Friday, April 28, 2023

Nina Simone Deserved Better


Watched the controversial film Nina , a 2016 production written and directed by Cynthia Mort and starring Zoe Saldaña as the brilliant and troubled pianist/vocalist/songwriter and civil rights activist Nina Simone. The main bit of controversy was the casting for the title role, emphasizing that Saldana is "too pretty" and too light skinned to portray the iconic Simone, a nearly forgotten artist who has had interest in her career revived due to a fine recent documentary, Nina Simone:What Happened? .The charges seem trivial, but the game Saldana underwent the indignity of having to appear, literally, in black face to have her resemble the dark-skinned Simone more closely. She looks ridiculous, as if she were showing up for a minstrel show audition. The film itself is an impressionist mess, going back and forth in time, rummaging distractedly through events in Simone's whirlwind life, never really finding a set of experiences a tangible, sympathetic character might emerge. No one really seems to believe in what they're doing, which is a shame. Simone deserved a much better telling of her story.

Monday, April 10, 2023

Birthdays are fatal

Last February, comedian Lauren Vinopal proposed in Slate that we lower the critical mass of stress and anxiety of our time by abolishing birthdays. You know the drill, I gather, that the ritualized marking of another year of life is a "trigger" for many, too many because it serves as a brutal reminder of how little we've accomplished in our time so far on the planet. And getting older and closer to your last birthday instead of your first one adds another burden to one's sense of the failure they think they've been in the time they've been allotted so far. Ah, triggers, nasty things to be avoided, lest our feelings get hurt, and psychic wounds drive us to further paranoid isolation. Avoiding stressful ideas, words, issues in daily affairs seems a dubious cure, though. Any one of a million things can be "triggers" for increased depression, anxiety and, yes, suicide. 

Obsessed avoidance of triggers just appears to create more triggers, an odd self-fulfilling prophecy. Existence can be said as one sustained trigger, a never-ending stimulant on the nerves that alerts you to the need that there are matters in the world around you that need to be contended with. However, banning birthdays to alleviate these wretched conditions won't help anyone who truly suffers; life is one massive trigger, as such, for creating situations the emotionally fragile will react poorly to. Holidays, movies, comic books, 24 hour news channels, porn, drugs, alcohol, New Age sophistry, white supremacists, featherbedding politicians, fashion models, tall buildings, improperly set tableware, smooth jazz, raging bebop, classical music, anything on Nickelodeon… 

Where do we start on this project to rid society of properties that make living inside our skins and inside our heads a riot of emotions, with all kinds of metaphorical chairs being thrown across the brain pan? Or better, when do we stop demanding that problematic elements within the consumer culture be banned, canceled or more severely chastised and repudiated and instead summon the political will to provide Americans with a substantially improved and easily accessible health care system that includes a range of mental health provisions that can help the psychologically troubled to live fuller lives?  You would assume that the obvious answer is an easy one, though a difficult one and ongoing, to help fellow citizens live in society, not shield them from it.

Thursday, April 6, 2023

Mike Keneally's New Prog Rock

 Legend has it that Mike Keneally was hired by Frank Zappa in 1988 as a “stunt guitarist,” because the eccentric composer realized he couldn’t do justice to the increasingly dense music he was writing at the time. He toured with Zappa that year as both guitarist and keyboardist to deserved acclaim. Keneally worked with Dweezil Zappa, Steve Vai, Henry Kaiser, and Andy West. A multi-instrumentalist of the highest fashion, his music has been far more than the Cuisinart virtuosity that makes so many rock pick-wielder studio efforts a test of one’s tolerance for relentless displays of technique. Keneally has broad musical literacy and has revealed his acumen as an electric and resourceful composer for his elevated guitar skills.

Context is everything when one labors to bring an outsized instrumental technique to effective musical application, but we find that Keneally is fluid and fluent in styles and genres he constructs for his superhuman skill set. His qualities as composer and arranger are on full and ample display on his recent release, The Things that Knowledge Can’t Eat. As with his previous boundary-straddling records, these nine new songs are a consummate fusion of off-kilter eclecticism, highlighting evident traces of prog-rock and excursions in tone-poem expressionism that would be difficult for mortals to bend to their creative will. Keneally has the needed moxie to make all the parts of a piece. No matter how odd the meter, how propulsive the rhythm, how abrupt the shifts from suggestion of free jazz to a gracefully amorphous melody that swells with a painterly sense of color and contrast, this album displays a grand mastery of the idioms he employs. Trust me, the excitement is witnessing a rare artist handily reinvigorating and reinventing the old ways of mere mastery of all the moving parts. Rather, he’s made something new and vibrant.

To be precise, Keneally’s music is art rock of a new kind. The Things that Knowledge Can’t Eat is an enticing and stitchless merging of different means of provocation. It constantly surprises and slips into an unexpected rhythm, oozes seductively from glorious folkish balladry to outré extravaganzas. The open track, Logos, is a Zappaesque bit of vocalese, a slightly strident chorus with a chirpy vocal line expounding on the wonders of a friend’s company logo—or personal logo—an inane sentiment undermined by the percolating, whack-a-mole near-dissonance of the music. Keneally, we note here, is not merely an instrumental wunderkind but also a literate and oddball lyricist as well, able to mimic voices or create personas who free associate about their place in the world. He has a particular skill for using non sequiturs, which adds to the absurd tragedy he writes about, how material things meant to make us happy only deepen our melancholy.

“Cell,” an instrumental assemblage that seems vast and nearly oceanic in its flow through a robust array of moods, is a wordless contemplation that has us navigating the sweep and sway of sonic waves. It’s a masterful construction that features two adeptly situated improvisations by guest guitarist Steve Vai, another veteran of Zappa’s touring band. Vai is nearly without peer in the top tier of innovative fret-maestros, and demonstrates this in both solos, combining the expected variety of tone and fluidly from alternative blues intonations to hard-shred attacks to jazz-like note excursions.

I should say again is that Mike Keneally is an intriguing lyricist, a rare quality in musicians who’re best known to the general music audience for their guitar chops. Obviously inspired by the cutting satire and acerbic commentary of mentor Zappa, he’s forged his book of lyrics that reveal an author’s awareness of what’s happening in the world around him. As often as not, his lyrics make one think of a person ruminating over an insoluble problem or undefinable emotion; there’s an elliptical juxtaposition of specific detail, bewildering elisions, and purposeful gaps in the narrative. Very often you come away not understanding of what Keneally is talking about but remain confident that you “get” what he’s getting: that elusive feeling, the shining insight, the rush of intense joy or sadness that vanishes before you can come up with the words to define what you felt. Good lyricists inclined to write in the crisply diffuse cadences of modern American poetry can do that. Keneally does this very well, and I’d recommend close and repeated listens to the songs. The lyrics are set in artfully eclectic settings, private thoughts, and half-heard musings, synchronized with flawless craft with the array of odd time signatures and passages that reflect the edges of metal and math rock. Anger, rage, joy, ambivalence, sympathy, despair—the word sheet touches on all these.

I have to come back to this overview of Keneally’s spectacular disc, with appropriate raving for the instrumental called “Ack.” Keneally is a multi-instrumentalist, as has already been mentioned, playing the majority of instruments on most of the nine tracks. But with “Ack” he receives bravura support from an exceptional troupe of musicians. It explodes as a jacked-up swing song, rapid tempo and horn choruses adroitly burn down the ballroom. But it soon morphs into some attractively splintered bars of dissonance that bring us near the outer-space experiments of prime Sun Ra. It then shifts rapidly into a breathless bebop chase, finally segueing into a scorching shred solo by Keneally and easing into an orgy of high contrast tonal color. This is what art rock should be doing, subverting expectations, switching up old styles, and creating new dimensions from them. Michael Keneally has the capacity to surprise the musical curious. This musician is a category unto himself.

Monday, February 20, 2023

Who was on first?

                                                   Sometimes discussing who originators wereof a musical trend turns into a Who's On First. Someone asked me if Traffic created what is termed Jazz-rock or fusion or "fusion" that combustive melding of jazz and hard rock stylistics that informed much of the instrumental terrain in the mid to late Seventies. Not exactly, I responded, and when on with the following gush of condensed didactics:

Traffic were late comers to the jazz-rock movement, and their greatest strength was hardly their instrumental abilities. As improvisers, they were technically impoverished. Winwood on keyboards and Chris Wood on reeds and flute noodled limply for long passages. They wrote good songs and Winwood was a brilliant vocalist, but their attempts at jazz were weak. Larry Coryell seems to be the first out of the gate at the start of the jazz-rock trend with his efforts with Free Spirits in 1966, but that same year saw another major breakthrough with the release of “East West” by the Butterfield Blues Band. The album featured the man considered by many to be the first guitar hero, Mike Bloomfield. On this album he is showcased in two still-vibrant displays , “The Work Song”, which highlights him digging into an unexpected hard bop style solo complete with octaves, and on the title track, a Coltrane influenced improvisation with a long bit of raga-inspired extemporization from Bloomfield. The musicianship seems a bit rough considering how much more technically adept rock and fusion players have become over the decades, but these songs and indeed the entire album sounds fresh and ethereal all these years later. What Bloomfield was doing in 1966 was something no other 60s generation rock guitarist was doing. 

He was a trend setter who revolutionized the approach to guitar. Bloomfield , that his imagination exceeded his technical grasp . He had a very solid grounding in blues which he played with ferocity, fluidity and feeling, not to mention speed, and he did adapt jazz and raga ideas into his improvisations, but compared to who influenced him regarding —Coltrane, Ravi Shankar—his command of the chromatics was sometimes tentative .Miles Davis’ contributions to jazz fusion have been acknowledged and discussed widely for years; it’s more interesting at this point to revisit the very early experimenters who offered their ideas as to what jazz and rock styles combined might sound like. Coryell, Free Spirits, Butterfield Blues Band, the Blues Project—these pioneers have been overlooked and under acknowledged and now is the moment to examine their contributions at some depth.While we’re at it, lets give some props to Tjay Cantrelli for his splendid Coltranesque sax improv on the 19 plus minute jam “revelation” on Love’s 1966 album “DeCapo”.

Thursday, February 2, 2023

NORMAN MAILER AT 100 (and some miscellany)


Happy Birthday, Norman Mailer, born January 31, 1923. The late author was never everyone's favorite, certainly not with most critics and a large part of the reading public. It was difficult to remain neutral about Mailer if you'd him because he was anything except well-behaved and soft-spoken like serious writers were supposed to be. Mailer was vain, arrogant, seriously convinced that he had instincts greater than those of mortal men, and he had opinions, an endless stream of them. He was, though, charming to a fault when he needed to be, he was seriously engaged with the issues and    activities in the America of his time, politically, culturally, aesthetically, he challenged cant from the right and the left when he heard it, and tried to make sense of the roiling forces that were driving America to the brink of becoming a lumbering, mindless brute among nations. He was a cracker barrel philosopher at times, offering up a simple version of existentialism when he wandered too far from specifics, facts and figures, and other times what insights he was reaching for exceeded his reach. 

But just as often he was incisive, investigating the odd forces at work in the country he loved, and composed a series of books that were unique, compelling, elegantly written and serious inquiries about the larger consequences of problematic happenstance. Not a philosopher, not a psychologist sociologist, he was finally one thing, a writer, a writer who thought it is his task to dig deep into his psyche to understand and evaluate what he bore witness to--feminism, boxing, Moon landings, political conventions, protest marches, the culture of graffiti art, the souls of execution bound murderers- and give reports, opinions, revelations, arguments linked together with his genius for metaphor. Again, Mailer was erratic in his output, but he did, in my view, hit the long ball out of the park on several occasions. Armies of the Night, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, The Fight, Of a Fire on the Moon, Oswald's Tale, Executioner's Song--these are titles even those professing to despise Mailer and his work are forced to admit are great, admirable masterpieces of American literature, much to their chagrin. Mailer was the necessary man to have around in the day, according to Alfred Kazin. I couldn't agree more.

One of the things missing from Mailer's work is any mention of his attack on his wife.  This is a matter I don't think he ever came to grips with,not in writing.  For all his genius as a slinger of words, he fostered a good many bad and dangerous notions that, worst of all, he took seriously. There are times when I've read when his mythicized misogyny made me ill.  His unapologetic egotism was a mixed blessing. It gave him confidence to pursue his path, inspired by and rebellion against the writers who inspired him. Bloom had a general theory of that, the anxiety of influence, where great writers, genius writers, write with great determination in ways that different from what their inspirations had done. The irony is that the younger writer is forever in the shadow of those who came before him. This created tension when arrogance was a mask against feelings of being weak, and his efforts to create something his own, his voice, his set of metaphors and intellectual constructs to fit them in allowed to create a style and a personality that gave him some genuine triumphs as a novelist, journalist, essayist. The ego, though, drove him to make some resoundingly bad decisions in personal life and in his writing career. Rather than soar, he wrote books that were sluggish, muddleheaded. One can admire his refusal to apologize for anything he's done while a career and personal life, but he seemed blind to his shortcomings, those things that got him into snafus no reasonable person craves. But Mailer was not a reasonable person much of the time, and his embrace of the irrational resulted in some great books and much, much foolishness.



A fact of existence is that birthdays aren't happy events for many,a real fact that brings us to a protracted rant urging their abolition in a recent posting in Slate. Armed with statistics, quotes from experts and researchers  in the essence of what makes people unhappy, stressful, experience increased anxiety and contemplate the extreme cure of suicide, author Lauren Vinopal advocates for the outright banning of birthday celebrations. The main point is clear, and not unreasonably, that our consumer culture has turned our life's experience into a resource for the increased profit of corporations. But one can't shake the idea that she's stressing too much for a solution that seems as delusional as the super human expectations commodification gives more than a few people in our midst.   For millions of people, any one of a million things can be "triggers" for increased depression, anxiety and, yes, suicide. However, banning birthdays to alleviate these wretched conditions won't help anyone who truly suffers; life is one massive trigger, as such, for creating situations the emotionally fragile will react poorly to. Holidays, movies, comic books, 24 hour news channels, porn, drugs, alcohol, New Age sophistry, white supremacists, featherbedding politicians, fashion models, tall buildings, improperly set tableware, smooth jazz, raging bebop, classical music, anything on Nickelodeon... Where do we start on this project to rid society of properties that make living inside our skins and inside our heads a riot of emotions, with all kinds of metaphorical chairs being thrown across the brain pan? Or better, when do we stop demanding that problematic elements within the consumer culture be banned, canceled or more severely chastised and repudiated and instead summon the political will to provide Americans to a substantially improved and easily accessible health care system that includes a range of mental health provisions that can help the psychologically troubled to live fuller lives?  You would assume that the obvious answer is an easy one, though a difficult one and ongoing, to help fellow citizens live in society, not shield them from it.



Being of solid Irish American stock , my family and I have put with being subjected to every Irish stereotype and insult for decades, which brings me to say that I am sick of nearly all things Irish. Except a good number of poets, playwrights and novelists, but they're all dead. It's the whole "Ireland is the Israel for gentiles" hype that the equally deceased Harry Reasoner asserted years ago in one of these nutrition-free 60 Reports on what it means to be Irish, in Ireland. Likely the producers were looking for a nationality, an ethnic group they could fetishize without being accused of subjecting anyone to cultural caricature. But the Irish have been a caricature, and it's understandable why not a few folks have made livings extolling of the virtues of a country that seems to brag about full of grandiloquent , amiably belligerent alcoholics who are sad that getting into fist fights at poetry readings isn't the national sport. 

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.