Friday, April 6, 2018

Smart's Cat, My Mantis

I love cats as much as the next premature curmudgeon, and I can't help but think that Christopher Smart is half pulling our collective leg with his poem, which is rock-slapping waves of adulation for his cat. Years ago I wrote a poem called "The Praying Mantis" that was a list of self-contained sentences, each beginning with the title phrase and then completing itself with some qualitative non sequitur; the point was, of course, was to lampoon the baroquely-phrased claims you come across in self-penned biographies, press releases or eulogies that overshoot the commemorative mark. The challenge was to see how many fresh takes I could get starting from the same premise and at what point would I sense that I was done, winding up the sequence on a diminished, perhaps exasperated note.


The praying mantis returns no phone calls,
The praying mantis will not shake your hand,
The praying mantis does not pay sales tax,
The praying mantis had been to the moon and found it drab and without a bar,
The praying mantis ignores streetlights and no smoking signs,
The praying mantis does not hear what you have to say,
The praying mantis is the other side of the story,
The praying mantis loves a hammer with sturdy, curved claw,
The praying mantis will have lunch when he's done with you,
The praying mantis is a close, personal friend of Sammy Davis Jr.,
The praying mantis directs traffic until it's an atonal film score,
The praying mantis says nothing but means volumes,
The praying mantis cured cooties and shared it with no one...


The litany went on another sixty lines until the absurdity grew tiresome, or my imagination failed, or both, but the point is that it was interesting to witness the momentum one could get attributing huge potential to things of seeming small consequence. I was interested in how the praying mantis could, by his lack of interaction with the larger human world, could seem, given the colliding box car cadence, seem a larger, more powerful force, one mere mortal should respect lest his restraint fall and said insect really show us what for. I had been thinking of every cliche portrayal of hip and badass cool I had come across, from junkie jazz geniuses, the Beats, white Negros and tortured renditions of existential cool; the sort of man who is so in tune with himself-in-the-world that he is privy to great amounts of power, but that power is withheld because there is no need for an ostentatious display. In other words, a state so slippery that attempts to describe it accurately result in growing amounts of absurdity, some of it baffling. Smart, it seems, wants the habits of his cuddly kitty to embody something purposeful with the divine, to reveal a connection with a heavenly agenda that our intellect prevents us from sensing much of the time but which a cat, with senses tuned like delicate instruments, can pick up on and be affected by.




For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon
**his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthly he goes in quest of food.
For having considered God and himself he will consider his neighbor.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day's work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord's watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.


There is a belief that there are absolutely no coincidences in God's Universe, that nothing, nothing at all happens my mistake, that what people and creatures do is, to a greater or lesser degree, the result of a divine intervention against our baser natures. One can see why Smart was inspired by his cat, cats being a creature that, while domesticated, still seem independent, engaged with invisible forces, acting in accordance to stimulus humans have little or no capacity to discern.


Smart injects so much purposefulness and subtle intent in his cat's movements that assuming that he's using the creature to mirror his own self-image is unavoidable. Or at least something to consider as one pursues alternative readings. He seems to be writing about his own lazing about, it seems, his own time eating, musing, writing, taking walks, talking, just being rather than doing something more active, productive and profitable. His cat is connected to a spiritual path, or at least he sees hints of it with each lick, purr, furball and odd reclining angle, and mounts an indirect argument that his very being, those times when he is thinking of the connections between stationary objects, the contemplative mode, is precisely how his God intended him to be in this life. Arguing that God didn't want me to work is something I've never had the nerve to try.


Some had commented elsewhere that these might be called "attention poems", something I like the sound of.I like "attention poem", as in a particular thing--creature, object--getting an unusual and, I think, unexpected focus. I'm one of those who thinks that citizens come to know the world through addressing it formally, "knowing", in this sense, being more than a formal recognition of origins, functions, and utility; imbuing a mantis, a cat, a building with qualities alien to them is a way of developing an intimate relationship with those things that might otherwise be problematic. We give them extraordinary qualities through fanciful rhetoric, itself distorted and careening along the tracks, so that they may become ordinary to us. It may be a shamanistic ritual transposed to the written word, an exercise of the will to imagine a realm of metaphysical propositions in an effort to assimilate a bit of the virtue and power the tropes would imply. It would seem a way of making that which is ultimately unknowable--the thing in itself--less of a concern and more an asset in our way through the day, the weeks, the months, the years.


Thinking again, the use of the word "ordinary" doesn't do justice to Smart's evocation. Nothing in the way Smart describes his cat seems an attempt to reduce something in size. A better phrase would have served the point better, which is my feeling that Smart, on some level, was trying to associate himself with the subtle and sublime qualities he attributes to his dear cat and, perhaps, have those same graces become a part of himself. You could also assert that the very act of sensing these things in his pet and having the language mastery to sufficiently align the motion with the spiritual nuance and attending effect comes from an innate quality, that these conditions already exist within Smart. He would be, then, be in the act of recognizing what he already knows, that part of the shared condition within his God's universe that is within himself and the living things around him. Not that the poem is meant to be the beginning of a campaign toward universal spiritual suffrage for all creatures great and small, but his close reading of Jeoffry's manner offers an enticing clue to his greater cosmological sense.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Aesthetics of Nakedness


Image may contain: textShrillness is not how I'd describe Mailer's late work, since he abandoned addressing himself in the third person with "The Executioner's Song". From that book onward, Mailer's self-announcing presence has noticeably receded and the narrative itself took priority. For something approaching "shrillness", you have to go back to "Advertisements for Myself" and "Why Are We In Vietnam?", writings filled with exuberance, ego, loud clashing verbs and careening metaphors.

 It was a style that worked for Mailer for a long period, and the author was smart enough to have given it up before it became that rote, breathless template that a more promiscuous writer like Joyce Carol Oates relies on. Regardless of what you think of him as person, Mailer's "The Gospel According to the Son" is not a novel inspired by any hysterical force; it is calm, simply phrased, poetically spare, and effective as in result in it's evocation of Christ's burden of being both of heaven and of earth. Mailer's presence and his ideas are always noticeable in his later work, but there's a mature,yes, mature voice at work here which has served him well. 

The problem with much of the nay saying of Mailer's writing is that some act as if he hasn't changed his style. To think so is not to have read him closely at all it seems.Christ has been a character in novels and in film, so Mailer's brief recasting of the Greatest Story Over Told is hardly an exercise in ego gratification. Mailer has some well known ideas about God that he's written about over the decades, and it was rather a surprise that he could weave them into the Christ story as delicately and successfully as he had. Perhaps you should read the book before condemning it out of hand. A little less tub thumping is called for. If you don't like it, at least you'll be in position to discuss the degrees of it's flaws with authority. You'll be in the position to critique it as a novel, not an audacious act. 

Flaubert's notion for the "impersonal artist" is a fine theory and works well with respect to writers with similar aesthetic values as the author of "Madame Bovary". It's not the only idea in how literature and art ought to made however, and certainly applying it to Mailer's aims as a novelist is a bit besides the point. Impersonality in writing is more a goal than anything achievable, I would say, and it's only in the reaching for the result that one might end with interesting results. Genius enters into the equation, as in not all writers have equal abilities, whatever standard they avow. Nakedness as a value in writing works only as well as the writer who decides to make it an operating concern, and it worked well enough for Mailer in the early and middle points of his career, a projection of the self hardly more assaulting than Whitman's or the cynical rumblings of an older Mark Twain. Mailer, as I said before, left this persona behind in 1979 with the publication of his masterful "Executioner's Song",when he he realized that after a couple of decades of theorizing about violence and killers, he needed to conceal his presence and tell the spectacular and complex story in front of him.
A wise decision, and a method he's wisely maintained with each books. "Harlot's Ghost","Oswald's Tale" are not the aggravated spewings of an egomaniac trying to flummox readers with hyperactive vocabularies; the books, central efforts in his late period, are carefully wrought works of historical narrative, brilliant and flawed. For Mailer's ideas, these are not the rants of a young hothead picking an argument, but of a mature artist Making A Case. To say that there are too many books and novels about Hitler is patent nonsense. Hitler was such a monster and pall over the last century that it's at our peril that artists, writers, scholars, novelists stop trying to comprehend him. Mailer's has an eccentric take on the formations of the amoral Hitler's unblinking willingness to bring carnage , and for all the snipes and snips from naysayers ,he does evoke the mindsets of those who's self-infatuation and indifference to the results of their actions makes the Devil's grooming of the child for future mischief seem plausible in a fictional narrative.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Bruno Mars

To the matter as to whether Bruno Mars, who is not black, is appropriating black music and an aesthetic born of African American experience, created by talented black artists, well…I don’t know the man’s music, let alone his version of Black Style. I will him be and not mention him again in this harangue. Appropriation has been with us forever, although I would suggest that the non-black musicians playing music that is African American in origin have, for the most part, a genuine love of the sounds they've been exposed to. 

Theft is theft and black creators must be located, credited and their families paid for the use of the bodies of work that formed the foundation for a huge amount of American culture and a character, but at the same time it seems reductive and ironically bigoted to suggest that only black musicians have the right, let alone the sole ability to make authentic jazz, blues, or rhythm and blues. Forcing matters of creativity into a any kind of requirements for acceptance is absurd and contrary to what art is supposed to do, the process through which an individual--an artist--experiences the world and, through the use of whatever medium moves him enough to create objects of beauty of contemplation that hadn't existed before. Pretty much going with Marcuse on this one, as in his booked the Aesthetic Dimension, where he argues that Society, The Establishment, the Powers that Be, need to leave the artists and allow them to perform their task with their art making, to produce joy. Otherwise, if held to aesthetic principles that are contrary to inspiration, it ceases to be art. It is Propaganda. 



We do not need an American version of Soviet Realism, no matter where it comes from. It goes to authenticity that one writes in a style that is natural to them; whites writing in idioms that makes sense for Mance Liscomb is clearly insulting to black musicians and black culture in general. It is a not so subtle form of racism: it says "I think you're exotic, not quite human, something wholly "other" than normal. I will take your funny sounds and use them to decorate my cosmology." Absent the absolutist argument that only black musicians have the right to play blues and are the only ones who can have anything authentic expression (its' a powerful argument), the bottom line of the blues is the clear, simple, emotionally honest expression of one's experiences. That would mean that one find their own voice, something they can bring of themselves to the music they desire to perform and make it genuinely personal. There is a difference, a fine one, between having a personal style greatly influenced by black music and singers and one that slavishly tries to impersonate the sound, causing all sorts of suspicious Rich Little-isms. 


Those influenced by black artists but who have their own style, free of affectation: Butterfield, Mose Allison, Van Morrison, Tom Waits. Those who fail: Jagger, when he sings blues, Peter Wolfe, others galore. Wolf is listenable and usually effective as vocalist and frontman, but he never convinced me that his style was cleverly constructed, contrived.


 I won't go as far as to say he's guilty of minstrelsy, but his banter where spews hip argot, rope-a-dope rhymes and other offerings of hep-cat impersonation, comes off as cartoonish, stagy, really stereotypical of black performance; whether Cab Calloway or James Brown or an inspired preacher sermonizing from the pulpit of a black church, Wolf's machine gun is appropriation straight out. I had often wished he'd just keep his mouth shut and just sing. Yes, I realize the irony of the last sentence, but I think you see my point even if you might not agree with it. J.Geils is a band I've enjoyed a great deal over the last few decades, but there are times when Wolf's unreconstructed enthusiasm turns into caricature and stereotype. He reminds me of someone trying to beat his influences at their own game rather than forging something that is really his own.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Updike

Novelist Dianna Evans writes a fine essay regarding the late John Updike's decline in reputation as a novelist due, mostly, to his over all failure to create fully-formed women characters. Her response is ambivalent, understandably so, as Updike could be mean to his women characters, and yet he wrote so beautifully, lyrically, ingratiatingly. No surprise the late novelist John Updike isn't a favorite among younger readers in this era of "Me Too" and "Times Up". Indeed, the age of men being held accountable for their conduct has come and it's here to stay. A good thing.

Updike was not especially kind in his depictions of women in his fiction, and for that he needs to read critically, but one needs to admire his stated understanding of what his duty as an artist was,"“My duty as a writer is to make the best record I can of life as I understand it,and that duty takes precedence for me over all these other considerations.” The novelist and short story writer wrote elegantly, lyrically, poetically, he had , perhaps, the most perfect prose style of any American writer of his generation, and he created a fictional world of men, mostly heterosexual , fumbling through the lives full of small stakes ambition and fully licensed libidos that derailed their best natures with compromises of opportunism, affairs, self deception, an inability to see larger contexts beyond their perspectives.


The writer was , like many of his characters, unable to see further than his own vision, an aspect that might be called a great writer's failure of imagination,but what he did know he know--a straight , middle class male's world of materialism and lust rationalized into metaphysical permanence--he understood intimately, knowingly, and was aware of how the limits makes perfect plans, perfect plans, fall apart or produce results contrary to expectations. Updike wasn't, I don't think, quite so oblivious to his renderings of women in his tales, but I think his aim, over all, was to imaginatively construct the many scenarios of how the perfect worlds of his protagonists are at odds with a universe that will not obey good or bad intentions. That he wrote about this world so beautifully--there are those times when I pick up an Updike book, say "Rabbit Run" or "The Centaur" or "The Witches of Eastwick" just to have the language figuratively roll of the page as if the words , the sentences or the fleeting notes of a transcendent Clifford Brown solo-- might be a flaw in his art, one could argue.


He makes it attractive, the prose is a seduction of a kind. Fine, that makes him dangerous for both male and women writers, which makes him artist, a great one. That makes him a pleasure to read and a pleasure worth discussing critically, as a means of understanding our own responses to his increasingly problem-making, if still alluring works,

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

CHOKE ON THESE WORDS


Well, yeah, I'm grumpy some of the time, and I've been accused of being a curmudgeon in regards to National Poetry Month, the annual  dedication to an elusive art with a small audience that itself is divided among several hundred-seeming schools of thought as to what is genuinely worth reading or promoting. The reservations come chiefly from the attitude that poetry is something pathetic in itself, with Special Needs, and that there is a collective delusion in the publishing world that poetry can be made more popular by hyping the form with the cliched hokum that sounds culled from New Age screeds. It's a little infuriating to witness an art that you believe, at it's best, sparks the unusual idea or the unforeseen connection within a reader be reduced as something that  marketers promise to deliver a consumer to an even deeper vat of circumscribed thinking.

I wouldn't say my remarks about National Poetry Month are grumpy, just realistic. On the face of it I welcome a month dedicated to the art , craft and diversity of poets and their work , and even think that the month might well bring new readers to poetry as something they'd read in their leisure time. The problem is that once we give someone or some thing a special day, week, or month for the nominal purpose of increasing awareness, most of the population bothering to observe what the calendar day commemorates will nod their head, bow their head, read a few poems, maybe buy a single volume that will likely wind up half way finished and atop a coffee table, a page bent down to mark a page,not be picked up again, and then be done with it for the year. It certainly gives major publishers significant favorable publicity so they can present themselves as more than bottom-line obsessed subsidiaries of malignant media corporations: look at what we're doing to support the arts, look at our love of poetry!!There are poets who benefit, many of them I count my favorites, but the fact that poetry in general has a month dedicated to it's supposed welfare seems more to me that the rest of the literary world considers the form a poor, sickly relative; April as poetry month is the metaphorical gulag, a ghetto, a hospice, that space where this art, which no publisher seems to know how to market so it contributes usefully to their bottom line, is allowed to make it's noise, indulge their rhetoric for a short period in the spot light before being ushered from the stage and back to the margins.

Poets, the work they do, the theories they develop regarding their art has been the most rarefied and most diffuse of the arts as it developed since the encroachment of Modernism over turned the conventional thinking about poetry's form and purpose. It's been to poetry's advantage, I think, that the audience has been small, very small, compared to the other genres that help publishers make their payrolls and their dividends, since the relative obscurity has allowed poets of many different styles and concerns, politics and agendas to advance their art and arguments , both Quietist and Post-Avant Gard, unconcerned with a commercial aspect that wasn't theirs to begin with. National Poetry Month is something like a zoo the city folk may visit on their days off , and the poets are the exotic creatures who will perform their tricks, do their dances, take their bows for the smattering of applause and loose coin that might come their way. Generally speaking, poets and their work would be better off, and saner as well, if the illusion that a dedicated month will increase the readership and increase book sales as well.It would be better for poets to stop behaving like their in need of rehabilitation and went about their business, doing what we're supposed to do to the best our individual and collective abilities. If the work is good, interesting, of quality on it's own terms, the audience , whatever the size, will come.
_____________________________

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Clapton assessment

Image result for eric clapton sleepingI lost interest in Clapton's guitar work quite a while ago. Post-Cream, his solo work was pretty lazy, with outbreaks of inspiration , such as Layla or his wonderful blues disc From the Cradle. Others may feel differently,but he seems to have recycling old riffs for decades; I count from Wikipedia that he has released 16 live albums under his name over the years, a sign of  laziness, as no new material is coming forth, but also of arrogance, a conviction,if unspoken,that each of his long blues solos is a work of art, ready for prime time. 

This works worth Coltrane to large degree, in my view (and tastes) and much less satisfactorily for Keith Jarrett (who noodles as much as me combusts with inspiration). It's not so objectionable for a jazz musician to have numerous live albums over the course of a long career since a tenet of the jazz aesthetic is that no two improvisations on the same song are alike. 

Each performance is a unique work of art, and able jazz players are able to recast,re-imagine, re-brand their signature songs continually. Clapton,though, is not a jazz musician, but a blues player, with a far more limited vocabulary of ideas that simply repeat themselves. There is redundancy in his execution that becomes wearisome with all those elongated solos. These days, where he gets my attention is less the addition of new musical ideas or context, but rather by the quality of fire he brings to the old material, to the signature riffs and phrases. My favorite example is his reunion with fellow Blind Faith member Steve Winwood from 2009. Clapton's guitar work burns hot,fevered, intense, inspired throughout the two discs. This two disc set more than reclaimed Clapton's greatness from drifting, plodding and dispirited money grab that was the 2004 Cream reunion.

What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?



Following allegations by creditable women that horrible albeit talented Hollywood men  have  harassed, molested, fondled , raped them over long periods of time, it merits asking , as The Paris Review does, what we do with the work of artists who are simply monsters . It's not a fashionable thing to suggest, but I go with Trust the tale, not the teller. I am inclined to think that artists, good- natured or foul in personal relationships, make sincere attempts to make art that represents some better version of themselves. Art making, whether writing or making movies, composing poems or painting in realistic or abstract variations, is a process that, at bottom, tries to make sense of a problematic world and the individual's responses to it. Even terrible people, monsters even, can provide creations that provide insight insight, wisdom, a sense of useful irony in the guise of metaphor and other devices. So yes, we should continue to honor the work of monstrous men who've been long praised as great artists. whoever we happen to be talking about, the critical consensus has long been in place, formed over decades of critical review. 


This assume, of course,that the host of critics haven't been shilling for these horrible males. Let us assume, then, the novels, the movies, the poems, the plays, the paintings, the TV shows that have been highly regarded by critics and audiences are indeed good as quality, worthwhile items of art that have met rigorous criteria. criticism, popular criticism, needs to learn again an old lesson, that depth of talent does not indicate quality of character.Art has a tendency to outlive the awful men who created it. Picasso, from all accounts a genuine creep, remains in discussions and continues to be shown in museums because he was a great artist who changed the way we think about art. Pound remains important as poet and theoretician of art and poetics despite his antisemitism penchant for  treason and racism.Sinatra will likely remain the shining example of what a singer-crooner-interpreter needs to be in spite of his horrendous treatment of women and his tie ins with the Mob.We could go on.Art is long, life is short, and the reputations of truly gifted artists who were, as well,monsters in personal behavior lingers much, much longer in the historical memory than do a ignoble acts. I've no problem factoring personal aspects of artists into discussions of their art as a means to understand how specific works achieve their power, but for flushing whole bodies of work because of vetted and not so vetted accusations of being less than wholesome would remove an unbelievable amount of aesthetic benefit from the world. 

Artists , even on their best days, never rise above the status of being human; there is no requirement for them to be saints. There are requirements,namely laws,for them being acceptable citizens, and they must be held accountable for their actions in the world they live in. The work, though, is a different matter. My nose offends me because I think its too large, but I will not cut it off nor spend the time to repair it through surgery.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Tom Rapp, Pearls Before Swine founder, RIP




Tom Rapp, co-founder, guitarist, singer and principal songwriter for seminal Sixties Underground band Pearls Before Swine, has died, age 70.  I had three albums by Pearls Before Swine in my time as an earnest seeker of weird new music, One Nation Underground, These Things To and Balaklava at various times. Like fellow travelers Kaleidoscope, and the Holy Modal Rounders, PBS emerged from the Folk Boom of the early Sixties, when the interest in roots music and sounds from other cultures had largely by-passed the interest in creating yet more safe, commercial Top 40 hits; the interest was newly aligned with poetry, expanded improvisations, motifs previously heard only in university special collection listening rooms, an interest in trying out ideas to see what it would sound like,  however ragged or rarefied. I wasn't a Rapp devotee, but I did like his general approach to being a product of the counterculture. His songs were simple but alluring, just exotic enough to surprise you when you otherwise might have switched albums. His lyric writing was haphazard, kissing the edge of psychedelia but smartly confining itself in an amiable surrealism that relieved the verities of being young and naive.  Other times, his lyric was sharp and beguiling from the imagery stance; he never achieved the polish of a Cohen or Simon, the feathers and lace lyricism of Mitchell, or the dark, rococo symbolism of Dylan, but there was an appeal he, a genuinely odd take on circumstances he found himself involved in, and sly wit that undercut what might have been insufferable pretensions by many drug-informed bands of the time. The Sixties were an age when naive art had, in large measure, gone far beyond the endearingly insular to levels of unprecedented pomposity and egocentric self-regard. Rock and roll, suddenly an art form with nascent critics and literature department drop outs egging the rabble onward with their guitar bashing and cotton-mouthed pronouncements, became the refuge for many of the marginally musical who overrated their abilities and sought to crowd out the real talent from whatever crash pad couch they happened to be sitting on.  

The joy of Tom Rapp and Pearls Before Swine was that he wasn't concerned with convincing the world of his genius. Like any poet I admire, large talent or smaller, the business of writing poems, or songs, was one of accurately recording one's impressions, perceptions and fleeting grasp of intangible details, catching them as exactly, as faithfully to the phenomena itself, eschewing the construction of an ersatz philosophy. This hearkens back to my taste for William Carlos Williams and other Modernist poets who desired that their language have fidelity with the world, that their task wasn't to make sense of the world, to render it coherent to a narrative still be written, but rather to have a sense of the sphere one inhabits, that is, a sense of participating in the commotion, marveling and dismaying in turn as events unfold. Rapp wasn't so melodramatic as I might make him sound--he was, in spirit, a what-the-fuck-hippie not dislike the Grateful Dead's lyricist Robert Hunter in temperament. Rapp had whimsy to temper his fatalism, and he lacked the fashionable weariness so many singer-songwriters affected during this period. He never pretended to be 3o years older than he was; he acted the age he truly was, which made the reports from his imagination seem fresh and enduring, if, as already mentioned, a bit awkward and unpolished.  I enjoyed them for what they were, unique, minor, a breath of fresh air. Much more fun than the Incredible String Band.

Monday, February 26, 2018

i am compelled to share this with all you John Mayall fans

Image result for foghatFoghat were among the unfortunate realities of arena rock, a blues rock band so uninspiring that calling them "pedestrian" is to over rate their quality. They were everything that could possibly go wrong with a white blues band. Wooden rhythms, clanging arrangements, anemic guitars, adenoidal vocals.I saw them several times because they were on the same bill with bands I wanted to see. Edgar Winter Group, J.Geils Band, Bob Seger? This was the 70s, when the brilliant , the mediocre and the largest category, the absolutely abysmal performed on the same bills ; you had to grit your teeth , swallow hard and take it like a champ, aware that sitting through another un-tuned, zombie-shuffling set by Foghat was the condition you needed to agree to if you wanted a chance to see a true living legend live.It was like getting hit by the same bus over and over and over again.

A memoir by Robert Christgau



Image result for into the city robert christgau
Going Into the City:
Portrait Of a Critic
as a Young M
an
By Robert Christgau 
I made it halfway through Robert Christgau's memoir Going Into the City: Portrait Of a Critic as a Young Man before I had to put it down. Memoirs are a literary excuse for interesting people to talk about themselves due to an inherent belief that merely being themselves, sans compelling intellection or objectively intriguing art--novels, movies, poems, paintings--is enough to fill a book. it's likely that my lapse was due to the format Christgau chose; too much him, not enough of the world that formed him as a thinker about Pop Music and related concerns.I'm tempted to pick it up again, but I hesitate, I stall, I make excuses to do something else, considering that Christgau's obsessiveness, perfect for a critic, can be hard to take for long in a book that is supremely autobiographical in nature. I have been wishing that someone would take his best essays from his website and collect them into a volume or two; on rock and pop and some other matters of culture is always an intriguing point of view and it would be great to have those views between covers. 

I'd been reading Christgau's insular, fannish, personal and idiomatically dense reviews for decades and rather liked the idea that I was part of the cognoscenti who could parse his sentences and follow his train of thought. "Any Old Way You Choose It", his collection of longer reviews and pieces gathered from the Sixties and Seventies, is one of my all-time favorite essay collections, a brainy, chatty, at times exasperatingly idiosyncratic journey through a couple of decades of extraordinary innovation; I love it for the same reason I still cherish Pauline Kael's "I Lost It At The Movies", for that rare combination of true fan enthusiasm and discovery. As with Kael at her best, you can sense the moment when Christgau comes to an insight, a discovery yet undiscovered by other writers; he has that element of "ah-HA! “Coming to his Consumer Guide column, where he would review anything and everything available, from the varied strands of rock, disco, reggae, folk, jazz, and pop was like meeting that clutch of friends you knew in college who considered rock and pop the emerging Grand Art. His was a column where I found someone who kept the conversation going, and strange and self-indulgent as it may have seen, it was fertile ground to debate and exchange ideas on the relative qualities of music. Anyone who's been through this bit before, the obsession with rock music is an art and establishing the critical terms with which one can assess, appraise and make note of what makes albums worth the purchase, appreciates the kind of critical thinking which becomes a habit of mind. In college I was Arts Editor of the thrice-weekly campus newspaper and was required, in addition to my studies, to write a crushing amount of column inches a week on matters of music, theatre, television, movies. Rough life, I know, but it was a lot of writing none the less, and the chief debt I might have toward Christgau, an admittedly sketchy model for a minor league reviewer, was the creation of a tone, a style. 


The Village Voice, founded in the fifties by Norman Mailer and Dan Wolfe, was formerly noted as a magazine where the pittance that writers were paid was somewhat compensated by the freedom they had to develop a writing style, ideas, and journalistic beats. It was a writer's publication, and that was the chief attraction for a reader who wanted more than cooker cutter reviews or cursory coverage of politics and culture. Christgau is a product of that freedom and developed an argot and style that was intended for those as obsessed and concerned with music as he was; he is a critic, not a reviewer distinction being that the critic assumes that his or her reader has the same background in the area under discussion as they do. Unlike reviews, which are final and absolute and brook no discussion beyond name calling, Christgau's essays are addressed to the concerned, the convinced, the true believer that pop music traditions matter as much as so-called High Culture expressions. This leaves him incomprehensible for many who think his writing is too dense with insular references and verbal shorthand to bother with, but that was a chief part of my attraction to his writing. There were many a time when I was in my twenties when I hadn't the slightest idea of what he was talking about-- who was Adorno? Marcuse? Sun Ra??-- but the subject matter at hand compelled me to investigate references further. It was an old-fashioned enterprise, his column in one hand, a dictionary and an encyclopedia at the ready to clarify the murkier waters of his prose. Any inspiring critic does that. Christgau and the late Lester Bangs gave me some ideas and methods in learning how to write fast, and well (or at least well enough that some light editing could be done without a major operation and my copy could be taken to the typesetter before the deadline). What is impressive about Christgau is his catholicity of taste, his constant curiosity about new sorts of noise and racket, and his ability to form connections and generate operate theories. 

His writing is unique, and the Village Voice's loss will be another editor's gain. Christgau certainly tried to be confessional, tell all essayist, a horrible habit from the sixties that still infests popular nonfiction these days, as when he reprinted a long piece in "Any Old Way" about a trip across country with his girlfriend Ellen Willis and, in what was ostensibly an essay dealing with ideas, chronicled the events precipitating their break up. It was a rather aimless accounting, neither interesting as personality gossip nor compelling as an intellectual argument. It was just...awkward, not unlike someone who feels they have to talk about something that is a change in their life but cannot find the words that make you empathize. I rather enjoyed his prejudices, snobbery and the like, and I liked the fact the reserved the right to change his mind about an artist, even if only for one album. He as a critic, a dilettante, someone's who's a propensity toward prolix was intriguing, attractive, worth the bother to pour over when he was engaging the popular culture he thrived on.


Sunday, February 25, 2018

Two Guys Will Yell at You. Reasonable Rates

I read smart critics with a flair for prose, knowledge of the medium they're assessing, and who go beyond the common stock cliches, platitudes and ritual complaints and back up their remarks with pertinent examples. Also, the critics I prefer are pretty much a literate sort, knowledgeable of the arts in general, literature, and who have a grasp of social issues. It's not that I expect critics to deliver exhaustive dissections of films each time they write, but the ability to refer to poetry, novels, plays, music knowingly and coherently and not just other recent movies from the last 30 is an element that brings something "more" to the analysis of a film. It keeps the criticism fresh, genuine, honest, whether the judgement is positive and veering toward the negative. "That's just your opinion" is a response that doesn't cut it, really.Indeed, a critics' view is his other opinion, but that ought to go without saying. Some opinions have more value than others; I prefer the reviewers who get me thinking about what I saw. If I come up against a well written and knowledgeable review that challenges my opinion of a certain film--or novel, play, record album, whatever--it's my task to respond with a strong counter argument. I either shore up my position or be willing to modify my view. Mostly, I reserve the right to change my mind based on new evidence, a strong position. Time was when readers of film reviews debated the merits of what Hollywood did in frank but civil exchanges; debaters engaged each other's ideas and left personal attacks for the wallowing habits of the less perceptive in our midst. Just think of it, the glorious ebb and flow of conversation on subject you're thoroughly engaged with, trading critiques, asides, remarks, information, insights and fertile comparisons of differences with a host of others with whom you may disagree entirely or partially, but who are no less passionate about the arts than you are. Imagine as well such knowing and exciting talk without a death threat, a misogynist aside, a racial slur and other varieties of input that demean another's humanity without purpose. It's a wearisome fact that civility seems to be a concept that no longer has utility. Where are the Duncan Shepards, the James Wolcotts, the Manny Farbers , the Paulin Kaels of this generation? Who will be our next Lester Bangs, our next Robert Christgau? Attention spans, as a function of understanding a lot information and to have a Big Picture as to how the world is operating , a picture that can be tweaked and modified as history marches on, seem no longer able to sustain concentrationon those matters that require evaluations longer than a Tweet or a Facebook meme. This shrinking concern for context and critical discussion has effected our politics, as we've become creatures moved to quick frenzies of irrational absolutism  at the mention of code word, the flashing of a threatening meme, the rattling of a rubber sword in a tin foil scabbord, of a The point is of reviews, and the right to free speech, is to motivate us to have discussions about thing we're passionate about and perhaps learn something from someone else's point of view. But it seems we've rapidly getting to the point where these discussion threads are snake pits for anonymous character assassination. This is a damn shame, as it represents the growing refusal for many of us to take responsibility for our ideas and deeds.


Sunday, February 18, 2018

Bland Panther




It's advisable to not read film reviews beyond the headlines if even that, prior to buying a ticket and waiting for the lights to dim; being delighted or disappointed with a film after walking into the theater with merely reasonable expectations--rather than desires jacked up and exceeding sanity with big media hype. Like a film, hate it, or give a slight, impassive shrug. the experience doesn't feel like you've been manipulated, pavloved so to speak, into craving a sweet and worthless piece of pop culture hype. And if you loathe the thing you've viewed, you are at least allowed to walk away from the theater feeling only disappointed and not betrayed by a noxious cabal of scheming film critics. And so, let me say that Black Panther, a new Marvel release presently annihilating competing films at the box office and the recipient of ludicrous amounts of praiseworthy hyperbole, gets a shrug of the shoulders, a rock solid "meh", a half-nod, a quick exit to the dustbin of memory. So much is read into this film being a harbinger of a new social movement, a religious event, an event signaling the movement of history's tectonic plates that it would seem apparent that what we have, among other undisclosed symptoms, is the jargon-ated babble of movie critics desiring to effective social agents and diagnosticians of the dialectic.

 They don't want to be movie critics, they want to be public intellectuals, they want to be taken seriously. A couple of things at work here, the first being that I, comic reader and superhero movie fan among many other high and low culture obsessions, have become a bit bored with the formula Marvel is putting forth. While the movie, as with all their product, is a technical marvel and moves along gracefully, the narrative, the emotional connections, the dramatized philosophies argued herein, do not rise above what's come before in Marvel's increasingly crowded gallery. Yes, they do try to address matters of race and privilege, but the context here is too ridiculous and "safe" for any urgency to get across besides obvious points for the plot to turn. DCU got it right in Man of Steel in which the catastrophic release of unchecked superpower destroys the city where the combat took place, all in the name of two causes that had well-articulated, if too convenient rationales. The cardboard patriotism of Captain America, in the MCU, is transferred to the amazingly un-charismatic nationalism of Prince T'Challa /Black Panther. And so, it goes.

Quite despite the claims that BP is a game changer or brings things to the next level so far as their connected universe goes, I found it a bit tedious, albeit a bright, shiny, noisy kind of tedium. For whatever reason, there is a herd mentality among film critics when it comes to certain motion pictures, and what has been written and said about Black Panther so far regarding judging its value as a distinct, different and arguably inspired bit of filmmaking loses intellectual rigor and floats too easily to the helium heights of hyperbole. It begins to resemble Resurrection theology more than anything else; that it's being argued that a fantasy epic re-frames, redirects and clarifies the discussion of and policy decisions about what seems intractable evils in our society underscores how pathetic we've become. A Marvel motion fantasy gets credit for clarifying and grounding our discussion of racial injustice and violence while Kathy Bigelow’s fact-based Detroit, an unflinching recreation of the causes and conditions behind the worst race riot in American history, is given a brief flurry of positive reviews and then quickly shuffled out of the spotlight. That ought to have been the movie, of all movies, that would have sparked a brutally frank discussion of the pathetic state of race relations in this country. But it wasn't.  This is pathetic, grimly pathetic. We cannot even pretend that we're going to talk about race in this country unless it's framed by a glitzy and shallow fantasy. With appropriate respect to Black Panther director Ryan Coogler, who ably moves the movie through a script that suffers from attention deficit--the story hopscotches around locations in real- time parallel developments and an over-reliance on flashbacks, this project waddles when it should run, races at times when it needs to resonate, overstays in expository scenes that cry out for more efficient writing. 


Thursday, February 15, 2018

TRUE BUS RIDE (a sketch)

This a goddamned fact, Jack: 

This fellow was on the bus every morning when I was working five days a week, morning rush hour when the vehicle was a sardine can of the unbathed and over perfumed , a combination of cell phone yammers and psychotic silences. 

This fellow's shtick was to find someone who was new on the daily journey, may be a visitor, and he would start talking about himself and what a cool door prize he happens to be.

 The stupidest thing he uttered was that he could sing opera in 5 languages, Italian, French, Russian,et al. His victim looked at him and asked, naturally if he could actually speak those languages. He said,but he could sing opera roles in the alien tongues. 

So you sing phonetically, the visitor asserted.
 No, he said, I sing opera in five languages. 
Do you understand the dialogue you're singinG? was the passenger's next question. 

This fellow's jaunty cap suddenly resembled a brick that had been thrown at him and was wedged by a dent in his thick skull. No, he said, and I don't have to . So you sing phonetically without knowing what you're singing about, the passenger summarized. No, that is not at all , said the fellow, annoyed and flustered, it's something else all together. 

For you,perhaps, said the passenger, but no matter, this is my stop. Bye bye. 

The fellow looked off into the distance , as far he could through the bus windshield. Nothing but dark clouds, power lines and traffic lights greeted his vision,

Saturday, February 10, 2018

HOW TO GLOW , a poem by Dean Young

"How to Glow",a poem by Dean Young, seems willfully chaotic  at first reading, but it does have a rhythm and vibrant sense of starting off with one proposition and concluding with an end , a result, that one did not expect. The chaos were are getting  are an overload of the senses, some quirky half sleep where the unfiltered merging of audiol, visual and tactile sensations bark at one another for the attention of the affected consciousness; it makes for for ugly music and crude ,loud theater.  Each of the concrete things that poet Dean Young mentions seem find a connection with death ; all things lead to demise here, peaceful, painful, glorious, infamous, mundane. That which we busy ourselves with in order to adhere to a convenient existentialist tenet that our lives have meaning drawn from only the decisions we make and our commitment to live by the results of our projects has , as well, a parallel function, to distract us from obsessing from that which we know is inevitable. 



Young, who I understand was once in need of a heart transplant and was fortunate enough to receive one, is fatalistic in this poem, but not without being playful as he inspects the dead ends of the propositions and ideas that are initially championed. One might despair and declare that the poem means to tell us that what we do and dream and build is all for nought  Each endeavor results in a metaphorical dustbin ; I sense something else, hinted at in the title; if you want to glow, to seem holy and spiritual, shine at what you do, aspire and achieve. Go forth and do good works. Appreciate the abyss, step away from it and return to the business of being alive, in this moment.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

A fine harmonica solo from John Popper

The velocity of Jon Popper's quicksilver harmonica bluster remains, for me, just that , harmonica bluster, an machine gun's impression of someone trying to spit up a hairball. This is not to say that Popper and his   band Blues Traveler haven't distracted and surprised me with energy and innovation in their capacity as a "jam band". Or that Popper himself hasn't been able to control his conspicuous ability to step on the gas at will on that small instrument and performed turns in the spotlight that made me envious of his moment and how well he used it. But sum total, Popper is not my favorite harmonica player, and he isn't likely to ascend in my estimation. Often , quite  often, too often, is harmonica improvisations resemble not so much extensions of what you can do with diatonic instruments than it does someone revving their engine after midnight to get a charge in their battery. You would swear some city noise abatement ordinances were being violated.Jon Popper is a unique harmonica player with impressive speed and verve, but he is not a good blues player. He garbles the low end, sounding more asthmatic than bracing. Predictably, he only sounds comfortable on the high notes, where his accuracy and intonation improves dramatically. 
Image result for john popper
Even there, he does really bring the low, middle and high registers together; these are some sorry transitions. He is, on the other band, a very fine blues singer, based on this sample. To be fair, though, this video is some years old and it seems that Popper has learned something about blues phrasing, as in his recording of "Last Night" with Johnny Winter. He allows space to sculpt his solo. His fleet runs on the high end are not as frantic; they are shot, sharp bursts, and dead on target. It is a wonderfully chilling sound. Popper's low end execution is not the best - when he plays blues, he often sounds like he's not sure where the second, third or fourth notes are. He doesn't come to them with the intuitive ease he shows with his high register riffing. Even so, his high end escapades don't connect with anything going around him, or just barely, if at all. The solo is a mess. But he does superb stuff on the Johnny Winter track--there are years between the recordings and what Popper does throughout the improvisation is show us that he figured out how to play blues in his own style, with his signature runs, and still have it be blues. Toward the end of the solo, he gives us a masterful flurry of notes that speed by and yet maintain a blues cadence. He knows what he has to do. So there is hope for this man to get his share of blues credibility.

Monday, February 5, 2018

The withering rascal

Image resultElvis Costello did some fine work after  the tour de force of  Imperial Bedroom,  most notably with  Spike and especially with When I was Cruel.  The songwriter was nearly as strong as anything he’s done before ,although it wouldn’t be a long wait for what we could call the decline of Costello’s quality,  both in his craft and his conviction toward the material. but it warrants saying that Costello's best writing spell came early on in that marvelous string of albums he had, an extended , multi-part set of rants of genuine anger, rage, self-pity. Murderous self-centeredness was his main concern, and he had a peculiar genius for making it profound, or at least evocative, vaguely, of one's own set of unmentionable quantities of explosive self regard.

 He was close to how we understand the world punk to mean as a personality type, not musical style one dons as if it were an overcoat or comfy pajamas. Rather, he was a punk in bang never satisfied, feeling continually and universally betrayed. What made him seductive to an audience, seemingly equal parts men and women, was his ability to manage and modulate the degrees of bile he'd wish to spill; clever with craft, he could switch up points of view, confuse gender for more complex readings, be scathingly satiric , become lyrical and soft hearted. This element, this mastery of many pop music styles, from rockabilly right up to punk rock itself, made his foul cosmology attractive, artful. And he could convey feeling, genuine emotion, or at least seem as if he was doing so. Costello could sell it. 

Trust, however, was pretty much unredeemable--after a good run, the songs sounded second string, discards, unmemorable B sides. Worse, his vaunted lyric writing lapsed into the incoherent. Imaginative associative leaps--succeeding stanzas that seem to address things and places unrelated to the verse before it but still provide a poetic sense of something only slightly obscured by simile and allusion--became references so private, images and codes so private that seemed not the testament of a poet bringing the senses together for an enlarged perception of things gone sideways than it did a species of private jokes that made their way from the notebook to the printed lyric sheet. And melodically, little on this disc is memorable. Trust was an album by rote construction, a listless, unconvincing make work project. EC did, of course, make two additional albums after Imperial Bedroom that rank, in my view, with this best work, Spike and When I Was Cruel. But the writing was on the wall, as the more styles EC took on, from New Orleans jazz and funk, country and western, classical, and various assortments of avant gard noise construction and Bachrach inspired pop, the less convincing, which is to say less compelling he became. 

Even Painted from Memory, his collaboration with Bert Bacharach, which should have been super charged with EC's adroitness as a lyricist and BBs' demonstrated genius for sprite pop with sophisticated turns and fresh, oddball hooks, was mostly studies in mid tempo amorphousness, broad, off center piano chords, achingly swallowed word salad, and Costello continually hitting for that thin, adenoidal high note that wears out its formerly effective existence. Both men seemingly forgot, or at least stayed away from the very strengths that might have made that record compelling; these two gents, but Costello especially, set out to make art music, serious stuff. Costello is the artist who has changed over his career, a man who has expanded his range of expression. Said another way, Costello has expanded , not grown, added to his musical palette without seeming to understand or display a feel for the styles he has assumed album to album.

Slam your head against the skyline, why dontcha



Thick, enjambed, a clustering of obscure terms and slangular dissonances that reflect and echo the languages that have taken turns being the lingua franca of the neighborhood, Spencer Short offers up a poem that reminds one of     
a home video , rickety and nervously caffeinated, shown against a dingy white wall, narrated by several voices ; farewell, says our narrator, farewell til we meet again at the end of the day,this building, this block, this neighborhood that is only valued as highly as the amount of money it might yield to interested and transient developers. What works here, really, is the noisy bustle and toe=stomping pace of the poem, similiar in pacing to crossing downtown street against a horde of angry taxis and delivery trucks with drivers resentful they have to pause for pedestrians to make their way. 


The language is combative yet friendly, an elbow in the ribs, chop busting kind of stuff, this is the language of someone for whom familiarity has bred contempt and yet there is nothing but affection underneath the vocal affectations of elegant phrasing and sarcasm. The word play we have here is not dissimilar from the evolution of New York neighborhoods themselves, the mind puns and new meanings are suggested, built upon, a new development comes in , designs resembling the smaller constructions that were erected decades before, but the new formations are larger, taller, accomplishing more , the advertising says, by being more.  This chase through low, mid and high vernaculars, where different bits of short hand, slang and coded signifiers make for a spectacular 12-tone impression of a neighborhood as it transforms almost imperceptibly . This has the wobbling, woozy verbal gyrations that gave Whitman, Lindsay and O'Hara their power as city poets, that slippery genius of a drunk who talks long enough and deep enough to find all his resources of experience and reading coalescing into extended lucidity. It's not as if the speaker will recall the particular word stream he created nor be enlightened by it; it is likely that he would forget the verbal tangle he worked his way through. But it is a marvel for those who hear it, who listen, who catch a texture and nuance of place in the way the words morph much like the buildings being described.
The warm stalk-sweet smell from the hooded crews  
who keep us failsafe for commerce; men of stature,  
or near enough, their gauzy, smoke-strung copse  
dissolves, lets me pass, nods assent. I mouth  
"morning," eye the candied, cardamom gloss of my shoes,  
shrug against the cold. Everything, as the nomenclature  
goes, 4 Sale: this Smithean forge this Stereoscope—  
by which I mean, of course, the wan illusion of depth  
we milk from nil; the pinch-penny nickel They lose  
for Us to find. As if—as if red-toothed nature  
begot benevolence begot itself this hands-free trope  
of clasp & claw, of gross & price, of precipice.  
8am. The day spreads before me like, what?  
 

This is a neighborhood in chronic flux and there is a suggestion in the racing associations of the narrators mind that he had better say farewell to the grind of this place, its very material abrasiveness , while it exists because it will be changed and much of what he has come to know will eventually be cleared like some forest .