Monday, December 23, 2019

WE WILL NOT COWER BEFORE KAUR



There was a time not long ago when I'd write an easily composed 1000 or so word diatribe eviscerating mediocre poets, which is to say poet tasters I eccentrically considered subpar, egocentric without compensating genius, bombastic without ballast, cryptic without elegance, or elegant without grit.The truth of the matter is that it's nearly easier to write, with verve, negative reviews than to write positive notices for those bards I actually enjoyed. Of course, former pleasures become burdens and for the last few years my talent for impaling the poetically inept bored me to something less than a puny yelp. There are too many rank poets to bother with; I am outnumbered and outgunned.What does raise my hackles a bit these days are generous essays by bright writers extolling the virtues of the god-awfullest scribe in our midst.  Perhaps I'd should mention as well that in those former times when I desired to be the scourge of half-baked versifying I was speaking too loudly for little insight to be heard;it's been my goal to tone down my rhetoric a few notches, although I cannot guarantee that I won't turn my amplifier up to the eleven mark yet again as tripe is served. 

A long piece by Rumaan Alam in the New Republic makes a case for the stick figure poetics of Canadian Instagram poet Rupi Kaur. Though softly insisting that her verse is not to his taste, he argues that there is validity in the kind of platform she is using, the self-obsessed imagery she posts to accompany many of her finicky line breaks, of her treating legitimate issues for women in such a way that reduces them to the most obvious sort of pandering. His article can be read hereOften there is a weird equivocation that goes on among those I ask if they think whether Kaur is any good. Not to generalize too broadly, but often they pause, clear their throat, and speak of her in terms that have no relation to the quality of her poems. Funny how we can agree that Rod McKuen, say, was an awful poet, and even some of us with strong feminist sympathies can admit that Erica Jong was a lackluster poet all this time, but when Kaur comes up in conversation she is handled with kid gloves. More power to her for using Instagram to get readers. It's a shame this poetaster serves up the thinnest gruel to the unsuspecting and naive.Make no mistake, Kaur is an awful, even dreadful poet when one of her works is made to suffer a critical examination. Sometimes you're left wondering if she read poetry at all. What I see is a young scribbler whose accomplishment has been to professionalize the very real concerns of struggling against a male patriarchy that, alas, still runs things. She has over three million followers, I hear tell, she has books that sell in the millions, and she resonates with readers who have read her work who, in turn, do not seem interested in reading poets who exceed the typically brief magazine captions that are the true literary worth of most Instagram posts. 

This the poetry for the age of the anxiety cursed I Phone owner, a failure of the attention span on a massive level. The writer here believes that her lack of literary essentials is beside the point, and that her greatness is in matters metaphysical, which is too say, intangible and unprovable. I don't see what she does as in anyway mastering the beast of the internet and social media. Kaur has been consumed by it. Her role in this all, perhaps, is that she like the band playing music on the Titanic while it slips under an icy sea.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

NoMo PoMo

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The online journal The Chronicle Review does the worrying population of undecided readers a favor in their current edition with a forum entitled 
"The Birth, Death and Birth of Postmodernism".  It's a forum of ten contributors with varying stakes in the floating crap game that is the postmodern condition each attempts to essay forth on. What has happened since Fredric Jameson essay Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”  from the New Left Review and the publication of Lyotard's groundswell book The Post Modern Condition , published years ago. Without recycling some notions of my own that are available elsewhere on this blog, we can say that the idea of postmodernism arose from the relativistic rigors--ironic, no?--of late  20th century philosophy , an ambiguous set of arguments and anti- arguments -that sought to undermine the whole notion of authority, meaning-giving, and power, essentially setting out to disrupt and overturn The Enlightenment (or advance it, depending on which seat you were sitting in some of the frothy debates of the time). It was a set of ambiguities that applied to every topic that would come to your tongue, something that would explain/unexplain everything, it was a term that joined the term "existential" as a go-to word when middlebrows, those readers who skim  or depend on book reviews for their book information, would drop like a  bag of nickles whenever they wanted to sound like the beneficiaries of a college education.  Like existential, as well, it soon enough became a buzz phrase that singled the presence of the middlebrow conversationalist who hadn't more than an in-lawish relationship to concepts, names and books under discussion. Using it seemed pretentious. It died, and academics moved to new ways to confound others and themselves. And yet the term now has currency again, it is reborn , revived, and more hated than it ever has been. So we have ten bright people giving an overview the history of postmodernism, its use in academica, how  misreading ruined political action.  The fascinatingly Chicken Little-ish Jordan Peterson was rummaging around his desk full of 80s tropes and happened upon the ever sexy and ambiguous phrase "Postmodernism" and set it aside for use as a strawman , a concept to blame for why everything has gone wrong with our culture. He tosses in the term 'Cultural Marxism" to sweeten his little vat of ill-tidings,and has handily reintroduced some basically obsolete terms back into the daily discussion of Big Ideas. It is , though, an old game blamed long and vainly, empty of real concepts. Peterson is a smart guy, a cunning debater, but what he's selling an empty box, basically repackaging the Fall From Grace , the expulsion for the Garden of Eden. His problem is that he and his fans presuppose there was a time when things made sense, were normal, were stable and adhering to the Way Things Ought to Be. Normal, stable for who? Post modernism had been a term that had currency once, was over used in all media sectors, and soon enough fell on the pile of academic words, like "existential" , that cannot not be used in any meaningful way to address our current mess, lest one provoke sneers , laughs, and parody. This is a little forum comprised of many interesting thinkers , writers, intellectuals who offer their view on the current state of what we mean or don't mean by the use f the term "postmodernism" and cultural Marxism, and the many infinite ways a useful term became garbled in a culture that cannot function without loud noise , friction and bull horned assholism.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

LYN LIFSHIN RIP

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I've heard from what others have posted that Lyn Lifshin, a very good poet I've read for sometime, has passed away. I haven't located more details, but I will offer instead that she was a wonderful lyric poet, with sharp observation shown in spare but powerful images, with a frame of mind to observe, contemplate and find parallels between ideas and objects that wouldn't inhabit the same sentence. Her poetry was not skeletal, not minimalist, it had rhythm , pace , a real pulse , but it was not cluttered; her best poems had the remarkable resonance of one those things a friend says to you in passing, a story, a notion, something that was observed, something actually uttered , which had the accidental genius of having the right words for an idea that could just as easily been talked to death. Lifshin was a remarkable poet, and we are poorer both as readers and poets alike for the loss of her. Two poems:

MOVING BY TOUCH


that afternoon an
unreal amber
light 4 o'clock the
quietness of
oil February blue
bowls full of
oranges we were
spreading honey, butter
on new bread our
skin nearly touching
Even the dark wood glowed


BUT INSTEAD HAS GONE UNDERGROUND

A woman goes into the subway,
and for what reason
disappears behind rails
and is never heard from again.
We don't understand this.
She could have gone to the museum,
had cappuccino with a lover.
But instead has gone down the
escalator, without i.d., or
even a ticket and not
for clothes or flowers. It was
a grey humid day,
very much like today.
It was today. Now you might
imagine I'm that woman, it
seems there are reasons.
But listen, I don't live
anywhere near that metro stop
and who I am is already
camouflaged behind
velvet and leather

Thursday, December 5, 2019

WHAT IS HIP?

Among the miscellaneous debris, The Seventies have given rock and roll is the chance for a new artist to regurgitate and, at times, imaginatively retool the many over-incubated cliches of Pop and rock music.Older critics who long for their youthful heyday (first cigarette, first sexual encounter, first visit to the doctor’s office without informing one’s parents) as something in the vanguard of the movement, a ...fresh and invigorating voice that outlines the future of rock and roll.. ." We seem stuck in a state, perhaps permanently, where we have given way to unavoidable nostalgia and have taken to wallowing in recollections of an Ideal Past. 

This is Fall-From-Grace stuff, a perverse funk for a generation that barely has the right to call itself middle age; as it has for some years now, we continue to search for the next Dylan, the new Hendrix, the next Beatles; overpraise and hypercritical rejection are the two polarities the new blood is greeted; the middle position did not hold in these surmising discussions. Bruce Springsteen combines elements from Phil Spector records, old rhythm, and blues tracks, and basic 4/4 backbone of rock and roll, wrapping a Dylanesque, free-associating surrealism around it. The result is a pastiche of styles that sounds forced.The motivation is obvious to a disinterested observer, but Springsteen’s movements do not move me beyond recognizing that he is influences will remain hipper than he could hope to be. 

What constitutes the ephemeral, mystically conferred essence of hip on someone, I admit, is a mystery that is and will remain the subject of engrossing discussions and debates that will not find a resolution. But I know it when I see/hear/read it, and Bruce Springsteen appears fated to remain an earnest hipster, another face in the chorus protesting the same hard knocks and cold soup. Patti Smith wants to merge early Sixties rock, all Stones and "Louie Louie" with the legends of dead poets, sounding in the end merely silly. Tom Waits combines black jazz hep jive with Jack Kerouac and sounds stupid.From this parade of pretenders, the more jaded among us are leery of anyone trying the same thing. My Aim is True by Elvis Costello, takes one by surprise. Like Springsteen, the backbone 01 Costello's music is old rock and roll. But apart from that, they differ radically. Springsteen has a tendency to stretch his material to the breaking point, pouring crescendo upon toughness, and Costello's sing• crescendo. verse upon verse, ing, similar to Springsteen's trying to create an epiphany but more tactful, is full of that never culminates into pro- buoyancy, emotion, and conviction.

 Costello, though, is without any overkill. What he loves about tin pan alley, the Brill Building, the hack songwriters of all callings, genres, convictions, was their mastery of craft. Mr. Costello knows when to be poetic and deliver a sequence of lyrics that manage to weave narrative elements and spare details that contain a beginning, middle, and end, his poetry, though influenced by Dylan and John Lennon, is under control; he doesn’t mistake a verse as an occasion for wildly opaque analogies, but for vivid items that logically follow one another in tone, temper, plot; one might not make sense of the songwriter’s word use, but you have a sense of the narrator’s situation, an element that makes this artist’s songwriter all more seductive and alluring. The stripped down to a vernacular (songs number twelve in all on the disc, unusual for a rock disc, and each exists as polished lyrical gems of a cynical, penetrating working-class intelligence. Costello's strength, a virtue that Springsteen, Smith and Waits lack, is his ability to use rock cliches for their full value. Instead of brandishing them like a set of museum pieces that one is supposed to bow to in historical awe and respect, Costello gets the heat to the meat. The make takes ownership of them and does with them as likes. 

The rockabilly stuff is done with a verve that equals Buddy Holly, his use of reggae captures the required anguished, sinister mood, and his boogie material does a lot more than plot the course for the band. His lyrics, though, are imbued with a seventies sensibility, an awareness of absurdity works minor miracles with the clichés. Though not notable for originality or innovation, My Aim Is True is an honest piece of work, and Elvis Costello has an intelligence that can develop into something more complex and rewarding. My Aim, for now, suffices as an excellent example of how old forms may be revitalized, even reinvented from scratch, with the basic elements and energy renewed, if for a time, and be metaphorically capable of making the vulgarity , self-seeking and tangible afflictions that make life a cruel waiting room all melt into air and make you happy for the voice you hear next to you and the voice he or she is singing, grateful for the breath your taking, and feeling fully alive , if briefly, knowing that you and yours are not the only ones seeking transcendence. That is what great art does, if briefly.




Wednesday, November 27, 2019

PUNK CRITIC JOHN SIMON CROAKS

Image result for john simonJohn Simon, America's meanest critic is dead at age 93. It will be noted over and over that he was of high IQ and sublime erudition, quite, quite fluent in the popular arts, low, middle and high. Though his writing had genuine mean wit--he was on occasion a remarkable phrase-maker--and his prose very often was drenched in knowing references to poets, novelists, philosophers and composers, I rarely discerned a discussion of the artist or their medium that rose above the provincial.For all the interior decoration he gave his critiques with the names and words of genuine thinkers, Simon's judgements were the worst sort of offensive, which was that of being dull-witted despite admirer's praise for his rumored brilliance. I say this as someone who read him for decades--there is a generation of literary, film and music critics I've followed because criticism is something I regard as artful and crucial when it's done well-- when I assert that the man's mind, despite the high-octane breadth, was flat footed. For a man who was feared, feted, loathed, lionized and called every name available in a shelf of obscene books, indeed, for a man consistently employed solely to render harsh pronouncements on the work of artists, it's despairing to think that his cut-rate skills  as a critical intelligence were regarded as hoity-toity, brainy, egghead stuff. In truth, Simon, as a man who was supposed to make you consider aspects of creative expressions in ways that go beyond the cliche, the platitude, the generalized sarcasm, was a mediocre critic.

His analysis was peculiarly pedestrian. His was the most useless sort of criticism, a style that was noisy, aggressively mean spirited, freakishly untouched by an illuminating idea. Ordinarily I would say some tactful remarks about recently passed writers whom I read quite a bit of,but those readers familiar with the cartoonishly patrician persona and tone Simon created and polished over many malevolent years as a framer of the national dialogue of culture and art will understand this rude send off. Finally, my guess for this deceased essence of lizardly snark's maintaining the insults, the misogynistic, homophobic, anti-semitic and racist bile over the years is that he  knew he was no Gore Vidal, no Elizabeth Hardwick, no Norman Mailer, no James Baldwin. Flawed though those writers and reviewers  could be in their expressions, they provoked debate, inspired discussion, instigated dissent --all of them , in their best and worst moments forced the engaged reader to think harder on what they'd just read. Even talking about them today can land one in along conversation in which the pondering of what the Muses avail us begins again. Simon, in that regard, was such a routine naysayer that you regarded him like he were a man with a persistent cold who could no stifle a loud, garish cough, or perhaps someone given to chronic flatulence who vented his odious stinkers when he was in the center of a center of a party of attendees cheerfully chatting away.  Once he made his noise and raised his stink, all you could do was wait for to go away and then not think of the sheer worthlessness of his existence from that point on. 


Well, John Simon has left us, and now we may get on with forgetting he was a part of any conservation. 

Saturday, November 2, 2019

a note or two about my mother

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My mom, Maxelle Reed Roberts Burke, was a tough and intelligent and a pretty brilliant woman who didn't sit around waiting for things to happen. She raised the five of us with a firm but loving hand, and did me the favor of telling me the truth about how the world worked. She knew she had a dreamy, half-deaf romantic on her hands in my presence and would caution me against going the whole hog into relationships, and to be prepared for disappointment when things didn't work out to my heart's content. Besides family, she was a community activist at different times, particularly, in a campaign to get Harper Woods a public swimming pool all its own. She was an artist, an interior designer of the first rank along with our Dad, and was the brains and the brilliance behind a successful interior design business she ran with Ed Burke. She was a doer, a questioner, a person who would find out things for herself and did not suffer fools at all. More than once I've seen take apart some poor chump who thought he could "man-splain" some matter to her, whether professional, political or territorial. 

And she was wonderfully hip in ways you didn't expect; time was a family dinner in the 80s and we wound up watching a Dick Clark music award show. Jefferson Starship was one of the artists, with Grace Slick dressed conservatively. Mom shook her head and said that Slick looked like a drunk housewife. Next was punk band X, loud, grainy, distorted, too fast and definitely not hippie music. Mom liked them a lot, bobbing her head in time with the raucous noise X made. Mom was edgy in the smartest ways and had many interests, particularly in people. She had many fiercely loyal friends. What I most remember, though, was that she encouraged my love of books and music, bought me my first harmonica when the guitar lessons yielded no fruit and that she used to read to me when I was very young and would answer my questions when a story didn't make sense. And she had a beautiful voice--she sang often as she made dinner when she thought she was alone listening to the radio. It was a softer side of her that wasn't often on display. 


And did I mention that she had the best laugh in the world, a loud, robust burst of hilarity? My sister Julia inherited that laugh and it makes me happy every time I hear it.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

JOKER: aggravating brilliance

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First, Joker is thematically a blend of two Scorsese movies, Taxi Driver and King of Comedy, something that co-writer and director Todd Phillips readily admits to. He's admired character study films like those from the 70s and the 80s, and it was his intent to do a psychological portrait of a complex and manifestly unhinged comic book villain in the same way. The King of Comedy underpinnings is very apt for this character who has been erasing and reconstructing the separations between comedy, tragedy and outright evil for the better part of eighty years in the comic books. Even with the conspicuous nod to Scorsese's style of giving us a Taxi Driver like a study of the making of a what we would now call homegrown terrorists--contemporary echoes of the Alt-Right neo-Nazis and the lesser antagonisms of Antifa on the left readily come to mind as the story unfolds--Phillips has his own approach in creating the slow, subtle evolution of this title card man. Visually, the movie is something else again, with New York City standing in for the mythic Gotham City--I haven't seen the grit, graffiti and architecture/neighborhood magnificence that is the Big Apple used this marvelously in some time. 

The cast is perfect for the disturbing and violent nature of this film. And get this, although there is no Batman, this is within a world that very probably does or eventually will be populated by DC's costumed heroes. But this is a standalone character study, and what they've is impressive indeed, and even brilliant in a peculiar, discomforting way. I liked it quite a lot. don't think its quite the masterpiece DC fans want it to be, but it is a finely made film that creates a mood and twists it ever so much through the film's length as we see an already on-the-edge character step closer to an abyss and he finally falls in. As Joker/Arthur is in every scene, nearly every shot, I take the story to be a stream of delusions, some situated in what appears to be Arthur's rat-race life, and others that are obviously grandiose, malevolent fantasies. Director and co-writer Todd Phillips did a superb job of managing the "untrustworthy narrator" device, of taking the audience along a path of events where are expectations are eventually unmoored by contradictory incidents. 

Phillips shows a knack throughout Joker of keeping us guessing, revealing unexpected bits of information that genuinely surprise. Phoenix deserves at least an Oscar nomination no less than Heath Ledger did. For the violence and politics, the animus toward the rich in Arthur's fevered perception hasn't an explicitly political bent, by design, I believe. The people, as they are, simply are tired of being crapped on and, like Arthur, are raging violently against the machine. And the film is beautifully, evocatively, amazingly shot--I have not seen New York City photographed this effectively in a motion picture for quite a while. And, of course, there are many who dislike this film intensely. That's the kind of movie they intended to make. I believe. 

There are hundreds of movies that have come out in the last 30 years or so that are insanely more violent than Joker--think of the Die Hard franchise, for example, or virtually Tarantino's entire body of work--but is the film that has people talking, upset, fretting. It was a strategically brilliant move to furnish this tale with a confirmed "reality, a center both writers and the audience can refer back to regain their bearings before going forward to see what develops with some idea of "what's going on". This film is wholly unreliable as a dependable account of what actually happened to this man and this city in this imagined universe, and as more is revealed, that what had been taken for granted is indeed not the case but rather its center opposite, audience reaction, or at least mine, tended toward the antsy, anxious, nervous. Even in its slowness, the film gave you no room to relax. You might consider it analogous to watching a time bomb in a crowded public space, aware that it's going to go off at some time, yet you do nothing, just watching, waiting, become slightly insane with expectation. When it finally does go off and you see the bloody death, destruction, carnage that is the consequence, uncensored, unfiltered, there is no catharsis as, say, a bullet in the skull of a generic bad guy in a Die Hard film would provide. For me it was oh shit, there it goes, here we go, this awful, oh god...

Joker accomplishes that--blurring any finessed connections between fantasy and reality, as Scorsese provided in King of Comedy,a major influence on this film, and having the violence viscerally affect you. It was like getting beaten up in real-time. This is the product of sheer artistry. The violence is pure Guernica.


Tuesday, October 15, 2019

KATE BRAVERMAN, RIP




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Sorry to hear this. Braverman was an especially brilliant prose writer and a powerful lyric poet who could twine together the insane sweep of mythology, feminist, confessional revelations , erotic depositions and the like into a captivating , galvanic roil of language that seemed nothing less than a controlled, emotional explosion , remindful of the classic image from Apocalypse Now when a napalm strike took out a long row of trees in a Vietnamese forest. Really, her "incantatory writing" , as she called it, got the nerve endings flaring.I met her after I'd written a rave review of her book FRANTIC TRANSMISSIONS, a mesmerizing memoir if one has ever been written, something that led to a brief communication and an eventual appearance at the bookshop where I worked at the time. She was a handful to be around, I should say, and as much of a genius she had as writer and poet, there was tangible relief when she left for the evening. All said, Kate Braverman was an amazing writer who deserves a broader readership. There is more I could say about my encounter with Braverman, but lets instead consider my summary judgement on her prickly and hallucinogenic memoir Frantic Transmissions  from 2009:



Image result for Frantic Transmissions to and from Los Angeles: An Accidental Memoir"Frantic Transmissions to and From Los Angeles is a memoir, of sorts, about growing up in Los Angeles, and then the eventual moving away from that famously center-less city. Writing in a high poetic and semiotically engaged style that recalls the best writing of Don DeLillo (Mao ll) and Norman Mailer (Miami and the Seize of Chicago), Braverman deftly defines isolated Los Angeles sprawl and puts you in those cloistered, cul-de-sac'd neighborhoods that you drive by on the freeway or pass on the commuter train, those squalid, dissociated blocks of undifferentiated houses and strip malls and store front churches; the prose gets the personal struggle to escape through any means , through art and rage, and this makes Frantic Transmissions not unlike Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, wherein the prodigal son or daughter deigns to move up and away from a home that cannot keep them, with only raw nerve and the transforming elements of art to guide them.

What Braverman confronts and writes about with a subtly discerning wit is the struggle of defining the place one calls home, and what roles one is obliged to assume as they continually define their space, their refuge. All through this particularly gripping memoir there is the sheer magic and engulfing power of Braverman's writing; I was fortunate to receive an uncorrected proof of Frantic Transmissions a couple of months ago, and I was knocked out by what I beheld. Sentence upon sentence, metaphor upon simile, analogy upon anecdote, this writing is rhythmic and full of stirring music. There is poetry here that does not overwhelm nor over reach; this is an amazing book, and it is one of the best books about life in Los Angeles , quite easily in the ranks of Nathaniel West, Joan Didion, and John Fante. "

Monday, October 14, 2019

HAROLD BLOOM, RIP

Harold Bloom, the Methuselah of American literary criticism, has passed away at the age of 89. Best known , celebrated and berated for his tome The Western Canon, an encyclopedic argument in defense of individual literary genius against the intimidating attacks from fresher and bolder currents in literary thought, Bloom became something a of a one-man cottage industry in his later years, producing a stream about books, some good, some brilliant, more than some so much mush, speaking of Dead White Males and the poems they wrote. I am heavily indebted to his book The Anxiety of Influence, as it gives a subtle and useful dialectical model on how great genius influences great genius that follows through the centuries, with the younger men (and women) writing superbly in another stylistic, spiritual and intellectual direction than the great poet who influenced them, desperately trying to escape the long and looming shadow.

But as that First Great Genius was Shakespeare, a genius who Bloom argued is singularly responsible, in plays and poems, for the creation of what we regard as Modern Man and Modern Literature, the sage who began the whole unstoppable progression of how modern poets would write, escape from the shadow is impossible; The Bard is Present, no matter how much one attempts to be unlike him. You can argue with his sweeping conclusions, but the book I'm thinking of, "Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human is a critical delight. It may be that Bloom is luxuriating in the laziness of a higher caliber. The difference between them is that Bloom has a thesis that he's worked with for decades, a set of subtle arguments crystallized in his landmark book The Anxiety of Influence a brief but trenchant discussion where the Professor posits that Shakespeare is the premiere genius casting a long , indelible shadow across the legions of subsequent genius that arose after his time. Bloom argued that Bard's influence is so pervasive that no poet or other literary artists cannot help but be influenced by him.
Those great geniuses who've emerged after Bard's time have either engaged their influence from him and written great works extending, modifying and altering the system of metaphor Shakespeare changed our collective consciousness with, or there are other geniuses who've emerged over the centuries who, being painfully aware of the Bard's embedded influence on how sentences about human experience have come to be written, write furiously in the other direction, against his style, assumptions and rhetoric, experimenting, taking political risks, deconstructing, inverting, abstracting and defamiliarizing the artful language in ways only a new kind of genius would conceive and execute. But here's the rub: even for those great writers who've made great art with language that artfully contains the human impulse to go beyond mere description of the world and peer at what is behind the veil of enumerated appearances, Shakespeare is present, his aesthetic, his metaphors, his language influencing new writers in one direction or the other.

That is a rather crude summary of Bloom's basic premise and there are dozens of other notions woven through his life's work, but the point is that his a set of ideas that make the ideas tangible and convincing once the initial "aha!" of flashing insight wears off. It's not science, of course, but it is a craft, a profession, this kind of thinking, and what we have in Bloom who has taken his working theory and tested it against new ideas, new writers creating literature in cultures other what is routinely aligned in the Western Canon. Bloom, who defends the existence of the canon and wrote a book on the issue, believes dually that there are permanent genius and masterpieces of Western Literature, as he is a man who has made a career judging books with imposing standards. The standards are not fixed, though, and Bloom further asserts that the Canon is a living thing, like the American Constitution, a category of books and authors that must be continually revised as matters with human existence come to mean something different. All things said, Bloom's career as a critic was a brilliant one, and he was a joy to read and argue with as one passed through the pages of his exception-taking views.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Notes Concerning Neil Young's ON THE BEACH





ON THE BEACH--
Neil Young
Well yes, to answer a question no one’s yet asked me, I was one of those guys in high school, in the very early the Seventies, who had found their Reason to Be through a sheer immersion into the contemporary grind of rock and roll. Leonard Bernstein declared it an art form, Ralph Gleason informed us that rock and roll lyrics were the new poetry, and the larger media, Life and Time magazine specifically, uniformly declared rock music a vision of the world to come. I was all in, to be sure, 16, 17, even 18 years old, a would-be poet, a record review for school newspapers and cheaply produced undergrounds. Dylan, Mitchell, Ochs, Simon, Beatles, Stones, Buffalo Springfield, poets, prophets, philosophers all, would the models who’d be useful to gauge my own experience. Their effusions would make my evolution. It seemed like the best idea in the world. Gradually, relying on millionaire rock stars made less sense as I got even just a little bit older. My young frustrations grew faster than my admiration of the songwriters. Rather irrationally, I felt betrayed. Dylan turned to Jesus, Ochs hanged himself in alcoholic depression, The Beatles and Stones seemed distracted and distant from those of us working minimum wage day jobs to buy their records.  The Rock elite seemed addled all at once, bereft of a good lyric couplet, a chorus that could unlock emotions and private. Heroes fell from the pedestals I put them, and I took a cheap pleasure wallow in shallow cynicism. It seemed increasingly the case that pop stars, wallowing in ennui and wealth couldn’t speak clearly or convincingly about a life that confounds them. It’s a trauma that confuses many who’ve obsessed over the music and the musicians:  I no longer cared what befell them either in their lyrics or real life. At the time it didn’t take much to make me a despairing sad- sack. I was a self-made made a Grim Gus for a time, of sorts, a premature cynic in my early twenties who wanted to now speak of everything as being false. There was no one to relate to, no one speaking to the persistent chattering anxiety firing along with my synaptic patterns. Or was there? The Revolution hadn’t happened, and the promises of Woodstock were a stale joke. There was no garden to get back to.



But there was Neil Young. It was Young’s songs on the Buffalo Springfield albums I returned to over and over again, it was Young’s worrisome vocals and sparsely filled cadences I related to, it was Young’s ongoing sense of feeling overwhelmed, dumbstruck, stunned into a psychic motionlessness in the face of a  feckless reality that overturned one utopian ideal after another. If Dylan had spoken to the youthful urge to explore, challenge and derange the senses in “Mr. Tambourine Man” , Paul Simon sought authenticity  against a materialism in “Sounds of Silence”, and Joni Mitchell entreated listeners to embrace all their travels and affairs with an openness that would transform the world, Young never lost sight of himself in a world that he might not be able to transform through good intentions or a collective Good Vibe. Says Polonius to an anxious Hamlet “This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man…”   This above all, Neil Young remembers his mortality and remembers dreams of a perfect world are not facts, and that he will show himself to be anything other another fellow who’s been bashed, bandied and bounced about by the unschooled churn of the world As-Is. This is what I’ve always liked about Young in contrast to his admittedly worthy compatriots, that he’s seldom if ever, sang as though speaking from On High.He was in the trenches with us, rolling with the punches. As early as his song  “Helpless” on the 1970 Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young release Déjà Vu  , a time when the puppy-hug conceits were giving way in a time of post-Altamont , Young admits that his life is too crowded with the stress and consequences of other people’s expectations, and that he needs to return to something simpler, finer of mind before he grew his hair and ventured from his hometown in Ontario.


 There is a town in north Ontario

With dream comfort memory to spare

And in my mind
I still need a place to go
All my changes were there


 It’s a lovely, three-chord song, and the lyrics, delivered in Young’s fragile whistle of a voice,The lyrics have a plain-spoken plainness that brings to mind the idiomatic precision of William Carlos Williams. Nothing especially poetic in effort, but certainly poetic in effect, the plain and clear admission of needing to get away to a time that no exist, if it ever did. The appeals less for the message, which is one of escape from the world—clearly, no one ought to rely on lyrics as solutions to real problems—but in the way, it simply crystalizes the yearning, the fleeting thought. There is no thesis, no lesson, just an intimate revelation as the problems of the universe continue apace. There was a flurry of junkie laments and tales of ecological disaster that found their way onto the albums of politically timely artists. Young, a man concerned with the environment and the survival of the species and someone who has had experience, we assume, with the fatal travails of heroin addiction, combined both these themes in the title song of his 1969 solo album After the Gold Rush. The song is a science fiction eco-disaster fantasy akin to what Paul Kanter and Grace Slick offered up with their Jefferson Starship Blows Against the Empire album. But where Kanter, Slick, and the Jefferson Airplane entourage offered an album’s worth of Sturm and Drang about angry hippies high jacking a starship and leaving a wasted and wretched planet, Young remains the effective minimalist.  Three spare, elliptical verses vividly outlining a world that can no longer be fruitful inhabited, a ceremony sounded off, a revelation that our narrator is among the debris of a dying planet, that there is a new hope arising as spaceship arrives and the selected ones board the vessel. They are off to find a new home for Mother Nature, our narrator reveals, but he won’t be among the citizens of a New Earth.

I was lyin' in a burned out basement

With the full moon in my eyes

I was hopin' for replacement
When the sun burst though the sky
There was a band playin' in my head
And I felt like getting high…


The facts are is that Young knows that he is a man who, though blessed with the capacity to learn and imagine, lacks a clear channel to the future, that his senses are as fallible and that he is a mere mortal among the herd.  Jefferson Starship harmonizes cleverly for a skewed utopia where all our friends will be, and croon and cruise for two album sides about setting up camp on another heavenly body. Even in a fantasy, a reverie, Young embraces the simpler tale and the pitiless outcome: although his song suggests the possibility that the species will go on, the narrator is left behind, never to see the new sun.  While I find much to enjoy in Starship’s grandiosity, Young’s fatalism is all that much more powerful. Cogent, reserved, simply stated, with an ending uplifting and tragic at once.   It’s that fatalism, the lack of heroic pretense in Young’s writing that has been a major draw to his music. This isn’t to reduce the singer to a single -topic Worry Wart who can only give grim tidings to the largeness of life. Hardly a guy to roll over and go back to sleep when the stress is too much, Young’s long career has been fascinating for reasons quite a part of his admittedly occasional persona as a small voice describing the dying of the light. He has been a restless intelligence musically, as observable through his proto-grunge rock, collaborations with Crazy Horse, the earnest balladeering of love songs from deep in the heart, or his fruitful side trips into the areas of country and western, blues and soul, and digital boogie. He is not going quietly to any impending good night.

Still, though, I return to something that intrigues me still, a 1974 album called On the Beach, which I consider a landmark disc from the period, a confession as profound and unavoidable as John and Yoko's "Primal Scream" album Plastic Ono Band or the outsized confessions of poet Robert Lowell, Though lacking the anger of Lennon or the particular detail and depth of Lowell's incessantly detailed and personal verse, Young's work is nothing less than a stark declaration that was perhaps at the end of the line as an artist and that his interest in remaining with the rest us on this side of the dirt perhaps hung in the balance. Returning to the idea that Young is an artist aware  limits in a perilous existence, On the Beach is lament that old ideas aren’t working. By constant tone, theme and implication, this is a chronicle of someone feeling powerless over his life. Even his artistry, performing, writing, singing, becomes the millstone he must wear around his neck. The title song, doleful, a chunky strum of the guitar, is a straightforward admission of his love-hate relationship with his dedicated audience.

I need a crowd of people

But I can't face them day-to-day

I need a crowd of people
But I can't face 'em day-to-day
Though my problems are meaningless
That don't make them go away…


This is the ultimate mind-screw, being an artist who has reaped handsome reward from fans and corporation for the good work he’s done who is alienated from the gift that provided his life with purpose. He needs his audience to feel whole but loses himself in the bargain, he has achieved riches from doing exactly what he wanted to do, but feels a prisoner obliged to respond to the demands on his time, talent and soul. It’s less of a bold admission than it is one of those fantastic blurts of truth, that unguarded moment when you find yourself thinking out loud, unfiltered.

The mood remains downbeat with “Vampire Blues”, an extension of the festering resentment addressed in the title song. Young is no longer the fatally alienated superstar, but now instead of a blood-sucking creep, a user, a liar, a low grade demon who will steal your vitality, your love, your passion, who will feed upon your good graces and leave you a  charred chunk of humanity. It’s nothing personal, you understand, it’s planetary: I'm a vampire, babe,/ suckin' blood

from the earth/I'm a vampire, baby, /suckin' blood/from the earth./Well, I'm a vampire, babe, sell you twenty barrels worth…”   Young effectively reflects the world he has seen too often and too long up to this point, an existence of full of takers, exploiting resources and replenishing nothing in their wake. Implicit here is Young's idea that he is like the earth, a resource being used up and exploited to fulfill the emotional and material needs of others, with nothing left, no fertile soil, no soul, as a result. Only burnt-out husks remain of formerly glorious beauty.


The songs are a string of sharp, acute glimpses of life that has been stripped down to routine, drained of joy, passion. “For the Turnstiles” is a terse sinister conflation of sailors, pimps, touring bands and hometown heroes revolving around each other both as contrasting metaphors and real-life figures locked in a deadpan dance of entertaining the paying customer while offering mirthless smiles revealing grim clenched teeth. Everyone is paid for what they do, everyone gets what they want, everyone feels like they’ve been robbed. “Revolution Blues” outlines a diorama of survivalist paranoia, every neighborhood is a camp, no one believes a word anyone says: this is an America where whatever is going to happen will happen soon and without warning. The narrator is ready, his gun is handy, he has plenty of ammo, he has no idea what he’s defending or who he’ll be fighting. 
On the Beach is powerful revelation of sorts, both an admission from Young and his generation are no longer in the figurative Kansas anymore. In his mind, he may still need some place to be, but the record might be considered as a journal of a moment when the existence became too big and , that the dreams of utopia, peace free and justice were destroyed by assassinations, a bad-faith war that would not end and a death-trip rock festival that all but gave a lie to Ralph J. Gleason’s insistence the music would set us free if we believed long and hard enough. Young became woke, in a manner of speaking was stunned and for a while conquered by anxiety at the loss of his naivete, But with On the Beach he confronts his fear, the despair and depression and writes his way through the dilemma. No philosophizing, no rationalization, just the blunt admission that he was having a hard time of it, coupled with a coarse imagining of an America without hope or love.  In a Hollywood scenario, this would have been the point where the disillusioned artist bids farewell to all that and lapses into silence, but Young refused to become cynical; through his career he has shown himself to be one of the most interesting artists remaining of the Golden Age of California sound, a man willing to experiment, try new things, switch up styles and attitudes, explore the furthest and most resonating reaches of emotion . What I believe we have in Neil Young is one of the worthiest bodies of work any rock singer-songwriter has created over time. There is much to discuss in other essays yet to be written. He is oeuvre rivals Dylan’s. (That would be a debate worth having). But it is worth it to consider, again, On the Beach. Without this significant record, Young’s work could well have been much less endearing.


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

Friday, September 27, 2019

some words


l never thought the Sex Pistols weren't called for, as the pretentiousness of the musicians and the gullibility of the audience had choked off the life force that made rock and roll exciting and worth caring about. Some of it might be laid at the feet of rock criticisms since the advanced discussions of Dylan's relationship to Chuck Berry's everyman existentialist demanded a musical technique and lyrical concept just as daunting. This is the danger when folk art is discovered: it stands to become something distorted, disfigured and bereft of vitality. I was lucky, I guess, in that I was a fan of the MC5 and Iggy and the Stooges long before the Sex Pistols caught the punk wave. They and bands like Blue Cheer and Black Sabbath were a grounding principle--rock and roll is beautiful because it's energetic, awkward, and stupid, but profoundly so. There are "concept albums" I admire and still like, if not listen to, but I won't name them here. I am pleased, though, that the idea of the Album is a literary object has been dropped in a deep grave and had dirt thrown over it's bloviated remains.I miss albums too. I like holding them, reading them, meditating on their physicality while listening to the record. It was part of the experience of absorbing what the musicians were doing, instrumentally and lyrically. Albums made you think that their size and shape were part of the home you made for yourself--house, room, cave, apartment--and that the collection of them, along with books and other such things marked your growing interest in the world around you. Now it seems like disembodied noise too much of the time, piped into devices, not really played nor considered before the music commences. It seems much of the time like a streaming hurry to get done with the whole thing and then move onto another distraction which, as well, will provide no real reward.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

SAVING ZAPPA FROM ZAPPA

ZAPPA PLAYED BY OTHERS


Frank Zappa was often brilliant in his composing in his multi-decade career as an agent provocateur in America's fickle, short-memory popular culture. Most early fans, I am convinced, because they thought he was weird, off the wall, psychedelic to a high degree, a man with a band, the Mothers of Invention, creating the perfect soundtrack for whatever recreational drugs you happen to take. It may seem like a conceited thing to say at this point in my life, and it may be due to romancing the glory days of the Sixties when one was discovering literature, art, great music,; I love his odd time signatures, abrupt switches between genres sans easy-going transitions, his dedication to dissonance. 

It was an audio-assault American audience weren't used to, large audiences, mass audiences in any event, but I soon suspected there was more to Zappa's game than random bizarreness as I encountered him in interviews insisting, over and over, that he didn't do drugs of any kind. He did imbibe alcohol from time to time, which was a relief since I couldn't imagine, in my still expanding mind-- because I was incapable of conceding that anyone could be as not-of-this-earth as Zappa without having to insult his brain in some manner.  Even so, he was sober as a judge, a serious composer, and the music he made from the early efforts to the end of his was the work of a man who regarded himself not as pop star, rock star, or  even professional celebrity, but rather as an artist, a composer, a serious composer making use of anything he found useful  in his goal of  alternately inspiring or antagonizing his audience . There's much admire to the dedication to complexity, although I understand why many have found him off-putting and arrogant. 

That he was, but I still like his music, and continue to listen to it since I first bought my first Zappa album, We're Only in it for the Money, in the late Sixties. That said, I have become less and less of a fan of Zappa's guitar solos, which I find, and have always found, repetitive and without direction. His long, live solos on many of his albums ruin the experience of hearing fine musicians play arresting compositions. It's a habit born of modern jazz players developed in the  40s and 50s and through a major portion of the 60s, when soloists of exceptional caliber would improvise ad infinitum, engaging the process of "spontaneous composition", an idea that a musician, responding to impulse, urge, inspiration and certainly without a great deal of preparation, careens off the highway and ventures down several tonal tributaries in a hunt for a better combination of notes in increasingly difficult formations. There are geniuses who've managed this consistently in their work, with John Coltrane coming to mind most easily; his music, with his friends Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Garrison among a handful of others, is all of a piece. The invention, energy and spiritual power of the extended forays went far beyond a riffing variations-on-a-theme and became whole compositional endeavors.  Keith Jarrett also should be mentioned, although that for all the brilliance he demonstrates as band leader and band member, his several multi-disc solo piano concerts have merely bored me ; so much effort getting himself warmed up for the inspired parts  makes you think more of someone burning gasoline looking for the perfect parking space rather than an artist working his or her way efficiently to the dimension where they exceed their expectations. For Zappa, he is neither of these two musicians to whatever degree. He is an interesting guitarist, recognizable from the first note, effective in relatively short solos tailored to the material (One Size Fits All). He is not, though, the world-class concert soloist, although his True Believers wish it were the case.I wish he'd written sections for his best improvisers and let them shine; a lesson he might have learned from the Great Ellington. Lately, I've been dialing up interpretations of his daunting pieces, with generally good, even spectacular results. 

Here's a unit doing a tight and together take on the dizzying and sonically cubist "G Spot Tornado", originally from his  1986 release Jazz from Hell. This was a disc of wholly instrumental tunes with uncompromised complexity and density, with the majority of the tracks being the efforts of Zappa's programming of a then-bleeding edge synthesizer, the Synclavier, without the aid of other musicians for most of the album. The band here, Germany's hr-Bigband out of Frankfurt, serves a blistering version in this clip.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

MR.MIRACLE WHIP

TB:Seeing Joe Biden on Steve Colbert's program has me concerned about this man, an honorable man , becoming out next President. I thought he was in bad form.Biden really does seem like a senior citizen who is experiencing worsening memory problems. He has always been burdened with misspeaking and getting things wrong, if unintentionally, or confusing audiences and journalists with statements where his point was ambiguous or some such thing. But now he's running for President again, and his gaffes are piling very quickly, with increasing frequency. He too often , for my comfort, seemed to be searching for the right words when asked some surprisingly spot questions by Colbert; he couldn't seem to explain why Medicare for All (universal health care/single payer) and why we'd be better off maintaining and extending Obamacare instead. He rather obviously wants to keep private insurers in the equation when it comes to providing funding for medical care. In brief , he did not make a convincing case for why it's a good idea to keep the corporations involved; he rather ignores that other democratic countries have successful, very successful government driven health care systems that exist to virtually no one's detriment in the respective countries. What disturbs me is that he has a pronounced tendency to drift away from a direct question he started to answer . When Colbert pressed him about hiss fundamentally incorrect recent recounting of the Medal of Honor he was awarding--incorrect date, rank, branch of the service, etc, etc,etc--I thought his answer was a bit cavalier, saying that the small details don't matter as long as the main point is true. In his defense, we can say yes, his main statements about the soldiers, vets, public service are correct (who wants to come out against go old fashioned patriotism), but facts do matter, even the details he think might be insignificant stacked against A Greater Truth.His response as dismissive and vaguely Trumpian.I rather imagine that Biden at that moment related this awarding of the medal on the spur of the moment, off the cuff, unplanned, but even so his getting so many crucial details wrong--a recollection of something he was involved in!--goes beyond casual tsk-tsking and burying your in your hand in embarrassment. This is the man who wants to make the crucial decisions that will direct the country. I fear this man is losing his grip. I would like him to reveal his full medical records, including results from tests that might on encroaching onset of dementia. We do not need another man in the White House with an increasing inability to make decisions based on information and intelligence brought to him. Biden worries me.

BARRY ALFONSO: I do think your concerns are real and serious, Ted. In an earlier era, Biden's age and longevity of public service would have eliminated him as a serious contender. The weird circumstances of this coming election have made him attractive as a figure of continuity, moderation and normalcy. Judging by what I have seen of his recent appearances, I think issues of his memory and general cognitive ability are ambiguous -- some of the gaffes he is being called out on are not important, while some of them are. The whole issue of "gaffes" troubles me somewhat -- it harkens back in my mind to Ed Muskie's famous "crying" episode in New Hampshire and the overblown importance given to a stumble or (to quote Lene Lovich) a momentary breakdown. Biden's clumsiness in stating what was valuable in his working relationship with racist Southern Democratic Senators is more troubling to me that his conflation of details about awarding a combat medal. That doesn't have to affect his decision making ability if he is the leader of a capable team. His dismissal of the details (if that's what he did) isn't remotely Trumpian in my mind. It is a stretch to compare Biden's blurring of memories with Trump's obviously lazy and probably addled mind and, worse, his unwillingness to take in information. Yes, Biden should release his medal records, as all the candidates should. Speaking of medicine, this current debate among Democrats about expanding Medicare vs. Single Payer vs. expanding the ACA IS troubling to me and in fact seems rather stupid. I watched Elizabeth Warren spar with various opponents in one of the first debates and I recalled that the ACA was the result of a slow, grinding, rather ugly process and series of compromises (pushed by such famous public tribunes as Bart Stupak) that disappointed many on the left, just as the next round of health care extension will. Whatever hyper-detailed plan Warren, Sanders, Harris etc. advocate in this campaign will almost certainly NOT become law if he/she is elected. It is a stupid ideological fight that just helps create divisions and re-elect Trump.

TB:I wish I could be assured by your cogent response, but I've watched him closely for years and it appears to me that his habits of mind are less than the absent-mindedness they used to be and more signs of an encroaching fragility. It's not the blurring of details so much that I thought seemed Trump like--Trump just lies, period--but rather Biden's reflection on the details being correct or not as unimportant when your conveying what you think is a Bigger Truth. The details do matter, and I'd been happier if he were more forthright about his verbal errors of statement and promise fervently to do better.He relied far too much on the you-guys-know-who-I-am defense , that he's been around along time, that he has a record and that you know what he stands for, to side step the question as to whether he's fit to be president on his third try. Actually, we know who he used to be, but now he wants to be president, which is very different from his other offices, including that of VP. He is not making a very compelling case for himself, his centrist-progressive policy statements are comfortably piecemeal for those with heart conditions. For me, he has that Ted Kennedy thing happening , a man who could not fluidly and with conviction tell us why he wants to be president. What disturbs me about the MFA v ACA debate is that it's framed in terms of the absolutely apocalyptic--millions will lose their health care!!! That wouldn't happen, but I think the bickering about it among our own takes the focus on why we need to change presidents and the senate.

God is or he isn't, and it doesn't matter anyway

In AA circles, one -on-one chats between members with some amount of  consecutive accumulated time turns to one's idea of God. That is, as the organization's basic materials inform,  a  God our individual  understanding; I remain grateful that AA does not require belief in a specific deity. So the question, when posed, makes me do a little dance of rhetoric, or it used to, in that I would shy away from theological particulars and the like because it results in dissension and division with those who have no real idea of who I am as an individual. It's been different lately, and my answer is slightly more direct. I tell most who ask me about my Higher Power that I remain an agnostic, which many mistake as the same thing as being an atheist.I give them the dictionary definition, which is that the existence of God is unknown and unknowable.This satisfies few of those who ask the question.Personally, I find it a more honest response than telling folks I'm a zen Buddhist.Although, I have taken an interest in Deism , an American spiritual notion observed by several founding fathers that God, such as he is, is responsible for the whole universe, and that his machinations are revealed according what natural law--scientific inquiry in other words--reveals to us constantly. And I am attracted to the to the idea that God does not intervene in the course of naturally -occurring human events; prayers are for a clarity of mind to make the best possible choice out of many to be made. God, though, does not act as a dating service or a loan officer.