with girlfriends for no reason when the first distorted note squalled from whatever torn speaker was about to fill the room with the quintessential groan of bad fuzztone guitars and fat, lazy baselines simulating what has been called a soundtrack of a Monster Sewing Machine on a stitching rampage infamous Japanese coastal cities. Yes, the song is that bad. Bear in mind that the song was released when I was just getting into the thickest portion of my rock-as-art form obsession and wasn't in a mood to kid around or make exceptions to my criteria about what made for acceptable particulars in a smart band arrangement. It was as if the band had purloined a copy of my conceits and went out of their way to make a record a song contrary to the requirements just to ruin a long run of my day son the planet. Clubfooted riff, bong-fury drum solo, screech and scrape solos, plodding pace. This describes a large measure of what was being sold those days by many different bands, but Iron Butterfly held the distinction of being one of the most universally loathed bands in history, at least in my circles. No one I knew would cop to owning or liking the song --I only found IB fans when I ventured out of my own neighborhood in search of select drugs. What was irritating mostly about "Inna Gadda Da Vidda" was that it was a song so awful that drugs didn't improve the listening experience, or even make it tolerable. It was worse, in fact, the wrong soundtrack for the pursuit of bliss. It was my luck to find other ways to happiness, and better kinds of music in the transaction.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

James Reiss at the Precipice

James Reiss’s poem "Bureau of Missing Persons" disguises itself as a Borgesian fable where we have the superstructure and the casual filaments of narrative structure foregrounded, and what we would expect is a clever and disguised fable where once again our methods of explaining ourselves to ourselves and presenting to others is composed of an endless stream of fictions, and meta-fictions pretending to be true.
It is a tired conceit at this point in the 21st century, where each fanciful bit about surfiction, fabulation, self-reflectivity and late modernist pastiche have inched from the experimental margins of literary art and have been absorbed into the supremely commercial mainstream; it’s a wonder anyone would want to try yet again to get something fresh from the ritual disassembling and debunking of the last gallery of useable allegory, i.e., literary style and it’s attendant metaphors.

From the terse whispers of Borges, Rod Serling(our Supreme Ironist and The Only Moralist Who Matters) to Thomas Pynchon’s satiric welding the beams of History, Literature, and Science together and positing them all as manifestations of the human need to create and sustain mythological structure and thus have a means to believe that there is a Plan our random experiences are connected to, and onward through the humorless deconstructions of postmodernist twitches and glitches, we consumers of culture have gotten the message after all. We are ciphers at the end of our imagining, we are cursed with a genetically-inscribed instinct to insist on metaphysical certainty only a means to sustain the race, we are, finally, merely dust in the wind (to coin a philosopher’s salient point), producing books, paintings, poems, movies and the like that get nothing at all except demonstrate our own vanity in thinking we could explain ourselves in front of our Maker should such an afterlife moment come to into being.

Reiss, though, keeps it simple, keeps it smart, and is subtly subversive in utilizing the metafictional gimmick. What strikes me as peculiar, and unique, is what seems like a reversal of the standard self-reflective ploy; where a rigorous and torturously unreadable novelist like Alain Robbe-Grillet would foreground his narrative elements to the extent that his novels were more about the sheer description of everything contained within a writerly frame, items and cracks poured over again and then again from different angles and habits of mind, all to the exclusion of characters, who, if they existed at all, were only cogs in a fathomless fiction machine needed solely to make the apparatus run , Reiss speaks of characters who wish to be absorbed by the machinations of narrative structure , plot devices, and symbolic meaning, those

holiday shoppers, taxicabs yellow
as sunset, and swear they'll find dog walkers
dreaming up haikus, day-trader night readers
of eBooks—all stalking the sidewalks.

In any sense, those being looked down upon, from the conceit of having those who reside in a skyscraper perched library that contains, from implication, the sum of human learning, are in the middle of the roil and rush of life, going about their business, anonymous to one another on the street, perhaps, but obviously coming from places where they were with purpose and now off to other places where their presence is desired, required, in any event, absolutely essential. The resident caretakers of the high rise archive, the presumed custodian of Knowledge and who all, of course, seemed drabbed and despairing given their nuanced insight, thanks to their study of said books and scrolls, that all this running about is pointless and without greater, nobler purpose, look out the windows, over the ledge, mesmerized by the commotion:

In the dead writer's last short story the characters
have no names. They speak without quotation
marks in a setting that looks less like a penthouse
than a storeroom for books and old scrolls.
Still, when they stride out to their terrace
and peer over the city, they swear this
is the ultimate high-rise, the true resolution
to a plot involving disappearances..

A superb and unforced contrast here, subtly put forth; those on high, an elite force anonymous in their own right, viewing the external events as if there vantage point, arrogantly cast as sophisticated and wise, were the only correct perspective, the only lens through which truth could be read. We are witness here to a myopic hubris, the unresolvable contradiction of those with so much alleged insight into how life works that they see nothing at all, that they’ve completely missed the point of literature, art is to enhance life, not embalm it. Reiss puts forth an anti-intellectual message that I find a shade off-putting—why can’t we just leave that for the Rush Limbaugh’s of the world—but he has written a clever, subversive little poem here that finds a new spark in an used-up idea. One may argue with him over a club soda in real time, but there is still the last lines to enjoy, and savor. Hamlet spoke to Horatio that "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy" , and Reiss’s floating narrator, noting the purposeful bustle if the citizens of the street and the contrasting gloom who are convinced that humanity is governed by deterministic laws, illustrates the how the archivist’s goal of making experience fit into finite defintions will only become more unmanageable thusly:

Each evening
the atmosphere deepens. The short story loses its way.

Every night life will continue to unfold in inexplicable complex and unpredictable ways, and the theoretical narratives some of us attempt to tie it down with will just collapse from it’s own bloat.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Clapton: Used Up Before He Was Half Way Through

I'll never say that guitarist Eric Clapton can't play the blues; it's because of this particular brilliance he has in his wrists, where he gets that ghostly vibrato and stinging , bittersweet bend just right, that keeps me listening to him since seeing him with Cream at one of those ballroom dances in the late sixties. The man can play; he has, though, made the sad decision of pop stardom over integrety, not a thing he can be blamed for, since who among us can easily declare they'd do otherwise if such fortune were ours? The fact remains, though, that one wishes Clapton made better choices. This an old review I wrote in 1990 of a Clapton box set, Crossroads, and herin we find me opining in what what seems like the reading equivilent of monotone that Slow Hand was sucking in the Nineties.
I would have to say that I have relished the idea of having the works of many favorite rock musicians gathered in grandiose, multiple-disc packages, complete with exhaustive biographies, obscure photos and important dates, for no better reason than to affirm my vanity that rock and roll is art, after all, and that we’d better take notes and cram for the final. Reality settles in fast after initial enthusiasm over this notion, leaving two leveling considerations: one, how many of us want to get mundanely scholastic about music that free us from mendacity and two, how many rock artists have there been whose life’s’ work merits obsessive inspection and a fifty-dollar vocabulary? On the second point, one of those artists isn’t Eric Clapton, whom six-record (four CD) box set, Crossroads (Polydor), manages the opposite of what its’ compilers intended. A generous overview in the British guitarists’ twenty-plus year career, ranging from well known songs, classic performances and out takes from past sessions, this collection, over all, confirms my suspicion that Clapton is an artist with obvious and appealing attributes who has been over-promoted to solo-artist status, placed in a league where he’s plainly out of his depth. Consider the sequence. From his early work with The Yardbirds, with their raging avant - poppism and more significantly, with John Mayall's Blue Breakers, Cream, Blind Faith and Derek and the Dominoes, we saw the progress of a gifted instrumentalist evolving in sympathetic contexts. With Mayall, he’d taken on the mantle of Chicago blues tradition head-on and personalized it, soloing with such vengeance, confidence and depth of feeling that matters of race, nationality or accent ceased to be issues- With Cream, he fused his traditionalism with the experimental impulse of Sixties British Rock and along with Hendrix, re-invented the mode and method of rock guitaring. Through his work with Steve Winwood in Blind Faith (a regrettably under-rated band that was never given half a chance by either critics or listeners) and with late American guitarist Duane Allman in Derek and the Dominoes on the seminal Layla two-record set, Clapton was on a continual upward spiral. in each case, he situated himself among mentors and collaborators clearly his equal who could provide a means for the guitarist to continually lay out his best efforts. These efforts have stood the withering and eroding test of lime and we have here some tare examples of music that still cuts a fresh path even by today’s’ jaded, audio-glutted sensibilities, The upward momentum stops, though, by the time Crossroads racks pass these hallmarks and proceeds through the remains of Clap- tons’ later work. Seemingly embarrassed by the adulation and financial windfalls his early work gave him, the later work decidedly lost its’ aggression, affecting a laid back manner that was an anathema by his previous standards. Country blues, rhythm and blues, reggae and country western were the touch stones of the new approach, and indistinct olio under which his playing was subsumed and defanged. Save for and occasional foray into straight blues, where the essence of his brilliance shone through with no regrets—the mournfully sustained notes, the slicing. Taciturn runs, the embroidered phrasing that spoke volumes about pain. joy and growth, with scarcely a lick issued for its own dubious sake—Clapton - seemed all but anonymous through these tracks, It was as though he were flying for a zero-degree of responsibility for the work, as though the previous Clapton hadn’t existed at all and there fore, there was nothing for him to live up to.
Not that there hadn’t been hits along the way, such as “I Shot the Sheriff’, cocaine”. “After Midnight”, “Lay Down Sally”, but even these gems underscore the difficulty. His later career is best remembered more by songs rather than albums. For an artist who’s the subject of a retrospective as exhaustive as Crossroads, with its claim of documenting legend and legacy, the fact that none of my friends (rock and roll zealots all) have been unable to name just three from the scads of his post-Layla releases tells me there’s something wrung with this picture. Boxed sets by their nature imply memorable music... But if a major portion of the musicians work draws either a blank or sketchy impressions on a collective level, we might assume that we’re operating under the wrong set of assumptions. The real problem with Crossroads, is that it doesn’t add clarity to Clapton’s’ work, but tells rather where his bad choices have been over and over, but which also gives an idea of what he might do about his situation. My advice, made simple, is for Clapton to get a little more honest with himself and admit that he needs a band of equals to move beyond this particular rut. It’d be a simple admission that the unchanging core of his talent is as a side man, collaborator and band member not as a band leader. Clap ton needs to be a member of a team that plays rock and roll whose whole is greater than its individual parts.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Gibson Drinks,I Don't

Mel Gibson Hits The Bar In Costa Rica
Tonight I celebrated twenty years of continuous sobriety, and it's instructive to see that photo of Gibson, fortified with copious amounts of goon juice, smirking like the clueless nitwit who'd drank again to silence the noise that's clamoring between his ears. Gibson is an artist and all that claptrap, but no one really buys that it is a condition we must accept and tolerate if we're to see him continue making films. The mad artist who is so sensitive to life's crushing awfulness that he or she has to drink and take drugs just to stay alive and reach the soulful part of themselves is a romantic crock fans and some critics have used to excuse the drunk, slovenly assholism of Kerouac, Bukowski and a slew of other sloshed scribes, a generational habit of mind that was enabling in two distinctive ways; it made the artist feel that they had to drink, that it was their responsibility to drink in order to stay true to their art and audience, and it give a perfect escape for the audience from confronting the blunt fact that alcoholics , when they drink, are jerks, assholes, reprobates, completely unpleasant people when they part take of hooch. Gibson, of course, is a disturbing personality and artist whose continuous stream of good reviews has more to with financial matters than with merit, and he's someone given to some problematic religious beliefs that can't help but get him into controversy. The actor/director might well be a creep sans alcohol, but it must be said that having it in his system brings that character trait to full volume. This is why it's instructive for me to see his smirking drunkenness this night of a landmark anniversary, as I have several photographs of myself with that same graceless grin, that same
look that makes one appear that they're being propped up, lest one's face wind up in the chips and guacamole. And lest I take too much credit for the felt miracle of my sobriety, I can see that face and that bottle can be mine again anytime. posted 07/17/2007 at 01:31:41

Saturday, July 14, 2007

No poems about Poetry, pt.2

A friend opined over a soft drink, responding to my misgivings against poems about poetry, that it might be argued that all poems written are about other poems.I drew one of my hair-splitting distinctions.There are indeed good poems about poetry, but they are rare and the product of genius, which is also rare. That it can be argued that all great poems are about poetry, I doubt this can withstand close scrutiny.A poem about a poem forms a dialogue, which implies a basis in felt experience. Empathy for the human condition, to risk a cliche. Poems about poetry, as form, amounts to no more than studying the instruction manual and never taking the driving test.It's a form of mystification that gets in the way of good writing.

The point, however, is that what we're talking about are poems by modern bards that forefront poetry as subject matter and hedge on their duties to their craft by euphemising about their inability or their unwillingness to engage experience. I am not anti-intellectual, and I am not one who pillories the Academy each chance available, but there is something odious about the way poetry has been institutionalized by Universities and turned into a Profession, a situation that has caused many contemporary poets to take themselves too seriously, ie, serious in ways that have little to do with art and everything with to do with status.

Writing poems about poetry is symptomatic of this thinking, a tenuous boosterism designed to convince the poet, his colleagues and the small audience for that sort of self-congratulating offal that what they do really is important, it really matters, honest, we as poets have hard time of it, swear to God, I mean, no one knows what we go through, right?, no one knows how terrible it is to bear the strain of having a muse and a Geiger counter sensitivity, you know?, yeah , you know, you know what I'm saying, yeah, yeah... You get the idea.

All this furious scribbling , much of it has appeared here as Pinsky choice in the four or five years I've been here, is vainglory, art without valor, a template of maneuvers where one quite literally fills in the blanks or shifts around some plot points or shifts the expected alienated and alienating effects.It always reads as false, contrived, nervous,unmoving.It is tragic that so many young writers have gotten degrees in creative writing only to write such witless drivel.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

blues, bra

The loneliness of the long-distance sophist

It's a slow week, I suppose, when someone has to visit a venerable landmark like Shakespeare and Company in Paris and then attempt to elevate the piece from being mere tourist journalism  and dig out some of the hair-encrusted residue of undergraduate post-structuralism and it's attendant postmodern shell game to argue the obvious and dated insight that the S & C of legend is not the same thing as it once was. Lee Rourke's exercise in summarizing the bad ideas of mediocre thinkers meets, I suppose, the minimum requirement of a blog post, but it simply won't suffice as real thinking. It might have been one thing to simply assert that the quaint shop exists solely as a link to an era that gone past us and it's stock and trade these days is nostalgia, not book selling or advancing the cause of exposing the world to emerging authors; someone cannot be blamed for resenting the way an exotic past one was not a part of ) known only through proxy or through a reading of the literature and histories of the era) is fetishized, gormandized and sold again as to would be bohemians seeking the golden age of deep, envelope pushing thoughts.One complaining of the mere consumerism surrounding the enterprise at least has a foot on real ground and can make a point and sling a devastating metaphor that makes sense in this world, not the reference library.But dredging up the image of the tediously redundant crypto-neocon Jean Baudriallard smacks of preciousness; JB was aggravating enough with his mock oracular pronouncements and anchorless Marxism , and these days listening to those after him invoke his names and his phrases reeks of a phoniness one suspects when words like “Existential”, or even”postmodernism” are uttered. Let this French gasbag remain buried, and let Lee Rourke find a bookstore that doesn’t give him the heebie jeebies.

You eat what you think you're eating: a prose poem

Since this blog ostensibly concerns itself with contemporary poets and their work, I'll post one of my own and invite all responses, yay or nay. This is a nod to my beginnings as an ersatz surrealist, not as an effort to regain youthful vigor and more an effort to recollect the pretensiousness with which I started writing poetry.--tb
A knife , fork and a cracked plate don’t constitute a meal , though all three items are handy for show, as are empty frames on the wall when there is any kind of company visiting , who demand our attention, taxes, documents of your legal rights, you just say it’s the wall you wanted to highlight, the frame is only a, well, a, well, uhhhh,a framing device!to bring a viewer’s attention to the rub of the paint, the embedded fingerprints, the light switch in the center. Likewise, it’s knowledge we’re hungry for, isn’t it? Knife, fork, cracked plate are about the idea of eating as others go without forks, knives, or cracked plates. Dead ethics professors choke in non-intrusive urns and French deconstructionists blow kisses from balconies and any perch they can secure, Appearances are misleading, explanations are fictions worth listening to for the way the words are warped and wrap around each other until it’s not reasonable descriptions of a material world we are listening to, but rather melodies flitting about like nervous birds trapped in a small cage, a messy page of tuneless songs, all this for a description of my house that now seems to rest on top of a giant hill, bracing clouds and tree tops, a form I’m filling out asking me to describe myself and all the desires I would bring into the world if finances would allow, I would allow everything is what gets written, and everything not forbidden would be inscribed in the rhetoric of future tense, when software anxiety rules the body electric.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007


Grank stared at the microphone that was staring back at him, and as his eyes adjusted t the dark, he could see a room full of hooded, shaved, tattooed and love starved waifs and curbside geniuses looking at him, clutching notebooks of assorted thicknesses, scraps of paper, waiting their turn on stage, waiting to see what he had. Grank tugged at his collar, dropped his neatly typed sheets, and began to rant. Horrible feedback washed up to the stage from the coffee bar. Grank made the most of the vibe he’d been given.


Grank was in a trance, raised his arms as if receiving great wisdom from cloud gods watching from just above the whirling ceiling fan that only seemed to make the coffeehouse hotter, he was in the groove , he had the élan from Ceylon, he was indeed the PaduchaBazooka©, and as he lowered his arms and raised his head, ready to open his eyes and witness the stunned silence that was is genius’ calling card, something struck him in the head. He opened his eyes in time to see a coffee mug come flying at him and then feel it , painfully, smash him in the nose. Then someone hit in the back of the head with the microphone stand. His eyes were closed again as he collapsed to the stage and curled into a ball as the steel toed tips of a dozen Doc Martin boots dug their treaded thickness into his ribs.

“Your poetry poetry blows donkey dongs in H-E- DOUBLE HOCK STICKS” someone screamed before they kicked Grank in the head.

“Tough crowd” was what Amos said as he leaned over the table to make the remark to Shelltone. Shelltone closed her notebook and took a sip of her Hammerhead.

“Yeah, these Fray fuckers are a real tense bunch”.

“Uh huh” said Amos, who then arose to get his licks in.

Rhymed poems for the most part chew the root, but then most poetry is awful anyway

It's hard to write good poems, period. I have to admit that I've generally little or no use for most rhymed and metered poems, basically because there are so very few poets who are able to compose as such without seeming like they sacrificed emotion for a metronome and a rhyming dictionary. It is not something that pleases my ear under normal circumstances. Free verse, in turn, is in large part willful obscurity and arbitrary line breaks where the point is to disguise one’s lack of anything interesting to say. The drone replaces the metronome, and a cuisinart of unconsidered images and arty inferences take the place of an interesting arrangement of materials that, though quite different, find an atmospheric and tonal coherence in the hands of the genius, that rarest thing among us all. The dirty little secret is that most poems written by most poets are mediocre, substandard, self satisfied little noise machines composed by scribes who are, to some degree, either delusional or self-aggrandizing

Lisa Russ Spaar and the Leveling Effects of Memory

Lisa Russ Spaar’s poem "I Consider My Mother's Mind" makes me think of something that that has been suddenly and violently emptied after a long time of neglect, a wallet crammed with too many business cards, gummed encrusted post it notes, receipts, expired credit cards and coupons, small scraps of paper with phone numbers attached to first names whose faces you've forgotten. Or maybe a drawer in a the farthest end of the kitchen, just over the lower shelves where the heavy cooking irons are kept, with the evidence of a life lived for decades in the same four walls, with more receipts, creased photos, frayed or snapped rubber hands, recipes clipped from Family Circle, report cards, bank statements, more photographs, notes of congratulation and condolence, an overwhelming mass of paper work that has been confined and added to by a stern-fingered determination to consign these things to the margins, documents of no practical use which one keeps none the less and despite the clutter for fear that their presence and life force will be diminished, fall under erasure. This what struck me about the poem, that there is a great amount of unattended facts and figuration that have been stored, unrecorded, experience really unspoken, now faded, faint, vanishing with the failing of memory, whole chunks of decades missing between what is remembered not so much as memories but rather as sharp, clear, bright and sense-compelling parts of an incomplete narrative; there is the sense here of what the daughter hears an aging parent telling here, visualizing the details , hoping the tactile bits, the tangible references, can somehow become clear and full in the mind's capacity to form an oracular whole;

Stars of the Great and Small Bears,
lost in a cobalt padlock above Detroit,
the orient coruscations of car factories,
skating ponds, six-lane highways,
now lumbering across decades
into my childhood suburb, that rimed ruin—
picnic table, dispirited shucks and obeisant leeks of our winter garden, homunculus at the mind's edge--

Spaar’s narrator seems to be interiorizing hours of listening to the sort of wandering, diffuse, grasping monologues an elderly parent might drift into when trying to respond to simple , direct questions; the process of trying to remember what is nearly gone from recall creates intriguing associations that are verbalized and followed on their own. Soon the answer to the question is not the point, and one is left to confront a narrative that is being told, spoken before it fades and is lost with the dying brain matter. One is witness to a personality trying to recreate one's life , to remember and perhaps feel something from the past yet again before the last moments of coherence are over, and the daughter, finally, accepts , grudgingly brutal facts of what happens with aging, and attempts to see the terrain of the decades her mother mentions in various pockets of lucidity.

The landscape is an intense blur , a montage; Spaar captures the feeling of Detroit I remember flying into my hometown where one can, if fortunate enough to have a window seat, witness the industrial city and it's suburbs, a grey, flat spread of factories, suburban sprawl, highways the width of mighty rivers, a hard land to raise a family in; I am impressed with Spaar's masterful contrasting of elements with simple put details, the facelessness of a city stooped shouldered and hardened through bitter weather and economic disaster, and a terse description of a family garden that attempts to thrive regardless of a downbeat outlook. The human element is many-layered here, struggling through the impersonal forces of inevitability and insisting that such a life matters; the mother who speaks of her life in defiance of the loss of re-collective powers, the daughter who attempts to imagine her mother's life as full and real based on the fractured and collage quality of the recall, and a family giving the home a human, "homey" touch that expresses the need for an abode to be welcoming , even in a city as violent and embittered as Detroit.

At this point I get the sense that Spaar’s narrator has wandered the tableau she has mentally constructed from her mother’s tersely phrased murmurings, has allowed herself to feel a rush of sensations the streets, the factories, seasons and winter gardens might arise, and to become overwhelm, melancholic in what becomes a witnessing of another’s life caught in the movement of small-scale history, formed from coincidences of context and personal choice. There is a feeling of helplessness, of wanting to give warning and consul and coming to the sober realization that there is nothing to do with the past except remember, draw from it what lessons one can, and try to use the experiences as useful touchstones for living in the present tense. But living in the present tense, in the now of the noun, does not severe one from the past and the sway it holds over us, no matter how much be busy ourselves with hobbies and acquiring more material things we don’t need. Some almost forgotten thing will make the knees buckle, cause the eyes to blur with tearsthat form, something will remind you of who you are, what made you, and will make you feel vulnerable and sense regardless of the layers of maturity and autonomy we grant ourselves.

I can't return to you, though I believe you're calling me
from the polar house of hibernal fear
with its skirted vanity table, its angry mirror
& Bakelite brush, bristles up, still fleeced
with a child's hair, a wavering frequency
in the key of oblivion, mammalian, contracting.

This is the “Rosebud” scenario, where an insignificant detail, a banal trace of material good, arises and is amplified in the waking mind, setting forth a cascade of sensations and impressions that humble you inspite of the strength of your limbs or the power of your will. One learns , if one is fortunate , that the past is always present and constantly influencing the future. The death of one’s kin does not mean that they’ve moved out of our lives.

Friday, July 6, 2007


Hendrix eclipsed all the old school guys easily. But he died, which is a shock the art of rock guitar never recovered from. Jimmy Page is a first rate idea man, a great producer, a conceptualist of hard rock architecture, but he is easily the worst heavy-rep fretman I've ever seen--fast , knowledgeable, but very sloppy, so full of mistakes, painful to listen to, bordering on incompetent, without the Hendrix genius for turning mis-fingerings into an advantage.

Allan Holdsworth is in a class by himself who merged the spidery phrasing of Harvey Mandel with the "Sunship" style acceleration Coltrane favored in his most period of most frantic playing. His solo albums are inconsistent, but the band materials where I think he's done work approaching guitar genius are

Perry Como did not play the guitar.
a hard rock band with former Coliseum drummer Jon Heissman, which I heard a few years before the emergence of Van Halen. Holdsworth's fleet, punchy runs remain breath taking. Material is better than average riff-rock, and serves the guitarist just fine.

-- Soft Machine

Instrumental work, full on jazz rock, and Holdsworth takes a long solo on "Hazard Profile", choice post-McLaughlin/Coryell guitar work. Holdsworth is in state of transcendence.

Believe It
-- Tony Williams Lifetime

Great match up, Lifetime chapter two. Williams drives the jazz/fusion session masterfully--god, I miss him--and Holdsworth sears the scales in angelic overdrive.

Clapton is one of the great white blues guitarist, but he is not a blues man, but a pop star. And these days, he is kinda dull, considered by too many as being the definition and savior of blues guitar while the likes of Buddy Guy, Michael Hill, Johnny Winter and BB King are still breathing. He is trading on the remains of his charisma, I think.

Beck is singular, unique, cool, the Miles Davis of rock guitar to Hendrix's Coltrane, but he cannot keep a good thing going, breaking bands faster than many can eat lunch. It would've been nice to have a series of albums by the same band that one could dip into to see how the music developed over time, but Beck has a hard time committing. He seems to get bored in a hurry with what he's doing.
Ritchie Blackmore: a case of great guitar talent wasted in a bad band, Deep Purple. His solos on "Smoke on the Water" , "Highway Star' and many others are classics, little gems of perfection, but you had to put with macho-posturing to get to it. Blackmore, to my knowledge, never really did the electric work that showed unencumbered by lame vocals and moronic lyrics, though I understand he has a Celtic - themed acoustic project that might be worthwhile.

I cannot imagine Zappa sounding like anyone except himself.

Bloomfield, who I saw many times, including with the original Butterfield Blues Band, was at least ten years ahead of his time. His story is the best anti-drug message I can imagine.

I was a guitar obsessive for years over a slew of players--Larry Coryell, Leslie West, Ritchie Blackmore -- but I was in my teens and early twenties, after all, and matters of family, work, sobering up , and substantial career change consumed the time I would otherwise have spent waxing on , 24/7, about my favorite guitarists.

The sad part of the story is that I know some fellows, from a variety of circumstances, who are my age, late forties, and rattle on about their musical agendas at the drop of a beret. I did an interview with Ozzie Osborn in the early eighties for a weekly when Black Sabbath were coming through town, and an acquaintance named Roy couldn't get over the fact that I was the undeserving son-of-bitch among his associates who'd received an audience with his Ozziness.

Roy complimented on this fact, saying that I must be something special to get the interview --"You met Ozzie, Man, that's doesnt jus happen, bro, you met Ozzie, I mean , The Oz, the god damned Oz shook your hand , bro..."-- and then would kneel , valet style. Of course, being a young asshole myself, I got a kick out of that, but he kept it up for weeks, months, months turned into years, a decade passed, friends got married, had kids, other friends died of many different things, life became full and complicated, and close to twenty years later, around the time I turned forty, I was in the local market when Roy turns up in the aisle pushing a cart, thick around the middle, hair long, grey and thinning.

"Hey, how's the Oz man" was the first thing he said. I said I was okay, and after the expected pleasantries, he asked me what I thought of Randy Rhodes, Osborne's guitarist who was killed in a plane wreck. Not much, I said, I liked Van Halen better.

"But Randy played with Ozzy, man" he said," and you met Ozzy. Where's that at? Randy Roades played behind Oz and he could..."

Jeff Beck has always been the most adventurous of the Yardbirds triad, and he's easily the most unique: only Hendrix rivals him for advancing rock guitar by light years, and it's lucky for us that he's stayed alive to add to his legacy.Jeff Beck is easily the best of his generation: he has made more than a few awful records, but his guitarwork was always with out equal. He is the only one of the original British blues-rock pioneers who's learned how to blend his style musical situations than strict-rock: at his best, he is riveting as no other guitarist can be. The Truth / Beckola band rocked like a mother. People left their concerts with out eyelashes. Becks' guitar licks sliced the meat in the butcher shop across the street powered the generators at the ER when the lights went out. Rod Stewarts' singing forced ugly cops to stay indoors on nice days.

The shame of his career is his inability to keep a band together for any real length of time. Had he found the right folks, his recorded output might have been more consistent than it is. I wish he'd keep his bands together longer than has been his habit, because it would be a gas to see what he'd sound like with musicians he really gelled with. Anyone who wants to hear some of the freshest and flashiest guitar on disc ought to seek out the work of the late Danny Gatton. A fantastic hybrid of rock, country, blues and jazz, Gattons' playing could slash and burn and run circles around the fretboard like no ones' business. My guess is that he's was a technically accomplished as Steve Morse, but with an ear to the ground.
Jerry Garcia had his random moments when he and the Dead connected on a number of levels during those lengthy jams, but he was really an interminable improviser without much imagination beyond his diddling sense of phrase. I'll take Allen Holdsworth or Pat Metheny for extended improvisation: there is far more money in their musical banks.

Robert Hunter, though, is one of the best rock lyricists ever.

Optimum Coryell is, in my opinion:

Spaces --Incredible album, with John McLaughlin on second guitar, Miroslav Vitous on bass, and Billy Cobhmam on drums, this is one of the greatest jazz-guitar albums ever. Coryell is a lyrical blur over these strong compositions, and McLaughlin's back up and second-gun soloing anticipates the band leader's moods nicely.

-- --With Steve Marcus on sax and Mike Mandel, a unique jazz rock album, mainstream compositions and approaches to the arrangements with Coryells' cranky , buzzy guitar chops dicing and slicing --his then recent work with Sonny Sharrock on the Memphis Underground album with the other wise forgettable Herbie Mann shows here. Steve Marcus is in Coltrane overkill on his alto--those squeallllllly high notes will make you go deaf, but he is an energetic soloist.

Alvin Lees' problem is that he's only had one guitar solo, which he plays over and over again. It's not an issue of style, but of repetition. He's a one trick pony.
Buck Dharma was the cats' meow in the seventies with Blue Oyster Cult, but I always found him sterile, if proficient. Bland professionalism. BOC were also one of the dullest bands I've ever seen. Their dalliance with fascist chic hoodwinked some critics who needed symbolism to commit discourse upon, but I thought they were just silly.

There's a tendency of fans to buy into the faux tragic sweep of rock history, and to locate the "death" of the music with some event where the possibility of being legitimate at what you do became impossible. For guitar fans, that is the death of Hendrix, after whose passing no one could play as well as, and certainly no one could adopt or play in the style of because to do so would be a transgression against some deified shrine. This makes no sense, and is antithetical to music making, which is a living activity, not a bunch of notes on a page or locked on some scratchy master tapes. Hendrix certainly modeled is guitar work on guitarists before him, he modified what he liked and used to create his style, and he extended the possibilities of the music he loved by his treating the music as if he owned it. It was his creation, everything that influenced him became his own in his hands, with the result being the guitar work we discuss today.

To revisit the old neighborhood, SRV was a distinct and powerful guitarist, just as Hendrix was distinct from his mentors Albert King and Buddy Guy. "Voodoo Chile (Slight return)" sounds eerily similar to the original, but that is in the proper spirit of homage, and for other tracks, the influence is weighed with Vaughn's own personality, which is strong enough on its own.

While there's no doubting that Vaughn was deeply influenced by Hendrix, he did developed his own style, and created his own sound with what he did with the notes. For slavish, note-by-note infatuation with Hendrix's guitar work, you're on more solid ground citing Frank Marino or Randy Hansen. Vaughn created his own thing and his own feel, inspired by an obvious source that he acknowledged many times in his playing life. Even if he WAS derivative, I'm not so sure that's always a bad thing.
Agreed. It is impossible for any musician, or any artist, to not be derivative to some degree in their work, at some time. What matters is how well the influences are absorbed and make for a foundation on which to build your own expression. Vaughn had moved rather compellingly to his own style before his death. Marino, or even Uli Jon Roth, say, have never gotten beyond the box that the Hendrix factor has become.

From the get go,George Harrison's guitar work was about taste and melody, in being sprite and joyful in the notes he played.

Brian May was tasty at what he did, I think, but he was an uninteresting soloist, really, though I think it would have been interesting to have he and Steve Howe switch bands. May might have given Yes some more guts, how brought Queen more grace. Both bands, though, sank musically under the weight of their top heavy conception: the music lost drive and direction, it became dull and cranky, and both bands stumbled.

Nice licks were played , though.
LESLIE WEST!!! playing "Dreams of Milk and Honey" on the live side of Flowers of Evil by Mountain is pure, snarling, bell tone genius. Sure , call it repetitive: I quite literally know every note of this forty minute jam by heart. No, I am not a Deadhead given to listening to wandering guitar noodling. I think West achieves a moment of genius here: he never equaled this performance again.
If Keith Richards drew his inspiration in extending the sound of Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters into a new kind of rangy, chest thumping howl of macho badness, Harrison took from not just Berry but also Carl Perkins and James Burton and understood the stoic, bittersweet nature of their country-tinged phrasing, and had not a little of the "swing" these cats possessed in spades.

Most important, I think, is his genius for simplicity. He didn't play all the notes, just the right notes, and beyond that , he played them with an unexpected originality that made his solos some of the most memorable in rock and pop.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Poet Chokes in the 9th Inning

In theory I ought to like Alan Michael Parker's poem "I Have Been Given a Baseball..." more than I do because it exhibits traits I find appealing and find not often enough; straight, unpretentious language, a knowing details about a world we might recognize from our own experience, and a deft hand of knowing when to give the details and when to hold back, to let mood and substance fill in those details that plain narrative facts cannot express. Still, Parker's poem leaves me with that after taste one might associate with Sharps or Odouls or some other fake beer they might deign to sample and find themselves having to comment on what the faux ale tasted like. Gamy, I'd say, no pun intended. You can taste the resemblance to actual lager, but what you take away is how the simulation jumped the rails and gave you a cotton tongue and a mouth that felt like it had a long drink of your mom's shampoo. Similarly, Parker's piece reads like a poem and does it's paces very well--pause, sit, speak, roll over, go abstract, give a glimpse of something comprehensible, now conclude, wistfully, whispering--but I can't get over the gutlessness of the enterprise.

The problem might being with the subject itself, baseball and it's relation to the collective consciousness of how we'd like to regard ourselves; so much has been made of this over the century, supported, amended, expanded, contracted, with limitless layers of irony and outrage that one is hard pressed to name a particular emotion or dramatic trope that hasn't through baseball's diamond-formed symbolism. The sheer attraction of the game, how it appeals to the perceived American virtues of openness and fair play and playing by the rules, that agenda after agenda, attitude after attitude have been pushed through it's fabled fields in the order of making a point, of laying out how great we are or how debased we have become. There's not much chance of using baseball again as a means to underscore points of pain of injustice or unspoken joy without having one's poetic feet snap the worm-eaten structure on which this mythology lies. Parker, though, is game and gives it a try, lowering his sights smartly enough , to a set of hieroglyphs mysteriously set in front of him, the base ball of the title

emblazoned with a map
of the New York City subways,

a novelty item complete with the violet
No. 7 line, the train that clatters out to Shea.
Too often in the '70s in the rain

I saw the Mets lose there,
among anonymous fans
under orange and blue umbrellas

or the occasional grocery bag.

There is splendid compression here, wonderful enjambment of details, a rush of words of someone speaking in a hurry, bringing us to their concern in the mid thought; the way these opening stanzas first describe the map sketched on the ball (smartly omitting how the author came to be given the object) dissolves into local New York history. This is the stammer and stream of a local who has shared in the accumulated heartache and rage of being a Mets fan. Parker echoes on of the ongoing themes of Don DeLillo's novel Underworld, which follows the trading of a particular baseball that his passed along father to son, son to collector, that is reputed to have been the ball that was knocked out the Park during a crucial baseball game, "the shot heard around the world". There is no documentation to authenticate the claims of historical significance by the sellers, but what becomes more important aren't traceable facts and measurable evidence but instead the selling itself, the story telling that goes with the baseball, the language that seduces one into believing that this is indeed the baseball that was the decisive factor in the critical game, and that it radiates its genuine , extra material attributes; the buyers want this ball to be there connection to a time when baseball was played when America and Americans were good and open, playing by the rules. Parker has his character recall his own game where so much depended on the quality of a play the Mets would make that he is moved toward a slight bit of charity when he recalls a woman who's son had taken ill and died:

There's a woman I know now
whose son has died:

she should have the ball.
In the stadium this evening
the anonymous fans are hiding

under orange and blue umbrellas
or the occasional grocery bag,
and I can see her son

happy there, at last,
fidgety in the bleachers.
The lights light up the field

perfectly in the buggy, humid night—
it's like being inside a pretty thought.
When the small, sodden crowd—

are they angels?—
begins to chant Let's Go Mets,
someone changes the chant to Let's Go Home.

This is where I get the real sense that Parker had lost interest in the poem and turned instead to a scenario that could have been cribbed from the limitless number of baseball scripts that have gone unproduced over the last twenty what was effective, telegraphing compression at the start, careening nicely with a sauntering swagger that gave off a sense of big hand gestures moving about to emphasize finer points, or a detail of a dint upon a type of car or baseball hide being described, turns into a crammed last segment you get on Law and Order. This affair has to be ended now, let me out of here, get out of the way! On Law and Order they've taken to having someone get shot to death in the courtroom , the court building or in the hotel room where Police were stashing a People's witness as a means to resolve what dramatic problems they've set up for themselves when the clock urges them to quit finessing the details and to sew it all up, no matter how irrational or how ugly it becomes. Parker's narrator is motivated to hand the ball to the mother for reasons undisclosed, with the results being likewise sidestepped because the poet has discovered the writer's favorite trapdoor from a corner they've painted themselves into: ambiguity saves the day:

What would she do with the ball?
Whatever she wants,
whatever we do with anything.
This is the effect of the poet sneezing at a crucial moment, turning his head to think of something else, mentally balancing his checkbook in the middle of delivering a simile. Parker wants us to use our own powers of streaming, steaming metaphor to read in all sorts of implications , invisible and unverifiable, that this cheat of an ending might signify, but what this evokes for me is a sight of a man walking away from an accident he caused. There is no meaning here beyond the disorderly exit of the last verses other than Parker hit the exits before this ball game was over.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Live Free or Die Hard

Live Free or Die Hard, the latest entry into the ongoing adventures of New York Police John McClane's efforts to blow things up, wreak havoc on busy intersections, and pump full ammo clips into anonymous henchmen who can't seem to hit their target despite having whole arsenals of automatic weapons, is the guilty pleasure, at least for someone like me who pretends, in most cases, that movies are an art and that I attend such small-intentioned productions. My covers are pulled, because this film was a thorough hoot, a macho fender bender, high on over sized stunts and body count, low on computer animation, with enough scenes of the McClane character getting pounded, thumped on, trampled, dropped, stabbed, shot, cold cocked and so on that you can only conclude that the man does not feel pain, cannot have his bones broken, and will not die until he runs out of wisecracks.This appears to be a running joke through out star Bruce Willis's career; a movie he made for director/writer M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable, where his expected everyman persona was cursed with the capability of being virtually indestructible;his bones and his organs recovered almost at once after any trauma one could toss at it. The metaphor extends, conviently,to Willis's film career as a whole, since he's managed to keep working in the movies in leading and supporting roles quite dispite the fact that quite a few of his films have tanked at the box office. The secret is likely to be Willis's likability, and his ability to more or less stay out of scandal and controversy. He hasn't done anything so indulgent and repulsive as to dissuade film goers from paying ten dollars to see his films. Also, I suspect, his films are most likely good long term revenue generators in secondary and tertiary markets; Willis and his producers understand this, and it keeps the scripts coming and the cameras rolling. Lindsay Lohan, are you listening?

Unbreakable, though, was indestructible and collapsed , dreadfully so, under Shymalan's trudging seriousness and glacial pasting, due, mostly , to the dual scourges of lacking a sense of humor and working his way up to the surprise ending that less amazing than it was inevitable. Live Free or Die Hard, in contrast, is quips, crashes, stunts, fire fights, a constant race against time as McClane bashes, bullies and beats his way to the center of a techno villian's plan to crash America's computer grid. Rest assured, there is some quality dispatching of bad guys here, as well as the constant wonder of the lead character's capacity to absorb pain.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

The Story always wins

Showing John Wayne films to Viet Nam GIs in an effort to shore up their patriotic zeal and to remind them what their fight is all about is straight out of Heller, Pynchon, and Baudrillard. Viet Nam will always be a horrible fact of history, but you have to find this instance perversely comic: telling real life soldiers that they have to live up to a living military heritage by illustrating the point with fictional renderings with oversized heroics is the perfect post-modern conundrum. The instruction of history, with names, dates, battles, and analysis of particular conditions, is no longer sufficient to make the past useable in the current moment, so... LET'S SHOW THEM MOVIES!

Did WWII soldiers who saw Ronald Reagan movies think that they were really swell?
The audience the Reagan war movies were intended for, the American population still at home thought they were the living end. There was an accurate assessment that the home front needed reassurances that the unexplainable events in Europe were part of some Great and Good Cause, and that our involvement was part of an effort to save everything that is decent and worthy in human history: what better way to make this argument than in an endless series of film reels, where complex historical forces are reduced to simple-yet-compelling story arcs that outlined current events as a matter of good-guys vs. bad guys? It's not as if this was a wrong thing to do, it's just that the idea of soldiers watching films insisting that the battles they're actually in are worth winning produces a wild sense of disconnection: anyone would imagine that the soldiers were already aware of the worthiness of winning the war: their lives depended on it, period.

I don't think the GI's in either the Pacific or European Theatres had the time, or the desire to watch Hollywood movies that were marked for the domestic market, but it is my guess that had the soldiers the option of watching their idealized counterparts, the reaction would be no less derisive, hooting, sarcastic. The irony of the initial post about the Viet Nam showing of Wayne films was the bone-headed notion that old, dated, and thinly valorized characters, rickety as stage props and plainly intended for an civilian audience that needed convincing that life must go on --that is, capitalism must go on-- during a good and just war might in some insane way spark a blaze of militant patriotism in actual soldiers involved, daily in actual carnage, death, destruction. In either case, real or supposed, the effect is perversely comic, and I can only imagine the laughter is a species of gallows humor: it's evidence of a knowledge that language, or its abstracted uses in narrative mediums, can come close to conveying.

Did Derrida and Barthes actually "define", or address at all the rather slippery notion of "post modernism"? Seems more appropriate to say that they, in their respective inquiries, high lighted some real conceptual issues in Continental philosophy, and created another layer of jargon that made an industry out of what, in retrospect, seems a small addition to our ways of thinking about writing. Both were inspirations to a generation of literary critics who wanted some Gallic gravitas in their corner so they may speak philosophically with out actually philosophers--or so they may extend their embedded existentialism with into the world with a bright and shiny new paint job--but my reading of them didn't come across the word "post modern".

Writing and literature is all veils, I would think: if anyone could get "IT" with a piece of work, we would have to assume the writer, and his audience are satisfied, sated, and are disinclined to hear the story again. But there is always another wrinkle to relate, another nuance to discover, another veil to be taken away.

This echoes Roland Barthes idea of writing being an erotic function, that the end that one gets to at the end of the tale is not the point of the quest, but the quest itself, the unveiling of the language, the constant re-assimilation that names for things are made to under go as the nature of the material world defies literary form; it is the imagination that needs to work within the waking sphere, not the world that needs to fit within it's contours.

We find, with reading, that writers we care about themselves could care less about what kind they are supposed to be, according to literary archivists; thus, they will have stylistics extremes that venture into another camp, away from what common knowledge dictates is their "native" style, manner. Is Gravity's Rainbow any less a work of "Magical Realism" than what we've seen in Garcia Marquez or Borges? Is Nabokov's work Pale Fire less post modern than, say, Mulligan Stew? It becomes the definitively moot point, irresolvable and subjects to an unending detour the circles around the precise meaning of finally inconsequential terms. Imagination is trait that will use anything manner or style that is suitable to a writer's project at hand and it ought not be surprising, or upsetting that many writers, assigned to roles by career-making PhD candidates, simply do what they need to do in order to get the work done.

This gives us fascinating paradoxes: Norman Mailer, by temperament a romantic existentialist who might have been in the late 19th century, is one who took to post-modern strategies to render is work: the range of his assumed styles and experimentation creates specific problems with literary historians who might be eager to be done with his books and his name.

The Amends

Something a bit different while I cook up a terse review for Live Free or Die Hard; a story, fiction, not autobiographical, not really. But there are some personality traits shared with me, I think, in this sketch of a young asshole feeling some pangs of guilt for being precisely the jerk he chose to be.


There's a woman who says she remembers me from the years of
Junior college, amid the ashtrays on cafeteria tables over flowing with
stubbed cigarettes.I was her penny whistle valentine, blowing love notes into the
air with the smoke rings, drawings of guitars in smeared blue ink
and her name scripted in psychedelic letters that leaped across
the lined note book pages like hooked marlin taut on a fisherman's line.Somewhere in the mix we tangoed to King Crimson records after a concert where she drummed her lips while one guitarist after another played to a crowd who might be looting stores on another night cursed with murder.

There was music in the living room despite all the scratches
and pops, we were surface noise on that mornings' stacked papers,
we were riffs with no song to belong to, two empty trash cans
tumbling down the cement steps of the emptiest building in the

Done, spent, hallow in the parts of the soul where
personality lived like a share cropper harvesting borrowed land ,I
stare at the ceiling in the dark and think of how many ceilings
it's been that I've stared at up until now, the cracked and
curling off white paint, spider webs in high corners, Spackle
and wood beams painted over in hasty transformations that seal
off history, fingers poke through in the hole in my gut and
practice shadow animals. I stared into the dark and heard her next to me, her
breathing , whistles and grunts circled through her nose, her
breast rose and fell, visible from the bathroom light, still on,
I was alone, thinking of escape. I dressed, I left, and I dropped out of school and took a job at a Colony Kitchen, washing dishes and prepping food,
I drank too much, never called her.

I felt like shit.

But this today, the second half of the Nineties , and twenty
years of life and death in every mundane gutter, gulch and gulp
of having fun hasn't eased anything, there's always been that
tapping at the door, getting louder, the paint cracks and curls
again, I've stared at it for the hours that years take, wishing
it weren't there. I still felt like shit.

I got her number through one of those odd times of the years
when it seems everyone you've ever known turns up, heavier, puffy
with new chins, some one else I was went to the JC with who
also knew her said that she was back in town, working at the
University as an administrator for one of the graduate
departments, and on a hunch I asked If he had her phone number.
He did, and the business card he wrote it on the back of found
it's way into my wallet, where I half hoped it would age and
stick to the other cards there like hands clasped for too

It was a home phone number, and I called that night around dinner
time, desperate for relief. While the other end rang, the walls
felt like they flew away and that the floor under me dropped
out, the muscles of my neck tightened.

A voice came on, cheery and high on a soaring note, and I
recognized it as hers, deeper, burnished by cigarette smoke, but
the same, as always. I stumbled through an introduction, my
voice a ratta-tat-tat of syllables and vowels not sure of which
way to march, but I went on, she only said, "Oh, hi, uhhh..."
My neck strained cradling the phone against my shoulder while I
fumbled across the coffee table feeling for a Marlboro pack. I
imagined shaking her head at the other end, maybe while her
husband looked on, leaning against the kitchen doorway.

"Well", she said, "what do you want?"
I paused, unable to reach the pack, and then gripped the phone
like I meant to choke the life from it.

"Oh yeah, well this seems kinda weird, I know, twenty five
years without a call or a card, but, uhhhh, it's kinda important
for me, because, you know, you remember, that night we went to
the Mountain and Pat Travers concert...?"

"Yes?" Her voice had gotten clinical, an administrators'
tone for students who couldn't enter the negotiate the mystery of an add/drop card.
I tried to imagine they way she looked back in the day, fresh and perky, hardly into her her twenties when sensation and impulse were more important to learning of the turns of the world than lectures and slide rules,but I could see her right now, frowning down at the Phone as if looking down at some one caught trying to pick up the shards of a bowl they'd dropped, the corners of her mouth up turned and hardened into a smile that framed her face in a fleeting snapshot of disgust. This didn't feel like Homecoming.

"And later, remember? Your roommate was in Berkeley, and we
came back and played King Crimson"

"Yes I do, and I hated that band."

"Did you? Sorry to force them on you, but uhhh, anyway, that
actually kinda brings up to why I'm calling."

"Does it? Listen, this is a little odd for me, and I have a
function tonight I have to get ready for, so if you get to the
point, I think we'd all be happier."

"Well , okay, okay, it's like I just said, and I want to say
I'm sorry."
"What? Sorry for what?"
"For what happened that night."
"Your sorry for making me listen to King Crimson records?"
"No! No, it was about later, you know, what happened later
after we put the King Crimson records on."

"Well, you've got me, I have to say, after twenty five years
and you call talking about one night of my life, and the only
thing I can think of is that you're sorry you were a good

"Hush, mum, err, I was actually..."
"This is a first in my life time, imagine."
"It would be, I suppose it would, but , uh, it's about that
but something else, too, I felt shitty about it, I..."

"Hold on, just a second, you're trying to apologize for
something I can't remember from twenty years ago, and we haven't
brought each other up to speed. Let me ask, what have you been
doing all this time?"

"Long story, really..."
" I suppose it would be, so shorten it. What are you doing Now?"
"Now? I'm a buyer for a book store, I meet with publishers
reps and survey their catalogs, and I handle special orders..."

"That's special. Still writing?"
"Poetry and movie reviews?"
"Uhh, yeah, for a weekly publication..."

"Okay, now I remember , it's good to hear from you..."
"Thanks, okay, that brings to why I called..."
"Alright, then."

" I mean, after we were done, you fell asleep and I was awake
and when I heard you snoring, I got dressed and left and never
called you again, never tried to contact you, and the sum of it
is that I've felt like a piece of stinking shit for years and
I'm calling to say that I'm very sorry I did that, I was selfish
and unwilling to commit to some one and I did the wrong thing,
and I'm sorry..."

There was silence, the dead air on the wire seemed to
crackle in the interstices between the tones her voice might
produce, the hum of atoms spinning along the wire. She spoke finally.

"I appreciate your attack of conscious, even if it did take
you almost a quarter of century to scrape up the change to make
the call, but it seems you've been disturbed by nothing in
fact. Forgive me, my memory is dim, but the best I can remember
was that it was a date, the concert was fun, the King Crimson
music was screechy, the sex was good, and you should be glad to
hear that, and the fact that you were gone in the morning never
to seen again was only too typical of the time, no big deal..."

"Not a big deal, at the college I thought you were cute a
braggart and shallow, but I was horny, and I agreed to go out
with you because it was something to do on a Friday night, but I
was not looking for a relationship, and if I was, it wouldn't
have been with you. You might say that you're disappearing act
was a blessing, you spared me some awkward conversation , I
suppose, but I can't say, because the whole thing hasn't been
at the front of my thinking over two and a half decades..."

"I see."
"But I'm glad you called. Now I have to get ready to meet
the graduate students..."
I wanted to continue talking. "What kind of work do you do?"

"This, that, and the other thing I have to leave. Maybe
I'll tell you in another twenty five years when you call to
apologize for making an odd phone call..." She called out to
someone, "Dear, where are my car keys? Oh, this is just someone
from the high school alumni group looking for a donation. On the
hall table? Thank you sweetie..."
"Look, I've changed, I've grown..."
"Sure you have, tall and strong like an oak. Yes, I have the
address, and I'll make the check payable to the Alumni
"And tax deductible? Fine. Thank you. Goodbye."

She hung up, and the sound was a gentle cradling, the receiver rocking slightly and then falling quiet. My receiver was slippery with sweat , and I hung up only after a loud tone pierced the stunned silence . after which a recorded voice announced that I need to hang up first if I wanted to make another call.