Saturday, September 25, 2021
Bob Dylan performed at New York's esteemed Carnegie Hall, for which he additionally wrote the program notes. Titled My Life in a Stolen Moment, it's a long, rambling length of free verse poetry that is an intriguing example of Dylan juvenilia. A self-conscious and entirely awkward combination of Beat style first-thought-best-thought idea and the unlettered eloquence of the deep feeling poor white, it purports to be the true telling of Dylan's upbringing in small-town Minnesota. It's not a reliable document. As an autobiography, I wouldn't trust a word of it. Dylan embellished his story from the beginning. Inconsistencies and incongruities in his stated timeline were noted early on. I remember that Sy and Barbara Ribakove were suspicious of Dylan's accounting of his life back in 1966 with their book "Folk-Rock: The Bob Dylan Story." All the fabulation has certainly given a couple of generations of Dylan obsessives much to sift through and write books about. It's a poem, of course, but not a good one. What had always irritated me about Dylan's writing was his affectation of the poor, white rural idiom. It's dreadful, unnatural sounding as you read it (or listen to it from his early recordings). While it's one thing to be influenced by stories of hobo life, the Great Depression, and to use the inspiration to find one's uniquely expressive voice as a writer or poet, what Dylan does here ranks as some of his most pretentious, awkward, and preening writing. One can argue in Dylan's defense with the vague idea of negative capability, but that holds water only if the writing is great and the writer is possessed by genius. Of course, Dylan is/was a genius, but this was something he wrote when he was merely talented and audacious. Genius hadn't bloomed yet. This bucolic exercise has always been an embarrassment, juvenilia that sounds juvenile.
Tuesday, September 14, 2021
A problem of being a self-appointed culture critic is that the longer you hang around the planet breathing the air, the faster it seems your heroes seem to die. That’s a generational thing, your elders and your peers start to pass on, and your tribe is just a little smaller every few weeks. Of course, the cure for that sort of minor depression is getting new heroes, reading new artists, listening to music by younger musicians, and, most obviously, making more friends. Iggy Pop is over 69 years old, and it’s an irony upon an irony that he enters the last year of his 6th decade of life on the same day we find out that Prince has passed away at the age of 57. Iggy survived the morbid predictions that insisted that he would be the next major edgy rock star to go, joining Morrison, Joplin, Hendrix, Jones, and others as having a bad end to an edgy life lived in the spotlight. Nihilism was at the core of his act, both as Stooges frontman and as a solo artist.
It seemed that the fabled mixtures of teenage impulse and fantastic amounts of methamphetamines and heroin were willful tools he was using to describe life not just at the edge of existence but also, if he were lucky, a will to narrate the passage through the thick shroud of unbeing. It’s a classic conceit in modern arts that an artist’s demise confirms their greatness/genius/cutie-pie factor; what have you. It’s a species of pornographic thinking, and shame on us for egging it onward in the culture. However, something intervened in that cliche, and Pop has been one of the more interesting elder statesmen for some time, always worth a listen. We benefit from his persistence to remain creative, not to be too terribly sentimental about it. Still, Pop’s longevity improves the quality of my life by his example that you can continue to respond creatively, with imagination, to the short existence we’re allowed to have. Like Bowie, Prince was one of those people you assumed would be around for the final mile of the long haul, a genuinely gifted polymath who would make music into his dimmest twilight. From this fan’s view, what hurts the most is that we won’t get to hear the grander, more experimental adventures Prince would have had as a musician. A straight-ahead jazz album. A record of guitar blitzing? Serious classical endeavors? Movie soundtracks? Big Band Music? A blues thing? Reggae? A stage turn as Othello?
His androgyny/sex fiend persona aside, I marveled at the chameleon nature of his music, the jumping around from style to style. Unlike Bowie, equally eclectic in taste and output, there was a substantial musical virtuosity to Prince’s switching up and mashing up and fusing the elements of rock, fusion, Philly/Motown/Memphis/ soul, jazz, and the occasional bits of classical allusion. Though he never spoke much of his training, self-taught or schooled, he had as solid a grasp of the mechanics of music and controlled his virtuosity like it were a tool to be used judiciously, in service to the music.
There was little that was excessive in his music, and I rather liked his singing, which was far from your traditional rock or soul voice; thin, reedy, nasal, limited in range and color, he still molded it convincingly over his melodies and lyrics, sounding wise, insinuating, dangerous, alluring, nearly any persona he wanted to get across. Anything seemed possible for him because he was spectacularly good at the varied projects he’d already finished and released.Alas, but no. This makes you want to pause a few moments and consider the breath you are taking at that instant and recognize that life is a gift we are given but don’t own. Embrace the days we have and do something with the hours while we have them.
Tuesday, August 24, 2021
Sunday, August 22, 2021
Don Juan's Reckless Daughter - Joni Mitchell (Asylum)
Listeners have taken joy in Joni Mitchell's continual insistence on changing her musical approach, so it was not unusual that the release of Hissing of Summer Lawns was hailed, for the most part, a bold step towards personal and artistic growth. Nevertheless, while Hissing and her subsequent and less successful Hejira did indeed show Mitchell expanding herself to more adventurous motifs - broader song structures, an increasingly impressionistic lyric scan, jazz textures - the trend toward a more personalized voice has virtually walled her off from the majority of her fans. Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, her new double record effort, takes the ground gained from the last two albums and converts it into a meandering, amorphous culmination of half-formed concepts. Musically, the stylistic conceit is towards jazz modernism, with several songs exceeding ten minutes in length as they ramble over Mitchell's vaguely comprehensible piano chords. She reveals a tendency to hit a strident chord and let the notes resonate and fade as she vocally ruminates over the lyrics - while her sidemen, Jaco Pastorious and Wayne Shorter from Weather Report, and guitarist John Guerin, do their best to add definition.
The lyrics, in kind, are an impressionistic hodgepodge, a string of images, indecipherable references, and gutless epiphanies that needed a good pruning. While the more hard-nosed defenders may defend the latest with the excuse that a poet may express themselves in any way they see fit, one still has to question the worth of any effort to dissect Reckless Daughter the way one used to mull over Dylan albums. Though any number of matters that Mitchell chooses to deal with may have value to her audience - spiritual lassitude, the responsibilities of freedom, sexuality into Middle Ages - she does not supply anything resembling hooks, catchphrases, or access points, of ' reference to steady the voluminous diffusion of the stanzas. Instead, she gives them art, whether they like it or not. The paradox in Mitchell's idea has thrown craft well outside the window while measuring up to "Art" in the upper case. She has gone from being an artful songwriter to being merely arty. What is remembered is the artifice and gloss used to make this double record enterprise seem a higher caliber of music.
Sunday, August 1, 2021
Thursday, July 8, 2021
It is not so much that repeating his stylistics is terrible by default; it's annoying, and I think lazy that the moves were so loud, protracted, and utterly, utterly predictable in the scheme of things. ONCE UPON A TIME... IN HOLLYWOOD, though, has all his virtues and little of his vices. The characters sound like they are talking to each other about jobs, love, bad luck, random stuff, rather than giving hammed-up, over-written, self-announcing speeches to each other. The era and the pace are perfectly recreated, the music on the soundtrack is excellent--I think it was inspired to have what was on the AM top forty featured rather than the expected FM "underground" stuff. I mean, Jesus, I love that QT gave Paul Revere and the Raiders some love. Also, much appreciate the actor here is a B -Lister, a character actor trying to manage his demons and shortcomings and acquire an acting gig that he won't be embarrassed by.
It is a big, appealing shaggy dog story. One of the best cast movies I've seen in a while. I was surprised how much I liked a movie by a director whose films I think are repetitive, overblown, and without any residue of charm. It's a Tarantino movie indeed, and their bits I found needless or excessive, but the plus side is that there is SO MUCH LESS of his bright-boy didacticism that it's easy to mistake it for being flawless. If you want to call it that, the genius moves here is that QT decided to tell a story, or several stories, rather than be an auteur. This is only the second movie where I felt he was not trying to prove anything, the other one being Jackie Brown, his adaptation of Elmore Leonard's superlative novel Rum Punch.
That is a movie I think film hounds will be returning to when they come to discuss this man's work. So far as his motive and meaning go, I am content that he regards the period as intrinsically exciting and figured out how to contrive an engaging "what if" tale with the particulars. Let us consider Mailer knocking off that grandiose third-person hat trick when he happened up Gary Gilmore. His decision to tell the story rather than grandstand was a sensible approach. QT's efforts to blue pencil much of the verbal dexterity of the dialogue was an equally shrewd move.
Thursday, May 27, 2021
Not the kind of thing one aspires to be, I would think. Somewhere along the line the term was assimilated into the counterculture idea of resistance against the corporate-capitalist-military state, the -enemy -of -my -enemy -is- my- friend rationale. Some of us remember when Hells Angels were considered cool, and hip and Jefferson Airplane sang that we were all outlaws "in the eyes of Amerika..." Then Altamont happened and changed the view of the HAs, but it stops the definition of punk from changing and being adopted and adapted by any number of would-be tribes of rebels, whether poets, musicians, painters, performance artists or pretentious lay-abouts desiring a blunt, monosyllabic term to give themselves and their alleged and varied ethos. And like anything else that becomes central to rock music, the term is hollowed out entirely of whatever useful meaning it had and is now a marketing term and codified musical style that in these latter days inspires more parody than fear among the population.
Thursday, May 6, 2021
Wednesday, April 21, 2021
Thursday, April 1, 2021
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 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
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
They writhe upon the page
in a veritable rage
groaning with babies and bayonets
under cement skies
in an abstract landscape of blasted trees
bent statues bats wings and beaks
cadavers and carnivorous cocks
and all the final hollering monsters
‘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.
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.