Monday, January 30, 2023


 Rock was supposed to be rebellion, and rock musicians collectively should have renounced the minute some armchair sociologist made that pronouncement. Rock music ought to have acquired genuinely repulsive and stupider and more violent, aggressive and expressed the collective ID in gruesome detail before anymore, writers invented vocabularies to describe and contextualize what was going on. But it's too late now. Before the Palace could be burned down, rock became a form of art with literary and high-mind musicological influence. It became poetry, it became art, it ceased to be anything at all. It became too "about" things rather than a thing in itself, powerful and potent. Rock music became defined and categorized and endlessly subcategorized and became something to be taught in universities, where the same jargonized clichés are memorized again. 

The point I was going towards in all that deep waxing was that the giving things names, definitions, announcing what their function ought to be in fact nullifies whatever power and effect they might have had. Critique helped make the energy of rock into a commodity that could be named, categorized and sold to a large audience, and it helped keep a generation of intellectuals from leaving the school. Nothing prevents you from doing anything meaningful, effective than to have provided for you an expanding distraction that swallows you whole and gets you thinking, for all the jargonizing and posturing about meaning, purpose and transforming nothing useful is being accomplished. Reaction to music, responses to music, changing tastes over generations, change the standard for quality. How well or how badly music is perceived depends on the human reaction to the expression of music. Critical, technical, aesthetic, and philosophical underpinnings of those tenets are malleable. People's reactions to what they were listening to has everything to do with music.

Tuesday, January 10, 2023


There was a joke told by Rodney Dangerfield about trying to catch your profile as you walk by a store window, thinking that you could, you see yourself, if
only for a nanosecond, in a state of not being aware that you're being observed. All in vain, of course, as all you catch is a snapshot of you pouting somewhat, puckered like a lovesick fish, grimacing with downcast eyes, annoyance tempering the disappointment of not catching your reflection unaware.

Meanwhile, you bump into people you didn't see coming the other way. You mumble apologies, get off earshot of profanities, careful not walk into traffic when you come to the corner. On the other side of the window are the people who have already arrived to where they were going, seated at tables over glasses of water and wine, looking at menus; you imagine yourself already at the location you need to get to, safe in a seat with a wife, watching television, anonymous in the shadows of your making.

On the coffee table are the glasses you thought would aid you in seeing the pure profile of your perfect jawline, the certitude of the chin rising to like the prow of a ship cutting a path through aggravated waters, next to the iPod and the earpieces you wore to make the world sound less like a city at war with its mechanical parts and more like soundtrack for an under-lit porno. The clown shoes are off, the tie is undone, the television nags at you with sales pitches for shampoo and retirement accounts, prescription drug plans and limited edition gold coins and commemorative plates, your wife is already asleep, you cannot stop thinking of what it is you need to do, your fingers twitch, move in motions like warm up exercises, you want to write something that will put the light back into the day that get darker the longer you stay alive, you want clarity, you would rather not vanish as though turned off with a remote control, reduced to something less than the white do that used to dominate the television screen when the last credit scrolled by and bedtime was immediate, irrevocable.

You might miss something, you might miss lending your voice to the running stream of remarks that make up the news of the moment, you wanted to write history as it happened, the evidence of your senses keen enough to define the tone and temper of the good and bad things that make this existence such an exciting thing to stay awake for.

Saturday, January 7, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: "The Philosophy of Modern Music" by Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan won the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, an ironic designation if only because Dylan wasn’t a man of books, but rather a songwriter. The gist of the argument for the musician being awarded the prize was that his lyrics, in a brief span of time, evolved from clever imitations of the folk and blues artists he admired and imitated to become a rich libretto for his age. Surrealist nightmares, black humor, rhapsodic tone poems, acute observations of ingrained varieties of bad faith revealed in personal lives and in the political sphere, songs like “Like a Rolling Stone,” “I Want You,” and “Positively 4th Street” brought a new, serious poetry to the jukebox, leading the way for a generation of other songwriters. It was a common sight in nearly any graduate student’s apartment that Dylan discs like Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde cozily nestled next to the typically dog-eared paperbacks of Pound’s Cantos, One Dimensional Man or a coffee table book about Max Ernst or Diane Arbus.

As the songwriter’s lyrics became darker, more mystical, expressively abstract, the deeper the appreciation of the baffling brilliance of his work became—and soon enough the serious vanguard of modern American poetry—Ginsberg, McClure et al., counted the man from Hibbing as one of their own, a sage who could see beyond the flat appearance of the material world and provide glimpses of what’s behind the veil. Dylan née Zimmerman had a run of genius, the length of which wholly depended on how dedicated one is to the continuity of the songwriter’s brilliance. My interest is more about his earlier career, 1962 (Bob Dylan) through 1969 (Nashville Skyline). In my quizzical estimation, his work has been inconsistent since that time, occasionally animated with outbreaks of energy and verbal intensity (Blood on the Tracks). But Dylan zealots are a bright and well-read part of the listening population, and those who found worth, insight, and inspiration from albums from Street Legal or Empire Burlesque (two random selections from the years I call “the Great In-Between”) defend the later work with energy, solid thinking, and good writing. That’s the Dylan whose work and reputation provokes an alarming amount of cogitation.

An endless variety of books have been published about Dylan and his songwriting in the six decades since the release of his first album, some purely for pop music fans, others gossipy, and many that are a kind of interpretative analysis that approach the inscrutability of the maestro’s best stanzas. But Dylan, again, is a songwriter, not a writer of books in the main. His catalog of songs abounds with much of the most original, penetrating, and innovative lyrics of the 20th century, and many achieve the status of High Art, genuine and compelling poetry. “Visions of Johanna,” “Desolation Row,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” “Memphis Blues Again.” “Spanish Harlem Incident,” and the full version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” reveal a man in love with the varieties of idioms available to him; he loved language enough to ignore the formalities in front of him and merge the styles he loved in the simple melodies he often borrowed from others. He could rhyme and his couplets were adroit and left you saying “oh, wow” as he finished each verse. This virtuosity didn’t carry over to books, as the pair he’s written up to now wind up head scratchers at best.

Tarantula, an experimental prose poetry collection Dylan wrote between 1965 and 1966, wasn’t intended for publication, but its existence became an underground legend, and bootleg editions began to circulate. Tarantula was finally printed in 1971. The book wasn’t a coherent thesis but rather reflected Dylan’s method and influences, which characterized his most baroque and lyrics, similar in style to the “cut up” technique fashioned by William Burroughs in his novels Naked Lunch and The Wild Boys: a major transgression against grammar and punctuation and notions of continuity, rough-hewn character sketches, in jokes, odd conflations of vernaculars that constitute Dylan’s most hallucinogenic writing. It remains a head scratcher even for the most faithful of his flock, although there are some rather striking and evocative tributes to a woman named Aretha, most likely Aretha Franklin. This lane-changing collection of idiomatic invention and deconstruction is, if nothing else, an odd and sometimes exhilarating landmark in on the Dylan bookshelf.

Dylan’s next book Chronicles Volume One, published in 2004, is said to have started as the author’s attempts to write liner notes for his then-forthcoming reissues of Bob Dylan, New Morning, and Oh Mercy. The project grew larger and became what is described as part one of a three-part memoir. While fascinating to read the usually opaque lyricist convene in readable prose, his recollections are limited to some worthy remarks about the making of his first album and then protracted memories of the relatively obscure New Morning and Oh Mercy. Chronicles spent four months on the New York Times bestseller list and was generally well reviewed, though there was disappointment in the matters he chose to talk about and not discuss. Worse, there were rumblings that Dylan had fabricated much of what he did bother to disclose. Clinton Heylin, a thorough Dylan biographer, who has published eight books on the singer in the past 30 years, has been quoted as saying that while he enjoyed reading Dylan’s book as a work of imaginative literature but that “… almost everything in the Oh Mercy section of Chronicles is a work of fiction…”

So, we arrive at Dylan’s new book, The Philosophy of Modern Song. It’s a handsome, oversized tome that has Dylan bringing us a stream of brief essays that discuss an odd, seemingly random set of 66 songs that were popular through American history. As expected, the songs are a confounding selection of tunes, as he opts not to opine or analyze the landmark music of the last century or so but instead goes for a good many tunes that are painfully obscure and not necessarily worth dwelling on at length. From 2006 to 2009, the singer had Theme Time Radio Hour, a weekly, one hour satellite podcast where each program’s playlist centered around a theme instead of a specific genre. The song choices were unusual in large part—the odd, the quirky, the gorgeous, and the amazingly bucolic varieties of American music played to whatever the mood of the week was, the music on each program peppered with Dylan’s offhand remarks, jokes, anecdotes, historical trivia, and brief biographies of the musicians. The Philosophy of Modern Music appears to take the same strategy and avoids a traceable thesis through the essays where Dylan chats about the songs he’s chosen for elucidation. A fascinating assortment, including three songs by the Eagles (“Life in the Fast Lane,” ”New Kid in Town,” “Pretty Maids All in a Row”), Rosemary Clooney (“Come on a My House”), Johnny Taylor (“Cheaper to Keep Her”), Little Richard (“Tutti Frutti”), Cher (“Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves”), and other songs of far-reaching style, attitude, and subject that are, truthfully, perfectly fine, and often brilliant classics but that have little obvious connection apart from the Nobel Prize winner selected for a book.

The book is hailed in promotion materials as a masterclass in songwriting and refers to the essays, while being nominally about music, as being “meditations and reflections on the human condition.” “Essays” is perhaps too generous a term to describe what Dylan has written for these songs, as their lengths and depth of thought don’t particularly rise above an average blog post. What’s revealed is that Dylan is not really the philosophical sort to take apart concepts and deal with them critically in archly specialized language, and that he wasn’t awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature based on his prose. Anyone desiring weighty and eloquent clarity on the purpose of existence will find the book wanting, but those who consider Dylan to be a gifted artist with interesting things to say about some musical landmarks that got and kept his attention, The Philosophy of Modern Song is an intriguing, frequently surprising set of remarks and musings from one of the 20th Century’s most enigmatic figures. The individual pieces are remarkably poetic and literate on their terms. What connects this wide swath of tunes is Dylan’s skill at putting himself in the narrative at hand rather than analyze the melody and lyrics for subtler inclinations and nuance or hypothesize how a hymn offers a critique of social relations; Dylan imagines cinematic scenarios, sees archetypes of modern myth negotiating their respective terrains, and finds the souls of errant knight of endless variation questing for a greater glory with what gifts or curses that mark their lives.

The lyricist hasn’t the prose polish of John Updike or James Baldwin, but his language is vivid, colorful, and skillfully emphatic as he delineates the dilemmas and joys each song undertakes to describe in a short expression. A theme does emerge as he runs through a host of the music, the notion of perseverance and persistence even in the face of hardship, heartbreak, and the cold incapability of a certain fate. A random selection of the essays brings this. Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” has a strong feeling of a classic movie western as Dylan writes of the narrator—a lone cowboy at a border town to meet a challenge he cannot forestall, emphasizes the weight of loneliness of the gunslinger, an existence where every joy is fleeting, and the shadow of death lurks in every unlit corner. “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves” was a 1971 hit for Cher, a torrid bit of fanciful exploitation that was considered to be a cardboard pathos at best, but Dylan thought deeper on the matter and found resonance. It stretches credulity, but his insistence on this song makes for reading you can’t draw away from. He uses the pronoun “you” in writing about the title’s tawdry trio, the intended effect being to imagine yourself as a member of this wandering community, the only home being the wagon that carries you at the outskirts of every town. He lays it own a little too thick by essay’s end, with his penchant for stringing three or more adjectives together when one would have been just as effective, but he does what he sets out to do to give you a strong impression of what life at the edge of society would be like. To that end, it reminded me of my time as a carnival worker, going from town to town up the coast, selling chances to win dusty stuffed animals to townies who obviously held the orange shirted show folk in contempt. It was a rush of memory, a chill in the bones, and an adventure I consider myself lucky to eventually walk away from.

These are songs of perseverance and persistence are again short testimonials that crop up on the radio, in movie soundtracks and music videos of individuals of many origins, backgrounds, and varying degrees of stress, who are determined to stand their ground lest the final remains of what is truly theirs vanishes in self-loathing rituals of compromise and surrender. That seems what has found in 66 songs, widely disparate in era, style, and sentiment; it’s the one tangible thread I’ve found. He is at his best when he gives vent to the full range of ironies contained in the Who’s 1965 proto punk rock anthem “My Generation,” with its famous line “I hope I die before I get old…”

The fact that the singer and songwriter who brought us the line, Roger Daltry and Peter Townsend are neither dead and are, in fact, old reflects on the arrogance of youth. The stuttering youth of the song is barely articulate and has no idea of what he wants to do, has no idea about why he’s angry and impatient, and is happy to simply be that way. It’s a grand and immature f**k you of self-assertion, a declaration that shocked and inspired a generation of kids to think that things will get better when they take over after the last wicked adult dies. But Dylan writes that you’re in a wheelchair being pushed around to the places you need to get to—doctor’s offices, the bathroom, the community meal hall; your mind is alert, but the body fails in subtle and significant ways every day. You’re eerily close to whatever dying day will award you, and you hear noise and brash men having their own good clamorous time in the thrall of their youth. You’re annoyed, you’re sleepy, you fall asleep. Dylan’s writing is particularly effective in this essay that should have aged well. At 81, I suppose Bob Dylan hear what the lyrics declaim and vividly recalls being the speedy, in-your-face Dada King, who rarely missed a chance to confound and confront the Old Squares who didn’t get it, a character in full sympathy with the romantic tragedy of a genius poet’s early demise. But his musing takes him to the next thought, which is that he’s far older than he might have expected, his memories are fuller, richer, more far-reaching than he thinks he has any right to, and the songs he’s paid attention to aren’t merely audio postcards of long-ago places but rather a means to remain connected; he intends to live fully and well and on his terms, in his words. Meandering and off the wall and syntactically awkward as it is at times, The Philosophy of Modern Song is a wonderful glimpse into how this perennial mystery man thinks.

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

Sunday, December 25, 2022


Ever notice that all the advance technology anyone seems to come up with in Marvel and DC geared solely for destroying things and not building them? Things like affordable housing, updating infrastructure, providing solutions to the causes of environmental change? Even protecting American citizen rights to vote in local and federal elections. For all the protecting the heroes and their technology promises, their use of it in the stories only creates more carnage once implemented. Think of how many decades we've seen Marvel heroes fight among themselves in New York City, smashing through and destroying buildings, whole city blocks, without a thought of innocent lives are in those structures. Consider the famous DC animation where Superman shows Darkseid "how powerful I really am" and proceeds to knock him through skyscrapers, in one side and out the other like the jets that crashed into the World Trade Center, without a hint of whether the structures were occupied or not. It's pretty a sign that comic writers and the corporations that employ them are cynical as to the value of heroes and view their exploits. The problems of the comic book world just keep multiplying, and it would seem, logically, that the efforts of the meta-humans to save the world only hasten its demise.


One of the long-standing praises sung in behalf of The Modern Age was the speed with which the affairs of the world were suddenly conducted, with the advent of air travel, the telegraph, radio, and eventually television. It was believed, as McLuhan did in his Musings in Understanding Media and, inevitably, The Medium is the Message, that this acceleration of seeming real time, and the attendant shrinking of the world into spheres that collided and overlapped, would produce comprehension and clarity of a reality that formerly with held its secrets.

That is finally a large hope for what's considered to be one of Modernism's great aims--to produce art, literature, and technologies that transforms the way the world is experienced. Your experience with this obscure composer fulfills that promise, somewhat: you, and the thousands you speak of, shared the experience, did their research with the technology at their disposal, and finally wrote about it in the same few hours. A little more of the world's culture was known and shared at the same time, little different from the first live television broadcast, coast to coast, where thousands of Americans viewed the same scene at the same time. 


Richard Brautigan stylistically and conceptually went to the well too many times as his writing career as a professional writer lasted longer than his inspiration, but he did write poems that retain their charm and uniqueness until now. "All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace" has an alluring sparseness of line to it as the narrator attempts to reconcile a reality transformed by technology with an idea that a natural world, already perfect, can survive the transformations.

I like to think (and

the sooner the better!)

of a cybernetic meadow

where mammals and computers

live together in mutually

programming harmony

like pure water

touching clear sky.

I like to think

(right now, please!)

of a cybernetic forest

filled with pines and electronics

where deer stroll peacefully

past computers

as if they were flowers

with spinning blossoms.

I like to think

(it has to be!)

of a cybernetic ecology

where we are free of our labors

and joined back to nature,

returned to our mammal

brothers and sisters,

and all watched over

by machines of loving grace.

Influenced by Chinese and Japanese poetry and not a little by WC Williams, the quizzical lines and images describe a world, not explain it, and that is what keeps the poem fresh, more than a time piece. It keeps you guessing. It is of its time, an age of hippie whimsy, but this, along with other verses, are not bound by its time. 


 A "go to" album we slap on when we need to be invigorated or otherwise risen from the depths of imagined or real despair? The issue is that I have at least a couple of hundreds set aside on a dedicated shelf, discs, let us say, that I can count on to raise my spirits and inspire may another blathering appreciation on my music blog. But I chose this one, Second Winter by Johnny Winter, released in as a quaintly three sided double discs, three sided because, explains Winter in a brief note, that they recorded everything it had at the time, all the songs that were ready for the public, and that they didn't want to dilute the quality with half-hearted filler material. I paraphrase Winter's words, but that's what he meant exactly. His first release "Johnny Winter" released earlier in 1969 on Columbia after much hype that the label had signed a rumored blues guitar genius, unheard, for 600, 000 dollars advance got so-so reviews from critics when the guitarist gave the world a traditional and fine blues record rather than the flashy Hendrixian pyrotechnics most were expecting. Second Winter is Winter and the Band digging into the material with rather amazing variety of roots rock and blues styles. Not a wasted track, not a wasted second, no filler, I think this is one of the great blues-rock virtuoso showcases for the era and for all time. "Fast Life Rider", "Highway 61 Revisited", "Hustled Down In Texas", "Miss Anne"… The back-up of bassist Tommy Shannon and drummer John Turner give the lead a firm, persistent, uncomplicated support, allowing Winter the framework to display his malleable blues virtuosity in a variety of context. A bonus is brother Edgar Winter's occasional keyboard and sax work. 


One of the rock and roll architects has left the stage. Chuck Berry and Little Richard in their prime always meant more to me, but Lewis was a close third in my personal rock and roll canon. No one could pound a piano with more verve or energy, and it seemed to me watching old clips of him live over that he was not so much playing piano as he was committing assault upon it. His singing, as well, was unique, his own and impossible to cogently emulate. His southern accent became a tight, coiled sound that was as much about barely constrained energy as it was about tone, timbre, or range. It was a primitive glee to raise havoc that battered the limits of the chord progressions. God help the audience if whatever possessed this artist escaped the musical bars that constrained it. That Jerry Lee Lewis found a second career as a fully realized country artist only makes sense; one always had the feeling that he thought the Devil and God were wrestling for his soul. If rock and roll were the indulgence of the baser, untamed qualities of the human spirit, country was the area where home, hearth, heartbreak, and healing of a sort could balance the emotional scales. He was an original architect of rock and roll, a phenomenon that will not reoccur in any future unfolding of human history.


Bob Seger will be remembered mostly for all the glorious melodramatic self-examination that began with "Night Moves", a tune that initiated a string of hit singles and platinum albums. Like some others here, my listening history with him goes back further, back to the wonder of rhythm and blues and psychedelic hybrid primitivism that was half inspiration, half thrash. "Black Eyed Girl" has it all, a sleepy, trudging blues holler. Seger sounds like he's just woken up from a night of hard drinking and equally hard loving, and finds himself alone in a dark and dirty hotel room. Drums and bass are very effectively basic, and the guitar work by Seger is minimalist that the flimsy wall between "minimal" and "amateurish" could collapse at any moment. And Seger hollers his brains out, pushing his upper register in what seems to be a melding of James Brown and Robert Plant. It's what Blue Cheer would sound like if you got rid of the atonal guitar solos and had your thumb on the turntable.

Friday, October 28, 2022


After a long absence from fiction, Cormac McCarthy returns with a double dose of his bleak imaginings with this month's release of this novel The Passenger, to be followed up in December with a second novel, Stella Maris. The second book, I understand, is a continuation of the hard-scrabble tale begun in The Passenger. Fittingly, the two novels will be sold eventually as a boxed set. At 89 years old, these are likely to be McCarthy's last additions to his fatalistic oeuvre, assuming that no posthumous "lost" books find publication after his eventual passing. 

I haven't read The Passenger as yet, but being one of those who think McCarthy ought to be given a Nobel Prize for Literature, odds are that I'll find the strange pleasure one experiences reading some of the finger work from this brutal and often brilliant poet of the brutal forecast. Laura Miller, book critic for Slate, apparently has little sympathy for a masculine world view in literary fiction and finds McCarthy's reputation both inflated and needlessly, pointlessly violent, taking time to serve some implied shade against Hemingway, Faulkner, Don DeLillo and James Ellroy. She awarded The Passenger a well-honed negative review. This was a surprising take. Miller is usually a first-rate book critic, but her arguments here against the Cult of Cormac that sound thin, however well worded they are. The review reads more like a string of sentences she's been saving up for a while to say against the author the first chance she had. She might be gone off on an anti-McCarthy screed before, but no matter. 

Whether consulting his Inner Hemingway or hailing the Faulkner Within to make his prose compelling and effective in conveying the tragic atmospheres that are his literary domain, McCarthy has displayed mastery over his influences and forged an original and forceful voice of his own. Great writers have their deep and obsessive roots in persistent perceptions of how the universe of their respective understandings unfold, churn, create and destroys the nature of its existence despite heroic efforts to change and somehow improve the course of human events, and McCarthy has held to his doomed visage. This author as a committed Hobbesian who sees himself as the effective witness to what existence is after the collapse of the Leviathan; nasty, brutish and short. 

Though not meeting the stamp of approval from 21st century tastemakers, the struggles, and experiences of masculinity has been a rich vein for masterpieces for quite a good while, from Conrad, Mailer, London, Lawrence, McGuane and too many others to name-drop, and the relevance of their collective bodies of work cannot be wholly discarded or ignored only because it's inconvenient for what passes as the present conversation about what a writer's responsibility to a reader is. I prefer to keep that task simple and straightforward, which is a writer of fiction give an honest accounting of the problems that confront a set of characters. At 89, McCarthy has remained committed to the dictates of his imagination. That's all he's been required to do over a long career.

All this said, I have the Passenger on my desk, and I'll have it read soon enough, and from there a substantial view of the novel might arise. But there's been usually a state of shock after I've finished the other McCarthy novels--Blood Meridian, The Road, No Country for Old Men, and I've put off writing about this writer if for no reason apart from not wanting to think too long or too deeply about the horror that McCarthy dares to look straight in the eye and describe without flinching. 

Friday, October 21, 2022


 Fearless is a fine word, but a bit melodramatic. Blues musicians and musicians in general, I suppose, can be expected to engage in a 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 its Saturday matinée 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 will 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 wood shedding stops being experimental and preparation and transforms itself into confident, self-assured professionalism. It's a quality of being that allows the musician to mostly do anything he or she has their mind on doing. 

Those descriptions of resulting personal liberation resulting from as series of actions one does without. 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 to be useful in any discussion using either of the terms. Neither fear nor courage make sense without 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's a dualism and not likely appropriate to a discussion with a pretense of thoughtfulness regarding the range of emotion motivation, but there are those moments when one needs to strip a wondering discourse on watery conceptualizations down to a stark truism, with it in mind that the cliché contained within the truism is the banal assertion from which a new discussion can commence. That is why I was 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 despite the fears they have.

Thursday, September 29, 2022

Remarks on Wynton Marsalis

The shame of it all is that Wynton Marsalis has come to represent everything a public considers to be the 'art' of jazz, and as he continues to proffer tame music, the adventurous stuff, the "out" playing that keeps the music alive remains unheard and alien to the curious listener. That there is a Jazz Canon that needs to be preserved is not disputed, it's just that Marsalis acts as if all the innovation is now past tense. He believes it is. His style is conservative and chiseled after his heroes, Miles, Clark Terry, Clifford Brown. Their music, though, came as a result of extending their technique into areas that were unknown in the culture. Marsalis has done none of that. He is cheating himself and boring the rest of us to death. The distinction between an ongoing spotlight between jazz musicians defining musical sensibilities among themselves, at work, and that of Marsalis discussing such things is that Marsalis has the spotlight, the media, and the audience goes to him, and it is there where the debate, this debate begins. We disagree as to the role of critics, but I think the ghettoization of jazz is too laid precisely at the feet of white writers and intellectuals. 

Amiri Baraka is a great man and an important critic, and presented jazz as a continuous aesthetic of liberation, and correctly defined African American music as music about freedom and struggle, and the search for new knowledge, the extension of the voice, the exploration of the soul into new knowledge. As Baraka socialist, a brave and lonely vantage in a culture that thinks a free-market can resolve permanent problems in the human condition, I don't think it accidental that his views are ignored, and frankly unknown to most. Marsalis William Bennett-ish view, that jazz should embody virtues conduce to conduct in a democratic society, is a valid one, and we may understand it's broader appeal, but really, bebop purism is needed in an art like jazz, as art, any art, cannot remain a living thing, generation-to-generation, if the past is not known. Simply, Marsalis is part of a generation of artists and intellectuals in the African American community who are no part of the mainstream dialogue in America. Stanley Crouch, Albert Murray, Cornell West, bell hooks, Gerald Early--these are actually first-rate thinkers, agree or not with their conclusions, but the fact of the matter is that we require more high-profile cats like Marsalis, from every facet and corner of the black community, to debate, to clamor, and to insist on jazz being a great American art form they created, and thus claim their rights Americans. Again, Marsalis is not my favorite player, and I think his dalliance in two camps, classical and jazz, dilutes his performances in both, but he did get us arguing something that really matters. I will say it again, for that much, he deserves our thanks. The issue for is that though jazz is a quintessential American creation it is the creation of Black-Americans, who forged the music, who have been its prime movers, and who continue to be the innovators who define what the music will be. 

Someone with the high visibility of Wynton Marsalis who takes it upon himself to speak for jazz is a resentment waiting to happen, but doubtlessly Marsalis knew this, and went ahead and ran his mouth anyway. But his project is a noble one. He recognizes that jazz is the premier American contribution to world culture, and that it is a black art form as well, but also that the black community, it's young people, were forgetting about the culture that is their right to claim. Leaving specific utterances aside, specific feuds unmentioned, let's just say that his insistence on the black accomplishments in jazz, technical, social, moral, spiritual, have made numerous white people nervous, as we white people tend to become whenever educated black men and women take back the discourse about black culture.Marsalis is something of a cultural conservative, a William Bennett sort who has his own 'Book of Virtues' agenda in his educational projects and with his directorship of the jazz program in Lincoln Center, and that I view his music as less than the fiery blaze of Freddie Hubbard (a better trumpeter than Wynton, really) and a less composed texture than Ellington. But who says there has to be a consensus in the debate. To the degree that Marsalis has opened up the discussion to the larger culture, he has rendered a service to the state of jazz. To the extent that he has gotten many people's dander up, well, I think that is a good thing too because in the hands of dusty musicologist moon lighting as critics, jazz has seemed a gasping, brittle artifact, like old furniture in a museum display, that one appreciated for its former glory, for all it's accumulated history. Whatever stripe you happen to be, Marsalis implies, jazz is not past tense, it is not a thing of history, it is a living thing that has history. 

Like anything else in this world of manufactured concerns, jazz has many streams, rills, eddies and currents, all of which keep the pulse alive and relevant, breathing right along with us as we hear it, and in turn become inspired to create it anew. No one that I've read here has come close to saying anything like that, and to think anyone is paranoid, I am afraid. But we're not here to re-write the history books, nor even to indulge in the fetishism revolving the arguments of well-fed men, white and black. Rather, the original topic seen at the top of the page, the final question, really, was about our take on Wynton's promotion of the music, and the word promotion is the key. Because really, before his being on the scene and making a racket over jazz, bop or otherwise, the topic had been as dead as shoe leather. But now as to what jazz is or is not having become something for a wider debate, and into this debate, it draws whites and blacks into conversations with one another more so than they have been in years. And it is, by rights, one that blacks are at last debating in the larger arena. It is no longer a white man's game to define anymore. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2022



It was always more fun to talk about Godard's movies than to actually watch them. The discussions seemed to be very intelligent exchanges on what the director was attempting to do rather than what he accomplished as a filmmaker. Often times it seems theory was the alibi that attempted to make the makeshift quality of his products permissible. It was wishful thinking in large part, I think, but I did take particular enjoyment being part of the various campus beer bar bull sessions where each recent author we've read came to play in trying to get a collective grasp on this filmmaker's work. He talked a great movie.

Monday, September 5, 2022


Taschen has published an expensive"art edition" re-issue the long out of print controversial Norman Mailer biography of Marylin Monroe, 1973's Marylin. It will, I think, make available what is one of the most underrated of Mailer's books. The book was controversial indeed when first published in 1973; charges of plagiarism and an attendant lawsuit from the authors of biographies used in his research put a pall over Mailer's interpretative accomplishment, and feminists and progressives were particularly at arms by the fact that Norman Mailer, of all people, had written anything at length about Monroe. Mailer had, shall we say, a problematic relationship with women, personally and philosophically, during his public life, and it was easy enough to accuse the late author of indulging in a kind of literary onanism, projecting his ego on the public perception of Monroe, the actress and superstar, and inflicting those results on to us? I think it took courage on Mailer's part who, fully aware of his infamy regarding women's rights, birth control and his insistence on a cult of masculinity, to take on the subject of Monroe anyway (even, as Mailer has admitted, for the money) and to investigate his own conflicted perceptions of Monroe. Mailer is an arch romantic, and allows his prose to soar and swerve and swoop from great heights in an attempt to capture something about Monroe the cultural force that film criticism, fashion commentary and sociological analysis couldn't get near. This book contains Mailer's Private Marylin Monroe, and at the time it was published it was a florid, beautifully written, occasionally interpretation of the dry facts about Monroe's life and career. Monroe is one of the central icons of 20th century American culture, no less than Elvis or JFK, and one ought not be surprised that dozens of smart writers like Mailer have taken their turns re-imagining, recasting, reinterpreting the life of historic figures. Mailer's interpretative biography, I think, is a well written, occasionally brilliant piece of speculation about the source of Monroe's persona and the effect she had on a generation of male psyches. He does the splendid trick of bold speaking of her as a sexual creature who honed her limited craft into an Art that could not be ignored, the notion that Presence itself sometimes suffices as a legitimate aesthetic gesture, and then qualifying his pronouncements that what he proposes, based on other people's facts, is his conjecture. Monroe's' career as an actress was entirely fascinating. Mailer's public musings on what she meant beyond the films she made is not less intriguing, even now.

A later book Mailer wrote on Monroe was published in 1980, Of Women and their Elegance, which combined Mailer's latest interpretations of the actresses' life along with the photographs of Milton H. Greene. This time eschewed doing further interpretative biographical work and instead composed a fictional portrayal, an imagined first-person narrative Monroe that can be taken by the reader either as readings from a secret journal or a long conversation with an unnamed confidant. It's a short novel, generally unheralded when discussions of Mailer's fiction arise. I think it's a bit of a minor masterpiece. An underappreciated Mailer work, one which, to my mind, debunks the general charge that Mailer couldn't write complex or compelling women characters. The controversies involving Mailer and his feminist critics is likely to remain current for the foreseeable future, but his fictionalized account of Monroe presents the troubled actress--part naif, part fighter, smarter than likely men and women film goers and critics preferred to think--as someone caught between different personalities that constitute the Hollywood snake pit. Mailer allows her a first person narration and creates a voice and personality that attempts to be a serious artist and to do good work and also, please bosses, boyfriends, husbands, friends real and doubtful. The accusation might be put forth that this merely more male fantasy stuff that Mailer was given to composing when he sought to discuss the dynamics or difficulties of men and women relating to each other in a consumer culture --his previous "Marilyn biography, a marvelous and occasionally beautiful tribute to the actress did, at times, veer off into the most purple of prose stretches this side of Cornell Woolrich--but I think here the author allows the actress to address her narrative, in a clearly plain-spoken and sympathetic tone. It's a product of Mailer's imagination, I admit, but it is an intriguing read, a fine short novel. 

To that point, let me add that I wish Mailer had written larger number of shorter fictional works. Why Are We in Vietnam?, Tough Guys Don't Dance, An American Dream --these novels are controversial and have been subject to great praise and red-hot scorn, but it's been my feeling that he functioned as a fabulist engaged in outrageous notions when he was pressed for time and wrote feverishly, his language loose, nearly chaotic, brilliantly conveying the fevered spirit of Mailer's best and worst thinking. Of Women is one of those novels that introduces its ideas quickly and explores them vividly, daring to tweak the conventional thinking , willing to be assumed the fool for doing so, and willing as well to have his best writing and his worst ideas exist in in concise firepit of linguistic experimentation and ersatz mysticism. 

Thursday, September 1, 2022


New York Times opinion columnist Michelle Goldberg fretted the other day that our nation is in the gross depths of cultural stagnation, which is another way of saying that no one is getting excited by much new music, new authors, new movies, new visual artists. It's gotten to the point where we could say that "boredom" is the new cultural condition of things, the unintended consequence of the consumerist boom of the post-war period that never ended, despite what varied social scientists would have us think. Increased consumer demand intensified the research into more brutally efficient means of technological expertise and application to manufacture, distribute and deliver goods to consumers. The internet accelerated all this, to be sure, availing us of goods, nearly anything we desired, in quantum leap time. Now, in a pandemic that is still not over and with a population that had to spend unnatural amounts of time at home, the millions of us sought to distract ourselves with impulse shopping, insane amounts of streaming, the whole shot. Materials that used to amuse us and stand as symbols of how up to the millisecond we were now becomes evidence of the psychic entropy each and all of us became embroiled in. More than mere muscles had gone flabby, and our toys began to depress us.  Boredom settles in surely when everything is available to you at the instance you want it. There is no adventure in seeking new music anymore, there is no sense of actually discovering something obscure that's very cool, dangerous, going against the grain and mores of the time. We are in a situation of Marcuse's famous idea of "repressive tolerance", that by allowing the marginal voices, the dissenting notions, the philosophically malcontent full rights of expression and indeed making it easier for the nonconformist's works are easily available under the guise of a free press, they are revolutionary potential of these cranky, experimental, iconoclastic to inspire an audience to effect change in the System is neutralized. Punk rock, polka, country western, rap and The Last Poets become genres, matters of taste, not as vehicles to inspire and enliven the imagination. All the digital access to every book, movie, TV show, record album every created, instantly, creates the ennui of availability. Too often when getting the full of run of albums by Gunther Schiller, say, interest dissipates and the attention span requires something else to distract it for a moment. It seems to be the case that what we're talking about is commodity fetishism, which is the mere acquisition of things for having them and no more.


Saturday, August 20, 2022

'BUGSY" starring Warren Beatty and Annette Bening


Had a fine time watching Bugsy recently, a near gem of a modern gangster film. A 1991 effort starring Warren Beatty as Ben "Bugsy" Siegel and a then-unknown Annette Bening as a fast talking , smart woman Siegel takes up with when he comes to 1940s Los Angeles to muscle on the local organized crime boss.  Beatty is effective here as a man of  great charm and sudden violence, a man desiring to be a hard boss, enforcer , gentleman, and lady's man; the sudden swings in his moods and the turmoil that ensues are convincingly conveyed--little tell-tale signs in facial expression, a tilt of the head, a growing escalation in volume and intensity of questions being asked a character Siegel suspects of having stolen from him--are well-played signals that Bugsy is about to go off. This was a break through role for Bening , and she brings a sharp tongue and a quick wit to her portrayal of a lone woman alone in a town full of predator men who are liars, cheats, thieves, and killers all who falls for the charming if erratic Siegel. The recreation of Los Angeles of the period is very well done, and I rather enjoyed the dark tones used to suggest a noir quality--this has an aura of quality black and white photograph that was hand-colored especially well. The film does drag in the middle, but it picks up well, and the casting of Ben Kingsley, Harvey Keitel, Joe Mantegna  and Bebe Neuwirth is very fine. We must mention a small role for Elliot Gould as a lumbering, likeable , dumb oaf of a thug who is doomed .Directed by Barry Levinson, screenplay by James Toback, cinematographer Allen Daviau.