Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Monday, October 31, 2005

Business notes from all over

Smith was focussed on the diminished circulation of the Tribune papers, in particular the L.A. Times and, most worryingly, Newsday, where there had been a circulation scandal. Executives presumably intent on meeting the Tribune Company's profit goals had lied about the numbers, inflating advertising rates. This forced the company to set aside ninety million dollars from 2004 earnings to settle claims from advertisers who had overpaid for phantom readers. -- The New Yorker

And what exactly is the going rate to reach phantom readers?

(Happy Hallowe'en!)

If Ornette Coleman is the phoenix whose music from the start was revealed to us -- if not in its mature form, then at least in its basic conception -- as if it had sprung from the head of Zeus, then Coltrane was a Sisyphus, who again and again -- from the very bottom up to the mountaintop -- had to roll the hard, cumbersome rock of knowledge. And perhaps, whenever Coltrane got to the top, Coleman would already be standing there in his resplendent circus suit, playing his beautiful melodies.
-- Joachim Berendt, “The Jazz Book”

Devin Hurd declares March 9, “National Ornette Coleman Day.” In light of this beautiful post by Carl Wilson (who’s Canadian) on a recent Coleman concert in Toronto, I would like to propose a friendly amendment to Devin’s proposal, and declare March 9, International Ornette Coleman Day.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

my immediate mammals taking a nap

will you take care of me?

My beloved spouse works swing shift on Sundays, so it's father-son time in our household. While I was cooking dinner tonight, the coming-on-3-year-old was in the other room when he asked, “Daddoo, are you old or new?”

I came to talk to him. “I'm middle-aged.” (I'm 42.)

“Are you going to die?”

“Some day. Hopefully not for a long long time. Everybody dies eventually.”

“Is Mommoo middle-aged?” (He came up with "Mommoo” and "Daddoo.”) "Is she going to die?”

“Hopefully not for a long long time.” (Neither of us is sick, to our knowledge.)

“After Mommoo dies will you take care of me?”

“Hopefully she won't die for a long long time, and you'll be grown up by then and able to take care of yourself.”

He liked that answer. “When I'm grown up I'll be a big big man and take care of myself!”

Before dinner we carved a pumpkin. “Make it scary!” I did my best.

“Ooh, it’s a scary pumpkin!” Pause. “Hello, pumpkin.” Pause. “It said, ‘Boo!’ That’s its way of saying Hello. It’s a nice pumpkin.”

Happy Hallowe'en.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Rock critic Douglas Wolk is hosting National Solo Album Month for the second year in a row, the manic idea of writing and recording an album in a month with no collaborators, no other musicians. I gave it a whirl last year and crashed and burned in a 7-song pile-up due to technical recording problems, didn't finish. Never even listened to what I recorded after the month was over. Between the holiday madness (which I mostly love) and my revulsion at the election results, I just booted it.

But. I did write a bunch of songs, a few of which I still like. So I signed up to give it another whirl. One cover song allowed.

I'll probably use some "found" lyrics, just as I did last year. If you, dear reader, happen to have any interesting bits of verbiage lying about that you think might be nice accompanied by or set to music, feel free to send them my way. I'll do my level best. Alex Ross suggested some a couple weeks ago.

This comes at a very good time for me, just when I'm tempted to take a long nap on my poached laurels for just about finishing my band's album (which was 60% done already a year ago -- long story!).

utopian fictioneer

I have recently been given reason to doubt the provenance of the name of this blog (read comments). According to an anonymous commenter, evidence exists that poet Marianne Moore doctored "The Ford Correspondence," in which the phrase "Utopian Turtletop" made its debut, to make it funnier. Since she apparently edited the letters after they were sent (and I haven't seen the evidence, but it's hard to imagine somebody inventing it), I have to wonder whether she invented the entire thing. Very strange.

I remember reading somewhere that when Miss Moore (as she was known) edited "The Dial" literary mag, she used to piss off poets by suggesting edits; in particular, if I remember right, Hart Crane really got pissed. James Laughlin, in his book "The Owl of Minerva," reports, "For a reading of younger poets at The Grolier Club in New York in 1948 Marianne Moore rewrote the last two stanzas of this poem. . . . In her letter Miss Moore asked: 'Can you condone it?' I could indeed." So rewriting someone else's work and passing it off as theirs was something she is known to have done. It's hard to imagine a big company like Ford condoning such stuff today.

the funny little ironies of showbiz

In the film "Singin' in the Rain," Debbie Reynolds plays a singer-dancer who dubs another actress's songs without credit. This is not uncommon in the movies. Bobby McFerrin's father sang Sidney Poitier's part in the '50s movie of "Porgy and Bess." (I've never seen the movie but stole my parents' copy of the soundtrack LP, which gives credit to Robert McFerrin as it shows Poitier emoting on the cover.) Audree Hepburn didn't sing her role in "My Fair Lady." Rosanno Brazzi didn't sing his role in "South Pacific." (My friend David Isaacson wrote a play about "South Pacific" and Rosanno Brazzi's career, among many other things. I played Brazzi, and mouthed the songs onstage as another actor sang them behind me. I did get to sing at one point, in a really nasally, brash, unromantic voice. I got to sing in the context of telling an old, corny joke based on "South Pacific."
Knock knock
Who's there?
Sam and Janet
Sam and Janet who?
"Sam and Janet evening"
Fun role. Terrific play -- 1988. The last play I acted in.)

I got the soundtrack of "Singin' in the Rain" out from the library, the notes of which, without comment, credits the singing on Debbie Reynolds's big ballad to Betty Noyes. Reynolds sang the comic banter numbers but didn't have the pitch control or timbre for a slow torchy number, so she mouthed the song for the cameras as someone else's voice emerged. Which is just what the movie is about!

I remember hearing somewhere that the Partridge Family stole one of its plots from the genesis of the show. The TV producers wanted to hire a real family band, the Cowsills, to be the stars of a TV show about a family band. With one caveat: They wanted the Cowsills to fire their mother and let Shirley Jones play the role on TV. The Cowsills said No. Partridge Family plot: TV producers approach the band to star in a TV show about a family band, with one caveat, that they fire their mother and let an actress play the role. Keith and Danny and Lori and the rest say, No. Man, if I'd've been a Cowsill, I'd've been pissed.

Right now I'm listening to Michael Caine butcher the Roy Orbison ballad "It's Over," from the "Little Voice" soundtrack, which I got from the library -- it's a hidden track -- I didn't know the CD had it. Rock on!

Thursday, October 27, 2005


I burned 5 of the 10 songs from the not-quite-finished CD and took it to a small bar/cafe a couple blocks from where I work yesterday, hoping to get a gig. I didn't know the guy working. I told him what I was there about, he said, Cool, can I put it on?

Sure -- I'd love to hear it on a different sound system!

He asked good questions.

Is that a stand-up bass?

Does the drummer play a small jazz-style kit, small bass drum, high hat, one floor tom, ride?

Answers: Yes to both questions. I asked him if he were a musician. He is.

I heard problems in the mix even more clearly, and I heard one overdubbed keyboard lick I thought had been buried in the mix -- I hadn't heard it on any other system; it was nice to hear it again.

I sat and drank a cup of coffee and listened. The bartender was friendly, said he liked the music, seemed sincere. People came in. It was background music -- nobody noticed it. Which -- is one of the goals! (I didn't put any of the harsher songs on the demo.)

It was really nice to hear it at someone else's joint. Stare out the window and imagine I've made the soundtrack to the movie.
Peter Orlovsky and Allen Ginsberg in love

talking in our sleep

This morning before dawn my son heard me stirring and getting ready for work. He popped up in bed and lamented, "But I wanted popcorn!"

"That's OK, sweetheart, you can have popcorn another time."

"Oh!" Plop, right back asleep.

Yesterday (Tuesday), as I was reading him a children's book about the seasons before his nap, I dozed off mid-sentence and woke up to hear myself saying, "But it's nothing that Ginsberg and Orlovsky couldn't handle." My son looked at me and smiled as if I were teasing him and said, "Noooo."

Wednesday, October 26, 2005


In the wake of yesterday’s discussion of “God Bless America,” Carl Wilson asked, what song would you nominate to have a book written about it? In the comments, I nominated the Tizol-Ellington standard, “Caravan.” (Here’s an MP3 of an excerpt of a terrific dissonant Latin-style arrangement, performer uncredited by whoever posted it.) Ellington recorded the song many, many times, in several different arrangements, and I’ve loved every version I’ve ever heard.

Ellington’s relationship to the song stands in strong contrast to most rockers’ relationships to their songs. Simon Reynolds wrote an interesting article a few weeks ago on Gang of Four’s new record, on which they faithfully cover a bunch of their own songs. In jazz culture, rerecording old hits would go unremarked; but in jazz culture, people wouldn’t recreate the older versions so faithfully as Gang of Four apparently has.

The oldest song on my band’s upcoming album is about 16 years old, and the song's main riff is about 20. I finished the song for my old band in Chicago, circa ‘90 - ‘91. The current band plays the song in the same tempo and basic style, but it's a different arrangement, with a completely new introduction and coda. My ambition is to write songs that last all my life.

Ellington amazes because not only did he constantly revisit his own standards -- sometimes with radical revisions, sometimes with no new ideas but simply new improvisors -- but he kept pushing and learning and writing new music, and with new musical vocabularies. The most dissonant, radical collection of his I’ve heard, he recorded past the age of 70 -- “Afro-Eurasian Eclipse.” He didn’t mellow with age. If anything, he got fiercer.

A procreatin’ role model, baby.
This puts the death toll in perspective.

And how many Iraqi dead?

I hope the criminal justice system follows through and puts the thieving leaders who wrought this catastrophe in prison.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Funniest thing I read today: “Because I'm my own man and never follow the crowd, I've started a blog.”

From an email from Jody Rosen, announcing his blog, The Anachronist. (Jody posted the MP3 of Irving Berlin singing “God Bless America,” linked to a couple posts below.) Welcome to Blogville, Mr. Rosen! Anachrony in the USA!

Speaking of Anachrony, it occurred to me today that in 2 or 3 years, as much time will have elapsed since Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s break-out hip hop hit “The Message” (1982) as between “The Message” and Elvis Presley’s break-out rock and roll hit “Heartbreak Hotel” (1956). This bemuses me.

Hey, I'm not trying to be nobody

Devin Hurd put up a post a week ago saying some nice things about a post of mine on John Cage, but that’s not why I’m linking to it; he movingly describes Cage’s appeal as a musician, thinker, and person. And Devin gets to the heart of the matter when he raises the question of “how to proceed post-Cage and post manifesto.”

I often return to a quote that I first read as a teenager, from the great jazz critic Martin Williams, from his book “The Jazz Tradition,” of 1970.

The high degree of individuality, together with the mutual respect and co-operation required in a jazz ensemble, carry with them philosophical implications that are so exciting and far-reaching that one almost hesitates to contemplate them. It is as if jazz were saying to us that not only is far greater individuality possible to man than he has so far allowed himself, but that such individuality, far from being a threat to a co-operative social structure, can actually enhance society.

Not very prescriptive, which is fine. But as relevant to my musical, my social, my public and private life as ever. Create a space where each of us can be ourselves. “Hey I’m not trying to be nobody / I just want a chance to be myself,” sang the homeless singer of “Streets of Bakersfield” (written by Homer Joy, 1972). That entails, first, being oneself, and second, being attentive to the needs of one’s fellows so that they can find as much joy and happiness in their being-themselves as possible.

I recently came across another golden-oldie quote that gets at all this vagueness. From the poet-translator-editor Clayton Eshleman, his call for “a poetry that attempts to become responsible for all the poet knows about himself and his world.” My ambition as a musician and a writer -- but not just the data of knowledge, but one's feeling-relationship to one's life and self and world.

Irving Berlin at the piano.


In the course of his fascinating discussion on the original political and personal context of Irving Berlin’s patriotic hymn, “God Bless America,” in the comments to this Zoilus post on Liz Phair & the “Star-Spangled Banner,” “Nation” music critic Jody Rosen posts a link to Irving Berlin singing his famous song-- and it’s gorgeously quiet and almost mournful, as if to say, please, God, please bless America, we could really use the guidance. Jody wrote a book on Berlin’s “White Christmas,” which I almost picked up last year during The Season. I’ll be sure to look for it this year.

A couple weeks ago Kyle Gann posted link to Charles Ives singing his own song “They Are There,” and it’s a trip! Kyle’s been posting a series of terrific pieces on Ives lately.

Monday, October 24, 2005

a eaky ball of uff

Things change so quickly with the 2-year-old (soon to be 3, in January). It was only a few months ago that he couldn't say F's or S's at all. The other night I was trying to remember what was the S and F -heavy phrase we came up with just to hear him say it. My beloved spouse remembered. When Mr. Jumping Chocolate Pudding was being sneaky about something, we would ask him, "Are you a sneaky ball of fluff?"

And he'd grin ferally and say, "I'm a eaky ball of uff!"
My beloved spouse
(Photo by Mr. Jumping Chocolate Pudding)

I saw "Good Night and Good Luck" last week while my beloved spouse and son were away. Nice movie; some funny jokes; some good drama; lovely black & white pictures; nice use of archival footage (Liberace & Joseph McCarthy are both compellingly eccentric fellows). Nice love story between Murrow and his producer, Fred Friendly. We never meet their spouses or children, only hear about them briefly, making the movie completely about their own (brotherly) love story. And it was a nice love story; sweet, touching, real-seeming -- but the movie felt emotionally thin -- a sumptuously dressed-up anecdote.

Also liked: all the people constantly smoking. Not that I'm a fan of smoking, but I remember the '60s (slightly later period); I remember going home from Grandma & Grandpa's after Christmas Eve dinner, so happy, and eyes burning red from all the smoke. It sounds sardonic, but it's a happy memory.

Diana Reeves plays an anonymous period-radio singer in the movie, periodically singing standards of the era in a broadcast booth at CBS, functioning as a quasi-Greek chorus. Not that I noticed the songs commenting on the action, except to say, life can be so sweet, and it passes oh so swiftly. Maybe I was projecting my mood, but the very first scene, slo-mo pan of a swank ceremonial dinner, everybody smoking as they're dressed to the nines, while the soundtrack luxuriates in some sweet standard song, I just started crying. Life is sweet, and it passes swiftly.

Sunday, October 23, 2005


Haven't had much to say about music lately because I've been absorbed in finishing my album. Finished the first draft of mixing last Tuesday and have been listening to the sequence. A few things in the mix to tweak, and I've switched 2 of the songs around in the sequencing. We had friends over last night for dinner and the album made reasonably plausible background music, except maybe one song with a dissonant riff and some harsh vocal harmonies. "The album" -- minus 2 topical songs with violent imagery that I don't play when my son is around. So we heard 8 of the 10 songs at dinner last night.

I've sometimes wondered how so many people could get up onstage and play such mediocre songs. One of the byproducts of the "write your own" ethos of post-Dylan, post-Beatles rock. But, really, I know how they can. Playing is a rush. Playing is a thrill. Playing is cathartic. When I'm in the middle of doing it, my own far-less-than-virtuoso performing satisfies me similarly to hearing a real virtuoso play. People in the middle of that rush imagine that listeners are feeling the same rush. Now, I've performed a lot over the last 25 years. I've seen audience members laugh, cry, spontaneously sing along, slam dance till they bleed, boogie till they're dripping with sweat, listen at the edge of their seats. I've written a couple hundred songs in myriad styles; written music for plays and film and video and choreographers; put a lot of thought into how a song works. I'm confident about this batch of 10 songs, not that everybody will like all of them, but that somebody will like each of them, and that some people will like some of them a lot. I have an idea of where the songs' weak spots may be and I know what I think of as their virtues, and hope their virtues will carry them. And I'm pleased with the arrangements and the performances, blown away by some of what my bandmates did with my songs; grateful for their artistry, humbled by their unremunerative collaboration. But still, there's always this fear that the idea that people will like my music is a fantasy, that I'm, in effect, waiting for Guffman.

But hell, seriously, when Guffman does show up, I just know he's going to love it.

The recordist and I did the bulk of the mixing while my beloved spouse and our son were in Michigan visiting my parents. They had a really good trip and got back last Wednesday night. My son's speech noticeably improved in the 6 days they were gone -- young children are amazing in that way. (In anecdotes on this blog, I have translated his toddler dialect into more-or-less standard English. For example, he can't pronounce Y's, and "yes" sounds like "wes." S's and F's sometimes still get mixed up. His dialect is very cute, but I don't think it would look so cute written down.)

The other morning while the 3 of us were lounging in bed (he has his own room but sometimes comes in and chats with us in the morning) we talked about going to visit Grandma and Grandpa again. He was enthusiastic about the idea of the 3 of us going together next time, on the big airplane. I said some day I'd like to drive there. I didn't go into detail, but I've always wanted to take Route 2 along the country's northern border, from Everett, Washington, to St. Ignace, Michigan, and then south across the Mackinac Bridge and on to Kalamazoo from there. My spouse and I told my son that we wouldn't do that until he were bigger.

"When I'll ride in a booster seat?" he asked.

No, when you're too big for a booster seat.

His eyes got big and he had a dreamy smile. "When I'm a big big big big big big boy!" I basked in the warm, joyous glow of his vision. Then he said, with the same dreamy reality, "I'm a chicken! I laid an egg!"

It was as real to him as the idea of becoming a big big big big big boy, but it was one of the funniest things I'd heard in a long time.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Nope, no connotation here

My dad is starting to lose his hair from the chemo. I asked whether he was going to get a bright red wig. He said, "No, I think I'll go with blue and yellow."

Even though I'm a Michigan man and went there like parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents before me, I actually graduated from sports-less, mascot-less, grade-less Antioch. I wrote a "Mediation-in-Lieu-of-a-Fight Song" for my alma mater:

Mediate conscientiously, Antioch
Try to see the other's point of view
Cogitate unpretentiously, Antioch
To all the rainbow's colors we are true
(It hasn't been officially adopted or anything.)

I have no particular feelings for Bear Bryant, but my favorite college mascot is Alabama's: doesn't Crimson Tide refer to menstruation?

Thursday, October 20, 2005


Last night’s post on Humpty-Dumpty-ism was oblique, after having deleted two previous, lengthy posts that gave it more context. Here is the context, re-written:

The other day I’d read an essay by Language-mag poet-maven Barrett Watten that I’d come across via K. Silem Mohammad’s blog. Watten confirmed most of my prejudices against Language-mag poets, including one I’d intuited and written about recently in my joke about their interest in a non-monarchical “political subject”: the willful deafness to the monarchical underpinnings of the word “subject” in a political context reflects their incompetence regarding the connotations of words. Watten’s essay makes it clear: it's not a simple case of incompetence regarding the connotations of words: he talks about the Language-mag poets’ campaign against connotation itself.

Which is what I called Humpty-Dumpty-ism last night: trying to dictate the meanings of words.

The poetry bar in Blogville that I hang out in (usually muttering to myself in the corner) has been strangely quiet in the last couple days, as the bar’s most respected (and most feared) polemicist, Jane Dark, has unloaded his mastery of derision and sarcasm on the bar’s most respected poet, Ange Mlinko. People fear Jane’s sarcasm and derision; having experienced it directed at myself, it does have a way of stirring up unpleasant feelings.

In the fairly heated but respectful discussion on the relationship between poetry and theory, which many of the bar’s denizens recently took part in, including me, Jane and Ange were the chief discussants. Ange’s last post on the matter mentioned how the theory-mavens’ quest for a vision of totality exemplified “false consciousness.” I took those words to mean, roughly, “consciousness imbued with error, hence, false”; another way to say it might be, “mistaken ideation,” or, “grandiose, delusional thinking.” I don’t know that Ange would agree with these attempts at restatements, but that’s what I took her to be saying, and I agreed with her, despite my admiration for the mad, doomed quest for a total vision.

It turns out – and I knew this but had forgotten – that “false consciousness” is a technical term from Marxist theory, and Jane explained with masterful, leeringly false humility the Marxist derivation of the term. I don’t doubt his explication – I appreciate it – but I condemn his Humpty-Dumpty-ism: the intention of his sarcasm is to keep the meanings of words previously in common usage within the colonized, enclosed bounds set by the jargonists. He concludes his post by insinuating – if I’m reading this right – that Ange is panicked at the idea of totality, which is untrue: she is forthrightly criticizing it and finding it wanting as theory and as poetry-practice. Then Jane says, it’s fine to conclude that the concept of totality is wrong, as long as you engage with it. But Ange has engaged, and not panicked. Jane’s underlying statement is: “It’s fine to come to your own conclusions, unless I disagree with them.” (To underline: sarcasm is complex, and Jane has plausible deniability that he has insinuated anything critical of Ange at all, or that he is proclaiming any doctrine; but the emotional force of sarcasm says, “toe the line, or deal with my scorn.”)

Sarcastic people I’ve dealt with before might say, “Oh, don’t take it so personally.” Which is exactly Ange’s point: poetry is personal. Language is personal. Write with your whole humanity, your whole life, including your ego-bound intellect, but don’t limit yourself to that pale thing.

2nd thought: "Most respected" -- silly statement of pseudo-fact based on impressions of interactions amongst the denizens of the "bar" -- people's blogs and so on. Typical rhetorical exaggeration on my part -- an idiosyncrasy I'm trying to keep tabs on.

3rd thought: In response to a thoughtful comment from John Hinchey in the post below, I went back and re-read Barrett Watten's essay linked above, and found to my embarrassment that I have again overstated things based on overconfident too-quick reading. Watten did not quite attack "connotation itself"; he attacked (his word, "attack") the distinction between denotation and connotation, and then went on to say, "Connotation was a lure, leading onward, into the unfolding of a desire to know language." He then describes his subsequent "detour into linguistics" as the "wrong direction," giving the impression that "connotation" was the siren calling him in the wrong direction. Elsewhere he speaks of the "death of the referent": attacks on denotation in language.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Humpty-Dumptyists strive to stuff words into broken, fragmented, long-discarded shells, wishing them never to have hatched or gone into an omelette. The anger of some of our poets at the polysemous nature of words sounds to me like reactionary denials of the ineffectuality of all the king's horses and all the king's men.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005


I grew up living summers with my parents and my mom's parents all in the same cottage that my maternal grandfather's parents built. My dad's parents died at 46 and 56, Grandma Betty when Dad was 18 and Grandpa Bro when Dad was 28 and I was 3. I was close to my mom's folks; Grandma died at 86 in 1994 and Grandpa died at 91 in 1999.

Yesterday it occurred to me -- all the time I knew them, my grandparents missed their own parents. I knew this, subliminally, but it never really struck my heart -- how lucky I felt around the summer dinner table with 3 generations every night and sometimes aunts and uncles and often friends from any one of the generations. But as abundant as that felt, there's always already somebody missing.

Human condition, yeah. Here's a toast -- to absent loved ones.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Held a 12-hour-old baby tonight, new son of friends, the pink bony little thing asleep in my arms, occasionally squirmy, stretchy, tiny little creature -- baby! Congrats Dan & Vic; Welcome Zachary. A deep pleasure to meet you.


A trusted reader writes to set me straight on a couple points regarding my recent rants against the poets associated with "L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E" magazine. First, the name of the magazine got smacked on them as a group of poets who weren't necessarily thinking of themselves as a group; two of them named the magazine, but people who didn't particularly like them transferred the name to the group of poets. I still don't like the name, but I'm wrong to blame the group for it. Second, regarding the "subject": my reader tells me, and I trust him, that the term comes from philosophy, "the epistemological subject, the irreducible self of Descartes' cogito," and not from grammar or politics. Good to know.


Theory & lit -- I'm of two minds. Yeah, that theory-lovin' Francophile Shakespeare really sucked when he went around alluding to Montaigne. On the other mind, to paraphrase my (& lots of people's) beloved O'Hara, if people don't need theory bully for them.


Suddenly reminded tonight of why I stopped writing poetry: My crisis of representation, age 19. Came to realize, from my own writing & reflecting, that any representation is a misrepresentation; at best a partial representation, a pale black-and-white 2-D still photograph of bustling ultracolor 3-D moving life. And so I stopped writing poetry. But didn't stop reading it. So I'm sympathetic to theory-hoppin' poetry bloggers who keep their daily lives close to their vest. Still, it was a shock to be reminded of why I stopped writing it -- I'd honestly forgotten.


The theory v. life squabble reminds me of Hugh Kenner’s distinction between “a consciousness observing” and “a person speaking,” which I wrote about a while back. (By the way, I stole the title of the post in question from this terrific book, written by a poet, ba-da-bing, who's associated with "L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E" magazine.) The criticism against the theory partisans is that one rarely writes about one's reading with one's whole personhood (however problematic the notion of "one's whole personhood" may be). Not saying never, just urging people to be aware of Kenner's distinction, which he attributes to the change in consciousness that happened in the wake of Descartes' declaration, "I think, therefore I am." The worry that the radically dissociative, non-narrative, non-denotative poetry may be the ultimate destination of the "observing consciousness," Descartes' cogito futilely failing to efface traces of itself. The shorthand ideological descriptions in Christopher Nealon's essay made me feel that the attempt was in bad faith; now I'm not so sure; still, I can't help but feel a bitterness in the feeling-about-the-world from much of that poetry, a feeling I don't love, at least not in this form. I'll read more, try to open my mind/heart/fingers to it.
Now it can be told

Music writer JT LeRoy’s all-time favorite band is the Archies.

“I love how they raise questions of identity and authenticity, only to have the emotional je-ne-sais-quoi of the music blow these questions to Kingdom Come. Besides, 'Sugar Sugar' rocks!”

(Link to “JT”’s story via Carl Wilson -- thanks.)

Sunday, October 16, 2005

French post-structuralists -- I haven't read them as much as I may make myself sound. As for specific examples of the poets & composers predating them -- I could maybe look them up if you really want to know, but it would take a while. Fragmentary memories of desultory reading. Needles to say (yes, needles) -- needles to say, the post-structuralists didn't find all their notions pre-figured in the poets.


Complex consciousness. In, say, a New Orleans-style jazz sextet, maybe the last chorus, the drums-bass-piano section are keeping the beat and the chords. The trumpet is robust, vigorous, confident, cheerful, respectful -- stating the melody, with some personal variants on it, some splashes of generic and/or personal style; meanwhile, the trombone is smuttily responding to the melody while the clarinet is ecstatically pirhouetting around it. The three instruments each representing the player playing them while also contributing to the single piece of music, the enactment of a complex emotional event: confident and cheerful and respectful and smutty and ecstatic.

Or, say, a techno song, with the beats chug chugging at a sweaty tempo while the singer floats sultrily, semi-detachedly above it, seeming not to care, while the beats say, she or he cares very much -- a complex whole.


I once did the math: over the course of the 2 album-side-length Ellington-Orchestra tunes on Mingus at Carnegie Hall, bassist and bandleader Charles Mingus played more than 10,000 quarter notes. Didn't take a solo and didn't write the tunes, and yet -- the album is his.
The history of poetry asks the reader of a poem to give the poem a different quality of attention than the reader would to discursive prose. Not necessarily more attention, or more detailed or thorough or focussed attention, but a different quality.


Thinking about poetry & theory, in response to Jane Dark's comments in response to comments of Ange Mlinko's and others.


I'm not going to try to describe the difference in the quality of attention that poetry asks for, except to say that it has to do with the art-meditation-ritual continuum, and that discursive prose historically has a different relationship to that continuum.


I agree with Jane -- books & thoughts & theory are part of life. But I feel the point of view of his interlocutors: books & thoughts & theory are consummables in ways that friends & relatives & current events are not. The book will wait on the shelf for you in ways that your cousin may not; the relationship with the cousin potentially has a richer, more complex dynamic.


Neither of Jane's 2 hypotheticals -- "While reading Cixious, I thought about . . . ," and, "After going to the movies with my cousin, I thought about . . . " -- sounds like a promising topic for a poem to me, but I'm easily surprised in that way. As a reader, I'm hoping for a depth of emotion compelling the poet to ask of me the quality of attention that a poem historically asks for. The emotion can simply be the urge to verbalize in a particularly beautiful way that is perculiar to the poet herself or himself.


"Beauty" and "emotion" are unfashionable words in aesthetics. Maybe I should say, old-fashioned, or out-of-fashion. Funny thing about aesthetics: I prefer it to anaesthetics.


Or if not emotion or beauty, than a quality of consciousness that surprises -- I want a poem to bring that.


My beef with the French post-structuralists isn't really with them so much -- oh, sometimes a willful opacity annoys me, but that's OK -- it's with their fashionableness at the expense of American poets and theorists whose insights predated theirs and whose names aren't as trendy: Olson, Zukovsky, Duncan, Stein, Norman Brown, Cage, Ives, Melville, Whitman, Dickinson. I suppose you could construe this as patriotism -- I do love my country, catastrophes and all, and I love our artists -- but I love anybody making something beautiful or enlivening, and I just want these cats to get their due from the Francophiles.


The post-avants may prefer the poem about reading Cixious, and the prosodically more conservative types may prefer the poem about hanging out with the cousin. Bookishness is neither here nor there. Emotion, consciousness & linguistic zip are what count. In my read, the bookish-ists on average tend to have more linguistic zip than the anti-bookish-ists on average; too many poems from either camp lack emotional oomph, or the skills to convey that oomph to me; the problem may be with me.


Here's another song lyric. The emotional oomph probably doesn't come across without the singing. But here it is anyway.

apprehended semi-existent -- slipscreen scam
i got a secret from myself
epistemology embezzler -- on the lam
sad go unlucky, sad go unlucky

gave a name to indefinity -- what the hell
broke a bootstrap, lost my string
showed my teeth, trying to be friendly -- uh-oh well
sad go unlucky, sad go unlucky

i'm waiting hesitating contemplating ovulating instigating investigating expectating creating

without wax is what's sincere -- so they say
we're all trying to do our best
got a feeling groan & growing -- livelong day
sad go unlucky, sad go unlucky

more complex than merely greedy -- yeah yeah yeah sure
ticket to predestination
a bad case of affluenza -- what's the cure
sad go unlucky, sad go unlucky

i'm waiting hesitating contemplating ovulating instigating investigating expectating creating irrigating irritating discombulating reiterating . . .

mister minor meaner & wider -- mostly gone
i'm haunted, i'm haunted, i'm haunted by improbables
western hedging hiding something -- on the lawn
sad go unlucky, sad go unlucky
sad go unlucky, sad go unlucky . . .
the lyric "I" and its wants

"I want to say this, say this to you, or to anybody, or myself, or nobody, but in any case Say it, say it because I Feel it, feel it intensely, and I will use whatever rhetorical verbal or musical trick I can muster to convince you of how intensely I feel it, and all the shadings of this feeling, these feelings, this knot of feelings, and the perceptions and experiences that gave rise to the knot of feelings."

UPDATE, in the morning: Sincerity isn't enough. Key phrase: "whatever rhetorical verbal or musical trick I can muster." Lots of sincere people don't know very many tricks. Or, really, any.

"Trick" is a dissy word for it, but it really is proof of sincerity -- sincerity that you want not to bore your auditor. ("Trick," "bore," and "auditor" are words that I would not recommend concatenating in a business or tax context.)

Went to a club to see a band last night. Singer seemed sincere. Cross New Wave spazz frontman persona with '70s goblet of rock backing band, remove hooks and melodies, and there you go. Rumor is that singer's words are interesting, but I could make out only maybe 5 or 10 percent of them in the rockarena (small club) din; what I heard didn't grab me. I like both the elements, the spazzy sincere New Wave frontman and the "goblet of rock" backing band, but they need more musical tricks to keep my interest.

Thursday, October 13, 2005


My mom pointed this out when her mom was in the hospital a lot in her late years: The erosion of formality in our society lends itself easily to rudeness.

Grandma's name was Helen Jane. She always went by both her first and middle names. It really irked my mom to hear nurses less than a 3rd Grandma's age calling her "Helen."

"What's wrong with Mrs. den Bleyker," my mom would mutter. "She's never been called 'Helen' in her life."

This has come up with Dad too. He's always gone by his middle name, his whole life, since he was a baby. Oops, not in the hospital. "How are you, John?" (His middle name is Michael -- Mike. Mine isn't. I'm not a junior, for which I am grateful.)

It's something of a joke in our family. There are 5 of us now living named John Shaw -- me (John Allen, called John), my dad ("Mike"), his Uncle John, Uncle John's son John Rocklin Jr. (called "Tim"), and Tim's son John Blake (called "Blake"). So only two of us go by "John." Last time I was home for Christmas I made sure we got a picture of all the John Shaws. I have it on my dresser.
Mr. Jumping Chocolate Pudding, on a road trip a few months ago.

on the road again

I put my beloved spouse and our son on an airplane this morning, as they flew off to Michigan to see my folks for a week. Because of her job my spouse won't have a chance to go again until the Spring, barring catastrophe, and she really wanted to go. Of course the grand-offspring are the main attraction for my folks, but I was really touched that she wanted to go, even though I miss them like crazy already.

Dad went to work the other day, which is a good sign. He works occasionally for his sister-in-law and nephew, who inherited the family business from my late uncle (Dad's brother), who inherited it from my grandpa, who inherited it from his father. A funeral home. Dad grew up in the business and in his semi-retirement he's gone back to work there with his semi-retired older brother, both of them working for their sister-in-law. Their job is to "remove the body" -- bring the corpse from the place of death to the funeral home.

When we were young my cousins lived upstairs from the funeral home. I remember seeing dead bodies as a little kid. I wasn't freaked out. One of my cousins who lived there never ever looked. And that's fine too.
"Decentering the postmodern political subject since 1972"

I've been trying to imagine what this phrase could mean. (I added "since 1972" to enhance the sloganistic flavor of the phrase; the rest of the phrase comes from a sympathetic description of the poetics of the Language Poets, or LangPos, which I've been writing about the last couple nights.)

In political vocabulary, a subject is a member of a monarchic state, what we in America would call a citizen, but who, in a monarchy, is presumably subject to the arbitrary dictates of the monarch. This LangPo slogan specifically addresses the political subject; so evidently they are talking about a monarchy.

I'm not sure what centering indicates in political discourse. In therapeutic discourse, it's a word I can apprehend only fuzzily; something to do with feeling centered, which points to: feeling calm, or focused, or in touch with one's deepest self.

So, if these conjectures are correct, "decentering the political subject" would mean, upsetting the person who is ruled by a monarch, so that the subject no longer feels centered, calm, focused, or in touch with his or her deepest self.

I don't know what this has to do with my world, or why anyone would consider it a positive or pleasant thing to do.

Postmodern refers to a specific aesthetic fashion and belief about a loss of faith in "modernist" progress. So the sloganeers of "decentering the postmodern political subject" evidently have no wish to upset the people who are ruled by a monarch and who also retain a modernistic faith in progress; in other words, they do not "decenter the modern political subject," but only those subjects whose aesthetic and philosophical beliefs lead them to build pastiches out of past and current styles.

Well, that certainly clears things up!

OK, I'm kidding. "Subject," in the discourse of the LangPos, is a figure from grammar: the subject of the sentence. "Political subject" is a person or agency who acts politically. "Postmodern" simply means contemporary in this slogan, with many assumptions about how contemporary society is organized, having mainly to do, I'm guessing, with the so-called post-industrial economy (really, the exported industrialized economy, just as Marx predicted). (Note: I haven't read much contemporary Marxist theory, which, Christopher Nealon indicates in his essay on contemporary poetry where I got the quote [sans "since 1972"], the LangPos would be referencing here.)

I'm still hung up on "decentering." I'm guessing that it has to do with undermining the myth of the unitary self as it relates to political praxis. If I've guessed right, it's a clumsy metaphor -- centering? decentering? Maybe it refers to a belief that a person has power to act politically efficaciously in contemporary society; maybe the LangPos believe that we citizens have an inflated sense of personal power, a "subject-centrism," if you will, which, in this reading, they want to undermine, to rid us of our illusions. This would make more sense, reading the words in their conventional meanings, but I'm putting my bets on a critique of the unitary self. Not that I'm much of a betting man. I'd bet, say, a quarter, or a pop.

Language is fun! When the stakes are low!
the non-denotative and the plenitude of language

Franklin reminds me, so, what is it you like about this poetry stuff? Why do you even care?

Sophomore year of college I took "Arts & Ideas in the 20th Century" and studied, most memorably among others, Stein and Duchamp. Loved them, still do. We read Stein's "Tender Buttons" of 1914. Here is the first of the Buttons.


A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.

There may be a denotative purport to this, but whatever it could be is obscured by the radical undermining of traditional syntax, the odd imagery -- what is a "hurt" color and why is it single? -- and the abstract language. "Not unordered in not resembling" sounds like a statement of purpose: Stein is deliberately writing non-denotatively, "not resembling," but not randomly, "not unordered." "The difference is spreading" -- echoes of Saussure's linguistics of the arbitrary nature of signs (words) that gain their meaning from context and social use and agreement; pre-echoes of deconstructionist philosophies of difference; and a momentary zing of excitement -- "the difference is spreading" sounding to me like that visionary ecstatic cliche of the Thanksgiving dinner table, "everything is delicious." Stein's tone, at least after "The Making of Americans," generally is pleased, pleasing, pleasuring, delightful, delighting in the associative powers of language as it flows unbounded from denotative charge.

Jack Spicer zings me similarly; he was a professional linguist who said, in a lecture on poetry, (this is a paraphrase from memory), "everybody speaks their own language," meaning, no two people's vocabularies are identical, and no two people's associations with any given word will be identical. Words in discourse bring with them all the associations that the reader and writer bring to them, with them; marry me, marry my family; words are similarly history-laden (that person's got some history), in many cases, baggage-laden. Spicer's non-denotative poetry brings this wittily to bear, usually in emotionally charged ways. I'll post something of his soon.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

trying to stop ranting about the Langpos

It's no surprise to me to realize that I rant & rave. It feels good in the moment; if I change my mind later I feel no shame in saying so. My vociferousness does lead me into overstatement at times, and I do regret that. Will try to keep that in check. Temperance, brothers and sisters, temperance!

After all, we're talking about poetry here! Mustn't let our emotions or our rhetoric run away with us!

Mustn't. Acckk, cut the shmarcasm already -- overstatement can be unfair and hurt people's feelings, what's the point in that?

If I've hurt your feelings, I'm sorry.

Straightforward plea: If I have misconstrued the Langpos' critique of the "commodification of language," somebody please set me straight. I will thank you for it. Honest. I can give you references of people who have corrected my misunderstandings and misapprehensions; they will tell you that I didn't bite their typing fingers off and that indeed I thanked them.

[aside note: upon re-reading I see that I got apostrophes wrong all over last night's rant. the recovering proofreader within reaches for the blue pencil. but I'm not going back and fixing. if you want to quote or reprint, let me know & I'll fix.]

I have enjoyed many passages and lines, and sometimes whole pieces, by various Langpos.

Christopher Nealon's essay that inspired last night's rant does say more about what the Langpos were getting at in their rejection of closure. One of the strategies involved avoiding genre markers. As I have posted before, I'm skeptical of such claims. Langpo in general feels like lyric to me, specifically meditative lyric. Even when pieces deliberately avoid a consistent point of view, more often than not they reflect a consistent feeling about the world, and as the cliche of poetry goes, it's more about feeling than information. In general, I feel the Langpos reflecting dour, sour feelings about life. Their poetics, in general, reflect this. Not the exuberant multiplicity of language, but the negative, scolding turning away from rhetorical strategies that have been despoiled by society. Not a step toward, but a step away.

Nealon points out that the post-Langpos by and large feel cheerier, stepping toward our culture's too-much-ness more embracingly, if also with a sense of irony about it.

Nealon also mentions what he calls Ashbery's feeling about the "pathos of conceptualization." This rings me right. Why I usually don't like Ashbery -- the dolorous tone (even when he's witty). To me, Conceptualization, like Language, is the stuff of comedy. If you connect, that's a happy (temporary) ending (closure!); if you misconnect, disconnect, or otherwise fail to connect, that's a slip of the banana peel. Euripides knocks my socks off too; I understand the tragic possibilities of miscommunication (there's a specific name for it as practiced by Euripides that I'm forgetting); I, yup, connect with the tragic connotations in the Dionysian tearing apart (hello, Bacchae; hi Mom!).

Still haven't read the whole Nealon essay. Will get there.

As a gesture of my good faith interest in non-denotative language, I'm posting a lyric from a song I wrote several years ago that only played a couple times but have been thinking of resurrecting now for my band -- the bass player could sing it better than I ever could. [Edit: this is not the song I originally posted here, but one I thought of after.] The bare words on the page lose the emotional whatever of the music and the tone of voice that singing can convey. If you read it and think, what a terrible poem, please understand, I didn't write it as a poem to be read, but as a song to be heard.

struction romp through force and feel
burning sweeter than a streudel
how much farce do steak bake yield?
just can't get it through my noodle

streets of fire and streets of voters
piercing fiercer than a poodle
great green bashful self-promoters
just can't get it through my noodle

is amor amoral?
what if an abbess is abysmal?
why is a quarry full of quarrel?
why does a schism feel so dismal?

pulling harder than a coal train
sheets of sound, kit and kaboodle
A-train, el-train, love train, soul train
just can't get it through my noodle

I am imputing a totalism to the LangPo cry of "reject closure" that may or may not be there. Last night I was sure it was there; now I'm not sure. Maybe the LangPoets do see that previous literature does have an Open-ness to it in even the most seemingly didactic manifestations.

That "commodification of language" biscuit was a hard half-baked snack to chew and my jaw was sore. Excuses excuses, grumpasaurus.

Distrust of people who take contingent metaphors from other writers and spit 'em back out as facts. "Deterritorialization" metaphor-complex quoted by Nealon from a LangPoet, who stole it from Deleuze.

Sgt. Schultz and Socrates both lied when they protested, “I know nothing!”
Beware of people who proclaim, "We are the marginals!"
-- Gilles Deleuze (probably in collaboration with either Felix Guattari or Claire Parnet; don't remember)
The mystification of the LangPos

Via Jane, I started reading Chris Nealon’s essay “Camp Messianism,” on the poetic milieu of a lot of my favorite poetry bloggers -- Jordan, Franklin, Ange, Jane herself, Jonathan, Sasha, Kasey, and Ron too (most of them are on my links page; the rest will be when I get around to it). Roughly speaking these are “post-LANGUAGE” poets, which does not denote that they are writing in a post-linguistic period, but in the wake of the school of poetry that took the name “Language” (originally, “L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E”) for their approach. Ron was one of the original LangPos (as they’re now called, even by Ron); the essay talks about him too. I haven’t gotten very far into it because I’m caught up short by Nealon’s description of LangPo’s contribution to poetics.

Caught up short, because 2 of 3 planks of the LangPo platform strike me as mystificatory jargon, and the 3rd simply mystification -- I can’t make any sense of it at all yet.

According to Nealon, LangPo’s contribution to contemporary poetics consists of:

1) resistance to the commodification of language;

2) rejection of closure in literary production;

3) “the decentering of the postmodern political subject.”

Let’s take these one at a time.

Regarding the “commodification of language.” What does this mean? I am pretty sure it doesn’t refer to the selling of books, nor does it refer to the exploitation of the linguistic-unit workers whose products are sold at huge profits by faceless corporations who try to corner the market on commas. It could possibly refer to a recent business phenomenon: On the fringes of capitalism, large corporations are laying claim to bits of language. Some musicians I know in a steel drum band called the Toucans got sued by Kellogg for copyright infringement of the Fruit Loops mascot; it was a major hassle, and I don’t know how they did it, but they’re still called the Toucans; I can only hope that Kellogg’s had to pay them a fine for wasting their time and attempting to enclose vocabulary from the commons. I don’t think the LangPos meant this, though; if they did, why would they think that writing poems that are difficult to follow would slow down Kellogg’s in their quest to steal our words? It doesn’t make any sense. My guess is that the LangPos intended their abstruse stuff as a resistance to what they considered to be the hegemony of commodity-thinking in everyday discourse; self-reflexively (ironically?), they chose a catchy, misleading slogan (“commodification of language”) to sell their work. I applaud the inclination to resist commercial thinking in daily life, but writing catchy, misleading slogans would not be the way I would recommend going about it. ("Sloganism is fascism" was the title and entire repeated lyric of a song by the great Kalamazoo noise band Tavia Control, which my friend John de Roo founded in the early '80s.)

Regarding the “rejection of closure.” “Closure” is the LangPo’s word to describe artworks that lend themselves to single interpretations. I can see what they’re getting at here, wanting to leave their works open-ended, but doesn’t most art do that already? Even a poet like Kipling -- Kipling’s contemporaries and most commentators understand “The White Man’s Burden” to be a pro-imperialist poem; I read it and thought, no way; it’s racist as hell but incredibly sarcastic about the prospects of empire. The slogan, “rejection of closure,” implies that the old literature told the reader what to think and how to feel. That's true to an extent, but I simply don’t see how anyone could believe this in the absolute ("enclosed"?) sense the slogan implies, especially people who seem to dig the writings of Jack Spicer and the French deconstructionists, all of whom argued (rightly) that language is inherently un-enclosed. The multiplicity of contradictory interpretations of just about any literary text you can think of indicates that the LangPos were overstating the case to create a case for their own work as counter-exemplary. Was Hamlet really crazy, or was he faking? I have little patience for simplistic manifestoists. And again, in the LangPos defense, I understand the appeal of writing deliberately to leave interpretation open. I simply don’t see this as a politically liberatory act, or as a more generous attitude to have toward the reader, both of which motives Nealon attributes to the LangPos.

Regarding “the decentering of the postmodern political subject.” I have no idea what this means, which is why I quoted it from Nealon’s essay and didn’t attempt a paraphrase.

I’ll let you know if the rest of Nealon’s essay illuminates this last point. I’m happy to be reading it, because it is elucidating why I’ve so disliked most of LangPo. The works themselves -- there’s a prevailing drabness of tone, which goes well with the obfuscatory dogmatics of the poetics. Right now I’m thinking LangPo is the serialism of poetry -- joyless academic dogmatism, obsessed with an ivory tower version of art history that’s disconnected from everyday life even as it fantasizes itself as a resistance to the bad guys, even as many of the artists stage their resistance from within the halls of elite state and/or foundation-supported institutions.

“Language” poetry -- sheesh. I think I’m going to call my new style of music “Sound” music, or my new style of novel-writing “Story” novel, or my new style of play-writing “Stage” theater. But I gotta hand it to them -- sure is a catchy name, easy to remember, easy to sell.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Folk rock. Last week one day on the radio I heard "Green, Green," an old hit from the year I was born by the New Christy Minstrels, featuring loudish strummy acoustic guitars with a vague-ish rock beat and a lead vocal gravelly to the point of grating-ness. I looked up the band.

The New Christy Minstrels -- Barry McGuire, Gene Clark, and Kenny Rogers all sang with them. Obviously it was McGuire singing lead on "Green, Green." McGuire -- famous a couple years later for “The Eve of Destruction” -- co-wrote and sang this 1963 hit. The real beginning of folk rock -- a grating voice with strummy guitars on hit radio before Dylan had a hit as a singer.

The lyric "I." I once acted in a 2-person one-act play written by my dear friend Ross Lipman. The formal challenges of the play's language and themes were such that one day during a bathroom break at rehearsal I wrote, "Identity is a violation," on the wall. I understand the critique of the Unitary Self; oddly, it's "I" who does that understanding ("or is it?" asks Nietzche); I understand that I don't have complete (or maybe very much) control over my understanding; still, in my experience, "I" am the one doing the understanding; it's my experience. As a songwriter, the experience of a lifetime goes into each song, words and music and the relationship between. Sometimes that experience is of the dis-unitary self. The Lyric "I" serves well as a vessel for most of the peak -- and low -- experiences; trying to convey those experiences in song is the thrilling absorbing challenge of a lifetime.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Cage, Rauschenberg, and Tomkins revisited

After saying I'd felt discomfitted by Calvin Tomkins's recent "New Yorker" profile of painter/collagist Robert Rauschenberg, I went back and read the whole thing. It was an exercise in nostalgia.

Tomkins had devoted one of four chapters of his 1965 book "The Bride and the Bachelors" to Rauschenberg (the other three chapters were on composer John Cage, artist Jean Tinguely, and artist Marcel Duchamp, whose work "The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even" inspired the book's title; Tomkins later added a chapter on choreographer Merce Cunningham). Tomkins adapted his 1965 book from profiles he'd written for the "New Yorker," so his recent profile was a 40th anniversary of sorts. In 1980, Tomkins wrote a whole book on Rauschenberg, which I read extracurricularly sophomore year in college in 1982 or 1983, and which made a big impression on me.

The new profile recycles anecdotes and quotes and phrases from his earlier work, which is sad enough; worse, Tomkins recycles impressions. It simply won't do to unqualifiedly call Rauschenberg's combination painting-sculptures of the 1950s, which are now worth many millions of dollars apiece, "shockers." They may have been shockers at the time, but now they're completely assimilated.

It isn't just that Rauschenberg is a multimillionaire with a large personal staff and huge property holdings in various locations that signals the assimilation of his works: Rauschenberg's lyrical, loud collage technique has been hugely influential on commercial graphic art and videography. I love Rauschenberg's work; I think it's beautiful; and I think it's great that book-cover designers and advertisers and videomakers have borrowed from him. But Tomkins is stuck in wistfulness for the 1960s avant-garde "high art" that he chronicled with such vitality. He can't acknowledge that the aesthetic approach he championed long ago went commercial. He's wedded to the exclusivity connoted by "avant-garde" and "high art."

One of the recycled quotes in the new profile reminded me why Rauschenberg kindled my mind as well as my eyes: he "defined his themes as 'multiplicity, variation, and inclusion.'" Take it all in; miss nothing; embrace everything.

Yesterday I dug out a literary journal my dorm put out in April 1983, sophomore year, and found a "collage poem" I'd made, inspired by Rauschenberg. Scattered over the page are breezy anecdotes from a Spring Break visit to New York, as well as visual/verbal detritus I picked up there: a museum ticket, a parking ticket, a subway tear-off advertisement for a job training program, a bubblegum comic (WHY DID HUMPTY DUMPTY HAVE A GREAT FALL? TO MAKE UP FOR A ROTTEN SUMMER), a newspaper headline, a friend's personal card, a note and a drawing left in another friend's dorm mailbox, and a squib of writing describing the work of Rauschenberg's great friend and ally Jasper Johns. The versified anecdotes show the syrupy naivete of the 19-year-old I was; the overall aesthetic is cheery.

As is Rauschenberg's generally, which is what makes his stuff so useful for book cover designers and MTV. Tomkins would agree with the assessment of cheeriness; he calls the aesthetic approach of Rauschenberg and Cage "comic."

Which gives the lie to Cage's attack on Varese. Although Varese included non-pitched noises in his music long before Cage did, Cage wrote in a 1958 essay later collected in 1961 his first, most famous book, "Silence,"

Varese is an artist of the past. Rather than dealing with sounds as sounds, he deals with them as Varese.
It is because of Tomkins's profiling of Cage that we know that Cage, in his own way, dealt with sounds as Cage. According to Tomkins, Cage was a cheerful person; his aesthetic is equally cheerful. Re-reading some of the pieces in "Silence," I am now struck by how in some respects Cage seems like an Eisenhower suburbanite. He's preternaturally cheerful; he's proud of America's contributions to aesthetics; he's optimistic for the future; he's unconcerned with society as such as long as he is free to do his own thing. Contrast this to the liveliest jazz of the late '50s -- Ornette, Mingus, Miles, Coltrane, Ellington. The "inclusionary" aesthetic of Cage and Rauschenberg seems not to include much psychology or sociology.

Cage on social relations can be positively yucky. He was an adept of Zen Buddhism, which the poet and translator and essayist Kenneth Rexroth, who was 5 or 6 years Cage's senior, pegged as the religion of warriors and the rich in Japan. Some of the Zen stories Cage includes in "Silence" give the whiff of fascism.

[The Master said to the student], "You've been here three years, three months, and three weeks. Stay three more days, and if, at the end of that time, you have not attained enlightenment, commit suicide."
Cage later expressed frustration with performers who would not honor the details of his scores. I don't have copies of his later essays because they often creep me out. As I recall, in one of them he expresses admiration and/or envy for the disciplinary prowess of Mao. It reminds my bohemian snobbish self that there's nothing really wrong with having been an Eisenhower suburbanite, which I only mentioned because the passage of time allows us to feel similarities between an era's subcultures that may have been obscured at the time.

Cage's fiction of "dealing with sounds as sounds" as opposed to dealing with them as personal expression allowed him to do things nobody else had done. But I can't imagine how promulgating the fiction of the effacement of personal expression could be useful for artists any more. Few of us aspire to Zen desirelessness; Cage himself was endlessly ambitious for his career.

I love a lot of Cage's music and have found inspiration and beauty in his early essays and a few of his later ones. I have been focusing here on my reservations, but I still love him.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Musical signification changes over time (What is your at-bat fanfare music?)

One day at a Mariners' game my dear friend Jake London asked, If you were a major league ball player and had to choose a musical lick to be your fanfare as you stepped to the batter’s box, what would it be?

Most batters get metal or loud pop. Hip hop and salsa suffice for machismo and signify ethnically.

Jake said, for him, “London Calling” – the Clash. Perfect – alludes to his name, and a stentorian electric guitar riff from the punk era. Witty, menacing, and age-appropriate at once.

I had chosen “4 Sticks” – Zep. Stentorian, but in the meter of 5/4. Menacing, but quirky, with the bonus that “stick” means “baseball bat.”

But then I thought, what about something off the beaten path? “Moonlight Serenade”? No, too languid.

And then: “The Blue Danube.” Vigorous, sensual, vulgar, demotic – at least, that’s how people used to think of waltzes. But not any more: now they’re effete and elitist. Musical signification changes with fashion.

To a lot of people, Elvis is pure camp, nothing but. (I love Elvis; he's dated better than most of the '60s rockers, for me.) Bob Dylan working on his “cool” – silly, juvenile stuff. Fashions change. I can imagine how his persona embodied a sense of alienation for millions of middle class white people at the time, but all that's a long time ago now.

I actually like Dylan’s persona nowadays. His brief eulogy for George Harrison in Rolling Stone was genuinely sweet; his live-video acceptance of the best-song Oscar a few years ago was endearing; his memoir puts on lots of charm. He’s beyond “cool,” and good for him.

I think I'll stick with "4 Sticks" for my fanfare, even though Zep's heyday was during my pre-teen years. What would your at-bat baseball fanfare be? Serious or silly, please do tell.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Cage ist mort (auch Dylan)

Kyle Gann says, “It’s time for a ‘Cage Is Dead’ article.” I’m ready. The other day I was throwing out old magazines and came across a few-months-old New Yorker profile on painter-collagist Robert Rauschenberg, a friend and collaborator of Cage’s, written by longtime scene chronicler Calvin Tomkins. I read Tomkins’s book on Rauschenberg in 1983 as a sophomore in college (extra-curricularly); Cage figures heavily in the book. Their approach to collage inspired and pushed me. I heard Cage read around that time, his text on Duchamp, Satie, and Joyce, and it was a magical evening -- he was an enchanting, pixie-ish reader and a deeply thoughtful and compassionate extemporaneous speaker. He asked the audience whether we would like him to read another text or to answer questions. The audience asked for a Q&A. I shot my hand up. He called. “Did you enjoy yourself?” “Just now?” I nodded. He smiled broadly, seemingly tickled by the question: “Yes, very much.” A troubled-sounding woman asked what he would say to someone who was lonely. Cage thought for a long time and finally said, “I would say, we’re all here with you.” It seems glib on the page, but he said it so sweetly, it conveyed a message of solidarity, of all-in-the-same-boatness.

Despite my very fond memory of this evening, and my love for much of his work, Cage’s famous principle of “non-selection” reflects a moment in history long past, when American hegemony was at its height and the “spirit of progress” had not yet gotten ground under the steamroller of Reaganism that reigns in America to this day; the 1950s and ‘60s were a time of unprecedented and unrepeated upward mobility in American economic life; an aesthetic of “attention” that Cage and Rauschenberg preached and practiced reflected a cultural wealth and an optimistic spirit that have long since gone to smash and splatter. I was immediately discomfitted reading Tomkins’s recent profile of Rauschenberg; this ancient veteran of the old avant-garde now gotten wealthy and still fighting the aesthetic battles of 50 years ago as if they were still current. And still being chronicled by the same ancient chronicler.

Kyle is right that a reluctance to manifesto-ize has been a missed marketing opportunity for the post-manifesto-ist generation. The media, including the arts journals, thrive on the perception of conflict. Cage himself was a manifesto-ist par excellence, vociferous in his denunciations of his nearest aesthetic forebear, denouncing Varese’s work in strictly personal (and, I hold, not entirely honest) terms and pronouncing the objections as universal truths. Varese’s fault, according to Cage, was to subject his musical noises to the same western will that all previous composers had willed. Despite his principle of non-selection, Cage exerted an equally strong will over his aesthetic frames; he selected the frames, he selected the contexts, he selected the theoretical justifications, and in many cases he selected the universe of sound-materials from which the aleatory pieces gathered their stuff.

Cage’s fruitfully provocative theories can’t be put to practice in full good faith. Much of his music is gorgeous. But he doesn't provide a way to proceed today.

Manifesto-ism, yeah. I recognize that my recent ranting against Dylan has a quality of disciple-esque resentment toward him. Dylan was the Man; he hasn't been for a long time but that's cool, few people last very long as the Man; and in addition to being the Man he has also often been the Creep, at least in his songs. Please stop overpraising him. His misogyny and resentment can be very bad for you. Got that? OK, good.

Now, I got some music that you might be interested in hearing . . .
i'm not the only one who's been weepy about the awesome emotional waves of parenthood. an email the other day from an old, dear friend:

Listening to [Brian Wilson's] Smile again -- loading it into my iTunes on the laptop. (reviewing a lot of my library this way -- kind of why I'm doing it).

Goose bumps (despite anticipation, which was lost in the tunes before I got to it) at Wonderful again -- this time at "a girl who's loved by her mother and her father"

A little weeping, Sometimes it's overwhelming, fathering -- mothering.
people ask, how’s your dad, you are you doing, how’s your mom doing? Saturday was a bad day for Dad. it was 3 days after the chemo treatment. my sister read that the third day tends to be the worst day. Sunday he was feeling better.

my standard answer is that we’re all living with the minimum amount of denial necessary for coping. it sounds facetious but it’s not. dwelling on the worst doesn’t help. we know the possibility for the worst is there, but we often act as though nothing is wrong. sometimes we even forget about it! this happened when i was home a week and a half ago. we’d be doing our usual things -- digging post holes for new bird feeders, raking dead branches, taking trips to the dump, attempting to patch a leak in the roof -- and i’d forget that Dad was even sick. then i’d remember. i only cried around him once, after i took him to an appointment at with his personal doctor -- he’s being treated by the V.A., and he’s happy with the care they are giving, but he wanted confirmation by his longtime doctor and friend -- and then we had to rush back to the hospital where my uncle -- Dad’s older and only living brother -- was being rushed into emergency open heart surgery after his angiogram came back with bad news. Dad & i were there for the angiogram, then we had to rush to Dad’s appointment, where his friend said, “you don’t need a doctor, you need a priest,” then we rushed back to visit with my aunt -- whom my dad has known since they were teenagers -- and my cousins. Uncle Pete is recovering well, but that was a hell of a day. i cried briefly in the car, between the doctor’s office and the hospital, quietly, so as not to draw attention, and Dad made a couple phone calls about his brother and pretended not to notice me, because noticing wouldn’t have done him any good.

so i go about my busy days and then occasionally break into tears and that seems workable for now. we’ll find out whether the treatment is doing any good in 6 or 7 weeks.

songs that have made me cry recently:

Barry Manilow’s gorgeous cover of Glenn Miller’s gorgeous “Moonlight Serenade.” i love Barry and especially Glenn, who is probably my dad’s favorite, which is interesting to me: Glenn being my dad’s favorite would be the equivalent of the Beach Boys being my favorite: the music of our respective infancies.

James Taylor’s cover of “Getting to Know You.” so sweet, so tender, and i heard it at a parent/child class that i’m taking with Mr. Jumping Chocolate Pudding, and hell, it’s SO TRUE! when these little howling creatures are born and for months after, we have NO PROCREATING CLUE who they are. and so the song came on & in my emotionally volatile state i started crying, quietly, so as not to draw attention to myself. i’m the only dad in the group. Ah! i see it’s Rodgers & Hammerstein. “Getting to know you / Getting to know all about you. / Getting to like you, /Getting to hope you like me. // Getting to know you, / Putting it my way, / But nicely, / You are precisely, / My cup of tea. // Getting to know you, / Getting to feel free and easy / When I am with you, / Getting to know what to say.” if that don’t describe the early months of parenting . . .

Jimmy Durante’s version of “Make Someone Happy.” it’s a love song in the mating sense, but love has other applications as well. “it’s so important to make someone happy.” i first heard this years ago on an old record in an old small-town house that my dear friend John de Roo was living in; it was his grandmother’s house, and her records, and she was now to old and frail to live there. and this great shmaltzy Jimmy Durante record, with his great, gruff, emphatic phrasing offset against the lush orchestra & choir -- it sounded great that late Michigan night. i heard it again the other day and burst into many tears, and played it over and over.

Sarah Vaughan’s version of “The Hands of Time,” which is the lyrics-version of the theme from “Brian’s Song,” that tear-jerking TV cancer movie I haven’t seen since I was probably 10. beautiful song, amazing singer. with throbbingly yearning lush orchestra arranged & conducted by the song’s composer, Michel Legrand. lyrics by the Bergmans, yeah it’s about death:

All the happy days would never learn to fly,
Until the hands of time would choose to wave good-bye!

hell, sorry to be morbid. but that’s where it’s at right now. still hoping for some victorious battles, enough for another good year if possible -- that would be great. hoping and hopeful despite a realistic assessment of the terrible odds against it.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

it is with a sense of breathless hope that i say -- tracking is done on my band's album! last 2 overdubs tonight; harmonica on one song, organ on another. now, all that's left is Mixing, and Everything Else, and then, figuring out how to let you hear it, which, i'm pleased to know, we're working on -- i'll leave who's we mysterious for now -- sorry to be cultivating my mystique here. yeah, mystique -- yeah, yeah, that's the ticket, cultivate that mystique.

i wanted to pull an all-nighter and mix mix mix, but that would have been a Bad Idea, and so, and so, it'll wait. it's waited this long, it can probably wait a while longer. probably.

music is the Best. music, and Love.
OK, so I've been a little out of control in my anti-Dylan biliousness. Well tonight I listened to some of "Blonde on Blonde," and man!, lotta great stuff. Visions of Johanna, I Want You, Stuck Inside of Mobile, Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat, Absolutely Sweet Marie -- really great.

Monday, October 03, 2005

dreaming of California

Alex wrote a piece in the New Yorker (unavailable online) that made me want to pack up my kit bag and fly to Frisco* to see the premiere of John Adams's new opera "Dr. Atomic." M. C- saw it and made me wish even harder. Same night, same state, different town, Devin went to a Terry Riley concert that made me wish I'd been there too.

Happy to think of my blogging compatriots there, at least. Happy to read about the music, and to imagine hearing it -- hopefully some day!

* A note on usage: I got "Frisco" into my vocabulary from hanging out with 50-something homeless and recently-homeless men for years. I like it because it's so out of date, and because it reminds me of these men, one of whom became and remains a friend (and is no longer homeless). The nickname really bugs my friends in the Bay Area, though. Sorry.


Carl mentions Dylan's hot streak of '64 - '67, "Another Side" through the Basement Tapes. Streaking has always been part of pop, especially in its rock phase. Few rockers have stayed at the top of their songwriting game for more than 7 or 8 years. Lennon & McCartney peaked for a short time, '63 to '71 in Lennon's case, or maybe '70; McCartney wrote a lot more good songs in the '70s than Lennon, but more bad ones too. Stevie Wonder had an incredible string from "Music of My Mind" to "Songs in the Key of Life," and he was writing some of his material before then. I don't know all of her albums, but Joni Mitchell wrote a ton of amazing songs between '69 and '77 ("Don Juan's Reckless Daughter"). The first 4 Talking Heads albums shined, or at least did so at the time (I only listen to "Remain in Light" any more). The most astounding to me is Brian Wilson's string in the '60s.* His albums:

1962: Surfin' Safari
'63: Surfin' USA, Surfer Girl, Little Deuce Coupe (2/3rds new material)
'64: Shut Down Vol. 2, All Summer Long, Beach Boys Concert (no new originals), Christmas Album (half originals)
'65: Today, Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!), Party (no new originals)
'66: Pet Sounds
'67: (Smile outtakes and bootlegs), Smiley Smile
'68: Wild Honey, Friends, Stack-o-Tracks (instrumental trax from the hits)
'69: 20/20

Wilson collaborated with lyricists, and on "Friends" and "20/20" the other Boys started contributing significantly, but until then he basically was the Lennon/McCartney AND the George Martin of his group, writing and producing 8 albums of originals between '62 and '65. (He didn't officially become the producer until "Surfer Girl.") There's some filler on most of these albums, but very little -- less, I'd say, than on the Beatles or Dylan albums of the same period, at least up through "Friends"; though the Beach Boys filler is more obviously fillerish.

It isn't because the Tin Pan Alley guys didn't perform as a rule that they had longer hot streaks. (Irving Berlin, 1911, million-selling smash "Alexander's Ragtime Band," to 1946, "Annie Get Your Gun"; and he had had hits, but none that became "standards," before Alexander.)

Duke Ellington led a band from 1924 to 1974, constantly touring, with several streaks of the hottest sort, maybe '26 to '31, and again '39 to '41, and again '56 till the illness that killed him forced him to retire in '74. Miles Davis, Roland Kirk, and Ornette Coleman had briefer or less prolific careers, but all kept writing fresh stuff for longer than any rock songwriter I can think of.

Hundreds of songwriters have written one or 2 songs that thousands of people keep in their hearts for decades. I think about this, because I'm in love with songs. If as a songwriter I were to write one song that reached that standard, well, that would be a heck of a thing, wouldn't it?

* I recognize that lists of this sort are valuable mostly as evidence of the writer's blind spots. Where's Prince? Where's George Clinton? Where's James Brown? Holland-Dozier-Holland?

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Dylan and sexism. It wasn't just rock and roll, it was '60s pop culture. I rented Sondheim's "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" a few weeks ago. The women's roles are appalling. If you didn't get the Y chromosome, you're either a blank-slate sexpot or a willful older shrew. Molly Haskell wrote a whole book about the decline of women's roles in the movies, "From Reverence to Rape." Really good book -- not just a downer, she really loves movies and writes zippily about them.

Dylan and mystique. Been trying to figure out why his ever-too-cool mask while singing "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" got so under my skin. I talked it over with my friend Jake London.

"I just don't get the appeal of the too-cool distanced hipster persona," I said.

"You're not supposed to get it," he replied. "It's meant to exclude. If you get it, that means you're cool too."

"Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" is a witty song; I always took it as a flirty homage to the song's "you," but knowing Dylan, maybe I should have heard it as an angry put-down. Onstage in the PBS clip, his face gives no clue; he's just playing the notes, man, like some classical cat who isn't worrying about what the piece means, man.

Hipsterism is trivial. Worrying about "cool" is some trivial bullshit. Go back to high school if you want to worry about "cool."

I've had this problem with Dylan and Tom Waits and John Fogerty for a while -- all the effort I hear them putting into the creation of their personae -- so trivial! So much wasted energy! The grinding of the machinery, whirr whirr whirr, pointing my attention not to some human or sublime beauty or truth, but to some . . . minstrel mask. The mask should be transparent, should be the means through which we more easily experience the human or sublime beauty or truth, but with these guys, the masks are too cumbersome, too much effort and thought go into the mask as end, mask as goal, so that's what I hear -- the masks. And additionally with Dylan and Waits, the touristy obsession with the urban underclass . . . is a fashion that goes back to the Victorian era. Which, come to think of it, may be Dylan's connection to Victoria's Secret. Victoria's Secret is . . . he's a Victorian.

I think my hotheadedness about this "cool" business is that the "cool" persona Dylan invented is still the reigning rock persona 40 years later. And by now, it's lame. A couple years ago, I played an acoustic night hosted by my friend Jake, where 20 or 30 local players each played a couple songs, as a fundraiser. Some hot guys from a local band with a bit of a national rep played; I chatted their leader up because I'd recently heard one of their songs on the college station and I'd liked a rhythmic thing the song did very much. A few days later, Jake and I were walking downtown. We saw the band with whose members we'd shared a bill a few days before. They were posing for a band photo. Looking serious and stern as they stood in front of a corregated metal door. They looked embarrassed to be caught in a cliche. I mercilessly said, with a raised fist and a jaunty smile that I hope seemed teasing in a friendly and not a completely nasty way, "Rock and roll!"

vote for Miles

Thinking about "cool" and hipsterism, I listened to some electric Miles today, "He Loved Him Madly." I never saw Miles, have scarcely ever seen film of him, but who cares about cool with music this probing and gorgeous. No distanciation in that playing. No trivializing around with masks.

Further thoughts on bohemian snobbery

1. For unrelated personal reasons, I seem to be in a negative, aggressive frame of mind right now. Doesn't mean I don't mean what I say.

2. I bring up my negativity because it occurred to me that the opposite of snobbery is enthusiasm. & I note that I don't feel much positive enthusiasm at the moment. Except for some of my old stand-bys. (Jimmy Durante! Sarah Vaughan!)

3. A lot of anti-Rockist Pop partisans are snobs too, despite their enthusiasm. They often put their enthusiasm in negative terms. It's gradually occurred to me that I had not felt much intellectual succor from the Pop partisans in my enthusiasm for non-Rock pop of the past (Barry Manilow, Ferrante & Teicher) because the Pop partisan theorists tend to be radical Now-ists. Only Now counts. And they often put their Now-ism in snobbish terms, in aggressive mirroring of Boomer nostalgist rhetoric.

4. What set me off about the Dylan documentary last night was a live clip of the charming goof song "Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat," which Dylan performed without joy or zest -- ever the too-cool hipster. What a drag.

5. What's poser-ish about bohemianism is not the artiness, but the effacement of middle-class-ness. Yes, I'm an authenticist about this, and will say it doesn't apply to bohemians from blue collar backgrounds. (Note: The blue collar bohemians of my friendship are devoid of the anti-middle-class taint, because they know the value of money.) What bugs me about Dylan's bohemianism is his overt disdain for the middle class, when he pretended not to come from it and then became very rich. In other words, you can shove your disdain up your nostril, rich guy.

6. Nothing wrong with personal nostalgia; it gets oppressive when the nostalgist generalizes from his or her personal experience. In other words, I have no problem with "I love the Monkees"; but the sentiment, "the music of my youth was far superior to what has followed" barfs me. Again, it's a question of enthusiasm; or positivity versus negativity. "I love the past" is fine, couched positively; put negatively -- "the present sucks by contrast" -- dragola.

Good morning! My, aren't we in fine fettle!

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