Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Play ball

 (Originally posted in 2007, but  it's Summer and we need a baseball poem critique to maintain the mystique as to what this blog thinks it's about.-TB)

In theory I ought to like Alan Michael Parker's poem "I Have Been Given a Baseball..." more than I do because it exhibits traits I find appealing and find not often enough; straight, unpretentious language, a knowing details about a world we might recognize from our own experience, and a deft hand of knowing when to give the details and when to hold back, to let mood and substance fill in those details that plain narrative facts cannot express. Still, Parker's poem leaves me with that after taste one might associate with Sharps or Odouls or some other fake beer they might deign to sample and find themselves having to comment on what the faux ale tasted like. Gamy, I'd say, no pun intended.

You can taste the resemblance to actual lager, but what you take away is how the simulation jumped the rails and gave you a cotton tongue and a mouth that felt like it had a long drink of your mom's shampoo. Similarly, Parker's piece reads like a poem and does it's paces very well--pause, sit, speak, roll over, go abstract, give a glimpse of something comprehensible, now conclude, wistfully, whispering--but I can't get over the gutlessness of the enterprise.

The problem might being with the subject itself, baseball and it's relation to the collective consciousness of how we'd like to regard ourselves; so much has been made of this over the century, supported, amended, expanded, contracted, with limitless layers of irony and outrage that one is hard pressed to name a particular emotion or dramatic trope that hasn't through baseball's diamond-formed symbolism. The sheer attraction of the game, how it appeals to the perceived American virtues of openness and fair play and playing by the rules, that agenda after agenda, attitude after attitude have been pushed through it's fabled fields in the order of making a point, of laying out how great we are or how debased we have become. There's not much chance of using baseball again as a means to underscore points of pain of injustice or unspoken joy without having one's poetic feet snap the worm-eaten structure on which this mythology lies. Parker, though, is game and gives it a try, lowering his sights smartly enough , to a set of hieroglyphs mysteriously set in front of him, the base ball of the title

emblazoned with a map
of the New York City subways,

a novelty item complete with the violet
No. 7 line, the train that clatters out to Shea.
Too often in the '70s in the rain

I saw the Mets lose there,
among anonymous fans
under orange and blue umbrellas

or the occasional grocery bag.

There is splendid compression here, wonderful enjambment of details, a rush of words of someone speaking in a hurry, bringing us to their concern in the mid thought; the way these opening stanzas first describe the map sketched on the ball (smartly omitting how the author came to be given the object) dissolves into local New York history. This is the stammer and stream of a local who has shared in the accumulated heartache and rage of being a Mets fan. Parker echoes on of the ongoing themes of Don DeLillo's novel Underworld, which follows the trading of a particular baseball that his passed along father to son, son to collector, that is reputed to have been the ball that was knocked out the Park during a crucial baseball game, "the shot heard around the world". There is no documentation to authenticate the claims of historical significance by the sellers, but what becomes more important aren't traceable facts and measurable evidence but instead the selling itself, the story telling that goes with the baseball, the language that seduces one into believing that this is indeed the baseball that was the decisive factor in the critical game, and that it radiates its genuine , extra material attributes; the buyers want this ball to be there connection to a time when baseball was played when America and Americans were good and open, playing by the rules. Parker has his character recall his own game where so much depended on the quality of a play the Mets would make that he is moved toward a slight bit of charity when he recalls a woman who's son had taken ill and died:

There's a woman I know now
whose son has died:

she should have the ball.
In the stadium this evening
the anonymous fans are hiding

under orange and blue umbrellas
or the occasional grocery bag,
and I can see her son

happy there, at last,
fidgety in the bleachers.
The lights light up the field

perfectly in the buggy, humid night—
it's like being inside a pretty thought.
When the small, sodden crowd—

are they angels?—
begins to chant Let's Go Mets,
someone changes the chant to Let's Go Home.
This is where I get the real sense that Parker had lost interest in the poem and turned instead to a scenario that could have been cribbed from the limitless number of baseball scripts that have gone unproduced over the last twenty what was effective, telegraphing compression at the start, careening nicely with a sauntering swagger that gave off a sense of big hand gestures moving about to emphasize finer points, or a detail of a dint upon a type of car or baseball hide being described, turns into a crammed last segment you get on Law and Order. This affair has to be ended now, let me out of here, get out of the way! On Law and Order they've taken to having someone get shot to death in the courtroom , the court building or in the hotel room where Police were stashing a People's witness as a means to resolve what dramatic problems they've set up for themselves when the clock urges them to quit finessing the details and to sew it all up, no matter how irrational or how ugly it becomes. Parker's narrator is motivated to hand the ball to the mother for reasons undisclosed, with the results being likewise sidestepped because the poet has discovered the writer's favorite trapdoor from a corner they've painted themselves into: ambiguity saves the day:

What would she do with the ball?
Whatever she wants,
whatever we do with anything.

 This is the effect of the poet sneezing at a crucial moment, turning his head to think of something else, mentally balancing his checkbook in the middle of delivering a simile. Parker wants us to use our own powers of streaming, steaming metaphor to read in all sorts of implications , invisible and unverifiable, that this cheat of an ending might signify, but what this evokes for me is a sight of a man walking away from an accident he caused. There is no meaning here beyond the disorderly exit of the last verses other than Parker hit the exits before this ball game was over.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Modernism and inconsolable coherence

Isn't "deconstruction" an attempt to apply scientific principles to the analysis of language and what it implies? There is a lot of science - envy among the critics in the arts and humanities, and they've seemed to latched on to the extrapolated language of anthropology and linguistics in order to keep their jobs: there is an effort, in the mission of literature departments, to continue to prove that there is stuff of quantifiable worth to be extracted from the study of novels and poems, and that they in some way adding to body of knowledge.Somewhere, so far as the criticism has gone in the last half of the century, the link was made with other discourses, which made much of literary study something of a gawky laughing stock: not historians, not scientists, not psychologists, not philosophers, the gamiest of theory wonks could prate on and onward on fields not his own, keeping the tenuous connection between their specialty, fictional accounts of experience, and real time bathos and tragedy obscured with an ever deepening reservoir of agonized murk. 

The result, of course, is an abandonment of criticism and theory's original mission to seek clarity, comprehension. Among the critics who are incapable of giving serviceable interpretations of books they reputedly teach, too many have produced a feeling that literary is as unapproachable to the non specialist as would a technical article in a medical journal. The post modern critic, too often, become the things they are nominally opposed to: they become a priesthood, the place where power is located! Whether Ginsberg or Ashbery are post modernists skirts this issue, not uncommon here; it's more fruitful to trace post modern poetry's influences. Ginsberg is a romantic, sure, but he was one in the 20th century, confronted with mass-media, A bombs, televised unpopular wars, the whole 60s shot, and his response to these accelerated times had to push the hackneyed envelope. If he trusted his sensibilities to make sense of the world, apart from the mind of God guiding him ( the central conceit of the Romantic Movement and it's attendant schisms), Ginsberg had to expand his poetic line, blur crucial distinctions about well-rendered introspection, and essentially clear the field for further innovation. 

Ashbery, in turn, developed a secret language, a self-addressing voice that managed not reveal much of the soul of the poet, but did much to reveal the writer's mind engaged with the world, musing in elegiac lines of things, their places in the scheme , their displacements by other things--this is the Supreme Fiction of Wallace Stevens, and it sought to bring harmony to a sphere of unknowable phenomenon. Both Ginsberg and Ashbery, coming from Romanticism and moving straight ahead into the Modernists' obessession with inventing new forms from old to gain new ideas about a world that won't yield itself to the individual mind, quite cannily opened the territory for the poets who would be called post-modern poets, wh0 would be, I think, anyone from Ron Silliman, Rae Armentrout or Bob Perelman of the Language school, to the Nuyorican poets, the slam movement, rap and hip hop, and even the largely odious New Formalist group. 

Post modernism, it appears, comes in as many stripes and hues and apologies as Romanticism, Modernism, or even classicism, and there is no hard rule that states that one cannot be a post modern Romantic. It's a reasonable distinction. Though a writer can bring all their resources to bear when they write, a certified grounding in philosophy isn't required to write fiction and poetry. 

The learning doesn't hurt the work if the writer is possessed of demonstrable inspiration, or genius, if you will, but what is essentially an act of the imagination is not required to furnish it's own critical aparatus in it's length. DeLillo, for example, can parse his own imagery and subject them to a cold analytical eye, and creating a haunting poetry about the signifiers fading resonance in a reality that never stops blinking, but his genius is rare. John Barth is very clever, some times brilliant in his deployment of knowing literary conceits in his work, best, I think, in the The Floating Opera, End of the Road and The Sot Weed Factor, and it can also be said , though, that in spite of the "special learning" to attain the rarified information that was needed to construct these novels, Barth wrote the works to operate as novels, as entertainments, first before all, not as formal arguments against prior literary movements. The process is as instinctual as it is deliberate, I think, as is good criticism, who's task, repeat, is to interpret the books in an activity separate from the novel.

The artist DOESN'T choose his influences, rather, he finds himself chosen by them.

Too flat an absolute a statement to be useful here: Bloom's refinement of a dialectical model to describe, in sweeping, how influence forms new writing is spectacular, but he over reaches, and over states his case with an insistence that influences choose the writer rather than the other way around. This is a deconstructive reversal that's cuter than it is precise. It's half the tale. Better to have it half and half: the writer certainly exercises choice so far as who they opt to read through their lifetime, and makes judgments based on their reading as to who matters more than others in the forming of a idiosyncratic aesthetic. The writer, as reader, is not a passive agent here. A writer "being chosen" by their influences makes more sense, I think, when he place the statement at the moment when the writer is actually writing, when inspiration, imagination, and whatever other resources a writer has at their behest combine, churn, swirl, and combine in ways during the drafting that could result in interesting, original work. 

Process is a word that's horribly abused and bled of meaning these days, but here it's appropriate. Creative process is a strange ritual unique to each writer, an idiosyncratic set of habits that are the basis of the discipline needed for a writer to actually stay seated long enough to produce and bring the work through all it's stages. It's the mysterious clutch of protocols that unleash the influences into the creative roil , and it's here, during these churning, erupting , fever pitched sessions where a writer looses the ability to control the influences about them, large and small, whether from their personal reading, or from the larger culture: it's here where the writer is literally "chosen" by the influences and styles about them and literally have their style defined and guided. So it seems to me, anyway. For the force of the unconscious in the work, of course: memories emerge, scenarios spontaneously form, and arcs are drafted and written out to link disparate sketches on a narrative spine that rapidly becomes a fleshed-out work. Of course. But the steps to get to the point where writing actually commences, I believe, begins with some conscious choices the writer makes in the world that's given to them: deciding what has value among the given--whatever we mean by that-- constitutes choice. What happens beyond that is what becomes problematic, and subject to niggling disagreement. But conscious human agency is not

How could the beliefs be useful if they weren't true? I could have many false beliefs that are coherent, but of what use would they be? The test of any theory is in how it works, and the gauge for how it works is in whether it's employment is of observable benefit to others, i.e., does it give some one and their community a coherent and workable structure to live life, to promote what would locally be defined as the Greater Good, and likewise provide a means for helping a community absorb change, how however and why ever it happens. The test of whether a theory is useful, if I remember my James, is whether such a methodology leads one to a truth that's germane in situ.

The usefulness of a theory is judged by how it side steps the confounding and conflating "proofs" of what constitutes Truth, with the big "t", and instead enables one to find something that works in mending the immediate situation. Speaking for myself, Lost in the Funhouse is nicely written gripe in which Barth, flowing of pen, voices a buried resentment against his own reading habits, a collection that's kind of dull: he voices the complaint against the dreary optimism of modernism, the same dull complaints, in fact, and yet wishes that had been him, rather than Joyce or Faulkner at the key moments of break-through novel writing: a Bloomian moment with his career, with his writing desperately bloated books, his "literature of exhaustion" to demonstrate how much more radical he would have been had he the power to intervene in recent literary history, and also a classic example of the School of Resentment. Barth, I think, resents his teachers, or at least writes like he does.. His work, though important in the postmodern genre, is among it's dullest. The Floating Opera, though, is a masterpiece: brief, funny, unusual, un-selfconscious in it's re-formation of the novel. Allen Ginsberg, speaking of a conversations he had with his mentor William Carlos Williams, gave a definition of Modernist perception as being that "...the thing itself is it's own adequate symbol..." Further, there is the strong suggestion that there is no God in this scheme, that the "thing" being perceived did not require an ideal type, or any other kind of Ideal superstructure in order to exist, to be. Ginsberg, and later poet/critic Jerome Rothenberg, gave a suggestion that this was Western writing's back-door approach toward more open structures, to decidedly unsystematized philosophies, witnessed in the Beat flirtations with Zen. This brings us knocking at the door of an extended Modernist approach--a style in which avant-garde procedure became an ironic protocol to literary writing--that became, in some critical finessing, post modernism.

My slight bit about Derrida is that his central contribution to the analysis of literature was creating a rhetorical means by which a generation of coming literary critics was relieved from having to discuss a book in a way that shows that they've actually read it. I've struggled with Derrida's work for several years, and have absorbed quite a bit of writing by him and about him and his ideas, and evasion of the book, the author's concerns, seems more the game rather than explication. 
Many times when one thinks they've come upon an oasis of actual discussion in this varicose discourse , both Derrida or an apostle one might be reading makes a hard turn, left or right, from whatever metaphorical road or river you might have been traversing; in any event, every side road, alley, tributary and inlet was wandered into and prated about until exhaustion drove the reader from the chair and desk they sat at, not convinced of Derrida's and deconstruction's vague premises, but rather resigned that this was a peculiar literary mafia who had no intention of treating literary work like it had an intrinsic worth. Derrida and his supporters argued otherwise, in their few moments of assertive writing, and maintained that the deconstructive process intends to reveal a multitude of interpretations by demonstrating what contradictory positions compose nominally “authoritative” texts. 
It's a grand project on the face of it, an investigative premise intriguing enough to be worth a try, but the results of twenty plus years of post-structuralist theory applied to an arbitrarily termed "canon" produced not clarity, nor comprehension, but only more confusion. One understands why Harold Bloom, a former proponent of Derrida's method, tired of the nihilistic wallow of post-modernism and turned his attentions again to a more fruitful mission of literary criticism and the attending philosophical/religious digressions, how literature gives a reader and a culture a malleable interior superstructure one filters raw experience with. Derrida's accomplishment , I think, was to take assume an array of philosophical tropes available from credible philosophy survey course , add his own egregious seasoning to the unpalatable stew, and turn what used to the sort of infinite prattle of the cocktail party poser into book contracts, tenured positions, and all the other perks of being a celebrity intellectual. It's significant about Derrida's contribution to literary criticism that his name rarely, if ever, arises when useful quotes about authors and their books are the subject of a conversation. 

This is a twofold irony, the literary critic with nothing useful to say about what they've been reading, and an incredibly bad writer as well. That such an awful scribe makes such a dent in the upper reaches of the culture ought not surprise us, just as the success of Jackie Collins is a twofold irony, the literary critic with nothing useful to say about what they've been reading, and an incredibly bad writer as well. That such an awful scribe makes such a dent in the upper reaches of the culture ought not surprise us, just as the success of Jackie Collins no longer distresses mainstream book reviewers. Often times talent and ability have nothing to do with an author's good fortune.

My principle misgiving with Derrida's ideas was his insistence that one cannot argue a point with certainty; there is a lot more to his arguments, subtle, abstruse, and obscured with every evasive trick of the tongue and pen he could muster, but this cluster of notions is at the heart of his life's work. I'm willing to grant that Derrida's intentions were all for the best--that he would expose how the production of meaning, and with it a hazy notion of "authority" comes from a socially constructed set of binary oppositions which, of course, entrenches in constrained ideas about reality-- but his failure to be clearer with his method and aim, and more useful in how readers and citizens can configure a discourse that might lead to ways of ridding the world of its internalized malfunctions has given us instead a sort of relativistic nihilism that advances the severest reactionary premises with what to do with the planet we live on. Baudrillard, certainly, has take the opening as a chance to advance his set of tightly quipped solipsisms that insist, at the heart of their gnomic devising, that apathy is as effective and meaningful political gesture as any collective might take on. 

Since no definitive or authorial fixed moral argument can be made against racism, genocide, homophobia, imperialism, colonialism , pollution, et al,so the thinking goes, one may as well go about their way in this existence unmindful of what constitutes ethics or responsibility, and fulfill such base desires and impulses that give that transitory definition to one's existence, a fleeting sensation of purpose to be replaced by another fleeting fleet sensation, and so on, until one drops, spent, exhausted, dead. This encourages apathy in the pursuit of truth, I think, and in fact reinforces such paranoid mind sets which need to witlessly demonize whole sections of a society's citizenry as "other" and "evil". Racism and homophobia are allowed to thrive in the absence of the ability to make a principled statement, to have a debate, to reach a consensus about what constitutes an idea of right and wrong no longer distresses mainstream book reviewers. Often time talent and ability have nothing to do with an author's good fortune. My principle misgiving with the ideas was his insistence that one cannot argue a point with certainty; there is a lot more to his arguments, subtle, abstruse, and obscured with every evasive trick of the tongue and pen he could muster, but this cluster of notions is at the heart of his life's work. I'm willing to grant that Derrida's intentions were all for the best--that he would expose how the production of meaning, and with it a hazy notion of "authority" comes from a socially constructed set of binary oppositions which, of course, entrenches in constrained ideas about reality-- but his failure to clearly outline his method and aim, and more useful in how readers and citizens can configure a discourse that might lead to ways of ridding the world of its internalized malfunctions has given us instead a sort of relativistic nihilism that advances the severest reactionary premises with what to do with the planet we live on. 

Baudrillard, certainly, has take the opening as a chance to advance his set of tightly quipped solipsisms that insist, at the heart of their gnomic devising, that apathy is as effective and meaningful political gesture as any collective might take on. Since no definitive or author- fixed moral argument can be made against racism, genocide, homophobia, imperialism, colonialism , pollution, et also the thinking goes, one may as well go about their way in this existence unmindful of what constitutes ethics or responsibility, and fulfill such base desires and impulses that give that transitory definition to one's existence, a fleeting sensation of purpose to be replaced by another fleeting fleet sensation, and so on, until one drops, spent, exhausted, dead. At best, his expression of his ideas was a thick , lush weave of deferring equivocation and generous portions of gravity-defying association that thrilled you with the virtuoso language he could spin to keep on the edge of your expectation, sounding as if he were about to arrive at some set of something useful. One didn’t understand a phrase or a word, but one loved to hear him talk. At worse, he reminds me of Walter Benjamin, unable to shake his jargon lest someone find something in his writing they can interrogate in earnest. What he seemed to be saying, in louder or softer tones, and nearly always with the vaguest paint he could color his notions with, is that the authentic, the natural, the fixed reality we dream of returning to, is gone and never existed and how we conduct ourselves via strategies to oppose oppression and effect changes in our condition are doomed, finally, and illusory, since all is ceaseless duplication and variations of opposing versions of historical finality. It's all for naught, and we might as well do nothing at all , merely consume within the storylines and props given us and allow the puppets with the microphones, tv cameras and the Army and Navy to run their games. Remember, Baudrillard was brilliant at describing things and mounting details of what is contradictory, perverse or demonstrably false; notice, though, that he offered no idea on what anyone could do about the situation. My thoughts are that JB was a nihilist, and that the bald face of post modernism, in its global viralism, is to encourage inaction, apathy. There's much of the round robin in his rap, a circuitry that works any argument against itself. But it reveals a fatuous tendency to not answer a question. Agendas are not Baudrillard's strong suit, and after all the illusions that his evasions are a form of liberation and empowerment for those at the margins--the criminal, the student, gays , lesbians, transgendered, the perennially non white, we finally have a poetics that finds glory in things falling apart while the privileged reap their final profits. Their prescription for the population was what neocons wish for the voters;go back to sleep.

 This encourages apathy in the pursuit of truth, I think, and in fact reinforces such paranoid mind sets which need to witlessly demonize whole sections of a society's citizenry as "other" and "evil". Racism and homophobia are allowed to thrive in the absence of the ability to make a principled statement, to have a debate, to reach a consensus about what constitutes an idea of right and

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Guy Grogan is an established presence on the alt-rock terrain, someone who confesses his sins without fashioning a persona of being either saint or sinner. For all the hurt , malice, lurid joy and occasional bits of humanity and kindness this fellow chooses to write songs about with his hook-driven genius, Grogan is the common guy, the everyman, the guy in the bar you see at the daily happy hour, or the dude you espy daily at the bus stop at the same time each instance, going somewhere, with things to do. His music conveys the stories of a regular Joe with tunes that are simple but melodic, guitars that rock but don’t bludgeon, lyrics that let it all hang out without creating earache .”My Own Way Out”, a medium rocker from his new album Dynamite Bouquet, commences with a killer power chords, is the testament of a man giving voice to a feeling that he’s trapped in a conspiracy he is only vaguely aware of:

hey you come down from there when you feel like you’ve made despair come true sometimes I don’t much care for me sometimes I decide to leave me be
Their pronouns change, from “you” to “I”, and there is the mystery of who Grogan’s is talking about; I’m in favor of thinking that he keeps his practice to everyday speech and uses the altering references as interchangeable ways of the narrator talking about himself. It feels natural, it feels un-strained, confused but not cluttered, startling in its brevity. With a voice residing somewhere between the nasal croon of Elvis Costello and the soulful braying of Tom Petty, his tunes are not guitar bashes alone, revealed in “River Like a Cry”, a ballad surmising the end of an affair that has gone deep to the bone, the moment of realization that any chance of reconciliation is passed , that all that remains for the parting couple is to
let it go with the river let it go like a cry you tell me when we will wither i tell you when we will die.
This does approach the bittersweet pleasures Costello composes, but where Costello lyrically extends beyond his established talent at poeticizing miserable experiences and giving listeners a collision of competing metaphors and similes(some brilliant, some not so good), Grogan’s spare evocations make the telling more vivid, more heartfelt, and there is the feeling this serves to create the underlying idea that life goes on, one pushes on , one is not done experiencing the joy and heartache that is their birthright.An intriguing songsmith, Grogan is providing an album’s worth of tunes in a variety of styles that sweetly and succinctly reveals his weaknesses and strengths and the hard-won humor a songwriter who remains in the trenches with the rest of us. Dynamite Bouquet stands apart from most others in the genre that is full of songwriters who make their music unlistenable, in large measure, by theatricality they bring to their emotions. Grogan is more in the Hemingway school, a man with the knack for the terse summation, the toughness of getting on with it. The feelings go deep and still, life goes on and still, Guy Grogan continues to rock it as hard as he needs to. He makes his  awkward  phrasing and his mulling equivocation over emotional hot    buttons whose loathsome pangs    don't abate into something endearing; this is the unique combination of a songwriter who tersely combines a worldview of permanent ambivalence with  a guitar rock that contrarily makes you feel that he'll  get over his agonies and conundrums stronger but wiser. Waiting for that too happen has often enough a sore point with artists who begin intriguingly as poets of post-college emotional shapelessness but, over time, evidence arrested development thematically as they grow older and release. 
For the time being, Groder's situation lures you in because of the compelling grind of his brand of guitar rock. Will he age into a new Neil Young, who has used his advanced age to bring out a subtler worldview while still producing some of the grungiest electric guitar of this and the last century,  or will Grogan be the newest 60-year-old teenager still moping about lost love decades after it happened? Stay tuned, and in the meantime enjoy this spikey set of condensed, 4/4 mood pieces.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Pause for the Cause of Writing Something that is Greater than What Your Ego Imagines

Imitating pretentious writers makes you, in turn, pretentious. An additional quality of ranting foolish eventually turns you into a fool. Some of you are thinking the obvious following that last sentence, "Well it's too late for you, jack," but hear me out,. That was the case today when I happened across a post on Medium from a fellow who insisted, more or less, that one must emulate the habits of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady and never stop!  This would-be Beat is one of those scribblers who have the idea that one can create (and sustain) beauty with speed, sheer acceleration. Below is my response to him, less an effort to change his mind that it is an effort to allow air into the room. All that rapid perception can make things funky. This scribe, I should note, responded to a lengthy anti- Kerouac diatribe I posted. Diatribe it was, but I made an actual argument against the turning of JK into a paragon of anything concerning real literature. Our fellow here responded with this non-response "u mad bro?" So yes, I was a little irritated. 

Well, you have to stop sometimes so you can appreciate what the senses have given you as you go your way through the world . You have to stop in order to write about the need to pursue the seductive logic of never stopping . But you have to stop before you go forward, as the brain absorbs only so much ; you stop , you breathe, you think, you connect what has happened recently with the narrative of a life already recorded.This engages you with the world, truly, this is where the poetry comes from, not gushing hot lava adjectives and verbs while writing that the world is made more real by moving forward, with out apology, without pause or reflection, following the string where ever it leads. But this is not poetry and it is not lyricism. The writer in those times they stop agitating the gravel and take pause to reflect, meditate, consider the thingness of the world they’ve blazed through a little too quickly, there arises the sense that one forgets that they are a writer, the self-appointed priest of making things happen on the fly; the writing becomes about the world , the people, the places, the things that occupy the same space as you, the same patch of land your visiting. It becomes less about the writer, the seeker of knowledge attempting to gain knowledge through velocity , the impatient explorer more concerned with inflaming their senses rather than being genuinely curious about and teachable within the world. You have to stop , take a breath, create a language, a poetry, a prose style that convinces the reader that they’ve actually encountered something extraordinary in their travels through hill and dale, river and inlet, village and burg, that they’ve actually learned something they didn’t know before. Otherwise , I believe, nothing is revealed because nothing was learned and, despite all manner of ranting and such protests defending one’s unique view, that view is forgotten and another opportunity is lost to move a reader in ways you might not have expected.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

The return of muscle tone

There was a time when it seemed that every other single musician and band coming over the radio and over the transom had pretty much scuttled guitars as the centerpiece of pop music , preferring cascading and eliding keyboards, pianos and synthesizers both, as the preferred means to make listeners that music was no longer about Chuck Berry or Bachman Turner Overdrive. Welcome to the mid seventies, when matters of melody became serious, grandiose, bands like Yes, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Kansas and even the power trio likes of Rush committing their resources to tricky time signatures,abrupt changes of tone and style, obligatory faux-orchestral atmospherics courtesy of the Moog and mini Moog synthesizers, and certainly, a surfeit of excessively earnest lyrics obsessed with sci fi themes or else wallowing in the shallow end of the pool of deep thought. Pretentious in other words. Not that pleasures were absent, though, as I had my share of record review rants proclaiming that rock and roll had grown up,matured, had become a “legitimate” art form, ready for the concert hall and the canon.Nothing stings like 20–20 hindsight, of course, and let us say that the music of many an art rocker had not traveled well into the 21st century, sunk by their own pretensions and, most damningly, by producing music that was all parts with no sum to add up to. Save for Zappa , King Crimson, and the blessedly wonderful song-emphasis of Peter Gabriel era Genesis, so much of the era’s classically -slanted music was a disorganized , bloated mess, all arrangements and no music you’d care to pay attention to.Robert Nix,  a multi-instrumentalist and composer besides, isn’t about to let the genre fade into pop music history with a reputation for grand-scale naivete . He brings impressive musical muscle, which is to say musical ideas to his new album Once in a Blue Moon ; Nix as composer has a superb grasp of the dissonant, the quarter phrase, the angular progression, the means where melody approaches the atonal to emphasize a lyrics message or mood, dense chords from guitars and a crucially compact compression of keyboard textures to heighten the mood of the lyrical ruminations. There is a sense of disruption in Nix’s music, the pacing is tricky and sufficiently abstracted, but there is a strong evidence here that the artist has studied contemporary theatrical musicals along the lines of Sweeney Todd ; Nix is not thematic , or as thematic, as the narratives that make their way to the proscenium , as his songs are stand-alone testimonials, but there is form and integration in his outlay, where his vocals, a bit thin and reedy but effectively talk -sung and multi-tracked, clash and reconcile with the contraction and release of the ever-active arrangements. The album moves forward, the music spirals, recoils and continually renews itself.  There is no lack of buzzing activity , there is not a moment when you get a sense of the composer offering up a bit of gussied up mood music so he might have a seat and congratulate himself for being serious. Nix keeps it hopping, as in a masterfully calculated track “I Will Not Go With The Flow”;cooly detached one moment that then evolves to matters suggesting a musical variation of cubism, a kind of sound that seems to unfold and reshape itself so the many sorts of nuances and attitudes of the tunes are exposed simultaneously, a personality arguing with itself.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Sometimes crazy is merely crazy

Too many books are called "unfilmable" as a matter of habit; each of us, I bet, can offer an example of a novel that" could not be adopted" that found a splendid movie interpreter. "An American Dream," though, is one of those books that truly does not lend itself well to what we regard as good moving making source material. This version was so redacted as something resembling a Saturday Night Live sketch rather than a vision of one's breakdown and journey into the psychic wilds. 

AAD was Mailer's best use of Lawrence's influences and his unique ideas about religious existentialism. It was a brooding, baroque and sensationalistic embrace of the irrational, the madness poet Allan Ginsberg declared that we must not hide, the intensely focused idea that the impulses beyond the Norm can actually deliver us, individually and collectively, from greater insanity that erodes our humanity, and worse, our masculinity by the repulsive inch. Crackpot theories of all sorts proposing extreme and unsubstantiated cures for the ailing psyche were resonating in Mailer's mind at the time he took on the endeavor to write An American Dream on deadline, a chapter a month for Esquire magazine, the goal is to write quickly for equally quick cash. Mailer took the challenge and never looked back, the result being what would be an utterly ridiculous novel saved only by the sublime and frenetic flights of language the author's fevered pace produced as each deadlined reared. It isn't surprising that Mailer had a few of his own, a spikey concoction took from Marx, Wilhelm Reich, Lawrence. It was a crime novel, a novel of metaphysical mulling, a tale of a spiritual quest, a black comedy, a confession, a serial about the dysfunctions of the wealthy.  The things that irritated readers in the novel--murder, sodomy, a battle with a black musician with a definite hoodlum style--are nonetheless presented with the frenetic brilliance of Mailer's prose, a rushing stream of continuous simile, metaphor, and allegory of a man in the throes of a breakdown that leaves a good amount of wreckage in his wake. At the same time, he pursues the impulse to learn how to be brave and love genuinely by extraordinary measures. 

The film, the skeletal and deadpan rendition of the admittedly lurid plot, gets none of Mailer's tone, nuance, or inclination precisely. This was Mailer's testing his theories about violence and transformation from "The White Negro" and what it revealed to Mailer, I believe, was that the kind of spiritual transformation through an embrace of an anti-social and psychotic definition of "courage" resulted in Mailer didn't expect, which caused Mailer to re-think his notions about the curative properties of his imagined road to genuine masculinity. It seems that the gulf between Saint and Psychotic was larger than he first thought, that the psychotic is in a state in which they remain psychotic and become a threat to themselves and the communities in which they live. 

Do the pure products of America go insane, as WC Williams has remarked? In any event, his next novel, "Why Are We in Vietnam," a cannily refurbished telling of Faulkner's short tale "The Bear," puts to men in the woods hunting pray with far too much firepower and reveals characters trying to make nature bow to their will and weapons, with a narrator, DJ, telling the tale in a surreal mix of idioms--disc jockey, black hipster, a southern baptist preacher, literary scholar--ranting on about God and men and penises and caca with no direct connection to anything outside nature if only to insist in a diffuse ramble that all returns to earth as waste. And the question in the title is answered only on the last page, but with no direct answer but this ."Hot damn! Vietnam". Do the pure products of America go insane? Mailer answered by imagining his notions of achieving masculinity through blood rites: as pure American products, we were in Vietnam because we had to be. We end up being the things we choose to become, with results that run afoul of our ideas of resulting benefits.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Samuel Beckett's Crackling Static

Playwright, novelist and poet Samuel Beckett , better than any other 20th century writer I've read, best expressed the pervasiveness of what one can refer to as the " existential stall". That is say that is the  the state at which one realizes precisely the redundant nature of their existence, the stuff of the everyday being reduced to activities that have gone beyond habit or ritual and slipped into the anonymous functions of organisms maneuvering out of organic necessity, without the philosophical solace of free will. Combined with that is the awareness his narrators have of the small set of rooms their biographies and emotional reservoirs inhabit, but yet even with such acute awareness, done so in fractured, cryptic, half coherent remarks and complaints against a scenery and set of responses that repeat themselves , reliable as brief train schedules, there is not the will, the imagination, the energy to break the chains and do something else all together.
  These elements combined, churning, burning, roiling with their unchanging content , results in a paralysis, the inability to transcend one's despair and ennui and create something new and dynamic for themselves. An old saw of existentialist thought, a notion detectable in even the more abstruse and gratingly opaque writings of Kierkegaard, Tillich, Sartre, and the lot, religious and atheist alike, is that life gains meaning through one's acceptance of the fact that purpose is not given to our breathing and ambulatory ways metaphysically, but only by an act  of creative commitment to a way of living, and and the taking responsibility for the consequences of choosing to live in such a self defined fashion.
 The discussions are lengthier than that in each and all existential authors worth discussing,but the essential notion is that there is an ethical dimension one must achieve with complete awareness of what the world is like, in situ. Achieving this requires work, though, and such work is the sort of thing that causes the proverbial realization of everything you thought you knew about yourself and the life that contains your existence is wrong. Beckett's characters only get half way there and prefer, it seems,the persecution of the hallow echo of their meaningless , repetitive acts than the true freedom that is the adventure of wandering into the truly unknown.

Self awareness in Beckett's world is not the same as free will. Beckett's world is the eternal state of the mind that is too stimulated to sleep and which will not be quieted by lullaby or even the mortal need to rest, shut down, physically and psychically recoup. "I Can't Go On, I Go On" was the title of a superb reader of Beckett's writing , and it crystallizes Beckett's theme of awareness, paralysis. One is weary unto death and wants to surrender and perhaps die , finally, of an exhaustion only the strongest of us can bear, and yet the subject pushes on, repeats the pattern, masters some version of cliche and self assurance to make the reentry into the endless game palatable, but soon enough the protests begin again, the complaints about the trap, the fragments of memory that hint at the happy time when all was whole and fluid, and the trauma that was the fall from grace that removed the salve of hope and purpose from a life and made into a hell of awareness of the sheer futility of pressing on and it's twin state, the futility of abandoning what one is doing over,  and over and over. Beckett's art is the artful display of people in purgatories of their own creating.


why not merely the despaired of
occasion of
is it not better abort than be barren
the hours after you are gone are so leaden
they will always start dragging too soon
the grapples clawing blindly the bed of want
bringing up the bones the old loves
sockets filled once with eyes like yours
all always is it better too soon than never
the black want splashing their faces
saying again nine days never floated the loved
nor nine months
nor nine lives

saying again
if you do not teach me I shall not learn
saying again there is a last
even of last times
last times of begging
last times of loving
of knowing not knowing pretending
a last even of last times of saying
if you do not love me I shall not be loved
if I do not love you I shall not love
the churn of stale words in the heart again
love love love thud of the old plunger
pestling the unalterable
whey of words
terrified again
of not loving
of loving and not you
of being loved and not by you
of knowing not knowing pretending
I and all the others that will love you
if they love you


unless they love you

This is a poem about being broken entirely, where the light of one's life is removed through death, divorce and the cruel metaphorical walls that comprise estrangement, a situation where the other side of the bed might as well another continent entirely. The implication here is death, an abortion, a miscarriage, strongly suggested by the anguishing yearning  of the first stanza. What I take away is the death of the child that was to be the demonstration of the union between a man and woman, a continuation of themselves into to the world and to extend the essence of the two of them into the future which, like many of us do in younger years, assumed would be endless and without limit. But there is interruption, a death, what had been seen before as the bed where love creates life and so ensures a future with an accompanying purpose now becomes the place where it ends ; hope, love, great pleasures experienced in the seeking of greater gratification and purpose are fragile and are collapsed . There is no reason to continue but one cannot stop, so existence becomes the oblong circle of infinite recollection, rage, regret, resignation, none of the elements illuminating anything in the narrator's life other than the moments leading up the fall.

This a lament that goes on forever in dreams one cannot change, a horror of torched land, trace feelings of now absent embrace, tenderness that grew hard as rock, intimacy that became distance, talk that became slogans, things repeated. There is the imagery of what was fruitful now gone barren, arid, what was full of life now bereft of spirit, animation. There are hints of blood, abortion, of falling in love when the sensation was new and suggestive of possibilities that could be fulfilled and renewed without end or resolution, but love that had cooled to mere affection and familiarity, a love that became habit and redundant rhetoric of convenience that rattled the nerves and deadened an already eviscerated soul with the crushing banality of the expression.

 One half asks and half answers their own questions, repudiate their own protests, stifle the roar of rage with a hard, gulping swallow. One wants to destroy the bounds that keeps this a rotating cycle of dread , one wants to walk away from the argument with oneself, that add space in the psyche where inflated sense of guilt and the wan giddiness of redemption and deliverance alternate in informing the nervous system that the war that rages in the center of one's emotional continuum is harsh,  unforgiving, ongoing,
 Beckett's dramas and his novels and his poems as well are resolutions denied, interrupted, a jabbering of frayed tongues uttering repetitive phrases and variations there of as the characters, the narrators, the damned search through images of the past  attempting to locate the precise moment things went wrong , awry, and life became a sequence of competing monologues that cannot , for all their sound and sharp recounting of people , places and things, stumble upon an idea , an inspiration that might avail them like wisdom and insight, This is Beckett's genius.
 This poem is nothing less than a man who has been  figuratively skinned alive by the collapse of his great love; there is moaning to the sky and beyond, a caterwaul to beyond the stars and perhaps to the ear of a God who does not intervene nor offer the intuited clue as to how to achieve closure and to garner the strength to press on with the remains of  one's life once the affair is cruelly concluded. Whether there is God who will do the impossible if he were sought or a God who is sadistic, silent and passive is not the point because all there is is silence and the elements that allow for growth are within, if one, no matter how bereaved and bemoaning , has it within himself to break free of the past they are chained to and dare to imagine a remainder of life that is new, unknown. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

album review: Bryan Deister turns a groove into a rut with "Spines of the Heart"

It’s a cinch that Bryan Deister worked hard on his recent release Spines of the Heart, as it seems this one-man wonder provided every sonic wash, each cradled chord, each vocal croon and cry, every earnest word, each dollop of solemn percussion on his own. There is much here to recommend his music to fans of the brooding likes of Radiohead, late-period Pink Floyd, and the post-Velvet Underground graveyard goth of John Cale. There is not much to recommend to consumers who prefer their traffic to move along rather than remain tonally static. Deister has worked hard, yes, but the range isn't as broad nor genre-bending as his publicity materials suggest with its mentions of the musician's classical training and background in jazz, rock and rhythm and blues and trance modes. Some genuine fusion of ideas might have occurred here.Deister feels deeply, or at least the mulling personas who embody the lyrics do, and there is nary a hint of joy or happiness to come away with. His music, clever in some instances, routinely trudging in others where the tone is downcast and which always seems to require the most plodding instrumental backdrop conceivable, is defeated, finally, by a monotony that results in very little in the way of variety. The experience is not unlike that of playing with one of those toys you find in museum gift shops, a flat plastic casing containing sand of different grades and weight and different colors that, when moved around and viewed with wide eyes and unflagging attention, offers a wondrous flow of sediment flowing in fluid motion to new layers, new striations of variously hued granules demonstrating what sedimentation means. Sadly, though, that is all it does, and what Deister, who we are told is trained in the disciplines of classical and jazz, not rising above the sedimentation, amazing as it might be, and revealing what else his musical garden might yield. For ninety minutes one does not feel they’ve ventured very far in the vehicle provided; one understands that the scenery and the narrative haven’t changed.It would have been a grand thing to break up the mood and the approach and give the listener more wrinkles in the otherwise smooth, if dingy blanket of music he created, along the lines of a truly crackerjack tune “Seven Eight” (referring to the song’s time signature), a jerky, Farfisa organ twist of angular cynicism that features a cool , low tech organ solo that collides,bumps and hopscotches over the jaggedly insistent. It’s the one instance where there is a sense that the narrator rises above morbid moping and like states of psychic status and attempts to re-contextualize his ’til then glum perspective. You have a sense of movement through the accursed weight of reflection, where music and words match and transform the world. Tension and release, a chance to breath faster, a moment when the ambient gloom gives away and something momentary occurs that brings us something that pulses like a genuine human response to otherwise overwhelming circumstances. I imagine there is more emotional variety and nuance in Deister’s experience and, indeed, more colors and shades and means to use them in his possession than what he allowed himself here.

Monday, May 9, 2016



Captain America : Civil Wars is a repetitive bore. Slow to get moving, and then it becomes a long, creaking fandango that alternates between sketchy conveyed expository dialogue and excessively choreographed fights ruined by a combination of MTV editing and a preponderance of seizure inducing camera work that jittered, jostled and in general neared the visual incoherence of a Transformers movie.And, for Christ sake, Tony Stark get even more Bruce Wayne-ish with newly revealed murdered parents issues. What desperate drag this was.Not that it was badly made, to be sure; CA:CW had the Marvel/House style that makes sure that matters of camera angles , cgi effects, fight scenes and editing are executed and presented in seamless fashion. There is a bland professionalism that has taken over Marvel Studios that are making their films stylistically indistinguishable from one another, less so, say, than the sort of factory-assembled cop shows that dominated 70s television.

 This is a shame, of course, because the Captain America tale on film has had a wonderful  arc on screen prior to the latest offering, beginning with the hero's origins in WW2, expanding splendidly in the first Avengers film, and evincing great potential for political intrigue with their plot borrowings from Three Days of the Condor, with the second CA film, Captain America:Winter Soldier. This more closely resembles a Saturday morning cartoon show in the vein of Animaniacs, where there are dozens of recognizable and more obscure pop culture personas running about in a varied states of frenzy and violent upheaval, only to each take a beat to deliver a quip, a joke, an ironic aside. humor blended with accelerated mayhem is Marvel's signature, but the glut of heroes fighting heroes, each with a polished repartee is too much of what used to be a good thing.

 The film seems like watching the last acts at Comedy Store amateur night, and at other times it comes across as characters auditioning for their own franchises. CA:CW seems only in service to set up the future of the Marvel Universe . Under-considered, alternately plodding and manic, hysterically talkative, jittery and jumbled as an action enterprise, this film is a self-distracting mess.

Saturday, May 7, 2016


This reminisce first appeared in the May, 2016 issue of tsandiegotroubadour.com
 Used with kind permission.
Joe Marillo. Photo by Dennis Andersen.
Photo by Dennis Anderson

At La Jolla’s old Chuck’s Steak House, in a cramped jazz lounge off to the side of the main dining room that seemed no bigger than a studio apartment, saxophonist Joe Marillo held forth on a miniscule stage, lifting his instrument above his chest, his back arched, letting fly with a rapid succession of notes that danced atop the pulse of a racing walking bass and the cymbal riding sweep of an earnest drummer. Wild as this might sound, the proverbial box of pots and pans dropped a flight of stairs yet Marillo and group were in the moment, the essence of jazz greatness, the duality of tossing caution aside, of forgetting formal training and the rules of engaging a song, and still finding extemporaneous musical beauty.

Joe in the 1970s
Joe in the 1970s
The hours of wood shedding; practice; and learning from flubs, goofs, and gaffes that were refined until licks and phrases became syntax for a tongue bypassing the logic of words, every slight, insult, belly laugh, fist fight, and love affair insinuating itself in each quarter note pause, each accelerated race of scales, each bluesy bend and gracious strut, turning the mere technique into a very real voice, tempered by experience. Technique is merely a matter of mechanics, skills an aptitude you demonstrate when you’re working for a grade. Talent, though, is what you learn, when theory meets practice. Practice meant playing with out the safety net as you showed the world what it was you’ve learned and the depth of personality you bring to the technique. Joe’s personality was deep, varied, sprite and somber, lyric and abrasive, emerging fully, masterfully from his instrument, the embodiment of a quote attributed to Charlie Parker:
Joe, 1964
Joe, 1964
Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your wisdom.
If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.
They teach you there’s a boundary line to music.
But, man, there’s no boundary line to art….
This was in the seventies, between 1973 through 1975. I can’t locate the exact date in my mind, but it’s a vivid memory all the same. I was working in a string of quizzical jobs—a poet and an occasional rock critic becoming rapidly bored by the calcified likes of rock ‘n’ roll and cautiously investigating jazz, the music of snobs, old people, and tonal chaos. I was watching Joe Marillo, who seemed to transport himself into dimensions without names as he blew and let his fingers fly over the saxophone keys, and then I understood that I didn’t need to understand what he was doing. All there was to do was listen as the allusive complexity of the improvisations cohered and provided the continuous sounds of revelation. I began to grasp the concept I could not grasp previously.

However much Joe seemed to be in a state of transcendence while he was in the throes of improvisational excursion when the music wound down—muted cymbal hisses and piano, bass and guitar fills diminishing in volume and speed as the leader offered one last, rich cadenza that concluded his sortie on a low, richly sustained major note—he stood up, opened his eyes, and looked about the lounge, an overcrowded room of San Diegans fortunate enough to experience Marillo’s bifurcated grooves. He looked squarely in the direction I was sitting. “We’re going to take a short break, have a drink, and let’s keep this scene going, eh?”
Joe with Stan Getz, 1974
Joe with Stan Getz

I sat with two of Joe’s friends, Robert and Jeri, and we were lucky enough to, among the comparative few, have a table inside the circumscribed lounge. They were pals I had since my early days as a UCSD undergraduate literature student and poet in the making. Robert, someone with a detailed knowledge and deep affection for music that was improvised, experimental, full of odd elements and outside the four-chord strictures of pop music, suggested we see Marillo and his band that night at Chuck’s. Robert suggested that Joe might be amenable to letting me sit in with my harmonica for a blues tune. Joe positioned his saxophone on a stand, grabbed his drink, and walked over our table. Fast and animated, Joe brought Robert and Jeri up to speed about what he was planning to do: start up his own jazz series at the Catamaran in Pacific Beach. Robert and Jeri did much the same, the conversation a blur, with rushed words and hasty summations of what had been going on over the weeks since they last saw each other, but altogether amiable, the kind of quick camaraderie among friends who understand the moods of their friends quickly when time was pressing. Joe looked at the “C” blues harmonica I had placed on the table, a cheesy habit I developed: put the instrument in conspicuous view and hope a professional musician would take the bait and ask me to play with him. It worked sometimes; other times the harmonica was ignored. Joe asked one question, pointing to the harmonica.

“What key is that thing in?” I told him that it was in the key of C.
“Tell you what,” he said, his voice a friendly, honking rasp, “you’re going to play a blues with us on the next song, when we start the next set.”
Photo by Dennis Andersen
Photo by Dennis Anderson

Play we did, a slow blues in G, myself trying to follow the augmented I-IV-V progression, Joe’s saxophone seasoning the groove with short fills, blurts, aching squeals, the drummer giving accenting key points of tension, and the pianist tinkling the keys with manic trills and quicksilver runs. Joe leaned over as I held the harmonica to the mic and the mic up to my mouth, likely looking to the crowd like someone who hadn’t eaten in a week who finally got his hands on a Big Mac and a side of fries. He offered these fateful words: “Go ahead, man, it’s all yours.” Play I did, and not all that well, my ideal sound being Paul Butterfield crossed with copious amounts of Sonny Terry, but the crowd provided a visible approval, heads nodding, bobbing, men with their eyes closed as though they were playing the mournful tones, women swaying in their seats, long hair fanning the table tops and overpriced drinks. My first note was a low moan, a bend on the two-draw note, next up to three draw, a construction of textures based on the progression. And so it went for two choruses, me intoning the riffs of the masters, the sounds coming out the house PA system and muffled by the collective sound of the band hammering hard on the grit that made Mississippi great. Joe was yelling “Yeah” at one point, near the last bit of my solo, giving me a start. I missed the groove
The crowd applauded and cheered, though. Joe patted me on the back and gently pushed me from the stage, friendly but firm. The band increased in volume and Joe took possession of the spot again. Center stage was a place where Joe Marillo belonged, gathered with musicians dedicated to making a living playing what is arguably America’s greatest music. In the 40 plus yeas that I listened to him, there seemed to be no style he couldn’t perform masterfully with his horn. There was the Coltrane factor where the register was jumping with steeple-chase changes of “Giant Steps,” which were negotiated with ease and panache by Joe. There was the large, blasting harmonics of Gato Barbieri when the groove went Latin-jazz and the notes assumed extra urgency; there was the delicate, ribbon-lyricism of a Paul Desmond when he did a ballad, his tone subdued, softer, investigating the emotions contained between a composer’s scripted subtle melodic configurations.

It needs to be said here, I think, that above all else, Joe Marillo was a master of his instrument, in my estimation, as well as a the pioneering musician whose legwork convinced a good number of restaurants, clubs, hotels, and cafes to regularly program jazz. Not long after seeing him for the first time at Chuck’s Steak House, Joe created the Society for the Preservation of Jazz, a group that was dedicated to exposing jazz to San Diegans who, at the time, had precious few spots to hear the music performed. He opened his series at the Catamaran and booked jazz legends Sarah Vaughn and Art Pepper among a wonderful string of artists. He had been named “the Godfather of San Diego Jazz,” and it was a nickname he earned. He played all over the county—from East County, Downtown, and the beach area to the North County, spreading his kind of full-throttle jazz to anyone who cared to show up and listen. Something took, I think, all these years later since Joe first campaigned for the music. What we have in our variety of jazz and jazz-friendly venues is due in large part by Joe.

The short and long of it is that Joe Marillo improved the cultural life of San Diego in ways difficult to calculate, which is a more qualified way of saying that he improved life on his planet, period. Had it not been for Joe putting jazz where it had not been before in this sun-glutted burg, my tastes in music would have been impoverished beyond tolerance. Marillo was part of this young man’s education in what makes being alive worth the trudging and setbacks. I thank Joe Marillo for the lessons taught.

Dizzy’s is hosting a tribute to Joe on Tuesday, May 24, 7pm, featuring musicians who worked with him, plus a photo exhibit.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

album review: "ImPossible" is impossibly good

ImPossible--Divinity Roxx
Just as the tributes to the recently departed Prince was causing me to become a shade fearful that we might not witness a comparable talent with his scope and easy mastery of rock, rhythm, and blues, hip-hop, funk, fusion and soul, I came upon “ImPossible” (pronounced ‘I’m possible’), a new release by seasoned bassist, singer, MC, bandleader, songwriter Divinity Roxx.I’ve been playing it all week, amazed at her and her band’s effortless blend of motifs, springing from the expected springs of hip-culture and the polysyllabic bantering of rap, but incorporating the riffy drive of rock, the percussive ebullience of greased-up funk, the slow jam testimonies of a lover’s testimonial, the gospel punch of soul , the truly sobering testimonial of unaffected rap rhythm. Roxx, a precise and quick-witted bassist who’s been best known as band member and Musical Director for Beyonce, has collaborated with dozens of names in an equal amount of varying styles, and with ‘ImPossible” brings the world an album that is beyond infectious or catchy or merely entertaining (although it is all those things); she is conceptualist, a synthesizer, a musician with an actual fusion sensibility who , it sounds like , loves many kinds of sounds with equal ardor , imagines the ways the approaches can fit together coherently, effectively, powerfully, and who reveals the know-how, or “feel” how, to make this diversified project work. It rocks, it struts, it is insistent on the downbeat, propulsive on the upbeat. That is what she shares with our beloved and begone Prince, an impressive talent based on tradition but, in the corniest parlance one can manage, stands on the shoulders of giants to see what vistas lay ahead for the music.

I’ve been playing it all today as I write this. Groove-tacular. The principal shortcoming, if that’s the case at all, is Roxx’s limitations as a vocalist; there are more than one occasion on this fine record that you want to knock the ball out of the park the way Aretha Franklin can or had the husky but feminine baritone of Nina Simone to find the emotional cracks, dents, and imperfections in the words; no matter, I say. Roxx is a different generation, raised and reared in hip-hop, and she makes fine use of her voice in the old tradition of toasting; but instead of boasting, these long, percolating recitals grasp the thorny issues of racism, violence against the black community, self-esteem, the need to remain full of love in both one’s personal affairs but also in the face of the world that is hostile to your existence merely for your shade of skin tone. It does sound a little much, an overkill of I-Have-A-Dream and a stream of sentiments taken off placards, if one was relying on casual description, but Roxx and her special guest reciters, including the esteemed Victor Wooten, reveal themselves, speak truth to power, avoid the strident declarations but insist on strength, resolve, action strengthened by keeping an open heart. The effect is, as well, beyond uplifting, it is transforming. The video above, “We Are”, is a superb representation of an effort that has brightened my week. Driving riffs, blistering, joyous rhyming, determined voices joining in the march toward the day when we all might enjoy our similarities and appreciate our differences.

Sunday, May 1, 2016


 I came into sobriety knowing only one thing for certain , a fact that none of the thousand or so books I'd read nor the many words I'd written could help me feel deep in the bone, in the marrow, where it counted the most. I knew I didn't want to drink again, coming as close I cared to becoming a cheap, delusional , whiny punk petty criminal, gaunt, nervous and doomed to a tragic and end as cipher, a memory no one wants to recollect. But not until I accepted that I was doomed unless something happened was I able to stop arguing with an inevitable and walk the other way, up the hill, toward the sunlight of the spirit. It hardly mattered that I had no plans for the future, if I had any future at all;  all that mattered was not drink today, not steal today, not lie today, not die today. That was nearly 29 years ago, and until I could admit that I was defeated and that my variety of jive was sounding stale even to myself, that I was beyond human aid of any sort, only then was I able to actually do something contrary to the compulsive behavior that made me the saddest sack you'd ever seen. Acceptance, and then change everything you're doing.

Self acceptance is one thing, but it seems to me that changing oneself is required in order to maintain a level of sanity that can return you sanity after the batterings, high and low and in-between, human existence brings us. We cannot remain stubbornly the same as a means of spiting those who attempt to add us to their particularized set of neurosis; learning how to change is an essential skill. Perhaps “change” is the wrong word, as its been co-opted and poisoned by every fad pop-psychology has heaped upon our mass-mediated culture. More appropriate, more useful, perhaps, would be “grow”. Screw trying to change yourself into a internet meme, our tasks is to remain teachable and to grow into new experience, to learn, to become wiser and more full of the love for the world as well as love for ourselves. Too many of us pay a sorry price for having an excess of one or the other. We can grow into ourselves into the world we find ourselves, as individuals, as citizens, as members of a community .

 I realize the phrase “To thine own self be true” is a cliche that makes many cringe, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a bad way to go. It’s a matter of how we do it. Besides gaining knowledge through experience, we should be able to gather wisdom as well. Or one would think.