Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Bah!

The Atlantic a month ago ran a pig-headed bit of snark-slamming prog rock as "The Whitest Music Ever, "a catchy bit of clickbait that uses "white," as in a race, as a required pejorative to make its points. I am sorry to say that I took the bait, and it messed up my emotional equilibrium. Hardly a fan of prog rock--I've been accused of being the John Wayne of American rock critics --but there have been more than a few artists who make complex, rock-oriented sounds that I think are enjoyable and perfectly defensible. First, the article advances on the premise that music that was created and performed by, let us say, 99 1/2 percent white musicians is awful and unnatural from the get-go, which is ridiculous. The characterization of Prog Music as "the whitest music ever" is racist on the face of it, and The Atlantic is too thick between the ears, too dimwitted to recognize the irony. It's an argument someone cannot credibly sustain. David Weigel, a Slate politics writer and a prog fan, wrote a history of the genre a few years ago with The Show that Never Ends and makes a point of showing how British bands came to incorporate classical ideas into their original compositions. Simply (too simply in this squib), it was a generation of players rediscovering their own musical heritage, drawing inspiration from composers they heard on the radio. The piece is intellectually bankrupt. Anyone wanting to read a rather more level-headed appraisal of History of Prog would do well to pick up Weigel's book.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI

Lawrence Ferlinghetti passed away last month, age 101 years, and what we’ve lost is a great American voice.  His poems were written in a wonderfully amorphous American idiom, his rhythms were light, quick, jazz-like, his patois seemed to come from anywhere in 50 states.  His poems were vocalizations of the man on the street who appears to be always next to you at the end of the bar, on the subway car, the city bus, in line for a hot dog at a ball game, the next guy holding a picket sign in front of city hall, speaking with a tone sturdy but quickly uttered, starting in one  area with observation but morphing through the chain of associations to  areas you didn’t know were related in any way.  You read him, you listened to him read, you were never sure where the poems would go but you knew there would be a point, an irony, a moral certainty tempered with good humor.

 Due to his being based in San Francisco and proximity to the city’s edgier literary community, Ferlinghetti is often grouped with the generation of Beat writers and poets who flourished in the 1950s. He balked at the inclusion, remarking that he was “…the last of the bohemians rather than the first of the Beats.” Even so, it’s arguable that he did more than anyone else to usher in the Beat Era in the 50s with his Pocket Poets, Series printed under the City Lights imprint. The first in the series was own book 1955 poetry collection Pictures of the Gone World, with subsequent volumes introducing the world to Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Anne Waldman, Frank O’Hara, Gregory Corso, and many other voices, Beats, and non-beats, who poked holes in the quilt of Eisenhower’s America. In 1956 the publication of Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems found publisher Ferlinghetti in court on obscenity charges, due to Ginsberg’s frank and comparatively specific depiction of homoerotic content. With the aid of the ACLU, Ferlinghetti won the case and continued to publish and nurture writers from the margin’s society with his press and bookstore and extended his own writing further into the soul of America, a great country that has done remarkable things, but which could do far better. He was writing that he was waiting for the promise of freedom and justice for all to come to be fact, not fantasy, his activism revealed a character of that wouldn’t abide by the idea that the   Artist was at a remove from the public, inoculated against controversy. He knew art wasn’t a commodity to insulate citizens from the harsher facts of war, racism, poverty; his poems didn’t blind us with banality. Art was not a thing to make us “ feel good”; it was a way to make us feel, fully and painfully if need be. It was a tool to nag, prod, provoke, elicit a response, to get readers out of their seats and into the streets to work for that Better Day. Many an effective activist from the era had their moral compass fine-tuned and enhanced by the effusive, chatty, astute poems of Ferlinghetti and the quarrelsome songs of Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti thought about things he liked and even more about things that bothered him, that bothered millions. He was a worldly man, and he was the man who lived in the upstairs apartment, who owned the shop on the corner, he was a citizen poet waiting for and working toward the Better Day.  His persona was a sublimely self-effacing Everyman, less grandiose and bombastic than Whitman, wittier than others by far, the man in a government waiting his turn at the DMV, for jury duty, and while he waits, he muses about what else he and the rest of us are waiting for besides for our numbers to be called.

I am waiting for my case to come up   

and I am waiting

for a rebirth of wonder

and I am waiting for someone

to really discover America

and wail

and I am waiting   

for the discovery

of a new symbolic western frontier   

and I am waiting   

for the American Eagle

to really spread its wings

and straighten up and fly right

and I am waiting

for the Age of Anxiety

to drop dead

and I am waiting

for the war to be fought

which will make the world safe

for anarchy

and I am waiting

for the final withering away

of all governments

and I am perpetually awaiting

a rebirth of wonder

--“I Am Waiting” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (from  Coney Island of the Mind, 1958).  

 Lawrence Ferlinghetti is the greatest Public poet America has in the second half of the 20th century. Poet, novelist, playwright, travel writer, bookseller, and publisher of the revered City Lights Books press, Ferlinghetti wasn’t a dry academic composing intangible lines of the verse about impossible metaphysics. His feet were on the ground along with those of his fellow citizens, trudging and grunting along that road, a man with an an unshakeable belief that the world can be made better even although a   “perfect one” seems beyond our reach. He wrote to his reader’s ear, seeming less to intone from the deadness of the page and more to speak to you directly.  “In Goya’s Greatest Scenes”, one of his best-known poems from his landmark 1958 poetry collection A Coney Island of the Mind we hear the unique voice again, leaning over to our ear and remarking sotto voce:

In Goya’s greatest scenes we seem to see

                                           the people of the world   

       exactly at the moment when

             they first attained the title of

                                                             ‘suffering humanity’   

          They writhe upon the page

                                        in a veritable rage

                                                                of adversity   

          Heaped up

                     groaning with babies and bayonets

                                                       under cement skies   

            in an abstract landscape of blasted trees

                  bent statues bats wings and beaks

                               slippery gibbets

                  cadavers and carnivorous cocks

            and all the final hollering monsters

                  of the

                           ‘imagination of disaster’

            they are so bloody real

                                        it is as if they really still existed

 

    And they do

 

                  Only the landscape is changed…

 

This works as a mast  

Lawrence Ferlinghetti is in that tradition of the public poet, no less than Vachel Lindsay or the wonderfully expansive Whitman; less a man to complain about how the world doesn't fit comfortably around the skin he was born in, or muse long and serially on fragments of memory and half recalled cliches that never crystallize as a perception. His poems a force of personality that eschews introspection and opts instead to verbalize, extol, berate, rant, and rave in a lyric vein at once lyric, cranky, ecstatic, lustful, and very much in love with the senses that bring him the full force of the beauty and ugliness that is life. Ferlinghetti was not a ruminator, a worrier, an introvert, a sad soul contemplating many shades of despair. He didn’t decorate the walls of his inner life with gloom. There is no melancholic wallpaper in the world the poet finds himself in, there is no metaphysics of gloom and regret.  We need to recall that one of his poetry collections was titled How to Paint Sunlight. Not that Ferlinghetti's poems are bluster or weakly transpired musings on a beauty obscured urban density; his lines are confident, sure, idiom matching rhythm, not lapsing into a self-parody of hip argot except when he deigned to do so. His images are fresh and electric, encompassing emotions and the consequence of things are done to seek truth, beauty, a reason to celebrate the fragile miracle that is life.

There is little in the way of introspection, and that, I think, is the secret of his endearing popularity, and why his poems remain readable decades after the Beat craze has passed on into history. These are poems that like a good friend, a very good friend, who talks to you at the bar and pokes you in the shoulder, the man who would not let you get away with lying to yourself, the second opinion you constantly get, like it or not, that is a crude but freshly phrased thing we can call the truth, of a sort. It is, I think, a voice attached to an imagination that realizes that there are not enough years in any lifespan to not live fully, senses engaged with the raw stuff of existence.

These poems are jazzy, a crafted idiom that rings with the swinging chain of associations that cut through reams of rhetoric and regulation and get to the pulsing heart of the matter, birth, sex, death, joy, sorrow, glee, calamity. It all hurts, it all bring sensations we don't want, but this is a man who rolls with the punches know when to duck, writes as though he's astounded that he's still drawing a breath and walking still without a crutch or cane, that he has a voice to speak words of yet new seductions to come or already underway. It's worth noting that there was a selected poems edition of his work published in the 80s called Endless Life, which included a section of newer works, including a long piece that served as the collection's title.

What interests me isn't so much the quality of the poem but the  concern it expresses, to stay engaged with the doings of citizens he shares the planet with, to keep doing what a poet should be doing at all times when they choose to poke their muse and write in those irregular line breaks that is most people's idea of what poetry is; even as he ages and friends die and institutions and personalized traditions come to an end, the world goes on with things to do, people to know, controversies to become a part of. The conversation doesn't end until the tongue can no longer flutter about, the eyes cannot see and the mind cannot parse.

. I am signaling you through the flames.
The North Pole is not where it used to be.
Manifest Destiny is no longer manifest.
Civilization self-destructs.
Nemesis is knocking at the door.
What are poets for, in such an age?
What is the use of poetry?
The state of the world calls out for poetry to save it.
If you would be a poet, create works capable
 of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times,
 even if this meaning sounds apocalyptic.

You are Whitman,
you are Poe,
you are Mark Twain,
you are Emily Dickinson
and Edna St. Vincent Millay,
 you are Neruda and Mayakovsky
and Pasolini, you are an American or a non-American,
you can conquer the conquerors
with words....

From Poetry as Insurgent Art by Lawrence Ferlinghetti  

The first time I saw Lawrence Ferlinghetti was during a pilgrimage to San Francisco with two other writer friends of mine in the mid-1970s. The three of us( Steve Esmedina, David Zielinski, and this guy)-- were eager to garner some literary authenticity by visiting the places where famous scribes read. City Lights in North Beach was our first stop, and it was something of a surprise when we walked into the crowded shop, to see the Ferlinghetti behind the front counter chatting with customers, answering the phone and ringing up sales. The last time I saw the poet was at D.G. Wills Books in La Jolla, 2005, where I was working. Ferlinghetti had just published a new book, Americus Book 1, something of a continuous, epic-length poem, which he described as

 "part documentary, part public pillow-talk, part personal epic--a descant, a canto unsung, a banal history, a true fiction, lyric and political," combining "universal texts, snatches of song, words or phrases, murmuring of love or hate . . . that haunt our nocturnal imagination."

Whatever this turns out to be, it was an inspired summing up of the spiritual state of affairs of America, a bittersweet and often comic recollection of the poet’s long journey and long life on the front lines of culture and politics. He was the featured poet at the 2005 Border Voices Poetry Fair at San Diego State University, an event organized by poet and journalist Jack Webb. D.G.Wills Books previously hosted Beat poets Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, and Ted Joans, and Wills had the idea that having Ferlinghetti read at the bookstore would be a fitting and important addition to the roster of poets and writers who had read in the past. Wills contacted Webb and arranged, with Ferlinghetti’s assent, to have the Maestro read at D.G.Wills Books following his appearance at San Diego State.

To be expected, it was a wild and crowded scene, every seat in the bookstore filled with, poets, fans, the merely curious. The front and side doors of the shop were open, an outdoor PA was mounted, and chairs were set up for attendees unable to sit inside. It was a crowd nearing three hundred.  It was a cramped situation where everything that could go wrong didn’t. Except for one thing, to be sure, there’s always one thing that goes askew. In the flurry of overseeing the setup and directing the volunteer staff, Wills forgot to disconnect the business phone.  Twenty or so minutes into the reading, Ferlinghetti is reading an especially lush passage from Americus, the audience is leaning toward him to heart, there is a pause, an intake of breath, Ferlinghetti begins to read again. Then the phone rings. Wills was at the end of the store’s front counter and pounced on the phone before it could peal again. Ferlinghetti didn’t miss a beat.

“Is this Manny’s Bar and Pool Hall?” he asked. The accent was East Coast, New York perhaps, American. The audience inside and out gave a nice laugh. Lawrence Ferlinghetti grinned and continued to read, a man who will continue to be read in bars, pool halls, bus stops, libraries, quoted in academic papers, and by busboys and waitresses.


Sunday, March 21, 2021

GENERIC

 

Genres may or may not be vanishing--I am a believer in the cultural dialectic which would have old genres collide and synthesize into new genres, starting the cycle all over again--but I do find it somewhat intriguing to consider the critic who is somewhat behind the times and yet stays in the argument. Criticism feels the continuity and discontinuity of what consumers are amusing, enlightening, or dulling themselves with; the critic who is slightly out of step is likely to be the one to puncture the more ridiculous claims of the most recent claimants of the spotlight. The older critic, the fogie still operating on values somewhat frayed at the edges, is often the one to think beyond the latest raft of buzz phrases. Genres are likely to remain with us, as humans love to give things names, and something in the spirit of manhood desires those distinctions to be made and claimed. They simply can't be wished away because a New Yorker Official Smart Person thinks they should. 

"History" didn't end, as Francis Fukuyama said it would in his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man; his thesis was that with the end of fall of Communism, history as a record of war, strife, and struggle, would end, and as relations between nations relaxed, the world would transcend ideologies and other divisions and create a more harmonies planet motivated by cooperation. The complete triumph of the free market. That never happened, and the world is arguably more problematic than it's ever been. History is still with us, and the concept of genres will remain with us as well. I don't think musicians are thinking about "post-genre" ideas when they make music, as creation is a psychological process as much as a physical one. In such the act of creation, the artist (all kinds of artists) are thinking, I believe, less about what rules they can ignore or what boundaries they can transgress. More about what they can make use of, whatever it may happen to me, however unlike, dissimilar, glaringly awkward the styles, the parts of the creation, may seem to be. 

Their goal is to bring things together, whatever influences them and strikes their fancy. The appropriate it, twist it, change it, synthesize to something new, a work of art is a representation that hadn't existed before. But whatever the result, critically praised or damned, the object remains connected to history and the genres from which it attempted to abandon. This new work gets identified, described, classified, cataloged, it gets a name, it becomes a genre whose particulars are known and yet malleable within each piece the artist creates. It's an old story; in music, musicians have been genre-jumping for decades. One of my first albums was EAST/WEST by the Butterfield Blues Band, in which an inter-racial blues band took on Indian-raga/Modal jazz improvisational methods. The achievement was influenced by another transgressive innovator John Coltrane, who stepped out of his bop lineage to change how jazz was performed. The examples are endless. "Post genre," ironically, seems to be a genre itself.

As long as musicians continue to, by choice, write and record songs that fall into specific categories and subcategories--blues rock, metal, rap-rock, fusion, reggae, ska, country-rock, the whole shooting match. Genres, as we've always understood, are not dead. An obsession filters through the academic and critical universe that likes to announce that some particular form or medium is mortal because times have gotten so strange. Technology is now so pervasive that genre distinctions no longer apply and that we are now free to mix and match our tastes at will. This implies we have been liberated from some horrible tyranny; these kinds of global pronouncements have little to do with what's happening in the trenches, as it seems consumers like their genres --with the implication that there are many genres they happen to enjoy for their differences from other forms of music they happen to like-- and artists, young and otherwise, strive to maintain the various traditions meaningfully and moving while at the same time perverting the stylistic limits of the respective song forms by tweaking it with musical ideas from other areas. This, of course, creates new genres that will have cool names to describe their distinction. Nothing has died. However well specific approaches fare in the marketplace, it's not accurate to maintain we are in some area that has transcended genres. They are, in fact, thriving.


Friday, March 19, 2021

Jack DeJohnette's "Special Edition" (1980)

 Special Edition -Jack DeJohnette (ECM)

Considering the line-up on this disc- -drummer DeJohnette,, alto saxist Arthur Blythe and tenor saxist and bass clarinetist David Murray, and bassist Peter Warren--you would have thought it would have been a significant breakthrough record, one of those legendary sessions that chart new directions in the art. This ensemble, though, had no intentions of blazing any new trails, as the music stays safely within the boundaries of what we’ve heard before. He sustains the confident tone through the wildest stretches of his soloing, an unpredictable style that finds nuance and unexpected inroads in a solo space. 

Blythe, on the other hand, exploits the alto sax for all it's worth, often changing moods from the whimsical and lyrical to the soulfully anguished. DeJohnette plays solidly under their playing, rumbling like Philly Joe Jones one moment, accentuating hard-rock bass·drums another, and continual-ly fragmenting and piecing back together rhythms as the music flow onward. 

Bassist Warren seems the odd man. This isn't to say that this record lacks spark. Special Edition is fresh and lively, highlighting first·rate at the hands of Blythe and Murray. Throughout the disc, their instruments join in a variety of harmonic settings-the fusion-tinged "One For Eric," the rhythm and blues riff of "Zoot Suit," the ethereal texturizing on John Coltrane‘s tone poem "Indian-and at key points branch out to establish their own personalities. Murray, alternating between tenor sax and bass clarinet, offers a strong, out here, maintaining a fairly conservative attitude as he backs the others dutifully, which is to say, with vim, vigor, vitality.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

AMANDA GORMAN

Well, Inaugural poet Amanda Gorman for her composition "The Hill We Climb" is preparing a collection of her writing for publication with a major publisher with a tour to follow; she's garnered a deal to work as a fashion model. How is she as a poet? Honestly, it is at least as good as the best work of an advanced poetry writing class. It would be a solid B if the grading criteria were based solely on my admittedly dreadful preferences when it comes to poets. It's okay, merely okay, held back by its many flights of high and hopeful rhetoric that start to chafe as the piece progresses to the end. Yes, it sounds like a graduation speech given by the High School Creative Writing Club president. 

 On another matter entirely, some aged experimentalists have the idea that the Avant guard they grew on and within is where History of all manner ought to have ended. In the meantime, events, and tastes, as anyone can claim to understand them, have evolved, or at least moved on, if in circles, and there remains the idea of the Public Poet and The Poem of the Moment.

Social constructions, perhaps, but people seem to need them and believe in them and find some reason to make the make coffee in the morning because of them and dozen another reassuring albeit banal comforts. "The Hill We Climb" is a Poem of the Moment, not to my liking entirely, and Gorman is a Public Poet by any definition you care to give the term. I suspect she will transcend the Poet appellation and evolve into a (C.Wright) Millsian power player in the guise of Pure Celebrity, an influencer. Or maybe she'll become a decent writer of finely considered prose. We'll see if time allows.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

ROYAL PAIN

 

So this sudden mess concerning the estrangement of Harry and Meghan from the  Royal Family, as revealed to our National Confessor Oprah? The needless distraction of the moment,  and it's likely this will find the dustbin of history  by the coming weekend. It's hard to worry about the personal sanity and happiness of exquisitely well people no matter the issues at hand--racism, sexism, tastes in music and high sugar power drinks--when the rest of the world has to go to work in the morning and fret in our off moments about rent, groceries, credit card balances. I have cared nothing about the  Royal Family, a state supported assemblage of symbolically  useless humanity who serve no useful or humane purpose, though it seems both millions of British subjects love these lavished upon wastrels and the UK Press needs them to keep their Fleet Street gossip rags and websites abuzz. Something fouler here , buried perhaps not so deep in  the population psyche, an element far more odious and evil than the simple excuse that national obsession  is simply a way for  citizens to  celebrate an institution uniquely British. The  Royals at the end of any day they live through, are a symbol of what was the British Empire, a long running foulness that had racism, xenophobia and genocide at the base of any high-minded philosophy that was used to justify the centuries old practice of subjugating non white populations. It isn't just a puppet show they're putting on here, it's closer to Civil War reenactment, were the issue of racism was close to the surface, in front of the mind,  a wish deferred for the time being. That this democracy allows this institution to thrive in full knowledge that it represents the worst sins of the Empire to this day is flabbergasting. Was anyone  really outraged, really shocked that the family was stressed as to how dark the forthcoming Archie's skin tone might be?

Sunday, January 31, 2021

'LIVE AT THE BEE HIVE"-- Cifford Brown , Sonny Rollins cook on the band stand

 

Live at the Bee Hive - Clifford Brown and Max Roach (Columbia)

 Live at the Beehive is a wild and wooly document of the excitement of the jam session. Recorded in a Chicago bar in 1955, the audio quality  is not the best, as the sound is muddy and flat, there's an excess of surface noise, and the continual buzz of customers ordering drinks and talking through the best solo moments are sn annoyance. The music from the bandstand easily overcomes and transcends the grouchy ambience. The collective sound is lively, rambunctious and packs the punch of a chain-mail glove.The several extended forays of the late Clifford Brown are especially exciting. Before his sudden death, Brown had established himself as possibly the premier trumpet player on any jazz scene, and this record, especially the workout on Sonny Stitt's "Cherokee," reminds us of his incandescent powers as a soloist. Clifford possessed a big, fat sound, and was alternately lyrically sublime and frenetically rapid in his choice of note. Bee Hive is a handy display case of this man's brilliance. The other players hold their own as well. The searing sax work 'of Sonny Rollins and Nicky Hill, the shimmering guitar of Lou Blevins and the pulsating time kept by pianist Billy Wallace and drummer Max Roach is featured. Audio quality is ragged, which is to  be expected, but these things are remedied and the music proceeds, quickly regain momentum. Live at the Bee Hive exists as an example of superb musicians just flat-out playing their  hearts out.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Capsule reviews from 1980: SHAMING MAHOGONY RUSH, GENTLE GIANT and PETER ALSOP

What's Next-
Frank Marino and Mahogany Rush (Columbia) T

The story goes that a young Frank Marino freaked out on bad acid some years ago. After being given a guitar by his doctors as part of his recovery therapy, he was soon playing exactly like the deceased Jimi Hendrix even though he had previously never touched the instrument. Marino said in early interviews that he believed the spirit of Jimi had entered him during his recovery and that he had been changed from being just another teenage doper into someone who would carry on what Hendrix had begun. So the story goes. What you can say about Marino, whether you swallow' that crock or not, is that he does sound like Hendrix. But instead of "carrying on" the guitar stylistics and advancing the art of electric guitar, Marino's playing is somewhere in the late 60s, fast and furious, full of echo, feedback, and, unlike Hendrix's occasional moments of bluesy lyricism, utterly graceless. The problem is singular: Marino and Mahagony Rush are incapable of writing a decent riff, a failing that results in Marino ejaculating pud-pounding solos over the material like a meat and potatoes slob drowning the most expensive plate at the Top Of The Cove in a comeuppance of ketchup. Although one has to concede Marino's adeptness, his style becomes wearisome. In the end, What's Next, their newest record seems aimed at the audience who've turned Hendrix into a deity and refused to admit that better guitarists have come along. 

_____

Civilian -
 Gentle Giant (Columbia)

Back in the days when classically-derived rock was all the rage among the small enclaves of pop dilettantes, Gentle Giant set themselves apart from the pack with the unusual continuity and rigid formalism. Their playing. In recent years, though, Giant has been changing their sound, gearing it toward a more commercial appeal so that they might attract a larger audience who might otherwise dismiss them as mere technical tricksters.- Unfortunately, what they sound like on Civilian, their latest record, is merely a watered-down rendition of their old self, bordering almost on self-parody. "The material stays safely within the limits of what the average tolerate - there is little risk-taking here - and except for some pleasant ensemble bits here and there, nothing really gels moving. Also, Derek Shulman's singing - a distraught, emasculated whine - has never been my idea of great crooning, and the lyrics, trapped in the apriori existential murk of alienation and all, amount to nothing more than in articulated pout. Words such as these are enough to make one want to give the linger, incessantly mewling about a world he didn't ask to be born into, a good swift kick in the pants. And not necessarily in the seat. 

_____

Draw The Line -Peter Alsop (Flying Fish)

 

If this were 1967, an anti·-war or Civil Rights march, and if I were 17, 'dad in khaki, stoned beyond what's reasonable in public, and still believing we could have world peace through the right mixture of drugs and indiscriminate sex, I would think that folkie Peter Alsop . was a totally bitchen guy. But this is 1980, and though my politics haven't changed all that much, I think most of us learned the lesson that the world won't be a better place through wishful thinking and pamphlet politics. Alsop , though, seems to exist quite happily in an airless vacuum . He 's what used to be called a "topical" songwriter, and though the things he chooses to sing about - the innate greed principal of capitalism, the principle of nuclear energy,  labor songs, feminisms' liberation of males from the breadwinner role - you find him to be so politically "correct" that you'd like to punch him out. Not that I find anything particularly disagreeable with Alsop's worldview. Alsop gets on my nerves because of his expression, which is didactically self-righteous, shallow, and humorous to only an audience of like-minded politico who already knows the punchlines. And as a propagandist, he lacks the needed ability to turn up with the stirring turn of phrase. This man is not Phil Ochs, Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, or Buffy St. Marie. He is Peter Alsop, an insufferable little snit, a profoundly depressing experience. What else can you expect from a man who probably won't play in any state that hasn't ratified the ERA? 


(Originally in The UCSD Daily Guardian)

Monday, January 18, 2021

PHIL SPECTOR IS DEAD AND SO IS LANA CLARKSON



There will be posthumous praise enough for the brilliant but entirely problematic Phil Spector, who recently croaked of Covid complications. He made magic, he changed the way hits were made, the whole shot . Not that anyone's forgetting that he died as a convicted murderer responsible for the death of Lana Clarkson in 2003. That he was alcoholic, a gun nut and a severely paranoid were well known Spector attributes, a bad combination everyone seemed aware of. It seemed inevitable that something as tragic as the death of Clarkson would happen sooner or later. So lets consider the intersection between one's art and how that art is informed by intractable social attitudes . This 1962 song, HE HIT ME (It Felt Like a Kiss), recorded by The Crystals, written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King and produced by Spector , is the recitative of a teen girl telling the tale of being "untrue" to steady beau by kissing another boy, and that the young cuckhold hit her. "He hit me", the chorus goes, " It felt like a kiss", an efficient and disturbing encapsulation of a battered woman's mind set that the blow was a profession of love .

The victim internalizes the blame infers that she deserved to be punched. Yes, Spector didn't write the song and a more exacting examination is due Spector, guns and violence against women as a matter of course, but it's interesting that his production of a song that makes hitting women a natural consequence of a woman betraying the needs of a male for which the female can only blame herself. Let's remember that this is a pathology and that Spector, along with Goffin and King , perpetuated it, a product toxic to its essentials intended to be sold to an audience that one presumes thinks it's expectable to commit violence as a means of expressing how one feels.

Friday, January 1, 2021

DONOVAN THE GOTH

There’s a telling scene in Don’t Look Back, D.A. Pennebaker’s grainy 1967 documentary of Bob Dylan’s stormy 1965 tour of England. Dylan is in a hotel, filled with tour members, local celebs, musicians, and varieties of hangers-on. The Maestro is rifling through a British paper and happens upon an article on Donovan, the Scottish singer-songwriter who’d been gigging around the folk scene in the Isles and had recently scored a sizeable with his song “Catch the Wind.” He was about 19 years old and the influence of Dylan on the younger singer was obvious in the hit with its acoustic guitar and Donovan’s nasal, twangy singing of the especially poetic lyrics. The only article missing on the song was a wheezy, crestfallen harmonica break. The success of the tune led journalists to call him “the new Dylan” or “England’s answer to Bob Dylan.” Dylan was reportedly bemused at how the press seemed to call for younger folkies to knock him from his supposed throne. This is where we find him in Don’t Look Back, staring at Donovan’s picture in the paper. Alan Price, former keyboardist for the Animals, who was along for much of the tour, sits next to Dylan, a bit drunk, and gives the American the lowdown on the man in the newspaper. 

“…He’s a very good guitar player,” says Price as he weaves to and fro. “He’s better than you.” 
“Yeah,” says Dylan. “Right away I hate him.”

It’s not likely Dylan hated Donovan in any sense. Donovan instead became part of the entourage that followed the charismatic Maestro around. Later, a scene has the Scottish minstrel in another crowded hotel room with Dylan. Donovan plays guitar and sings “To Sing for You,” which earns him a round of friendly applause. The guitar winds up in Dylan’s hands, who then gives a snarling version of “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue.” Eyes are on Dylan and the room is rapt as the harsh surrealism rings from Dylan’s mouth. 

Donovan didn’t fall prey to the fate of many other “new Dylans” who wound up in relative obscurity after an initial flash of attention. In short order, over the next couple of years, he shed his emulation of the Man from Hibbing and evolved into a diverse artist. His lyrics remained on the poetic side but gone were the feigned mannerism of rural expression. Rather than pretend he was from the back woods, he became more urbane, worldly. His voice matured, becoming more supple, melodic, versatile, and expressive in the wide swath of styles in the eclecticism that became his calling card. His songwriting came to us elements of jazz, pop, blues, a distinct form of acid-rock, and alluring takes on what soon would be called world music. Fans and pundits stopped comparing him to Dylan as Donovan’s personality and broad style came into their own There was a time in the artist’s career when I and other local pop music snobs thought Donovan had jumped the shark a bit with his 1967 release From a Flower to a Garden, notable, among other things, for being rock’s first double studio album. The two discs, though, stressed the nerve endings of too-serious teens like yours truly who wanted it grim, dark, and bleakly existential. Donovan had caught the Summer of Love virus with this release, appearing to go off the rails. He was now the Uber Hippie, transcendental in all matters in the Age of Aquarius. Flowing robes that dragged along the floor, an overkill of love beads, an equal overkill of fresh-cut flowers, bare feet, a haircut that made it looked like the man had combed his mane with an eggbeater—all this plus an expensive acoustic guitar are clues to someone of considerable talent who had started to take himself too seriously. 

Our hero, though, is remarkable for his capacity to change styles and become interested in diverse ways of writing and singing about the world and the larger spiritual universe. And there is, to be sure, a refreshing strain of skepticism, aesthetic distance, and a firm grasp of irony in much of his songwriting that has gone overlooked. The image of Donovan, the-counterculture seer, still tends to cloud much of the public reception when we approach his songwriting craft. His oeuvre needs a major reappraisal by professional critics and high-minded fans, as there are wonderfully made and even sardonic masterpieces among the glitzy paraphernalia of the Youth Quake. Let’s take a look at three songs: “Sunny Goodge Street” (from his second album’s1965 Fairytale), “Epistle to Dippy” (a single released in 1967), and “Young Girl Blues” (from the Mellow Yellow disc in 1966) are quite a bit more cynical and knowing than his later reputation suggests. 

“Sunny Goodge Street” is a panorama of a particular urban hip scene so commonly portrayed in flashy and groovy terms in the ’60s, but Donovan’s version of it makes it seem unpredictable, violent, paranoid, and incoherent. It is closer to William Burroughs than to Scott McKenzie’s version of John Phillip’s saccharine paean to hippiedom, “If You’re Going to San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair).” As with Burroughs, the air appears to depict a drugged-out state on its own terms. Donovan seemed to understand that the counterculture was as much a creep scene as it was a gathering moment for truth seekers, poets, and sensualists who desired both sex and innocence. While the cost of reaching all sorts of forbidden knowledge, drugs and the attending hype was unknown, and Donovan had a foreboding rarely expressed by a generation of musicians that was self-infatuated. It has a jazz-ballad feel—slow, swaying, almost precariously—the lyrics suggesting a denizen who’s smoked too much trying to stay awake until he finishes saying what he’s determined to get out. 

On the firefly platform on Sunny Goodge Street
Violent hash smokers shook a chocolate machine
Involved in an eating scene 
Smashing into neon streets in their stonedness
Smearing their eyes on the crazy Kali goddess
Listenin’ to sounds of Mingus mellow fantastic 
My, my, they sighMy, my, they sigh 
In dollhouse rooms with colored lights swingin’
Strange music boxes sadly tinklin’
Drink in the sun, shining all around you 
My, my, they sigh
My, my, they sigh 
The magician, he sparkles in satin and velvet
You gaze at his splendour with eyes you’ve not used ye
I tell you his name is love, love, love 

My, my, they sigh

My, my, they sigh 


Nothing specific, profound, or stirring uttered, though, as each sentence chops off the sentence that came before, one idea and detail of the street canceling out the other, the details are blurred rather than vivid impression of the neighborhood. It’s probable that this is what Donovan meant, preferring to give us an indefinite scenario rather than words extolling drug use or hippie culture. We find here that Donovan has mastered the Great Poet’s super power, as did Eliot and Ashbery and Elizabeth Bishop, which is to rise to the challenge of not making literal sense in the subject matter and yet still giving us a sense of what the experience was like. No lecture, no propaganda, an accord shattered and pieced back together. Under the sweet music of the lyrics lurks a dead zone of imagination; it is among the more disturbing I remember from ’60s FM radio. 

“Epistle to Dippy” is nothing less than a direct address of a try-anything scene maker who dashes from drug to scene to fad in an irrational attempt to out run their own vacuity, their utter lack of soul or genuine sensibility. In his liner notes for a Donovan box-set Troubadour, writer Brian Hogg relates the song, written in letter form to a friend, which abounds with a strong pacifist message while teeming with psychedelic imagery. Hogg further writes that the actual subject of the song, who was serving in the British military, soon resigned from the service after hearing Donovan’s words that convey a strong extolling of pacifist philosophy. That is the story behind the headline, but I felt something darker into the song since my first listen decades ago. This is a cutting critique, more potent than the Beatles’ polite poo-poohing tune along the same theme, “Nowhere Man.” 


Look on yonder misty mountain
See the young monk meditating rhododendron forest
Over dusty years, I ask you
What’s it’s been like being you?

Through all levels you’ve been changing
Getting a little bit better, no doubt
The doctor bit was so far out
Looking through crystal spectacles
I can see I had your fun

Doing us paperback reader
Made the teacher suspicious about insanity
Fingers always touching girl


Through all levels you’ve been changing
Getting a little bit better, no doubt
The doctor bit was so far out
Looking through all kinds of windows
I can see I had your fun
Looking through all kinds of windows
I can see I had your fun

Looking through crystal spectacles
I can see I had your fun
Looking through crystal spectacles
I can see I had your fun


Rebelling against society,
Such a tiny speculating whether to be a hip or
Skip along quite merrily


Through all levels you’ve been changing
Elevator in the brain hotel
Broken down but just as well-a
Looking through crystal spectacles,
I can see you’ve had your fun…

“Young Girl Blues” is a doleful, world-weary observation, a bittersweet recollection of an ingenue who had gotten tired of her own hipness and the chronic scene-making. The details are spare, bone tired. They create a bleak view of such an noisy and hip scene of the fever-pitched Sixties. Donovan senses the isolation—none of the scene makers can break away from or cure with brand names, loud music, and chemicals. There is. through it all. an implied yet emphatic sense that youth and beauty fade and that the impulsiveness and egocentricity of being young must evolve into maturity lest someone young girl or young man, remain stunted, incomplete in their humanity.


It’s Saturday night
It feels like a Sunday in some ways
If you had any sense
You’d maybe go ‘way for a few days
Be that as it may
You can only say you were lonely
You are but a young girl
Working your way through the phonies


Coffee on, milk gone
Such a sad light unfading
Yourself you touch
But not too much
You hear it’s degrading

The flowers on your stockings
Wilting away in the midnight
The book you are reading
Is one man’s opinion of moonlight
Your skin is so white

You’d like maybe to go to bed soon
Just closing your eyes
If you’re to rise up before noon


High heels, car wheels
All the losers are grooving
Your dream, strange scene
Images are moving

Donovan is a perceptive witness to what unfolded. He skillfully sets a scene with telling details, artfully establishes the mood of the era, and is not reluctant to examine the emotional and psychic dead ends that fester under the utopian hoopla. Donovan realized he was observing a generation waste its potential on trivial frolics. “Young Girl Blues” crystalizes the unwelcome truth that beauty and youth fade and the weight and of existence must be faced. This is The Bard’s way of letting listeners know that one can grow up or grow old. He has the skill to insinuate an anonymous narrator, privy to and sympathetic with the character’s internal struggles, and adroitly outline a small cataclysm as the protagonist journeys from self-delusion to an inevitable, rueful clarity. Donovan is a master of compressed tragedy. 

Among the immensely popular songwriters who emerged from the Sixties revolution Donovan has been given the short shrift. Hardly ignored, of course, but it’s a mystery that there hasn’t been much in the way of broadly circulated critical reappraisals of his music and lyrics considering his extraordinary evolution as an artist. The work has varied in quality over the decades, but what good musician’s work hasn’t run hot and cold in a career that lasted five and a half decades? Donovan very much merits another visit. A closer look, another listen, a reacquaintance of this man’s remarkable oeuvre will bring more masterpieces to the fore, a better sense of what a bright young talent comprehended during a complicated era. It’s my hope that his best and most interesting music, created through fad and fancy of a great many years, finds a broader listenership. The songwriter’s best work holds up, and it holds up for the same reason Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night or Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test hold up against the withering churn of decades; each is an exquisitely etched portraits of the Sixties that bypassed the mass-mediated brainwashing fostered by Time and Life magazines, which spoke of Youth Culture and revolution that was as problematic as the Establishment activists and idealists said needing radical changing.