Thursday, October 25, 2012

Not a slob

Writer Seth Stevenson pleads his case that he is not a slob even though he chooses to wear his clothes in their "natural state", wrinkled. I look at my chewed nails and mismatched socks and think that the author's tone is a bit fevered, that is to say desperate for an idea against an encroaching deadline, that makes this incidental rant sound strained in it's musings, but it does me a bit of good, something like a brief pyschic swim in the stream of conscious . It's the next best thing to being alseep, and certainly better than being knocked out. I imagine, in the sweetly cushioned luxury of italicized print:

 I am not and have never been a shambling , unpressed mess; I have, in fact, been merely ahead of my time, a setter of a trend that took decades to take root and is only now emerging from the far margins of the culture and now entering the culture. Puckered pant legs, unevenly buttoned shirts, half tucked, and open fly, a tie that has the skinny end longer than the fat end. My visage is the cover or every cover of GQ yet to be published.

Goofy daydream is over, of course. I remain a mess at times, hurried and unmindful of both appearance and tone of voice, although I have made significant progress in being well put together than not, more often. It is about progress. And clothes do look better pressed, crisp and clearly indicating a preference to among other human beings than in a man cave, in my underwear, twitching on internet commentary streams. The civilization we are longer sure is civilized is full of threats , vulgarities and gross stupidity that result in wars and soul-killing greed; we are nervous when we meet someone who hasn't tucked in their shirt no combed their hair. Being unshaven is grounds enough for a few of us to apply for a gun permit. Look sharp, though, assures us that the person confronting us is staying within the accepted limits of mutual consent. 

More likely, we suspect, the said well groomed person is merely remaining within of what their smooth shirts and sharply creased pants allow; sudden movement and postures of violence ruin the stagecraft of how one assembles themselves before hitting the streets from their  abode. Whatever the case, we prefer order and peace and quiet, both on the streets and on our back. But Stevenson's view on the matter did provide the premise for a brief, lovely daydream.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Criticism is an art, but it is not Art

Criticism, really, is never as hard to write as poetry, fiction or drama for the simple reason that the heavy lifting has been done for the critics by the creative authors under scrutiny. I concede that good criticism, interesting criticism, intriguing rants can entail a good amount of head scratching, research and critical thinking, but critics and other varieties of opinion-givers are building on what is already in place,the creative work. And what was there to begin with, though influenced, of course, by tradition, formalized training, influences of previous generations of bards, novelists and playwrights, are nonetheless created from scratch by the individual writer; in any sense it is more difficult to put together an imaginative work  of writing from nearly nothing at all .

 Criticism, even if artful, thoughtful, full of intriguing digressions, asides , sidebars and made magnificent by brilliant conclusions, is ,at base level, remarks, brief or extended, on the creative work that  was in the public sphere prior to the commentary.

 Criticism is not equal  to the art itself--unlike Art (taken as a general concern), criticism cannot exist by itself,in itself, for its own sake.  I do think criticism can be artful,memorable, important, can actually be an expressive medium on its own terms, but it remains secondary to the actual work. Like the artists,though, I would give the critic the right to respond to a work of art, something that has been created and entered into the marketplace , in nearly any manner he or she chooses and would encourage the critic to be as subjective as they can be.

Criticism is not an "objective" form, and insisting that it is  only perpetuates a mythology. The critic , the most interesting critic, I think, is someone who comes to a field knowing something about the form, has a good working knowledge of the broader field surrounding the issue-- aesthetics, theory, history of form and what  then current ideas might have helped shaped ideas of what constitutes art--and is able to present their preferences and  biases and contradictions and exceptions in a manner that is conversational, intense, thoroughly in love in with ideas as to how poems could/should/can effectively express experience and convey perception.

The only thing the critic needs to do is to present his or her case , yay or nay, in the best, clearest voice they can muster, with no sacrifice in personality. Personality , in the hands of a good writer, is style and style is the majority reason why I read  certain writers, whether poets or essayists, and pass up  others.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Your tv stole your library card

There are increasing  legions of pundits who are marketing the idea that television makes us smarter. The fact that this is presented as a topic for serious discussion straight faced, with not a trace of irony, is more likely evidence that TV has succeeded in making us measurably dumber. Not stupider, mind you, just dumber, which is tendency to accept mediocrity across the board in the kind of false-consciousness that embraces the equality of all cultural matters and mediums .God has a cruel wit if what we have are  real people with fake lives watching TV shows full of fake people acting out real ones. Social anxiety disorder is a real condition, though we dispensed with the trend of making every discomfort a disease and just referred to sufferers as either existentially perplexed, or more simply, "neurotic". 
Any good post-war coffee cooler philosophe knows the cure to the constant fretting and despair: GET A LIFE, or at least create one. In the current age, we  can start with turning off the TV and getting a library card, for nothing makes you smarter as well has reading books , one page at a time, at pace where you're allowed, or rather compelled to develop sound thinking.

TV has replaced the ability to abstract with the mere capacity to summarize, which is the difference between synthesizing information and formulating a solution to a problem under inspection, and the other merely a form of inventory taking, hardly more than putting everything in specimen jars, labeling them, and categorizing them in a method that renders the information inert, useless, and mere clutter. We're coming to approach ideas like statistic laden sports fans who have amassed data very quickly but have nothing they can do with it. TV, as fine and brilliant as some of the drama has become, does not provide for a structure through which critical thinking is possible, as would the reading of books. With the latter cannot argue with the screen, cannot add to a conversation under way. It remains entertainment best assessed with other disciplines hopefully read from books that were thoroughly interrogated by personalities that are aware that images are fleeting and forgotten, but words are forever and therefore powerful.

It's misleading to argue that TV overall is better and more brilliant than it was in the past and that as a consequence viewers have become smarter as they interact with the subtler and more complex programming. To my mind, the ratio of quality programming to the rot is about the same, ten percent to eighty percent (in descending order); those shows that one isn't embarrassed to admit to watching,but the promise of cable television never materialized as you might have hoped. With some exceptions, we have five hundred channels with nothing to watch, to paraphrase Springsteen, and what we have, really, are millions of viewers who are knowledgeable about scores of things of little consequence at all.

Being able to link the difficulties with the current Michael Jackson trial with the daily debacle of the O.J. Simpson murder case in the minutest detail is not the same as garnering information that would help you devise better ways to educate, employ and protect a community. Television only makes you smarter about television, and I chance it to say that what people remember about Hardball are Chris Matthew's volume and how well or badly his haircut might have been, and not the details of his questions to his political guests.

The situation hasn't made us any smarter in ways that make interaction more successful; most of the discussion that one places so much stress on occurs in the murk of the internet, alone, in private,  where one is freed of really learning anything about from the edification and enchantment of face to face conversation. The phenomenon to the consumption of pornography, which is definitely not a group activity.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Accidents will happen

Peter Campion is a poet who's written some things that have given me the proverbial pause to refresh myself--that is , strum my chin, emit an elongated hmmmmmmmmmmm, transport myself to some melancholia place of the mind to align his imagery with the patchy glimpses of a huddled past that constitutes my memory of things. Sometimes it works rather well, his sudden associative leaps from one situation to another one wholly other than what he started with. It doesn't work here, not at all, in this gasping, breathlessly articulate poem. A poet, like anyone else, needs to find a coping mechanism in order to sort through the drama of a near tragedy--the goal being that the recent trauma be accepted as something that has happened, past tense, and that one can go forward with their designs and desires knowing more , philosophically, morally, psychologically, about why the daily grind is less the grind and more a privilege.

Campion has perhaps performed that to his satisfaction with this poem and , I imagine, a sequence of poems contemplating the harsh facts of the fragility of his life and that of his family, and to that end I hope he has recovered a sense of balance in his negotiations of the everyday and the journey into future uncertainty. I wish, though , he had written a better poem--I find "El Dorado" to be dreadful and pretentious. It's one thing to begin this piece with a description of the aftermath of an accident, a description that is too finessed, the images primed for a movie opening, an artfully arranged post-accident beautifully filmed on an empty Iowa highway. It's difficult to leave the creative writing lessons where they belong, in the shoe box in the garage along with all those other blue booked samples from a younger enthusiasm for over participative verbs and adjectives. Campion does not put is the shock, place us in the psychology of a world shattered suddenly and only coming together in shards, hard bits and pieces. The hardest thing , at times, is for the poet to leave the sound of his voice back at the kitchen coffee, next to the Ipad and the coffee maker. This is not about the situation , the accident, it is about, instead, Campion's comma-driven articulation of the list he made of things he noticed while having a near fatal experience. This suggests that this a poet who imagines cultivating miserable experiences so he would have something to write about. Please note that that I don't think Peter Campion looks for trouble in order to secure subject matter; rather, it's that his particular style of articulation just bleeds this poem of any real power.

As does his penchant for random and willful dashes of book learning. The middle sequence of" El Dorado", is an unconvincing parallel development, but I would ask this quite beyond this senseless and zany insertion of native custom in a poem otherwise situated at the side of Midwestern highway is why the poet felt compelled to dust off his lecture notes and to squint at his marginalia? It is a rather nice trick Eliot and Pound could pull off , make this leaps and strange alignments of reference points and images and so achieve an expanded mood ; for all the talking these poets did in the course of their formal publication, they were writing from within their dread, their terror, and through the instincts of good editing and good ears (over all) could make much of they juxtaposed against resonate vividly, richly. Campion's effort is feeble, unexpected, gratuitous. It is one of those things writers do that do not work but which leave readers plenty of waddle room to debate the effect of the poet's cultural imperialism. What does that , though, is reveal more about the readers than it explains what the poet was thinking or what he actually accomplished.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Slog Prog

There are occasional stirrings among those my age, music fans of a certain generation of decade, who become nostalgic for the surface noise and commotion of their own record collection and, in indulging their yen for a commodity fatally beyond its expiration date, will wax, wane and syllogize until the music of the spheres play slow blues solos some now deservedly disputably fad was, actually, not so  bad, not bad at all, in fact, pretty damn good and unfairly maligned. Beware these acolytes, lest someone try to convince you of that the true worth of progressive rock, that hyperventilated amalgam of trick pony riffs that made radio something you dreaded turning on. I don't buy it, for the most part. The fascination with progressive rock  grew out of the long improvisations pioneered by the essentially blues-based bands like The Butterfield Blues Band, Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream, as the going conceit of the time was that rock and roll had become something smarter like "rock" and could now rival jazz as a young musician's medium for instrumental chops. The transition to classical borrowings, occasional jazz motifs and jacked up time signatures and tick-tock chord changes made for its own kind of monotony. Jazz, whatever its form or origin, was premised on the idea that, as a form, it was in a state of constant transformation--the musicians we still listen to rarely played the signature tunes the same way twice. Progressive rock, generally proud and defensive about the form's gerrymandered fussiness--this was the best place to learn the distinctions between the words "complicated" and "complex"--became insulated ever so much faster than jazz did. A one idea concept, with rare exceptions --Zappa, King Crimson, Pink Floyd--progressive rock could only become fussier, crankier, more incestuous. It actually became something resembling "rock" not at all, in any sense. It was the arena of sterile perfection and was truly unlistenable to a young listener having no desire (or need) to stare at the sky and ponder stoned philosophies. Punk rock was the shock rock and roll needed; stupid, obnoxious, repetitive, angry, the rude style pretty much revealed what a conceptual crock of mung progressive rock turned into. It was time to flush things away and allow the progressive rock to become something actually useful, such as fertilizer.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

You are what you think you're eating

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.
This is to insist that I have always believed in love and virtue and connecting words that  give the typist permission to push the sentence further than the original idea needed,the original excuse desired as a pretense of  topic, we need these words to join and twist and coil around the legs of the table and then to find their way through the living room and into the front yard , we need to let the sentence become the vine tangling upon itself, in love with it's embrace, sleepy and ready to elongate again should the batteries on the smoke alarms die and whistle their frantic warning that their voice is softer now, gone with the smoke.
 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.


Friday, September 14, 2012

David Foster Wallace's grand failure

David Foster Wallace: the Death of the Author and the Birth of a ...David Foster Wallace was  sporadically,brilliant, verbose,an unrestrained word machine that seemed program to jump every rabbit hole and tar pit on his way to vaguely addressed Idea. His books could sometimes be the case of talking a subject to death;one might say that he wrote an alcoholic drank, which was compulsively, without any regard tot he consequences. An alcoholics consequences are the stuff of bad soap operas and the diseased thinking real people justify their illiberal behavior with; broken homes, broken promises,lost jobs, lies and more lies about the lies one has already put on the record,  isolation, pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization. Wallace's consequences were far less dramatic and, one says guardedly, less grandiose, but it's the results are  dire all the same, which would be a sheer missing the point of writing at all and treat it as mere process with no real need to regard a reader . Wallace's digressions are legend and his attitude seemed to be that readers cold let him drive this metaphorical vehicle down any and all side streets, blind alleys and dirt roads and be there for the ride while he maintained a monologue of increasing irrelevance, or they  could fuck themselves with their desire to be enthralled and remain at the equally metaphorical bus stop. He was   depressed and stressed, having made it his writer's mission to contain  the multitudes that swarm within him and without him; this was a quixotic task to notice everything about the universe he's chosen to parse, and in turn parse his own thinking about the characters he is giving a close inspection for. His was a virtuosity that couldn't end, as one item led to another item, a distracted description before a circuitous return to the scenario at hand , usually by way of another  round of  qualifications and self-doubt mongering about his chosen occupation of  being a writer , the one who creates a document readers far decades from now will refer to garner something of the verve of the moment in which he lived.We realize , to,that DFW tried to contain these things in  sentences, long sentences, many long, serpentine sentences that stretched , coiled, curled and eventually untied themselves by the time the author had exhausted, or more likely quit ,the tangent he was on. This was his problem in the longer books, the distractions, the digressions, Although I enjoyed large chunks of Infinite Jest ,, there was simply, plainly too much padding between the good parts; there have been especially intelligent discussion in many places of what traditions DFW falls in line with, and that his is a legacy that adds to the sprawling, decenter ed universe Thomas Pynchon has eviscerated   so splendidly. But even Pynchon had some control and was not prone to introduce himself as the self-doubting author attempting to inject a trace of irony with bloated  indecisiveness. Pynchon lectured at times, yes, gave us bounds of information about unexpected things and their history, but he trusted the scenes he created--his ruminations , his research, were the texture and color light in the crowded universes he chose to inspect. DFW , much of the time, was merely chattering all the while in his long novels , Infinite Jest and Broom of the System, and was, as often as not, tone deaf, not unlike one of those extended ,  unaccompanied Keith Jarrett piano impromptus where there is the inevitable and sad drift into artless noodling. DFW often made me think of the guy in back of you at a movie theater who kept talking during the movie; you had to deal with two soundtracks at the same time.
That, of course, might have been what he was attempting, something like a Robert Altman movie where the camera takes it all in and dwells on how inaction resonates among the furniture in is frame and where dialogues ,and city noise overlapped. It might be that Wallace's writing was an attempt to capture his own thought processes in action, as the notions occurred to him, in that proverbial stream of language and instinct where thinking about things are restless and fluid and nearly erotic in their intensity which can never quite be recorded in their abundance. Trying to get that on paper, in between book covers, obsessively , would be doomed to failure, with each book and short story judged by the author as inadequate to the mission. That would depress anyone, some much more severely than others. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

TEMPEST /Bob Dylan (Sony)

TEMPEST--Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan has a new album, Tempest, an event that would normally not interest me so much had it not been for the large portions of praise the songs and performances have drawn from smart rock and pop critics. There are some pioneers, some esteemed geniuses that a generation of record reviewers (and a generation of critics after them) don't want to let go of, let alone admit that the later work isn't as interesting as the material that drew you to the artist, to begin with. There is a problem with reaching one's zenith so early, in that everything you do afterward is compared with the singular work you'd done years before. It's not fair to the particular artist, whether great or mediocre. For Dylan, though, the generally solid reviews that he receives for his stream of albums seems an irrational response from someone who hasn't demonstrated more than the capacity to be mysterious and inscrutable. Mystery and inscrutability are qualities that in themselves that do not make for something that will turn my head ahead and cause me to cogitate beyond reasonable length when the disc is done playing. I don't know what the fuss is all about other than it seems to be a recurring outbreak of Everything- Dylan -Does-is -Genius fever. Musically it is solid, well-produced, and the musicians have a disciplined grittiness that has more polish than the cluttered and slapdash quality of much of Dylan's recent work and yet avoids sounding slick and corporate. It is obvious that sometimes was spent over the soundboard adjusting the mix. The pity is that Dylan is far from his best form here; for all his striving to write with an idiomatic tone his bucolic phrase-making has nearly always seemed practiced, rehearsed too much in a mirror. What is obvious to me is that Dylan continues to traffic in cliches; he is, as Lester Bangs remarked, selling off what is left of his charisma with under-constructed songs and ideas.

Much of the lyrics for this album seem like a parody of an aging musician long past his brilliant work doubling down on bad version of himself; there is an art to sounding as though your lyrics are from a vernacular, but the magic happens when the listener, the witness, forgets the contrivances and believes, for a moment at least, that the voices are from an era and place forgotten . This is what Robbie Robertson did with the Band; lyrics giving elliptical tales a plain-speaking, direct address from within the narrative line, not from without. There is something genuinely conversational and intimate in the best of the Band's rustic workings, no large message or grotesque rumbles of the philosophical swell. Life is too short and interesting to try to make sense of it and the characters Robertson and his bandmates are rather too busy telling everyone what just happened, what happened before, what things were like before any catastrophe, cataclysmic event or historicist debacle made the tides rise and the price of gas to go up.

The reviews have been absurdly positive while the music is merely passable. The lyrics, though, are what's truly abysmal. Smart pop music critics, especially younger ones eager to reinforce the conceit that Dylan is untouchable, have tripped over themselves to praise "Tempest" when in point of fact what Dylan does with this disc is resort to the cliches, tired tropes, and convenient moralism that he proved in the sixties could be abandoned altogether. Once or twice, as in an effort like "Self Portrait", you could argue that the songwriter was being supremely ironic, daring his followers to find sage advice, worth and significance in the banality that album is marked by. Forty years worth of raiding the Prison House of Chestnut Schematics, though, indicates not irony but a bad habit. Some writers are brilliant in their old age, managing a new style to meet their tested experience; Dylan is only vague and pedestrian in his narratives, without a quotable line for the effort.
"They battened down the hatches 

But the hatches wouldn't hold 

They drowned upon the staircase 

Of brass and polished gold. "

The fact that Dylan cannot seem to write anything that does not include hoary prophecies that are more smoke than thunder, nor stay away from convenient phrases that seem more author notes in a screenplay-in-progress, late Dylan is only another workman in the field, dutiful but not brilliant. Dylan wants to write parables of indefinite place and time, but his linguistic invention, his ability to mash up idioms from folk traditions, hip argot and Modernist poetry--TS Eliot, prime period Allan Ginsberg, Rimbaud--is gone; as with Norman Mailer's famously baroque prose style constructed in the 3rd person, I think his ear for that kind of writing has gone deaf. Unlike Mailer, Dylan did not create, for the most part, a compelling replacement. He is a shadow of what he was and stalwart fans pay him a fortune to be precisely that, a stick figure reminder of their youth, not an aging artist who has managed to remain interesting on the merits of his later work. Dylan, I think, is a class of artist who had an enormous, galvanizing, revolutionizing style for a period of his career, years in which he released an impressive series of albums, from Another Side of Bob Dylan up to Blood on the Tracks, that is one of those bodies of work that are untouchable works of genius . Fitting perfectly well within his interesting notion of The Anxiety of Influence, Dylan's songs and lyrics in that period so profoundly changed the nature of what popular songwriting can be that all songwriters, regardless of style, write in the shadow of that genius. Younger writers can write further into the direction they believe Dylan was headed, taking further risks, bigger chances, or they can go in the other extreme, writing away from the pull of Dylan's gravity, writing in a way no less risky and perplexing as those who become Dylan apostles. Dylan's case, within that of songwriting, is comparable to that of Shakespeare's, an influence so vast that no artist, even those who intensely dislike the work, can ignore the artist; lesser writers, "weaker" writers as Bloom would put, cannot help but be influenced by the profundity of the work that has gone before. Like it or not, it is a standard that compels you to make a stylistic choice. Genius, though, is fleeting, and Dylan's ability as such was that it came out of him in a flow that was, I believe, effortless,savant-like, requiring less craft than a brain that was firing on all cylinders and producing a language that seemed to compose itself. But genius leaves a good many of our great artists--it is a spirit, perhaps, that takes residence in a person's personality long enough to get the work done and then leaves, sometimes quickly, sometimes gradually. 

Other things come into play as well, such as a change in why one engages in the kind of self-interrogation that writing essentially is; Mailer dropped his high style, my favorite style when he came across the Gary Gilmore story and wrote in simpler terms as his fiction become more nuanced and rich. This is was a plus. Allen Ginsberg became a Buddhist and fell in love with the notion of "first thought, best thought" and essentially transcribed his continuous notes to himself, unedited, unmediated by literary qualification, in the effort to present a truer, constantly evolving face to the public in his books of poetry. Much as I like the reasoning and dedication, AG's poetry became far, far less exciting, interesting, became far less good. For Dylan, after his motorcycle accident, he has taken up with simpler more vernacular language, and we see the good it offered he and the listener, with John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline. The language was simpler, and the sources from which Dylan took his inspiration, folk tales, old songs, country western bathos, navigated closely to the banal and hackneyed, but we must admit that Dylan had the skill, the instinct, to manage his language no less artfully than Hemingway would have done at his prime and kept matters enticingly elliptical at the heart of things: there are ways to create a sense of what you're getting at without too much artifice and pretension, useless . He was masterful in creating simpler lyrics that still drew you in and still kept you making intelligent guesses.

Like Hemingway, this virtue wouldn't last, in my view; Hemingway fell prey to depression and concerns of his virility and sought to write his way out of his depression, the result is a series of late-career books that lack the grace or conviction or the brilliant insinuation of his great work; he veered toward self-parody. Dylan's work, post Blood on the Track, became alarmingly prolix and parochial in ideas and a contrived rural diction that sounds completely false, the phoniest I've heard since the quaint southern tales of Erskine Caldwell.

I know that Dylan has always trafficked in clichés, but what he did previously with stale phrases was to subvert them, place them in unexpected juxtapositions, and cleverly invert their meanings to expose their shortcomings. He is not doing that these days--rather I think the good man just starts writing something without an inherent sense of where to go or when to stop or where to edit and seems to write in an attempt to maintain equilibrium. He seems to need to hear himself write; it is more the process than the result that matters. His use of clichés or banal phrases seems more stitchery than rehabilitating the language; they are means that he can connect his stanzas, do patchwork on an incomplete idea. Dylan wears his age as if it allows him to say what he wants because he has wrinkles you can hide your money in-- he stands apart, swaying about, the voice that is too busy documenting feats and folly:  it fits neatly into the covert self-mythologizing Dylan has turned into his secondary art. His principle art, his music, and his lyrics are what Andy Warhol foretold decades ago--art is anything he can get away with. What I hear, though, is a slovenly , lazy, uninteresting filter of the creaky, eyebrow-raising cliches and obvious transitions ; there are no amazing associational leaps of fancy here, no "Desolation Row", no "Memphis Blues Again", nothing as truly brilliant as the succinct parables in "John Wesley Harding";  the man who gets the credit and the blame for expanding the pop lyricist vocabulary  is now involved in convincing his audience that the contrived, the hackneyed, the severely corny and portentous are, in his hands, masterful reworkings and reinventions of old forms. I think it more apt to say that he makes me think of a bankrupt interior designer who is constantly rearranging the same old broken, tattered, torn furniture in a wan hope that few will notice how tacky the whole thing actually is.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The greatest album ever made. Zzzzzzzzz...

Blood And The Ballad: Bob Dylan’s Macabre New Album | The New Republic:

The hero worship of Dylan continues unabated . The poor man is more Living Legend than Artist, who sense of imagery these last few decades has been more a storehouse of tacky stage props than anything quotable, witty or head turning. A generation of critics remains too close to Dylan to give him the rigorous estimation they would an actual poet; John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara receive franker reviews. Even Billy Collins, beloved by millions , gets the occasional Bronx Cheer from reviewers who regard him as a perennial lightweight. Dylan is a songwriter, not a theologian, nor a moral philosopher. He was once a brilliant songwriter and a lyricist with originality and power. That moment is a long time ago. His writing in the last  four decades  don't  come near the genius had once. There is something to be said about an artist's late work in that one can connect a number of themes that have morphed and changed due to age and gathered experience, but Dylan is , again, a songwriter, not a poet, not a novelist, not a playwright, and his writing has been reliably hackneyed and cornball for decades.
Styx were an abomination at best, a wind up toy designed to pop a spring and collapse on itself. I always considered them to be Grand Funk Railroad taken to the next level, which wasn't very far to go, a journey that graduates from a slow lumbering and becomes a club-footed stumble.

 Kansas, though, had chops as instrumentalist and were able to deftly handle quick changes and scatterbrained time signatures with ease.

 Although derivative of their English cousins through out their career, they could play the busy arrangements with the best of them; guitarist Kerry Livgren had a definite talent for this stuff.

 Kansas, though, had awful lyrics, lots of them, but that was mitigated somewhat in the form of vocalist Steve Walsh, a cogent blend of Paul Rodgers and Mark Farner. His bluesy, wailing read of the band's wheat field mysticism was a welcome respite from the Brit habit of being nasal and neutered in their precise pronounciation of utter nonsense.
All told, though, not  much of the progressive rock and prog rock inspired music of the era, the    Seventies, has aged well into the 21st century. If this had been instrumental music, we might have had discussion of the technical aspects of the music; as is, though this genre's congenital habit of needing lyrics that are unwieldy in cadence and top heavy with the arrogant sophistry   only the most isolated first year liberal arts major could manage drag this music to the bottom of the lake. The heaviness these bands sought is rather like a big chain with a profoundly unforgiving anchor .

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Freddie Hubbard Oscar Peterson 01 All Blues - YouTube

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Freddie Hubbard Oscar Peterson 01 All Blues - YouTube:

I recently read on an online music forum a conversation regarding the use of speed in an improviser's playing and it seems that there is an element of the audience that is loud and absolutist in their opinion that the capacity to play fast is merely cold technique executed by soul-less show off egotist. There might be something to that idea--too many musicians learn to play with it only in mind to take solos like they were Rambo blow torching a sniper's perch--but these guys, virtuosos all, play fast and furious but most of all swing at all times. 

They do not sound like they are going berserk; their phrases weave and cascade, and build a new section of their solos with quotes and paraphrase of what has gone before. This is the swinging, uplifting acceleration of musicians who happen to be interested in being musical.One can , and several thousand goosed up guitar goons insist upon pointing out that the expansive likes of a Malmsteen is able to  play guitar consistently faster note flurries against stupidly unplayable time time signatures, making those remarks with the implication that Malmsteen's bloviated ersatz fretwork is superior to what Joe Pass could do. 

Speed in itself, though, "does" nothing"; it is merely a result of   concentration in how one practices their craft, it is a facility that pays dividends for the listener only when there is something of melodic and tonal interest involved in the mix. Indeed, the melody is the motivation for how  amazing the soloing will be in a what we think of being the traditional jazz combo, bass, piano, drums, horn, guitar . Rock and roll guitarists of the virtuoso stripe are less musicians in the strictest sense than they are  quick wristed imbeciles. 

Take away the amplification and the effects and you wind up more often than not with another drop out who hasn't finished his studies on the instrument. And put any of these fellas against the likes of  Freddie Hubbard  or John Coltrane , with the emphasis being to discover which set of stylists, rock vs jazzbos, achieve the speed only God can hear, my guess, a safe one, is that FB and JC would leave the angry fretsterbators cringing in their cribs, humiliated,  crying for their mothers.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Morning Eastwood

Video of Clint Eastwood's RNC speech.:

    The saddest headline of the morning is what I just saw on the front page of for a news video;

    Sometimes you imagine an iconic film maker/actor getting out of their comfort zone and attempting something edgy and avant gard , something steeped in a High Modernist aesthetic.

     Eastwood might   be further around the curve than I might have imagined. Rather than do a Beckett play, he instead morphed into a one man Beckett production, a self contained diorama of babbling alienation. This is the imagination of bad results, testimony to life replaying conversations on broken tape machines. What this had to do with what President Obama has done right or wrong is besides the point; what this reveals about politics is non existent. What this has to do with is staring too long at the intersection thinking that there is a face in the easy chair across the room that is listening to your views and inserting their own remarks,

    Is this is a man walking backwards into genius?

      Monday, August 27, 2012

      Norman Mailer’s movies: Revisiting Maidstone, Wild 90, and Beyond the Law - Slate Magazine

      Norman Mailer’s movies: Revisiting Maidstone, Wild 90, and Beyond the Law - Slate Magazine:
      Norman Mailer's experimental narratives will remain intriguing curiousities , examples of what happens when a brilliant writer attempts to conquer another medium that he has no natural affinity with. Mailer could talk a good game, to be sure, and he demonstrated skill as a film critic--his essay on "Last Tango in Paris" is especially sharp and eloquant on the task of getting to an existential moment within a developing storyline--but his improvisational forays seemed stoned and foolish. "Tough Guys Don;t Dance", not a film I recommend looking for a satisfying murder mystery, does rise above the rest for having a budget and some professional polish. It is awkward, but it does have wierdness to it that Mailer might have developed, ala David Lynch.Lynch, though,has his own problems , with  dead camera tonality descending , with continued viewing, from strangeness  to mere tedium.  

      Friday, August 24, 2012

      History of prog: The Nice, Emerson Lake & Palmer, and other bands of the 1970s. - Slate Magazine

      History of prog: The Nice, Emerson Lake & Palmer, and other bands of the 1970s. - Slate Magazine:

      This was a genre that had so much instrumental activity for so little music that was genuinely pleasurable. The conceit had been that rock had advanced to the degree that it was indeed an art form, concert music, in both the instrumental and lyric sense. This yielded some nice and clever albums and individual tunes that still endure, but in all the mass result was bloat, pretentiousness, ersatz mysticism or bargain bin despair; it was not fun and it was work to listen to. What is amazing is how much work many of us did trying to convince ourselves that most of this material would last beyond our lifetimes. It hasn't. Slate does a nice series detailing the history of the rise and fall and the contents of the progressive rock we all used to love .

      I remember the conversations with Steve Esmedina and David Zielinski and George Varga about this stuff; only Esmo defended progressive rock as a genre, on its own terms. I always thought the style was hit or miss for the most part, with the misses, the extended, busy and aimless constructions that occupied the air more than made it sweeter, becoming the norm, rapidly. There were prog rock bands I liked, those being most of King Crimson's career in all their line ups, Yes up to the Fragile album, and smatterings of Jethro Tull, ELP, and so on. What is missing from the story is anything about the American equivalent of British progressive rock; not Kansas or other bands directly copying the Euro style, but rather the likes of Zappa, Captain Beeheart, Steely Dan, Little Feat--the list could go on, of course--but these personalities and bands had the usual devices going for them, like tricky time signatures, off the wall lyrics, impressive instrumental chops, longish and dense arrangements.

       The key distinction, though, was the American tradition of blues, jazz and rhythm and blues came to merge very heavily into a mixture that included classical music as a matter of course--what resulted, though, is something altogether different and, I think, a damn sight weirder and less same-sounding than what the Brits were, in time, manufacturing like so many widgets. Let us not forget our glory days of rock/fusion : MILES DAVIS, WEATHER REPORT, TONY WILLIAMS LIFETIME,GARY BURTON, MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA, RETURN TO FOREVER; love it or hate it, jazz musicians took up rock dynamics and created a sound that was a fleet, dissonant and complex response to the tinker toy music Europe sent to us. Sure enough, the American version   of  progressive rock became another version of slick commercialism ,  resembling  the dissonance and explosive virtuosity of the early days and evolving to ever more simple forms, resulting  at last in that horrid genre called smooth jazz.

      Wednesday, August 22, 2012

      'Justice League' #12: DC reveals Super Man's new Woman -- EXCLUSIVE | Shelf Life |

      'Justice League' #12: DC reveals Super Man's new Woman -- EXCLUSIVE | Shelf Life |

      This is a perfect development for the New 52 rebooting of the Superman universe--Lois Lane had been an imperiled paper doll for decades who was busy having her haplass presence rescued by Superman. She was an interesting character, used more as device to impede Superman's ongoing mission to fight for truth, justice and ...Now that she's free of Superman, DC writers can develop her character in ways they couldn't before. And since the new version of Superman emphasises his "otherness", his feeling of feeling apart from the human race he has sworn to protect, it is more realistic and dramatically compelling the he find attraction to some one likewise super-powered and sharing Superman;s alienation. It makes sense as well that he should have a partner who wouldn't be destroyed in the act of love making.

      Wednesday, August 15, 2012

      Ayn Rand on Johnny Carson: Watch the full Tonight Show interview. (VIDEO)

      Ayn Rand on Johnny Carson: Watch the full Tonight Show interview. (VIDEO):

      Ayn Rand is a one trick pony and an effective marketer of snake oil. The key is that her alleged philosophy has only one premise that things would be so much better had humanity not strayed from the Path it was intended to be on. Whether it lies in the cruder readings of Marx and Engels and the vulgar literalism that overtakes the Religious Right, these are variations on the Fall from Grace trope. It is a simple paradigm, simply presented, that presents a powerful and seductive reason for why things are not perfect. It is a fantastically reductionist movement that, although Rand protests that no one, not even the State, may initiate force against another to compel him or her to act against their own judgment, Rand's dogma isn't workable, even in the most botched and disastrous application, unless the absolutist policies favorable to her ends find implementation in a manner that brutishly and none so subtly exclude an opposing view.

      The inevitable result of her views and the views of her followers is to establish an authoritarian regime, with rights and privileges restricted to those with money, land, industry at their full disposal. Rand as much argued this in her writings. Now is the time for all of us to imagine the sheer hell an America governed by Randroids would be like. Bear in mind that I am talking about Rand's ideas and her followers and not about the Libertarian Movement in general. Rand has spent a good amount of her writings arguing who should have power and who should not, and regardless of the finer points of her grating prose, it comes down to that those with the business genius, which is to say downright ruthlessness, are the only ones who have the natural right to shape the world in which they live. Others are no consequence; it is implicit that others in the culture, the majority of us, must be subservient to those who build corporate edifices to their self-defined greatness. This comes across as authoritarian and calling it something else or claiming that it isn’t so does not change the matter that life for the rest of us, under Rand regime, would be Hobbesian nightmare, nasty , brutish and short.

      It's fitting. Rand was nasty, brutish and short.

      Ayn Rand continues to infuriate the left, because she clearly identified the basic and crucial political issue of our age: capitalism versus socialism, or freedom versus statism. “

      Ayn Rand famously presented herself as an atheist in her desire to be branded an intellectual, and yet the diagnosis she presents as to what the defining and most crucial issue facing America as a country and culture,, "free vs. statism", is a trope she borrowed from the Bible and it's fables of end times, of the war between Heaven and Hell being fought here on earth through the human agents for God and Satan. This Manichean view demonstrates the laziness of her thinking. Not that this habit of borrowing particulars from the narrative template Christian orthodox places upon us is limited to rigidly Hard Right demagogues; erstwhile atheist philosopher Karl Marx foresaw the end of history as process where, after achieving through violent revolution the "dictatorship of the proletariat", the State would wither away and the world and the people within in would be restored to a pre-Capitalist state of naturalness. Among both their sets of codified ideas are a great many notions taken from other sources, and the presentation of their ideas into comprehensible arguments entails rummaging through the same stock of rhetorical devices and sleights of hand. The upshot of all this, of course, is that it feeds beautifully to a population that desires an answer to the over arching question that consists of When Did Things Go Wrong?

       You can find an answer for ever No one is arguing against property rights; rather one is arguing against a belief system that insists to the exclusion of all other evidence that it is morally wrong for property owners to be held accountable for what they do with their property, or that there should be enforceable standards and limits on what can be done with that property lest it seriously and dangerously conflict with --gasp!--the greater good. When the hack architect Keating in The Fountainhead breaks his promise to Roark and allows government bureaucrats to alter the design he (Roark) ghost-designed for him, Roark feels betrayed and personally violated by the forces he abhors and takes it upon himself, by reason of him being a self-motivated and self-contained creator, to ignore the Law and all shared sense of decency and avenge his hurt feelings by destroying the finished destruction of the public housing project. 

      The shelter and elevated standard of living it would have provided the poor and needful was of no consequence--the solipsistic principles Roark lived by needed to be enforced over all else. Roark's long and one-note speech at the end of The Fountainhead is a fairly good outline of the Objectivist point of view, and with it Roark defends his action. There was a disturbance in the balance of things, much as it goes in classical tragedy, and only an act of severe violence, unmindful of what death might occur as a result, could put the balance right again. Roark here is conspicuously Rand's mouthpiece, a sock puppet peddling her peculiar brand of inverted morality; the implication is clear, conspicuous, very plain indeed: should the work of genius creators like Roark be interfered or changed, the creator reserves the right to become to rise above the petty, slave morality laws of common society and commit an act of TERRORISM to keep his point clear. This is not merely a fictional spiel intended to tie up loose plot threads, it is a serious if deluded argument meant to be taken seriously by the reader. Roark is very much a fictional creation whose example we are meant to be inspired by. ...more

      Tuesday, August 14, 2012

      Books and their secrets

      Thinking that books should have secrets like people do implies that you think books are very much people in the first place; the further implication is that books have their own private agendas to execute upon the world by way their readership.

      Books, if they had personalities and whims and manifest duties independent of the men and women who wrote them, would have no duties other than to be an enthralling, pleasurable reading adventure, the preferred result for the reader being an experience that challenges and shakes their assumptions, perhaps even depresses them a little, but which leaves them resilient above all else.
      The writer is not obliged to make his fictions cohere with anyone's enforced standards of content and result; otherwise it would cease to be fiction, that is art, and become instead a lie, that is propaganda. The secrets books remain secrets until the pages are read. Quality control is impossible, though, and not all secrets are created equal. Many secrets are dull, tacky, tawdry, inane altogether. Not every sin is spectacular , not every indiscretion is evil, not every thought of mendacity is , in itself, worth of another world war, or even a disapproving slant of the head and  crosseyed frown.

      The more exciting secrets, the truly enthralling ones, even in the context of a novel, can make you wonder if you're any better off for knowing what indecent things a writer was purging in character garb.

      Thursday, August 9, 2012

      Bleaky, batty and brilliant

      The Dark Knight Rises has inspired a dedicated coterie of nay sayers who complain that the film is a lugubrious  bore, muddled in plot and spectacularly pedestrian in superhuman feats; considering that the director is Christopher Nolan , an artist who chases bad ideas with the same meticulous ambition he pursues good ones, the charge might have credibility if one hadn't seen the film.
      Chris Nolan's last film "Inception" was a superb example of what this director does with an idea when he decides to worry the notion and overwork it to the extent that it becomes a slow, waddling crawl of a film bloated with intellectual pretensions that cease to be parts of an intricate premise and more a case of a screenwriters who have fallen in love with the sound of their own voice In other words, this auteur of bleak proves himself capable of being hung with the many strands of his own ideas--so many loose strings left untied. "Dark Knight Rises", though, benefits greatly for having comic books as its source material, a form that demands a leaner, straight forward narrative.
      Not that TDKR is a simple tale--it's a murky terrain of moral ambivalence, self doubt and ambivalent morality--but Nolan provides a masterful tone to all of this, a noirish brooding contained in this film's dark corners, and moves along the plot points at a relatively brisk pace, considering the length of the film. It is a murky film, but it is an epic murk, a series of catastrophes wherein in it appears that not just the characters fight for what it is good and decent in this world, but also the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, struggling to free itself of many foul diseases that have invaded its body politic. The Dark Knight Rises has a Gotham City that is a noble force battling every bit of foulness a malevolent universe can toss at it. It is an epic tale and to witness this is enthralling. Nolan, who can indeed be pretentious and vague in his work, did well, very well this time out.

      Tuesday, August 7, 2012

      Making a living

      Rock and roll is all about professionalism , which is to say that some one of the alienated and consequently alienating species trying to make their way in the world subsisting on the seeming authenticity of their anger, ire and anxiety has to make sure that they take care of their talent, respect their audiences expectations even as they try to make the curdled masses learn something new, and to makes sure that what they are writing about /singing about/yammering about is framed in choice riffs and frenzied backbeat. It is always about professionalism; the MC5 used to have manager John Sinclair, story goes, turn off the power in middle of one of their teen club gigs in Detroit to make it seem that the Man was trying to shut down their revolutionary oomph. The 5 would get the crowd into frenzy, making noise on the dark stage until the crowd was in a sufficient ranting lather. At that point Sinclair would switch the power back on and the band would continue, praising the crowd for sticking it to the Pigs.
      This was pure show business, not actual revolutionary fervor inspired by acne scars and blue balls; I would dare say that it had its own bizarre integrity, and was legitimate on terms we are too embarrassed to discuss. In a way, one needs to admire bands like the Stones or Aerosmith for remembering what it was that excited them when they were younger, and what kept their fan base loyal.  All I would say is that it's not a matter of rock and roll ceasing to be an authentic trumpet of the troubled young soul once it became a brand; rather, rock and roll has always been a brand once white producers, record company owners and music publishers got a hold of it early on and geared a greatly tamed version of it to a wide and profitable audience of white teenagers. In any event, whether most of the music being made by Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and others was a weaker version of what was done originally by Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters et al is beside the point. It coalesced, all the same, into a style that perfectly framed an attitude of restlessness among mostly middle class white teenagers who were excited by the sheer exotica, daring and the sense of the verboten the music radiated. It got named, it got classified, the conventions of its style were defined, and over time, through both record company hype and the endless stream of Consciousness that most white rock critics produced, rock and roll became a brand. It was always a brand once it was removed from the black communities and poor Southern white districts from which it originated. I have no doubt that the artist's intention , in the intervening years, was to produce a revolution in the conscious of their time with the music they wrote and performed, but the decision to be a musician was a career choice at the most rudimentary level, a means to make a living or, better yet , to get rich. It is that rare to non-existent musician who prefers to remain true to whatever vaporous sense of integrity and poor.
      Even Chuck Berry, in my opinion the most important singer-songwriter musician to work in rock and roll--Berry, I believe , created the template with which all other rock and rollers made their careers in music--has described his songwriting style as geared for young white audiences. Berry was a man raised on the music of Ellington and Louie Jardin, strictly old school stuff, and who considered himself a contemporary of Muddy Waters, but he was also an An entrepreneur as well as an artist. He was a working artist who rethought his brand and created a new one; he created something wholly new, a combination of rhythm and blues, country guitar phrasing and narratives that wittily, cleverly, indelibly spoke to a collective experience that had not been previously served.
       Critics and historians have been correct in callings this music Revolutionary, in that it changed the course of music, but it was also a Career changes. All this, though, does not make what the power of Berry's music--or the music of Dylan, Beatles , Stones, MC5, Bruce or The High Fiving White Guys --false , dishonest, sans value altogether. What I concern myself with is how well the musicians are writing, playing, singing on their albums, with whether they are inspired, being fair to middling', or seem out of ideas, out of breath; it is a useless and vain activity to judge musicians, or whole genres of music by how well they/it align themselves with a metaphysical standard of genuine, real, vital art making. That standard is unknowable and those putting themselves of pretending they know what it is are improvising at best. This is not a coherent way to enjoy music. One is assuming that one does, or at one time did, enjoy music. . What matters are the products--sorry, even art pieces, visual, musical, dramatic, poetic, are "product" in the strictest sense of the word--from the artists successful in what they set out to do. The results are subjective, of course, but art is nothing else than means to provoke a response, gentle or strongly and all grades in between, and critics are useful in that they can make the discussion of artistic efforts interesting. The only criticism that interests are responses from reviewers that are more than consumer guides--criticism , on its own terms in within its limits, can be as brilliant and enthralling as the art itself. And like the art itself, it can also be dull, boring, stupid, and pedestrian. The quality of critics varies; their function in relation to art, however, is valid. It is a legitimate enterprise. Otherwise we'd be treating artists like they were priests. God forbid.