Monday, July 1, 2019

AFTER THE END, THE BEGINNING

Image result for the hospice bubble
THE HOSPICE BUBBLE
and Other Devastating Affirmations
Poems by Lizzie Wann

Witnessing the decline and eventual death of a parent is the surest way to send any of us into the deepest well of depression and morbid reflection. Few of us handles it with quite the grace we might have hoped for.  Shock, relentless grief, guilt, recrimination are only some aspects the lot of us go through when our parents are suddenly, rudely absent in our lives. We try to make sense of it all, of the choices we've made and the things we've done. There is, it seems, no meaning to find behind it all other than the acceptance of the fact the clan is smaller now and that our lives go on.

Lizzie Wann, a very fine California poet with a sharp sense of the telling detail and lean cadence that conveys underlying emotion and tone, has an engrossing new collection of poems in which we witness her going through the death of her father. The Hospice Bubble and Other Devastating Affirmations.  A sequence of poems of how she cared for her dying father up to the inevitable final day, Wann fearlessly records the days , the incidents, many small and painstaking matters as the days wore on, through surgeries, meals, bits and pieces of final conversation, there is a palpable tension in these lines. There’s no need for the Big Language. Wann is too good a poet for gaudy special effects. She lays bare her ambivalence about her father's decline. These poems are not the grand slam and over decorated summation of what one has discovered about themselves at the end of the trial; Wann’s triumph is in her spare, uncluttered impressions. Throughout the poems that comprise the title sequence, Wann writes with the concision of Hemingway and the chiseled elegance of a Lorrie Moore. Lizzie navigates these narrative fragments with a sure foot even as the ground beneath abruptly shifts. There is a strong sense of someone who’s on a new emotional territory, having her wits and resources challenged, tested.  Each poem yielding some small piece of hard-won insight.  It is the ultimate irony. Her father helped come into the world, and now she is helping him leave it. The poet doesn’t rely on the convenience of easy irony. As splendidly recollected in the piece “Winter Solstice 2017”, what she finds isn’t just making his passage comfortable, but finding out how deep her love for him has deepened, the love of a daughter for a father. While in a hospice, her father tells her of a decision he’s made.

Winter Solstice 2017

on the longest night of the year 

my father said he was ready to die

 his decision was both shocking & comforting 
we had talked on the phone earlier
he was desperately tired
it was different than other times
sitting beside him in his hospital room …
my mom on the other side, he said, 
“I’ve made a decision.”
I took his hand, his skin soft & thin, 
“I want to go home, be done with this,”…
he gestured with his other hand to show 
hospital, machines, gowns, fluorescence 
“I want you to talk to them tomorrow.”

This could seem a cold observation of Wann’s way of writing through these momentous events, but I think it’s a worth mentioning this writer’s efficiency. No casual word- slinger throwing words at a page to see what sticks to the wall, she avoids easy allure of wallowing in her misery. Blessedly, Lizzie Wann as well doesn’t of offer unrefined introspection more appropriate for private journals rather than a poetry volume.  Like a fine musician who has learned the art of note choice, she chooses her words wisely. Knowingly or not, she is composing with Ezra Pound’s notion of writing to the rhythm of the musical phrase and not the metronome. This makes her poems powerful and lyric, poetic in ways a reader doesn’t expect. Pound’s fellow poet William Carlos Williams worked for a verbal quality to his poems, as close to Spoken Language as the imagination would allow.  Wann has that in her poems, a rhythm and a flexible emphasis that conveys a mind’s hesitation, the rush of sensation, a sudden flash or sorrow or swift and brief elation. What I’ve always admired about Lizzie Wann’s poems is the sense of something bristling under the surface of the written lines, a confession, a fleeting insight, a secret struggling to emerge. “Winter Solstice 2017”, she accounts for speaking with the family, the doctors, conversations matters intimate and private with her father. She returns home finally, still processing the profundity of her father’s request. At end of day, she slips into needed sleep. Wann is at her best her, deeply, lyrically moving , beautiful in its elegantly unadorned honesty:


that night, I slept in his bed, 

but not before I examined his room, 

opened closet doors

 took a picture of his shirts 
tried to sleep but could only see 
a family vacation to Yellowstone
 where he threw my child body into the air 
so I could see higher, how I was surprised 
then delighted by his spontaneity 
the thrill of the toss, how he caught me 
did it again, laughing my daddy laughing 
unburdened
but not before I examined his room, 
opened closet doors
 took a picture of his shirts 
tried to sleep but could only see 
a family vacation to Yellowstone
 where he threw my child body into the air 
so I could see higher, how I was surprised 
then delighted by his spontaneity 
the thrill of the toss, how he caught me 
did it again, laughing my daddy laughing 
unburdened


I ought to emphasize that the 25 poems that make up the title suite of 
The Hospice Bubble and Other Devastating Affirmations aren't relentlessly dour or respectively bittersweet in tone. The sequence is not necessarily in order, and have the quality of a mosaic, poems composed as different memories sparked different ideas and moods. Meals, chats, frustrations small and big, the irritations minor and major which stress the limits of one’s willingness to go on, area highlighted in the selected poems. There is a subtle wit that underscores the pilgrimage , suggested in this volume’s subtle by the phrase “Devastating Affirmations”; this passage is both curse and blessing, a tragedy that transforms a life with a blunt inevitability, but an event that provides the opportunity for every woman and man to become the adults in their expanded household. Samuel Beckett, the poet laureate of perennial stasis, moaned famously, to paraphrase,… I can’t go on… I’ll go on,” a phrase mimicking the collective grunt of a common man getting out of bed with a conviction that the crushing burden of life on its own terms, the daily grind, is insurmountable and unending: they can’t take it anymore.  And yet man, the woman, showers, shaves, has coffee and leaves the house to do battle again, finding, for a moment, the will to engage again. I believe Wann has a more interesting journey; through her efforts to aid her father with his pain and eventual death, she becomes who she is. 

Other affirmations, not so devastating, are also dealt with in his potent book, those being deaths, depression, writing, love, matters she writes her way through. I sense a writer who picks up the pen to find out what she thinks about the people, places and thinks which continue to make days and nights something less than serene glide. What arises as I read the poems was the faint but pulsing rhythm of hope, not so much the typical glad tidings imprinted on bumper stickers and corporate greeting cards, but rather a recognition that all this misery, labour, all the toiling in attending to final days and hours of a parent's life is a process of discovery of one's aptitude to navigate personal tragedy's rocky stream. Life continues, one's wits were sharpened, one's eyes have adjusted to the dark that shrouded their life for a time, and the sun arises again, the wind blows, the air smells sweet.  Wann writes about many small things in a big way, a writer fascinated with being alive in the world.

To end , lets consider a short poem, the last piece in the book:

Emergence  

 a fingertip 

a strand of hair

 an eyelash
 my pinkie toe 
 ever so slowly 
it seems I may just find 
my way out 


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

Thursday, June 13, 2019

READ WHAT YOU MEAN

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

Tuesday, May 28, 2019


Blue(s)-
Lori Bell and Ron Satterfield
Lori Bell and Ron Satterfield have spent the last few years wowing and beguiling audiences with their vibrant combination of straight ahead, pop, and boss nova-inflected jazz. Blue(s), their new album, is a welcome release, an intoxicating blend of classic tunes by Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and Bill Evans among others, and three guileful originals by Bell. Flutist Bell and guitarist /vocalist Satterfield are a musical combination that have the shared the reflexes of swift and nimble dancers, negotiating difficult changes and moving gracefully through a varied and rich field of tempos, moods, and tones. Those of us lucky enough to witness their magic live no Bell’s wonderful accomplishments during a performance. Her improvisations are a sublime complement of speed and grace, with a skill to interpret material, reshape melodies, and play tricky and shifting tempos. Her technique is meteoric, but they do not sacrifice the sweetness of the music in service to mere virtuosity.

Bell’s genius for inventing melodic conceptions in seamless succession fuses with Satterfield’s adroit guitar work. Eschewing solos, he instead switches between different comping requirements with ease, verve, and style. He gleefully alternates between straight up walking bass lines and shuffle patterns to the subdivided syncopations of Bossa nova, and shows the dulcet intuition of a pianist on the more somber material. (Note: Satterfield is a fine pianist as well with an agile and delicate touch, a quality that informs a nearly flawless sense of rhythm and groove. There’s no lack of variety on blue(s). Those requiring their music be up-tempo and big league, Bell’s own “Bell’s Blues” begins the album with all cylinders firing. It’s a hard-swinging blue with some sweet criss-cross changes and the flutist swooping and pirouetting over Satterfield’s propulsive chords; Satterfield, at midpoint, eases into the fury with a lyric scat vocal, mirroring Bell’s effervescent notes with his own vocalese. Satterfield’s voice is one wonder of Southern California jazz.
The pair retook Monk’s “Blue Monk” into a 6/8 time rush, the usually doleful melody transformed into whistling, scat-happy whimsy. Satterfield launches firmly from a beautifully clipped Latin groove and propels the material with galloping chords, over which Bell decorates the combustible pace with an airy, sprite set of improvisations, springing off Satterfield’s able time keeping. Another high point is a refreshingly sprite arrangement of Miles Davis’s classic “All Blues.” With rare exceptions, later versions of the tune have treated Davis’ original arrangement–slow, somber, casually yet firmly swaying–as sacrosanct. Bell and Satterfield prefer to create anew, allowing them to mess with the song’s mood, elevating from its muted and brooding essence as a tone poem and turn that swaying motion into something close to a swinging rhythm. Bell’s mastery is in full evidence, weaving sprite, flutter-tongued phrases over and between Satterfield’s brisk and agile chord voicings.

DYLAN SINGS TERRIBLY, AND THAT'S WHAT MAKES HIM A BRILLIANT VOCALIST


image If you're wondering, ever, why rock criticism is The Red-Light District of the reviewing arts, this article recently posted on the Esquire website to celebrate Bob Dylan's 78th birthday, shows the reason. The essay baldly asserts that Dylan is "The Greatest American Singer of All Time". Written by someone named Jeff Slate, a songwriter and occasional music journalist, the piece an unctuous, overeager stroll through the obvious facts of Dylan's career , laced with fatuous claims for this to be the greatest American singer. The basic formulation is that as a developing artist, a man dedicated to making a splash in the music world with the resources at this command, the young Dylan had tried on several musical styles—blues, folk, field hollers, gospel, rock-and-roll, and that he had made each style his own reinventing all of them. The basic problem is that Dylan has an awful instrument for carrying a tune. 

There's room for an agreement that the Bard of the Counter Culture has created a good number of impressive, moving, and subtle vocal performances during his long stay in the public eye, but that isn't the same thing as being the Greatest Singer this culture has ever produced. Slate gushes like a nervously prolix fanboy as he over rates the artist's obvious accomplishment. He undersells what was going on in the kind of reinvention that's required for an artist of latent genius to accomplish anything beyond the bathroom and the hairbrush.Dylan is a great singer because he had the ability that suited the qualities and limitations of his voice. All great songwriters do this, especially with Burt Bacharach, who wrote perfect melodies for a stream of quirky vocalists who , without him, likely would have trouble finding a good ftt for their native sound. I am thinking specifically of Dionne Warwick and Gene Pitney, two singers who, I'm convinced, might have languished without Bacharach's melodic accommodations of their strengths. 

Dylan is a more extreme example of this. His early versions of anonymous folk classics are drearily cluttered with many affectations that make me cringe when played . The genius of his vocal style didn't develop until he committed to writing his songs; the affectations began to fall away and, by the time we come to Blonde on Blonde, we've experienced a long string of potent lyrics dramatized b y a singular , original style that handily introduced and forced acceptance of a new aesthetic in pop singing. Mick Jagger is someone I'd say is an artist who followed the same route, a man with a technically awful voice who, in partner Keith Richard, had a voice that could create musical context and frame Jagger's singing.

 I've argued that Dylan and Jagger were not singers, but VOCALISTS, men who could do interesting things with their voice to dramatize a lyric. What those two do is a certain singing, but the distinction is helpful in keeping one's statements about an artist's work both sober and sane.Dylan, though, is not the greatest American singer. Sinatra can , hypothetically, could sing "Blowing in the Wind" or "Just Like a Woman" with style and aplomb (the results , no doubt, would sound ridiculous), but Dylan couldn't handle a single tune from Sinatra's songbook. Many  argue otherwise,insisting he could pull off the fete and change music history again.but the brilliance of this man, Dylan, lies entirely on the work he created.On his own songs, the gentleman rules without peer. "No sings Dylan like Dylan" was an early Columbia slogan for the songwriter, quite a prescient declaration as we take the long view of his career. But is less about Dylan's singing than it is about the article writer's rote hyperbole.



Sunday, May 26, 2019

T.S. ALL OVER THE PLACE


 T. S. Eliot wrote in a time when the Universe seemed to be rent, with heaven and hell bleeding into one another, a career on the heels of two world wars that shattered optimism one may have had for the promise of technology to replace a silent god, is hardly different that the dread that lurks under the covers of the postmodern debate over language's ability to address anything material, or have it convey ideas with any certainty. There is the fear that the names we give to things we think are important and worth preserving are, after a ball, based on nothing. Grim prospects, that, but Eliot seeks to provoke a reader's investigation into the source of the malaise, the bankruptcy of useful meaning, with a hope that the language reinvigorated with a power to transform and change the world.
Eliot's response was real art though, and if it turned into resignation and nostalgia for more-meaningful past times, his articulation at least provokes a response in the reader, and operates as a challenge for them to make sense of his language, and understand the complexity of their own response. This adheres to Pound's modernist ideal that art ought to not just be about the times in which it's made, but that it needs to provoke a response that changes the times: transformation remains the submerged notion.
There is beauty because there is power in the imagery and the emotion behind it and it's powerful because it rings true; a reader recognizes the state of affairs Eliot discusses with his shimmering allusions and responds to it. The material does not lie, and he isn't being false by saying "this is my response to our time and our deeds". Rather, it's more that one disagrees with Eliot's conclusion, that all is naught, useless, gone to ashes. Better that one inspects the power of the truth is in the work and develops their own response to their moment. It's less useful to argue with someone's real despair. A depressed expression does not make up lying.
Eliot was not lying in any sense of the word--lying is a willful act, done so intending to make someone believe something that is demonstrably untrue. As the point of The Quartets and his plays have to do with an artful outlaying of Eliot's seasoned ambivalence to his time, the suggestion that "beauty lies" is specious. One has a license to argue with the conclusions, or to critique the skill of the writer, but the vision here is not faked dystopia Eliot contrived to a good amount of trendy despair—that comes later, with artless confessional poets who lost any sense of beauty to their own addiction to their ultimately trivial self-esteem issues. Eliot, however one views him, sought transcendence of what he regarded as an inanely short-sighted world, and sought to address the human condition in a lyric language that has, indeed, found an audience that continues to argue with his work: the work contains a truth the readership recognizes. Eliot was following suit on the only prerogative an artist, really, has open to them: to be an honest witness to the evidence of their senses, and to marshal every resource in their grasps to articulate the fleeting sensations, the ideas within the experience.
This is the highest standard you can hold an artist to; any other criteria, any other discursive filter one wants to run the work through is secondary, truth be told, because the truth within the work is the source of that work's power. One need to recognize what it is in the lines, in the assemblage and drift of the lyric, in the contrasted tones and delicate construction of vernaculars, what is that one recognizes and responds to in the work, and then mount their response.
There is more to the Four Quartets or the plays than what assume is admits defeat in the hard glare of uncompromising , godless materialism—there is hope that his work inspires future imagining greater than even his own — but I cannot regard the poems as failures in any sense, even with the admission that there is great beauty in them. Eliot renders his consciousness, his contradictory and ambivalent response to the world he's grown old in with perfect pitch, and it's my sense that his intention to provoke the imagination is a sublime accomplishment. As craft and agenda, the later pieces work.
What does Eliot's despair have to do with postmodern writers and writing?
It's less about what one can call his "despair" than what his operating premise has in common with the postmodern aesthetic: Eliot, the Modernist poet extraordinaire, perceives the world the universe has having any definable center, any unifying moral force formally knowable by faith and good works.
There is despair in the works behind the lines--one responds to them emotionally and intellectually and the power behind the images, the shimmering surfaces the diminished, de-concretized narrator feels estranged from, comes from a felt presence, a real personality. Eliot, though, turns the despair into a series of ideas, and makes the poetry an argument with the presence day. There is a pervasive sense of everything being utterly strange in the streets, bridges over rivers, strangeness at the beach, and we, it sounds, a heightened sense of voices, media, bombs, headlines competing for the attention of someone who realizes that they're no longer a citizen in a culture where connection to a core set of meanings, codes and authority offers them a security, but are instead consumers, buyers, economic in a corrupt system that only exploits and denudes nature, culture, god.
Eliot conveys the sense of disconnection rather brilliantly, reflecting the influence of an early cinematic editing styles: as Jacob has, for once, articulated well, Eliot is a modernist by his association with the period, though at heart he was very much a Christian romantic seeking to find again some scripture’s surety to ease his passage through the world of man and his material things. There has always been this yearning for a redemption of purpose in the vaporous sphere, and much of his work, especially in criticism, argued that the metaphysical aspect could be re-established, recreated, re-imagined (the operative word) through the discipline of artistic craft. Modernists, ultimately, shared many of the same views of postmodernism regarding the world being a clashing, noisy mess of competing, unlinked signifiers, but postmodernism has given up the fight of trying to place meaning in the world, and also the idea that the world is changed for the better. Modernists, as I take them in their shared practice and aesthetic proclamations, are all romantics, though their angle and color of their stripes may vary. Romanticism, in fact, is an early modernism: the short of it is that there is a final faith in the individual to design the design of the world, and change its shape by use of his imagination
Eliot's turn to religious quietism isn't so surprising, given the lack of self-effacing wit in his writing that might have lessened the burden of his self-created dread of the modern world: a tenet of modernism, shared by any writer worthy of being called so, is that their work was to help the readers, the viewers, the audience, perceive the world afresh, from new perspectives, in new arrangements, to get to the "real" order of things behind their appearances, and, understanding, change the world again.
Temperaments among poets varied as to how they responded to their need to live aesthetically and in all cases, living aesthetically was a viable substitute for a religious rigor--Stevens chose his Supreme Fiction while being an insurance executive, Pond toyed with fascism and economics, Joyce opted for a life in the eroticized parlors of France and Britain, Williams found connection through his medical practice and biology, related, absolutely with his poetry. Over all, what keenly separates the modernist engagement with meaning creation was that it was the things of this world, this plain, this material reality, that were the things that would help us transform individual perception; the thing itself is its own adequate symbol. A nod to Husserl and phenomenology, the meaning of things in the world, as things, was mysterious indeed, but their form didn't come from the mind of a God who was an absent landlord. Eliot, though, sought religion, and I don't see that as a failure at all: the work is too powerful to be regarded as either a personal failure, if that's a claim one might, nor as a poet. Eliot, as you say, is a poet of ideas, among other things, but ideas are useless in a poem unless they're seamlessly linked with an emotion, an impulse, and it's possible to see where the work was going: the kind of world Eliot described, with the kind of intelligence and personality that described it, was a bleak and unlivable sphere, requiring a decision, to commit to something that supplies meaning, fits the personality that needs direction. I don't regard Eliot as artifact at all: I've commented previously on how the work still inspires readers to engage the world in new ways: he is a permanent influence on my work as a poet.
The early modernists rejected the romantic label--for a variety of reasons.
I'm sure they had good reasons, but Modernism, in many respects, is an old project with a new label. Joyce and the Futurists and Eliot and Pound and Yeats and Gertrude Stein, Hemingway and Fitzgerald... all in the same box? Less being in the same box than being under the same big tent. A very big tent.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

ENDGAME SUCKS HARD ENOUGH TO VACUUM YOUR CARPET

Image result for AVENGERS ENDGAME SUCKSThe fact of the matter is Avengers: Endgame brings the first phase of the Marvel movie saga to a close, all eleven years of overlapping superhero movies in exhausting connected universe. The shared universe is exhausting, yet, but also exhausted, as in a tired, used up, of gas, predictable. Though the fanboy in each of us wants superhero movies , as a genre, to remain fresh and diverting and, like The Western or the Horror film, to remain a lively genre for writers and producers to delve into, Marvel products, at the second half of their decade-long run at least, have gone from fresh and spunky and reflecting a lively energy to being a predictable set of plot motions, no less so, say, than later seasons of Law and Order where longtime viewers can literally count the beats of each scene , know what cues will signify a crucial piece of evidence, how long one has to wait for the Surprise Twist. For all the expensive gloss, impressive professionalism, a very real sense of humor and a surfeit of superb actors doing outstanding work while wearing spandex costumes, the movies, all 21 of them, including Endgame, seem less and less engaged with a big story,the unfolding of a saga, the moral dilemmas that arise when good vs evil than they do with becoming more manic, chattier, glibber, frenetic to no real effect; the present movie takes up nearly three hours cramming in as many characters as possible, from all the movies, citing plot points from many films to prove, again, that these stories are connected, and, perhaps reflective of the aforementioned sense of exhaustion that has pervaded many of Marvel's releases in the half-decade, there is much desultory discussion, digressions, and disquisitions among the characters about how tired they are, how disillusioned they are becoming, how hard it all seems. what It leaves unsaid is how bored the performances seem, bored to the bone. To spirit things along, to pick up the pace, there they expected set pieces and the expected appearance of every MCU hero from the 11 years of movies. This makes me think of nothing less than Fibber McGee's Closet, a closet so far beyond capacity that a chance opening of the door threatens a city-wide catastrophe. There is much, much summing up, explaining, complaining, large chunks of shtick. They mean us to have a teary-eyed farewell to characters we've come to love as this chapter of the Marvel Universe closes and they pass the torch on to the next generation of costumed clods. The manipulation of audience emotion was as ham-handed as the pacing was lead-footed. This three-hour ordeal just made me wish everyone on the screen would die and we could all go home at last. The hard fact is that Avengers Endgame is less entertaining than watching a dog pinch a loaf on your front lawn. It is an awful movie.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

The public fool who might flog us next?

It's  a rather too -easy to exaggerate the virtues of a renegade celebrity when they finally pass on and glide into whatever ethereal after-existence one conspires to imagine, citing some usually short-lived early insights into the layers of falseness and bad faith that saps us of our virtues, and turning a blind eye and a deaf ear when our late hypothetical rebel went sour, became hackneyed, had exhausted all freshness of approach. We don't want our iconic iconoclasts to lose their reputation as relevant sayers of truth. The irony, of course, is that our collective mourning and remembrance wraps the departed with the same kind of wrap of cliche and truisms the truth teller sought to dispel; strange, wouldn't it seem, that the efforts of a Twain, a Thompson, a Richard Pryor or a Bill Hicks did nothing really to bring their generations to clarity and purpose, but only gave the old apologies a new coat of paint?

That's the dilemma when one sets themselves up as a speaker of truth to power, as it were; in print one risks the charge of seeming shrill and paranoid, effectively marginalizing any effect one might have had on the discourse,and for the comedian, the risk is that one is charged with the worst crime of all, of not being funny. The late George Carlin, of course, never had a problem of being funny. At various times a social critic, a Menckenesque student of the innate ambiguities of language, a rather superb commentator and satirist specializing in the dialectic of unrealistic expectation meeting concrete and inevitable fact, Carlin caused laughter, nervous coughing, debates, and did, to some extent, provoke discussions after his comedy albums were played or his many HBO specials were finished, disagreements above and beyond the "funny bits" and laugh lines and landing on the subject near to Carlin's lovingly cynical heart, the collective delusions Americans rely on to buffer themselves against the stressed out and crushing banality of their (our) existence. His was the spotlight where Lenny Bruce, Mencken, and Thorsten Veblen shook hands and polished the best insights into hard, fast and lacerating lines, given with delivery could, to steal a line from Norman Mailer, boil the fat from a cab driver's neck.

One can maintain, no doubt, that Carlin was straining in the last ten years or so, that he was too acerbic at last, too acidic and joyless with the sharp stick he jabbed into the side of the obese culture he was attracted to as much as repulsed by. Perhaps; what I remember is that Carlin was a consistent cynic ever since he dropped his TV-friendly routines and brought some measure of refreshing independence to the shows on which he was a guest. Yes, I know, his criticism, his act, his jibes, his jeremiads were all an act, right. Yes, but that didn't make him a phony, and one had to admire Carlin's skill at remaining effective entertaining for all the corrosive views he brought to the table. In a time when many a showbiz contrarian is soon revealed as disposable and ill-fitted for a long career, Carlin remembered what he was, at the bottom, he remembered what made his skewed disposition marketable; he was an entertainer, a comedian. He could make you laugh, and that is a gift we see too little in our lives.

Carlin's routines became more cynical and coarser as he got older, and that isn't surprising; that he abandoned the search for a definitive punchline to make all his grousing and cynicism palatable came, in fact, as a relief. One would have cringed if he maintained the zonked out Everyman that was his trademark. I'd agree with you that he pretty much ran his course by the time the 2000s started, and he couldn't gain a vantage point  in a post-9/11 world; the worst had already happened and now the seer had nothing to do once the greed, avarice, stupidity, and meanness of Western Civilization was wounded in the most horrible way. He seemed reduced to saying "I told you so". I don't think anyone has the "post-9-11" vantage yet. Bill Maher is the closest I can think of, since his anger goes the deepest of his generation and is the best articulated of the bunch. He is certainly the best on the subjects of contention he chooses to debate;if he doesn't do the research himself, he at least reads the research his staff presents him He is the cross between Twain and Mencken and has an undying, unflagging hatred of the stupidity of those in power regardless of their ostensible political philosophy and the harm they create blindly pushing their expedient ends. What separates him from the routine nihilist is his belief in social justice and an open society; this marks him differently than, say, Larry Miller, a comedian I enjoyed until I heard him on Maher's show basically declare that the terrorists are coming back to kill us again and that we'd better be prepared to kill them first. Maher, in terms of the new realism, has a harder road as a comedian; to express cynicism and outrage while being in favor of something. He certainly knows that being a critic without an articulable alternative to the way things are is as inauthentic as a blues album by a boy band. He has the political intelligence another Miller, the word drunk sarcasm specialist  Dennis,wishes he had.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

MITCHELL

Image result for joni mitchellBrilliant as she has been, Joni Mitchell has also had made nearly as much music that is, shall we say, in equal measures underwritten, bombastic, pretentious, just plain pretentious. She coveted the sobriquet "genius" more conspicuously than any pop star I can remember--even self-mythologizer Dylan rejects the application of the word to his name. and has suggested. She complains of Dylan's lack of authenticity when the whole notion of art and being an artist is based in large part on creating things that are inauthentic; the very words "art" and "artist" are linked with the word artificer, a term that means some designed, made by hand, an unnatural addition to what is already in place. She bemoans the lack of authenticity and forgets, perhaps, that she, Simon, Dylan and Leonard Cohen, poet-songwriters of the Sixties, were storytellers more than anything, fictionalizing their feelings, their politics, their biographies in the interest of a good yard, a good line, a good insight. Authenticity, I would argue, has more to do with a feeling that a writer creates, not the emotion he or she in fact feel. She is grumpy, to be sure, but this will not suffice as a justification for her ire. She is famous and cranky and frankly, it's a tedious dirge she replays every chance she gets. 

She not so subtly demands she be taken seriously as a musical artist, and she has produced albums that have tried to force the issue. She stabs at art song, serial music, jazz material, and feminist surrealist have given us mixed results. The fatal flaw in these ambitious efforts was that the worst elements of them were so impossibly precious and self-important that they summarily dwarfed what fresh ideas she might have had. Her ongoing arrogance and bitterness leave a bad taste. Listeners have taken joy in Joni Mitchell's continual insistence on changing her musical approach, so it wasn't unusual that I hailed the release of Hissing of Summer Lawns, mostly, as a bold step towards personal and artistic growth. But while Hissing, and her subsequent and less successful Hejira, showed Mitchell expanding herself to more adventurous motifs - broader song structures, an increasingly impressionistic lyric scan, jazz textures - the trend toward a more personalized voice has virtually walled her off from most of her fans. Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, her now double record effort, takes the ground gained from the last two albums and converts it into a meandering, amorphous culmination of half-formed concepts. 

The primary emphasis, musically, is towards jazz modernism, with several songs exceeding ten minutes in length as they ramble over Mitchell's vaguely comprehensible piano chords. She reveals a tendency to hit a strident chord and to let the notes resonate and face as she vocally ruminates over the lyrics - while her side players, Jaco Pastorius and Wayne Shorter from Weather Report, and drummer John Guerin, do their best to add a definition. The lyrics, following suit, are an impressionistic hodgepodge, a string of images, indecipherable references, and gutless epiphanies that should have been edited with a blue pencil. While the more hard-nosed defenders may defend latest with the excuse that a poet may express his or herself in any way they see fit, one still must question the worth of any effort to dissect Reckless Daughter the way one used to mull over Dylan albums. Though many matters that Mitchell chooses [sic] to deal with may have value to her audience - spiritual lassitude, the responsibilities of freedom, sexuality into middle ages - she supplies nothing resembling hooks, catchphrases or accessible points of reference for them to latch onto. Instead, she gives them art, whether they like it or not. The paradox in Mitchell's stance is that she has thrown craft well outside the window while trying to measure up to "Art" in the upper case. She has gone from being an artful songwriter to being merely arty, which is a state of mind that takes hold of many of the public personalities who think they know it all and who conceive themselves as no longer being bound by conformity. In her own way, Mitchell has joined the ranks of John Lennon, Yes and other bright talents who've over-dosed on their own importance.  

With her subsequent album Mingus, we find ourselves having to admire Mitchell’s willingness to expand and reach beyond the merely chatty confessionalism she come to be known for and serve up art that is truly artful. “Arty” is a more telling description, though, as her ambition to impress outstrips craft. There is an aroma of the untutored dilettante banging away on a piano she (or he) doesn’t know how to play; the smarty pants assumes we’ll think it bold and experimental. But she is not Mingus, the composer, the musician, the artist, and I pray she doesn’t think she is his equal because no one is.  I've nothing against an established artist trying to break away from the stuff they've already done so that they might "advance their art," but I protest artsy experiments in areas where an artist has no business being. To be specific, Joni Mitchell has little justification to be futzing around with the moody expressionism of jazz, as she does on Mingus. Though the music and lyrics jell better this time than on her previous Don Juan's Reckless Daughter (a bottomless pit of amorphous atonalism and free-associative lyrics that expressed the forgettable in terms of the incomprehensible), Mitchell's primary problem on Mingus is that she's not much of a jazz singer. Her voice sounds thin and attenuated when it should sound alive, brassy, and full-bodied, pallid when it should have color. You find yourself longing for Annie Ross, or Patti Waters. And as a tribute to the late Charles Mingus, this record doesn't quite wash. The bits of dialogue between songs, featuring Mingus reminiscing with the musicians and ever pondering his own death, don't give the album any more depth than what the music - some of it quite good, most of it half-baked - already supplies. It smacks of tackiness.

Monday, March 25, 2019

THE VAULT: two reviews from the Seventies

Image result for GOLD JEFFERSON STARSHIP
GOLD--Jefferson Starship

The Jefferson Starship are ·one of the more remarkable Jobs of a late Sixties acid rock band re-tool their image so that they might fit in the Seventies marketplace. The original Airplane, if you· remember, were a group of LSD crazies who espoused the glory of chemically expanded consciousness years before Carlos Castaneda got Into the act. In their original conception, the Starship became paranoid revolutionaries (on paper anyway) who'd lost any grasp they had on reality, and whose political broadsides resembled a Psychedelic piece of hate literature. (The peace and love gleam had faded from the Jefferson Airplane’s collective gaze and the first Starship album, Blows Against the Empire, was a quizzical and quixotic way of trying to rouse their fans to act of resistance. I’m still hesitant to say that writing a semi-rock opera centering around hijacking a starship and heading out some a cosmic place where longhairs, dopers and select people of color wouldn’t be hassled by the man was the best way to change one’s lived-in circumstances. Ah, the Sixties…)  In this age of lower expectations, though, it's understandable that the Starship's rebel stance has wizened, and that their music has become more commercially approachable. They've placed themselves safely on the record charts with a series of hit singles and albums, the sounds of which border on the easy-listening lilt of Fleetwood Mac, Peter Frampton, or The Eagles. Lucidly for old Airplane fans, the new Starship has produced several well-crafted hits, most of which are on Gold. The standout track is Marty Balin's "Caroline," a superbly produced and arranged song that screams for radio programmers to include it on their playlist, "Miracles, " a stunningly layered ballad with an elusive, captivating melody that is , besides,  perhaps the greatest  song ever written with oral love references, and "With Your Love." There will be those die-hard rock and roll counterculture adherents who’ll feel that the Starship has betrayed the cause, whatever that might be. One must remember, however, that the Airplane/ Starship has a formidable body of work complete with stratospheric highs and the lowest lows, and their momentary upswing on the record charts is more than anyone could expect from a band who, by rights, should have burned itself out years · ago. 

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Image result for ry cooderThe more I thought about it, the less I wanted to attend the Nov. 16 Ry Cooder concert in the UC gym. Cooder, I knew, made a name for himself for the slicing slide guitar work he did on the Rolling Stones Let It Bleed album, a record I enjoyed. But word had it that Cooder was a dyed-in-the-wool folkie, someone who does songs they've learned from hillbillies, blues pioneers, sailors, and other sources. In other words, Cooder wasn't any Hollywood pretty boy stroking his Ovation guitar while singing self-penned tomes to his own sensitivity, like Jackson Browne (though Browne's stylistics  their own reward),  Rather, Cooder was strictly bucolic, with rough edges In both voice and guitar work, not a virtuoso but engagingly honest in presentation to an audience that I suspected picked up on folk music as part of a collective rejection of high art in general.  But while my admittedly dour presuppositions could have turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy ("The old and still adolescent school of making up your mind before being in possession of facts), I realized I needed to switch off the contempt. It was a bit like culture shock in your own culture. Cooder, without the band he's been using for most of this tour, ambled sleepily on stage!! and sat in his chair and goaded the sound crew to "goose” the volume up in the monitors, finally imploring them to " crank it. Don't be afraid." The height of his performance was his guitar work. Basing his styles in rural blues inflections and country picking techniques, Cooder's approach is an enticing hodgepodge of effects that don't fall into any category, but rather rest between the boundaries. His picking is quick and firm, with the vigorous pulling of the strings, and his chord mix ragtime jazz progressions, classical chording, and blues phrasings with egalitarian ease that's positively organic. His slide work, his strongest forte, avoids the dying dog moans that neophyte players, mostly British, manage, and _ maintains a solid flow of incisively slashing riffs. The fact that he seemed affable and good-natured worked in his favor as well. He seemed to enjoy the songs he did, avoiding the sort of inverse snobbery I thought pervaded this genre and its audience. Cooder debunked that prejudicial nonsense. Opening the show was Mike Seeger, Pete's brother, who played banjo, fiddle, autoharp, harmonica, Jew’s harp, as well as guitar, set the night's mood with an amicable way of going about his job. The highlight of his set was his Jew’s harp playing, which with the utilization of the University's super fine sound system, approximated the unearthly buzz of interstellar insects, a ploy Pink Floyd might consider next time they take their million-dollar quad system on tour. It's astounding that sometimes the strangest emanations come not from smoky, sparking, colicky electronic amplifier banks, but from the recesses of man's musical past. His concert was refreshing to remember that not everything we’ve done as species is ugly and created with it in mind to stomp on the next guy.