Monday, September 26, 2016

Ron Satterfield Rises Again

Ron Satterfield. Photo by Michael Oletta.
Ron Satterfield.
 Photo by Michael Oletta.
(This originally appeared in the
San Diego Troubadour. Used with kind permission).
It’s July 15th, and it’s jazz pianist/guitarist and vocalist Ron Satterfield’s birthday. Satterfield is preparing for a performance with flutist and long-time collaborator Lori Bell and versatile percussionist Tommy Aros at the cozy lounge just off the lobby of the Handlery Hotel in Hotel Circle. He’s diligently setting up the PA system, adjusting mic levels, securing a confusing cross section of wires and other attachments. The room is filling up nicely prior to the performance while Satterfield concentrates on perfecting the sound system just so. Bell greets us and provides a gentle warning… “Ron is in his operating mode before a performance, getting everything ready. It’s generally, not the best time to try and talk to him.” We repair to the bar, watch as the room fills even more, eager for the performance.

Satterfield’s due diligence with set- up pays off, noticeable when the troupe ( also known as Trio de Janeiro) works their magic. The sound is warm, bright, and fills the room comfortably. Nothing overwhelms the music. On guitar, Satterfield has the instincts and phrasing of seasoned pianist, not a soloist as much as he creates a feeling for accompanying the others. His chord work is delicate, off center, teasing various accents and melodic texture, linking with the sure, deft, and insistent percussion of Aros. Over this percolating combination of rhythm and melody is Lori Bell’s flute work, a combination of virtuoso precision and heartfelt swing—swift, jumping lines ranging from low bluesy swoops to exhilarating escalations in the high registers. With this come Satterfield’s vocals, a seductive combination of pop, jazz and Latin styles, a warm vocal instrument versed in the split-second wit of scat, the vowel stretching wonder of up-tempo vocals. He has mastered his voice, gracefully applied over a variety of styles. Pop tune to torch song, salsa to samba, blues to bosa nova, Satterfield does it all—distinct, swinging, and classy.









Ron Satterfield had a high profile in the bustling San Diego jazz scene in the 1980s when there were many lounges and restaurants that booked jazz regularly, and an impressive roster of local jazz musicians to play the engagements. It was a time when Elario’s, Chuck’s Steak House, the Blue Parrott, the Crossroads, and Our Place were alive with musicians like Peter Sprague, Charles McPherson, Hollis Gentry, Joe Marillo, Kevyn Lettau, Mike Wofford, Jim Plank, Bob Magnuson, and many others, Satterfield not the least of them. It seemed one could find a place to hear live jazz every night of the week and, as often as not, find Satterfield performing in one of the many musical combinations, singing, playing keyboards or guitar, as a utility player, a musician that brightened the stage. During the period I had seen him a dozen times by my estimation and was usually impressed at what he brought to the night’s music. Satterfield was a significant player in an active and rowdy music community, the special ingredient on the bandstand with whomever he was performing, bringing verve, a sense of swing and sway that transform many nights out into concentrated moments of transcendence. Like many of his contemporaries, he was a needed man to have around.
Satterfield was (and still is) prolific across the board, involving himself in a dozens of different combinations of musicians in a far stretch of jazz and jazz-pop styles, torch song to blues, scat to samba, more poppish, radio friendly songs, to New Age. He had an ear for finding the center of a groove, the soul of a chord progression, and the harmonies they underscore and create a host of sprite, inventive takes on whatever he decided to take on. His Allmusic.com page reveals that he’s been featured on 28 album releases from 1986 through 2007 with a stellar string of musicians ranging from Dave Mackay, Lori Bell, Holly Hoffmann, Peter Sprague, and many others, and in four albums as half of the duo called Checkfield, a new age-Windham Hill-ish instrumental and vocal collaboration with John Archer. In his time, he was a busy man with large talents who, oddly, had all but disappeared from the local radar. As the 2000s commenced and the number of venues offering live jazz continued to recede, Satterfield disappeared from the scene as well. There was little jazz to be heard and virtually no Ron Satterfield among the few who could be seen playing live. So, what happened?
The original Joe Marillo Quartet at Chuck's Steak House, late 1970s: Satterfield, Marillo, Tim Shea, Gunnar Biggs. Photo by Michael Oletta.
An old story—drugs and alcohol—the curse of too many creative men and women who come to suffer. Falling prey to addictive substances, Satterfield was, by his own admission, a mess, a man doomed to an alcoholic death, a man with nowhere to go and no idea of what to do. Satterfield’s is a story of hitting a vulgar bottom, but it it’s also one of how he found help from a source he’d didn’t expect. But first, he had to hit what the recovery community terms “a bottom,” that point at which one has a moment of clarity, that one is truly powerless over drugs and alcohol, a point where they can begin a road back to the mainstream. Back in his East Village apartment on muggy August afternoon, Ron relates a crucial instance with long-time music partner Lori Bell. His voice trembles at times in the recollection.
“My decline was obvious because of my behavior. I feel I’m representing. I want people to know about the Salvation Army and that it’s available. I was a functioning alcoholic for a long time; I kept my drug use at home. It was something for when I got back home after a gig, when it was head phones, and I would snort away, smoke away, drink away, what have you, be it cigarettes, grass, alcohol. It never went with me. Cocaine had become impossible to find.
“Then I met with methself esteem and everything was about perfection. What I didn’t realize until getting sober was how much emphasis there was for approval and justification. Lori picked up on my lack of self worth.
“Back in the day many jazz musicians in were in the habit of overcompensating, that thing of saying, ‘I’m the best, I’m better than you,’ nasty sarcasm that always comes around. I always gravitated more toward female performers because I always got more love; I was terrified of men. Lori is very loyal, supportive to a degree that’s frightening. Once the meth came in, that was the first was the first time I started bringing alcohol with me to the gigs. It was in the car. Poor Lori would have to sit in the passenger seat probably terrified that I was drinking and driving. I had a little wine container that I carried my wine in; I tried 7-Up cans that didn’t work, and I finally came up with a coffee canister to hide my alcohol in; it looks like you’re drinking coffee. Alcohol, though, is really ethyl alcohol and it burns your liver; the first thing the liver wants to do is get it the hell out. It comes out of your pores, your breath, your pee, whatever it takes to get that stuff out of your body. I was bringing alcohol to engagements and I was not eating. I have a video of me doing a concert at Dizzy’s when it was downtown. I was emaciated because I wasn’t eating. I started drinking vodka with orange juice to rationalize that I was getting sustenance. I looked like an Auschwitz victim. Lori’s husband was telling her to be prepared, saying, ‘I don’t think Ron is going to be around much longer.’”
There was a fiasco in Carlsbad that was an instance of clarity for Satterfield, but his transition to a sober and productive life had a few false starts, among them a couple of “geographic cures,” the illusory idea among those struggling with their addiction that if they move to another city or state, they’d leave their problems behind. To coin a phrase, “wherever you go, there you are.” Satterfield sought his late brother’s help, who showed up in San Diego in 2007 to take him to a Kentucky asylum where they thought he could get the help they needed. Soon after he was admitted he realized it was a mistake.
“Every week I would I see the counselor who was ‘treating’ me, so to speak, and it would essentially be them asking me how I was feeling. I would tell them and they would write it down in the record and then say that they thought they should keep me a while longer.”
Realizing this was more a racket than a treatment for his malaise, he found out that he was entitled to a phone call, a privilege he used to call his brother to come back to the asylum and sign him out. Afterward, there were false steps and stumbling attempts to change his direction, more geographic cures and wavering attempts at being a truck driver. But for all his efforts to change his behavior with new locations and new occupations, his addiction was still active, and relapse wasn’t infrequent. In 2011, returning to San Diego from his last location in a car he’d borrowed from the late jazz saxophonist and mentor Joe Marillo, Satterfield received a suggestion that was the beginning of his return to sobriety and music making.
“I came into the Salvation Army program in 2011 because I had reached the place all people in addiction face: choose life or choose the street. I did the typical geographic, which didn’t work out; I went to friends and that didn’t work After losing everything, everything the last person I had a relationship with said, ‘I cannot help you, but I have one recommendation and that is the Salvation Army. I can’t think of any other place you can go and rebuild your life.’ That information was passed on to Joe Marillo, God bless him; I was coming back from Arizona with a car he had loaned me where I tried to build a life. After my final DUI, I realized I might as well come back to San Diego and give Joe back his car. I had no plan, had no idea what would happen, but I could do at least one thing right, which was to give Joe back his car. It was in God’s hands from there.
“On the way down I stopped off in Alpine because I ran out of gas. I had friends there, and a girlfriend from a past relationship said, ‘I have no money to give you, I have nothing to give you, I don’t really want to see you, why don’t you try the Salvation Army?’ Her daughter took pity on me and gave me enough money for gas; she bought me breakfast, and then I made a phone call to Joe. I called Joe and told him, ‘I am here, I’m on my way.’ I told Joe that I had gotten one suggestion about the Salvation Army and that I had no idea what to do with that information. Joe told me to make my way down to San Diego while he made some calls. God bless him, he made some calls. When I got to Joe’s, he said ‘Ron, I have some good news—I contacted a man named Steve Self at the Salvation Army’s Adult Rehabilitation Center. He said he doesn’t know what condition you’re in and you can’t go into the program unless you’re sober, so why don’t you crash here for a couple of days and sober yourself up and then we’ll take you down.’ That was April 21st of 2011, and that’s my sobriety date.
“I wasn’t as bad as I could have been, but I was beaten. But, Joe drove me down here. It turned out that we were so excited about the possibility of this that we got there almost two hours early before they even opened the doors. We had to go get some coffee and stand around and then, all of a sudden, the place starts to come alive and there were people flying up the hallways, down the stairs, and on and on and Joe’s saying, ‘Wow! These people are energetic!’ When I met with Steve Self, Joe took off, and the rest is history.
“I had no idea that this even existed. All this time help was available and I had no idea. Like everybody else I thought the Salvation Army was a place for homeless people, and they ha thrift stores, and they come out at Christmas with the Santa Clause suits, ring the bell, and ask for donations. This is a full-fledged six-month program. It has counseling, it has AA meetings, sponsorship, it has relapse prevention classes; the list of services is so wide, it goes on and on, and it was exactly what I needed. When you’re as far gone as I was, as much as you would like to go to family and friends for help, they cannot possibly understand your behavior and desperation, so coming to a professional environment with people who have the experience… what I got here was love and support, which I desperately needed.
“I was so filled with guilt and shame. This place is about life and rebuilding; they give you tools. I came here from the standpoint of desperation; it was a simple choice, the street or a program. It was exciting to realize that this was available. And this is free. They will feed you, they will clothe you. You need to have an open mind coming in here. Sometimes you have to go on a waiting list because there’s room for 100 people, but I lucked out.”
His two-year residence at the Salvation Army gave Satterfield the structure and order that he lacked during his seemingly endless battle with drugs and alcohol. Admitting that he was out of answers and weary of what awaited him if he didn’t try something different, he gave himself over to the program the recovery unit, making use of their many services of counseling, classes in relapse prevention, work therapy duties, 12-Step meetings, and, most tellingly, becoming part of the Center’s worship team. Spirituality and a reliance on God (or a Higher Power, as many 12-steppers prefer to say) is strongly emphasized in this path of recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction, an element many new to recovery struggle with. Ron, however, had no qualms turning his life over to a power greater than himself. His struggle was something else.
“I never had a problem with the Lord; I never had a problem with religion. I’ve had a problem with organized religion, evangelists seeking financial contributions so they could have Lear jets, but I was brought up Presbyterian so I was pretty wide open. Religion for me was a personal experience. What I did have a problem with when I came into the program was that we were required to sing. It is devotion at seven in the morning, and then devotion later in the day. On Sundays and Wednesdays, they have other programs going on. It’s all about the Lord. The primary function is God and it’s very open; it’s not in your face, it’s to put you in touch with your higher power, your ‘wise advocate,’ however you want to address your Higher Power. What got strange for me was singing. My first experience was singing about God, and Jesus was kind of strange for me. I was so shut down that I didn’t want to sing. After a while, I would sneak down to the chapel, even though my hands were still shaking, and play the piano a little bit. I had to play the piano. Of course, somebody heard me and they realized that ‘this guy is a little more accomplished than our average rock band guy.’”
As a once-thriving jazz musician, Satterfield had reservations about playing music that praised and beseeched God exclusively, but in short order he was game enough to get beyond his prejudices and investigate the songbook used for the religious services. This was the beginning of his return.
“The resident manager at the time led the worship team and he was also a musician. He had a time of it. He was trying to work with me and I was so shut down. As time went on, I became more comfortable with the environment. We used to sit and talk over coffee and he asked me what I thought of worship music. At the time I was very opinionated, coming from a jazz background, and I said, ‘Well this ain’t Miles Davis, it’s not Bill Evans, what is this?’ And he asked what background I had, and I said ‘folk.’ And he said, ‘That’s perfect, that is where this all came from.’ The original worship music was people sitting around with guitars, singing about God, and now it’s grown into a contemporary thing. It’s amazing. All he had to say was folk music and that opened the door. I got beyond my reservations about the requirements of the program and started listening.
“That was when my musicianship and experience kicked in and I realized ‘oh my’ from a melodic and harmonic stand point that this is very well-crafted. I stopped listening to the lyrics and just listened to the music. I went to the piano and started playing the songs and got a completely different perspective on this. As fate would have it, the resident manager and music director got a new assignment, and he came to me. I was drafted; he asked me how I would feel about taking his place? I told him I was not up to that kind of responsibility, but I thought about it and wound up saying okay, but under one condition: if you let me get together with Major Dina Graciani and work with her one on one. She is now the head of San Diego Salvation Army, but at the time her husband, Major Henry Graciani, was. She is one of the most gifted singers I’ve ever worked with, a pure soprano. But there was one problem. My predecessor arranged all the songs in the key he was comfortable in, and Major Dina was singing in a key she wasn’t comfortable with. I thought this was unacceptable and told her we needed to change the book so she could sing in the keys that are natural for her range. She asked if we could do that. And I said yes, we could. Singing harmony became easier for me, I created the book with her. We started writing arrangements. Everything changed.”
Satterfield became more involved with the Salvation Army’s program, working full-time at one of their stores in San Diego County as cashier, receiver, and general retail duties, as well as organizing and directing the facility’s musical program for the weekly worship service. He reorganized the ‘The Book,’ the body of songs used for the services, giving them new arrangements, which allowed, as he explains, to do wonderful collaborations with Major Dina. He became close to both Majors Dina and Henry Graciani, a couple he came to trust for direction, advice, and wise counseling. He was becoming increasingly comfortable with his natural skill set as a musician once again, but there was a personality conflict he had with one of the workers at the store he worked in. The friction didn’t sit well with him, although, unknown to him, that would soon change.
“I was still working at the retail store, but I was having difficulty with the main person, the person who runs all the things in the store. I’d been talking to Major Henry about the experience. He said, ‘You’re going to be even stronger. Give it time.’ Lori [Bell] brought me in for a performance, my first live outing. She thought it might be fun to get together with [pianist] Dave MacKay, because he was getting older and it would terrific to play with him again. She was doing the Fourth Friday series at the La Jolla Community Center, so she booked the engagement. I invited Major Dina and Major Henry, telling Lori that I would like them to see the performance. I didn’t think they’d say yes, because what we’d been performing isn’t worship music, but they surprised me and said they would love to be at the performance. So they came down and were in the audience. Major Dina came back afterward and said, ‘I had no idea. How do you do that? I only know you from the worship music, but this… this is who you are.’ A little later Major Henry takes me aside. The show was over; everyone was milling around and he and I walked down a hallway. He looked me in the eye and said, ‘You have a gift. This is what you’re meant to do. I want you to do something for me. I want you to take a risk. I want you to leave the store you’re working in. Go back to your roots. I think you’re ready.’”
Fortune smiled on Satterfield, it turns out. Shortly after quitting his job at the Salvation Army store to focus on returning to being a working musician, he began receiving royalty checks. Unknown to him, his partner John Archer from the Checkfield days had converted their albums to “library format,” a digital conversion that allows for easier distribution of material. “The music is still out there,” he said, noting that there was a Japanese company that had a television show, which discovered Checkfield’s music. “They used the music, like 20 seconds here, a minute there, a two-minute dub on something else, and they paid. I started to receive quarterly royalties at about the same time I quit the store unconditionally. That went on for two years! That was extraordinary.” With the aid of Major Henry, Satterfield shored up his financial resources, continued his weekly duties directing the music for the Sunday worship services and ventured out into the world around him again, collaborating with the ever-creative and inspiring Lori Bell.
In fruitful collaboration with Bell, Satterfield hardly seems the shot-out shell of a man he described himself as, but is rather the picture of a confident, buoyant performer, a person with rhythm and wit and a contagious enthusiasm for the jazz music he performs. A look at the scheduled appearances with Lori on her website [loribellflute.com] shows many dates, already played and forthcoming, which highlights a musician intimate again with his muse and finds himself once more in the mainstream of life.
The jazz audience in town should do itself a favor to seek out Satterfield’s work with Bell around San Diego. Evidenced by the many live performance videos that have been posted on YouTube, one may well, in a live performance, behold enthralling arrangements of James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” or Joni Mitchell’s “All I Want,” two songs that are part of Trio de Janeiro’s set list. Syncopated, highlighting sterling solos, and a harmonies that offer a suggestion of just the right amount of complexity, Aros furnishes engrossing percussive accents. Bell carries the melody, leans in for sweet fills and short comments, and riffing echoes of Satterfield’s vocal lines, proffering a glorious bit of spontaneous composition with a solo or two, all of which underscores, showcases, and provides a frame work for Satterfield’s swinging vocals. One hears bits of influences in his style—strains of James Taylor, Kenny Loggings, Mel Tormé, and others, Satterfield has absorbed his influences, made them his own, and created his own, natural, swinging expression. His voice has a warm texture, malleable in the way it can be clear and precise in diction and then slide up and down the scale. The notes the chord progressions provide, animating the lyrics of bliss, yearning, and loneliness, with deftly applied emphasis on unexpected syllables, the percussive impact of consonants, and the soft, suggestive urgings of vowels. He finds the music tone in the sound of the words; he sings them to cohere with the pace and texture of the performance. More than a singer, Satterfield’s voice, on occasion, acquires a rare distinction: the transcendent quality of becoming a lead instrument.
I also suggest that jazz aficionados stay current with the local music calendars and seize the chance to attend a concert if they come across a listing featuring both Bell and Satterfield. Available also on YouTube are Bell and Satterfield in collaboration with pianist Dave Mackay and, elsewhere, with keyboardist Mike Garson. There is a stirring, Latin informed version of “Motherless Child” that highlights the rich, succinct lyricism of Mackay’s piano work, the left-handed chord work, and the hand accents and chord modulations performing miracles under the efforts of Bell. His solo, of course, is a wonderful combination of verve restraint. Also on YouTube is a wonderful reading of “Stella by Starlight,” highlighting pianist Mike Garson, formerly with David Bowie and Stanley Clark, along with Bell and Satterfield. It’s one of those renditions of a classic that makes it seem that one is not so much watching a musical performance as much as taking a journey. Here, Garson glides and persuasively guides the rhythm along, while Bell negotiates an obstacle course of rhythm and chords, segueing to a wonderful bit by Satterfield. He first offers a short guitar solo and then begins to sing, rhythmically matching his piano—suggestive guitar words to the flow of clipped language, creating harmonies one didn’t expect to emerge from a man with just a voice and guitar. And Garson, a musician for whom both impressive classical and jazz techniques are second nature, reveals a light touch on the keys, precise but not pristine on the fast runs, clean yet emotionally fulfilling.
What occurs to this writer is that at five years clean and sober, Ron Satterfield has found that the road he’s travelling is narrower than when he first began his journey into recovery. What may have seemed like a profession he couldn’t return to for fear of relapse and degradation worse than that he’d experienced previously is now an exciting and rewarding chance to recover his musical gifts and bring his art to the audiences of San Diego and, perhaps, the world beyond our zip code and time zone. Witnessing Satterfield live, it seems that one can only agree with what Major Henry told him: that he was ready to return to live performance, a day at a time, and a gig at a time. Ron Satterfield is a gifted and humble man, grateful to the good people at the Salvation Army and in the broader recovery community in helping him find his footing, find his sanity, find his voice again, a voice he brings to the audiences of San Diego. The gift he has recovered becomes his gift to all of us.

Image result for go dexter gordonGO --Dexter Gordon 
w/Gordon--tenor sax / Sonny Clark--piano / Butch Warren--bass / Billy Higgins--drums

A 1961 gathering, a roll-up the sleeves where only the music mattered, from the sounds of things here. Gordon has such an easy gait on the slower, bluesier tunes, and an engulfing sense of swing on the faster tracks. And in between, any number of moods , his phrases whimsical, suggesting , perhaps, what Paul Desmond might have wished he sounded like if he would only dare step out of that glossy, modal style and burn a little. He might have garnered a bit of Gordon's humor. Billy Higgins is wonderful here, and Sonny Clark is a bright star through out: his chord work and harmonic turns brighten up the room. This is the kind of music that makes you want to drink after shave and wash your cat in the sink.

Hooray for Eric Dolphy


Iron Man - Eric Dolphy
I put this 1963 session on the player yesterday and let saxophonist/flutist/bass clarinetist/composer extraordinaire Dolphy blast away; I am still putting my living room back together. Hyperbole, of course, but it underlines Dolphy's genius, and Iron Man highlights both his mastery of large group format and the balancing act of merging Modernist ensemble jazz, in the tradition of Monk and Mingus, with improvisation that tempts the abstract harmonica edges of Coltrane and Pharaoh Saunders. What emerges, though, isn't emulation in the slightest, but a new, vibrant, exquisitely abrasive sound. Dolphy carves up and flays forth with solos that are fluid, quick cut, full of pops, exclamations, and savage sonorities, and the band, including trumpet genius Woody Shaw and the very fine vibraphone work of Bobbie Hutcherson, compliments the dark, churning backdrop behind the leader's quicksilver delivery. Dolphy took up Mingus's ideas of starting within the chord progressions and then to attack the walls of what was restricting him, venturing beyond the barely comprehensible tones and textures of the individual notes and sending out probes into what lies beyond the formulations of sound that pleased the human ear. He didn't quite reach the heart of the sun, for which I am glad, because in any sense of the metaphor, he would have been finished with his mission to make his instruments create a jazz sound where none like existed previously. He died too young, yes, but we can also say the fire the started hasn't burned out. This music continues to burn hot and brilliant in the moonlight it defies.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Tom Wolfe wrestles big ideas with an erratic syntax


Image result for kingdom of speech

I doubt that there's been a writer my age who hasn't been influenced by the hyperventilated prose of Tom Wolfe. He was a must read in the Sixties through the Eighties, journalist, critic, wise guy who got the Zeitgeist. His high octane paragraphs were masterpieces of overstatement, a mockery of nonsense and balderdash, a fun read combined with some potent talking points to whatever conventional wisdom happened to be in circulation at the moment. The problem, of course, is that as one gets older, youthful exuberance and stylistic license turn into mannerisms if one continues to use them into their senior years.

Wolfe,84, has continued his manner of composition, ratcheted up his disgust with cultural habits of the moment and has become, in fact, a cranky old cuss who is no longer the refreshing breath of fresh air blowing into a room full of overheated bloviating.  Wolfe's tirades have become the overheated blather he lampooned. I've not yet read his new book "The Kingdom of Speech", wherein he takes on Darwin and his theories on Evolution and the work and ideas of  Noam Chomsky. I will read it, to be sure, as there is not a Wolfe book that does reward with a solid phase, a brilliant metaphor, even a pertinent question that needed to be asked in the arena of ideas. But when Wolfe, who has a doctorate in American Studies from Yale, decides to get theoretical and trades realm of ideas rather than be the mere journalist or novelist, his reasoning gets skewed, confused, and seems little else than perpetual wallow in sarcasm and an unnamed source of bitterness. The open sequence is distressing for reasons that make you think less of James Joyce, who seems an obvious model, than it does of a man who lost his glasses, rummaging through drawers and desktops, making a mess until he finds the crucial lenses.  So that you know, Wolfe is attempting to broach the subject of Rice University. A sample of the slew:
 I surfed and Safaried and finally moused upon the only academic I could find who disagreed with the eight failures, a chemist at Rice University … Rice … Rice used to have a big-time football team … the Rice Owls … wonder how they’re doing now? I moused around on the Rice site some more, and uh-oh … not so great last season, the Owls … football … and I surfed to football concussions … exactly as I thought!” 
Some will find genius, as Wolfe diehards customarily do, but these are variations of a theme being played on an untuned piano. Wolfe is given to rants in these slim volumes he's produced over the decades, single essays on subjects like contemporary art (The Painted Word) and modern architecture (From Bauhaus to Our House) where he could handily lampoon the pretentiousness and walled off cosmologies of disciplines that confound and irritate the Little Guy. Unfair but effective, he entertained and forced readers to consider the babble and cant of vested interest they may have purchased the whole hog, critically uninspected. Lately, though, he seems less a bomb thrower than an old grouch hard-wired to complain, with or without a point or a quotable phrase. Figuratively speaking, of course, Digression is my middle name with regards to stylish prose concentrating on little more than what interests the author at the moment, but this seems more a stumble or a stall. All told, I will read this book and pray that there is a bit of lucidity lurking under the encrusted sarcasm that has become Wolfe's worldview.

Literature's shelf life

Everything and everyone gets forgotten eventually, especially for writers and poets, who's livelihoods and legacies rely less on critics suddenly brandishing them as names we must remember (or rediscover in fits of revisionist apologetics) than on an audiences to sit for long periods and absorb words of description, abstraction, feeling, have a willingness to suspend disbelief long enough to take in nuanced tale of experience they are otherwise unfamiliar with. The period of suspension is getting shorter, I'm afraid, as surveys indicate that fewer than half of adults who read consume literary fiction for "pleasure". That frightfully reduces the potential audience for the Good Stuff to a handful of academics, students compelled to read assigned authors for a grade, and a smaller handful of dedicated booksellers and their shrinking coterie of customers still willing to read deeply and longingly.

The internet, of course, is the go-to villain when assigning blame , but history is a long string of disruptions when new technologies severely intervened in whatever elevated discourses were occurring and forced everyone to change the way they did things and to reassign their priorities. I do feel badly when books I have read and cherished and written and spoke so often for so long fall out of print, or when I encounter younger people who don't know the names of Cheever, Hemingway, Baldwin, Oates, Abe, Faulkner. Part of me thinks that's inexcusable, but then there is the sudden realization that time goes on , inevitably, and each generation gains their own heroes as those new heroes struggle with experiences that seem central to the current decade.

Might these young readers be as curious as I was to investigate older writers from generations prior to their own, as I tried to be when I enrolled in as many literature classes as I could? Memory is a tricky thing as one ages; back in the day I seemed to have been smarter, faster, more daring and curious than I actually was. I was a smug little boy blessed with enough vanity to read authors I wouldn't normally have merely in order to keep pace with what I thought was a competition with my peers. I didn't like not being part of the conversation that ensued. Years later, though, the weight of the experiences and adventures I consumed for vanity's sake takes effect, and I have now something nearing wisdom, or at least a practical realism about my expectations about anything and the flux and flow of the world that churns through populations and their arts and culture . One scratches their head and stares at their own library now that they're in their mid-sixties and , in the flush of memory, pray that such beautiful words find fate more fitting than a compost heap or a crowded, mildewed shelf in an Oregon attic.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Poetry the tease


It's been my feeling that poets express their contempt of poetry by continuing to write poems about poetry. This isn't the garden variety poetaster at an open reading who furiously scribbles breathless, broken-lined manifestos about the responsibilities and burden of being a poet in a blind and cruel world; this is poetry as Priesthood, a habit of thinking many who have lapsed from their own religions and seek to imprint their inadequate sense of how the universe functions behind the veil on the entirety of poetry itself. Those blessed (and burdened) with the gift of seeing things as they really are become the cliche's greatest promoter. There is no ridding the world of these good folks.It's the serious poets, the ones with books and reviews of their work, who work teaching poetry survey courses and conduct workshops. 

During my time as member of Slate's belated Poems Fray discussion board, where a good many bright discussants would parse, yay or nay, poetry editor Robert Pinsky's choice for Slate's Poem of the week, I noticed a rash of poems that could not back away from the urge to invoke of some sort; the rationalizations in the critical jargon was rich and insightful in how many of us argue for something without telling anyone how any of it is any good for us, but it never seemed to me to be more than a go-to move for a poet who is stumped at any ironic turning point.

A poet begins the poem talking about being a poet wrestling with reality by poetic means and at the end of linking associations, one after the other, in that essaying forth of getting a peek beyond the mere appearances of the world, some goes awry in the speculation and dreamy thinking that contradicts everything and lo!, the poet finds out that he or she has been relying upon a literary form that will not reveal the thing-ness of things no matter how effervescent the poetry is. We cannot escape the prison house of language, the poet finds, the music swells, the sun sets on the poet as he or she grows cold and melancholy in their realization that their craft is useless for anything other than reminding themselves that the senses are fallible.  The end.  

  Every defense has been given within the confines of the poem itself, not in any discussion happening in the room, at a table, filled with people who’ve read and seek to discover what is they felt, what they thought, what the thought about how they felt.  The written is written to short circuit our emotional with the verses that have been read—our discussions are guided along a primrose path and little spontaneity of response, no honestly felt and strongly argued exclamation of “this sucks phallic verbs “.  What it all means not longer matters, not on a group level, not as a pastiche  of  responses culled from a brainstorming of interpretations, not from  a sudden image of a time formerly locked away in the deeper recesses of memory that now emerges again to haunt you and further stain your expectations of some kind of renewal through right living and solemn vows. Worse, we discover that may none of it mattered anyway. 

Many stanzas, rhymed, unrhymed, irregular, evocative and vague,  have changed nothing in the world. What it has done is make being alive in those naked minutes when dread and fuck off panic nearly overwhelms you. Poetry, the art of the allusive line and image that seem to  be about something,makes being in this cold light of fear bearable for another minute,another hour, until the fear slumbers again and you are something like sane again, smiling, eager for breakfast and a walk in the  sun, or at least a couple of long distance phone calls.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

album review:LEANING IN AND OUT OF THE SUNLIGHT

INTROVERSIONS--Sluka
Introspection, guilt, a wan hope of transcendence through the attainment of a love that cleanses the soul of all sins real and imagined, perceptions of failure that will not relent, a personal paradigm of feelings so deep that the world, indeed the universe, is coded by the severe lack of self esteem, the ever deepening chasm of depression. Those are my impression of what is generally regarded as Goth rock, the decades of stylized gloom and regret and corrosive self -regard that’s made listening to tunes by The Cure, Bauhaus, and the solo offerings of Peter Murphy work to listen to, even in my leisure time; I’m a sucker for suffering poets, outcast lovers standing upon a widow’s walk or overlooking a stormy ocean from a high, jagged cliff. Eccentrics that don’t fit in with the cookie-cutter approximations of normal behavior and attitude spoke to me for a period when I was in my own private hell as a teen who found solace in Dylan and Leonard Cohen and in the deeper metaphors of Romantic Poets for whom the insanity of being ruled by emotion was more valuable than sex or money.
Into adulthood, of course, I eventually got my terminal uniqueness and took an adult approach to matters, but not entirely. Some of me longed to immerse myself in the vats of sadness again, wallow, put on head phones and drink a rank glass of sherry, droning, guitar and synth laced songs making the cruelty of the world a personal matter. It is, in the final consideration, all about me and my feelings. Of course this is the equivalent of picking the scab and taking pleasure in the wound not healing. The seductive tones of Goth placed its tattered shawl around my shoulders more than once.
Sluka, nee Christopher Sluka, is a San Diego based singer songwriter in the Goth mold, ironic as his home base is famous for sunshine and beaches, not cliffs, dark skies or weather that reinforces dark moods. He is, though, good at the style, quite good, in fact. His latest release, Introversions shows us a man who knows the considered craft of writing solid pop tunes and who appreciates the need for variety in the flow of material. Figuring alluring riffs on keyboards and synths and supplying a variety of hooks and instrumental textures, this percolates along, each track pulling you in with a personality of its own. The lead instrument is Sluka’s remarkable voice, at first making you think of David Bowie (or Bowie’s primary influence vocally, Anthony Newley), but the resemblance fades away as this artist convincingly converts existential dread and worry into playfully , soulfully inflected readings of the surreal lyrics. Agonized crooning, Beatlesque harmonies, emphatic phrasing on the harder edged material, Introversions , as the title implies, is a series of testaments of a man investigating his emotions , with the hope that he can transcend them. This is very much about the old adage, reputedly coined by uber gloomster Nietzsche , that if you stare into the abyss, the abyss will wind up staring at you. The hitch, however, is that Sluka prefers a little flavor to his plate, a little color to shine in to the dank vault of a world view. He remembers to rock, to croon, to laugh (if slightly) to lift his voice on high (if briefly) before it it drags along the lower registers again, grainy and unloved.


The stylistic range is impressive, with album opener “Valentine Lies”, guided by pensive piano configurations and melodramatic beats, climbs from the ground up, with Sluka’s voice capturing the mood of a man giving himself over to the sweep of love. “San Diego Zoo” takes a lighter, airier approach, strummed guitar and tasty, short guitar riffs, sweets bits of whimsy and regret, a man looking to move out of the dark house and into the sunshine of the spirit. Sluka’s voice’s, at once nasal, husky, and amazingly lithe, phrases the contradictions concisely. The final track, “Gothic Cavalier”, is the strongest song, a bit of menace provided by chunky guitar chords, a persistent bass and synth textures that overlay an enterprisingly off-kilter melody, the song swells at the chorus as Sluka relates the first person tale of a man seemingly encased in a gloom he cannot shake, an observer, a man of part unable to make lasting connections with the normal life. 
This is, in a word, catchy as anything you’re likely to come across among recent releases. Sluka’s preferred mood, of course, is downcast, the fatalistic pessimism and anesthetized moodiness that are the creative grounds for poets and assorted fans afflicted with swampy temperaments, but what gets me to play Introversions again and again in one day are his hooks, his riffs, his melodies, his skill at varying his moods and styles and thereby modulating his songs through a richer than usual selection of emotions. His music is catchier, his manner is more questing, searching, a man in a dark room braving a bit of sunshine, a little bit of joy. 

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

THE OLD WEIRD AMERICA by Greil Marcus



An admirable facet of Greil Marcus's digressive form of criticism is that he's always attempting--essaying forth, essentially--to demonstrate the unities between the high, low and middle portions of culture, insisting, with an impressive range of references and reading that the separations between are more argumentative than  substantial.Linking mountain and southern music with Dadaism and neo-Marxist student rebellions with Religious bliss with rock and roll and performance art--an exciting project to stake one's career on, which is precisely what Marcus has done. Famously, though, Marcus, one of the first rock  critics for the Rolling Stone publication,the author is given to digression and historical anecdote, musing and abusing the privilege of making metaphor when proofs of his theory are required. Assuming that he had a theory to begin with. Marcus is clearly moving in the dialectical mode, maintaining that opposing forces arise in history that then clash  inevitably in violent synthesis and create a new period of existence with new rules and cultural  distinctions, all of that creating it's opposite and  which will again clash in  violent synthesis. But instead of a theory that one can read and argue with, that is, I suppose, a script one can comprehend and modify as new evidence comes to light, Marcus is more  impulsive notion than theoretical rigor.


 It is the joy of reading him, as he seems to relish the chance to  recreate some blessed moment in music history--the Sex Pistols rehearsing "Johnny B. Goode" (in his book Lipstick Traces)  or the tension on the stage at the Newport Fok Festival when Dylan, assuming the stage with an electric band, was booed and called names by a crowd of stalwart folkies. Just when you think he's ready to provide the skeleton key to his musings, the punchline, the point he's taking a good while to get to, Marcus recedes into the mystify murk of his own  grandiloquence. That is the joy and the aggravation of reading this writer.   I read Greil Marcus because I love the way he writes and admit that his prose has been an influence in the way I take finger tips to keyboard. This is a problematic love of the man's love that has existed for five decades.Lately, though, it's been more prolix than persuasion, as his ongoing effort to make Bob Dylan the central factor of the 20th century hasn't struck a believable insightful note in decades. 



The Old Weird America is an extended reflection on the songs that appeared on Dylan's famous 'Basement Tapes" , strives to provide the secret history behind the songs . In matters of the cross pollination of cultures, racial justice, the mashing together of folk authenticity, rock and roll and Symbolist poetry, Marcus essentially argues that all roads lead to Dylan and lead through him as well. As criticism , it is more an act of imagination than a weighing of elements; Well read and as well listened as he is across a great spectrum of literature and music types, what is lacking here are the dual duties of establishing how the songs and artists within the folk tradition influenced Dylan and how Dylan assimilated the music who's expressive brilliance he could never equal and yet was motivated by to create his own means, and create a new criteria by which to discuss the success or failure of the work. , there are dozens, hundreds perhaps, of critics who have standing to challenge him. The question, though, isn't the most obvious, "what are you talking about?". We know what he's talking about, and around. Rather, someone needs to ask "what are you getting at?" I've done my part in filling in the blanks in Marcus's ideas about how history and culture , high, low and middle, function, but in ad- libbing so much without a frame work that can be expanded, contracted and otherwise modified to fit the evidence under investigation, I think this may be just a case that Marcus has lost curiosity in new things. He treats Dylan the way Harold Bloom treats Shakespeare, a figure who's work created the contemporary ideas of contemporary man, although Bloom is better at his claims in that he takes pains to critically contrast the ideas in the Bard's poems against the theoretical proxies of Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, et al.

 You can argue with his sweeping conclusions, but the book I'm thinking of, "Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human" is a critical delight. It may be that Bloom is luxuriating in laziness of a higher caliber.The difference between them is that Bloom has a thesis that he's worked with for decades, a set of subtle arguments crystallized in his landmark book "The Anxiety of Influence", a brief but trenchant discussion where the Professor posits that Shakespeare is the premiere genius who casts a long and permanent shadow  over the rest of world literature that came   before him, and that his influence is so pervasive that no poet or other literary artists cannot help but be infuenced by him. Those great geniuses who've emerged after the Bard's time have either engaged their  influence from him and written great works extending , modifying and altering the system of metaphor Shakespare changed our collective   consciousness with, or there are other geniues who've emerged over the centuries who, being painfully aware of the Bard's embedded influence on how sentences about human experience have come to be written, write    furiously in the other direction, against his style, assumptions and rhetoric, experimenting, taking political risks, deconstructing, inverting, abstracting and de-familiarizing the artful language in  ways only a new kind of   genius would conceive and execute.


  
 But here's the rub: even for those great writers who've made great art with language that artfully  contains the human impulse to  go beyond mere descriptios of the world and peer at what is behind the veil of enumerated appearances, Shakespeare is present, his aesthetic, his metaphors, his language influencing new writers in one direction or the other. That is a rather crude summary of Bloom's basic premise and there are dozens of other notions woven through his life's work, but the point is that his a set of ideas that make the ideas tangible and convincing once the initial "a ha!"  of flashing insight wears off. It's not science, of course, but it is a craft, a profession, this kind of thinking,and what we have in Bloom who has taken his working theory and tested it against new ideas, new  writers who writer literature in cultures other what is routinely aligned in the Western Canon. Bloom, who defends the existence of the canon and wrote a book on the issue, believes dually that there are permanent geniues and masterpieces of Western Literature,   as he is a man who has made a career judging books with imposing standards. The standards are not fixed, though, and Bloom further asserts thtthe Canon is a living thing, like the   American Constitution, a catagory   of books and authors that must   be   continually revised as matters with human existence come to mean something different. As I've mentioned  already, Marcus hasn't put forth a thesis from which his notions can find a more compelling form of argument, a form that would aid others to avoid the frequent bush and thorny bramble that spreads in Marcus's many books and subject his scheme of rock music's claim to art to some respectful but rigorous interrogation.Marcus and impressionistic hot takes on matters of music , and culture in general have been brilliant at times, but the later work is actually regressive and without a central premise or premises. I frankly think he's lost in his thoughts, but without a map.


Dylan is less the artist to Marcus than a saint or something greater, and, even though there is pleasure to ride the waves, cadences and well crafted metaphors and similes of the writer's prose, The Old Weird America is a shaggy dog story at heart. Marcus began this habit of epic digression with Lipstick Traces, a tome not without its pleasures--his connection there of the efforts of Cabaret Voltaire, the Dadaists, Punk Rock and the Situationist provocations of Guy Debord was especially tightly argued-- but now it seems little else than a practiced spiel that's trotted out and exclaimed, regardless of the topic, not unlike an old timer's AA share that is memorized not just by him or her but by the entire meeting that has heard him or her deliver for decades. What I am saying is that Marcus is writing the same book with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Those familiar with how the author thinks on the page will note, also, the lack of real verve in the writing, skilled and flowing as it maybe.