Friday, January 8, 2016


Ted Burke
David Foster Wallace is an interesting writer who is in dire need of a vicious but fair editor. He notices everything that is odd and potentially wonderful of ponder in his world, but he's able to organize his perceptions; he lacks the ability to discriminate what's actually interesting to a reader from that which is worth only a smirk and a snort for himself. A Supposedly Fun Thing works, I suppose, because its nonfiction and the pieces are short, but even here he doesn't take advantage of the compression. He goes rather long too often, and what's wonderful about his writing and his intelligence is lost. It is really too much work to sift through the giddy semiotics to unearth the verbal gems. Barthes himself had the good sense too- be brief in the columns he wrote for the French popular press.  

Ted Burke
Infinite Jest is perhaps the most exasperating novel I've ever read, along with being the most chronically overrated in contemporary fiction. It may be argued that he novel is about the digressions he favors, and that such digressions place him in line as being the latest "systems novelist", taking up where Gaddis, Pynchon, DeLillo and Barth (John) have led the way, to which I'd say fine, and what of it? The AA and recovery material is potential good fun, and the aspect of powerlessness over a movie ought to be enough for a writer to mold a sure satire, but Wallace seems far too eager to surpass Gravity's Rainbow and The Recognitions in his long, sentences, most of which in retrospect gave you the sense of what Allen Ginsberg's referred to as the Box Car effect, the cars of a train rushing by at great speed and, for  a period, seem to be without beginning or end There is so much contained within, so many things mentioned, so many things half described and given half contexts for qualities that resonate only a little, it becomes intoxicating for a bit, dizzying for many, impressive in the author’s ability to fit so much detail of tangible things into so many long, sequential sentences and still, stay within the ever-expanding idea of what good grammar and construction happens to be.

Ted Burke
 There are those this shows genius and perhaps it does, but it is the sort of genius I respect and admiring for the sheer will to took to connect everything inside one’s complete set of pockets with everything fleeting thought and arcane that makes an appearance in casual chatter or the slight movement of a body part, the turn of the head, for example, or the flick of a cigarette ash from a nearly dead smoke. The closest I could go is that it resembles Henry James at best, with heavy seasoning provided by Thomas Pynchon and his own going themes of Systems of Meaning and Organization and how that turns the study of history (or even discussion of what one had for lunch) into a unfathomable inquiry that blurs the subject just by asking the questions. The element of not being able to decide the underlying meaning of a storyline on the molecular level , the level of the sentence coming into being as the writer attempts to put the ideas, one following the other , into an appreciable order is DFW’s biggest break through. He links everything in grammatically readable sentences, but there is deluge rather than word flow and, if you’re someone committed to finishing every book you started to read as I used to be, you are eventually weighed upon too much by information that turns out to be a distended set up for a joke and no longer mistake the linking of things for coherence. The aforementioned editor I proposed would have handed the manuscript back with the observation that this set of multi-channeled satires has already been done by the previously mentioned authors whose works are not likely to be matched. Said editor would then advise that over-writing isn't the sure means to break with your influences, but that developing one's own style is.

In Brief: THE DYING ANIMAL by Philip Roth

Roth announced his retirement from being a novel writer a couple of years ago , and it's in the slight variations of his late career novel, 2001 's The Dying Animal, that we can understand why he stopped: had played the last note he could stand on that instrument of style he possessed. Bearing in mind that Roth's genius has been for writing about angry men who are perpetually ill at ease, raging against their imperfections in a world they don't fit in. Roth's works are equals self-loathing, arrogance, misogyny , mother issues, sexual dysfunctional, bitter agnosticism, deeply felt emotional upheaval and revelation, cruel wit and puckish humor, an endless series of ironies that, through out a brilliantly realized career , had Roth as the outstanding straight, white , male Jewish male the rapidly shifting terms of existence seemingly used a punching bag. "The Dying Animal", coming late in his career, deals with a typical Roth protagonist, a male, late in his life, who finds that he no longer love and leave the ladies as he had always done; age, infirmity, impotence, the stuff of raging speeches given in rain storms while the vestments of position and power are stripped from you, reduce him to a supplicant. More irony follows, the poor man gets his just deserts, and anger and bitterness and the sense that nothing stops the torment except death; anyone familiar with Roth's works can more or less forecast how this tale with end, or rather, fade out. Nicely done, we can see, but it lacks the snap, the verbal snarl, the grating detail that highlights the increasingly sour moods and downcast fatalism of the author. It lacks, alas, the energy to get angry again. 

My suggestion would to pick up a book published only slightly earlier, "The Plot Against America"; irony, punch, a sense of playfulness, a story of innocence of youth become threatened by  elements that cloud the sense of the future of American democracy. Not to give to much away in the even that you decide to pick up TPAA , I'll just say that Roth is at his ingenious best, using  a fictionalized version  of himself as a young boy and his family  against the  what if  backdrop of  Aviator, American Hero and widely believed Nazi sympathizer  Charles Lindbergh  had  defeated FDR for President in 1940. Full of narrative invention , the author creates a disturbing sense of how American history would have seen substantially different from the particular vantage of a young Jewish boy and his family . That is the Philip Roth worth seeking out, inventive, dangerous, angry, funny, very human, very much raging to live and feel the emotions that both blessing and curse.


photography by Ted Burke

 Singer Shirley Ellis wanted us all to get down to the nitty-gritty in her 1963 hit tune of the same name,”Nitty Gritty” . It was a bold dare to cast on the radio listeners of the time, but the song was all groove, rhythm and genuinely seductive soul music. “Get right down to the real nitty gritty” was the refrain she kept singing, her graceful ground level vocal reinforced by a chorus that repeated her dictum, gets down to the real nitty-gritty. The band was typical of so many of the music ensembles that graced hit 45’s at the time, percolating and expanding the groove artfully. Get rid of what’s troubling was the message if any at all. Don’t just forget your troubles, as Petula Clark urged in her tune “Downtown”, Ellis extolled the need to expel them altogether. Dance them out of your system and leave on the dance floor.I loved the tune, the groove, the sensuous honesty of Ellis’s voice, but I was twelve at the time, just becoming aware of music, politics, the importance of love; my consciousness was an alloy made up of assertions culled from weekly infusions of Time Magazine. I had precious little experience, and not much nitty gritty to get down to.  We did age, of course, the pace of history gave us war, riots, battles for civil rights, first jobs, first-time sex, giddy successes, and humiliating defeats. I might say that many of us took our initial  real-world excursions, personally and constructed layered and well-reasoned arguments for a worldview that both explained why the world was the way it was and which gave us additional excuse to fail. In my case, it was so I could write more poems about being depressed about my state of the world.  We created our own feedback chamber.  Something had to be done. Time to clean house.

We can say that Chuck Perrin, a San Diego based singer/songwriter, poet, and music entrepreneur, has had enough of keeping his demons entertained as he embarks with his new album, The Yearn.  As with what John Lennon did with his  1971 “primal scream” album John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band,  an incendiary disc where Lennon named the people, places and things that he felt contributed greatly to his worst, self-destructing traits. The disc was hard to listen too, as Lennon’s expression was convincingly emotional and condemnation of the calcified BS that filled his head is lacerating, but it was a breakthrough. Perrin’s The Yearn follows in that tradition, a genre of self-revelation that remains uncommon in our current pop music climate.  Perrin, in the previous nine albums he’s recorded, is a songwriter and vocalist who has pursued and mastered the delicate art of entwining the gracefully melodic, the crooning and swooning aspect of lyric romanticism and the blunt, more ecstatic, raging element of the rant that cannot be contained by chords or harmony.  His previous albums like Beat.itude (1995) and Down 2 Bone (2009) reveals a man in touch with his responses who finds melody and the graceful sway of words a way to make sense  of contradictions that life presents, and allows him to study the contradictions in his own responses to the results and consequences of his adventures. The Yearn takes a more severe tact, one that, like Lennon’s, is to get to the nitty-gritty of things, the core of what is truly important and what it is we remain alive for.  The songs on The Yearn are starker than what I remember from Perrin’s previous work, basic structures that are superbly contextualized by a crackerjack group of musicians.  Perrin has had enough of the universe of personalities and media that have distracted him .  He has in his lyrics the presence of another person, a lover, a friend, someone significant, an intimate and a confidant who he addresses directly, person to person. There’s no hint of showboating or playing to what an audience expects. The songs structures are moody, impressionistic, fundamental constructs that are highlighted and given many-hued texture r by high caliber musicians. When matters threaten to become sing-songy, there is a sweetly blistering guitar solo from Larry Mitchell, ; when Perrin drops moves away from the microphone, the redouble Arthur Fishers and provides a series of fleet,  crystalline flute improvisations. Song to song, the gathered musicians (including such stalwarts as Burt Turetzky, Bob Magnusson among the esteemed crew) make the simple structures into lively bits of jazz improvisation, beautifully honed impressionism, seductively rich tone poems. This is the remarkable aspect of what Chuck Perrin has accomplished, which is to create a disc that combines brutal self-assessment and the wild plunge to seek what is real and genuine regarding love at the purest level with a musical tableau that is open-ended, an improvisatory groove and tonal preferences that more than suggest that this is a life that is still evolving, progressing toward truth. The musicians create a sound that reflect the hard turns of Perrin’s journey, but there remains the sense that all this inventory is something we can walk through, free and hopeful for a fuller life ahead.

A miscellaney, a ramble, a love for books, a love for thinking

No protest against the greatness of Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne or Edgar Allen Poe, but their time is past, and the writers that influenced the pulse, wit, and thrill in my wrting are of the 20th century. But then again, they are of the past to, of the  last century, my period of getting influenced and then wallowing in my own mythology of genius It is now the 21st century , younger authors assume the responsibility of keeping the written word more than a means of formalizing an excuse from work or instructions for the hired help. We will go on rummaging  through our memories, bringing up our favoirte writers , discussing them at length or in brief, trying to relive the excitement of when a paragraph knocked you  out , flat on your bck with the revelation the word combination contained, and , when you came to , so to speak, you returned to the page to see who that writer was and , to be sure, find other books by the him or her who made  you aware that language was the means to both imagine a more interesting world but also to change the conditions the actual sphere of things contains. Yes, the world can be made a better place. Vonnegut easily matches Twain , I think, Updike, at his best, surpasses Hawthorne on the same range of issues, and for Poe, virtually everyone has been influenced by him, but the best of his students have found more graceful, lyrical ways to deliver their work.  Simply, one may yearn for the richness of a glorious past as a kind of Heaven to be aspired to, which is fine, if that is the way one learns to cope with the uncompromising pace of the current time, but our writers, truth told, tell a fine tale or two.

Literature is also about where we're going, not just where we've been.  DeLillo,Toni  Morrison, William Gaddis, William Gass, Updike, David Foster Wallace, Mark Helprin, Joyce Carol Oates, Sontag, and dozens of others whose work, in varied respects, struggles to be about something larger than memoirs put forth under the name of fiction. Not that I like all the above: rather, just to say that not every novelist these days is hung by their own confessional rope.

Hindsight is everything, and I wish I could see , who of our scribes will be discussed at the end of the next century. The second half of this century produced a lot of major talent who have produced or are producing respective bodies of work that require the passionate reading and argument our already named personal bests have received. Harold Bloom notwithstanding, our canon is expanding with new and achingly good writers, and one would think that the male majority so far discussed will have relinquish room on their uppermost tier.  On the point, Fitzgerald will make the cut because so few writers, then or to the current time, have managed the breathless lyricism contained in the "The Great Gatsby" or "Tender Is The Night". Some have come close, and I'm thinking of the resonating sentences from Scott Spencer's "Endless Love" or some keenly rendered pages in Updikes "Rabbit" quartet, but Fitzgerald at best gave us small masterpieces that gave an sharp view of the time.   

Hemingway merits a permanent place on any greatest list because his style, at best, was lean, and his sentences , constructed the way they are, convey pages of buried turmoil, lost hope, small idealism, bravery to pursue another day , to shoulder one's burden honorably. "In Our Time" and "The Sun Also Rises" accomplish this. At his worse, though, Hemingway was a boozing sentimentalist whose writing lapsed into repetitious self-parody, as we have in "Island In The Stream" or "A Movable Feast". But I am grateful for the good work he did.  Jack London, I'm afraid, pales for me personally. He was a lot of fun for me when I was growing up, yearning for adventure in Catholic School. But later, in college, closer and more seasoned readings had him sounding rushed, awkward. The admixture of Marx and Darwin that seasoned his writings seem showed a straining idealism that was not redeemed by a modifying style.I've just re-read "John Barleycorn" , and the book is ridiculous. It seemed like so much bluster and blarney toward the end , after vividly recalls his disastrous drinking career, that armed with this new self awareness, he would drink responsibly, that he was in fact only temporarily an alcoholic

Friday, January 1, 2016

From the vault of old opinions: Elvis Costello

( Imagine my delight in seeing my name on a concert review I had written of Costello and his band The Attractions back in 1979 when they performed at the former Fox Theatre (now Symphony Hall). I was twenty-seven at the time and, in the copious writing I was doing as arts editor for the UCSD student newspaper The Daily Guardian, was getting ever closer to the prose style I wanted, a chatty, smart, didactic with which I could evaluate and digress into the pleasant vagueness of abstract assertion while maintaining a tone of the conversation, the chat, the informal and slightly snarky bull session. (Last week, I gave in, yet again, to vanity and searched for my name on the too-handy Google search engine and found something entirely unexpected. Yes, I sound more than a little full of myself from rereading this, but what the hell? I was teaching myself how to write, a process that continues. Enterprising Elvis Costello fans seem to have amassed an impressive database concerning the work of the prolific singer/songwriter, compiling, among other data impressive and less impressive, reviews and the publications they appeared in, both record and concert evaluations.  Here is the review from the late Seventies when I used to add my middle name to my byline because I thought it sounded cool. Or something like that.--tb.) 

Concert Review:
 Elvis Costello and the Attractions, February 1979
by Ted Navin Burke
Elvis Costello is rock's man of the moment, and one would assume from the frenzied reception the full house gave him last Sunday at his Fox Theatre gig that the Costello's groundswell will never ebb. But will Costello last? Good question. I've been to too many concerts where a performer does an absolute dynamite performance to an audience that seemed to express undying loyalty, only to be forgotten a year later with his albums taken off the Licorice Pizza display racks. Is Costello the Next Big Thing someone whose music will have a profound influence on the pop culture to come, or is he just another in a series of throwaway performers an audience can play with awhile and then discard like an empty box of corn flakes? Good question indeed.

I'm forcing myself to be optimistic, though, thinking that Costello has enough talent to transcend the comic book tackiness that surrounds him — Woody Allen glasses, old jackets with skinny lapels and padded shoulders — and latch onto something firmer in the consciousness of a mass audience whose attention spans tend to be short and tastes fickle. Certainly, Dylan and Bowie had to contend with similar problems of image. Dylan refusing to remain, at different times, a mere protest singer, a mere folk-rocker, a mere country singer, and Bowie deciding to junk the Ziggy Stardust nonsense and show all his would-be glitter creep, followers, that he could make music as well as cutely contrived theatrics.

Costello, Though, doesn't have the same initial problem that Dylan or Bowie confronted. Whereas the other two began with a limited base where everyone expected them to remain — Dylan with folk and New Left politics, Bowie with glitter-rock and an apocalyptic fantasy — Costello's music has an unbelievably broad base. His three albums, My Aim Is True, This Year's Model, and his newest, Armed Forces comprise something of a short-order course in the history of traditional rock and roll motifs, a wide scope encompassing rockabilly, reggae, rhythm and blues, folk-rock, Phil Spector  wall-of-sound-production values, Sky Saxon, and other influences that elude me right now. Unlike the average phony fifties band who take old stuff and succeed in making the music more banal than it was originally — I'm thinking of Sha Na Na and Flash Cadillac — Costello reshapes these old ideas into fresh combinations, oftentimes mixing styles in the same song. Musically, the familiar sounds incredibly fresh. What makes Costello's art more astounding (or confounding) is his knack for lyrics. In an age where the "important" lyricists of the Seventies — Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, Warren Zevon, Tom Waits — have produced a bulk of work that emulates but falls vastly short of middle-period Dylan and the Beat poets before him, Costello has come out of the left field and caught everyone by surprise. His best songs are tightly-constructed first-person narratives, impressionistic glimpses at balled situations and the people in them, with characters who Costello has caught in the variegated acts of Bad Faith and the contingent malaise of non-actualization.

In, In other words, Costello gives the impression that he can tell the moment when someone, or something, starts laying on the bull and can dissect the baloney bulwark with the well-honed epigram. His persona is that of someone who's being victimized by others, an overly sensitive soul continually on the defensive who's developed a brilliant capacity to put down, pontificate, and get in the last word. Through this visage, he takes aim at everything, whether it be lovers who use sex as nothing more than a peer group stock commodity ("Miracle Man," "Living In Paradise"), schoolyard bullies who grow up to be lame-brained thugs ("Two Little Hitters"), media organizations whose ability to Pavlov the masses borders on fascism ("Radio Radio"), or government services that bypass their humane premise and reduce everyone to a number waiting in line for minimal and impersonal service ("Oliver's Army," "Senior Service"). Other themes in his material are difficult to reconcile with one's assumed notions of equanimity  and   and a society predicated on elegant utopian principles, grisly like murder ("Watching the Detectives," "Alison") or misogyny ("I'm Not Angry," "Hand in Hand," et al.). Any number of highly-considered rock stars have had these traits as well, like Dylan (still the darling of the New Left after all these years), Mick Jagger, Bowie. In any event, one has to take the best with the worse. I refuse to get hung up in New Consciousness moralizing over Costello's alleged lack of humanity. Not to confront his worldview is to duck the issues he brings up. As with others in the era of punk rock and new wave, Costello makes clear that his mission is not to be part of a generation that promises to avoid the mistakes of the Boomer Generation that had fought in World War 2 for democratic ideals of liberal democracy only to turn the whole idea on its head in the search for greater persona gain at the sacrifice of community and cooperation. He reduced it to the personal and equates being personally fucked up, distraught, unloved, and being too smart to sit through the onslaught of lies and platitudes to the institutions of a society that, though nominally dedicated to the preservation of rights and quality of life, are designed only to control, dampen initiative, to keep the masses where they are with old lies disguised cleverly as new promises.

On the basis of the description of the ponderousness of Costello's themes, it wouldn't be unusual to assume that he would slip into the seductive fallacy that since all rock lyrics are now poetry, the music can take a back seat. Costello understands that even the most provocative of ideas will exist in a vacuum if the style of the message isn't grabbing. As described earlier, the music stands up in the best tradition of rock and roll, as strong as the Stones, more arresting than Dylan at his creative peak and more riveting (effective) then the theoretical verve of all the New Wavers and punkers put together. This, finally, brings us to the concert itself. Costello's performance was an affirmation of the worn-out rock-critic adage which sustains that rock and roll is an art meant to be experienced live, not on the album, something where the energy will make your armpits sweat, get the blood moving and provoke a response that goes beyond intellect, a response stemming from an instinct more primal. Costello passed this rather dreamy test of rock and roll metaphysics without breathing hard.

Costello An imposing figure on the Fox stage, a slender, psychotic-looking man in a suit with padded shoulders and thin lapels, someone who would bug-eye the audience through his owl-frame glasses. His expression through the night was like someone giving you an if-looks-could-kill stare after you'd said something to offend him. Opening with "This Year's Girl," Costello and his band, The Attractions, pumped through the material with something of a manic drive. Costello would play his guitar, a Fender Jaguar, with hard strokes of the hand that looked as though he were sawing wood, and his legs went through a strange set of movements, buckling knock-kneed one minute, one leg thumping the floor. At the same time, the other was firmly rooted the next and then pirouetting sharply. He paced the stage in pensive bounds, looking like someone who couldn't bear standing still.

The attractions themselves were superb. Organist Steve Naive crouched at his spot, no chair for him. He would bounce about almost as erratically as Costello, producing thick chords, succinct fills, and well-timed riffs that fleshed out the band's sound. The drummer and bassist, whose names sadly elude me, are the best rhythm section now working, interacting with the same verve that distinguished Keith Moon and John Entwhistle of the Who years before. The material, mostly from the new Armed Forces, was received with open arms, but the audience was primed for older songs. The first chords of "Watching the Detectives" drove the crowd crazy. At one point, Costello discarded his guitar and took the mike by hand, and played out the part of an alienated lover killing his girlfriend because she watches too much television. The line "...took my little finger to blow you away" gets the loudest cheer of the night. Costello tells them goodnight when the song ends. After a five-minute ovation, they return and crank into "Pump it Up," played at a rapid, undanceable tempo. This encore lasts all of two and a half minutes, and they're gone again, with the audience yowling for more. They had, though, received more than their monies worth.