Wednesday, November 4, 2015

A dream album from Peter Sprague and Leonard Patton

Dream Walkin--Peter Sprague and Leonard Patton

peter sprague_leonard pattonGuitarist Peter Sprague is a musician I’ve been listening to since my undergraduate days at UCSD. Sprague caught my ear because, though a young man, he found his inspiration in the old school jazz and his playing revealed the influence of fine, older guitarists like Joe Pass, Charlie Byrd, and Kenny Burrell. Sprague (who will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award this month by the San Diego Music Foundation) is his own person on the guitar, being a fleet fingered, vibrant stylist. This was a time when much of what was called jazz was, in fact, directionless riffing over static rhythms. Peter Sprague’s music, to cite a classic line, was the sound of surprise.

Dream Walkin’, his most recent release with vocalist and percussionist Leonard Patton, brings an intriguing variety of influences .A revelation is just how fine a vocalist Leonard Patton is. He has a rich voice, soulful with clear sense of dynamics. A jazzed-up take on the Beatles pop hit “Can’t Find Me Love” showcases him charging the lyrics with a trumpet player’s spirit, popping at the high notes and revealing a wonderful singing unison lines with Sprague’s agile chord work. Patton, as well, is an adept and responsive percussionist, preferring a minimal set up, in perfect sync with Sprague through the gorgeously modulated melodies and keenly swift improvisations.

The album has a diverse selection of songs that might suggest that the album would become too diffuse and seem likewise directionless in intent, but Sprague and Patton achieve a tight yet flexible sound, allowing music to flow without harsh contrasts. Sprague performs a heart breaking version of the classic “Shenandoah,” his guitar, reverberating and chiming on the aching build of tension and release, and Patton follows with a chorus that makes the song ache even more with the longing for missed people, places, and things. This segues, unexpectedly, with a galloping version of James Taylor’s song “Your Smiling Face,” the perfect resolution to the yearning of the song before it. Patton’s voice perks up, Sprague’s guitar picks up the tempo, and what seemed like a sad moment of reflection becomes joyful.

Dream Walkin’ is joyful in total. The arrangements are tight but not constricted, loose in the sense of musicians who know the structure, the subtle tones, and the unexpected detours of song and are able to anticipate each other’s next move. Also remarkable is the full sound the two create; one admires Sprague not just for his speed and technique, but also for the dexterity of his finger picking and the finesse he allows when he uses a pick. And you come to appreciate, with each listen, the sure, discreet work Patton brings to the percussion tasks.

(Originally published in the San Diego Troubadour, reprinted with kind permission.)

Monday, November 2, 2015

Over sold

(Barry Alfonso, a scholar, writer and a cultural critic of uncommon depth and equipoise, is a friend with whom I've having an ongoing conversation about many interests we have in common, Bob Dylan among them. I have been skeptical of Dylan's work since John Wesely Harding, and Barry has been an impressive defender. But with all things Dylan achieving critical mass , even Barry had to slam on the brakes. The dust mote that tipped the scale was an inanely praising review of Dylan's pricey retrospective, The Cutting Edge: 1965-1966 that appeared on the increasingly tone deaf news site The Daily Beast.  We had a brief exchange over what appears the relentless pouring over of Dylan's great period of work. We  both agreed, it seems, that it's gotten thick and mindlessly redundant. -tb)
Barry Alfonso:Ted, one of our first literary set-to's was over the value of Bob Dylan's work. I defended Bob -- as I continue to do for the most part, with reservations -- while you made him into a most delicious chew-toy. However, this constant regurgitation of Dylan's golden years is getting pretty boring, leading even the most dedicated fan to scream ENOUGH and go put on some Ken Nordine albums
Ted Burke:Most of our departures on Dylan's work, I think, was bout Dylan's post-John Wesley Harding album to the present day. I don't dismiss it entirely, but as a collection that accounts for his middle and late career, it is spotty at best. His is the problem of Having the compulsion to produce even when his muse isn't having lunch with him. But, yes, enough of exhuming of the glory days . As is, Dylan's work from that period is over examined and, I think, the tragic recipient of something that has cluttered and clouded appreciation of Shakespeare's plays, namely "Bardolotry", a near deification of the playwright. The writing that comes out of that is a slog. Writing about Dylan for most of the mainstream arts press, on line and print, has become a hagiographic exercise. The problem with the worshipful approach is that it obscures the real instances of brilliance in the work.

Barry Alfonso:I think some of that hagiography comes out of a fascination with Dylan as the embodiment of arrogant visionary youth circa 1965-67. His work after this period seems to exert less fascination. It also speaks to the lack of a commanding voice in popular music over the past 50 years. There's some combing and re-combing through the Costello catalog these days, but still there is no stopping the endless parsing of Dylan's prime era. His burst of brilliance speaks to the lack of similar bardic vision today.

Ted Burke:Umberto Eco, the novelist, has written that there are limits to how texts, in this case songs, can be interpreted and made to seem to have yield previously undisclosed meanings and nuance. He insists that there really does come a point where interpretations only repeat themselves if we wish to stay with what is actually in the material; beyond that,it is a matter of academics and pop music critics trying to stay in business. Dylan, not to diminish the greatness of his best work, has been over discussed , inspected, and extrapolated upon where the actual man who wrote the songs no longer exists and the songs becomes mere props to brace up the flimsy theorizing that dims the worth of the music. I am not sure if I would say that there haven't been other songwriters in Dylan's time or in more recent years who haven't had visions, bardic and otherwise, comparable to Dylan's; Van Morrison, Costello, Tom Waits, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, off the top of my head, have written and recorded work over the decades that has moments of major greatness that is , I think , no less than Dyan's .

Dylan is the case of being the first one out of the gate, the mood of the times and the songwriter's desire to excel as no else had creating a synergy that changed the way the rent gets paid. I almost think it was merely a happy accident that it was Dylan who became the poet, the spokesman, the prophet, all that rot; if it hadn't been Dylan, another musician would have filled the need.Or maybe not. Phil Ochs, who I think is Dylan's equal as a "rock poet" , certainly had the talent but not, from what I've read about him, the temperament to get to the top and remain there. Dylan understood the complications of persona. In any event, it maybe a case of that if Dylan had not existed, the times would have created him, or someone like him. Contrarily, there is the Great Man Theory of history that puts forth that events of historical consequence are the result of the impact "Great Men" have on the destinies of the countries they rule . In this instance, if Dylan hadn't been born, we might still be wearing side burns and be listening to Como and Clooney through cheap car radio speakers.

Barry Alfonso:Yes and yes. Dylan did a lot of things first. And he changed. He rebelled against the rebels. Phil Ochs was an eloquent advocate and a poignant chronicler of his own disintegration. But he lacked that cruel streak, that arrogance that people seem to gravitate towards. The Great Man theory in history is pernicious and leads to the sort of blood and thunder hero-worship Carlyle and Wagner engaged in. But there is some truth to it and, yes, Dylan may have saved us from unchallenged Comoism.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The best of what remains is what it meant all along

 I had the fortune of being a music writer for the San Diego Reader in the mid-seventies , a time when I was lucky enough to meet  a good many musicians I admired greatly. It was also a period when I was teaching myself how to write. Among the best pieces they published by me was an interview with bassist/vocalist/songwriter Bob Mosley, best know for his work with Moby Grape, a short-lived critical favorite at the height of the San Francisco rock scene of the Sixites.  Critic and pop music historian John D'Agostino had given me a contact phone for Mosley back then, and with a couple of calls to the musician, we arranged for a interview. The Reader piece , if you're interested, can be read here. 

The question, I suppose, is does the fallibility of our music heroes lessen the quality and worth of the words and music they made. It's tempting to think so, it's convenient to take the causal short cut as to why innovations and styles of the sixties began to go stale, go wrong and in general lose any useful edge they might of had on the artists themselves. False prophets, fakes, liars,  they fucked it all up for the rest of us. Nothing of the sort, I would say. No musician ever conspired to harsh my mellow during that supremely self-regarding decade.

 Suitably enough, D.H.Lawrence wrote in his 1923 book Studies in Classic American Literature that we should "Never trust the artist. Trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it". In this case, what matters is how resilient the work is , resistent to fad, fashion, moral outrage and critical dismissals . And, we should add, reader disappointment in author's character. It is the work itself, viewed as works of art and subject to criteria that is quite apart from a moral compass (the artist obeying his muse, not his indoctrination) , which needs to be considered wholly. It is the work, studied for structure, theme, conflicts, resolutions, and philosophical underpinnings , all independent of a creator's success or failure as a full actualized human being, that we must regard solely. 
It is only then that we can draw legitimate pleasure, insight, illumination, catharsis. My current favorite critic, Harold Bloom, has a view coinciding with Lawrence's view that it is the work that only , finished volumes with their beginnings, middles and conclusions, that we can trust, free of the expectations that the author is someone to personally regard as a role model. Literature's sole value, he says, is to help us,the readers, think about ourselves in a world that contains millions of other citizens who , as well, have their own sense of personal narrative. 
For Mosley and Moby Grape, they are victims of the times, with easy access to sex, drugs, a wide spread contempt for conventional morality and the institutions that enforce them, and they fell apart at their prime; just at the precise moment when they seemed poised to truly dominate the underground rock scene and perhaps far beyond that, drugs and insanity laid them low. Much the same is true of Electric Flag, Blind Faith, Cream, the original Butterfield Blues Band. Ego, drugs, and the intervention of a reality that didn't quite curve with the zeitgeist , brought these bands to an end and ,as a consequence, began the spin that personalities , not talent, was responsible for the music we loved and took to be harbinger of a historical dialectic in process. 
A collective depression fell over the audience, musical innovation became stale formulations, radio became rigidly formatted yet again, underground newspapers folded, we suddenly noticed a lot of our friends dying on the vine or going crazy . So what remains? Some good music, things we can still listen to five or so decades later and not be embarrassed by the passe add ons of bad poetry, fad, fashion, and so on. Bob Mosley wasn't a saint, not a poet, not a philosopher, not a visionary, and neither was anyone else in Moby Grape and certainly not any other rock musician who rose to prominence in the Sixties. They were musicians and their genius, or the radiations of talent ranging from mediocre to good to genuine excellence, lay in their skills as instrumentalists, singers, songwriters. When the embarrassment fades, the pontifications abate, the audience resentment at their heroes letting them down as heroes, it is the music, the actual work that was done, that will be judged. Mosley, in my quirky estimation, had a hand in writing and performing a handful of truly great songs from a band that, however great they happened to be for a period of time, could not keep their collective muse engaged. They couldn't hold it together. They drifted apart, re-grouped in different formations in series of "reunions", and never approached anything like the best , most sublime moments of their first two records.
This is assuming that a listener from back in the day survives the trauma of getting older and finding that the cosmological suit they were wearing no longer fits, that one has merged well into the the territory called adulthood and developed an interest in other things--books, politics, ongoing education, new and different kinds of music and other arts--and can be amused by their presumptive , youthful arrogance and find among their old vinyl records those solid pieces of work,those great songs that remain rivetting today, that something good did come out of the Sixties, something was indeed added to our lives that made it better.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Awkward teenage blues

Image result for GENE PITNEY
Gene Pitney
Leslie Gore was one of those pure pop singers like Gene Pitney and Neil Sedaka who had an appealing, earnest voice that could manage the hooks and addictive choruses of the songs she performed. Like Pitney, her song "It's My Party (and I'll Cry If I Want To)" was a catchy distillation of teen heartache and anxiety, an age where neither female nor male could help but continually compare their inside turmoil with what seemed cool and calm of the appearances of friends, associates and other hangers-on. Am I good enough? Smart enough? Pretty/handsome enough?  Pitney and Gore were the heralds of awkward teenage blues, that time of life when hormones are kicking in and extending their reign from the brain and the appendages they command, a set of years where self-esteem is rare and fragile where it exists at all.

Not much has changed, just the style of clothes, the music soundtrack, and how far past first base you have to go to fit in, or at least seem to. Pitney, it should be remarked, was pretty much a dour, moody, full-time drama queen in his string of hits, tunes he sang masterfully. He had a range, of course, easily witnessed with a listen to "I'm Going to Be Strong", "It Hurts to Be In Love", but it also had the strange quality of being scratchy, a strange impression of the gruff textured rhythm and blues singers he admired, and a certain "girlishness" as well. He had a fast vibrato, a quiver that would emerge in the center of a phrase, making keywords seem suddenly uncertain, nervous, subject to glandular swings of mood, oftentimes undercutting the stronger voice, the more stoic, stronger pronunciation where Pitney reached down to an unnaturally low register as a means of constructing a solid, masculine calm. The singer was fascinating and melodramatic, and his performances were a clash of emotional raw ends.  But what really hits a nerve with Pitney's voice was the higher register, which he could twist and torture with deceptively able finesse to create a sense of a young and sensitive young man tasting for the wrong time the bitter  fruit of  breaking up. Neal Sedaka's song title "Breaking Up is Hard to Do" offers a clue to the genius of Pitney, who explodes the minor key agony of teenage breakup blues and expand the melodrama to the extent that it's tempting to apply "Wagnerarian" to his extreme style. Maybe not not so dramatic.

Leslie Gore was pop music for young people and I have to say that I found myself liking more than a little of it when I listened to TOP 40 radio. She was pop personified, the girl singing into the mirror as she prepared for a school dance for which she had no corsage nor date, singing her woes and insecurities into the reflection, watching her image, hair parted on the wrong side, watch on the wrong wrist, admit to the worries and dread  of not being in the center of the party,  not being interesting enough for a boy or a girl to talk to, someone for whom being friendless was worse than the death. Death, to her thinking, would be a release from this hell of other people's happiness mocking you without end, amen.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Glass knee

Total knee replacement surgery will be my fate in two weeks, and after that painkillers and, I'm promised, a vigorous rehabilitation regimen. As any person with a sliver of sanity would expect, I am dreading and looking forward to the procedure at the same time, an understandable ambivalence. First, I hate pain, I hate change, I don't like being in hospitals for anything. But I am looking forward to being able to walk without pain, something I've been doing since that time in 1965 when, on a dare, I jumped off a concrete trash incinerator attached to the back of Chippewa Drugs in the alley on a balmy summer day in Detroit. We were looking for trouble, moderate trouble, and looking for cool things people had thrown away, "we" being my brother Hollis, a weaselly friend named Casey, and a couple of others. I  climbed atop the incinerator to see if I could climb, somehow, onto the roof of the drug store, as I thought I could find footholds in various ledges abutting security barred windows. 

None of that came to pass since I looked down and saw Hollis, Casey and the two others turned and run to the main street the alley was adjacent to."Jump, Burke" is what I heard Casey yell, and I did, a short distance to the ground , the cement , a distance I could jump and land properly for all along,and then spring back , ready for action in some imitation of a Batman recovering from a punch before delivering a star and moon inducing uppercut, but I landed wrong, I had slipped it seems to me know, I landed at the wrong angle and felt my left knee twist something horrible. The rest, they say, is a history I don't care to recollect in this brief sketch. I was able to walk to my house, a very long half-block trudge, but an hour later, after the adrenaline had worn off, I was in pain and made quite a bit of noise about it. Crying and whining I think is the correct description. 

My Mom didn't look impressed with the pain I insisted was killing me, but we got in the car, went to the hospital and had an operation. Bear in mind this was 1965 and the procedure for torn ligaments in the knee was not as it is today; the cartilage  and such was completely removed , leaving me to recover with that joint being bone on bone. It's been like that for decades. I made due and accepted it as a younger man; running, dancing, climbing, and other sorts of activities that require me to stand for hours on end were matters I attended to without thought. Now, though , it's beyond the pale. The pain  is bad, and it's time to do something about while I have the means. I am grateful to have the means at this moment while this journey just gets more interesting by the day. It's an existence of uncertainty and cautious optimism. Being able to trudge that road without pain will be a wonderful, near-term result.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

An invisible beyond the senses

a novel by Don DeLillo
Don DeLillo again shows that he's our best novelist of American absurdity with this strange off-kilter comedy that centers on the events of an eventful day in Manhattan. Against a backdrop of raves, a Presidential motorcade, a rock star's funeral, mysterious street demonstrations and the constant, ghostly electronic feed of news of pending financial disaster, a young billionaire asset manager limousines uptown to get a haircut in order to embrace his sense of inevitable, personal apocalypse. DeLillo's writing is outstanding, funny with a cool lyricism, poetic when you least expect it. The brilliance here, as with "White Noise" and especially "Mao ll" is the way characters seek to reconfigure their metaphors, their assuring base of references , once their world view is rattled and made less authoritative by unexplainable events and human quirks. This is semiotics at its best, an erotic activity where DeLillo probes and glides over the surfaces of ideas, notions, theories and their artifacts, things intellectual and material emptied of meaning, purpose.

DeLillo's mastery of language lets him convey the psychic activity that constantly tries to reacquaint the world with meaning and purpose after the constructions are laid bare; Eric, here in this world of commodity trading, which he regards as natural force that he's mastered and control, attempts to reintroduce mystery into the world he is trapped in. He is bored beyond the grave with the results of his luck. His efforts to live dangerously , spontaneously and thus get a perception he hadn't had and perhaps secure a hint of a metaphysical infrastructure that eludes, all turn badly, but for DeLillo's art it's not what is found , discovered, or resolved through the extensions of language, but rather the journey itself, the constant connecting of things with other things in the world; this is the poetry of the human need to make sense of things in the great , invisible state beyond the senses, a negotiation with death.
His imagistic tilling of the semiotic field yields the sort of endless irony that makes for the kind of truly subversive comedy, a sort of satire that contains the straining cadences of prophecy. The city, the place where the hyperactive commotion  of commerce, history, technology and government merge in startling combinations of applied power, becomes an amorphous cluster of symbols whose life and vitality come to seem as fragile and short-lived as living matter itself. DeLillo might be the best literary novelist we have at this time, which the career-defining masterwork "Underworld" made clear to his largest readership yet: at the end of all those perfect sentences , sallow images and long, winding, aching paragraphs is a narrative voice whose intelligence engages the fractured nature of identity in a media-glutted age.

"The Body Artist" has him contracting the narrative concerns to a tight, elliptical 128 pages, where the Joycean impulse to have a private art furnishes meaning to grievous experience is preferred over the dead promises of religion and philosophy. What exactly the woman character does with her performance body art, what the point is of her ritualized, obsessed cleansing of her body, is a mystery of DeLilloesque cast, but it's evident that we're witnessing to a private ritual whose codes won't reveal themselves, but are intended as a way for the woman to again have a psychic terrain she can inhabit following the sudden and devastating death of her film maker husband.

The entrance of the stranger in the cottage turns her aesthetic self-absorption, slowly but inevitably, into a search into her past in order to give her experience meaning, resonance, a project she quite handily ignores until then. The sure unveiling of her psychic life is a haunting literary event. DeLillo's language is crisp, evocative, and precise to the mood and his ideas: you envy his flawless grasp of rhythm and diction as these traits simultaneously makes the cottage on the cold, lonely coast seem sharp as snap shot, but blurred like old memory, roads and forests in a foggy shroud.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Get tasteless

And so this goes: discussing the lack of excitement I feel regarding Jeff Beck's guitar work for the last couple of decades, my associate offers that like Miles Davis, improvisers play slower  and use fewer notes doing so. Okay. Davis is a another thing altogether, but Beck is certainly not Davis. Of course, he never claimed he was.The notes are usually well executed, but his playing lacks  real sense of spontaneity.It sounds dry, calculated, lifeless in their cold perfection.His solos bring to mind the phrase "wait for it" as he goes through his fabled  fingerwork. He makes me think of what John McLaughlin said to me in the Seventies when I asked him after a concert what the thought of Jerry Garcia. "I keep waiting for something to happen" he said,.

His answer to my  next question threw me.  I asked for his opinion of guitarist Allan Holdsworth. Holdsworth, a fretman who I regard as the Coltrane of electric guitar, speed, melody, amazing register jumping fluidity, madly modulated  acceleration, was and remains my favorite guitarist. McLaughlin, who with Larry Coryell jump started the trend for rock guitarists to take on super  speeds, had the view that Holdsworth was cluttering up his improvisations with too many notes,  failing to leave space  and to build tension.
 "You can't sustain beauty with speed alone" was what my friend David Sternbach, a fine poet I knew back in college, He was talking about McLaughlin back in my dorm room days. The point of this digression is just to remark that it is a matter of taste--Christ, I hate that cliche--but at the bottom line I wish Beck would pick up a Les Paul again,  cut his finger nails and use a pick, crank up the distortion and volume  and let the world know what his reputation is based on. I would be very happy if hed did another album as good Guitar Shop. So would a lot of people,

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The House by the Railroad by Edward Hirsch

It's an ideal situation for poets to interpret a painter's world, especially those artists who are both figurative and have content which implies a relationship between the objects and people on the campus, a suggestion of narrative complexity.The basic problem to overcome, though, is finding the equivalent tone and language that relays a strong sense of the visual style , which suggests the narrative thread. I've written of few poems after artist's work, not that any of them have been successful in any terms I'd lay out, but these efforts have been a interesting practice of jumping over the tropes you might normally rely on and instead develop a new rhetoric. Staying with a style one knows when attempting to get inside another man's art can result in a poem that reads more like product, as I noticed in this poem .Normally I like Edward Hirsch a good deal, but this attempt to unearth the hidden essence of Edward Hopper's ideally isolated landscapes makes me think that it is a tad overwritten. The details seem entirely ready made:

This man will paint other abandoned mansions,

And faded cafeteria windows, and poorly lettered
Storefronts on the edges of small towns.
Always they will have this same expression,
The utterly naked look of someone
Being stared at, someone American and gawky.
Someone who is about to be left alone
Again, and can no longer stand it. 
Artifacts from the prop department.This reads more like scene descriptions one finds in parenthesis in a film script's early draft. The camera lingers on the badly lettered sign, the camera pans the closed storefronts, the camera pulls back to a vista that reveals the town in bas relief against a mountain range, with houses huddled in tight clusters that encircle the center of town. It is rather dramatic, visual, and effective , if one were watching a movie film made from our supposed script. 

But we aren't, and Hirsch's descriptions more instructive than revealing. Hopper's advantage is that he could suggest relations between his human figures to one another and to their surroundings with his magnificently broad strokes and his blurred, subdued tones and yet maintain the essential isolation of each element on his canvas; his contexts are subverted by the existential singularity his streets, sunlight, his characters are all shown to be locked in.

The effect is visceral, one gets his mood in a rush, and one garners more perception the more they study his best paintings. The narrative, of course, is implied, and this is where Hirsch's poem becomes mannered, in the attempt to do what Hopper achieves by describing the elements, suggesting the rather obvious relations between them . and back peddling to conclude, finally, that the American malaise is compounded estrangement. It's a poem full of tricks and moves, and it makes one wish for a more plain spoken, less qualified tone poem.

Monday, October 19, 2015

The beauty of our lies

Poet Thomas Lux fairly much defies description, combining the plain speak of dilligent journalism and the eloquence of an other wise taciturn poet who will use an word or a phrase that takes a contrary turn other than where you expect it to go. He is the Poet of Unintended Results, a story teller very much in the John Cheever mode where the omniscient narrator begins yarns of folks with ambitions, intentions, desires for all manner of things making their way through their routines, only to have them interrupted and , as a consequence, find themselves to the larger world ,with what were once nuances and pesky inconviences of fact now looming over them in a crazy state of I-Told-You-So.

Boil it down: feet, skin, gristle,
bones, vertebrae, heart muscle, boil
it down, skim, and boil
again, dreams, history, add them and boil
again, boil and skim
in closed cauldrons, boil your horse, his hooves,
the runned-over dog you loved, the girl
by the pencil sharpener
who looked at you, looked away,
boil that for hours, render it
down, take more from the top as more settles to the bottom,
the heavier, the denser, throw in ache
and sperm, and a bead
of sweat that slid from your armpit to your waist
as you sat stiff-backed before a test, turn up
the fire, boil and skim, boil
some more, add a fever
and the virus that blinded an eye, now’s the time
to add guilt and fear, throw
logs on the fire, coal, gasoline, throw
two goldfish in the pot (their swim bladders
used for “clearing”), boil and boil, render
it down and distill,
that for which there is no
other use at all, boil it down, down,
then stir it with rosewater, that
which is now one dense, fatty, scented red essence
which you smear on your lips
and go forth
to plant as many kisses upon the world
as the world can bear!

This is a poet who witnesses human experience and of life itself as process that goes on regardless of the fine personal and community philosophies we've written for ourselves to abide by. Life is a raw force that will continue to pulse, change, destroy and create anew regardless of how well can describe it. We can describe life's circumstances, we cannot control them. But there is heart in Lux's work, a sympathy, that sense of the struggle of humanity trying to create meaning in a world that defies logic and yet remains a species that continues to dress the world in a wonderful cosmology of expectations. There is wit, dark humor, tenderness, a wonderfully terse lyricism in Lux's finest writing. None are better .

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Vinyl records

Nostalgia is something that cuts both ways across the generation divide. On the one hand we have Boomers, those born post World War 2  who grew up with vinyl records, 45s and 33 and 1/3 RPM, who will insist that the original 12  inch releases of the Abbey Road or Safe as Milk  had a clarity, depth, and warmth that later  digital versions, marketed on the much-loathed compact disc format, ruined by making it flat and sterile. The cry was thus: CDs may not scratch and stand to last forever, but we sacrifice the genuine texture and sensuality of the music therein. The new versions are merely heard not felt. If by that they mean that the full force of Beethoven symphonies or the corrosive caterwaul of Ornette Coleman's extensions of Western jazz improvisational strategies are abrasive only to the degree to which they assault merely the nervous system and not the soul as well, then I am with the naysayers. Sadly, though, there is more to the "felt" description, which is surface noise, pops, hisses, clicks, clacks, the corrosive percussion of the damage and ware that attends the ownership of a vinyl record collection.

 Because I had no interest i the hi-fi freak's compulsion to keep his albums pristine with a ritualized way of putting his albums on the turntable--holding the disk only on the edges with lightly pressed fingertips, wiping the disc with a clean dust cloth in a particular circular motion, no variation, setting the expensive needle on the disc gently, gently, gently, GENTLY GODDAMNIT! , repeating the process in reverse when the record was done playing--I just put my records on and just played them, whatever happened on the record surface. I took heed from my best friend, a bigger slob than I was, who shared  "I don't let my possessions possess me". It was an easy matter to accept the scratches, pops, and skips as part of the listening experience; I joked that the imperfections were bonus rhythm tracks, free of charge. Still, as used as I had become to vinyl albums, it was a matter of time before I had to acquiesce and purchase a CD player because it turned out, the record companies had stopped releasing albums in vinyl formats, save for some independent holdouts hither and yon. I  was amazed at how fast I became a CD convert; the music sounded fine, it sounded clean, it sounded exciting. The digital age claimed another convert. It became the case that saying that we should listen to vinyl only so we may "feel" the music better is like remarking that we should not have paved roads or modern cars because travel means nothing artistically unless we feel every pothole, puddle, rock and uneven patch of cracked earth on our long journey to some goddamned family holiday dinner. It was a dead argument made by grumpy white men who wanted it to be 1968 forever, without end.  The only thing I miss about the vinyl experience was the "thingness" of an album--something to open, to read, stare at, take pride in as you put back in the sleeve and add it your large and varied record collection. I admit vinyl was an inferior medium given the crystal clear digital offered , but there was a value-added quality, where the music on the disc was something I paid attention to, fell in love with or hated and argued passionately with other music fanatics and would be pop pundits about why such things were more important than sex. The vinyl album was something that contained music the way a book contained words that told a story and you had to figuratively live with for a period so the glorious transformation of literature can have on our worldview could take effect. That is less the case these days, much less, as everything is digitized, stored in figurative clouds, seemingly every song ever recorded stripped of context, liner notes, album art, credits, and private jokes and turned into bits of code that one can turn on or off like a light switch, absent-mindedly appreciative of the ruthless efficiency in the retrieval of the music, but not moved to linger on lyric, to pause during a hooked up chorus, to move, shake. That's my experience.