Sunday, April 28, 2013

Tom Cruise : under the surface, more surface

Tom Cruise continues to inspire wonderment and mockery  among the celebrity obsessed public at large, with the attending press coverage and think pieces continuing in the relentless attempts to pierce the impermeable membrane that surrounds the world's most quizzical movie star. Slate magazine has gotten into the act and  says that the real Tom  Cruise biography, the definite one, does in fact exist, in the form of the movies he has made. Not surprisingly,  Cruise's religion, the cringe inducing cult of Scientology, figures in the article's  research. There are, one reads, a plenitude of  movie plot points that reflect the tenets of the secret  theology of  founder  L.Ron Hubbard's  intriguingly  hodge podge of a faith.I'm not surprised that a good number the plot points in Cruise's movies echo themes that appear in the confounding mythology of his religion.

Certainly one could also harp on the Catholic themes in the novels of Graham Greene and yield a bounty of evidence ; we don't, however , tend to get bent out of shape over the religious overtones of the novels or their more sinister implications and instead prefer to enjoy a good yarn. Greene was good at writing good yarns.


The main concern with Cruise isn't whether his movies have a subtext endorsing a controversial cult, but whether Cruise is consistently adept at choosing good movies to star in. Like anyone else in the public eye and who stars in movies, his track record is uneven, although his batting average is better than Nicholas Cage's. For Cruise himself, he is a puzzling man in terms of his public persona, but my principle concern is if his movies are fully realized entertainments worth the money I work for. 

He is not my favorite actor,  although I think he's been decent in a couple of things, although I think his best performance, his most legitimately autobiographical (if there is such a thing) was as the quirky  hit man in Michael Mann's reasonably sublime. In a grey buzz coat and portraying a sociopath who assumes personalities and points of view whimsically , much the way people change shirts.I suspect Mann had Cruise in mind when he realized he had a character who was all mask and emotional subterfuge. I wonder if Mann's direction of his lead actor included the phrase "just be yourself".

Saturday, April 27, 2013

ANATOMY OF A MURDER by Duke Ellington


The reviewer at the All Music web site opines that premiere genius Duke Ellington rose to the occasion when he had the chance to compose a full movie score for Otto Preminger's film "Anatomy of a Murder". This was not a case of saying that Ellington sustains his brilliance as a composer solely already established criteria, the implication that Ellington not just rose to the challenge of writing music for the moves, but showed himself to be the equal of genuine film composing giants, bumping shoulders with Bernard Hermann and Alfred Newman. Insert your favorite composer.
What bothered me especially was the claim that Ellington composed his music that served the scene and that it was discreet, unobtrusive, intuitively supportive of the narrative and the emotional dynamics under view. I disagree; I do consider Ellington to be America's greatest musical gift to the world in the  20th Century and consider him an American Master of his art, the good maestro doesn't seem to have had any idea of how to compose something that was meant to augment a filmed story. All the classic touches, coloration, impressionistic sweeps and slyly insinuated improvisations are here--as an album, this is a fine work of ensemble concert jazz composition--but the don't just intrude on the scenes and sequences, they stomp on them. 
There is a struggle for attention. The final effect is that of being in a crappy hotel room where the neighbors are playing the radio too loud for too long. It would be nice if this resourceful innovator could claim with pride that he had artistic success in the movies besides all the other forms he greeted and seduced into becoming his very own expression. Some shoulders remain could to the seduction. Remember that the name of his memoir is "Music is My Mistress".  Mistresses , in the movies at least,have minds of their own and will keep their own consul.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Free Will

There is nothing to do except park the car and ponder the blue-grey of the sky, but one needs a car first. Failing an automobile, one instead walks out the front door, goes across the lawn until they reach the street. One sits on the curb,  under the portion of the canopy the large, old oak tree provides, and            then pull out out a box of wood matches from a shirt pocket. 

One , though, does not have a shirt, so one rises up from the curb they'd been sitting on and turns to walk back to the hose. This time, though, a decision is made to cross the lawn and not the        walk way to the porch, the hope being that a wonderful texture of green grass between the toes of bare feet would create a sensation that would remove one's memory for a moment and allow one entrance into a glorious sphere of what-if. There is only pain, though, as one has stepped on a nail from some past repair job rendered loud and sloppy by drunk contractors. 

One looks at the wound, a bitter puncture blossoming blood, and then one looks up to the porch to see one's mother, staring hard, her mouth a strict, straight line, her hands , clenched into mighty fists, resting on her hips. She told one to wear shoes before going outside and now one must realize that there is nothing free about free will.

Into the Void, Ordering Room Service

Wishful thinking , the act of  lolling around and contemplating each  fancy you take fulfilled at the moment of inspiration, is the idea behind Jeff Skinner's poem "Distant Wants".This bit of elusive whimsy    seems a trifle at first , but what I got out of after the second read was that it amounts to an anti-bucket list. 

While there are millions of fictional elders chasing the down the items that they'd like to see, do or feel before they pass  on to the Life of Eternal Diffusion,  the hero in this reverie takes this impulse in a relaxed stride and considers them not so much as unfulfilled goals as much as things that are the equivalent of impulse buying:  in a perfect world where whimsy dictated the nature of things, these might be worth going after, absurd though they may be. 

But these are distant wants, products of day dreams and the mind-wandering results of taking a moment to stretch out and allow daily duties to wait their turn for attention. Suitably, these are wants set in the metaphysical realm where the idea of a thing is more real than the material representation. 

Skinner gives a nod to Wallace Stevens and for a minute or so considers rearranging the world of perfect arrangements; this is a child's instinctive musing on what would happen if this button was pressed, that door opened, this loose brick at the bottom of the wall removed.It would have been interesting if the poet had shared the imagined results and revealed what , if anything, would be going on if the order of the world at the most banal level were to become unhinged, although I am grateful for this poem's brevity, staying well within the limits of a semi-sonnet form.The shortness of breadth is exactly the weight these yearnings need to carry. I believe these are musings on how to make arrangements in the perfect world even more artistic, further underscoring their lack of gravitas. Lack of importance is the one thing that makes these musings worth wondering about.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Upon Hearing of Another Marriage Breaking Up


Upon  Hearing of Another Marriage Breaking Up  is a poem that reads as if he had been edited with a wrecking ball.  Author Dean Young reads this poem in something much less than a resounding manner--to say that his recitation was sing-songy would be a comparative compliment. And it would be a lie, at least of the sort you tell your ordinary friend with artistic manners so to not hurt or offend them. What the poet offers on this soundtrack has the flat, expressionless timbre of someone in shock, before they passed out from the loss of too much blood. 
As a poem nominally considering the dissolution of "another" marriage--it's implied that the narrator has had a number of couples in his social circles disband their unions and that he his tired of it, bored with it, angry, perhaps , that they don't appreciate his standard of the good life--the poem considers not tragedy or heartache or the sullen self-recriminations and lashings-out , but rather the notion that insane lack of passion and a profusion of mired boredom proves a fatal combination for the soul. 

The passing details, like junco feathers, dog food, bat wings, other people engaged in public affection, or at least public cooperation, are things regarded with an off side glance, in peripheral vision. The narrator sounds like someone who is had has made ennui their kingdom and , in the course of applying the psychology as philosophy, cannot truly grasp the world and the people , places and things in it. There are murky attempts to address what is clearly seen with poetic indirection, what is not entirely broken down or entirely caked in mud remains clean and useful, what makes no noise makes no problems and is perfectly okay to remain as it is, not bothering me with petty detail. The moral of this story is that the narrator, a witless husband, an Asperger's tainted poet, is unaware of the world as is and cannot see that his universe is falling apart; the flimsy assumptions are flaking , bending, curling up, cracking, blowing away . 

An ambitious scene to undertake,but it is a pity that Young cannot give you a sense of the life that is lacking in this narrator's existence. He writes as compellingly as he reads aloud. The best compliment I can pay this that this sounds like a third rate imitation of Ron Silliman's and Rae Armantrout's work; the two of them are Language poets, a school that is controversial even to this day. But think what you may, there remains strong poetic styles behind each of their work, a shrewd and hard intelligence working in their seeming obscurity. Young is merely oblique. His accomplishment here is that he cannot make you care much for his poem about not caring.Humor is evident when there is laughter. Otherwise it is attempted humor; what Young often does is attempt to engage a habit of speaking that results in ambiguity and unintended irony. This is the sort of banter the hip geek humanities major with a hard dose of reconstituted deconstruction allegedly indulges in more often than not, a pile on of dead signifiers and post-Tarantino prolixity to obfuscate a simple request, command or observation. 

The results, I'm sure, are often hilarious to a circle of friends tuned to the same punch lines or who have seen the same movies, the same books, the same tv shows, but if humor isn't able to reach beyond the camp fire circle and hit a broader population with funny bones, it is merely snark and sarcasm, regardless of apologetic explication. This is not to say that poetry need be as clear as sports writing; but sometimes a muddle in a poem demonstrates , for me, muddled thinking , a consciousness without an apparatus, a useful style. The muddle thinking goes beyond what the poet writes,though, as seen in the critical vocabulary that makes the production of the weak tea Young okay. The ought to cease that practice and so stop the insanity.

THE FUTURE OF POETRY (from "You Call This Lunch?!?")


You need to carry a bigger stick if you're going to talk to me about the blues. Everything in the backyard has a price tag on it, It's the way you grind your teeth when you sleep that makes the mornings a welcome advent of stalled traffic at the freeway entrance, loud radio blasting partisan blame, a coffee mug between my legs. Magic tricks with coins at the behest of fingers dancing between the back of the ear and the tip of her nose makes the child wonder who’s been placing quarters in her hair as she dreamed of her pretty ponies and afternoon teas with her network of dolls. She told me that you were coming over, and now here you are, and I still don't like you, so there.  A mailman sneaks past the apartment building with the lightest steps he can manage.  Cats come from the bushes to see who’s making all the noise.  The clown at the party faints under the summer sun. Needless to say that there's no use  telling the truth, so I'll shut up and allow you to sit there on the prosecution couch, arms crossed and tight lipped, filling in the stony silence with  a vibe that's louder than  any screaming you might have done. Hey, I just learned how to speak in tongues. A sandwich made from a recipe for alphabet soup. In the right disguise, I thought my voice might rise and ride on the wind with the leaves and smoke. For a quarter more I can give you enough fries to gag an off duty cop. All this gangsta rap is punchy, I mean, so honkin' in yer face, ace.  Sentences cannot be jail terms when what you mean is a statement of justice meted out like finger treats and cold cuts. Let's go be with the others at the party, all of us gathered together like pearls around a long, rich neck.  Sorry, but you are talking to someone who is smarter than the average bear, but an idiot with regards to taxes and dating tips.  Be useful and go far, far away. Here's my entry in the bad Hemingway contest: rain. Close cover before striking. Call me Spider. Woke up this morning with those Phenomenology of Spirit Blues.  Superman has moved into the Telephone Booth of Solitude. You think you can take me in a game of Groan? Yes, I never want you to leave in a bad mood, I prefer my relationships pure, like blank job applications.
 


Sunday, April 14, 2013

Logan Heights

 I think that William Logan is a passable formalist  poet .  That’s all I can say abou the man’s efforts to write memorable verse, as there is  the sort of straining you detect that makes you think of someone conspicuously hurting themselves trying to make the heavy lifting their doing appear effortless. You could say that his poems are as poetic as a hernia, which is fine for those who love hernias and their propensity to make bodies bulge in extrusions of varied grotesquerie  I  give him credit , however, for fashioning as a nicely cutting prose style and a talent for the put down. It doesn'tmatter that you disagree with him, think wrong headed or willfully provocative; like the chronically snarky John Simon or the brilliantly acerbic polemics from the late William F. Buckley, he is fun to read . It’s  not a little like rooting for the villain in a professional wrestling match, or slowing down to gawk at a bad auto accident. Ill will and unkind cuts, real or show biz artifice, are what get and keep our attention. His remarks, though, rather too quickly revert to sarcasm, albeit sarcasm of a elevated sort; you wish he'd deal less with surface attributes of a poem and delve into thinking that is more off the charted course.


His review of the most recent work of British  Poet Laureate  Carol Ann Duffy .
is a prize example of Logan 's  synapses firing in the service of frontal assault. I wouldn't mind normally, since Duffy's work interests me not at all; I'd rather consider draining a cesspool than be obliged to read her treacle. Logan, though, goes on too long and too loudly over the word  "swooned". Sarcasm crowds out a subtler tact, it crowds out real criticism. There’s no doubt that Logan knows why he thinks the word is useless as a matter of practical poetry-making –a man as resourceful with cadence and comment as Logan cannot help  but be plagued with many an interesting idea. A paycheck , though, favors the fastest typist, and so his notions are turned into compact little landmines that go off quick, loud, one after another. All   that boom, pow, and kabam  grates to an extent and you  find yourself taking a deep breath and letting it out loudly , overwhelming the noise of the wisecracks ; you wish he’d taken a deep breath himself and explained his thinking more fully with the rest of the class.

"Swooned" is a perfectly fine word for a poet to make use of; Logan's error in that he implies that the term is hopelessly dated because it is of another era, an example of old fashioned sort of poetry. He'd have been on firmer ground had he argued that it is a word that needs to be in the hands of a poet with an ear for newer and older lexicons. For myself, I'd have no problem using "swooned" regardless of its age because it has a beautiful , melodic, fluid sound, and it's effectiveness needn't be consigned to the post-modern habit of knee jerk modernism to justify its use. Straight forward or ironic, it is a fine word and what matters, really , are the language the poet musters up--is there a sequence of well chosen images and metaphors, agile word choices that service a scenario--and the efficacy of the perceptions and attendant emotional resonances. Regular people in every day speech mix their terms, old, new, obscure, clear as glass, all the time and I don't see why some words are banned merely because they are no longer favored for common use. The point is the sound of the word and the effectiveness of its deployment; talent matters most of all. Carol Ann Duffy isn't that poet , but Logan isn't the man to tell anyone what ought not be done.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Nice ones

John McLaughlin is a gifted musician who has that strange knack for either delighting me to no end with his guitar playing, or giving me pause to fall asleep  The latter condition is not a compliment. This is a swinging, energized set from the man; he manages to stay out of the riff-ruts he sometimes favors and moves ahead, straight ahead.When the master guitarist gets away from his neurally entrenched riffs (which, dazzling though they are at first listen, become repetitive and fail at bringing us the melodic theme and variations that would keep a solo interesting) and sets himself in a more straight ahead  context, free of devices, pedals, and other digital distractions, McLaughlin is a fleet, quick witted improvisor. His customary ratta-tat-tat style , a huge influence on a generations of guitarists who were more obsessed with speed than inspiration, becomes enjoyable. This is alacrity in service to ideas.

  I did not go to sleep.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

writer / rock critic Paul Williams RIP

"The Father of Rock Criticism" Paul Williams.
Paul Williams had the distinction of being the first man in nearly anyone's recollection to discuss rock music as a substantive art form. He was,I suspect, similar to what Manny Farber was to film criticism,  a writer who insisted that rock music was a fully developed form, with its own aesthetic, qualities and stylistic tangents that expressed ideas, musical and emotional, in a manner wholly unique and deserving of its own critical language.

Rock and roll was no poor stepchild of the other arts. Developing their ideas decades apart, what Williams and Farber shared was a dissatisfaction with the way their respective areas on critical concern, rock and roll, and film, were being treated, as subdivisions of other, more established art forms. Both decided to something about their respective gripes. Both men changed the way millions have come to see the world, at least in some small way. 

Paul Williams brought to the world was a set of propositions that started an international conversation on the nature of popular culture and the defense of art that didn't originate in the university, the cathedral or a think tank. Paul's inspired enthusiasm for musicians and their message, his flashing insights, his visionary notion that art is the means with which we can transcend the brutally inane and experience genuine joy, was a subject too enticing to pass up. He was an influence on my writing and the writing of many longtime friends, and I find it astounding that the discourse he started in the 60s continues today, a  contentious, cranky, frequently brilliant, opinionated conversation on the issue of what we find beautiful and why.  On the subject of rock and roll and popular music, Paul Williams created a critical method where none had previously existed. That is a profound achievement, and it is one that influenced my life. Thank you, Paul Williams.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Tom Waits

Barry Alfonso and I interviewed Tom Waits in the lobby of the Little American Westgate back in the 70s; he was wearing a ratty bathrobe, slippers that curled up, Aladdin-like, where the toes would usually be, his hair was a mangy hedge, and he smoked an entire pack of Winston's while we chatted in the hotel's opulent lobby. He tore the filter off each cigarette and smoked them, one after the other. He was a nice man. I suspect he still is. Some years before then, 1970 I believe, my high school girlfriend Laura and I went along with our friend Molly who wanted to sing that night at the open mic night The Heritage folk club offered during its tenure in Mission Beach.

 It was a two dollar admission for the no age limit club, and I as scraped together the greasy dollar bills that constituted the saved up tip money from my dishwashing job at the La Jolla Shores Colony Kitchen, I looked up at the employee taking the money and issuing the hand stamps for re-admission; he wore a suit with skinny lapels that was too small for him--his pant legs stopped at the ankles and he wore black socks . He had short hair, wore a small hat with a brim that curled up like a cheap rain gutter. He had one of those soul-kiss beards right smack in the center above his chin. Molly signed the performers sign up list and in time we were sitting there drinking coffee that was barely a passable version of chalk shavings in a glass of old milk, sitting through one banjo and harmonica toting, goatee wearing straw-man and Madonna after another, all of whom seemed to nasally intone paeans to cultures they knew only from Classics Illustrated and the backs of bubble gum cards in various degrees of flesh-eating drone . "Mother of God, " said the Doorman.  Molly eventually got up and sang her song, a nice, pleasant cover of Melanie's song "Psychotherapy". All I wanted to do was to go over to Laura's house and ask her what she wanted to do, ball or send me on my way. 
Image may contain: 2 people, people sitting, table and indoor
Left to right, Tom Waits, myself,  Barry Alfonso.

Years later, but not before our arrival at the Little American Westgate, I walked into Golden Hall in downtown San Diego expecting to see The Mothers of Invention perform their usual brilliant said of complex, tick tock comedy, the kind busy, bullshit art-rock and turgid comedy I found appealing at the time. What I heard instead was Frank Zappa introducing Tom Waits; what the goddamned fucking whorehouse nut grabbing was this nonsense was this? I hated him at once, intensely, with an irrational intensity suitable for a shooting range or the pronouncement of a death sentence. This is not what I paid to see, I thought, although I was well aware that the tickets were free because I was there in the capacity of a reviewer who was assigned to write a critique of the show.

 The review I wrote was kind to no one who performed, although I cannot remember if it was published or not. Likely that the editor had wearied of my airs and my aromas. In the meantime, I reviewed records for a partial living and managed to listen very, very close to several Waits releases and came to the reasonably argued conclusion that Waits was one of the three or four best pop-rock lyricists of all time. Waits was my second choice at the time, my first pick being Elvis Costello, whose impenetrable surrealism I equated with genius. I still regard EC has a high talent, but there is the advantage in having three decades between you and your first encounter; too many of the songs just made no sense what so ever, and they lacked even the surface quality one wants if coherence is not to be had; to this day I really have no idea what John Ashbery is talking about, but there are a number of things he brings to the blend, such as wit, erudition, a tangible philosophical struggle with the notion of life as he lives it and the language he is forced to contain his experience of it. 


This process is fascinating even when clarity takes a holiday while you read him. The third lyricist was always changing--sometimes it was John Lennon, sometimes Bob Seger, other times Robert Palmer James (from King Crimson). The last time I compiled a list of three best lyricists, I settled for Keith Reid of Procul Harum for third place. I suspect he's gone too. Of them all, Waits is the only one I still care about.  I no longer have copies of those reviews , which pisses me off  if only because the pieces, exercises in my efforts to teach myself to write with style (and style being the means to insight and wit), contained ideas worth salvaging and expanding upon now that my age has caught  up, just a bit, with my youthful ambitions. In any event, this change of heart brought me and, at that time, my new friend Barry Alfonso to the lobby of the Little American Westgate to interview an artist who was doing what no one else could get away with. Barry Alfonso was a nice man at that time, I know he is still is. And his wife  Janet is very nice as well. 

Friday, March 22, 2013

SALT OF THE EARTH by The Rolling Stones

Ambivalence is a quality that is regarded in general as a gutless affectation of those with money who cannot muster a concerned moan or a sigh about the plight and fate of those less well endowed. Sometimes, though, it is a tale that must be told at times by poets, novelists, playwrights. The undecided experience is an experience none the less.  There are those, of course, in this class who at least have what they consider the decency to feign a concern, the very subject of  "Salt of the Earth" by the Rolling Stones from their 1968  Beggars Banquet album. An amazing song; Jagger's lyrics does not the very neat and difficult trick of commenting on its own expression with a verse, late in the song, we have the admission 
 "...when I look in the faceless crowd /A swirling mass of grays and Black and white /They don't look real to me/Or don't they look so strange..." 
It's worth noting that if this song didn't have this qualifying, confessional side note where the well financed liberal admits his inability to empathize with the plight of the poor and oppressed, it would have been a first-rate Lefty/Wobbly/Pro-Labor protest song geared to rally the base and convince the still apathetic. This is statement is remarkable not so much because it displays the easy, that is to say lazy irony of an erstwhile progressive being self-aware enough to realize his own absurdity, the rich man continuing to make use of limitless resources while the poor remain poor and subsisting on a pittance; Jagger is honest enough to tell us, as though confessing to a confidante late night, over drinks in the back of a limo that he does not relate at all to the plight of the poor, nor could care at all for their dignity as human beings . This phrase, in the middle of a song that begins as a Socialist Anthem, gives the lie to the whole enterprise. This a moment that reveals a crack in the narrator's otherwise politically -tuned persona; this is about appearances, not progress. Those rankled by the middle verse are, I think, being prodded to think and meditate deeper on their claims of commitment to social justice. Some prefer to act like Jagger's admission were never written, never sung, never recorded. Joan Baez must have noted this as well and changed the lyrics when she covered the song to words sympathetic to the proletariat. It is one of the best inside jokes of the Sixties.
 From the Rolling Stones original, however, we have a profound and  rare admission from 60s pop-star that the causes and the suffering outside their privileged bubble were alien, "other", and that dealing with them was another pose to strike for the cameras. The Stones were always ambivalent when it came to the politics of the period, but I do admire the way they never shied away from their inability to pick a side. 

Thursday, March 14, 2013

SMALL TALK AT THE WALL


Late At Night / Gail Mazur

Reading awful poems late at night,
each word scratchy as a hog’s bristles,
my eyes ache and blur in the dimming light.
I don’t find one good line, one image,
one single flower piercing the mud—
only ponderous “ideas,” heavy
as boulders clogging a clear stream.
Or worse, it’s like eating bony little fish—
or boiled crabs, and breaking out in hives!
Nothing I hear or see tonight
is comfort or anodyne, nothing
to lose myself in for part of an hour …
Our lives passed like a morning mist,
or a flame whose candle’s burned away.
Why strain listening for beautiful music
in the witless peeps of an insect,
when I can just put the book aside
and study your last woodcut—blue night,
rain pelting the riddling moonlight
on a blue-black bay—more wondrous
than words on a page. Better for me.


These are thoughts late at night, the connecting articles and conjunctions between ideas missing, in large part, two or three ideas merging into the same drowsy stream; things seen in a haze, coming into view, then gone, suggesting nothing so much as a pondering of an object of desire gone missing amid the late hours , after a meal and perhaps two glasses of wine. The mind cannot hold a thought for very long and is unable to isolate a notion on which to construct a reasoned opinion; it's not so much that what first entered the mind had been dissolved and was no more,but rather that it had either morphed into something else all together . The words on a page, the lines of awful poetry one is trying to parse, the memory that one is attempting to  reconcile several contradictory opinions of.  The words on a page, the lines of awful poetry one is trying to parse, the memory that one is attempting to reconcile several contradictory opinions of. Language in the late hours that turn into the early morning has taken leave --only real images resonate. Actual things are the literal that one can "wrap " your mind around, a shape to emulate, study, improvise associations with. Language is merely the notes of muffled songs until rest turns up the volume and one utters sentences that are the equal of John Coltrane solos. But until then, just a book and poems that offer little but vapor in the hours reserved for slumber and dream indexes of the day's events.

This has the makings of a John Ashbery epic, the central genius of American who likewise cannot hold a single thought in his poems but who enthralls us as the physical and the nearly metaphysical interact in ways that make meaning irrelevant; his is a poetry of associative length, the manufacturing of associations as a consciousness epically steps down from the realm of Perfect Forms , Wallace Steven's Supreme Fiction, and investigates a world populated by imperfect representations. His mind, though, is alert, curious, melancholic to a degree, yet amused by the endless variety of forms he can speak into being. Mazur is less alert with "Late at Night" and has, I think, given us a poem about falling asleep. There is a feeling in this poem that makes me think of a person's grip on an object--a book, a glass, a ball--loosening and falling away. This is the equivalent of a sleeper mumbling into a pillow, talk to who knows what in the cloud of faint dreams.

The poem is elliptical in the sense that Mazur's narrator is arguing with what she finds on the page--this seems a search through books for a phrase or full declaration of the vague emotions that are stirring about her conscious--and what she considers briefly, intently is dismissed as inadequate  and inspires only more speculation. Late night and the fighting against the on set of sleep--and I think fatigue is conspicuous in this poems diffuse approach to a loosely gathered subject--makes the object of desire, whether a lover, a youthful past, a love of art and nature, dissolves and there are only fading sensations of sound, color, shapes as the task of night takes over. Mazur is wise enough to resolve the problem of not finding an appropriate analog of the somnambulist musings and decides, before closing her eyes finally, that a fading recollection of a pleasant experience and state of being is better than trying to force a set of words or some other thing embody the spiritual essence of that notion. Better for her. Better for the reader.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Alvin Lee



Alvin Lee, pioneer rock guitar hero and leader of the British blues band Ten Years After, died the other day at age 68 from a complication following what's been described as a routine surgery. Lee was not one of my favorites at the time, the late Sixties through the Seventies, mainly because despite his obvious skills--he played the blues clean and speedy and was the first man in rock and roll who's instrumental reputation was based largely on how fast he could negotiate relatively simple blues changes--I thought his guitar work and songwriting were strictly ordinary. Any number of bands were writing better blues-rock songs and riffs--Hendrix, Cream, Fleetwood Mac--and any number of other upcoming white blues guitarists,  British or American, were more interesting as stylists. Clapton had the phrasing , Peter Green had the tone and soul, Johnny Winter had the speed, fluidity and variety of approaches to make the basic structures of blues new and invigorating.

I would swear that nothing Lee ever put on record equaled the elegance of Mike Bloomfield's blues playing at his best; Lee, as Lester Bangs suggested, was more an IBM punch card: insert and listen to the machine crank it out , dependably fast and nerve wracking, as all efficient machines do.I would wager that Lee is the guy where the whole who--is-faster guitar theatrics came from.It began with Lee, back in the days when young males were starved for heros who weren't comic book characters or lead singers and older jazz critics  who should have known better than praise what they cannot hear correctly, when too many people were surprised that rock musicians could have technique and chops , and continued to absurd extremes through the glorious music of Johnny Winter through the galvanic jazz-fusion convulsions presented by John McLaughlin and Larry Coryell and onward, through the Sixties, Seventies , Nineties to this current time, when there is technique and speed to spare, but little that is soulful, moving.
Save for the off-center improvisations of Allan Holdsworth, a guitarist who combines speed with a sound that seems to replicate the subtle cues of a voice wordlessly indicating a mood with a sigh, a scream, a nuanced moan, there is not a  John Coltrane in the batch of fretsters. Instead of passion, there is only rage born of  computer game shoot-em-ups and a history of film violence; the guitars are less expressions of human emotion than they are musical wrecking balls, heavy , stupid things connected to severe chains of severely retarded belligerence. Coltrane's serpentine , register leaping solos were a high velocity response to  equivalent streams of emotion. Raging, arguing, laughing, crying, singing to praise to God and damning the Devil in his hole, JC's improvisations limned an inner terrain of spiritual conflict with an epoch changing technique; the rapidity of bebop modernism, with its breakneck time signatures and scalar improvisations, had found an emotional basis .

 This was not a replication of the human voice when the persona that owned it felt merely joyous or had the blues, this was the river of emotion where the emotions were multiform and simultaneous. That was the miracle of Coltrane's extemporaneous poetry. What Coltrane had introduce, rapid improvisation as a virtue in service to confirming a personal humanity, is lost in large measure among the guitarists who've followed Alivin Lee. By design or  by accident, their thinking is in line with Italian Futurism , a school of artists obsessed with machinery and the speed of production they made possible. Destroy the present and the past at  once, crash headlong into the future with the biggest steam shovel and wrecking ball you have and rid Humanity of it's faux notions of beauty and truth that only constrict us . There is not much room here to be happy or sensible, only busy and constantly, warily angry.The emphasis on fire power has infected the core fan base for this sort of stuff; it is not friendly from the reconnaissance I've been willing to do.   Go to YouTube for performances by Joe Satriani, Buckethead, Malmsteen and other rock technicians and then scroll down to the viewer commentaries. Sooner or later the discussions devolve to hateful flame wars regarding who is the most fleet fret monger is. I thought it had been settled in the Seventies when Johnny Winter came on the scene and showed how you could play accelerated blues and still be inventive and soulful. The topic, though, merely mutated and remains, to this day, one of the most absurd of obsessive niches in music fandom. 


Likewise, this emphasis on firepower has infected the core fan base for this sort of stuff; it is not friendly from the reconnaissance I've been willing to do.   Go to YouTube for performances by Joe Satriani, Buckethead, Malmsteen and other rock technicians and then scroll down to the viewer commentaries. Sooner or later the discussions devolve to hateful flame wars regarding who is the most fleet fret monger is. I thought it had been settled in the Seventies when Johnny Winter came on the scene and showed how you could play accelerated blues and still be inventive and soulful. The topic, though, merely mutated and remains, to this day, one of the most absurd of obsessive niches in music fandom. 





Here is as perfect demonstration of Lee's technique and style as you're likely to find. He was a solid musician and had good command . He was limited , though, and recorded several albums in a role where he offered substantially the same solo over and over. I stopped paying attention years ago. Still, the good stuff I still listen to; there is a first rate up tempo blues called "Me and My Baby" that I can't find at the moment where Lee and Co. just get into a swinging groove and play the blues naturally. His guitar work on that is bitter sweet, melodic , spare and right, in the best tradition of BB King. Would that he had done more of that kind of stuff. Meanwhile, here's his version of "Help Me". It's  as perfect demonstration of Lee's technique and style as you'll find. Even though I lost interest in his music overall decades ago, Mr. Lee deserves respect for helping to change the perception as to what a rock guitarist should be. The on going results of his innovation has given us results are both glorious and grating, but , I would argue, that is the aim of every artist who wants to be an influence, to change the way their craft is conducted. In that respect, Alvin Lee hit it out of the park.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Pat O'Brien, harmonica and guitar double threat.

I sought out Pat O'Brien on the net and after listening to some things he's done with Priests of Love and Scott Henderson, it seems that he is another case in point in how to use speedy playing techniques usefully, musically in a blues and blues/rock context. He is wickedly fast, among the fastest I've heard, and he is precise without seeming merely technically adept. He is very fine at playing a song's head arrangements in unison with his own guitar playing and whatever harmony instrument the particular ensemble happens to have, and he is simply awesome at building solos. He has control of his tone in that he warbles, vibratos, chokes, slurs and bends without nearly a vocal fluidity, and he shares with other masters like Sugar Blue and Jason Ricci the skill at building a solo.

 Below is a video of O'Brien and the POL performing Django Reinhardt's classic gypsy swing piece  "Honeysuckle Rose",  and take note of the remarkable ease with which O'Brien performs on both guitar and harmonica. The unison lines he manages on both instruments as they state the tricky, bouncy melody has grace and swing mightily. The harmonica solo is fluid, melodic and turns around sweetly; the notes sparkle and glide through the rapid chord changes with a true sense of a tuneful, inventive jazz improvisation. Not unexpectedly, the guitar that comes after the restatement of the melody is no less agile, bluesy and true to the delicate rapidity of the Reinhardt original. Harmonica musicianship this good is uncommon even in a world that at times seems crowded with one virtuoso after another.


Tension and release is the name of the game, something the truly great blues guitarists have done pat-- BB, Albert and Freddie King, Buddy Guy, Johnny Winter, Clapton. He eschews flashy lines for good parts of his improvisations and rather offers up superb note choices from lower, middle and upper registers (his glissando skills in the high notes is enough to make me put my harmonica down for a while and get schooled), long low moans, chilling chord tremolos, short, terse riffs, building to what seems to be an instinctive instance where a cathartic onslaught of fast, crazy, exhilarating lines finally achieving release.


 I have no doubt that O'Brien's demonstrated skill as a blues/rock guitarist informs his sense of how to build a blues harmonica solo. Many, many technically adept players rely on and pat phrases and convenient power moves, too often, when they take their solos (I include myself in this category); this man strikes a player who has mastered his technique to the extent that like Butterfield and Blue it becomes something akin to a speaking. The phrases are spontaneous and individual, appropriate to the material. This is not a man who has only one solo he plays over and over. Pat O'Brien was unknown to me until now, and a big thanks to Adam for posting this. O'Brien combines technique and feeling and shows here and elsewhere a flawless sense of swing. Wild and wonderful harmonica work by someone who should be much, much better known than he already is.

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Friday, March 1, 2013

Woodward's Avenue of Broken Dreams


 It was suspicious enough when journalist-author Bob Woodward inferred that an email exchange he had with a highly placed White House representative was a veiled threat against him. Did anyone believe that a Presidential staff as media savvy as the one Obama has working for him would consider even on their worst day that threatening a celebrity political reporter was even remotely a good idea? It turns out , we learn , that Woodward, who of late has be absorbed into the alternate reality known as Fox News, mis-characterized the correspondence. If that wasn't pathetic enough, Woodward took the Fox  air again to defend is original remarks about the digital digression.      He has the look of someone caught  telling a lie, a self-inflicted wound to the reputation to someone who curried favor with presidents, Supreme Court justices, Generals and other power players.   


Beyond his ability to get interviews with the most powerful people in Washington and then write best selling books about them, Bob Woodward has struck me as a glorified ambulance chaser, an eavesdropper, a gossip hound only a screen door removed from the stench. In an another life he would be hosting a TMZ variant. In an digital era when information is available immediately to anyone who seeks it and when news breaks faster than we're able to blink, Woodward, a creature of newspaper culture and the author of  books that attempted to give broader context to complex personalities, must have felt his relevance fading rapidly,badly. I can only think that appearing on  Sean Hannity's show was a way for him to stay in the game and remain in the current discussion. 

The problem, though, is that his awkward attempts to give his email exchange with his White House contact a "Fox' spin only made him a story , separate from any real journalism and perspective he might have provided. The White House release of the emails after Woodward's characterization of them as somehow menacing --they sound anything but--just makes this once highly considered writer seem like another old , tired warhorse subjecting himself to the buffoonery that is the stock-in-trade of Fox News. It is a pathetic spectacle.