Saturday, December 26, 2020

SUDDENLY REALIZATION

I had for some time refused to get a cell phone and preferred rather to rage at the yakking philistines who couldn't stand silence in public places like bus stops or airline terminals , nor be bothered to bring a book or a magazine with them if they knew they might be alone at some period in the day, between stations, with no one to confirm how goddamned bitchen they were. It was a satisfying arrangement; overworked and underpaid and yet with so much unfulfilled promise that I could bare speak when my anger welled up like some dystopian stew blowing off the oppressive lid, my contempt for cell phones and the tech-addicted jerks who diluted the language with the odious devices was just the thing one needed to get a psychic leg up in the world. I was smarter, I was old school, I revered books and the words printed on them by great writers who took their mission seriously, I cherished meditative quiet and loathed boorishness, I was a man of the ages (or at least the Seventies), I was an arrogant jerk. Arrogant and a jerk, yes, but it fed my ego, made up for whatever perceived failures I might have brooded over and over as the years wore on. In the meantime, a mixed clutch of exchange students drifted toward the curb as the wayward bus finally emerged in the horizon and now approached the red painted curb, every other one of them rambling with a dead pan earnestness in the narrative tongue into cell phones wedged between shoulder and tilted head while they fumbled for bus passes or exact change. Doubtless who ever these folks were talking to knew when their phone mates would arrive, and how to reach their party if they didn't show.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

LESLIE WEST RIP. ONLY THE RIGHT NOTES

 Leslie West, guitarist for Mountain , has passed away, age 75. The musician  was at the center of the  since my high school senior year, circa  1971 , which makes this especially sad.  His playing on the song Dreams of Milk and Honey, the live version from  their  ' 71 Flowers of  Evil album, was a I track I    listened to obsessively , all  20 or so minutes of it, for years to come.  Suffice to say that I  pretty well had the performance memorized, every note, every phrase, every transition from one  theme and variation to another, each change in tempo, each down beat and  uptick in volume. Or so it seemed at times as I remember miming West's guitar work in the dresser mirror while the song blared . It seemed I could write a bit of memoir, autobiography let us  say, to each five minute segment of this track and have enough writing to fill a book. I thought I would reprint this here, an appreciation of what I thought the song sounded like to me, something entirely subjective. Leslie West could play guitar.    

What song is going through my head? An old one, old, "Dreams of Milk and Honey" by Leslie West and Mountain, from the second side of their album Flowers of Evil, recorded at the Fillmore East in NYC in 1971. It is one of the great moments of Hard Rock guitar, with a great, lumbering riff that distorts and buzzes on the low strings with crushing bends and harmonics squealing at some raging pitch that might make one think of natural calamity, a force no power could withstand. West, never the most fluid guitarist, had, all the same, a touch, a feel, a sense of how to mix the sweet obbligato figures he specialized in with the more brutal affront of power chords and critically rude riff slinging. The smarter among us can theorize about the virtues of amplified instrumentation attaining a threshold of sweetness after the sheer volume wraps you in a numbing cacophony, but for purposes here it suffices to say, with a wink, that is a kind of music you get and accept on its own truncated terms or ignore outright. His guitar work was a brick wall you smashed into at an unheard number of miles an hour and, staring up at the sky, you noticed the bloom of a lone flower, not to mention a halo of tweeting birds and la-la music. 


 There is an aesthetic at work here, but it might as well come to saying that you had to be me, at my age, in 1971 when I was struck by this performance to understand a little of why I haven't tossed the disc into the dustbin. He is in absolute control of his Les Paul Jr., and here he combines with bassist Felix Pappalardi and drummer Corky Laing in some theme and variation that accomplishes what critic Robert Christgau has suggested is the secret of great rock and roll music, repetition without tedium. There are no thousand-note blitzkriegs, no tricky time signatures, just tight playing, a riffy, catchy, power-chording wonder of rock guitar essential-ism. I've been listening to this track on and off since I graduated from high school, and it cracks me up that my obsession with this masterpiece of rock guitar minimalism caused a few my friends to refer to me listening yet again to my personal "national anthem." This is the melodic, repetitive grind I wished life always were, endlessly elegant and stagnant, shall we say, in perfect formation of the senses, hearing, smell, taste, the arousal of dormant genitalia, all big and large and grinding at the gears that sing sweet mechanical song of intense love heavier than any metal beam you might care to bite into.  The combination of Felix Papalardi's whiny voice singing his wife's bullshit lyrics can ruin any buzz you have going for you. It's the live material that kicks it, with lots of fat, snarling Leslie West guitar work twisting around a punchy set of slow, grinding, distorted hard rock. Yes, arrangements do count, even in rock and roI might have even lit a Bic lighter for this tune. is something beautiful in that as well but, alas, the end result of that is the end waxing poetic. Alas. Sing it, Leslie.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday, December 5, 2020

WHO WAS HERMAN J. MANKIEWICZ?

 

Mank, the new David Fincher directed feature film on Netflix, answers a question for many fans of the Orson Wells masterpiece Citizen Kane, who exactly was Herman Mankiewicz, the screen writer? Effectively portrayed by Gary Oldman, managing to be both flamboyant, folksy and occasionally enigmatic , the film lays out in flashbacks and fast-forwards the tale of a gifted alcoholic playwright and screenwriter who, in financial arrears, agrees to write a screenplay for Wells  and take no screen credit for the writing. All told, I thought it was a fine motion picture, with sharp writing, a well selected cast who perform admirably, and solid direction from Fincher who, I believe, knows exactly how long to linger and when to leave a scene for another piece of the story. From my recollection of other of his works--Fight Club, Zodiac, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl-- the man has a superb sense of how to pace a film drama. And, as with the case of Gone Girl, he is especially effective with the ever problematic flashback ploy; it's my view that he was seamless in the transitions between the present-day storyline and past events in Mank's life without losing coherence. And the film is visually gorgeous, a beautiful black and white composition that provides a well-shaded, dreamy quality without lapsing into over stylized unreality. And I don't particularly mind that there is not a particularly heavy dramatic arc the lend this film a contrived gravitas. Mankiewicz is an interesting personage involved with the creation of what's considered one of the finest movies ever made, and partially fictionalized or not, the level of attention brought to his personality serves the subject splendidly. This is , to be sure, the kind of movie engineered, however artfully, to allow the leading man to chew up the scenery with a bravura performance, but it is a relief that Gary Oldman's portrayal of Mankiewicz is steady and consistent, the quirks and mannerisms fluid and understated. There is a wonderful cohesion between all the movie parts. I thought Ma nk was a satisfying watch.

The trailer makes it seem that there is something more sinister afoot , but what we actually have is a splendid and finely written portrait of a gifted man limited in his work and production by an alcoholic ennui and cynicism  ; Mankiewicz .  a presence that is droll, melancholic, ironic, erudite , truth telling , is seen in the Fincher film ( interestingly, the screenplay is by David Fincher's late father Jack Fincher, who wrote the script about fifteen years ago) who views himself as an artist dedicated to truth, beauty and authenticity and yet finds himself  making deals and compromising his idealism in order to scrape by financially. Oldman brings his is best set of talents to creating the intellectual shambles that is this screen version of Mankiewicz, and it is rather a pleasure to see recreations of L.B.Mayer, William Randolph Hearst , Marion Davis and John Houseman, names from the film and California history books, brought to the screen dramatically but not cartoonish. Fincher , the director, effectively creates the period and mimics the baroque style of Wells from KANE--lots of deep focus, a black and white style with any manner of shadings that make this whole thing seem other worldly . The center of this story, though, is Mankiewicz,  Mank,  an interesting character who's story  is of a man who ought to have achieved far greater fame and renown by dent of his talent, but who seemed intent on sabotaging his future with drunk escapades and a compulsion to speak of things political and ethical that didn't sit well with his higher ups. 

Friday, December 4, 2020

Maxing out Maximalism


 It's been one of those weeks when there's little else to do after the laundry is done than to stare for long periods at the bookshelves and make provisional decisions about to keep on hand and at the ready and what to box up or bag and take to the local used bookshop for trade credit, which means trading in old used books with all my dog eared ages and marginalia for new used books, with dog earing and marginalia rendered by people I've probably never met.Sometimes the mind seems like nothing less than a noisy circular file, a recycling bin of metaphors that are parted out and tweaked to meet new situations which one's brain has to accommodate, lest the world unhinge and roll down some celestial bowling lane. The "maximalist" writers, authors who cannot tell you the time without addressing what's amiss in our insular cosmologies, have not fared well in these separations. Where minimalist , spawned by Papa Hemingway's tight, skinflint style and buoyed by Raymond Carver's art of of making the convolutions of alcoholic despair crisp and lean as polished steel rods, sought the fewest possible words to express the smallest though deepest wounds to the psyche, maximalist are intent on exhausting every observation, each crazy idea, pursuing every tangent and tributary as it marginally relates to what would loosely be termed a plot. There are no story arcs in these tellings, only the literary equivalent of urban sprawl. It is often times genius untouched by a good editor's sane blue pencil. 

I exchanged the David Foster Wallace tome Infinite Jest last week for a half dozen John Updike and John Cheever used paperbacks, vainly staking my claim for writers of longish sentences who are actually revealing something hidden in human behavior rather than running away from it with the distractions rudderless prose potentially affords you. I prefer my shaggy dog stories confined to movies these days, which one can witness in The Big Lebowski , written and directed by Rob and Ethan Coen. Wallace has his uses, and at times hits pay dirt (Oblivion, his collection of stories, gives one hope that he has abandoned the Exhausting Novel and is ready, just maybe, to use shorter sentences), but his books over all tend to rob the room of the air I need to read better books. Each book he's written since Genius has been variations on a jet stream of language, a set of gasping, agitated sentences that are all jabber and no communication. Incredibly, his writing seems to mimic the way many characterize the way many in his generation actually talk, rapidly, long word ribbons filled with undiscerning details, asides and anecdotes, all uttered at a pace and high-strung pitch that attempts to make you think that something incredible is about to happen. 

Or, more on point, that a point is about to be made,all of this, virtually all (no exaggeration) presented with an unmerciful and even arrogant lack of emphasis.Experience is spoken of as if everything regarding storyline depended solely on the present tense, all memories, history, details, relegated to the same junk pile of references that are never gone through or made to construct a nuanced effect or make a scene that achieves emotional complexity. There is, however, clutter, an amassed set of things brought together indiscriminately, pack rat like. Clutter, however, isn't the same as complexity, and the sorry state of Egger's writing is that there is no inner life in his characters--Genius, being a memoir, is that rare exception in his body of work--that gives you a sense of inner life and struggle on the character's part. Theodore Dreiser was a less adroit stylist, perhaps,but An American Tragedy and Sister Carrie particularly made up for the lack of grace with massive amounts of humanity that made us think about nagging notions of Destiny, Free Will and Duty . Dreiser's topics remain with us, and what he offered us remains part of that discussion. Eggers The suggestion that he read Tom Wolfe, pre-Bonfire of the Vanities,is well taken, since Wolfe in his journalism showed away to adjust and mold his style around the subject matter. A more recent model for Eggers to go to school on is Esquire writer Mike Sager's collection of magazine pieces Scary Monsters and Super Freaks, where the writer brings a wonderfully subtle literary personality to his portraits of spectacular American failures at the margins of the mainstream. Eggers writes well enough in short bits, patches, a paragraph hither and yon, but he does so without shining any light, nor casting any shades of darkness for that matter; what the world doesn't need is a political satire that cannot convince you that it's an exaggeration of the real thing.

Jonathan Franzen, another mad bomber of the language whose weighty and over worded The Corrections won praise and best seller status for a turgid family comedy that everything going for it except the niceties of heart and editing, is presently at the top of the next stack of titles that will find their way to the used book dealer, to be either sold, traded in donated outright. Franzen, remember, isn't a bad writer, but he is an under edited one, since their are sentences and even whole paragraphs in The Corrections that just give up in the middle, or wrecked like speeding cars meeting head on as he tries to manage one metaphor after another with which he attempts, over and over, to contain the perversions and anomalies of American family life in as short a space as possible. Not graceful stuff, this, and an astute editor would have blue penciled the offending pages out of the final book, reducing its bulk by at least a fourth. How to Be Alone, a fine collection of essays he published two years ago about the reading life, fares better at sentence management and poise, but one wonders of what kind of writer Franzen turns out to be if what he composes remain congested fiction or essays essentially praising himself and those few like him for being introverted, geeky and bookish. It's an act that gets old, a voice that wears out. I intend to trade him in for some Tom Robbins, a novelist who can have fun with his convolutions, although he is not without risk. The cutie-pie , Zap Comix surrealism and the far flung similes (here's a writer still in competition with Raymond Chandler!) will often times crowd out development; as a friend once remarked about The Grateful Dead, sometimes his writing amounts to "what the fuck"? In one instance it can be something spiritual along the lines of uttering "let go and let God", meaning that one needs to pick their battles wisely, but on the other hand, the other hand being huge palm upraised as if asking for a five spot, is that it simply amounts to defeat by way of being too spaced out. Robbins likes to drive the car only so far, and is likely to take his hands off the wheel and listen to the radio with his eyes closed just as his vehicle is merging with freeway traffic. Not good.

Fellow maximalist David Eggers little better in the sorting and prioritizing. Out the books go . A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius , a memoir of his assuming the parenting role for his younger brother Toph after the back-to-back deaths of their parents, is a bit of masterpiece of the hurried voice; a stammering and rushing narrative of someone having to shed the remains of teenage slacker-tude and learn adult behavior in a hurry, Eggers' style was appropriate to the subject. Given circumstances that made his reality seem to collapse upon itself, Eggers could do nothing else except move forward, as if running up the hall from a burning house, instinctually moving toward the daylight coming from a door at the end. AHWOSG , breathless, impatient, agitated and at times staggering, as it were, in it's balancing act of grace and wit and awkward locutions and shotgunned transitions, remains a real document of a writer having to leave his cozy assumptions of living the bohemian life and take on the weight as family head.

The desperation was real, and was interesting for the way the author didn't assume the disguise of narrative know-it-all. Beguiling as that was, one would have thought he would have changed his style, suitable to idea and subject, but he has not. It's about the hurry, the haste, the speed of writing coming as quickly as the speed of perception. It is the speed of the Internet generation, and the result is broad banded mediocrity. Every book he's done up until now has been a set of gasping, agitated sentences that are all jabber and no communication. Incredibly, his writing seems to mimic the way many characterize of his generation actually talk, rapidly, long streams of sentences, filled with undiscerning details, asides and anecdotes, all uttered at a pace and high-strung pitch that attempts to make you think that something incredible is about to happen.

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I still have huge respect for Carver's writing years after college; he is one of  few writers in the post-Hemingway generation who's minuscule language, always sharp, always exact, managed to achieve a profound effect despite the paucity of language. He equals Hemingway in large part (assuming, of course,that the stories that editor/writer Gordon Lish didn't in fact rewrite Carver's work to his own idea of style), and what I admire is that his effect was different that Hemingway's. There's a coarser grit that comes through Carver's prose, through all those closed conjunctions and truncated metaphors. The sentimentality, that of the lonely and brave man abiding by a personal code in a world where World Wars have made morality suspect; Hemingway still held out for the human capacity to find some goodness despite the convenient cynicism that would have made one's social graces easier to move around in. Carver's is that lonely cynicism filtered through Beckett; everything is broken, used up, deracinated compromised and prostituted so far as a protagonist's personal character and ethical strain is concerned. Carver's is the world of the already dead, blunted perception and bad faith all around. A little of him does go a long way, though I will say I think he's a better writer and poet than Bukowski. John Fante is better than Bukowski. 

I don't think Wallace is hollow, only that Infinite Jest was overrated and which operates as an experiment where one is attempting something analogous Keith Jarrett's prolix and lugubrious piano improvisations. The talent behind the book is obvious and sometimes impressive, but is weighed down by lack of focus--others claim that is well the point of IJ, that the narrative is decentered to the degree that it reflects a Bergsonian idea of perceived experience more as spread , like drops hitting hard ground , with it's essence cast over great , diffused distance, that rather than the linear line where the main river of plot dominates, with diversions and subplots being only minor points to bolster the main thesis and world view. I think it possible Wallace may have found himself in some competition with Thomas Pynchon. Anyway, the novel suffers for it. I have greatly enjoyed Wallace's other books , though, especially A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again ,Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and Oblivion. Wallace , contra Carver, seems set to make the sentence do things and hold clauses not normally associated with contemporary prose style, and given his knack of noticing everything, seemingly, in what he's writing about and including it in his flow, I would say that the shorter forms--short story, journalism, the essay, travel writing--are best suited to containing his very real ingenuity. 

I take your point about verbal skills more acute when one is actively disliking something they've read, seen or heard. Why something gives you pleasure is a subjective matter, with reasons undisclosed even to the reviewer, and I think one has to invent a rhetoric in order to make the approval one feels comprehensible to a reader. There is something to be said about reviewers and their positive critiques; they don't seem as surefooted as a well-turned negative notice. It may have something to do with the old adage that beauty might be in the eye of the beholder,but ugliness is universally recognized. I'm not nearly that reductionist, but among certain reader communities, a strong element of what's bad, awful, lame, pretentious and inept is shared, and it's easier, I think, to draw a fresh invective from the common stock. Negative reviews, let me not forget to mention, are more fun to write, and it's a struggle to resist writing them en masse. There is nothing more boring than a bored cynic, no>

Thursday, December 3, 2020

BEND THE NOTES

 Rumor has it that I've been playing blues harmonica for near fifty five years , give our take a half-decade, and that in the time it takes to destroy several generations of Hohner Marine Bands with slippery attempts to master the diatonic scale and achieve something near what my first harmonica hero, Paul Butterfield, was doing, I've learned a few things. All the slobbering carnage I've inflicted on those innocent brass reeds eventually got me to the point to where I could do what I wanted to do like the late Mr.Butterfield, bend a note on the enigmatic "tin sandwich"  and come closer to the moaning, soulful blues heaven an aspiring white boy might dream of. 

Butterfield was channeling all the masters he'd listened to as a younger man, the black geniuses of Little Walter, both of the Sonny Boys, James Cotton, and had, through instinct, natural aptitude and a desire to achieve the emotional power and mojo his admitted masters revealed in their playing ( although it is interesting to wonder if youngman Butterfield knew at the time what "mojo" was) imitated his sources as best he could and in doing so, imperfectly mimicking what he'd heard, developed his own style,his own way of bring a characteristic inflection to his improvisations that were unmistakable. Butterfield achieved his mojo and gave the world a harmonica sound that is his alone, instantly identifiable. So in my time I mimicked Butterfield, trying to hammer those licks into a semblance of blues expression, along with other blues masters and , to be honest, a good number of blues guitarists in the guise of Hendrix, BB, Albert and Freddy King respectively and Johnny Winter, with more than a touch of Mike Bloomfield. From that one note that I managed that day in the 60s to this day in the early twenty first century, I have a sound of my own, my own way of torturing the diatonic scale to express the deep seated joys and anguish that challenges mere words and language itself to bring to the open. It's the glory of bending those notes!

Bent notes on the blues harmonica are like fingerprints ; after a certain point, instruction is pointless to anyone actually committed to getting good and unique on the instrument. With all the available instruction these days via the retching sewer pipe known as the internet, I rather appreciate the fact that I've learned without a single formal lesson. Harmonica players are sounding much too much like one another, competent in technique and execution, but lacking in personality or style otherwise.Teachers I know in real life, even a couple of good harmonica instructors, do not work in the fact that they teach in their daily conversations. As for technical instruction regarding the diatonic harmonica, over reliance on it turns too many players into others who sound precisely like the man/woman before him and the next harmonica after him. The cult of technique crowds out style, personality, originality. It turns established styles into a fossilized canon, a museum of dead things once great, now irrelevant to personal expressiveness. Instruction has its place, of course, but the student leaves the class room soon enough to invent something of their own to bring into the listening world; lectures and authority on the matter of a player's growth can no longer be tolerated.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

THE GROUSE AWAKES AND RECOUNTS A CHAT ABOUT LIT AND STUFF

The points posted about Pynchon being particularly strong with knowledge of history are well taken, since his fictional project is to imagine and elaborate on the gaps and alienated niches left out of an allegedly all- encompassing narrative sweep, the events and personalities otherwise that reside at the margins of, the periphery of the storyline. A task of postmodern fiction, among other ploys, is to bring the trivialized and reified and the outright ignored to the forefront of the center, place them at the center of the action, and weave them into the structure as elements no less essential to what ever conclusion a novelist might come to than are the efforts of Presidents, Kings, or Philosophers directing hypothetical History to some final, defining resolution. The narrative is not made less grand, but bigger, denser, more intriguing to suss out. 
It's not that either Pynchon or DeLillo had set out to debunk the notion of that fiction can give a reliable accounting of history or the resonance of real-life; it would seem that both remembered that what they want to do is write fiction, after all, and that neither they, nor their fellows, are required to produce work that attempts verisimilitude. Grand narratives aren't shunned by post modern writers, but are played with, expanded, adapted to new shapes and intentions; this demonstrates resilience, not exhaustion, and the undertaking is more interesting for the fiction-writing post modernist. 
I am of a mind that philosophers of post modernism have different sympathies than postmodern novelists. It's not as though all postmodern writers are set on debunking or re-tooling grand narratives. Quite the opposite. Other writers, arguably post-modern, settle on smaller realities, dioramas of kind, worlds self-contained within their own subset: Burroughs, Vonnegut, Donald Barthelme, Kathy Acker, Ron Sukineck, among others of more recent vintage do their work at the borders, creating a vivid narrative sense with their particular experiments that mirrors, I think, a tradition of short stories and novellas, life in obscured corners brought to light. Skewed, though, skewed and wacky, a postmodernist signature. 
Why then would you think of Pynchon at all as a PM while Steinbeck is considered the quintessential Modern?  There seems to be no difference. Pynchon would be postmodern because there is a knowingness about his virtuoso use of myth: besides the fact that he mixes his cultural dictions, high to low and middle brow in the center, he's aware of the ultimate transparency of myth as being just another good yarn one may play with however one decides. Steinbeck, in his faith in the final truth of narrative function, sees myth as containing symbolic Truth about human nature that resists critique. Pynchon’s' use is playfully skeptical, though Steinbeck’s' best work is no less compelling for his use of archetypes. Richard Rorty, in "Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity" defines an "ironist" as someone who realizes "that anything can be made to look good or bad by being redescribed" .Are postmodern writers this kind of "ironist"?  No more, it would seem, than any other writer scribing under the modernist tenet of "making it new", or to another extreme, 'defamiliarizing" (from Bakhtin) recognizable settings, characters and schemes in a language that's meant to provoke readers to see their world in new ways. This is a modernist habit that the new, cubist, cut-up, stream-of-conscious takes on the world will sweep away past aesthetic interpretative models and lead one to a the correct formation of the world-- there remains a faith that language and other senses can apprehend and describe a tangible, material world and capture its complex composition, a "metaphysics of presence" that art can unearth. Irony, in this sense, is usually contained within the story, a result of several kinds of narrative operations coming to a crucial moment of ironic intensity that then drives the story into directions one , with hope, didn't anticipate. 
Post modern writers start off with the intent of being post modern from the start, and rather than have their inventions gear us for a challenge to see the world in a truer light (contrasted against previous schools of lovely language but false conclusions), the project is to debunk the idea of narrative style all together. Irony is intended to demonstrate some flaws in character's assumptions about the world, a description of the world that emerges contrarily after we've been introduced to the zeitgeist of the fictionalized terrain. Post modern writers are ironists of a different sort, decidedly more acidic and cynical about whether narrative in any form can hone our instincts. 
I had a professor once point out that something becomes art once it is framed, no matter what that object may be .This is a classic dada gesture he offered with his ready-mades, such as urinals hoisted upon gallery walls, and snow shovels on pedestals. The point, though, was that the object became an aesthetic object, denatured, in a manner of speaking, from its natural context and forced, suddenly, to be discussed in its very "thingness". The object becomes art by the lexicon we wrap around it, a linguistic default. Whether the object is art as most understand art to be--the result of an inner expressive need to mold , shape and hone materials and forms into an a medium that engages a set of ideas about the world, or unearths some fleeting sense of human experience -- isn't the point here. Ironically, art, generally defined as something that is absent all utility, any definable function, is suddenly given a use that is sufficiently economic, which is to keep an art industry in motion; it is the sound of money. Duchamp, and other Dadaists who sought to undermine this idea of art and its supposed spiritual epiphanies for the privileged few, instead furnished a whole new rational for art vending. " And then the lights went out.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

THE GRIND OF THE GROTTO MOUTHS

It might sound like a crime against nature, or a crime against common sense and moral order, but there are indeed  white singers who have technically awful voices  who have managed to fashion vocal styles that are instantly distinct, unique, recognizable.  (Wayne Cochran, a blue eyed soul guy pictured above, is not one of those. He is energetic and high spirited, but never gets far beyond the mistrel aspect of what he does. He simply cannot sing anything well.)Mick Jagger is a vocalist who learned to work brilliantly with the little singing ability God deigned to give him: knowing that he didn't have the basic equipment to even come close to simulating Muddy Waters or Wilson Pickett, he did something else instead in trying to sing black and black informed music-- talk-singing, the whiny, mewling purr, the bull moose grunt, the roar, the grunts and groans, the slurs and little noises , all of which he could orchestrate into amazing, memorable performances. One Plus One(Sympathy for the Devil)Godard's film of the Stones writing, rehearsing and finally recording the song of the title, is especially good because it captures the irresolute tedium of studio existence (in between Godard's didactic absurdist sketches attempting to address the conundrum of leftist media figures being used by invisible powers to squelch true revolutionary change). More than that, we see Jagger piecing together his vocal, his mewling reading of the lyrics from the lyric sheet; his voice is awful, in its natural state. But we do witness Jagger getting bolder as the song progresses through the endless stoned jamming, a grunt added here, a raised syllable here, a wavering croon there. Finally, we are at the last take, and Jagger is seen with headphones on, isolated from the others, screaming his head off into a microphone while the instrumental playback pours forth, in what is presumably the final take. Jagger, all irony and self-awareness, created something riveting and for all time with the marginal instrument he was born with, and is part of what I think is a grand tradition of white performers who haven't a prayer of sounding actually black who none the less molded a style of black-nuanced singing that's perfectly credible: Mose Allison, Van Morrison, Felix Cavalari (Rascals), Eric Burdon (early Animals), Peter Wolf, late of the under appreciated J.Geils Band.We cannot underestimate Keith Richard's contribution to Jagger's success as a vocalist. Someone had to know how to write tunes Jagger could handle, and Keith was just the man to do it. Richard's guitar work, as well, riffs and attacks and staggers in ways that match Jagger's strutting and mincing. Writing is everything, as always.


FEARLESS OR LESS FEAR?

 Fearless is a fine word, but a bit melodramatic. Blues musicians and musicians in general , I suppose, can be expected to engage in a little bit of high-rent hyperbole when discussing matters musical. It's a trait I engage in. In any case, I look less for "fearlessness" and all it's Saturday matinee associations and seek instead musicians who have confidence in what they're doing. 

There is that threshold we must all cross, built of self-doubt, stage fright, anxiety, when we're about to step onto the stage, but the one who is going to be the professional, the one who is going to turn in stellar performances more often than not, is the one with the instinct, the knack, the desire to entertain , delight and amaze others to convert fear, bad nerves, doubt , the shakes into energy that fires the brain and the limbs and makes all the synapses fire; the training, the practice, the woodshedding stops being experimental and preparation and transforms itself into confident, self assured professionalism. It's a quality of being that allows the musician to pretty much do anything he or she has their mind on doing.

Concepts do not exist of themselves, self-contained. The idea of courage is meaningless until one grasps fears, embraces it and walks through that wall of uncertainty that would otherwise prevent the person, musician or not, from doing great and original things. It's walking through your fears and getting to the other side, stronger, tempered, with greater confidence in one's abilities. Fear I believe is a great motivator toward acts of personal courage. It should be turned around, I think. One cannot be "fearless", but one can live with less fear by taking risks, advancing toward goals one might not otherwise have attempted. Less fear. 

That seems closer to the real human condition, something that is achievable.Doing away fear is a nice goal in an abstract world, but eliminating this element from the range of human emotion threatens to turn musicians into automatons, machines. If one does not know fear by experience, consequentially one cannot know courage, that is, one cannot be brave. 

These are polarities that depend on one another in order to be useful in any discussion using either of the terms. Neither fear nor courage make sense with out the presence of the other. Sans fear, an element I believe is always present in every human being (unless one is a sociopath), courage is not possible. That is why I thinking reversing the term to that of having "less fearing" is more useful and presents a more coherent picture of what you're trying to get at, as it describes how fear, always present, can be mastered to an extent and turned to one's advantage as the hero, a musician in this case, advances toward that quality called courage. Like it or not, fear cannot be gotten rid of. It can, though, be eliminated , and people can be taught/trained to perform wonderfully inspite of the fears they have.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

THE LAST GUITAR HERO


 Eddie Van Halen, the Last Guitar Hero, has died, age 65, from a long battle with cancer. I will say now that EVH is the man most responsible for saving hard rock from withering away . His guitar innovations changed the way other guitarists approached the instrument. Although I had more or less graduated from rock and considered myself a jazz fan and amateur historian of same such music, and restricted my rock reviewing activities mostly to poets, auteurs with deep seated issues, Van Halen's albums were ones I didn't sell off or give away.

I realized years ago, when I was about to graduate to 60 years of existence, that the adult in me often enough needed not Mahler or Miles or Manheim Steamroller but instead give into the need to get up close and personal to guitar genius Eddie Van Halen as he took his zooming, strafing, dive bombing, hurly burly solo on the song "China Town" off the final Van Halen studio album A Different Kind of Truth . It was the usual brilliance from this musician, anchored in place with solid ensemble parts and one of the best rhythm sections in rock history, Eddie Van Halen doing tricks of the hard trade on the fret board; long , fluid lines, glass shattering squeals and screams with the whammy bar and foot pedals, fast, rapid, poised classical references liberally deployed with the standard and over-standard blues riffing, Van Halen was an instrumentalist of rare, rare skill , someone with an excitement factor that added up to the kind of amiable virtuosity that didn't age a bit. I am , of course, talking about his guitar work, which remained superb in his five decades as a band leader, and not the band's albums, more than a couple being routinely lunkheaded in the songwriting and frat boy world view. But that guitar playing!

The supposed requirement that I was to grow up finally at a certain time and act my age with more "age appropriate" music ( what? My parents Big Band collection? My Mom liked to listen to X) is a lie I told myself. I am acting my age and this shredding fete on the fret is age appropriate appropriate The riffs are fluid, flowing with the liquid clarity of an rapidly moving stream, a fluency accented with odd classical formations and post modern blues bends, sub-dominant notes pitched to the heavens. Speed, style, an instinct for getting to the essence of the implied emotional narrative an instrumental should have. This is exciting stuff. There are rock guitarists aplenty who have emerged in the wake of the revolution in technique Eddie Van Halen introduced in the mid seventies who are, maybe, maybe consistently faster, involve themselves in more complicated (as opposed to complex) expositions, but very few of them have EVH's freshness, his flawless instinct fills and suitably choked chords. He has the gift of knowing when to start a solo, and when to end it. He is the man to beat. So far, undefeated.

David Lee Roth on this disc did not have the range or vocal color he used to, he had from back in the day, talk-belting rasp and attitude for the outrageous accents EVH saturates this hook-happy tunes with. What impressed me the most was that this was a great album all the way through. The riffs are hooky, to say the least, the bridges go to places you wouldn't expect, the choruses are splendidly hummable. And Alex VanHalen and Wolfgang VH are a perfect rhythm section. Most of all, though, Eddie plays with an energy and ingenuity we haven't heard in years. It's his guitar work that attracts me to this band, the nasty, sexy, whammy bar -delineated solos that rise up in the full glory and quick witted élan of post-blues rock virtuosity.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

MORE QUICK AND GLIB ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS FROM QUORA

 A query came my way recently which asked a perennial question from the crowd that doesn't "get" poetry: why do people bother to write boring poetry? The question had a tangible snorting contempt to it. For him, I'd wager that he finds all poetry dull, crushingly so. But my answer was this: 

Why does anyone make boring art, since you’re asking. The poets who write boring verse are most of the people who fancy themselves word slingers of that sort—quantity diminishes quality. It seems that most of the poems one comes across from new poets in whatever forum—magazine, open reading, workshop, high school newspaper, university press— are pretty much eccentric minds with pedestrian sense of language application who want to capture big ideas, big emotions and big spiritual concepts in pathetically clunky sentences , often choking their best ideas to death with overworked metaphors , unmusical similes and a fatal lack of self awareness as to whether what they spend so much time writing is something an actual reader beyond their circle of friends might want to read. We also suffer from the tone deaf experimenters who want to be abstract, avant garde and boldly innovative who haven’t the slightest idea of how to be interesting in an opaque way. John Ashbery, Bob Perleman, Leslie Scalapino, Gertrude Stein—they were hard to understand as poets go, but they were lively , innovative and striking in their styles and and habits of phrase making, and they are the exceptions to the idea that most avant gard poetry, as such, is abstract for its own sake and therefore useless and a grind. Consider also that there are bored and there fore boring readers of poetry who render judgements that typically amount to “meh”. These folks are a species of glum Gusses and Gussies who might as well be flipping the TV channels .

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Some else asked me a not unreasonable question, was Norman Mailer a misogynists? Mailer was obsessed with a notion of heterosexual masculinity, culled from his idealization of Hemingway and especially D. H. Lawrence. His writings on the subject are fascinating , and his assertions and literary criticism in his polemic “The Prisoner of Sex” are often brilliant and on point as he takes on feminist theories, but with all the force and grace the prose provides, Mailer insisted women take a secondary position in society and in all social relations, secondary to men. He would recount that his nay saying and the insults and violent fantasies were expressions of respect rather than contempt, and perhaps that is what he honestly thought, consciously, he was doing. 

All said, though, Mailer seemed rather to be trying to work some matters out in both his social and philosophical ideas, and in his fiction. His attitude regarding the role women play in is a conception of a reality where every player is on an existential path of self-definition constantly prefers the experience and success of the male over the female, with accompanying rationalizations that the advance of women toward an equal social and political status upsets the spiritual ecology . The only thing I can take away from that attitude, expressed and refined for decades, is an active contempt for women, misogyny when all is said.Joyce Carol Oates has some wonderful essays on Mailer that are worth seeking out on this man and his relationship to womankind. Mailer was a writer of large gifts and frequent genius who had issues that make appreciating his best work forever problematic.

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Someone was curious enough to ask me who I thought would win in a debate, right wing pundit Ben Shapiro, or linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky. I sought a responsible tone when I responded like so: We will have to be fair in this theoretical context and add we are imagining a younger Chomsky against Shapiro. Shapiro is bright and quick, of course, but he is an inch deep on most issues and tries to distract opponents with a bunch of hypotheticals that are often effective against less skilled debaters. The master of this technique, the presenter of the gratuitous supposition and linguistic trickery was William F. Buckley, godfather of the New Right and longtime host of the debate program firing line. There is an episode of Firing Line on YouTube where Chomsky is the guest, the subject of discussion being US foreign policy in South East Asia. 

Buckley had seriously under estimated Chomsky and his arsenal of techniques to undermine the famed linguist were to no avail; Chomsky is a scholar of the first rank and had thoroughly studied the subject at hand from historical, economic and cultural perspectives, and blended the data in cogent analysis. Chomsky at several points had to correct Buckley as to the facts of the matter at hand. If this were a prize fight, Chomsky would have knocked Buckley out in the first round. Buckley was visibly pissed at having been bested on his own show and for the cameras invited Chomsky back for another discussion. But that invitation was never sent. Sharpiro, remember, is no where near Buckley’s weight division nor skill (to extend the boxing metaphor) . Shapiro going up against Chomsky in a battle of the minds wouldn’t be debate; it would be a human sacrifice.

The Buckley-Chomsky debate can be seen it its entirety on You Tube.


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Sunday, September 27, 2020

YOU IS ANOTHER (walking through the old neighborhoods)

 

It's all anyone can do, walking the street, balancing yourself on the sidewalk, resisting the urge to fall over because not so suddenly gravity has made you more ungainly and the earth feels as though it had shifted, just ever so little. Not much by the degrees we apply to objects we can hold in our hands and study and move and bounce off a curb or a bedroom wall, but with the earth , so massive, smothered in atmosphere and the burdening force of personal weight, the effect sends the city into a vibrant panic, tall buildings do a shimmer, power lines dance and spark.

 On a fine day where you start out not giving a high fiving fuck about personal health and the state of the arts in the writerly communities that only invited you to a sequence of heartaches, heartbreaks and drinking into and past stages of ill health, on a day when your desire is grasp the intangible and abuse in terms of the intractable, your knees quake , you knees ache, a pain shoots from the knee cap upward to the spine  and to the jaw, the mouth closes and the teeth clench as if clamping down on a leather strap during an awkward shave, molars sinking into a tart, chewy leather, and it is then when the best arrogant notions and arrangements for making to midnight as a perfect asshole and king of the city dump go awry.

The meals come off the wagon, you realize there is nothing in the cupboard  for spare wit and ingenuity, you,    brilliant one and all that , are another victim of circumstances in a life you didn’t vote to be in. But the good news in all this worry is that you did not fall to the sidewalk, bust your jaw, and crack your teeth. Through sheer force of will you shift your weight , project a Kirby hand, arm stretched out, fingers splayed like the tines of bamboo rake, somehow all these halts your descent, matters of mathematics and their freaky equations formulated at the split second of stretch and the theory rushed up the spine to a brain otherwise asleep with its camouflaged ego for an effective counter force to be indicated and enforced by powers too awful to dwell on beyond a teasing mention.

You regain your center of being, the property rights to a kingdom to shake anything off and reduce the conflicts of personality clashes and enemy gravities to a compact pile of pressed tin, and as you rise from stumble, as your vision takes in front porches made of baked red brick and mail boxes marked with the graffiti of traveling men, there he stands, your sweetie pie, the one in a  million, your very own kryptonite, a blonde beauty with eyes that could flood the darkest theatre with light enough for lectures , readings and concerts on the uptake. She stands there, head tilted to the side. You feel like a specimen swimming about on a smooth glass slide. You cannot, you will not win.

It's all anyone can do, walking the street, balancing yourself on the sidewalk, resisting the urge to fall over because not so suddenly gravity has made you more ungainly and the earth feels as though it had shifted, just ever so little. Not much by the degrees we apply to objects we can hold in our hands and study and move and bounce off a curb or a bedroom wall, but with the earth , so massive, smothered in atmosphere and the burdening force of personal weight, the effect sends the city into a vibrant panic, tall buildings do a shimmer, power lines dance and spark.

 On a fine day where you start out not giving a high fiving fuck about personal health and the state of the arts in the writerly communities that only invited you to a sequence of heartaches, heartbreaks and drinking into and past stages of ill health, on a day when your desire is grasp the intangible and abuse in terms of the intractable, your knees quake , you knees ache, a pain shoots from the knee cap upward to the spine  and to the jaw, the mouth closes and the teeth clench as if clamping down on a leather strap during an awkward shave, molars sinking into a tart, chewy leather, and it is then when the best arrogant notions and arrangements for making to midnight as a perfect asshole and king of the city dump go awry.

The meals come off the wagon, you realize there is nothing in the cupboard  for spare wit and ingenuity, you,    brilliant one and all that , are another victim of circumstances in a life you didn’t vote to be in. But the good news in all this worry is that you did not fall to the sidewalk, bust your jaw, and crack your teeth. Through sheer force of will you shift your weight , project a Kirby hand, arm stretched out, fingers splayed like the tines of bamboo rake, somehow all these halts your descent, matters of mathematics and their freaky equations formulated at the split second of stretch and the theory rushed up the spine to a brain otherwise asleep with its camouflaged ego for an effective counter force to be indicated and enforced by powers too awful to dwell on beyond a teasing mention.

You regain your center of being, the property rights to a kingdom to shake anything off and reduce the conflicts of personality clashes and enemy gravities to a compact pile of pressed tin, and as you rise from stumble, as your vision takes in front porches made of baked red brick and mail boxes marked with the graffiti of traveling men, there he stands, your sweetie pie, the one in a  million, your very own kryptonite, a blonde beauty with eyes that could flood the darkest theatre with light enough for lectures , readings and concerts on the uptake. She stands there, head tilted to the side. You feel like a specimen swimming about on a smooth glass slide. You cannot, you will not win.

Monday, September 7, 2020

STERLING MAGEE OF SATAN AND ADAM, RIP

Mister-Satan-039-s-Apprentice-A-Blues-Memoir-Hardcover-Adam-Gussow
Sterling Magee, half of the stellar blues duo Satan and Adam, has passed away.It was just announced on Mr. Magee's Facebook page that he "...passed away peacefully last night." No other details. This is tremendously sad news. As a musician, I think he was without peer, and I cannot think of anyone I've heard who has done the one-man-band street musician project as brilliantly or resourcefully as he had done. As part of Satan and Adam, his guitar work was rhythmic and forceful, and the time he kept on his customized drum set up (with cymbals!) unfailingly created grooves and moods and such that complimented his gruff, splintery, exclamatory singing. 
I came across Satan and Adam from a track played on the Sunday blues show on KSDT FM in San Diego, from their first album Harlem Blues in 1991, and followed them ever since that time. I read Adam Gussow's book on his musical partner Mr. Satan's Apprentice sometime later and was taken with the camaraderie , and how they managed such a brilliant partnership. Of course, it was my introduction to Adam's harmonica work as well. Sterling Magee was unique, beautifully so, a transcendent man who spoke the language of the heart and soul, joy, pain, grief, exaltation. My deepest condolences to Mr.Magee's family and especially to Adam.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

AYN RAND WAS A TERRIBLE WRITER AND A HORRIBLE HUMAN BEING

Interesting piece from TLS where the writer , while admitting that Ayn Rand was controversial for repugnant ideas , was actually a good prose stylist on occasion. The best aspect of this article is why Rand's philosophy is again gaining traction, but other wise the defense of her as a writer is a weak sell. She was competent as a writer, as a communicator, but the idea that she was "good" as in having a genuinely poetic and unforced capacity with language to express the world in clear yet suggestive cadences, is ludicrous. Whether arguing that selfishness is a moral virtue, government programs for the poor are theft and unethical, that genuine creators have the right to their work above and beyond anyone else in the mass culture and that said geniuses have an absolute, final and irrevocable rights that override democratic traditions and the general welfare, and that having such rights as geniuses they are allowed to rape as the mood comes to them in order to further fulfill and confirm their transcendence over the rest of the rotten, greedy, consumerist population,

Rand over rights to the degree that it always seems that every encounter in her fiction are power-plays among straw men and women in a world made of very little happiness, joy, or genuine sorrow. It's a tone deaf argument to make. Even in the examples of her writing he presents as proof of her occasional precision and elegance with the English word, she descriptions of character actions are overstated and awkward. It's the kind of writing that is the printed equal of someone talking too loud, just under the level of shouting, and too quickly, in a manic effort to out pace the sheer absurdity of her world view and the bulldozing logic she uses to insist this narcissistic fantasy is a model for how the "real" world should function. I invite the reader to insert their three favorite writers, of any genre, in between these dashes as their own examples of scribes who are able to write about life in this existence in a way where imagination has made one think harder and clearer of their limited tenure on this planet.

The complaints of the literary elite, the taste-makers, the culture mongers in universities and the media on Rand's qualities as a writer are absolutely on point: she is a mediocre thinker, a a mean spirit as a philosopher, and a braying, uncorked didact as a writer. The argument is a nice try to defend something about Rand's status as a writer, but no sale. A reader of authors who have the skill and craft to speak of unaddressable matters in terms of the unforgettable would note in Rand's paragraphs a constant veering toward the cliche, the fast summation, the received idea culled from the back water of stale ideas, and experience again the kind of over writing that is little else than a manic attempt to get away from the cliched expression and the lifeless whims it contains and replacing it with hammering rhetoric and unending clauses that comes off as nothing less than someone intensely practicing a rant in a steamy bathroom mirror.

I might to a casual reader of this post that you remind yourself that you're in an adult in an existence infinitely more complex , subtle, unpredictable and maddeningly disobedient for not behaving the way any self-declared genius wants it to and find out for oneself how wretched a writer Rand truly was. Her prose was as awful as her her philosophy, a delusional habit of mind that supplied the tinny , thin and brittle intellectual justification that greed, avarice, and unconditional assholism are good things to be. Rand was a creep, a very horrible person.

LONG WINDED AND GLIB ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS ASKED OF ME ON QUORA

Someone on Quora asked if Jim Morrison is considered a genius. This is how I answered:
"The Doors were a mixed bag for me; the first two albums are among the most important rock albums of all time, with the remainder alternating between the proverbial poles of brilliance and balderdash. As a band, they were simply sublime and unique, with the odd combination of blues, flamenco, classical, jazz, Artaud and epic theater being crafted in their hands to create a sound and feel that was singular and instantly identifiable. As a vocalist, Jim Morrison was often as evocative as the greatest fans proclaim, and it fit the half-awake twilight that seemed to be his constant state of consciousness. As a poet, though, I thought he was simply awful, fragmented, crypto-mystic surrealism that, save for some striking and memorable lines, collapsed from its flimsy elisions and obtuse vagaries. In his posthumous collections,, the pieces read too often like the notebook jottings of an introspective 17-year-old. I say that as one who was an introspective 17 year and is now an introspective 65-year-old. Morrison might have become the poet he wanted to be had he been able to write, edit, and finesse his work as he desired when he left for Paris. What I will say, though, is that being the vocalist in the Doors gave him the opportunity to go through his writings, his poems, and select many of the stronger passages for the band's more theatrical songs. The Doors, ironically seemed to be an institutional editor for Morrison's words, forcing the bard to decide which of his jottings was actually the most powerful, concise, emphatic."
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A question posed to me on the Quora website asked "Why isn't literature considered art?". I had a few minutes to kill and offered this response. The benefit of writing a response was that it gave me something to think about besides the apocalyptic geist that makes staying awake such a burden. Here it is:
....Who ever said that literature was not art is either very dumb or is someone who is looking for attention . There is the assumption , sadly held by many, that art is only visual, as in paintings, drawings, sculpture. This is incorrect, an alarmingly false attitude. Art is a broader expressive activity involving all manner of mediums. But rather than go into a long piece of writing defining art as something that transcends a narrow conceptualization, I’ll just quote the definition of the word provided by Google Search:

“ (1)…the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.
“(2)…the various branches of creative activity, such as painting, music, literature, and dance.”
This concise definition of the word “art” correctly broadens the horizons of the things can be considered “art” in the fullest sense: novels, poems, plays, operas, classical music, pop songs, dance and choreography , design, architecture, jazz improvisation, acting, film making…it goes on and is nearly unlimited. The far more interesting discussion , instead of whether non visual mediums can be art in the fullest sense, is exactly how productions like novels, films, dance, poetry, and so on, are “artful”. It’s an actual kind of discussion and discipline that distinguishes the great, the good, the mediocre and the awful, and it considers how history, changing social conditions , influences and attitudes, and new technologies, factor into the quality or the failure of particular works of art in all mediums. None of those matters are ever settled, of course, but it’s an intriguing dialogue where art lovers can share with one another their interpretations of art objects they consider worth making note of.
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Asked on Quora: Was Norman Mailer a mysoginist?
Mailer was obsessed with a notion of heterosexual masculinity, culled from his idealization of Hemingway and especially D. H. Lawrence. His writings on the subject are fascinating , and his assertions and literary criticism in his polemic “The Prisoner of Sex” are often brilliant and on point as he takes on feminist theories, but with all the force and grace the prose provides, Mailer insisted women take a secondary position in society and in all social relations, secondary to men. He would recount that his nay saying and the insults and violent fantasies were expressions of respect rather than contempt, and perhaps that is what he honestly thought, consciously, he was doing. All said, though, Mailer seemed rather to be trying to work some matters out in both his social and philosophical ideas, and in his fiction. His attitude regarding the role women play in is a conception of a reality where every player is on an existential path of self-definition constantly prefers the experience and success of the male over the female, with accompanying rationalizations that the advance of women toward an equal social and political status upsets the spiritual ecology . The only thing I can take away from that attitude, expressed and refined for decades, is an active contempt for women, misogyny when all is said.Joyce Carol Oates has some wonderful essays on Mailer that are worth seeking out on this man and his relationship to womankind. Mailer was a writer of large gifts and frequent genius who had issues that make appreciating his best work forever problematic.
_________________________________________________________________________________________Some one Quora asked whether Chet Baker , a fine trumpeter, was a good poet. I answered this way:

Metaphorically, perhaps. He was a melodic improvisor, embellishing the melody with short, pleasing phrases, building his solos to a well modulated crescendo where there would some subtle and stately expression of his technical facility, and then he would bring the mood down again, easing back into the ensemble . At his best, Baker’s best solos, with their hushed tone, use of space between phrases, and his superb note choices from the many available to him, made his solos memorable. That could be said to be “poetic” and that he , as the creator, was the author of that expression, more specifically, a “poet”. All that, though, stretches the term too much, I think, and does no justice to either Baker or to actual writer poets. Baker was a musician, a jazz improviser, and he created in a great art form. Comparing him to another art form, poetry, degrades his impressive accomplishment.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

THE LONG WINDED


I can assure you, sir, that these things really suck!" -- Don Van Vliet,when selling a vacuum cleaner to Aldous Huxley 

I'm so glad that your long-winded voicemail messages and my delete button  have become such good friends. | Workplace Ecard
Image by mikeable10
No , you're neither drudge nor dullard  for not being drawn to Don DeLillo.  he either appeals to you or he doesn't, as is the case with any other serious (or less serious) writer who wants to get your attention.The charges that DeLillo is tedious, wordy and pretentious, not necessarily in that order, are themselves tedious and , it seems, levied by a folks who either haven't read much of the author, more likely, put forward by a host of soreheads who use DeLillo as a representative of a kind of fiction writing they dismiss wholesale. I'm not an easy sell when it comes to be seduced by writer's reputations--my friends accuse me of being too picky, too "critical"--but I've read most of DeLillo's fifteen novels since I discovered him in the early Seventies; if I didn't find his writing brilliant and vibrant or found his narrative ruminations on the frayed American spirit engaging, I'd not have bothered with him. DeLillo is a serious writer,  sober as a brick, but he is not pompous.

I  marveled at the economy of his writing. He does write long sentences in parts of his novels, but they are so precisely presented they seem positively succinct. And that, I think, is a large part of their power. There are some readers who are slightly stunned when it's revealed that one of DeLillo's avowed influences , a model to learn from , is Ernest Hemingway, who's low-modifier, low-simile, spare and sharp focused prose is detectable even those writers noted for their compound sentences. It would seem to be a matter of not the length of the sentence itself, but with the precision of the words being applied, the practice where typing and jotting things down becomes actual writing, that is, composition, a state of bring elements together that makes the expression comprehensible (shall we add "relatable"?) to readers besides the author and his or her immediate circle. Power and purpose are the things that make a long sentence of fiction a thing of wonder;good sentences are like pieces of great music that you read again, listen to again. The Godfather of the terse, abrupt phrase, Hemingway could, when he chose to , compose a long sentence that had the advantage of serpentine rhythms snaking their way around a nettlesome gather of conflicting emotions and sentiments, but still had a wallop of an adroitly worded police report. The longest sentence he ever wrote, 424 words in his story "The Green Hills of Africa" is cinematic in its sweep: 

That something I cannot yet define completely but the feeling comes when you write well and truly of something and know impersonally you have written in that way and those who are paid to read it and report on it do not like the subject so they say it is all a fake, yet you know its value absolutely; or when you do something which people do not consider a serious occupation and yet you know truly, that it is as important and has always been as important as all the things that are in fashion, and when, on the sea, you are alone with it and know that this Gulf Stream you are living with, knowing, learning about, and loving, has moved, as it moves, since before man, and that it has gone by the shoreline of that long, beautiful, unhappy island since before Columbus sighted it and that the things you find out about it, and those that have always lived in it are permanent and of value because that stream will flow, as it has flowed, after the Indians, after the Spaniards, after the British, after the Americans and after all the Cubans and all the systems of governments, the richness, the poverty, the martyrdom, the sacrifice and the venality and the cruelty are all gone as the high-piled scow of garbage, bright-colored, white-flecked, ill-smelling, now tilted on its side, spills off its load into the blue water, turning it a pale green to a depth of four or five fathoms as the load spreads across the surface, the sinkable part going down and the flotsam of palm fronds, corks, bottles, and used electric light globes, seasoned with an occasional condom or a deep floating corset, the torn leaves of a student's exercise book, a well-inflated dog, the occasional rat, the no-longer-distinguished cat; all this well shepherded by the boats of the garbage pickers who pluck their prizes with long poles, as interested, as intelligent, and as accurate as historians; they have the viewpoint; the stream, with no visible flow, takes five loads of this a day when things are going well in La Habana and in ten miles along the coast it is as clear and blue and unimpressed as it was ever before the tug hauled out the scow; and the palm fronds of our victories, the worn light bulbs of our discoveries and the empty condoms of our great loves float with no significance against one single, lasting thing---the stream.

The sentence approaches the state of pure lyric poetry, where the facts of what the senses reveal to us about the part of the world a character inhabits and finds intimacy with pass by in a rapid, camera like sweep, a suggestion of motion that brings about fast,brief, fleeting descriptions, associations and swift suggestions of emotional attachment  . The scene is both familiar as family yet made strange in the recollection, as a character's subsequent history disrupts an instinctive nostalgia and provides an undertone of rueful irony , a sense of things not taken up. This a fascinating case of recollection examined both as Eden and , maybe, a ring in the the concentric circles of a hell formed by a character's own decisions and choices.For the sheer joy of reading the next passage, let's have a look at a longish sentence from DeLillo's Underworld, where a character is driving, and manages to discern the roads, the highways, the freeway system as an ecosystem . DeLillo allows himself to riff on the theme, and to encroach just slightly on a rant, but the sentence , like many other passages in the sprawling genius of Underworld, is from  a master who knows something about the mystery that comes from the not getting it right avails us of the heart-stopping poetics that momentarily cause us to reflect on our own history of acting in our exclusive interest.
He drove into the spewing smoke of acres of burning truck tires and the planes descended and the transit cranes stood in rows at the marine terminal and he saw billboards for Hertz and Avis and Chevy Blazer, for Marlboro, Continental and Goodyear, and he realized that all the things around him, the planes taking off and landing, the streaking cars, the tires on the cars, the cigarettes that the drivers of the cars were dousing in their ashtrays--all these were on the billboards around him, systematically linked in some self-referring relationship that had a kind of neurotic tightness, an inescapability, as if the billboards were generating reality...
I think there's a clutch of  otherwise smart people who distrust and actively dislike anything that suggests elegant or lyric prose writing. John Updike, who I think was perhaps the most consistently brilliant and resourceful American novelists up until his death,was routinely pilloried for the seamless flow of his telling details. If one cares to do a survey, I suspect they'd find the same caustic template levied at other writers who are noted for their ability to detail the worlds they imagine in ways that make the mundane take on a new resonance. Nabokov, DeLillo, Henry James,  Richard Powers have all been assessed by a noisy few as being  "too wordy". The sourpusses seem to forget that this fiction, not journalism, that this literature, no police reports.The secret, I think, is that a writer possessed of a fluid style manages to link their  mastery of the language with the firm outlining of  the collective personalities of the characters , both major and minor.

 The elegance is in service to a psychological dimension that otherwise might not be available. The thinking among among the anti-elegance crowd is that writing must be grunts, groans and monosyllabic bleats, a perversion of the modernist notion that words are objects to used as materials to get to the essential nature of the material world. Lucky for us that no one convincingly defined what "essential nature" was, leaving those readers who love a run on sentence with more recent examples of the word drunk in progress. I don't mind long sentences as long as their is some kind of mastery of the voice a writer might attempt at length; I am fond of Whitman, Henry James, Norman Mailer, David Foster Wallace and Joyce Carol Oates, writers who manage poetry in their long winded ways. That is to say, they didn't sound phony and the rhythms sounded like genuine expressions of personalities given to subtle word choice. Kerouac, though, struck me as tone deaf. After all these years of complaining about his style, or his attempts at style, the issue may be no more than a matter of taste. Jack Kerouac is nearly in our American Canon, and one must remember that the sort of idiom that constitutes literary language constantly changes over the centuries; language is a living thing, as it must be for literature to remain relevant as a practice and preference generation to generation.