Sunday, August 27, 2023

Typing Lesson 3

Another typing lesson begins, by which I mean that it's not really a typing lesson I'm talking about, but rather an exercise to become re-acquainted with the habit of mind and task to sit at the keyboard and fill a computer screen full of words that form coherent sentences. So far, this is coherent, but it's also directionless, the point exactly of these alleged typing lessons. This places me in the odd spot of reading what I've composed so far--” composed” sounds too fine a word to apply to what I'm doing, as it suggests forethought and creation based on an actual idea, preferably new, rather than a stringing together of tropes sticky with too much varnish--as if I were the critic surveying the mess with a caustic and condemning eye. So far, so good, so far as grammatical and syntactical work goes. The question of purpose remains, however, and the sad fact of this very moment is that I need to log off and go elsewhere into the city and so leave this impractical chattering with myself in abeyance. Another potential masterpiece thwarted. But quickly, the aim of this paragraph, if any? It's a  warm up exercise for a thousand- word diatribe I will intensely cast forth anon. Stay tuned and hug your cat.

Friday, August 25, 2023

Typing lesson 2


Here we are again, gathered in a paragraph next to a black and white photograph of a combination check-cashing service and liquor store in the testier blocks of the beach area, writing words to a digital page only for the sake of doing something sublimely inane when inspiration is in brief supply and a sentence is only as powerful as the fingers that rattled off the nonsense. Gathered together for no good purpose, but who is the commander who informs us what the good purpose is? Here we are again in the same room at the same desk with the same plastic coffee can filled halfway with bad pennies no one has loved. In the days of my youth, we used to drive from Michigan to Martinsville, Virginia to visit our southern cousins on my mom’s side of the family. In the recollection, I remember a house in a wooded area that was mountainous to an extent, and behind my grandmother’s abode was a canyon and railroad tracks that were still active on the transportation schedules. I remember seeing boxcars and passenger cars racing past at the bottom of the ravine, a blur partially obscured by thick bramble, bushes, tree branches in full leafy glory. Cut to a drive back home to a Detroit suburb, a straight, flat highway that is wide, occasionally curving around bends and ducking under bridges, a flat stretch without end under a steel grey sky and clouds the color of white cotton that soaked up a streak of black coffee. The radio was blaring news of the war and the newspaper strike between pitchmen screaming about smashing prices and the opening bars of a Doors song before Mom turned off the radio and Dad began to sing “I Love Paris” as he tapped a beat on the steering wheel and a big grin and an interstellar glint came to his eye. The stained clouds gave the cars their burden, a hard rain and punishing wind blew cascades of water across the road that looked like small California waves. My brother and sister next to me in the back seat while I claimed my spot by the rear window. Farmhouses, abandoned tractors hurried by, factories hid behind thick groves of pine trees. Mom lit another cigarette. My sister coughed and my brother farted, a wild, rasping, snorting sound. “I love Paris in the evening…when it’s raining…” my father sang. My mother’s face was obscured by grey smoke, but she began to sing along with him. Their harmony was grating and monotonous and the highway was straight and the sky was large and filled with clouds and fleeting streaks of lightning in the distance terrorizing farm animals or the counterman at a desolate gas station and snack bar just off the expressway exit.

Wednesday, August 9, 2023

ROBBIE ROBERTSON, RIP: Lead guitarist and songwriter for The Band


Robbie Robertson was a rare bird, and it’s not likely we’ll see a comparable talent again in most of our lifetimes. As a writer, he drew from a deep and flavorful stream of musical styles–field holler work songs, country blues, gospel, old-time jazz with hints of ragtime syncopation, country and western, classic rhythm and blues, and rock and roll–and shared with his splendid Band members the ability to cogently blend the styles into an unaffected, appealing organic sound. It’s been said before, but his best songs seemed beyond era, as Robertson could have written them one hundred years ago or two weeks ago. 

They were timeless, evocative, and put one in the center of what was a vividly and deftly portrayed idea of the American South, no less so than Faulkner or Carson McCullers. His lyrics, as well, were dually colloquial and surreal, presented in different guises of melancholy, a yearning for an idealized past, or which displayed an absurdist wit. The Weight is the prize example of Robertson’s talents–a rolling piano figure never far from gospel roots, the narrative details the oddness of small-town life and provides details that suggest hallucinations of religious fervor, incest, hidden insanity. It has the power of a storyboard from which a great novel or grand motion picture can be made. One can set up a half dozen songs by the late songwriter and notice a sublime variety of situations and emotional conflict, and notice Robertson's sure-handed use of first-person narrative, in a tone where someone was speaking about the contradictory elements of their life and how, somehow, the same said narrator was applying their shoulder to the wheel all the same despite the crushing circumstances that present little likelihood of abating. 

Aspirations, love, better fortunes, happier and more fulfilling years past, Robertson's tales were of the people who fell between the cracks when good times turned ill; often enough it seemed the only reason anyone of the frequently tragic figures in the songs carry on in the grim landscape not through hope or the illusion thereof, but from memory, a nostalgia for days when existence had meaning and a personal refusal to finally die a cipher in the bleak landscape. Robertson was an artist of great and delicate talents that was a large part of why The Band is one of the greatest bands of the rock and roll era. An aspect of Robertson's years ago, that his interest was in characters who were from small towns but who had full lives and palpable experiences, speaking in their unique voices in unpretentious language that suggested full histories without an excess of grandstanding detail. His songs were monologues of a sort and were economical in the way people tend to be when recollecting the joys or heartbreaks of the lives they've lived. Robertson had a brilliance for a character sketch ; even his wordiest songs are spare, free of mood killing literary language. He could take himself out of the narrative and let his passion and concern for Southern lives come across in masterfully understated testimonials:in his best songs are a slate of first-person narrative ambiguities that can be seen as an ongoing sequence of monologues as cleanly expressed and moving as the voices rising from  beneath the tombstones in Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology

His art is, of course, supplemented to no end by the superb contributions of his band mates--Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko, Levon Helm-- and their astounding ability to incorporate so many hard-to-assimiliate musical genres in material that made a merging of gospel, old school blues, country music and ragtime into a natural and organic expression of musical emotion are the sort of things we can study for years to come, and there will likely remain debates as to the size of the contributions the other members made to the songwriting, but for the meantime I am content to acknowledge the profundity of Robertson's contributions

Friday, August 4, 2023

Some August Beach Reading

Costello is wonderful at the heightened awareness in the ways he presents his details, his comic touches, A beautiful agent who still receives alimony checks from her smitten ex-husband carries on a correspondence with him via the memo line of the checks, where he continually writes "come back to me". She writes "No, never" each time, deposits the check, knowing that her ex will see the reply when he receives the canceled checks. The book is full of these fine touches. We have a sense that it's the small things, the small frustrations as much as the larger disasters that conspire against our happiness. A fine book. 
First, this author isn't to be confused with another fiction writer named Mark Costello, who is the author of two brilliant collections of short stories called The Murphy Stories and Middle Murphy. Those books, a series of related tales involving the title character, is a sort of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for a generation growing up in Illinois, and it is one of the most beautifully written sagas of dysfunction, alcoholism, and despair I've ever come across. This Costello does things with the language that take up where prime period John Cheever or John Updike left off and offer up a virtuoso prose only a handful of lyric writers achieve; it is the brilliance and beauty of the writing that makes the unrelieved depressive atmosphere of the two books transcend their grimness. The prose in these two books demonstrates the sloppier pretender Rick Moody cannot help but seem. Buy these books and experience a devastating joy.

The other mark Costello, a younger writer, has equal genius but a different approach to the world, and his novel Big If is perfect, and what makes it works is that Costello accomplishes the dual difficulty of handing us a small town/suburban comedy the likes of John Cheever would have admired. The other is with the rich detailing of the other secret service agents who work with Vi Asplund. There is something of a domestic comedy seamlessly interwoven with a skewed Washington thriller, with the elements of each spilling over and coloring the underlying foundations of both. In the first part of the novel, we have an atheist Republican insurance investigator who has a habit of crossing out the "God" in the "In God We Trust" inscription on all his paper money, replacing the offending word with "us". Vi, years later, winds up in a job where "in us we trust" is the operating rational, as she and her fellow agents strive to protect their protected from the happenstance of crowds, acting out on intricate theories and assumptions that can only be tested in the field. 

The Other Side of the Mountain by Michael Bernanos 
Easily one of the strangest and most spellbinding novels I've read in a lifetime of reading the same said books, this short novella begins as a sea adventure, a young man who signs on to a ship's crew as a cabin boy. Things ago awry before long once the trip commences, and the tale soon turns into a horror story, depraved to the least of all hope. The ship sinks, and the boy and the ship's cook wind up marooned on an uncharted island, where nothing is where it seems. It turns into a horror fantasy at this point, the island being a malevolent intelligence, a throbbing, menacing organism. The story becomes about humanity can persevere and have its virtues surmount the evil in its presence, known and metaphysical. It's hard for me to imagine that Damon Lindelof and J.J.Abrams didn't have this tense, lyric and succinct thriller in mind when he was developing their Lost television series. This book continues to make me ponder its moral perplexity. 

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. A healthy man goes to visit a friend who is in a mountain-based sanitarium and winds up staying in the sanitarium for seven years. During the years that follow, we witness a character's spiritual and philosophical change and come to a sense of life that eludes the overly cerebral. Thomas Mann is a magnificent writer, and this is easily one of the truly great novels of the 20th century.

Crackpots by Sara PritchardBrief, beautifully written book about an awkward young girl being raised by an eccentric family. Note that there is no child abuse or other hot button stuff engineered in to make the book appeal to the Oprah book clubs, just a humorous and bittersweet novel of a girl, beset with any number of glum circumstances and embarrassments, maturing to a resilient adult with soft irony that gets her through the day. Pritchard is especially fine as prose stylist.

Tuesday, August 1, 2023

Comments from the listening booth


The harmonies of the fabled Tremeloes stood out in a crowded field of 60s Brit Pop bands who were notable for their vocal arrangements. As we see here, the harmonies decorate, embellish, and enhance the fetching melody with colors , textures and tones of of the tongue that could have been easily transposed, I would guess, to regular instruments. Solo voice subtly joined by a chorus, combined harmonies seamlessly sliding up the scale rather than abruptly switching keyes. I overstate the case, perhaps, but I've always found their performance of this tune stunning.

Brit-pop in the 60s was a wonderland of sterling harmonies and the Hollies, Graham Nash edition, were champions at musical hooks and vocal synchronization. This punchy little masterpiece grabbed me right away back when I was but a whelp, especially the chorus, a vocal traffic jam of different melody lines stacked atop one another, going in different directions, clashing and dissonant and structurally effective, the brief miasma brought together again with Nash's high note at the end.

Neil Young's sci-fi junkie lament 'After the Goldrush" gets a harmonized rendition in this 1974 release. The lead vocal by Irene Hume reveals a slightly husky voice that characterizes the solo and chorus arrangement, with an appealing result that makes you think of a choir of Melanies . A perfect radio hit for the time, pleasant melody, depressed lyrics, alluring vocal craft.

John Lennonhad a grudge against bandmate Paul , a resentment he dutifully burnished until it was shiny like an acrylic turd, a brown and gleeming chuck of ill will. Of course
he wrote a song about it , laying everything out except Sir McCartney's name. As an issue of disrespect, it's in a class by itself, but the howler of this whole enterprise centers around the most quoted lyric, "...the only thing you did was yesterday..." The longer view of the Beatles reveals PM's contributions to the creative surges was, in fact, profound, at which point it makes me consider the idea that McCartney would likely have been a pop star of some sort without Lennon. Lennon, always a raw dog who improved vastly as a tunesmith , singer and lyricist due to his association with McCartney, would likely have had a rougher go of it.



In future years, the younger folks might be nostalgic as they reminisce about the supposed fun and convenience of Horton Plaza before it eventually became a dead mall now being repurposed. The truth of the matter is that even in its prime, it was an alienated space, full of architectural distractions, detours, and dead ends that seemed designed to magnify your unease and increase your desire to escape your sense of uselessness by exhausting your credit limit and begging creditors for an increase in your credit line. I worked there for several years as a bookseller and made my number one spot to see new movies, and over time you couldn't help by note the waning numbers of people coming to the Plaza, the number of stores advertising off-Holiday Sales with things up to 70 percent off, the closing of stores and the draping of butcher paper over the display windows with a sad sign promising a new retailer coming in soon, watching the calendar pages fly away and noting again the stores were still vacant and that more stores had joined them, that Horton Plaza had become an empty series of angular paths, walkways, bridges to more locked up storefronts, a structural case of architectural schizophrenia where all the eaves, overhangs, arches and such unusual twists cast deep and despairing shadows over the dead concrete few have reason to walk. Let's add here that Horton Plaza is having the finishing touches on a very extensive and expensive reconstruction, with the leviathan being converted to a space intended to attract tech companies with a smaller contingent of retail shops and eateries to placate tourists and dedicated downtowners. How that plays out is up in the air, as there are no facts about the future. I try to be optimistic about the future of the center, but failing to find a workable and effective method to house the many homeless currently on the city streets, I can't help but think that we're setting ourselves up for a bitter and expensive failure.

Wednesday, July 26, 2023


 Irony isn't dead. In  fact, it's a living yet intangible part of the odd vibes that abound after the disasters of the worst human assumptions being acted upon. It very much feels like some smirking ghost at the side of the road laughing at us while we scratch our heads wondering what the hell happened to our best laid plans. Occasionally, it takes decades for some ironies to become revealed, noticed, observed, as in what, I think, was some of a barely noted reversal of mainstream attitudes about the right and wrong ways of making music. In the very  early Sixties, around the time of the British Invasion , I remember all sorts of cartoons and jokes about citizens and music fans attempting to commit suicide when they were exposed to the vocals styles of Jagger, Dylan, or a good number of gruff, nasally singers in the pop world. I remember the Rolling Stones appearance on the old Hollywood Palace variety show on ABC in 1964.

Hosted by Dean Martin, who was either entirely drunk and on his fourth sheet to the wind or doing a brilliant impersonation of a stumbling sot, The Stones performed their songs for the first time to an American tv audience , an historic event enhanced by Martin's slurred insults to the British band. There was a trampoline act at mid show, I remember, a circus act that had a leotard clad family doing impressive tricks of the bouncing variety. When they were done, Martin came on stage again and announced that the elder man in the troupe was the father of the Rolling Stones and had been trying to kill himself with this trampoline act for years. That was a real gasser. Why the hate, and the answer was obvious. The Stones were reintroducing America to a native art, black music, that it had all but forgotten about and found the renditions by the Rolling Stones of classic blues and soul songs alien, offensive, immoral and dangerous.  T'werent good singing and offensive to the idea of music! It wasn't even music. 

Somewhere along the line all the stoned hippies and rebellious teens grew up, got jobs, had families, and in effect became both their parents and THE MAN , and the same gag now substitutes MOR performers like Dion, Michael Bolton, Michael McDonald, and some others for the old guard. The folks can certainly sing , sing, but the kind of music they make is antithetical to the true liberating and expressive poetry of what REAL music is . Authenticity as the criteria for judgement (an ever vague and elusive concept) has advanced over technical competence and romantically "pretty" offerings. I have had this debate on both sides over the decades, first with my parents, aunts, and uncles and school teachers defending Dylan's music and especially his singing, and through the decades, arguing with young people that boy bands, pop tunesters like Dion, and slow jam funk were criminally commercial junk that was without conviction or soul .


Barry Alfonso In Santee, “drying the cat by hand” means taking a single woman out to dinner, saying flattering things to her, picking up the check and then giving her the phone number of your brother-in-law, I understand.

Ted Burke It has been said that “drying the cat” means mispronouncing the names of jazz musicians like Thelonious Monk and Ornette Coleman in a Telegraph Avenue methadone clinic. “Drying the Cat By Hand” is a variation heard in the Tenderloin and up to North Beach, meaning that you announce to Amiri Baraka that Boots Randolph played better sax than Coltrane or Shorter.

Barry Alfonso I've also heard that it is a derivation of the old blues expression “shave 'em dry," meaning to cut off the head of a glass of beer with a straight razor before attacking someone in the solar plexus over a Stetson hat.

Ted Burke I've heard tell of that as well, and it makes me wonder if that is related to the practice of ordering a shot and beer and a dry towel twisted into a rat tail and snapped cruelly to the back of the drinker's bare neck by everyone in the bar named either "Earl" or "Ondine".

Barry Alfonso A lot of this has been lost and confused over the years, I suspect—a “dry cat” used to be slang for a guy with a flat top and bad dandruff. It was a custom to rub scalps like that for luck before a dice game or before rubbing spices into a jerk chicken leg, or both. It also relates to martinis and obscene gestures while sinking a putt.

Ted Burke There was the habit among dairy farmers of rubbing their bovines with mewing kittens for no real reason; "drying the cow" became "drying the cat" over time, an understandable conflation, and the implication of the phrase is that one is standing around irritating another living creature for no good reason. But since when does anyone need a good reason to irritate someone?
6 hours ago ·
Barry Alfonso That's right! Now I remember. Will Rogers did a bit about this and in fact got arrested in Tulsa for demonstrating how it was done. There's a famous photo of Junior Samples from Hee Haw "drying the cat by hand" behind Stringbean's back when he thought the cameras were off.
6 hours ago ·
Ted Burke *Absolutely! This in turn inspired Pynchon's famous opening line of his magnum opus 'The Crying of Litter Box 29". "A dry cat came screamng across the sky..."
5 hours ago ·
Barry Alfonso Right, that was a literary in-joke for many years standing. Hemingway took a swing at Frank Yerby after he wrote that Papa had been drying the cat with both hands for years...
5 hours ago ·

Ted Burke On a related note, Norman Mailer misunderstood Russell Kirk when he announced that what really wanted was a "cat dried by hand". Mailer took this to be a translation of Parsian street slang used among working girls meaning that the person who uttered the phrase was in desperate need of being buggered, but that lacked the needed ticket for admission.Mailer told Kirk that he had his ticket "right here" and demanded Kirk "give up the cat." William Buckley was amused by the whole thing and had Mailer on his TV show several times.

Barry Alfonso Well, I do remember Gore Vidal giving Buckley the hairy eyeball on TV during the '68 Democratic convention and saying, "You really are drying the cat by hand a little hard tonight, old boy" while Buckley let something slip that Al Gore was a monster on the congas at a nephew's confirmation party . Seems that the band turned out to be GWAR who suddenly became a Santana cover band. Nothing was the same from then on, though the quality of the monotony hadn't changed a bit.

Sunday, July 16, 2023

Typing lesson


Some years ago, that is, many years ago when I started this blog, I had the intention of writing an annual report on the state of my sobriety as each anniversary came and went. Something like a report card, a progress report, a mild and very generalized confession of mistakes, bad ideas, bad acts and the attempts to repair whatever damage I caused by making decisions on my wants (not needs) and try to extract a lesson that might be learned from the past year's rash action. That was the idea, but when it came down to it, even though I love to write, and I love to talk and that I love to refer to myself quite a bit in the paragraphs I construct, confession isn't my game, memoirs are not my jam. In the grand scheme of things, my self referencing needs to be anchored to topics that interest me or are the absolute center of my reason to push on another day--literature, films, movies, sex, the Good Fight against Bad People, poetry, always poetry. Maybe when I get to be 73 I'll be moved to spill the beans on a life that's been interfered with by an odd combination of bad self-esteem and arrogance of the first rank. I just turned 71 yesterday, and today I am supposedly celebrating 36 years of continuous sobriety, so that gives me a couple of turns around the sun to evolve into my next form, a humble narcissist, with the product being a long and adjective choked recollection of all the small incidents that leads us up to the current period, sometime in the future, when either everything or nothing is changed.

Tuesday, July 4, 2023


 So in the nineties I was in a men's intimacy group, a number of sober guys who wanted to share personal matters, issues, confliction, and compulsions with other sober men on level much deeper and more personal than what offer

up at a standard AA meeting. So this fellow, an alcohol treatment counselor ironically, had just finished a very long monologue on his sexual hangups, with a good number of side trips  through other subjects that managed to be both greasy and banal, and when he stopped talking, the rest of us rose from our seats, chairs, the two sofas that were crammed in this studio apartment . So this fellow from South Oakland , whose apartment it happened to be, had TV set hooked up to a VHS player, and a lone, unmarked cassette laying on top of it. 

"Let's  TAKE A BREAK AND RELAX, FELLAS." So the guy from South Oakland grabbed the cassette and shoved into the video player. So then the from treatment with the curated sexual hangups looked up to the screen. So then you could nearly hear his jaw drop. Imagine a rusty creak, a loud , rasping scrape of severely oxidized metal. 

Porn stars flashed on the tv screen, wherein guys in seventies porn mustaches were putting their engorged presences anywhere the actresses would allow. Mod Squad music, cheesey fuzz- tone guitars and Farfisa fantasias, poured from the TV's tinny speaker. 

"Yeah" Mr.South Oakland muttered,"Get that, hit that, fug, this is the stuff..." The room filled  with cigar smoke and reeked of coffee left on the burner too long as both porn movies and comatose confessions of sexual impropriety filled the room.

Saturday, June 17, 2023

Pablomatic for the people


Gadfly Patrick Marlborough offered something of a defense of Australian quasi-comedian Hannah Gadsby's critical and creaky post-feminist takedown of Picasso with a piece claiming to detail what Americans are missing about her show. It's because Americans are unfamiliar with the Australian vernacular, goes the article's claim. You might expect a brief linguistics lecture to be offered here, since it couldn't be anything as obvious that maybe Gadsby isn't really all that funny. 

It's clear from the outset that Gadsby's has no love for the artist, and is committed to debunking his myth and exposing his misogyny with a late comer's vigor. (I seem to remember quite a few books and magazine articles about Picasso over the decades that hanged him in effigy for being a brute and all-purpose lout, but no matter). If enough people “miss” what an artist is trying to do or attempting to tell us / teach us/ lecture us about, and if it takes a nervously apologetic essay in a major online platform to direct us to the wisdom that was waiting for us, it's a safe bet the artist flubbed the chance to do anything interesting at. 

It's impossible for every misunderstood artist to be an anonymous genius. The odds are not good for even most of them to be any good as visual artists.  The more I think about, it seems to be the case that most artists striving to make big statements in abstract fashion are rather muddle-headed fools who have the talent, none of the less, to secure grant money to fund their projects and pay their rent. Her worst sin, it appears, is the smug obviousness of what she's up to with Picasso. Naming this project with the anemic and obvious pun “Pablo-Matic” previews a level of banality that is ironically break—taking. Is this comedy? Criticism? Post-feminist grave digging? Is this any sort of attempt to get us to see Picasso differently through a specifically focused lens? It is none of these things. Worse, it's none of the things in any interesting way. It's a slight shrug of the shoulder, a flat punchline, a cocked head, a side glance, another shrug, another try at irony.  All gesture, no ideas.