Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Can White People Sing the Blues?

Image result for corey harris
Corey Harris, a fine blues guitarist, songwriter and singer in a neo-traditionalist blues  style writes a provocative column on his blog  Blues is Black Music entitled 'Can White People Sing the Blues?" Harris, a musician specializing in a style of blues that's been around much longer than his years on this earth insists it's an important question. His primary objection to the idea of whites playing what is a black art form is that while listeners find themselves entertained by technical competence and show business bedazzlement, they do not have legitimacy because the music is robbed of historical context and is, as a result, merely ornamentation, not art that convincingly interprets personal and collective experience in a cruel, problematic existence. There is no culture without the long, collective memory to inform it and keep it honest, 

 " Without culture there is no music.  Music is the voice of a culture.  Separate the two and the music can never be the same.  Of course, it may be in the same style as the original, but the meaning of a song such as Son House's 'My Black Mama' will always be changed with a different performer.  This is especially true if the performer is not from the Black culture that gave birth to the blues."
I agree that those aspiring to perform blues, jazz or soul should forever know what they are picking up is black music created by and defined by black artists and the culture , twisted as it may have been, that contained the forces that brought together elements of African and European tradition that otherwise would not have met. Would that the institutions that created the genius of African American music hadn't been the racist and economically determinist demon of Slavery? Harris, though, assumes that culture is static and implies in his argument that black culture has remained still. The creation of Black American culture regarding art, education, literature, music, theater, speech, theology refutes that rather handily, as it arises, through forced circumstances, from a system of oppression; oppressed classes create counter- institutions .

The new black culture that gradually arose and developed as the response by black communities to the decimation of the institutional, social and spiritual traditions that had been theirs in their own land. The new culture, in turn, influenced the larger culture, the culture of white people. One can single out exploitation, minstrelsy, racist practices, blatantly a bad and watered down imitations of popular and emerging black art forms, especially musical idioms, but there is the area of the personal, the localized, the influence of blues culture on white musicians quite apart from record companies, promoters and agents where the younger musician is influenced and, in effect, being mentored by the black musicians they admired and took their cues from.  Harris makes a powerful argument that is based on a series of cherry-picked conceits to the exclusion of glaring contradictions. He speaks that the metaphysical essence of blues is feeling, emotion, the ability of the human voice to convey true experience, and yet he speaks in racial absolutes, denying the capacity of individual musicians, black and white, to transcend, mature, grow out of the imitative phase and achieve a true feeling, a true vision of the music they love. 

The case is that while self-righteous revisionist scolds like Harris is articulate will limit the range of blues to exclude all who are not black from having true blues authenticity, art does not sustain itself by remaining in a vacuum. No matter how righteous the argument who the music belongs to, without the constant input from musicians attracted to it and perform it according to their the narrative of their personal lives, the music ceases to grow. It shrivels up and dies and becomes only a relic that is notable mostly for how distant and antiquated it sounds.Image result for corey harris

 We will admit without reservation, upfront and unconditionally that blues and jazz are black-American creations and it's important to keep that fact in mind, but the blues, being music , is something that catches the ear of the blues lover , regardless of race, and speaks to those people in deep and profound ways, giving expression to perceptions, emotions, personal contradictions in ways that mere intellectual endeavor cannot; it is this music these folks come to love and many aspire to play, to make their own and stamp with their own personality and twists and quirks. That is how art, any art, survives, grows, remains relevant relevant enough for the born-again righteousness of Harris to reshuffle a less interesting set of arguments from LeRoi Jones' book "Blues People".

There is the aspect that blues is something in which anyone one can play the game, an element that exists in any instance of arts one thinks ought to be restricted to particular groups, but what really matters is less how many musicians have gotten in on the game as much as how many are still on the playing field over the years, with great tunes, memorable performances, slick licks, and most importantly, emotions that are real, emphatic, unmistakable. Without real emotion, new inspiration from younger players bringing their own version of the wide and disperse American narrative to the idiom, there is no music. There is no art. It dies, falls into irrelevancy, and is forgotten altogether.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ulcers

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) - IMDb:



We can agree that director and writer Joss Whedon had done a brilliant job of coordinating the cinematic Marvel Universe efforts, both amazing--Iron Man, Captain America:The First Avenger--and lackluster (Thor) so that that they all lead up to the gloriously noisy, jokey, jivey, dynamic and breathtakingly awesome Marvel's Avengers movie. This was a magnificent first movement in a plan that is said to be composed of three different phases of how Marvel comics plans to bring their comic book characters to the big screen and much smaller streaming device. Action,  insults, just enough dramatic interaction between nominal heroes, hammy performances by central villians and, true to the Marvel comic book heritage, a devastation of a good part of New York City while good guys and invading aliens  battle one another. Now what?

A full blown, energetic sequel, of course,   but this is where the momentum leading up to the Avengers goes slack. There are quite a few critics who see this as an inspired and vigorous follow up to the triumph that was the first film, but much like Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, his follow up to the wonderfully scatter shot chase that was Raiders of the Lost Ark, the premise of this film seems more asea and improvised through second guessed rewrites rather than making us think of  a true adventure where the labors of the good guys lead to some sort dynamic justice being applied.  Matters are handled well--Whedon is one of those film directors who understands comic book action sequences and, of course, has a handle on the sort of characterizations make up a typical Marvel hero--but the second act of this ongoing melodrama lacks real purpose. It arises more as a need to add more zigs and zags in the ongoing battle to make all the Marvel movies a unified film reality where different franchises can convincingly mashed together. There are wonderful set pieces, and the final battle concerning an elevated European city has some genius to it, a wonderful combination of special effects, editing and pacing.

Still, I sense much huffing and puffing and frantic, hurried chatter coated in faux-science jargon to insert another plot twist, another impending danger, and then the assembled heroes scrambling into action, from place to another, trying to rescue  civilians, quell disturbances, defuse doomsday machines, the whole sink. The sense of let down is inevitable, I guess, when it comes to sequels--Godfather 2 was an exception, truth be told--but bear in mind that Avengers:Age of Ultron is worth seeing. It's fun, it's noisy, it has that "wow" factor. In all, not so bad. But not as good as you want it to be.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Whitman or Pound?

Who was more modern, Walt Whitman or Ezra Pound?For myself, it's Whitman over Pound. Walt W. could have used a better sense of when to end a line, or developed more efficient method of getting to the true genius his lines could contain, but he was always the more interesting poet. Pound was in love with life, of being American , and thought it vest to invest his need to write with a vernacular that could crackle,hum , storm and sing in it's own voice. Well, Whitman's idealized American Voice, which, as often as not, was amazingly brilliant. Pound was too in love with a past he idealized to the point of creating the cult of impenetrability when he tried to revive it in his own creations. 

Poet and critic Bob Perelman writes about Pound, Stein, Joyce et al  in his book "The Trouble with Genius",and the contradiction of poets who, sharing a mission to change the way readers (and civilization in general) saw reality , with the emphasis being on trying a near clarity in how we discuss, describe and seek to change the world we live in, were themselves too brilliant for that purpose. The writing was thick, opaque, difficult by design as the early modernist poets tried, in general, to change the way populations regarded the world and the true relations between the emotional and the political. In all, it is a poetry worth reading and regarding, but Pound seemed tone-deaf in what he wrote as poetry; I always regarded him as one of those who had ideas and theories that were more usefully provocative than the poetry itself, which seemed to exist solely to demonstrate ideas he had formalized prior to the composition of lyric and epic verse. Pound seems truly less Modern than Whitman for that reason. 
Pound had a fascinating career tempering his taste for fascist politics and racism with a cherry picked set of  theoretical pleasures cherry picked from the writings of  ancient Asian poetry and Greek classics in the attempt to make them relevant to contemporary situations that has evolved , most foul, from what he deemed was humanity's fall from greatness. He was nostalgic for eras he didn't live in. Pound had no interest outside the world in front the of him, the people in it, and his experience and perceptions of them both. He embraced what was right and wrong and worshiped the passion and lust for life it took to make it through the rigor of the moment and settle down , at the end of the work day, or the end of a working life, tired, satisfied,  with the time one has been allotted filled with gusto, verve, a need to test resources and extend the limits of what can do and who one can love. 

Finally, I would ask who is more readable and provides more pleasure?Pound was sane, of course, but he was more a literary critic than poet. As for poetry , I would cite Eliot as the superior influence as to how poets of succeeding generations formed their sense of what actual verse should sound like and achieve. Eliot was a better artist, Pound the better cheer leader for the movement.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

notes on Jack Spicer

Ron Silliman commemorated the 9/11 anniversary on his blog yesterday with a gruesome photograph of ground zero with two poems by Jack Spicer superimposed over the carnage. It understandably caused a minor tempest among a few readers who thought we'd had enough fetishism over the attack, and that it was a use of Spicer's work the late poet might not have approved of. I thought it fine and appropriate; Spicer equated God with a Big Radio and seemed taken with the idea of a poet's inspiration being transmissions from far off places, old voices of dead poets in turn who find their metaphors turned into apt descriptions of current circumstances.By the time the hidden essence, the secret nuance of what a poet was talking about catches with a culture's experience, their original intent, while interesting, is not relevant as to how their words make our lives comprehensible, even if only on a visceral level. You could argue that the correlative intimations older poems have on the range of contemporary events is the coincidental irony, but there is a saturation point when the lines, intended for what's implied, hushed and only vaguely graspable on the specific subject matter, become instead the needed at-hand phrases that get the ideas that elude you when tragedies or windfalls of good fortune intervene on the come-and-go.


The poet loses control of what his poet is supposed to mean as history adds associations to the syntactical skin. Spicer, I suspect, might well object to the use, but there is a savage bluntness about poets and their varied attempts to find a greater resonance from the obscenity of violence that resonates with what we're remembering today. What Spicer intended is a moot point, and in this instance, inconsequential. Today was the day everything changed, as they overused phrase went, and that meant everyone had to take a hard look at who they were, who they said they were, and why that mattered in the face of such insane destruction. Spicer, not the least, likely would have considered long and hard; there is the notion that what you've said in a situation you want to clarify gets repeated against seemingly opposing backgrounds. The voices from out of the air, from the radio of memory, are triggered by extraordinary events that transform our regular which, after all, are not static in any sense. Silliman's collage is an inspired combination of histories; they are no longer mutually exclusive. 

**********
I am just finishing the “must read” poetry volume of the year, My Vocabulary Did this To Me, an anticipated republication of the poems by the late Jack Spicer, edited by Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian, and I have to admit that Spicer’s writing has me momentarily forgetting my prejudice against poems about poetry and poets and allowing myself to be knocked by the author’s third-rail wit. A singular figure who didn't fit in well with the Beats, the New York School, nor the San Francisco Renaissance, Spicer’s poems were a set of marginalia at the edges of the principle discussion as to what poetry was and ought to be, and as becomes clear as we read, his counter-assertions, his asides, his declarations had more self-contained clarity and vision that much of the stuff he looked askance at.

Interrogation of received notions was his ongoing the theme, and ‘through the practice of making literary practice the unifying metaphor in a body of work tends to seal off poetry from a readership that could benefit from a skewed viewpoint—unlocking a door only to find another locked door, or a brick wall ceases to be amusing once one begins to read poets for things other than status—Spicer rather positions the whole profession and the art as an item among a range of other activities individuals take on to make their daily life cohere with a faint purpose, they might feel welling inside them. Spicer, in matters of money, sexuality, poetry, religion zeros on the neatly paired arrangements our language system indexes our hairiest ideas with and sniffs a rat when the description opts for the easily deployed adjectives, similes, and conclusions that make the hours go faster.



Thing Language
By Jack Spicer

This ocean, humiliating in its disguises
Tougher than anything.
No one listens to poetry. The ocean
Does not mean to be listened to. A drop
Or crash of water. It means
Nothing.
It
Is bread and butter
Pepper and salt. The death
That young men hope for. Aimlessly
It pounds the shore. White and aimless signals. No
One listens to poetry.


There is a reservedly antagonistic undercurrent to Spicer’s work, the subtle and ironic derision of the language arts that, as he sees them practiced, is locked up in matters of petty matters of status, property, the ownership of ideas, the expansion of respective egos that mistake their basic cleverness for genius. The world, the external and physical realm that one cannot know but only describe with terms that continually need to be resuscitated, is, as we know, something else altogether that hasn’t the need for elaborate vocabularies that compare Nature and Reality with everything a poet can get his or her hands on. What this proves, Spicer thinks (it seems to me, in any event) is that we know nothing of the material we try to distill in verse; even our language is parted out from other dialogues.

The Sporting Life
By Jack Spicer


The trouble with comparing a poet with a radio is that radios
don't develop scar-tissue. The tubes burn out, or with a
transistor, which most souls are, the battery or diagram
burns out replacable or not replacable, but not like that
punchdrunk fighter in a bar. The poet
Takes too many messages. The right to the ear that floored him
in New Jersey. The right to say that he stood six rounds with
a champion.
Then they sell beer or go on sporting commissions, or, if the
scar tissue is too heavy, demonstrate in a bar where the
invisible champions might not have hit him. Too many of
them.
The poet is a radio. The poet is a liar. The poet is a
counterpunching radio.
And those messages (God would not damn them) do not even
know they are champions.

Spicer is an interesting poet on several levels, all of the deep and rich with deposits that reward an earnest dig. He is, I think, on a par with Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams with the interest in grilling the elaborative infrastructure of how we draw or are drawn to specialized conclusions with the use of metaphor, and it is to his particular brilliance as a lyric poet, comparable to Frank O’Hara (a poet Spicer declared he didn’t care for, with O’Hara thinking much the same in kind) that the contradictions, competing desires and unexpected conundrums of investigating one’s verbal stream are made comprehensible to the senses, a joy to the ear. No one, really no one wrote as distinctly as the long obscure Spicer did, and editors Gizzi, Killian and publisher Wesleyan Press are to be thanked for restoring a major American voice to our shared canon. 

*********
ack Spicer was an odd and inspired contrarian in place during the San Francisco Renaissance, who conceived poetry as "dictation" of a sort. He had gone so far as to refer to the poet as a "radio", a living device able to intercept transmissions from an otherwise invisible world of sharper, bolder, more original combinations of sound, rhythm, form. This is a unique way of insisting, again, that the artist is the "antenna of the race", and there is room enough in his thought to wonder if he considered the poet the one in particular who could touch Plato's Ideal Forms, or if thought he had the ability to peek behind the curtain to espy the furniture of Stevens' Supreme Fiction. Spicer was a troubled man, though, an alcoholic, someone at odds with the poetry community he lived in, but he was a serious, sometimes brilliant poet who could calm his erudition and gives us a poetry of propositions, what ifs, things thornier and much less sweet than the soft candy a few dozen celebrity poets win awards for. Here's a fine poem, a brief lyric essay considering the likeness of some, unlike things.

Book Of Music

by Jack Spicer

Coming at an end, the lovers
Are exhausted like two swimmers. Where
Did it end? There is no telling. No love is
Like an ocean with the dizzy procession of the waves' boundaries
From which two can emerge exhausted, nor long goodbye
Like death.
Coming at an end. Rather, I would say, like a length
Of coiled rope
Which does not disguise in the final twists of its lengths
Its endings.
But, you will say, we loved
And some parts of us loved
And the rest of us will remain
Two persons. Yes,
Poetry ends like a rope.


A cynic's view, perhaps, where the picture that's painted first has the gasping awe of young love, perfect, endless like a circle, the world itself, and later, destroyed, cut at the vital moment of greatest vulnerability, merely a thick string that starts at one end and merely ends, absent glory or beauty, at another. Even after the twists and turns of the thing itself--love, the foiled circle--to restore itself in reactionary spasms, things just end, and rapture and passion are replaced by bitter memory, a bitterness that gives way to a mellowed skepticism, if one is lucky to live long enough to be a witness their foolish expectations of people, places, things, and especially the foolishness one might have said about poetry in whatever earnest declarations one uttered in classrooms, dorm rooms, cafes where the intelligent and underpaid gathered for a cheap drink and company.


What is artistry?

Artistry begins when you forget your own ideas about what art is and what art making is and find yourself fully engaged in a moment of absolute creation, when everything you know how to do intellectually, technically and can access at command just come to you as easily as taking a breath; it happens  seamlessly. It's more than remember the advice that you cannot let the audience see you sweat and become aware of  rattled nerves and possible indecision, it is forgetting that you are nervous and full of self-doubt at all and taking the fabled Kierkegaardian Leap Of Faith, that jump over the abyss of self-sabotage and knowing that whatever the consequences are better than another minute of wallowing in the rut we've had furnished and moved into. Artistry, to trade further in cliches, is that existential moment where one discovers not the meaning of life over all but rather meaning to their life specifically by an ethically bound commitment to creativity.

Ideas join with other notions and create a dialectic that creates something new in the synthesis, and then again. Artistry is that moment when the mastery of a medium,whether music, visual art, writing, is not just a manner of "going to work" or being a professional at what you do but rather a state of being that comes when you're fortunate enough to ignore the advice, the nagging,the criticism of doubters, cynics and the habitually grumpy and bring into the world some thing unique, fresh, exciting to behold. 

This means as well that you're able to transform your own base short comings, your character short comings; artistry is that process where we have a chance through art making to for a period create a testament of what we'd like to become, better, more balanced, fairer, kinder, free of bitterness and the mentality that the best of what's been said and written and built in history and instead exist in the present tense and seeing hearing things in the world that are other wise invisible and anonymous. Artistry is the amnesia that follows the hard learning and practice and dues paying and is an entry into the dimension of true transcendence. Artistry is that essence where even the most arrogant of technically adroit craftsmen and craftswomen are flabbergasted and humbled by what they've created with their minds,their hands, their willingness to forget themselves for a period and be touched by something greater than themselves.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Genius arising from limitation



Artistry is only incidentally related to sheer technical virtuosity; technique is merely the formalized and acquired skills of how to do some particular thing. Talent, on the other hand, is what you do with the technique you've worked hard and long to attain, IE, create art. Artistry , it seems to my thinking, is one having mastery over the chops they do have and having the ability to exploit those elements in expressions that continue to surprise over time.

Dylan was not an especially impressive guitarist, harmonica player and was, in many ways, highly affected as a lyricist, but there was a manner in which he brought those things together and created something , a way of writing songs, that achieved singular stature. What he had brought together by dint of his influences from folk, blues, and literature and the non-virtuoso elements of his musicianship brought something into the popular mind that had not been there before.

Others are able to step away from their highly regarded technique and move toward more primitive sorts of expression, as in the case of Picasso , who through his experiments with Cubist perspective and inspired emulation of types of African sculpture, among other things, he was instrumental in changing the way art is viewed and discussed. Importantly, artistry , in its most intense and purest form, free of current fashion and critical perspective, changes the conversation.

Coltrane advanced further into rapid, technically demanding improvisation and left us with long solos that stand nearly by themselves as independent art works while Miles Davis reduced the number of notes in his solos and geared his compositions and arrangements toward sparer, more modal means and changed the course of music internationally for decades to come. Artistry is not just knowing how, it's knowing what you want to do at the moment the idea hits and having the means to execute those notions.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The heart loves what the heart loves


Over on a discussion board dedicated to the subject of Modern Blues Harmonica, a member posted a well-worn topic as to whether white people have the right to play the music of black people, aka The Blues. It's well worn and has been discussed, but it is not worn out by any means, given that even to this day Americans don't know how to discuss race relations and agree on the seemingly simple principle of Liberty and Justice for All. Touchy subject here, but I would say the issue whether white people have a right comes down to this: perhaps not, due to a long history of white racism that foisted slavery, genocide, discrimination and abject poverty upon black people. Blues was created as an expression of the experience of subjugated African Americans. BUT, and this a big one, how are you going to stop those white musicians who've loved the blues as they were growing up, who were moved by the power of the music to pick up instruments and learn from the records they heard? People love what they love and will do what they need to do to have that person/place/thing/art form in their lives because any of those elements (in this case, the music of the blues) is a right fit for an individual's personal experience, regardless of race. 


Declarations and nuanced moral arguments to the extent that white people as a whole have forsaken the right to play a music that moves them greatly because the power structure in place and the institutions that enforce its will and traditions have brutally oppressed black people as a whole does not prevent white musicians from picking up a guitar or a harmonica or a saxophone and playing songs by black blues masters or from creating their own music, reflecting their own experience , strength and hope. The heart wants what the heart wants, and I am grateful that the likes of Butterfield, Mayall, Clapton, Bloomfield preferred to engage the music they loved by playing it and not treating it like it were a museum piece they were not worthy of touching. Things in museums are dead things, and the blues is a living testament to human resilience. It is a form of speaking truth to power; the need to do so is not ethnically exclusive. Music writer J.Marks, in a book he wrote called "Rock and Other Four Letter Words" had at least one useful remark, to the effect that while America has been/is a country where the races segregate themselves by choice or other reasons, but even in that isolation from one another, our music still mingle together and transform and change and grow and create new ways of expressing the mood, the art, the temper and tempo of the current situation. Right, it seems, has nothing to do with it. People are going to play what they feel like playing regardless of who created it. That is the nature of human beings, which is the nature of art-making itself.

Friday, April 3, 2015

About Steve Kowit

Writer Steve Kowit enjoys a poetry reading in this 2008 photo.
photo by Dennis Wills
Wednesday was April 1st, known to us all as April Fools Day. It's the same day that commences the start of National Poetry Month, a four week span selected because of the famous T.S.Eliot line from "The Waste Land" that "...April is the cruelest month..." Thursday, April 2nd was the day Steve Kowit , a great poet, a genuinely principled moralist , a quick witted spirit of irrepressible good humor and no one's fool by any means, died.The irony of how a day dedicated to practical jokes, a poetry commemorative month selected for a line written by a reactionary, racist ,dour by nonetheless brilliant  poet ,and the passing of one of the most jubilant poets and exuberant  personalities collided he way they did is inescapable, I suppose. But rather than inspect and interpret too closely I think it more better, more appropriate, more useful to remember Steve Kowit as a man of many gifts, interests, passions, commitments, from his own work in which he superbly fused the vernacular of street rhythm with the careful and skillfully off-center ear of a jazz improviser, his genius as a teacher where he combined that rarest thing, honest and helpful criticism intended to make a poet a better writer. As a writer , he was loquacious who favored long lines, unexpected examples of what he was talking, odd turns of thought and colorful phrase making and high octane similes; for all is love of  chatter, though, there was cultivation, a genius for getting to the point in the seemingly effortless rhythm of a musician as he ad- libbed fine musical phrases and elegant filigrees over either the most accelerated or most relaxed of tempos. He made what he did sound simple , easy to do, but as any with a love of music and perhaps has even achieved a level of fluidity of on an instrument, the aspect of effortlessness comes with practice, practice, practice. To that end, Steve was always practicing his craft, poetry, always honing his chops. I had always thought of Steve's poems as perhaps the best example of someone achieving the effect of someone musing out loud, thinking out loud, taking a topic sentence, a chance remark about something he had saw, heard, seen, and taking us through the dancing and delicately spun perorations   of  his thought as he came finally to rest, halt, at that place where there is a pause and Steve takes a deep breath and reveals how his experience of the world was altered by the event, the conversation, the book, the thing he heard or saw and thought remarkable.

 Remark he did, and for me he was the most intimate of poets, a writer for whom there is someone being addressed, spoken to, confided in.  Even if it were merely a matter of  Steve loving the sound of his own writing being resounded with the city cadences of his speaking voice, there was still the feeling that he was someone talking to you from across the table or leaning in closer to add an insight or a joke or some confidence that were for your ears alone. But for all the seeming effortlessness of  making it seem as though he was talking seamlessly and without boundaries, off the cuff and unbound, Steve's writing did not, in large part, drift or wander lost in abstraction or confused association. In his workshops and the countless readings he'd given  and in personal conversation, Steve talked about craft, rewriting, honing each poem until it was the most perfect expression it could be. Steve was constantly rewriting poems and would often times introduce his poems as ones that he'd been working on for months, even years. All this sounded incredible to me, a poet who was of the habit to write fast and perhaps do some minor tweaking ; at first glance all that revising seemed contrary to spontaneous expression. Later, I realize why there are so many many poems that are so good. That feeling of effortlessness in his poems was the result of hard work. Steve loved poetry too much to put his least worthy efforts into the public conversation. 

Steve was a great champion of other poets, he had an unfailing interests in others, he was the man we needed to have around at those times when others spoke in code and euphemism and fuzzy equivocation, Steve spoke his mind and cut to the chase. He spoke his own truth, as the saying goes these days, and after a pause, the conversation would begin again, invigorated by Steve's skill at pulling the covers off those things --racism, exploitation, sexual inequality, militarism--that were obscured by babble and can. He taught his students to read a great variety of poets, to learn a great many techniques honed by tradition, to expand their notion of what poems can speak to, and to find within the styles assimilated and the techniques mastered one's own voice as a writer who may then tackle subject with wit, originality, honesty, and great beauty.


One could,of course, argue with Steve about his passionate arguments against deliberately difficult poems and what he considered the worst habits of late literary modernism--I adore my Eliot, cherish my Ashbery,  I am invigorated by the rigor of Silliman, Armantrout and Perelman-- but Steve made his case with the same sort of lyricism he brought to his poems. It was a matter of course with Steve that he felt that beauty was the expression of experience in ways that did not obscure the event and the memory; neither theory nor sentimentality would interfere with the sweet language he used to present the travails and noise and major and minor frustrations of existence. Steve's best writing, which was prodigious, was about love, justice, lust, philosophical ironies that reduced , for the moment, the insurmountable hackery of what life in the city throws at  you.Clarity of expression was Steve Kowit's genius--as wild as his poems became, as beautifully strung out as they could get on a metaphor or a pile up of "then-what-happened?" that had the makings of an especially hirsute  shaggy dog story, Steve was in control of his instrument. He hated obscurantism and overly literary self-referencing and insisted, demanded that poetry be about the writer's engagement with the world he or she lived in, worked in, made love in, laughed and cried in, and not be a receptacle of meditations on its own form. In conversation with him when I attended a workshop he conducted at San Diego State in the early eighties, I recall saying that he wasn't opposed to abstraction in poetry all together, but that he opposed to the sort of writing that lay there, thick and more or less dormant, daring the reader to make sense of tangled syntax, private jokes and artlessly inserted intrusions from areas that offer more murk, not clarity. Poems either created the passion within the reader to think harder and deeper into the experience of their lives, or the poets failed in their Poetry was about the ear, not the foot note, not the end note. Poets needed to be in the world perfecting their craft, not in the study writing obscurities being shared with only other obscure poets. Steve Kowit seemed like a force of nature and even now it's difficult to imagine a world with out him.


I can still hear his voice each time we met, I can still see him smiling, leaning in close, asking me if I was still "dry" , even twenty five years since my last drink. I can still hear him telling me to proofread my poems and prose better. I can still remember him telling to put a volume of my own work together and , for the love of God, send stuff out to the publishers. Life is rewarded by the energy one puts into it. "Live" is a verb,after all, and Steve's message to anyone was to for those of us with things they want to do to get out there and live a little, take a stand, start a love affair, write a poem for your parents, get a job you actually like. Good things come if you work for them.  My glancing friendship with Steve Kowit was one of the best things in my years as a San Diego poet.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

With Great Power Comes Liabilities

New Powers, New 'Do,' 'Big Secret' in SUPERMAN #41 | Newsarama.com: 

Superman has a new buzz cut in yet the latest re-imagining of the Man of  Steel. The tonsorial  alternation that works for me. His dark blue spit curl was fine through the fifties and the Sixties and most decades since, but it was an anachronism begging to be taken to the attic.The original idea, I suppose , was to have Superman retain a genuine purity one could ascribe to strong farm boys from Kansas in o our grandest Norman Rockwell fantasies. Lately, though, the hair has fallen prey to the artist's whim. Artist Jim Lee gave him a weed-whacker shaping that made him look like a Ken doll in a tight blue suit and a red cape. From what's been revealed, the new hair cut is short, spikey, the sort of  of  styled brevity that combat veterans when they resume their civilian existence. The image above indicates a Superman who gets convincingly pissed and is ready to rattle the skyline if  gets annoyed by evil doers or bad phone reception. 

The other matter of  Superman that 's been chewing up the bandwidth on comic book fan sites is his new power, the "Super Flare". An apparent extension of his already existing heat vision, this so called power has Superman, under great duress, expending all the solar energy stored in all of his cells at the same time. The downside, from what we've seen so far, is that results in the complete incineration of  everything around it ,and it leaves  Superman without powers.  Kal El is human, all too human for twenty four hours until he recharges and regains his abilities. We need to ask this question, though, all comic book fans in general and DC Comics partisans in particular: Is that super flare capacity really a "power" or is it a malady, something that flares up (pun intended) when stress becomes too intense? 

The difference is that a super power is an ability that the hero can control and use at will when the need arises; what's been shown so far for the power is that it is incredibly destructive when it is used (or goes off, rather) potentially laying waste to lives and property, and that it leaves Superman bereft of powers, vulnerable . We cannot assume that the super flare would always vanquish his foes. So the question becomes as to what practical use this trait is and whether it is something that Big Blue can learn to control and employ appropriately with less catastrophic results. I suspect that we've just opened the door for yet another Superman weakness, as if limitless amounts of kryptonite and undifferentiated brands of magic weren't enough. Superman too powerful? Set off the flare and lets see how he fends as a mortal. This can become a go-to device too easily. I'm interested to see what they do with the super flare, but it wouldn't be surprising that they've shot their wad.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Slate arts wonk has a fit over "Boyhood" not getting Oscar Best Picture

Oscars best picture winner Birdman: Boyhood snub is the Academy’s worst mistake in 20 years.:

'via Blog this'
This bit of sour grapes is unseemly and written in what can only be called a snit fit. The result are grandiose claims that are supported only fairly pedestrian and hastily stated opinions. Kois operates from the assumption that "Boyhood" is a masterpiece, certified, no questions asked. It's not a masterpiece, as it lags and lumbers and and is at times near narcoleptic torpor as it goes on and on to create a saga about the small things that otherwise ordinary citizens confront over a period of time. It is, or course, daring, at times engaging, but never enthralling, in my view. It is an admirable piece of work,  but awards should not be awarded merely because film makers were adventurous; the point of the Oscars , we are told, is to celebrate and make note of the best of what was written, filmed, acted, directed, scored, edited from the previous year. Movies that achieved their ambitions.  "Apocalypse Now" was an absolute mess of a film, a   beautiful mess in many ways, but a train wreck for coherence and sequencing. It was a horribly botched narrative, a string of grand standing scenes. I've watched it many times over the intervening years and enjoyed it, but over time I think the Academy used good judgement in denying it a Best Picture Oscar.  I think it suffices to say that the film makers of 'Birdman" had solid ideas of their concept and created the means with which the layered meta-narrative can be brought to the screen. There is a control of the material and an elegant, innovative execution of ideas that "Boyhood" did not have, and "Apocalpyse Now" as well. What we had last night was that rare Oscar instance, the rewarding of  high quality work. Kois can disagree with the decision, but using his platform to claim that this was the worst decision in the last twenty years of Oscar ceremonies just makes him sound hysterical, silly, trivial in his insight. This gives me no reason to read him again. As a public service, I reprint my  initial review of "Birdman" below  (also, I am too lazy to write about this film again).


This film is a about as meta-textual as it gets, concerning a actor named Riggan who, best known for portraying the cartoon super hero Birdman in three live action films, is attempting a comeback on broadway with a stage adaptation of a collection of Raymond Carver short stories, 'What We Talk About When We Talk About Love".
The first inside joke, of course, is that star Michael Keaton was the first Batman in two Tim Burton versions of the DC icon, who had the oft circulated take away line "I'm Batman" when the Dark Knight introduces himself to the Gotham crime element. Keaton's character in this new film has a mind that is subdivided with conflict, a string of unresolved issues that force him to hallucinate greatly, not the least of which is a voice that rasps only to him "YOU'RE BIRDMAN", and which harshly chastises him for abandoning the super hero for the delusion that he could become part of the New York arts crowd.

That's all a bunch of shit, the voice insists, and intrudes on the actor's private moments with more berating and demands that he give up this Broadway charade and reclaim his one true calling , the man who is the definitive Birdman. The film, though, is quite a bit more than that, as it brings around a provocative stream of old associations, like an estranged daughter, an estranged daughter he's only recently reconciled with (if imperfectly), acting rivals , all of whom , between hallucinations, have wonderfully nuanced confrontations with Riggan and with each other on the irony latent in the countless attempts we make to rid ourselves of masks and present our true selves to things that matter most , such as marriage, rearing children, authentically gratifying work, only to realize that even the true self presented as evidence of no disguise is itself a mask, a disguise.

The conflicted Riggan is jerked about emotionally and has several instances where the hallucinations, the warring desires, take over and the film is transformed into yet another space, a surreal terrain of tall buildings, floating, spectacles that then dissipate as the conflicted hero emerges from his melodrama and attempts to finish what he's begun, the afore said adaptation for the screen. A fine cast of characters abound here, and a superlative roster of actors to bring their quirks and vulnerabilities to the screen; Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts are sublime and each of them have solidly written, deftly directed roles.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

punk rock

Thinking about God's version of the Draft Board:
 RAPTURE
The mailman drops his parcels and falls to his knees in the middle of the street as a light comes through the clouds and makes the commotions of the city radiate   gold tones like the frozen poses of ancient photographs found under the stairs of every parent’s house that aging children have to close.  You see the mailman on his knees and wonder why he’s praying, hardly aware of the increase in light or the music that blares all the big band music of  trumpets and saxophones that disguise the grind of passing cars, it’s such a shame that religious fanatics are hired to deliver the mail, you think, so much depends  on what comes through the System, envelopes full of  what’s owed and what’s not covered by any plan  that can be written down; you run the water in the sink, you wonder where did the clouds go?  There is no rain anywhere,  says the radio announcer, and the light is tremendous all over the globe, there is not a dark corner in any corner or nook on the earth, And then the radio gives out to static, and the TV releases itself to snow, the music in the street is very loud and swinging hard to the left and the right and then right down the   middle as all the notes scurry brilliantly through the hedges  and up the driveways, into the homes with each reed instrument improvising disembodied melodies that form their own sheet music, That is a very loud set of speakers in that passing car, you think. and the radio announcer cuts through the music and says something you hear as that millions of people all over the world have just vanished in lain site under bright light and big bang music, gone in a wisp and puff of smoke,  You look at your watch and note that it’s time for lunch, the clouds have fallen over the city again, the sky darkens, the shapes of the neighborhood take on their deep hues again, saddened with history, dense in dumb witness to what never ends, You stop, look out the window; you turn off the water you ran, in the middle of the street, by itself, flat on the cement,  The mailman’s bag and his clothes,  topped by his hat, kissed by a cool breeze.

SAM ANDREWS, skronk guitar pioneer, RIP



Sam Andrews, the lead guitarist for Big Brother and the Holding Company and the only musician to come up with an instrumental equivalent to the scorched leather vocals of lead singer Janis Joplin, has died at the age of  73. His passing warrants a mention and brief appreciation of the sound he made on the frets. Andrews was not the greatest guitarist in the world. Still, he was part of that Bay Area tradition where folkies had dropped their acoustic guitars and picked up the electric ones, creating a style of improvisation that was jarring, jagged, atonal, ham-handed, an organic fusion of styles based in the blues but owing much to Indian classical raga music. As with much of what typified the Sixties counterculture, these young bohemians drew from the music they liked and listened to; some had formal training, others did not, but there is a strong scent of do-it-yourself in the overall style of Bay Area guitar soloing that made it at once identifiable.


 Andrews was definitely one of the most visceral of the players on the scene. Others like Hendrix, Clapton, Winter were smoother, faster, more graceful in their execution. Still, the likes of Andrews, John Cipollina (Quicksilver Messenger Service), Jorma Kaukonen(Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna), Barry Meltzer (Country Joe and the Fish), and Leigh Stephens (Blue Cheer, the Destruction Derby version of a psychedelic band) had a distinct genius for delivering pulverizing, strident solos that veered toward a naive Avant-gard niche. It was energy, and it was intense and, though often clumsy, it was powerful. I spent hours listening to this stuff, loving every note of their splintering cascades. 



His introductory solo to Big Brother and the Holding Company's version of Richard Roger's song 'Summertime" fairy much illustrates what I'm describing, which is say that it resembles a freak occurrence in the natural world,  blind fury fused with a barely mastered vocabulary of the blues and other folk forms further amplified by technology that can only make what is fed to it a snarling, sparking fury, an air horn in the good heart, a cherry bomb in your pants. Clive Davis, legendary former head of Columbia Records where Big Brother was signed, wrote in his memoir that he played the band's version of the classic song for Rogers, who, Davis writes, was angry beyond consolation and stormed incensed from the office, vowing never to write another song. Best review ever, I think.  Derek Baily and Robert Fripp would both have tea in the same room and smirk oddly while this solo played, I imagine. What would make those two smiles even more widely is the firebombing Andrews commits during his solo during Big Brother's version of Big Mama Thorton's "Ball and Chain." While Joplin effectively deconstructs the blues into a series of yowls and hungry, rasping gales, Andrews doesn't so much play guitar as much as a force to make sounds heard only, until that instance, on the outer boundaries of sanity and bad taste. Terrible beauty.





Friday, February 6, 2015


Shadows in the Night--Bob Dylan
The so-called Great American Song Book was a body of material written specifically for singers who had better than average singing voices. One needed to not only be able to "carry a tune", but have a pleasant/intriguing/personable/tonally expressive quality to their singing that would make the blend of singer and song a memorable one, or at least one that entertained. Bob Dylan, from this standpoint, is an awful singer; his genius as a vocalist was constructed on the fact that he blended his influences--rock and roll, blues, country, old-timey folk--and wrote his own songs. He created the opposite effect than the ones regarding TGASB, which was rather than melodically nuanced songs being joined with musically suave vocalists, Dylan's mirror image was that of a ruffian, a street visionary, a man with shamanistic qualities who was in touch with the wild spirit of poetry, especially the surrealist sort, and sought to capture his visions in a neo-primitive format. Smartly simple song structures and Dylan's bracing nasal sneer made it clear that he didn't carry his tunes as forced them on you.


He couldn't sing well, but he could dramatize. So we have this paradox with "Shadows in the Night", a bad singer from a technical viewpoint taking on songs that, from a technical standpoint, are sophisticated to the extent that expectations demand a vocalist who can actually hit the notes correctly and do something stylish with them. The result here is an awful, painful album to listen to. It's that simple. I am sure there are subtly argued defenses of what's been done here. I don't buy the apologies. I think less of what's been accomplished with this record and more of what's been committed, as in sin, a crime, a horrible insult to the brain. It's one thing for rock and pop singers noted for singing styles that even the most uninterested among our company can admit to having tuneful voices to attempt the classic songs of Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Rosemary Clooney, or a Tony Bennett. It's been interesting, if not always rewarding, to hear vocalists as diverse in approach and grit as Linda Ronstadt (good) to Rod Stewart (awful) to Pat Benatar (middling) try and wrap the gritty edge of their usual approach to a song around the sumptuous curves and segues of songs that beguiled radio and ballroom audiences in World War 2. It's become a career stunt for old rock and rollers to dig into the vaults and revive the songs their parents were listening to, something that no longer intrigues.

Dylan's approach might have been interesting had he done this album quite a long time ago, when the raggedness of his singing still had a bit of a range and Dylan was capable of remaining in pitch; one thinks that Dylan of the Seventies and the Eighties, with a voice that was more    versatile than people like me have admitted, could take the classic songs and truly and surely redefine their melodic and thematic essence. Dylan was not a great singer but he had a genius as a vocalist, the same fleeting skill one regards Mick Jagger's work with. He could cajole, announce, exclaim, insinuate, and fashion an effective, reedy croon to dramatize, characterize a lyric. But that is not to be and one can only sigh over what might have been had Dylan attempted a project like this when he still had the equipment to make it credible. One can only wonder, and one is better off not suffering his dead, toneless rasp here.

Monday, February 2, 2015

2 notes: Rod McKuen, and lack of sympathy for characters one creates.

Sometime back in the  Seventies, Dick Cavett introduced the late Rod McKuen on his show by quoting a critic's left handed compliment regarding the writer's work, "The world's most understood poet."That was not intended as praise , and anyone in the business of writing  what's regard as serious poetry , whether a runny-nosed  Beat or a hardened Modernist , would take a the description of their work being accessible as an accolade. Poetry in the 20th century had become increasingly odd and without noticable rules, a development that marked the work of many a genius poet at the time,but the facts is that fewer people read poetry as consumers of printed books, and fewer still seemed to understand what the new scribes were going on about. 

And so, poetry became the new scripture and critics, in a sense , became the new priesthood, discoursing on texts that allow no conventional entry point in terms that were equally cryptic. McKuen dared to be direct , simple in language, easily understood, trafficking much of his writing  career in maudlin , mawkish, garish sentimentality. It worked, to be sure, as he went off to conquer the publishing world, motion pictures, the music industry. It worked and he built a huge audience that  did not read poetry nor had the slightest idea of of the medium's standards of quality might  happen to be on any  given day. He made a lot of money and in the making of his millions, he inspired young people, like myself, to become a writer myself. To be clear, it was a chorus of writers that got my fancy and stirred in me the desire to string words together and indulge in metaphor, not just the recently deceased McKuen. But McKuen was in the gallery of faces that had my attention . My tastes simply matured beyond  what he was capable of writing about. Honestly, I had a man crush on him,so to speak, as a sensitive mid teen desiring to express great things myself--he was part of the collective of Dylan, Ginsberg, Eliot and Paul Simon that made me want to say things that were significant in ways a reader wouldn't expect. 

McKuen did have a knack for slinging words--his much anthologized poem "Camera" is good at the plain-speak verse later adopted by the ever accessible likes of Billy Collins. The poem, though, was clean and lacking the sentimentalism that made McKuen a standing joke and, eventually, an overripe expression of every unconsidered emotion. I should clarify that I went the middle period Dylan/TS Eliot route in poetry and came to prefer a more surreal and harder edge verse. The change , of course, came around when I had some genuine emotional upheavals and realized that experiencing , processing and recollecting such events in the process of forming a real personality trying to engage he world wasn't as simple as McKuen's McPoems would have us think. Though I harbor a soft spot for him, I think his "poetry", such as it was, was indefensible on any grounds as verse. It scratched those places before you had an itch. I hate to seem harsh, but his writing was slick and it was awful. Now and again he could write a few lines that were acceptable because they weren't dripping with the goo of his onerously bathetic persona, but he'd soon enough lard up his line breaks with a defiantly defeatist attitude ---lost again at love, ah sigggghhhh)--and would have us believe that he spent decades turning up his collar and walking the San Francisco water front in the rain and fog, looking for bar to nurse his pain at. Though he was an influence on me as a writer, I consider his writing everything that's wrong with the idea of expression for its own sake.

_______________________
I'm not as interested in feeling sympathy for the character or having an emotional stake in their success as I am in whether the film makers keep me interested in how the activities and motivations converge to a satisfying end. Or at least one that makes sense in unexpected ways; to varying degrees both Nabokov and Updike accomplish this in their stronger novels--"Pale Fire", the "Rabbit" quartet, respectively-- and the inspection of how witless self-regarding imbeciles custom design their machinery of their own destruction is a difficult and rare hallmark for the truly subversive comedy. Coen brothers Joel and Ethan understand the need for the distance from the goings on of the chronic stupidity in "Burn After Reading" so that that their only agenda is imagine what echos in the deepest recess of any of these people's minds while they compound their ignoble fates with layers of strip-mall hubris. What the Coens do with unlikeable characters seeking their own glory isn't an easy thing to accomplish--Brian DePalma managed to turn Tom Wolf's crotchety (albeit readable) novel "The Bonfire of the Vanities" into a loose, baggy monster of a film (to paraphrase Henry James)that demonstrated no flair for comic rhythm. Had the Coens been in charge of that novel, we'd most likely be praising them as we had for their work in "No Country for Old Men", making note of their sharp eye for damning detail and skewed dialogue, and their effective use of an attentive if disengaged tone.

Friday, January 16, 2015

one or two thoughts on KIM FOWLEY, RIP

Robert Christgau said it back in 1969, reviewing his album "OUTRAGEOUS":
 "....Fowley is such a gargantuan shuck that he ought to be preserved in a time capsule. .." 
That line has stuck with me and characterized Fowley for decades and now it comes full circle where we have an opportunity examine how the Sixties counterculture produced marginal sorts who were happy to have a niche somewhere in the music greatness others and those like Charlie Manson who wanted to change to change the world into a larger version of their insane selves. It was a crap shoot either way, and lucky for us Fowley wasn't as crazy as he pretended to be. It's always been my impression that Kim Fowley preferred you spoke about him in the past tense when you were in his presence, the closest and quickest thing he can have to his desire was to eavesdrop on his own funeral. Only a fool too fast of tongue of slow to truth would argue that Fowley didn't have some kind of observable genius in the happenstance of his life. He was an Ezra Pond sort his era, someone with a smattering of talent themselves who had a more acute instinct for the large talent of others . It can be a tedious thing to hash through again, but it bears repeating that Fowley's greatest masterpiece was creating a string of performance-oriented personas, all of the extreme, gaudy, tacky, neurotic and, rather desperate in their attempts to equal the art being produced by artists he was attracted too. Fowley was someone who,like thousands of others at the time, were trying to berserk themselves into genius who, despite hard work and an unblinking commitment to the mask he was wearing,never convinced anyone that there was anything there but an egocentricity that was oddly ingratiating Fowley, I suspect, knew that we were onto his game from the get-go and let it remain as such. Fowley was someone who wanted to leave his mark on history and didn't quite much care what damage to his reputation he suffered in doing so. It wasn't damage at, I think he'd have explained to us, since this was a reputation he was reputation he was creating in place of one that didn't exist in the first place. What he wanted was to be known, to be creative, to be a part  of the throng at the higher creative plain. He wanted to leave his mark on history, not change it, not destroy it, not change to course of things to come. His desire was to be in the perennial now of whatever was intense at the musical time and space and to have a sufficient version of his cover story to accompany. He was a man who lived his life in the present tense.What is remarkable is that he remained in the game as long as he did. Fowley was a fake, which was the source of authenticity. He decided to "act as if..." and never stopped acting.I regard Fowley's whole life as being something like Kafka's Hunger Artist; the man who refuses to eat draws a crowed around him and it's that artist's job to keep the crowd distracted while maintaining his cover. Fowley kept the mask on but remained an approachable anomaly. No easy thing to do.