Friday, August 17, 2018


No automatic alt text available.Debates about literary worth often become perfectly ridiculous, a blurry food fight at best, playground taunts of a lower grade. On the subject of the greatest 100 novels written in English this century, I was momentarily smug when I realized that I'd read 75 of the bunch, but appreciated the misgivings of reader factions who felt that their groups, their "voices" had been ignored, shunted to the side, 'marginalized" , with the editors making inadequate efforts to broaden the Canon. But the real use of such list, I think, is to start a controversy, to get a debate going about what makes a good novel, and, I suppose, to have at least part of the public sphere be about something other than whether a sitting president did the wild thing with an intern in a broom closet just off the White House pantry. Not least of all, I've had more conversations, well-mannered debates (!) as to what constitutes a great novel, and most of these chats have gone a step further and dealt with, oddly, why literature is important to a society and culture such as ours. The talks have been stimulating, and, since I work in a bookstore, sales of novels have been brisk, and this due to a high-flying list that pleased no one. Let's have more, and let's rescue literature from the academics, who've abandoned any certainty in their analysis. 

For the greatest novel in America, I vote for "Underworld" by Don DeLillo. Really, no one writes better prose than he does, and the scope of this novel, comprising a hidden history of America in the second half of the century, races past Pynchon and Gaddis and Mailer and Oates, all writers deserving of Nobel Prizes. DeLillo's efforts to show America as a multi-platformed myth is grand and achieves a sustained poetics. DeLillo's plotlines mirror a sense of America itself, being less a collection of lines that meet to some pre-determined point where greatness is conferred at the completion of heroic tasks, but rather than as mass of intersections that criss-cross one another, each with a version of the story told in a personalized language that stems from a world that is complete unto itself, a race of voices and noise that is a churning vat whose parts won't meld. DeLillo's work, it seems, will survive the withering dismissals of affected yokels, and "great American novels" continue to be produced yearly, quite despite our obsession to narrowing the field to only a handful of worthies who fulfill criteria no can state for sure. But DeLillo stands poised for world-greatness because he brings Americans into the larger world, where qualities of being American, imagined by our civics teachers as being divinely granted, has no bearings in a world that seems incoherent and supremely foreign. DeLillo's work, in "The Names", "Mao II", "Players", have Americans of a sort--professionals, artists, intellectuals, poets, usually white, privileged--losing themselves amid the shifting and renegotiated narratives, collective and personal, that are repeated, all mantras, to give the world a sense of reason and purpose beyond the hurly-burly of the phenomenal world. This is a sphere where the sense of the world, our strategies, and accounts to deal with it, are fed to media and then sold back to us with conditions attached. I imagine a work that is equal parts Henry James, for the aspect of Americans confronting the non-American world, and Orwell's "Animal Farm", where we have the pigs, in the dead of night, with ladder and paintbrush, changing the wording on the social contract painted on the side of the barn. 

DeLillo, as well, deals with Americans in America, thankfully, and masterstrokes like "White Noise", "Great Jones Street" (an amazing rock and roll novel whos"Underworld e hero could be Dylan, Bowie, or Cobain), and ultimately " sift through the loss ourselves in our own country. Our stories are modified and changed; our Gods change their minds about ultimate truths as technology forces more secrets and incompressibility upon us. "Underworld" is a tour where history is not just forgotten, is not just pushed to the margins in favor or a Grand Narrative, but is in fact disposed of, thrown away when the metaphysical argument no longer suits the immediate need. The search for the baseball is analogous to a journey back to some Eden that never existed. DeLillo, to my perhaps exclusionist sensibilities, has all these elements. But topicality is not what DeLillo is about; the currency of his plots is believable starting points for his investigations into the nature of our language, of how we address ourselves. His books, I think, have enough for generations of readers and critics to study and discuss for decades to come. He writes broadly enough, and well enough, to sidestep victimhood as a consideration and force readers, and critics for that matter, to study the performance of literature, the literary act itself. There is no "last analysis" to be had just yet, and for DeLillo's sake, I hope he writes a few more novels before we start issuing forth career-ending appraisals of his body of work. I am an obvious DeLillo partisan, but I don't think everything he's done is fully rendered, satisfying every idiosyncratic standard a "serious" reader might contrive, but the fact is that DeLillo is not a novel-a-year contestant with Updike or Joyce Carol Oates, or recently, Mailer, all of whom seem in a rush to consolidate reputations and make themselves nice and shiny for Nobel consideration. DeLillo has published a mere 11 novels since 1969, hardly an overload for almost thirty years as a professional writer. 

That he has themes that re-emerge from work to work is to be expected from a writer, and for DeLillo, his investigations into what we too- easily refer to as post-modernism (yes, I am guilty as charged) and its accompanying paranoia have produced major fiction, which is about, in too-broad a summary of his work, the difficulty of living in a world that has been stripped of any resonance of meaning, any suggestion of Truth, capital "t". This is a kind man-made environment that stems from the make-it-new innovations of High Modernism, and entering the next century with a sense that we have not learned anything despite high-speed technologies that shoot raw and indigestible mounds of data from one place to another. 

It's not a matter of us finding our "Moby Dick" for this century, because that places a false premise from which we expect writers to operate from. Yes, there is the anxiety of influence and the desperate writing younger scribes do to escape from under the long, inky shadow of the geniuses of the recent and less recent past, but I think each period is unique, and that great work is produced in some concentration of creative frenzy that dissolves the anxiety. Readers looking for another "Moby Dick" for this century are better served to consider their period unique and regard the tradition as a lineage that is not a straight, paved highway that vanishes into a classically defined set of particulars every would be master adheres to, but is rather a broken, dotted line that threads and weaves through a loose cluster of tendencies in the culture, filled with writers who redefine themselves and their art each time out. Melville himself had to break with his own habits, transcending his discipline as a clever crafter of sea stories, a venerable genre he arrived at, to write the masterpiece called "Moby Dick". The best writers today do no different, living up to the nothing else other than the authenticity of their process. Faulkner and Joyce have comparable greatness, I feel, but I cannot escape the feeling that Joyce was the brainier of the two. Joyce’s' infinite layering of literature, history, theology, and myth into the molecular structures of Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake demonstrates someone with a sensibility that subtly wishes to have Art supplant the Church as the institution men may comprehend a Higher Truth( whatever it turns out to be). 

His own dialectic method, perhaps. I tend to agree with the remark of Faulkner being much blunter, though he is scarcely a brute: the sensationalism Faulkner could give into was also linked to a patch of the swamp that released his language, and allowed him to master the interior monologue. This gave us novels like "Light In August" and "Absalom, Absalom" that had with diverse psychological density.” The human heart at war with itself.  “Bullshit has its place, and in fiction, it can be the sole redemptive element of any other questionable writing enterprise. Depends on the bullshit being slung, I guess, which again reaches back to how well one can sling a yarn. What Joyce slung certainly vanished over the horizon and broke some windows in transit. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Jazz Forward!

A book I'm currently reading, "Playing Changes" by Nate Chinen, is a fascinating argument that we are currently in an age of amazing new jazz artists and an equal amount of amazing innovation and new ways for jazz composers and soloists to further this resilient art of musical improvisation. The premise is not one I'd bicker with--ours is a time when the "jazz is dead" club needs to just be silent for a very long time and listen to the creativity that abounds. But, as the review points out, author Chinen, a critic with a forward-thinking preference for new and temperamentally sounds, writes in a such a way that he makes you think of the guy who must have been the least interesting student in a seminar on post-modernism. He does not, as the reviewer suggests, at times sound like Derrida; rather, he seems more like a person who thinks he sounds like Derrida. Which is a shame, because although Chinen writes about important artists and at times makes crucial distinctions in what is happening in the ever-evolving jazz timeline, it seems that the premise of the book is that the music exists only to be co-opted and made to dance between inscrutable phrases and descriptions that don't really intrigue a reader to actually go out and purchase some of this fine new music. Tellingly, Nate Chinen chides the older critical establishment, those who would have jazz become a formalized canon, set in place, with boundaries and inflexible boundaries, yet he seems to be working to construct his own fiefdom of critical imperative. Meet the new boss...In any case, all this begs the question to be asked, which is why can't there be a working idea of jazz that doesn't require anyone going to war against other schools of thoughts on the music, or specific ways of playing. A jazz fan can enjoy both and not be betraying whatever "true spirit" of jazz the critical camps think. Seriously, one occasionally feels that some critics, whether Leonard Feather , Amiri Baraka or Nate Chinen, despite his protest to the contrary, wish they could be in the studio, instructing the musicians in what their note selections and points of creating tension and release should be.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

54 year old lunch break.

It's been fifty-four years since the publication of Frank O'Hara's seminal book "Lunch Poems:, which means that I was twelve when it first appeared. It was a small book, part of Lawrence Ferlinghetti's Pocket Poets series on his City Lights imprint, and it was one of those books you saw everywhere you went as a young person in search of experience, ideas, and kicks  of a sort; it was on bookshelves and stuffed  in back pockets all over the map, especially the city map. Reading Frank O'Hara was one of those authors you had to read in order to feel current with the alternative culture. Despite the book's ubiquity when I was a teen and a young poet/musician/critic looking to make a mark, I didn't read the volume until I was in my late twenties, after a couple of other poets I'd made friends with strongly suggested that my own work resembled O'Hara's. Curious, of course, I dug up the copy of "Lunch Poems" I bought a couple of years earlier, along with a stack of other assorted texts and which I had also left in said stack.  How much my work resembles O'Hara is something for others to suss out, but I will say that I had made a new friend ; the poet's ebullient breeziness, his disdain for the formal conception of profundity, his ability to write a poem that seems wonderfully to capture the sense of an alert mind noticing the city and its citizens and the work and play they do simultaneously is, I think, one of the miracles of modern poetry. With its abrupt beginnings, swooning affection for the tacky, the tarnished and frayed, with its emotions obviously and playfully at the surface of all things engaged, O'Hara transformed the lyric poem; he brought the lone voice speaking of its adventures closer to the thriving verve of accelerated jazz.

Monday, August 6, 2018


The Nation published a poem by a white poet, Anders Carlson-Wee, written in an idiom likely influenced by black American speech, and the result was a loud and sustained clamor of discontent, protest and other varieties of outrage from some readers. The Nation did a horrible thing; they allowed the poetry editors to apologize for a provocative poem obviously intended to provoke a discussion. The poem that riled so many:
If you got hiv, say aids. If you a girl,
say you’re pregnant––nobody gonna lower
themselves to listen for the kick. People
passing fast. Splay your legs, cock a knee
funny. It’s the littlest shames they’re likely
to comprehend. Don’t say homeless, they know
you is. What they don’t know is what opens
a wallet, what stops em from counting
what they drop. If you’re young say younger.
Old say older. If you’re crippled don’t
flaunt it. Let em think they’re good enough
Christians to notice. Don’t say you pray,
say you sin. It’s about who they believe
they is. You hardly even there.
                                          --Anders Carlson-Wee
Progressives get upset when they are called snowflakes, but the poetry editor's knee-jerk reaction to the critical reception to this poem is nothing less than a spineless surrender to the encroaching tyranny of politically-approved language. The editors , in their apology, tell us that their first reading of a poem was that it addressed, in idiomatic language, the problematic circumstances of disenfranchised Americans and the privileged elite that either ineffectively tries to help them or ignores them outright, about how the oppressed would advise others in the same circumstances to work around the obstacles that impede them. Their first assessment was the right one, and consider the poet's effort to compose the poem the way he did a brave and purposefully provocative one. Sadly, those looking to be offended dragged out their bullhorns and vehemently announced their hurt feelings, to which poetry editors Stephanie Burt and Carmen Giménez Smith sheepishly said: " We can no longer read the poem in that way." Bear in mind, this reversal was not the result of a critical reexamination of first impressions or a philosophical discussion as to why they believe their first view was in error. The strong implication is that they didn't want to be yelled at anymore, This would have been a great moment to turn this poem into a fruitful discussion of the many perceptions might engender, about the role of voice in political poetry, about the validity or vapidity of negative capability, about how the author's persona in the poem advances the invisible cruel ironies of daily life for the marginalized or how it fails. It might have been the discussion this poem was meant to provoke. The editors write that they " ...recognize that we must now earn your trust back. " 

As poetry is an art meant to compel the reader to think about the world in different ways and to consider that matters between human beings are much more than mere sentiment, and given the editor's cowardly about-face on this issue destroys what trust I might have placed in these two. Worse, far worse is that they've destroyed their creditability as poetry editors. They are afraid of poems that might disturb readers. This is careerist ass-saving at its most loathsome. Burt and Smith should resign their position and seek less stressful work. Shame on them and shame on the Nation for allowing this flight from free expression.

Saturday, August 4, 2018


Nathan & Jessie | That'll Never Be Me
-Nathan and Jessie
A wonderfully exotic bit here, That’ll Never Be Me, by the trio Nathan and Jessie. Yes, a trio despite the problematic moniker, based in Temecula and composed of guitarist-vocalist Nathan Rivera, guitarist-vocalist Jessie Smith, and Trevor Mulvey on upright bass. Performing all original songs, Nathan and Jessie have their roots in a variety of old-timey styles; a jazzy mélange of blues, folk, gypsy swing; and hints of klezmer and country lurking around the edges of their sound. None of this is second hand, as the writing is fully realized, tuneful, alternately sweet and tart, joyous and melancholic, poetic and plaintive, the melodies and buoyant instrumentation keeps you wondering what odd, effective twist might come at you next. 
A country song wanders gleefully through the imagined fields and streams that make a simple love call a righteous surrender to joy itself, only to be followed by a soaring, resonating clarinet solo on the upswing of the next song, the tempo swaying with confirmed confidence. Nathan and Jessie (and Trevor, we should mention as well) mix, match, and merge their influences; the baroque richness of gypsy swing segues into a samba groove, mandolins, clarinets, and jazz guitars are brought together without an exposed seam. 
This made me think of nothing else so much as the Band’s eponymous second album, a masterpiece in bringing together a good many musical styles and transcending the quality of mere eclecticism and instead creating something altogether new. Nathan and Jessie come near that same quality, seeming to find aspects of the old music that’s influenced them collectively and rather naturally allowing the distinctiveness of their own experience shape the music they wrote and arranged for themselves. 
Making That’ll Never Be Me ever more attractive is the elan of their vocals, which sparkle, soar, both in harmony and as soloists. The voices are clear, flexible, with jazzman’s sense of being able to sense a mood, a rhythm, a pitch. The singing makes for witty readings of the lyrics. Nathan, Jessie, and Phil are remarkable musicians who create and keep this fine web of tones going and growing, and they are aided with guest turns by equally remarkable musicians, including jazz guitarist Ryan Dart doing some fleet work on “This Could Be Love” and Kale Stiles multi-tasking on clarinet, lap steel guitar, mandolin, and bass clarinet through the tracks. The trio proves this: that the styles may be old-timey, but the music is not. That’ll Never Be Me is the sound.

(This originally appeared in the San Diego Troubadour. Used with kind permission).

Friday, August 3, 2018

Some thoughts on a Michael Drayton poem

    (Michael Drayton, 1563-1631)
    How many paltry foolish painted things,
    That now in coaches trouble every street,
    Shall be forgotten, whom no poet sings,
    Ere they be well wrapped in their winding-sheet!
    Where I to thee eternity shall give,
    When nothing else remaineth of these days,
    And queens hereafter shall be glad to live
    Upon the alms of thy superfluous praise.
    Virgins and matrons, reading these my rhymes,
    Shall be so much delighted with thy story
    That they shall grieve they lived not in these times,
    To have seen thee, their sex’s only glory:
    So shalt thou fly above the vulgar throng,
    Still to survive in my immortal song.
    Michael Drayton’s ode speaks to posterity, speaking to what he believes is the likelihood that this fair woman will be remembered, gloried and virtually worshipped as womanly perfection in ages yet to come by virtue of his poem. The ladies who now clutter the streets “shall be forgotten” by poets and this miss will be the envy of women of future elegant pretense because Drayton’s directly addressed ideal is “their sex’s only glory”. A harsh judgment, but it plays to vanity and a person’s feeling of being unjustly ignored. There is resentment here to be exploited and Drayton’s technique, effective or not, is a masterful piece of exploitation. It takes a man, after all, to make the world aware of the genius of the woman who has taken his arm in companionship, in romance, in matrimony. The woman is anonymous, a cipher without the right man to make the powers that are innate in her bosom radiate fiercely, proudly, for the world to praise and to cater to. “So shalt thou fly above the vulgar throng,/Still to survive in my immortal song.” This is to cleverly say that the woman will be remembered forever because of the man’s immortal song, which is also to say that only a man, this man, could have written. Without the man’s words, his voice, the woman being seduced is unknown, without the power he extols in the lyric, which is to say that she is without her own voice, bereft of even a language to command. rather classically, both these quick-witted sonnets display less the feeling of spontaneity, of genuine play, than they do the feeling of a well-constructed presentation, an argument mulled over, finessed and converted into a poeticized template intended for the means of endearing oneself to women by appealing to their perceived vanity. This makes you consider the old cartoon line when Olive Oyle says to Popeye and Bluto, as they try to woo her, “I bet you say that to all the girls.” The speakers, the wooers, the orators that profess the unqualified beauty, brilliance, charm, grace, and sublimity of their objects of affection, deliver their testimonies with it in mind to present themselves in an exceptional light; the sonnets are, in essence, sales pitches, imbuing the speakers with qualities compatible with the ones they’ve ascribed to their ladies dearest without so much as one self-glorified personal pronoun being used in either of these artfully cantilevered proclamations. It’s a subtle argument to be made that requires the most skillful of tongues, that the qualities , the talents that are being attached to the would be betrothed have not been noticed by the the rabble, the masses, those who live a generic existence, and that only the men who have broached and spoke to the subject of the ladies beauty are intelligent, sensitive, caring, dynamic enough to speak these truths. It is artful indeed, requiring a fine a balance, of knowing when to let one’s voice trail off, to end on a soft syllable, awaiting a response. This is bragging through the flattering of another.I rather like the wit and spare and adroit verbal sharpness that mark both of these poems; graceful, preening, softly boasting and flattering the women to whom they are addressed in terms that bestow qualities exceptional, unique, miraculous to behold, these are the testimonies of horn dogs working their way into a woman’s favor. And, perhaps, the respective beds they sleep. in.
    • By chattel, I mean to say that the women of this historical period, even the ones singled out for plain-tho-generous praise in verse, are considered property. From Merriam Webster’s On-Line dictionary ” something (such as a slave, piece of furniture, tool, etc.) that a person owns other than land or buildings.” While I do believe that the real world sensibilities were a saner as regards the treatment of women, but there is the tendency in cultures dominated by the will, wishes, wiles, and whinings of men to treat women as if they were accessories, an extension of a man’s personality and little else. In the grander rhetoric of love poems and protestations of virtues bordering on sheer virtuosity, we realize that that the man who seeks to woo may as well be talking to a car salesman as he describes the vehicle he’d like to drive off the lot and bring home where he keeps his other stuff. On occasion, I am of the mind that love poems of the period were, in essence, projections of fragile egos confronting a Hobbesian universe where life was nasty, brutish and short. Again, this is a seduction that works in two different directions, to an audience that wishes to think well of itself and the ability of their cultivated readings and wit to make disruptive realities remain at bay, or at least out of mind, and , of course, for the women addressed directly, bluntly and yet with a spare poetry that resembles a truth the subject has denied.                
  • A woman can indeed sing the verse for a man and have no real confusion as a result if the situation were our current period, the here and right now. It’s a dubious proposition that a woman to man address, at least in what there was of the public sphere, would have done well with a readership, or listenership, as the case may be. Drayton’s verse survives because the word choices travel well through the centuries and the changes in how the culture leans. So yes, a woman may serenade a male with few changes to this lyric, but such was not always the case. I have my doubts Drayton had adaptability on his mind when he wrote his song; the constraints of songwriting likely had more to do with its genderless brevity. And yes, all seductions need willing partners for there to any kind of dominant/submissive relationship, but we must remember all the same that it is men writing these verses, not women and that it is a world of moral, aesthetic and philosophical imperatives that are created by generations of male poets. We may turn all of this on its head all we may care to and say a is really y, but that is really knee-jerk deconstruction at best.

Louise Bogan burns down the barn

Women by Louise Bogan: The Poetry Foundation:
I was glad to read that  Louise Bogan remark that her poem, ‘Women”, was written when she was in her twenties and revealed what, she infers, is a not-unusual bitterness of intelligent young women feeling frustrated, restricted, defined and contained by her gender. Reading the poem, and listening to the audio kindly provided, it was a relief knowing in advance that her views of her own sex “had improved”. What Bogan provides is a sure and slashing blade of metaphor against women in general, for their willingness to participate in their own oppression.
“Women have no wilderness in them,
They are provident instead,
Content in the tight hot cell of their hearts
To eat dusty bread. … ”
This is as an acute damnation as I’ve read, wickedly sharp, delivered in a masterfully sure stroke; there is an anger here that has sharpened her swing, The spare, cleanly delivered lines and uncluttered imagery reflect an irritation that has been mulled over and considered, pros and cons measured, the complaint reduced to a neatly consolidated statement to which response is difficult. Women have no fields in them, no inner sense of the world outside them, nor a curiosity of the lives that are outside their sphere of self-reference and gratification.
 They are, rather, provident, little else but skeletal abstractions of consciousness unto which the ideas of others, by implication the doings of men of industry, political where with all and sexual domination, are grafted upon, seeded upon, constantly turned over as the musings and distractions of Masters change at the slightest whim. Bogan’s judgment is severe and short-sighted as to the extent women allow men to define, contain and direct their lives, but this is an account of someone who, though perhaps too close to the contentiously emotional heart of the issue has, ironically, learned her lesson from Master Hemingway, delivering with relish a superbly honed rhetoric that condemns a self-induced stultification of her gender. Rather than take the plow and make use of the field for their own desires and pursuits, she finds her sisters
“They wait, when they should turn to journeys,
They stiffen, when they should bend.
They use against themselves that benevolence
To which no man is friend.
They cannot think of so many crops to a field
Or of clean wood cleft by an axe.
Their love is an eager meaningless…”
They wait for the muse not to come them, like their own idea, hunch or inspiration, but instead to be given to them, like school uniforms and a script to follow. They are consumed with fear, the fear of a loss of security and someone else’s idea of their worth, creating a collective anxiety that converts the collective anger about the oppression into self – hatred, self-debasement. The poet sees this clearly and what Bogan does is present images that imply nothing else but a serial sacrifice of personal ambition, desire, and potential. 
The inner life of women, this poem, is barren, there is no wilderness to conquer and define in one’s own image, women exist merely as an adjunct quirk of the collective male psychology, a means to gratify an odious male end. Bogan’s poem, years after the heat and convulsions of the blended Civil Rights movements–blacks, women, gays–has subsided and whose goals and values have lodged, to a degree at least, in the mainstream of the culture, this poem remains a potent polemic. It is political without didacticism, it is philosophical without abstraction. It has a direct language that finds profundity in the absence of profound sounding words. It is a poem of a near-perfect craft. This is not craft at the sacrifice of emotional power, though; the ire has the sting of a bad memory as the narrator announces her grievances about the seductive fallacy of women making themselves lesser than men.I was just entertaining the idea of adding more to my post here, emphasizing that what Bogan has done is create craftsmanship without sacrificing the heart of the matter, her heart, her feelings. I find the poem wholly convincing as felt experience; the resentment is palpable.

 So many poems, particularly those of the New Formalists, are flawless in their structure and technique but lacking in emotional resonance or even give any idea that the poet knew what it was he or she wanted to talk about. The points in that kind of poetic origami are minor at best, outlines of an experience otherwise sacrificed on the altar of technique. Bogan does not vanish from the poem, her voice is there–I would that her speech in the poem, her cadence, is that of someone who, while angry, wants to make a declaration that is clear, articulate, and understood, in a spare language that is accurate. It is a fire that continues to burn and still ignites passion, debates, discomfort in the reader, from then to the current day. Her accomplishment is that her craft turned into her irritation into an accurate diagnosis that has not lost its relevance. That is not an easy thing to get across.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

A flightless poem

David Tucker's poem "No Flights Until Morning" is an attempt to stuff as much pathos into a cramped space as possible; the effect is not unlike the weary undergraduate who's procrastinated on their paper too long and now writes fast and feverishly hoping the fear of failure might spark some late blooming inspiration. The poem, mind you is, too small setting where there is no convenient dynamic to move, quicken the pace or make the more extreme poetic applications seem less glaring. This poem is a matter of trying to fit a size ten foot into a size seven shoe and reading it was nothing less than watching the pained waddle of a customer denying the shortcomings of their high-heeled foot torture. There are choice details, yes, if one is inclined to excuse snapshot description of unhappy people in crowded places as examples of the author's generous heart.

The runways were covered by late afternoon,
nothing moved out there but the occasional noble

snow plow carrying on with a yellow grimace,
the big jets were barely visible like whale herds

sleeping off the blast. The concourses, so frantic
a few hours ago, were almost still, a few meanderers chatted on their cell phones and looked at watches.

There is nothing in these "humanizing" images that novelists John Cheever or John Updike haven't given us with more grace, sympathy, and with a sense that the observed imperfections were leading to some greater effect. Rhythm and musicality are especially strong in these prose writers as they achieve a graceful ribbon of circumstance and happenstance which brings character tic, facial expressions, commercial products into a focus as being telling elements of a whole world and gestalt from which a sadness or great comedy is about to unfold. In Cheever's masterful "Wapshot Chronicle" and "Wapshot Scandal" and Updike's wonderful quartet of "Rabbit" novels the wealth of details forms a world, a fictional space where tangible emotion and poetic effects are achieved through equal amounts of economy and a tuned ear.

Tucker has the eye but not the ear, and like his glacially paced reading --did anyone else finds themselves leaning into their speakers only to find themselves about to tip over anticipating his next laggardly utterance?-- and his poem turns into a drone. He had a scene that was worth a poem, but rather than find where the poem was among all those strange, private interactions he may or may not have seen from the corner of his eye, rather than select particular evocative scenes and link them somehow with some small, hidden yet quietly profound fact within themselves, he tries to contain the entire airport and creates dead weight. We get the typical effect of someone who has written themselves into a corner and is forced to overreach to distinguish himself from the other scenes of nameless being:

II stayed quiet and thought of you;
checked my passport, read my ticket again, then again
like a spy with only a name to get me out,
a thousand miles from my life.

I find it incredible that in a moment when he is supposedly feeling vulnerable and less than dynamic because of his separation from his beloved "you" that he addresses his situation as analogous to that of a spy. Tucker here is valorizing his current despair and ennui and makes himself seem heroic because others are accepting and playing video games or raging at bemused counter help, he has the deeper wound of true loneliness. The poet as the serial sufferer is loosed upon us, and you wonder what Tucker was going for other than to prove that he could out-mope a room full of the earnestly self-conscious. is loosed upon us, and you wonder what Tucker was going for other than to prove that he could out-mope a room full of the earnestly self-conscious.
  1. That sudden rain at lunchtime,
    the scarecrow in the distant field
    holding onto its flapping coat
    saying, "Don't forget me!"

    That quiet at midnight,
    the slow giving in
    to each other--something
    moving at the window again, then gone.

    This reads like the Disney version of "The Legend of Sleepy Hallow", at best, all in what seems like an attempt to mine what one feels is an inexhaustible font of material, their emotions. Emotions that are, it seems, always sad, as if required by some unspoken Poet's Guild that the collective persona of bards must be a population beset by an exaggerated sensitivity to life's barrage of an existence that seems to disregard our feelings , passions and pet peeves. 

Wednesday, July 25, 2018


Image may contain: one or more people and people on stage
I had been of the recent opinion that what guitarist Jeff Beck has been doing for the last decade was mostly composed of doodling-- short, strange guitar riffs and odd sounds aplenty, but little in the way of interesting guitar work. The July 22nd concert  at the  Mattress Firm Amphitheater was another matter altogether; I've had the honor of seeing Beck three times previously; what did that night was a revelation. Fluid, fast, angular, bluesy, full of blues phrasing framed sidewise and in reverse order, tonalities that are from a refined adaptation of Indian classical improvisation, splintered chromaticism, power chords, fusion dynamics and the sweetest lyric playing one would wish for. And yes, lots of funk. All this, of course, with a fine band , including drummer Vinnie Colaiuta (Frank Zappa, Sting, Herbie Hancock), vocalist Jimmy Hall, bassist Rhonda Smith (Prince, Chaka Khan, Beyoncé, George Clinton) and cellist Vanessa Freebairn-Smith, all of whom propelled the guitarist with a tightly conceptualized sense of varying rhythms that propelled the guitarist to what seemed like greater and more inspired outlays of his singular virtuosity as the set wore on. Although not a hyper virtuoso along the lines of Joe Pass or John McLaughlin, two guitarists he clearly admires, Beck has all the same spent the majority of career in a state of perpetual flux, going from one style to the next, from hard rock, blues metal, rockabilly , jazz-rock to increasingly synth-dominated backdrops, and sometimes his playing, in my regard, missed the mark. Always, always, though, he was adding to his armory, changing his style, broadening his understanding of where a solo could go, evolving to his current state of what seems to be a superior style that's all of a piece, without seams, without stitches; grand swaths of bracing electric dissonance intersected superbly with a spare and melodic ad-libbing along a song's main theme. Simple, winsomely stated phrases built into quick-witted crescendos.It was a night was a rich, fluent display of all his 50 years of experiments, investigations, inquiries into all manner of music from around the world. It was fluid, intense, the work of a singular artist at the very top of his form.

Thursday, July 19, 2018


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MADE IN OJAI—Smitty, and Julija
Soulful, soul searching, soul-bearing, soul matching, all terms to describe the singer-songwriters who write tunes less as candidates for hard rotation on the radio or various streaming services and more like updates on the status of their psyches. Much of its endearing, attractive, depending on the melodic craft and canny poetics of the artist we might be considering. Joni Mitchell? Yes. Paul Simon? Of course. Jackson Brown? Perhaps, provided what here from him is low dosage and brief.  A little bit of information from the annals of someone’s psychic equilibrium goes a long way. There is a propensity among many a self-revealing artist to overshare, to dwell, to paint their remembrance in thick coats of idealized colors. Ecstasy or perpetual despair.Made in Ojai by the duo Smitty and Julija (Smitty West and Julija Zonic) is a tuneful disc, well produced, lushly arranged and highlighting the soulful vocals from the pair. The record is a mixed bag of results, with a few of the songs taking a long time to evolve into something more intriguing. “I Just Wanna Sing this Song with You” begins with doleful piano, simple arpeggio figures that dwell a shade too long, with the song easing in slowly to some crystalline vocal harmonies from West and Zonic. 

But it's a longish ballad of laying one’s heart to the glorious presence of another.  The harmonies elevate the words and soar over the hesitant piano, infusing the lyrics with heartfelt emotion. This song, though, drags when, I think, it should pick up the pace and rhythmically engage a listener in their joy, and regrettably he is an element that hampers many of the other songs. Particularly the next song, “Let Her Go”, where the philosophical lesson of letting go of past loves, regrets and missed opportunities to grow are lost in what becomes an inevitable tedium.   Zonic has a fascinatingly vulnerable voice, suggesting a quiver, a quake, a certain fragility that suggests a trammeled soul that has to gather its wits and finds the words, the voice, the eventual wisdom to push on over the horizon.  One wishes the song were more melodically y proactive in the sentiment and less dirge-like. There is an element in 12 Step communities called Rule 62, which is ‘Don’t Take Yourself So Seriously”.You learn to laugh at your problems no matter how dreadful they appear lest you advance your demise with the annihilating weight that comes with being the center of the world.  Just when you think Smitty and Julija are without humor, we come across a sprite bit of satire, “Trust Fund Hippy”, West’s suitably and incisive to an obnoxious hipster indulging his counter-culture aesthetic with inherited money, oblivious to his own absurdity. Following suit, the music is up-tempo, with an old-time feeling, rather remindful of the Phil Ochs classic “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends.”  There is quite a bit to enjoy and admire in Made in Ojai, but one does wish they would have varied the fare, taken it beyond the confession box they seem comfortable in, and engaged their wittier instincts.

(Originally appearing in The San Diego Troubadour. Used with kind permission).

Friday, July 6, 2018

Sue Palmer rolls it out

Sue Palmer | Gems, Vol. One
GEMS, Volume One - Sue Palmer
San Diego’s Sue Palmer is a pianist known to the world as the Queen of Boogie Woogie, and throughout the 20 selections on her dealer’s choice anthology, Gems Volume One, we find the sobriquet is hers alone to wear. A constant and vital presence on the local music scene for 30 years plus, Palmer’s energized style of blues, swing, and jazz has delighted fans with keyboard work that is a wonder of rhythm and delicacy, two-fisted swagger and moaning blues holler, straight ahead improvisation and sweet doses of country and torch songs to make the evening’s entertainment a diverse delight. These tracks are choices Palmer has selected from the 20 albums she has recorded since 1980, recorded with a broad array of superlative musicians including Rob Thorsen, Candye Kane, April West, Gilbert Castellanos, and a slate of other players who add their distinct personalities to Palmer’s dedication to swing, stop and boogie.

There is a mad stride boogie mania of the opening track “Down the Road a Piece,” with Palmer’s left hand maintaining a rock steady baseline on the keyboard, and the right hand irresistibly trilling, riffing, and gliding along over the changes. Simple and elegant, against a backbeat of drums and bass that will not let up until Ms. Palmer says it is. Johnny Viau takes a fine honking saxophone solo, growing, wailing, gruff in all the right ways. What makes Gems so engaging is that the tracks and styles catch you by surprise as they play through; more than a revivalist, more than curator, Palmer, and her bandmates are practitioners of the diversity of the blues, swing, and boogie traditions, and will, at times, throw you a left curve that delights gloriously. In this case, it’s the rousing gospel of “I’ve Been Walking,” with a soul-stirring vocal by the irrepressible Missy Anderson, a pumped-up band creating waves, a solid rhythm and fleet beat for Palmer’s thick, rich chord work and percussive phrasing.

Blues, boogie, and swing, the core of Palmer’s musical soul, are a music often associated with the woes of the road, with hard traveling and the search for a place to rest, if only brief. Perhaps coincidentally, two very fine tracks involve hospitality, hotel, and motel, first with a sly rendition of the chestnut “Heartbreak Hotel", a doleful reading of a tune the song combing the laconic fatalism of a good country ballad and the mournful minimalism of the most despairing, dead-end blues. A bit later, we drive past the track “Motel Mambo,” a lament, a confession, a tell-all in lithe mambo syncopation. Deejha Marie’s sexy, casually jaded vocal outlines the characters and their storied comings and goings. Gilbert Castellanos takes a scintillating trumpet break, fast tonguing and rattling trills that give this song a short and inspired moment of scorch, taking full advantage of Palmer’s rattling piano work. All told, Gems, Volume One is a 20-course meal, the work of a fine musician dedicated to the genius of the blues. Blues, swing, blues, country, gospel, it’s all here, a diverting collection of what Sue Palmer considers her best work since 1980. 

San Diego jazz pianist Sue Palmer, the Queen of Boogie Woogie, the Sultana of Swing, the Lady Who Skates on the 88s. That is to say Ms. Palmer has been an invigorating presence on the live music scene in our busy burg, hustling and bustling her infectious blend of rhythm, riffing, boogie woogie, and barnstorming boogie in bistros, clubs ,cafes and concert halls. Her style, two-fisted, elegant, and rocking without fail, has been captured live and in the studio on a stomping array of over 14 albums, aided with the inestimable brilliance of some of the area’s best musicians.
Her 2018 release Gems, Vol. 1, was a fine-tuned selection of her best tunes from her CD releases over the years. It was a potent 20 songs in a variety of styles—rich in blues, hot in jazz, mournful and soulful as the mood dictated, all of it graced with the signature left hand-right hand keyboarding of Palmer, who never forgets to swing. Elevating with contagious energy, it’s a choice introduction to Palmer’s work and the players who help make the music sizzle like steaks on a hot grill.
And now we have Gems, Vol. 2, a new collection of syncopated savvy. For the blues lovers among our readership, “Soundtrack for a B Movie” fills the room with a blues saxophone chorus punctuated by Palmer’s rattling on the keys and Steve Wilcox’s bittersweet guitar fills, brief but very soulful. “Dark Eyes” is elegant, lilting and emboldened by trombonist April West’s shimmering tone. The band moves smoothly over the walking bass, with Palmer ringing in a spry and lyric solo. Johnny Viau rounds matters out with a smoky saxophone sortie.
“Bricktop” raises the ante with jump blues, the band riding the bass and drums in perfect sympathy, with piano and trombone framing the Lambert, Hendricks and Ross-like chorus that invokes the vagabond spirit with a loose-fit precision. David Mosby takes a sauntering vocal turn on the Jimmy McHugh-Dorothy Fields’ classic “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” Mosby’s voice is big, declarative, embracing, and fitting for the tune’s good cheer, an idea accented with Palmer’s sparkling chord work and an ebullient solo.

The 20 tracks on Gems Vol. 2 are impressive in stylistic range and performance, and the work of the many musicians that Palmer has worked with through the years have created a body of work that succeeds in that rarest quality. That quality is that she and her bandmates are “old school” in the eras they draw from, with none of the moldy aura of mere revivalism. This collection of tracks isn’t destined for the museum where artifacts languish. This music lives when played by the right combination of players committed to keeping things lively on the bandstand and on the dancefloor.

This was originally published in the San Diego Troubadour. Used with kind permission

Tuesday, July 3, 2018


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John Mayall is an occasionally inspired band leader of a group that has long bared his name. He is, though, an awful harmonica player, a mediocre musician, a pedestrian musical intelligence. His main talent is as a talent scout, having an acute ear for the talent of better musicians that would make his marginal efforts to compose a tune and blow a solo seem halfway substantial. Context, in this case, the packaging really, is everything when the center of a concept barely sustains the virtuosity that surrounds it.Mayall is a multi-instrumentalist in the sense that someone in an office or retail situation is a multi-tasker. 

As they have the ability to do several things at the same time poorly, so Mayall is someone who dabbles on harmonica, guitar, keyboards, having a tentative command on blues basics and not much else. I wouldn't even call him an instrumentalist--dabbler pretty much gets what he does. His penchant for finding tasty and distinct blues guitarist was, no doubt, aimed at fleshing out what otherwise would have been a thin, brittle sound from the blues breakers had he featured himself as the featured soloist. Mayall is not an interesting musician. He's hardly a musician at all. I give Mayall full credit for putting together crackerjack bands that have, at times, made it possible for Mayall to release first-rate albums. The albums I listen to especially are USA Union featuring the sadly underrated Harvey Mandel on guitar, Larry Taylor on bass and Sugarcane Harris on violin, and, of course, turning point, with the splendid, Desmond-y sax work of Johnny Almond and Jon Mark on acoustic guitar. Mayall's harmonica work was more texture than anything else, save for the nice workout he accomplishes on" Room to Move"

These were band albums with credible, blues-based tunes with jazz used as a texture, groove, and pacing. Too often, much too often for me, though, Mayall has pushed his harmonica work to the forefront, usually following a hot guitar solo or sultry work out from a reedman, and the effect is like a blowing out a tire when you're cruising at a comfortable rate of speed. It's my view Mayall was playing catch up with what the Butterfield band was doing with their jazz-rock ventures. What Butterfield and his band did on East-West with  Cannonball Adderly's "The Work Song" and the long title improv, released in 1966, is so profoundly ahead of its time that I consider Mayall's contribution to the fusing of jazz, blues, and rock as a bit less important than you do. It's a matter of taste, I realize, and I'm just stating mine, perhaps obnoxiously so. It may well be an unrealistic expectation of mine for musicians described often enough as "band leaders" to be strong, confident, soloists no less than the musicians they hire. 

Monday, July 2, 2018

"BOTH DIRECTIONS AT ONCE": Lost John Coltrane Magnificence Discovered

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Both Directions at Once
--John Coltrane 
Incredibly, what comes to be full-length album of mostly new, previously unheard material from John Coltrane has emerged lo these many years since the man's passing, and it is masterful. What's mind-boggling is that after decades of posthumous Coltrane releases that were previously unheard versions of familiar material --I haven't done a precise count, but it occurs to me that there are enough live versions of Coltrane's disassembly and reconstruction of the  Rodgers and Hammerstein show tune "My Favorite Things" to warrant a series critical comparison in how the saxophonist and his collaborators adjusted their improvisations gig to gig--  but rather something wholly fresh, new, with new compositions and ideas, recorded when this ensemble was at their peak.  The story told as to why this album has surfaced on now comes from Wikipedia, which asserts that the band --Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones-- entered Impulse Records studio in 1963 to lay down the master tape of an album of new material for eventual release. Somewhere in the lapse between that recording and its 2018 release, the original tape was destroyed when the label decided to cut down on expenses regarding storage; what we have here is from a copy of the tape Coltrane had given to his wife. It's not useful to dwell on the reasons for the delay and best, I think, to appreciate how profound this gift of music happens to be.Both Directions at Once, the title, comes from a discussion Coltrane once had with Wayne Shorter at some point, in which had come up the idea of starting their solos in the middle and working their ideas backwards, toward a calmer section that would have been the casual, tentative build up, and then the other way, toward greater fluency, acceleration, intensity from the tenor saxophone's horn, going "both directions at once." You get what they were talking about in mere minutes; Coltrane's playing is serpentine and advances effortlessly through the registers with rail-splitting chromaticism. He darts, dodges, telegraphs and races along melodic lines he creates on initial choruses and subsequently rethinks and rewrites with each return to the song's head; ideas brawl, embrace and interweave in swift, howling glory. The improvisations are as fine, searching and soulful as anything he released in his lifetime. On hand were the members of his Great Quartet, Elvin Jones on drums, McCoy Tyner on piano and Jimmy Garrison on bass. This is a quartet that has weathered time, circumstance and hundreds of hours playing together, with the sinewy yet agile poly-rhythms of the ever-brilliant Jones and the no less masterful Garrison buoying and propelling Tyner's color-rich harmonies and Coltrane's thick, sonic weaves. There is nothing tentative about his disc. It's quite a bit of music from this epoch-defining unit, and there is, of course, nothing better than coming across Coltrane you've haven't bared witness to yet.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

West World

Image result for WEST WORLDSo, what about the season finale of HBO's sci-fi head scratcher West World?I've given up on this series for the simple reason that it's pacing is absolutely glacial. Even with all the repetitive scenes of androids going berserk and murdering as many foul human exploiters as they can get their hands on, the program remained mired in a metaphysical murk, with the whole conceit of androids becoming self -aware and seeking a larger reality and, hence, the freedom to actualize themselves , free of human manipulation becoming a tiresome series of conversations, episode to episode, between different characters, human and android alike, that added more clouds than clarity to the purpose of the ongoing sludge.

Admittedly, the production values, the practical effects and general level of acting and cinematography are spectacular, but plotting is sluggish and, worse, repetitive. Episode to episode, you feel you've spent a week in a motionless traffic jam, staring at the same scenery for days on end. Blade Runner , both the original masterpiece and the equally ingenious sequel 2049, follow the same basic premise--A.I.s searching for freedom and their own identity--but they do so in a manner that involves more questions of social and philosophical dilemma, and do not freight their plots with stultifying chatter. They blend the action well with the dramatically perplexing rather well; they maintain your attention in ways that do not cheat the narrative. West World is an expensive showcase that drags its feet and mumbles when it should be clear.