Friday, January 8, 2016

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

(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. Some enterprising Elvis Costello fans seem to have amassed an impressive data base 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. 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 every 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. Yes, I sound more than a little full of myself from reading this again, but what the hell, I was teaching myself how to write, a process that continues. 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 ground swell will never ebb. But will Costello last? Good question. I've been to too many concerts where a performer does an absolutely 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 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 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  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 world view 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 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 a 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 be sit through an 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 lie 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) than 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 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 was 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 a 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, while 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.


Sunday, December 27, 2015

"THE HATEFUL EIGHT", Tarantino's verbose near-masterpiece


I just viewed Quentin Taratino's latest, "The Hateful Eight" and, for all the excesses and repetitions of favorite gimmicks that seemed, to me, half-hearted and coasting with his last two films ("Inglorious Basterds", "Django Unchained"), his new western is something of a return to form. Not that he's knocked off any of those tricks that made him famous--unnaturally formal dialogue cast in different accents and idioms, a surfeit of action-stopping siloquies, title cards and the "Pulp Fiction" trick of letting the narrative unexpectedly backtrack to reveal elements that were at first withheld. "Hateful Eight", though, sees these elements deployed with a conviction and a sure hand that lures you closer to the prolonged doings of these trapped miscreants even as your wishing the pace would pick up.

Not to give too much away, but the plot concerns a bounty hunter , played by Kurt Russell, transporting a condemned prisoner, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, to Red Rock, Wyoming for hanging and to collect a reward. Due to a horrible winter blizzard blasting over the mountain , the private stage coach the Russell character had hired for the transported unexpectedly takes on more passengers stranded along the pass and the coach is forced to stop at a way station until the storm passes, a station already filled with a collection of characters no one would not want to witness in the same room. Tarantino is generous with this loquacious dialogue and the exceptional cast each have their turn introducing who their characters, revealing a back story and a chance to reveal an articulate, if demented, world view and how it came to be formed. This does, of course, slow the film to a pace that is painfully slow, and this verbosity could easily have been pared back a good fifty minutes without sacrificing Tarantino's uncanny knack for giving the various kinds of evil a voice and a rationale, an ethos.

At times the movie becomes work to stay seated for. Still,there is so much that is being done right here, from the camera work and editing,the way scenes are framed, the absolute sizzle of the dialogue when the verbal build up between one character to another builds to secrets that are revealed, and yes, the violence. Tarantino's tales are revenge plays in large part, a genre that he's exploited brilliantly and less well, but he exceeds his best work by the deceptive complexity. There is a multiplicity of duplicitous motives; this is a pit of angry rats justifying their inevitable urge to kill everyone in the room with a the kind of deliciousely gratuitous locution that is foremost among Tarantino's script writing hall marks. Smartly, Tarantino's tone for each of the way station inhabitants, none of the speeches go so far in their waves of expressive finery to suggest sympathy or provide a clue who the film's eventual hero maybe; the impressive accomplishment of the film is that what we have here is a story populated mostly by personas that would normally be treated as villians; as with Shakespeare or canniest of the Revenge Play tragedians, a prime Tarantino makes the guilty among the roster of characters sufficiently complex without romanticizing the life as means for transcendence. He doesn't let you forget that each of these folks are heading for a bad end.

The camera is an untrustworthy narrator, recording what is revealed with regards to motivations, the insanity of well argued dualistic , black and white points of view coming to a head. Agendas are exposed, but they only give clues to secret agendas , undisclosed machinations that themselves camouflage other plots . There are no heroes, everyone has committed sins against everything we consider righteous and just, and everyone shows that are more than they at first seem, unpredictable, capable of anything. And rest assured , there is plenty of the famous Tarantino violence, gruesome, ironic, unsparing. If nothing else, QT's film world is a universe of verbal characters who , despite their ingenuous habits of expression, are not able to talk their way out of the dour fates they've made for themselves. Theirs is a case of talking a great game to justifiy their horrific acts, but the universe seems not hear not a word of the self-serving eloquence . The universe, rather, greets human action with consequences that cannot be negoiated with.This film, not quite a masterpiece, is still a definitive piece in this film maker's oeuvre.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

U2 are duller than you are

I was trying to watch a U2 concert on Showtime, motivated by the delusion that I would be able to remember exactly why I was briefly obsessed with this band in the Mid-80s. Ten minutes into the performance, the Edge's echoing chord work and Bono's humorless, crucified bellow did me in, the choicest of the choice songs. Even a band as monumentally pretentious as the Doors (at their worst) were reliable for crafting tight rock-pop hits that were all the things a radio-friendly tune requires, qualities that achieved a singular state that is, in itself, a combination of real work and the visitation of varying degrees of dumb, blind luck: listenability. The songs got you, it kept you, and the next you know the experience is over and you're on the other side of it all whistling the chorus, mumbling lyrics you only half understood.  It's an old aggravation and many bands have displayed it and kept in my decades as a music writer, but it still applies to U2 especially. It's a pose, hewed with honest emotion and genuine conviction, but it is a pose, all the same, a stylized sheen that is set to make them attractive in theory.

 I despise this band. Hardly the worst band, mind you, as there is a bottomless pit of worthy candidates for that honor, but certainly the most overrated by my estimation. The basic problem is that so much has been ascribed to them on matters separate from the actual music they write, record and perform. My complaint is this: they have arrangements, not songs in their repertoire, which is to add a variation to other like describers as “all glitter, no gold”, “all sizzle, no steak”, and “all hat, no cattle”. One can, of course, name a few good songs these fellows have offered us, and certainly my assertion that they cannot tunes at all is unfair, but the fact is that what comes to mind with U2 in terms of sonic signatures are not single tunes but rather their approach, their singular sound of the Edge’s slow, heavily phlanged and eventually monotonous guitar build up, Bono’s braying tenor shouting half-witted spiritual tropes, a bombastic middle portion where the band hammers the simple chord progression into submission, and then the eventual fade into silence, an attempt here, I suspect, to make the listener reminisce about their own privately held best moments, whether romantic, sexual, romantic. It’s a style that’s been old for a while, for decades. 

This, for me, makes them agreeable intellectually, but it doesn't mitigate the monotony that makes their music a self-regarding drag. Missing, perhaps, is the old "hit song" aesthetic, where there was an emphasis on tunes that were differentiated stylistically, given manageable time constraints, given hooks, beginnings, middles, ends, and concerning things that are not the result of a crisis of conscious or the search for a nebulous spirituality that no one seems able to find. I have to say that after 3 chords, U2 becomes a loud tedium. 

They don't have songs, they have a "sound". Some find it stirring, rocking, bracing. I find it bracingly the same from tune to. It's not that they haven't written a solid rocker and a cogent ballad in that massively reverbed catalog of theirs, it's just that unlike mining the albums of the Stones or REM (among so many others), there are not that many good-to-great tunes to amuse yourself with until you come upon a song, usually a track halfway through the second side, that kicks in the vitals and moves inside your head, playing its primary and primordial riffs and major chords to a moronic, reductive and unceasing drumbeat and hands free bass part that will not get out of your head. As we can guess, those kinds of tunes do not come along  often enough, whereas sorry-Charlie kitch mongers like U2 are in abandance.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Gimme Shelter






The Rolling Stones have many great songs in their catalog, but 'Gimme Shelter" is one that qualifies as a masterpiece. The stunning, foreboding weave of simple guitar lines at the outset, slow, cautious, stealthy, suggest two kinds of apprehension about the world outside the walls one lives in, both that of the stalker creeping up on a prey, and the stalked, shivering, rained on, seeking something to provide at least a moment's respite from the unpredictable, the nasty, the brutish possibilities of being alone. The thunder guitar lines, swooping bass and the short, simple, shank edge harmonica riff are then all around you, a house collapsing, a cliff falling into the sea, rockets bombing your home town, an earthquake. It is that crushing, smashing, lacerated feeling that the truth gas denied is about to enter and take center stage and proceed to uproot everything fastened down and not. Think of the feeling when you haven't enough money to pay the rent, when there is no more dope and the sickness is tearing you apart from the inside out, when a loved one dies, when you're confronted with someone with a bat with a nail through it, or a gun , or a knife. No solace, no quarter. The Stones dealt obsessively with life on the edge in their songs, inspired by a lifestyle they could afford in their off time , and anyone with a more than an glancing familiarity of the aftermath of having gone on an extended drug run, whether heroin, speed, cocaine, there is the phenomenon that the world has ceased to be anything else than a mere rumor of something that was attractive or worth fighting horrible wars to preserve order in. Not all of this was approached from the stance of panic or fear that is the spirit of "Gimme Shelter". "Moonlight Mile", a fragile, beautiful evocation of coming down from a needle-point, catches the half-conscious figure in mid-nod, addressing the drift he finds himself on as though it were a wonderfully calm and foreseen ascent to the next life, a transcendence of a sort. 

There are other roles that are played out in this theme of decadence, decline, and degradation, with the Stones, and Jagger especially, playing along with the age-old cliche of the romantic artist, the poet, the seer, pushing their senses to the limit to attain experience and to gain something of that fleeting, elusive knowledge that senses reveal only when they are placed drugged out duress. Most, though, wind up a wallow, a boast, a casual nod to the audience that it was either a put on or they survived the worse the drugs had to offer and walked out of the other side of the experience, ragged, battered, damaged, but alive to write more poems. "Gimme Shelter" differs, though,  because it really is one of the few songs where the voice doesn't sound like a well-constructed pose maintained with a professional distance from the subject.

 The ennui sounds not just real, but nearly fatal, Jagger plays the perfect role here, abandoning the poses, the personas, the macho -libertine man of destiny and expresses the naked fear that nothing quite suddenly and brutally makes the sense it used to; everything falls apart. There is the remarkable effect of the singer admitting that there is only the unknown forces of a world that have slid off the rails. Jagger's vocal and the lyrics sound like a man who is coming to the uncontested eventuality of his demise. Merry Clayton offers the defiant cry, a brilliant, rail-splitting wail that says that the worse of everything we can imagine is about to happen. She is the hard truth overshadowing Jagger's fatalistic admission. Mood, atmosphere, texture, a hook that comes in at the right time like a badly constructed car hitting every pothole on a troubled, abandoned road, this song remains foreboding, menacing, a song that continues to resonate and will always do so, I think, as long as we contain the imagination to devise our specialized means of insanity. It's an interesting set of perspectives that are represented by the presence of both white and black vocalists. Clayton, we may say, comes from a particular set of cultural conditions of racism, slavery, poverty, institutionalized and normalized violence, that makes the Hellhound- on -My- Trail not a poetic device for yet another woe-begone tale, but rather an allegorical representation of what is a fact of their existence. Mailer insists that black Americans have a knowledge unknown to most whites that violence can be visited on them for any reason at anytime precisely because they are black and "other". Jagger is the character, the young man, who enters into a Life on the edge and entertains his senses with the expectation that nothing matters and that this state of bliss, or the naive arrogance of thinking that one's pleasure is all that actually matters. Jagger's horror is that of the sudden, brutal and blunt realization that there are prices to pay for the indulgence, the excessive use of self-seeking. It is a knowledge that comes too late and the singer here trembles when there is a crushing sense that he is near the end of his tether. This fits in with what I think has been Jagger's real genius as an artist since he wrested command of the Rolling Stones away from Brian Jones, his ability, in conjunction with Richard's uniquely primitivist approach to rock and roll roots music, to assume several personas--droogy punk, drug addict,revolutionary, Satanist, hedonist, Sadist, bluesman, troubadour--without overburdening the songs with so much detail and contrived attitude that the music collapses under so many layers of baloney. He's been someone who has pretended to be many things but who, himself, is not pretentious, a distinction in that Jagger's interest is in the emotion, the sensation, the real stuff of experience. The emotional range he's been able to write from over the decades is extraordinary, far broader than his contemporaries, say, Lou Reed, Dylan, Lennon. Only Bowie, from what I think of at the moment, comes close to the variety of attitudes he's been able to inhabit, but even there-there is something always a little calculated in Bowie's keep--them-guessing stance. Jagger, in his best work, which I believe is a big part of his total ouvre (discounting the solo albums), is more fluid in his transitions from one voice to another. 

Jagger has the ability to create from a constructed identity and convince you of his empathy with the plight and drama of antagonist and protagonists; he has the instincts of a good short story writer, no less than Hemingway, O'Conner, Cheever. Fundamental to all this is Keith Richard, who's music contributions keep Jagger focused, believable, credible, relevant to the loud and soft noises that occupy a listener's life. Jagger is in awe of the sheer magnitude of a universe and existence that could make his life less than the sum of a box of burnt matches, but along with the fear is the attraction to the foul powers that lurk outside. There is a going back in forth through the song, while that persistent, descending chord progression hammers away, like a pounding at the door from a debtor claiming what's due him, the short blues riffs and the wailing, two note harmonica screeches that seem nothing other than a hard, cold wind blowing against the windows. It's a tension that builds and won't build, panic and exhilaration, extinction and transcendence felt in an overwhelming rush until Merry Clayton's unyielding exhortation of the chorus gives you release; the iconic cracking of voice on her final reading of the lyric is powerful enough to suggest that a door you've been pounding on for the shelter you've been demanding, praying for finally opens and you collapse, relieved, shivering, twitching under the might of the storm that seeks to extinguish you. It is a brilliant song, a masterful performance, a musical masterpiece, all that. This is one of these tracks where one needs to confront the raw phenomenology is experience and rethink any all certainties one has about what life owes them.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

My new knee and the rise of soft core optimism

Aches, pain killers, a stiff knee, a new scar, relearning the fundamentals of walking all over again. As reported , shared , revealed (or whatever term you prefer for the phenomenon of someone in the throes of compulsively giving you too much information), the total knee replacement surgery has happened, and the surgeon and members of his team were pleased to report that the procedure went well. That was November 16th, some four weeks ago, and let it be said that the quality of the recovery is fairly much as they laid it out to me in various classes and pre-operation consultations . No surprises , nothing unexpected , no  complications, all of which is great news and something that I kept in mind as I hobbled through the early  sessions of physical therapy and pain.

A great stiffness overcame me, my left leg was one purple, swollen mass of tissue and retreaded nerve ganglia, my pain was , for a time, out of this world. It chafes my pride a bit to admit that I had lost interest, for a period, in the doings of the world outside my sphere of pain; it was the only thing I could focus on. But, as I said, the team involved in aiding back to the world of the ambulant were good and attentive and knew how to manage a patent's pain. Select pain medications, of course, were called for in this endeavor, both to give me respite from the searing agony of intense discomfort and, most importantly, to allow me to commit to the exercise required to acquaint myself with my new substitute  knee apparatus . The mission now, with the physical therapists, is to build up strength, to build up the muscle that has diminished , to learn the right methods of crossing the streets in a city that at the moment seem to be little more than broad avenues that exist only to form busy intersections full of cars   trucks, motor cycles,skate boards and punk motor  bikes on patrol to keep those with canes , walkers and wheel chairs on their side of the street. 

Yes, that's not how I truly see the streets of hometown San Diego; it's just an idea that forms as you begin to miss the mobility you had as pedestrian. That said, it's a view I can get over, as my career of being myself seems to involve a continual process of getting over myself, which is, mostly, conquering fears, or at least stepping ahead of them after making a decision --the worst thing in this existence is suffering the consequences for refusing to change with the currents or ignore the protests of the body that only get louder and sharper with time. What I looked forward too is writing more, a lot more, much more writing, playing more music, much more music, involving myself more in the occasionally inspired photography I've done in the past few  years, and , of course, a longer life of walking , of being a professional pedestrian, touring my far flung neighborhoods without pain. There is a new adventure on the horizon. I pray, simply and too a higher power that knows no political allegiance that I continue to roll with the punches and keep the willingness to change when the change is underway. As always, keep a smile your face and your wits sharp. The conversation, I suspect, is about to start anew.

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.