Saturday, February 2, 2019

REMEMBER THE 60S, SORT OF

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BEEN SO LONG:
My Life and Music
By Jorma Kaukonen
There's an old joke that goes "If you can remember the Sixties, you weren't there." Those 60 and over go ha-ha, ho-ho, I get it, too many flashbacks, too many bong hits, far too many uppers to balance all those downers, and, too many long drum solos. The conceit was that there was too much experience crammed into too-few years; many of us who thrived and jived on the wide, permissive mores of the Sixties ought to still be overwhelmed, asking ourselves what happened. Who among us might recollect that glorious experiment in living? Jorma Kaukonen, founding member of and lead guitarist for the definitive 60s/San Francisco band Jefferson Airplane, remembers and brings his recollections together in a new memoir Been So Long: My Life and Music. It's worth noting up front that the musician, a stalwart figure who preferred to remain in the background, quiet though attentive while fellow JA members Grace Slick and Paul Kanter did the many media interviews admits early on that the book is composed of his recollections of how he remembers events transpired, but that some of what he's recounting might be vague or incomplete in the telling. He offers a disclaimer in the introduction mentioning his imperfect recollection: "...this is my story as I remember it as seen through the prism of my mind's eye. I can do no better than that."

However reticent Kaukonen was to speak with the press at the peak of his fame with the Airplane (and later with Hot Tuna, his long-term folk and electric blues project with JA bassist Jack Casady), the author’s memory seems to serve him well in these pages. A second generation American of Finnish descent born in Washington DC in 1940, young Kaukonen had already seen much of the world, particularly Philippines and Pakistan courtesy of his father’s diplomatic corps assignments. His early years seemed a case of accidental wanderlust, his family from moving city to city, country to country, with Kaukonen, easily making friends in each new home though, it seems, shared interests in music, cars (“gearheads” as they called themselves) and, to be sure, girls. While in Washington he acquired a guitar and began learning traditional folk songs, learned the advantages of keeping his guitar tuned, and made a lifelong friendship with future JA bassist Jack Casady. What Kaukonen realized was that playing music was pretty much what he wanted to do, and muses that music seemed the elixir that made brought a dimension to his life than just merely existing and putting with boring jobs and mean people. Laconically and tersely, he concludes “Music seemed to me to be the reward for being alive.”

The first half of the book is full of reminisces about his family, his two sets of grandparents from Europe in the quest for the opportunities migrations to America promised, and he speaks fondly, lovingly of his parents, aunts and uncles and shares what he recalls of their expectations of a new life in the promised land. Most tellingly, though, was Kaukonen’s seemingly slow but eventual emersion into music. We see in negotiation with his father for a guitar, his playing DC clubs with Casady, with fake IDs, when Casady was playing lead guitar and Kaukonen played rhythm. And we see his growing interest in folk music styles that would become the defining essence of what would become his electric guitar style with Jefferson Airplane. Developing into a fine finger picker and with an affinity for the simple and elegantly articulated patterns of folk-blues, Kaukonen incorporated these techniques into his eventual electric work for the Airplane, giving them a rattling guitar sound unique in an era where every other guitarist fashioned Clapton impersonations. Kaukonen’s style slid and slithered, his leads full of peculiar tunings, odd emphasis on blues bends, and a jarring vibrato that made teeth chatter and nerve endings fire up. It was a style that informed the Airplane’s best songs— “Lather”, “White Rabbit”, “Greasy Heart”—and which was a sound that was an essential part of the complex and wonderful weave that characterized this band’s best albums, from Jefferson Airplane Takes Off through Volunteers.

At a point, Jefferson Airplane was among the top bands of the era, one of the top bands in the world, originating in the countercultural environs of San Francisco and adventuring beyond those city blocks to perform historical rock gigs such as the Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock. It was something of a charmed life, Kaukonen was earning a good amount of money. He was, he admits, willing to start spending it, buying homes, new cars, new equipment. The band was at the top of their game, and on a Dick Cavett, Show following the last night of the Woodstock Art and Music Festival, a myriad of performers—David Crosby, Joni Mitchell, the Airplane, Steve Stills among them—sat around a rather casual set for the program and bantered breathlessly about the monumental experience they’d all just been through. In the afterglow, at that moment, it seemed as though Ralph Gleason’s mid-Sixties prediction in Rolling Stone that the Sixties Youth, spearheaded by the music, musicians, troubadours, and poets of the time, would change America profoundly, enact a revolution without bloodshed or bombs. The music would set you free. Believe me, I was there, watching the Cavett show at least in my parent’s basement TV, as well as reading the newspaper and 6pm news reports on the massive concert. For a few minutes, just a few, it all seemed possible, especially when watching the beautiful and brilliant Grace Slick and the Teutonically authoritative Paul Kanter lay it out what many took to be a forecast of the American future. Kaukonen was on the set as well, in the background, sitting with his guitar. He was happy to let Slick and Kanter do the talking; as reiterates through the narrative that he was happy to play his guitar and let others be the prophets.


There is much ground Kaukonen tries to cover in Been So Long, but there is a lack of urgency on the author’s part to offer detail, specifics, characteristics or insights connected to the material progression of his story. He is an able writer that conveys a personality that’s sufficiently humble after the long, strange trip he’s been on. He has gratitude for the gift that has been bestowed upon him and humble in the face of the hard times and deviltries he’s survived.  But there is a kind of cracker-barrel philosophy in tone, a succession of incidents, occasions, fetes, celebrations and disappointments in his life, told in sketchy detail summarized with a cornball summation, a reworked cliché, a platitude passing as hindsight. He mentions family, wives, children, famous musicians in a continual flow of circumstances, but does not actually say much beyond the convenient sentiment when you expect him to give a hard-won perspective of his adventures before and after the Rock and Roll Life. Despite having a life’s story that might otherwise seem impossible to tell in a dull manner, Kaukonen is intent on doing just that.

He does not tell tales out of school, he doesn’t reveal the quirks of his friends.  what he might consider the essence of their genius; structurally the book reads as if it were compiled from notecards and handwritten journals, arranged in order (more or less), assembled for a rapid walk- through rather a revelation of what drew an artistic temperament to this kind of life at all. Kaukonen’s reticence to write more deeply prevents a fascinating and unique tale on the face of it from being more compelling.  It’s as if he’s talking about things he would rather not disclose; the half-measured commitment shows up when he mentions his increasing reliance upon an addiction to alcohol through the book’s chapters. Using phrases from the principal writings of Alcoholics Anonymous as well and peppering his text with 12 step mottos, it’s apparent from those in recovery where the musician got help for this alcoholism. A large part of the A.A. program is for members to find a God of their understanding, a power greater than oneself which can help them with their problem. For those who have a “God Problem”, the fellowship also refers generically to “a power greater than oneself”. A god of one’s own understanding? Fair enough, but Kaukonen here takes to writing God as “G-d” for reasons that remain explained. It’s one thing to not demand that others have the have the same theology as yourself, but it’s another to routinely omit an offending “O” when the world God comes into expressive play. Being more forthcoming on this quirk, offering a reason for the eccentric use, would have offered more light on the outline Kaukonen offers. It is a small mystery, an annoying one, a recurring bump in the road that stops the reader; what is Kaukonen not telling us?

Perhaps an as-told-to memoir like Keith Richard’s memoir Life would have eased more nuance and insight and crucial detail from the hesitant Kaukonen. Richards, speaking at length and on-the-record with collaborator James Fox, the Rolling Stones guitarist speaks frankly and at length about the highlights and low spots of his life in music; free to speak as he pleased to Fox’s probing questions and not having to worry about censoring himself while at the typewriter or with pen-in-hand, Life is a witty, harrowing, bristling account of one remarkable musician’s life. On the surface, Kaukonen’s tale is as full and intriguing as a rock and roll biography requires— worldly as a young man, ROTC, a lover of music and cars, a founding member of one of the most significant bands of the Sixties in the midst of a major cultural revolution, drugs, money, fame, glory, flaming out, regrouping—the outline is here, yet Kaukonen does little to flesh it out or reveal the sex, sizzle, and drama under the facts and their note-card descriptions. Richard’s work with a collaborator allowed his mouth to run as long as it needed to tell the best story he had, his own, the final payoff is an engrossing read blessed with Richard’s hard-won and refreshingly offhand wisdom. The Jefferson Airplane guitarist is not so garrulous, is reflectively taciturn and terse, in fact. One needs to respect his right to tell his story as he sees appropriate; the shame is that what is likely a great story doesn’t so much get told as mentioned in passing.

Been So Long remains a fascinating read and is an interesting addition of first-hand accounts of the psychedelic revolution in the 60s from a key player. The irony here is that Kaukonen does indeed remember the decade—he just doesn’t see the need to get into the weeds, dig in the dirt and relate something fuller, an account of a life fully lived.

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








Monday, January 28, 2019

SYLVIA PLATH:The Worship of the Dead

There was a bit of commotion concerning the cover of the 50th-anniversary edition of the late Sylvia Plath's touchstone novel, The Bell Jar, an understandable misgiving on the part of the book's loyalists. The book, a wrenching, semi-autobiographical narrative about a young woman's slide into mental illness, is a serious, unfunny, poetic evocation of female insanity and is a hallmark of a good amount of Feminist literary criticism. it is not a laughing matter, but publishers, like other media corporations with long term holdings, at times feel compelled to update a commodity's image for a younger crowd that has yet to read a masterpiece of misery. Presto, the 50th Anniversary Edition features a woman's profile gazing into a compact mirror, applying to make up; Plath's attempt to write her demons out of commission is made to resemble the worst version of Chic Lit. Plath deserves better. It's a good book and it requires an honest presentation.

Has anyone said that they are exhausted by the relentless attention accorded the late and legendary Sylvia Plath? Am I the only one who thinks that we ought to stop metaphorically digging up Sylvia Plath's body so we may once again gawk at her bony remains through a lens of deferred yearning? Generation after generation discovers and rediscovers her work, which is fine, but the grave robbing worship that goes on here elevates her literary worth beyond sane judgment. There is a death cult within the legions of her admirers whose applied aesthetic insists that the extreme personalist poets achieve greatness only when they perform their final and greatest act, their suicide. It's disgusting stuff, and it's perverse to think that there was once an active set of famous poets whose art could be deemed successful if their lives ended under odious circumstances.

I'm not averse to regarding Plath as a major American poet--she showed a compelling, surreal, tortured brilliance that was fully realized although her time was brief. What concerns me is the virtual cult of Plath who mistake her tragedy as having something to do with her art, and regard her writing as perfect precisely because committed suicide. This has more do with martyr making and nothing to do with her powerful, sometimes brilliant writing. The cultist obsession with her brief life causes many to miss the fact that she was a poet to be considered as an artist, not an example of the skewed notion of beauty. There seems to be an addiction to a what many of created as a figure of Mythic Suffering, another Jesus stand-in, upon whose rumored visage and back story one may read their own sufferings and take solace that their shared misery's finest expression was from a victim who never overcame their ills, travails and psychic deterioration. It stops being about poetry and the empathy it creates, the connection it brings the reader with larger experience; the poems become stations of the cross, with each wound ogled and slathered upon. It is messy.

One wonders what it would have been like had Plath found sufficient reason to live on, and what sort of writing she might have done with all the years she might have had. Might she become a depressed dowager internalizing each private grief to the extent that her dry skin might literally crack under pressure. Would she have abandoned poetry altogether and found religion, spending her remaining years and charisma attacking the secularist tradition? Written a cookbook? Or might she have developed a sense of humor and dismissed her early work as her own form of "rhythmic grumbling"?

The problem with short artist lives is that they usually leave behind a brief body of work, which prevents us from speculating where she might have gone with her work, or the kind of person she may have evolved into. As such, her poems and her novel are lyric agitations, occasionally brilliant, often hysterical and shrill, always at the pitch of a clenched fist pounding a trash can or a car horn stuck on it's one long, loathsome note. It's a vicarious thrill thing, I suppose, a loose-fitting necrophilia. Those sensitive souls who died young also died perfect, cut down in their prime, never given the chance to grow old, to fail at something or to betray anyone's expectations by maturing. This, I guess, is unavoidable and there's not much one can do except perhaps reacting to four decades worth of repeated hype and hoopla about Plath. What is especially aggravating has been the seduction of many a otherwise fine reviewers who've embroidered the allure of her suicide into their evaluation of her standing as a poet; it's a bizarre kind of affirmative action, in which her death and her gender and her craziness entitle her to a pass on an analysis based solely on her writing. She is, in fact, an unfinished talent, and how good she might have become is an aspect that's unknowable. Better poets have died young who haven't garnered a scintilla of posthumous adoration as Plath has. It's marketing, I think. Ted Hughes and literary agents knew they had an exploitable commodity with the deceased Sylvia Plath, and sustaining the myth around her certainly has kept the holders of her literary rights flush with money from fans who are attracted to Plath for all the reasons except the right one, a love of good work.

The Plath we know was a tragedy in one and a half acts. Enough. Put her back in the coffin, lower it into the grave, and throw on the dirt. Life isn't for everyone, and she made her choice. It is to her enduring credit that she wrote some brilliant poems despite her encroaching instability; we should read and discuss her poems and stop valorizing the condition that compelled her to leave this world. 

Friday, January 25, 2019

THE WORLD VANISHES AND WILL NOT LEAVE US ALONE

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Don DeLillo's novel Mao ll shows the writer at the height of his powers, a novel that highlights an individuals experience of seeing the coherence of his belief system erode and chip apart as forces, historical and economic, invade that area of life that had seemed safe for so long. Potent writing, one of those characters is a reclusive Pynchon (or DeLillo) stand -in whose absence of new work or public appearance has created a presence larger than literary reputation alone could manage: if we talk about the speed at which disparate events suddenly seem to converge and become linked through the slimmest of resemblances, this is the novel to start with. This DeLillo at his championship best--he is superb at amassing the telling details his characters surround themselves in a secure themselves with. Likewise, he effectively conveys how intervening events readily dismantle a homemade cosmology.

The novel's fabled author, sensing that he is nearing the end of his creative potency, agrees to come is seclusion to participate in a large public reading to support an obscure poet who has been abducted by terrorists ; he emerges from the world of the secluded artist who has control of his creativity and the consequences of his choices and reenters the world he withdrew from, the world he nominal takes his inspiration from, and is subject again to the ebb and flow of events he assumed he finally understood through a career of fictionalizing it. DeLillo here does some of the best writing I've come across about the practice of writing, or rather, the rituals of writing; the novelist is working on an eagerly anticipated novel that will place his long career in perspective, but the reader witnesses isn't a conclusion being achieved, but rather stalling.

There are revisions, a retyping of notes, editorial changes, alterations of format, more research to do, more cross-indexing to be done before the manuscript can be submitted to the publisher and the judgment of history. Death, of course, is easily detected presence here, hanging over the composing and collating procedures like some cloud threatening to rain, but DeLillo defers reference to the inevitability and concentrates instead on the intensity of the busy work the novelist and his assistant engage in during their work sessions; there is a focus on the details of narrative and the word choices that serve as background noise, a loud music of a kind that keeps the lurking notion that there are no more words to come after this book is completed and out of his hands. Getting started again, becoming interested in a new idea to the degree that one is willing to subject themselves to another span of time of research, writing, and revision. Mailer had commented while he was writing his final novel The Castle in the Forest that he was "...going to finish this novel, or it's going to finish me," summarizing perfectly the process of writing as an activity that requires every resource one has to commit to a book they think needs to be written.

One does feel used up and empty after the last correction is made and the manuscript is shipped out; the prospect of starting over again for the next book is daunting, and the idea of starting a new work late in life, admitting the possibility that one might die before the work is done is a frightening prospect. One does not want to be found in the midst of their unfinished business, whatever it might be. The stalling tactics of DeLillo's fictional novelist become understandable: delay the completion of the book, extend the length of one's life. The question, though, is whether the quality of life, on those conditions, rises above being a kind of stasis-defined Limbo. Is a life predicated on the non-engagement of one's creative instinct worth sticking around for?

Sunday, January 20, 2019

MURDER MY SWEET

Image may contain: 2 peopleWatched "Murder My Sweet" (1944) on TCM last night, starring Dick Powell and directed with artful craft by Edward Dmytryk. This is an inspired and fairly taut adaptation of Raymond Chandler's "Farewell My Lovely", and Powell, who we usually think of as a song-and-dance man, makes for an engaging Philip Marlowe, a cynical private eye, not-so-tough, wisecracking and whiskey drinking, a man who, once hired for a job, goes to the cruel truth at the heart of all the enterprises he finds himself embroiled in. Marlowe is a knight errant, in many ways, bound by a personal code me manages not to compromise in a city that is dark, full of sharp black corners and a population ruled by Bad Faith. Everyone lies to Marlowe, and they lie about everything--in this word, everyone has secrets they want to keep hidden, but coming up against Marlowe the protagonist, with his skewed virtue, hard truths and foul intents are revealed. Beautiful black and white here, a solid, even essential example of the film-noir style. The angles of the camera shots, the hard corners, the mastery of b&w and the various, shaded tones in between the extremes are nothing less than sculptural. Co-stars Claire Trevor and Anne Shirley are well-chosen to enact the High Society citizens of dubious intent, but it's actor Mike Mazurki, a recognizable character from the period, who makes an impression as Moose Malloy, a man-mountain of a thug just released from an eight years prison stretch who hires the detective Marlowe to find his one true love, Velma. She was the one thing that touched the soft spot in this dim- monster's heart-of-hearts and, true to what he knows, is willing to break as many legs and backs necessary to find his Velma and get that feeling back. Powell has everything needed for a perfect Marlowe, cynicism, fast wit, a sentimental streak that gets him knocked over the head, and an understated dedication to trusting his evolving sense of situational ethics.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

LeRoi Jones: life against death


Amiri Baraka, nee  LeRoi Jones, is a primary influence in my decision to be a poet; his earlier works were an odd and rhythmic mix of black speech, violent surrealism and slow-burning rage that would erupt, sure enough, into a vicious pyrotechnical beauty. It was the perfect voice for a white kid living in Detroit who was growing up surrounded by Motown, free-jazz saxophone improvisation and the MC5. Something more severe and actual had to supplant to Dylan's scintillating but apolitical surrealism or the  West Coast counter culture's belief in a spontaneous Utopia. Jones could set dual-isms against each other, reveal the clashes of political hegemony and emasculation, reach into the tradition of blues and jazz and reveal the music and the accompanying vernacular as idioms, political and spiritual, that black Americans needed to love and harness as  an expression of what made them uniquely American and permanently Other.

His vision was the surface of the barriers black men came up against, social and psychic, his poetry was the conversion of his anger into a stylized voice that could improvise perception and strip away cracking veneers on institutionalized lies. He had his problems, yes, but he was an impressive force, a majestic presence of the lyric and the abrasive. Anomie was the key element here that got me, the crushing self-consciousness that one's life measures up to exactly nothing and that suicide were a perfectly sane answer. Jones, always angry, was indebted to Franz Fanon's text The Wretched of the Earth, arguing (in a cramped nutshell) about the psychological effects of the colonization of their cultures. Fanon didn't argue for suicide as a solution but rather supported liberation movements across the globe to overturn the oppression. Jones is taken with the notion of one being made to feel listless and without worth sans real evidence--the source of the decrepit psychology comes from without, not within, he would later argue--and here isolates the malaise in snapshots, images, everyday activities that become brittle and poorly constructed. He feels enfeebled, quite unable to change his circumstances. Jones would evolve into Amiri Baraka as he broke with the Beats and embraced various forms of Black Nationalism, writing poems and plays and essays that were deliberately problematic for white critics--he refused to be defined and contained by a white culture's linguistic agenda. But he did write some brutally beautiful and stark poems early on, and this is one of them.

Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note
(For Kellie Jones, Born 16 May 1959)
By LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka)


Lately, I've become accustomed to the way
The ground opens up and envelops me
Each time I go out to walk the dog.
Or the broad-edged silly music the win
Makes when I run for the bus...

Things have come to that.

And now, each night I count the stars,
And each night I get the same number.
And when they will not come to be counted,
I count the holes they leave.

Nobody sings anymore.

And then last night, I tiptoed up
To my daughter's room and heard her
Talking to someone, and when I opened
The door, there was no one there...
Only she on her knees, peeking into

Her own clasped hands.
Nicely phrased here, a wonderful inversion of a horrible cliche: And now, each night I count the stars,/ And each night I get the same number/And when they will not come to be counted,/I count the holes they leave.  What would make us normally expect the poet to finally declare his awe at the thought that the infinitude of the cosmos makes his woes trivial in perspective, Jones' narrator counts only what's missing. The stars are not far-flung suns with their own solar systems and probably life forms on many of them. The light is instead of being an invading illumination seeping through pinpricks in a tarp that covers this man's sense of himself in the world. Everywhere he looks he sees only more things missing. We read this and marvel at Jones' skill at bringing a lyric beauty from such an accumulated woe, but we remember as we read on that the white culture's tradition of depressed and suicidal romanticism was soon to be renounced by the emergent persona form of Amiri Barka, who would deny the death culture and turn his despair into a motivating anger. Think about how you will, but he is a poet who acted to get out his funk, to counteract the thinking that was killing him.



Friday, January 18, 2019

GILLETTE SLICES INTO TOXIC MASCULINITY

Gillette, makers of razors supreme for the delicate male face, has released an add that amounts to a short, punchy lecture in responsibility to its customers in this age of MeToo and TimesUp, declaring that its time for the normative men in the audience to help end the scourge of toxic masculinity.  Essentially, it powerfully argues through some well-crafted images that men need to step up and say something, do something, intervene if need be and not allow other men to harass, bully, intimidate, assault women specifically and everyone else on the planet in general. Predictably, this video went viral and broke  the internet and brought all social media to a standstill while alt-right warriors moaned, groaned and whined that their favorite hobbies are being laid bare and revealed to be the go-to moves of parts of the male population who define their sense of place in the world by how thick they can create fear and terror among the weakest members of the population. Turns out those folks are not so weak, having served a well-placed succession of knees to the nuts to the emotionally arrested oafs, thugs, and goons that make up the ranks of so-called Real Men. 

The ad is beautifully done and serves the purpose of forcing the matter of toxic assholism, bullying and such into an open and heated discussion, debate, argument; the point is that those who have been traditionally embattled by the ranker sort of white males, rich, middle earner or jobless nobody, are going to punch back, pushback, talkback from this point on. The crybabies on hard right social media and the assorted propaganda mills who routinely shame, belittle and defame women, blacks, immigrants, liberals, progressives and members of the LGBT communities are going to find that the old tactics aren't going to work this time, if ever again. It sticks in their craw and they can't swallow it whole, partially, or in the smallest slices. Steven Colbert jokingly frets that we have a less than a reliable sense of right and wrong if it takes a maker of razor blades to carry a persuasive moral message to the rest of us. Perhaps, but I applaud Gillette to that degree. It's my hope that carries through to all sectors of the culture, visible and invisible. The message would be that if you're going to be a toxic, bullying, abusive, racist/homophobic/misogynistic half-brained cretin in a civil society, you will be called out, you will be hauled off for crimes you've committed, you will be named, shamed and made an example of. Learn that and learn it quickly.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

MC5 - I'm Mad Like Eldridge Cleaver (Live, 1968)

There was a gasping blowhard on a blog who in the course of a debate as to which country, America or Britain, had produced the largest number of Great Rock Bands uttered these phrases that still have me gritting my teeth these seven years later, formulating a ready response: American bands with VERY few exceptions SUCK! The best I could come up was this: Do you mean all American bands, ever, from any time in rock and roll history? You don’t believe that since American bands and solo artists are the architects of rock and roll, and that without them, the British bands you love would not exist, at least not in the form that makes you go gaga and loopy, like and roll ought to do. I refuse to believe that any art that I love stems from, or was influenced, or made possible by anything that ‘sucks. Since American bands influenced a good many great British bands, American bands, by and large, do not suck. Great musicians tend to be influenced by other great musicians. I think you understand that. For the track record in the post-British invasion phase, I insist that it’s about even, America ahead by a neck. But here, we can have a reasonable disagreement.

The fact of the matter is that the history of British rock and roll is a reworking of traditions that are not native to your shores. You've produced great music and extensions of established styles, but rock and rolls' bleeding edge comes from America, finally: that seems to be the only advantage to being as gummed-up as we are--there is a tension in the musical culture that remains constant and vital that you Brits, historically, have only refined into an aesthetically arguable style. Britain has gotten all the credit for punk rock, and even that’s not their own invention: The MC-5, Iggy and the Stooges, The Velvet Underground and the New York Dolls were playing years before Malcolm McLaren placed his want-ad for future Sex Pistols. But what of it all? It goes back and forth, and it’s unlikely that either shore would have made as interesting music had we not been exposed to the music the other was making. Every note that gets played comes back to us changed, modified, altered to suit another players' purpose relevant to his experience.

The Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks crushes one’s skull and destroys one’s notions of pop decorum just fine, but it does sound like Kick Out the Jams sixteen years later. The psychodrama tic of marginal bands who are locked out of the star-making machinery is, like it or not, is a long and rich tradition in America with the likes of Alice Cooper, another Detroit boy who sold several million albums with the proto-grunge rock sometime before the Pistols had half a wit about themselves. One cannot take black music from the equation; to do so is racist and foul and evidence of bed wetting. Rock and roll is black music at its heart and base, and we'd be dishonest to exclude the matter. It does, after all, come from Chuck Berry. Ask Keith Richard. Chrissie Hynde still sounds American to me, and still sounds like Akron, Ohio. Iggy Pop and Ted Nugent hail from the Detroit/Ann Arbor area, and the geographic/temporal coincidences certainly didn't cause either to sound like the other. In turn, why should Hynde sound like Devo? Any hoot, she kicks it major ways, she is awesome, a goddess. And obnoxious? I only must buy her records, not buy her dinner.

For BB King and other blues artists, it’s still another case of Brits admitting that the music they're making is based on someone else’s work. We cannot seem to get around that. Eldridge Cleaver is as fallible a cultural critic as anyone you can name, and his comment about the Beatles was intended to appeal to white radicals who were buying his books. It was a nice for him to assure his audience that he wasn't a complete monster: say something nice about something they love. Proper credit for a white man making black music acceptable to white teens, though, properly goes to Elvis Presley. Anyone of our blessed Brits would cite the El as their first exposure to black music, along with millions of white American teens, was through him. The Beatles essentially were needed links in an ongoing chain of influences. But Elvis was the groundbreaker. Period. Any other statement is not accurate, Eldridge Cleaver to the contrary.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Mailer meets McLuhan, 1968



This is a fine discussion, I think, between two of the most interesting public intellectuals of the 1960s/70s. Different approaches toward making the dire situation better, though I think both find common ground in the way each has diagnosed what's killing society and culture. McLuhan has the temperament, I think, of a social engineer, suggesting that once we appreciate the way media and technology change the perception of the environment or creates the environment in fact, the world would then evolve into his global village. Mailer is more the artist sort, a thinking man's Hemingway, Paul Tillich with a good right hook; he has scant hope in technology, which is controlled by corporations,to improve the lot of humanity over any any amount of time, and sees the necessity of individuals saving themselves by radically breaking with the enforced mediocrity set upon then and placing themselves in situations that would challenge them, cause them to grow, wake up, evolve . I would say, as well, that Mailer flounders a bit, grasping at straws, not fully grasping McLuhan's theories on how the accelerated advances and implementation of digital technology into our everyday lives profoundly changes the way humanity comes to comprehend reality.

 

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

EMILY, THE PHILOSOPHER OF CLOSED SPACE

An Emily Dickinson poem, No.443, has the cloistered poet speaking elliptically, mysteriously about her duty to her small labors and benign daily obligations in the wake of a personal catastrophe; her resolve to stick to her routine with an even greater conviction is an extraordinary will to power. Rather than surrender to grief and a long, tedious death knell, she confirms her existence by tending to the world that is left to her. It’s less than she is chained to her routine that she is liberated by them, elevated even. It’s a way to be engaged with things not related to matters of personal misfortune; through the tasks, small and inconsequential as they seem, are a boon to her. There are sound echoes of Samuel Beckett in this arresting poem, the similarities between a shared theme that we are creatures of habit, routine and appetite, that the motions we go through are the irreducible fact of our human condition. A Beckett reader from years back was called I Can’t Go On, I Go On, and bitter-sweetly so, as it is a phrase that summarizes the dry, splintered core of the Irish writer’s worldview. Without the compelling vision, let us say delusion of an overriding ideology, whether religion, political, economic, aesthetic, life is really little else but an eternal return to repetitive functionality. Even in disillusion, Beckett’s characters do not transcend, they do not change, they go back to what disgusts them and lose themselves in reveries of a past that seems to be only something they’ve read; the redundant tasking is the only anchor in the present time. Dickinson, though, was aware of the sheer repetition of her daily tasks and took them to be the things that make this life purposeful and with a shred of meaning, small and banal her small chores might be. It is the doing of the tasks, the chores, the run of things it takes to keep her household in order, that creates purpose — the well-worn existentialist notion that one accepts the consequences of one’s action through a form of creative commitment to the results — and it is in those moments, giving oneself over to a string of small matters that require daily attention, that she is engaged and for a moment outside herself, in service to something greater than herself.

The time ‘twill be till six o’clockI have so much to do —And yet — Existence — some way back —Stopped — struck — my ticking — through —We cannot put Ourself awayAs a completed ManOr Woman — When the Errand’s doneWe came to Flesh — upon —There may be — Miles on Miles of Nought —Of Action — sicker far —To simulate — is stinging work —To cover what we areFrom Science — and from Surgery —Too Telescopic EyesTo bear on us unshaded —For their — sake — not for Ours —

It is at that moment when matters are concluded for the day that our psychic bearing ebbs and we are returned again to the trembling , merely mortal flesh that trembles from the ceaseless self-awareness that one is alone and not the recipient of glory or attending serenity from on high; the mind chatters to itself, contemplating the stark uselessness of things; the more we find out about ourselves from the sciences, the lesser we seem in the grand scheme of an unknown god’s cosmos. Dickinson, the philosopher of the closed space, the metaphysician of precision, refuses to think of herself as lesser in comparison with the vast and unnervingly incomprehensible existence that lay far outside the walls of her Amherst home — this life of hers, these things in that life, were no less consequential as the rage for big ideas and larger, more complex constructions; her life was a matter of fact, of record, and it was for her to tend her minuscule bit of the world and finds with her dutiful attendance elements that link her with the larger chain of American endeavor, a culture and economy that’s locked itself in the present tense, defining itself with the tasks they undertake, the ones they finish, the new ones they begin. There is the question if Dickinson is speaking of herself alone or instead turns the person into a general worldview, as in the way she skillfully switches from the first person to plural in her narration. I think that Dickinson’s subject is herself alone and that the I and we of her poems — when both occur — are interchangeable; it’s not an uncommon trait that those who prefer their own counsel and company would refer to themselves in the third person. Caesar did it with powerful effect in his De Bello Gallico, Henry Adams revived the technique in his Education of Henry Adams, and Norman Mailer exploited the style wonderfully until he wore it out in an intriguing series of autobiographical testaments. It’s a wonderful device, as it allows one the distance to address speak of themselves with more intimacy and less modesty than a first-person narration might. It can also be a convenient way to ease the reader into a writer’s point of view by treating oneself as if he or she were a fictional character; it eases the sting of obnoxiousness, provided there’s an attractive style. Dickinson, though, wasn’t concerned with an audience and seemed, in my reading, to switch to a Victorian plural to dig a little deeper, prod her memory a little harder. It was a technique with which she could crystalize her contradictory responses to her still universe. Nothing went unnoticed, everything was framed in the narrative distance, amazing things from the minute domain were revealed.

Where Beckett offers us a body of literature that informs us that the condition of humankind is a prison house of rote tasks performed without variation by a species that’s been harassed and hazed to a devitalized race of doddering amnesiacs, Dickinson is of heartier stock, a chronically depressed Irish cynic contrasted against a Yankee that will not lay down and die and which embraces Life however insignificant it might seem. Some junior high school existentialism creeps into this cursory discussion: The central issue comes down to the essential existential paradox, from either the spiritual or atheistic; one is ever not free, regardless of circumstances or forces that one finds themselves subject to. There is always a choice that can be made in even confined and restricted circumstance that cannot be taken away. Sartre, from whom I first gleaned the idea, exaggerated in his emphasis in his attempt to undercut determinist currents thought to rule human behavior — religion, economics, biology — and insist that man is ethically bound to make his creative choices and accept responsibility for the results and consequences. He sounds a bit like the lunk-headed Ayn Rand represented this simply, and there are far subtler aspects of his thought as you know, but the point here might be that Dickinson saw her closed in circumstances in the aftermath of her catastrophe but instead as the time to reconsider and reclaim a life that is hers and which has only the meaning and purpose she brings to it. It was her way, I read, of refusing to languish on a past she might be chained to, and to free her, as well, from the anxiety of a shadow future. She frees herself by giving herself over to her present circumstances, attentive, aware, alive, small as that life might be. Small, yes, but her life, uniquely Emily Dickinson’s.





Sunday, December 16, 2018

CONSIDER THIS 4

Fiction does not need theory in order to be written. First, the fiction is written, the artistic moments, and the theory, or theories, arises as a consequence of critical reading. Theory is a coherent statement of known and verified material facts, in this case, works of fiction, and the formation of theory, if it's to be interesting, comes after the appearance of a primary source.  Critics and erstwhile gutter- snipers of ill reputation seek to have a theory on the same level as fiction, literature, but in terms of actual practice, theory is a secondary activity, a delayed reaction to fiction, not a simultaneous occurrence. Changing tastes and fashions have more to do with novels falling off the radar, not an absence of theory. And a philosophy without a theory, to begin with, is not a philosophy at all, only the same said more fashionable chatter. For real philosophies that get dropped into our dirty bin, it's most likely that their systems and suppositions have been supplanted, discredited and sufficiently critiqued into submission, which is just the happenstance of intellectual shelf life. All bad writing comes from writers who are writing badly, even normally good writers who've undertaken bad projects. There are many tangible reasons for bad writing, not the least of which is the plain truth that the world is full of bad writers who manage to get their scams published. Modernism cannot get "less modern", I think, because the modernism seems, in itself, only a tidying up of Romantic impulses before it, as postmodernism seems only a refinement, an updating of some essentially modernist tropes and stylistics. Each age takes the conventional set of dreads and sagas and makes their contours conform to the constructed world of the current moment. What counts is the individual talent that becomes the substance worth talking about.



Friday, December 14, 2018

CONSIDER THIS 3

Greatest American novel is a subject that exists alongside such topics YouTube topics who the fastest guitarist is, or the fanboy delights of slinging invective at each in the course of ruminating on the image of Superman v The Hulk. The fun in all that is that it inspires everyone to put on their Expert Pants and invent conditions, causes and criteria for their favorite --guitarist, Super Hero, novel--and use them as bludgeons against a legion of other equally engorged enthusiasts who, in turn, have their individual favorite and wield rhetoric devices no less bludgeoning. Even Norman Mailer, who was honest enough to admit that he actually wanted to write something called the Great American Novel admitted, after decades of brilliant books, that such a thing, a single entity, does not and cannot exist. The American Experience, or any historically collected National Experience, is too complex and changing too fast for one set of qualifications to set permanently. The greatest American novel, I think, will only be decided, finally, when we are extinct and someone else, something else assumes the job of figuring out who we were, what we did, and what of that is worth a damn thing.

CONSIDER THIS 2

Related imageOne of those questions came my way, as in a friend asked me which mystery writer would I prefer to read, Robert Parker or Dick Francis. Honestly, I don't care for either, mostly because I generally don't read mystery novels. Crime fiction is another matter; in the case of classic writers of pulp fiction, the likes of Jim Thompson, Cornell Woolrich, James Crumley, and more recent artists like Elmore Leonard and Donald Westlake, the writer is crisper, snappier, the characterization of heroes, so-called, and the bad guys rich. That is to remark that the psychology, the worldview of the dank environment of criminal enterprise and the ethics therein, are sufficiently complex and twisted. At its best, crime fiction is a condensed form of the Tragedy: flawed heroes and crooks who upset the balance of the universe that contains will inevitably and irrevocably be taken out of commision. Ironic conclusions to one's career are not often a reward. To answer my friend's question, who would I read, I would select Robert Parker, in as much as he attempts to emulate a class act, Raymond Chandler. Dick Francis , I find, is unengaging. I had no interest in the world in which his mysteries took place. The sport of kinds be damned and the murder mysteries that occur within its snooty confines. Parker, though, is no Chandler by far. Even at best, he seems like a beggar wearing clothes he stole from a dead man's closet.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

CONSIDER THIS

Existentialism is when I discover that I'm the private joke that hasn't been shared with me.I think Beckett would appreciate those who are able to pierce through that psychic prophylactic against comprehension and grasp the humor he observed and recorded. I have the idea that Beckett permeated the membrane that separates this reality from the metaphysical one, in Plato's sense of the term (and Wallace Stevens as well with his theories about the Supreme Fiction) and instead of finding Ideal Types as promised, he found an empty room. In the Ideal World, Ideas never changed and neither did their representations in the material plane. 

Maybe they didn't, but I imagine that the kind of fatalistic assumptions that existentialism brings us too--that we are always free no matter what the limitations upon us are, that we are always free to make a choice, even without arms or legs locked in a cell in a bunker fifty miles under a mountain of Bad Faith--but we soon enough get bored with the certainty that matters in the world, the objects of God's main made visible to us, and we go back to fiction, to poetry, to insanity if need be to imagine new ideas. 

This world needs to move and we need to believe that there is an agency in this discussion, that we can destroy what God had wrought or create something new and previously unthought of from the raw stuff we find ourselves born into. We want to transform ourselves by transforming the dirt under the fingernails. Smart folks, the cynics, the nags, the braying chorus of told-you-so-ers will inform you that nothing can be created nor destroyed but merely transformed into a different form of energy. So does Plato's Cave endures? Or are we our own Christ and push the boulder away from the cave entrance and walk to to the stream and wash our faces, not fearing the water might flow through the holes in our hands as some of us might fear. It goes on. It is another night when the music stops playing and the chimney smoke as dissipated in a stiff evening breeze.
 There is only the sound of cats brawling in bushes and shadow-cloaked homeless rummaging through the dumpster. Neither gives much thought to how nothing ever changes even as all alliances come loose and we invent more words, ideas, sentences to put them in. What matters is who owns the bush, who gets the half-eaten sandwich and the carton of soured milk.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

LONESOME OR LOATHSOME ?

Image result for blue and lonesome rolling stones
BLUE AND LONESOME
--The Rolling Stones
Yes, yes, I realize the Rolling Stones started out, under the behest of belated founding member Brian Jones, as a blues band, more or less, with Chicago style as their touchstone." Blue and Lonesome", their new blues tribute album, is, however, awful. Never a good blues singer--technically he's an awful singer, in fact--Mick Jagger's better to refer to as a vocalist, distinct from someone who can truly carry a tune and remain on the pitch. His best vocals are studio-made performances, masterful assemblages of grunts, yowls, mewlings and sundry other bull noises that, in the context of great songs like "Satisfaction", "Shattered", "Start Me Up" or "Driving Too Fast", has allowed him to still sound like a 19-year-old punk after all these decades. it was the perfect foil for the fire-fight guitar cross-rhythms of guitarists Keith R. and Ron W. As a soul man, as a bluesman, however, Jagger truly sounds like a parody of blues singing, too no avail. I realize others will argue that what he does here is an extension of the vocal genius I've already described, but that does not wash. Rock and roll vocals can get by on attitude, but blues, I think, requires vocal color, a bit of range, and a range that can twist the lyrics to emotional suggestion as much as a good guitarist or harmonica player could. Jagger obviously tries to channel Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf among other brilliant blues icons, but his vocal attributes, or lack of them, betray him fiercely.Additionally, Jagger's harmonica work here is weak, goddamned awful in fact. The band had the good sense to bring in Eric Clapton for a couple of tracks to give the session the needed fret-gritting it needed, but why didn't call in an old hand like harmonica genius Sugar Blue to handle the harmonica parts. Jagger's harmonica work wheezes, honks, hits the marks but does nothing memorable once he gets to them. All that said, the band itself cranks it along just fine,what you expect from the Stones, a sturdy, ornery, crackling set of leg-breaking in 4/4 time. They may take a bow. The pity is the band's most famous member is this album's greatest defect.