Thursday, November 29, 2018


I remember seeing Greil Marcus and Anthony DeCurtis, being interviewed on MSNBC on the issue of Eminem's sick-fuck psychodramas and the failure of nerve on the part of rock and pop critics to call him on the sham, and neither was forthcoming with anything particularly intriguing about the matter. Marcus sort of murmured some mysterious, vague things from his Hegelian shroud, while DeCurtis managed to sound like a nervous, nominally liberal parent who's desperate to stay relevant in his kid's lives. Both sounded like they were skirting the issue. Not the same thing as Lester Bangs taking on the "White Noise Supremacists", attacking the incipient racism that he encountered at the edges of a nervy rock culture. Bang's response was articulate, felt, personal, absent with the detached irony that's become the most popular dodge for rock critics and other commentators to take when there's a chance that they might have to actually say something they care about.I've read Marcus since 1967, I believe, and I feel I do know him, in a way. Well enough to argue about music with, at least. The best book by Marcus, I think, is Lipstick Traces, when of the rare times where the diffuse nature of his wanderings catches up a subject that is a slippery as his point, the secret history of the 20th century. Linking The Sex Pistols with Guy Debord, Dada, and other instances of spontaneous reaction to the kind of psychic repression good old Frommians harp on is a series of masterstrokes from our author: the deferring of a resolution, the withholding of a thesis, served the book well, in theme and spirit; there is a sense of a dialectic occurring: it doesn't hurt that the writing is inspired.

Less useful are In the Fascist Bathroom, clogged, cryptic, terse bits of incomprehensibility that seems to be an attempt to be more gnomic than Christgau at his most involuted, and Dustbin of History, essays that wander around their subjects of rock, books, the arts, with a commentary that talks around the issues rather than to them. The diffuse style, effective in previous work where there was a strong sense of a cluster of ideas being brought together, here just lets the whole thing dangle like laundry tossed over a bedpost.The issue of Eminem is about the complete absence of an independent rock and pop commentary in the mainstream media that might have allowed some voices to challenge not just the content of the lyrics, but the entire rationale behind them: Marcus and such, from on high, prefer an indirect course in which to discuss the flow of history, or the reappearance of styles and trends within various cultural matrixes when asked about the sometimes Slim Shady: one rarely comes away with any sense that he thinks someone is any good. Saying yay or nay requires someone to make their case with examples, and it also requires the writer to take a principled stand, one way or the other. Principled stands give us real discussions, from which real understanding arises. The point is about the lack of real criticism of the man's work, and whether the supposed disguise works to any degree one can call artistic. The ass-kissing Eminem has gotten from big media reviewers implicitly states that the Life that's depicted is acceptable because it creates the source of dramatic inspiration. Besides handing Em his head for handing his fans flimsy, dime -store grittiness, critics ought to have the courage to say that the life is just plain wrong, bad, murderous, and to challenge the artist to imagine ways to change the world, not wallow in its ugliness. Critics used to discuss justice as something worth striving for, now it's buck-grabbing assholism that's defended under the stagey business of "detached irony". It's bullshit, and someone as smart as Marcus ought to say so.

Thousands of teens do take this at face value, and they deserve a more diverse, less-lock stepping troupe of critics to read. A critic shouldn't challenge to do better work? This lets musicians with the Million Dollar Bullhorn, whether Eminem, Sting, or Bono, to run their mouths without response. The best critics, regardless of their trade they critique, always take the call the artist to the carpet when less-than-best is offered, and certainly, it's well in their scope to yell bullshit when bullshit stinks up a room. better lyric is part of that equation, inextricable. the issue here isn't Eminem's perceived sins, but rather the over-all pass he's been given by big-media reviewers who offer overheated praise in place of real commentary. Rock criticism used to be critical, as in discussing larger contexts the music exists within. Good critics do this. Good critics would have done more digging in their appraisal of Em's offerings in the marketplace, rather than rely on worn-out auteur theories left over from the heyday of film reviewing. You might insist otherwise, but words inform the music and music drives the text, and both can be discussed, critiqued, analyzed--i.e., subjected to the sort of dissection that real criticism attempts -- with no disservice to the form.

The cynical among us would debunk the assertions of writers like Marcus (or Dave Marsh) who remain hung up on rock and roll symbolism and maintain that a loud guitar is a loud guitar, not a tool of patriarchal oppression. A loud guitar is a political tool of the left or the right. Woody Guthrie's guitar had the motto "This machine kills fascists" scribbled on it, Elvis's guitar was a symbolic revolt against a previous generation's sexuality, Townsend's power chords made dying young before growing old seem like an option one might consider: all these things are political in the broadest sense in as much as the move of rock and roll is to move people into some kind of state that's transforming: you want an audience to understand their world differently than they did before the music started playing. How well artists succeed at this, whatever their expressed intent, makes for valid, intriguing criticism Besides, what constitutes a music's "validity as music" has lot of things within that hazy phrase to discuss, and certainly bringing a light on the success of rendered political stances within the "role-playing" , and considering whether these things actually do anything that works musically is not beyond a critic's job description


Marcus is obsessed with secret histories as manifested in the inchoate habits of a populations seeking to amuse and distract themselves, and his decades-worth of rants, ruminations, and reiterations wherein he tried to wed his original concern with rock and roll as an inevitable counter-cultural force that galvanized various energies that would, finally, transform the world in very Hegelian way with the larger aims of politics and social theory, we are met with decidedly mixed results; lots of insight, extended bits of associative brilliance that only a word-drunk can manage, but a thesis, as an articulated examination of what is happening in our world typified by art, music, demonstrations, technological upheaval, the good author falls short. Lipstick Traces, of all his work, is the best example of what he does, and I would recommend it to the reader is interested in reading the poetic extrapolations of a writer who thinks that he's found something significant in the rock and pop album he bought --things as significant as the books he read in college--who cannot ,or will not, stop microscopically examining the examples he brings up and construct a theory on which his metaphors can rest. 

Marcus seems to assume that the theory is implicit in the examples he pulls from the dustbin, but he makes the mistake of forgetting that he is supposed to be writing criticism, not poetry. Implicit is the idea that there are discrete but discoverable bits of spontaneous resistance in the arts to the dominant ideologies that control the money, the armies and navies, the cops, that are leading civilization to a blind-sided destruction; that it is human nature to reinvent the world informs and concept that attempt to break an enforced worldview. Marcus links Cabaret Voltaire, Dada, Rock and Roll, French Cinema and, of course, Situation-ism into this scheme, but he never makes his case convincing beyond the obvious need for him to believe it himself. It seems a beautifully rendered bit of what might have been.Marcus might have made his task simpler if he simply asked: "what is hip?"  John Leland did that, with better results. John Leland's Hip: The History is the sort of book I like to read on the bus, the portentous social study of an indefinite essence that makes the reader of the book appear, well, hip. This is the perfect book for the pop culture obsessive who wonders, indeed worries and frets over the issue as to whether white musicians can become real blues musicians or whether Caucasian jazz musicians have added anything of value to the jazz canon besides gimmick.

 What we have with Hip is a what Greil Marcus has been attempting to for decades, which is write a coherent narrative of the margins of American culture, descendants of slaves and the children of immigrant parents, coalesced in ways in which each other's style and manner intermingled even if the respective races did not. The grace moment in history is that some wonderful things emerged from all this borrowing, posturing and tension, the jazz, rock and roll and a genuine American literary vernacular; the tragedy is that it took generations of racism and violence to produce the historical conditions for these vital arts to emerge. The question of hip furnishes the theme that brings Leland's sources together--what emerges is the story of two races that cannot live together and cannot be apart. Leland, a reporter for the New York Times, has done his research and brings together the expected doses of cultural anthropology, literature and, of course, music to bear on this sweeping, if unsettled account as to what "hip" is and how it appears to have developed over time. Most importantly he concentrates on the lopsided relationship between black and white, each group borrowing each other's culture and suiting them for their respective needs; in the case of black Americans, rising from a slavery as free people in a racist environment, hip was an an ironic manner, a mode of regarding their existence on the offbeat, a way to keep the put-upon psyche within a measure of equilibrium. For the younger white hipsters, in love black music and style, it was an attempt to gain knowledge, authenticity and personal legitimacy through a source that was Other than what a generation felt was their over-privileged and pampered class. Leland's range is admirable and does a remarkable job of advancing his thesis--that the framework of what we consider hip is a way in which both races eye other warily--and is sensitive to the fact that for all the attempts of white artists and their followers to cultivate their own good style from their black influences, the white hipsters are never far from blackface minstrelsy. For all the appropriation, experimentation, and varied perversions of black art that have emerged over the decades, there are only a few men and women who've attained the stature of their African American heroes, people who, themselves, were the few among the many.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018


Jazz encyclopedias classify the late jazz guitarist Larry Coryell’s album “Spaces” as one of the greatest fusion albums ever made, which is a mistake. Some reviewers may not have listened to the album in question. It is actually a straight-ahead set of sessions of jazz improvisations where the two creators of the jazz-rock style, Coryell and John McLaughlin, left volume and feedback behind. The album is beautifully realized, from the Coltranesque post-bop overdrive on “Renee’s Theme” to Coryell’s impressionistic “Wrong is Right”. Coryell is the hard charger here, fleet, angular, filling spaces with intricate note clusters, while McLaughlin is into spaces, silences, short lines, and beautiful bits of filigree. Bassist Miroslav Vitous is terrific, and drummer Billy Cobham works miracles throughout this excellent wash of music. This album is a mad flurry of guitar brilliance. 

Toku Du is among Coryell’s “straight-ahead” jazz albums, a 1988 set of sessions focusing on jazz standards that combine the guitarist with Stanley Cowell (piano), Buster Williams (bass), and Beaver Harris (drums). The results are academic. These tunes, such as Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice”, Monk’s “Round 'Midnight”, and “My Funny Valentine”, get a neat, circumspect treatment that lacks guts. The guitarist approaches these “straight-ahead” projects as if he’s doing penance for past sins or trying to recover his reputation as a musician since his coke-fueled days in the waning days of fusion. Coryell improves with a later release, My Shining Hour, where he rolls up his sleeves and rages on material from Miles, Ellington, et al. The playing on the later release is liberated and exhilarating, and his band on that session swings and rocks and pulses with a verve that the present disc lacks. Coryell always bears a listen, but when he is terrible, he chews a foul root.

Not that Coryell has forgotten the jazz-rock that made his reputation in the Sixties, as we can see with Cause and Effect, which highlights the guitarist in a Tony Williams Lifetime format with keyboardist Tom Coster and former Journey drummer Steve Smith. Coryell is back in his native land, jazz-rock, and the results are prodigious, fleet, and searing. Coster and Smith, on keyboards and drums respectively, are a galvanized rhythm section that switch-hits time signatures and polyrhythms with a slamming accent. Coryell is very much at home, cutting, swift, and brilliant. Freed from the archivist’s sense of delicacy with older tunes “in the tradition”, Coryell follows his wild, sober instincts and lets the notes fly; he hasn’t been this exciting in a fusion context since his controversial work with Mingus. Fine and shredding.

It’s been instructive to revisit jazz guitarist Larry Coryell after a decade or so in other neighborhoods. A pioneer of jazz-fusion, this musician is, at his best, wildly inventive, cranky, blistering, and rapid-fire, someone akin to Jeff Beck in ways of attacking an improvisation from unexpected angles. Like Beck, his body of work is erratic, and one wonders if Coryell might have become stuck on the fence in mid-career, performing an unsatisfying amalgam of mainstream bop standards, pop-jazz, and less than worthy funk and rock blends.

Fortunately, age and good sense have toughened the guitarist’s technique; his albums Tricycles and the more recent Earthquake at the Avalon are both excellent examples of this man’s ability to display a fresh delicacy on ballads, fleet-fingered flurries on the accelerated compositions, and a hard-nosed edge on the blues. Of the two albums, Tricycles gets the higher marks, as Coryell has a sweet trio in bassist Mark Egan and drummer Paul Wertico who pull off a varied set of styles with the ease of a unit that knows the strengths and nuances of each other’s respective approaches. Coryell’s guitar fairly bristles and sparkles through his rich chord voicings and new essays, with Egan and Wertico upping the rhythmic ante.


MX --David Murray and Friends (Red Barron)
w/ Murray -- tenor sax / Ravi Coltrane -- tenor sax / Bobby Bradford -coronet / John Hicks -- piano / Fred Hopkins --bass / Victor Lewis -- drums
Dedicated to the memory of Malcolm X, this is a roll up the sleeves and get to work album: the playing is all over the map, from Ellington like swing, deep seething blues to hard blowing "outplaying" that winds a nice loop throughout, characterized by the staggering effortlessness of Murray's playing. He will crowd his choruses mightily, and push his tone and his lines to the point where they break, but returns to the blues, landing mournfully, finally, beautifully. Ravi Coltrane on the second tenor is an inspired match--he is more reserved, a subtler phrase, not wild at all, but with full tone control, and wit to spare.

USQ----The Uptown String Quartet (Blue Moon)
Saw these four women on CBS Sunday Morning a year or so ago, and their bringing their classical training to bear on jazz was a quirky notion that works genuinely well. Name it and the style is here, Kansas City blues to some very "out" moments and some blues to spare, with the ensemble not seeming to try to preserve the dusty air of the chamber, nor falsely infuse their work with a creaking notion of swing. It swings nicely at that, and a bonus is a left field arrangement of "I Feel Good". It's glorious to hear James Brown in long hair circumstances.

Mistaken Identity --Vernon Reid (550 Music/Epic)

Not the guitar show off album one might have thought, but rather a grungy funk hip-hop acid groove fest, with Don Byron on reeds coloring the hard rock salvos of Reid's guitar work. This disc twists in a dozen directions.

Avenue B--Iggy Pop (Virgin)
An album that's more interesting to read than listen to, I'm afraid: much too much of this is light, redundant pop stylings that sap power from Iggy's delivery. The version of 'Shakin All Over' rattles the teeth rather nicely, but overall, this album seems misguided, a mistaken idea to market Iggy into Real Legend, the Last Rock and Roll Survivor Who Matters. He may well be, but this kind of self-consciousness doesn't wear well with the Ig. That is not where his genius lies. Ig has to rock rough and hard, with those clipped couplets and first-lesson guitar chords slicing up the music of history in ways that remind you that wit is a survival instinct. He can do it, as his fellow Motor City brethren Wayne Kramer, former MC-5, does on albums like The Hard Stuff and Citizen Wayne. We don't need Iggy to become the American Peter Townsend, forever flummoxed by the irony that he didn't die before he got old.

Early Days --Chick Corea (Laserlight)
w/ Corea--piano / Woody Shaw--trumpet / Bernie Maupin--tenor sax / Dave Holland--bass / Horace Arnold--bass / Hubert Laws--flute and piccolo/ Jack DeJohnette--drums.
Recorded in NYC in 1968, this is a bracing and varied set, with the musicians exploiting the broadest range of their ability. Ornette style free playing, swinging waltz times, long and layered improvisations are the highlight. Bernie Maupin shines with his sax work, DeJohnette keeps all the factions talking to one another, and Corea leads the session with significant aplomb. Recommended.

corea.concerto --Chick Corea w/ the London Philharmonic Orchestra featuring Origin (Sony Classical)
The word "pretentious" comes to mind, as well as "waste", in so much as Corea, one of the surest and most ingenious musician/composer talents alive, takes one of his most perfect compositions, "Spain" and elongates into a series of "movements", no doubt meant to explore new ideas, poetry, impressions. What he has here is near unrecognizable from the original, except when the orchestra kicks in with some obligatory figures: the improvisations from Corea and the worthy members of Origin are tentative at best--they sound like they are sitting next to insane wrestlers on a crowded bus-- and the piece, long, shall we say, stops and goes with no real dynamic emphasis or emotional wallop delivered, or even hinted at in the foreshadowing. Corea ought to know better; he can certainly do better.

JuJu -- Wayne Shorter (Blue Note)
Wayne Shorter -- tenor sax / McCoy Tyner -- piano / Reggie Workman -- bass / Elvin Jones -- drums
A 1964 session, sweetness and light meet fire and deep-seated anxiety in seeming alternating breaths. Shorter is thoughtful, probing the moods of his ingeniously laid-out material with finesse that hints at more expressionistic playing to come--his tone always struck me as inner-directed--while the band delivers everything their names promise. Elvin Jones continues to convince that he is the greatest drummer in jazz history.

Times Up--Living Color
Superb hard rock and shred guitar rock, crisscrossed with hip-hop and Colemanesque cadences, though Singer Corey Glover's pleading soul-isms are sometimes thin and, frankly, whiney. Still, Vernon Reid is a seriously under-discussed guitar genius, I think, and here demonstrates an ability to execute his solos at wind-burn speeds that never fall into the ejaculating cliches that have stymied the art.And their topicality is uncommonly pithy--short, to the point, like a well phrased daily political column. So far as that goes, the lyrics had the economy of a well-oiled slogan.

Standards --Mike Stern (Atlantic Jazz)
Fleet and easy treatments of standards, or new material composed "in the tradition", all of which highlights Stern's high-velocity lyricism. A 50's Miles mood prevails--Randy Brecker's trumpet work is achingly cool, restrained, a nice change for the fiery blower-- and Stern allows himself a lot of ground to cover, fill, do what he wants with. But you do wish he'd let go of the electronics and just play it straight, if only for our benefit. If it's good enough for Metheney, he can it a try.

A Tribute to Miles(Qwest/Reprise) -- Herbie Hancock (kybd) / Wayne Shorter (sax) / Ron Carter (bass) Wallace Roney (trumpet) / Tony Williams (drums)
Tribute albums are usually overly polite in their treatment of their musical subject, but this one burns mightily. Roney in the trumpet position has a fine, aggressive style, and the efforts of the others are in full swing, force and at the top of their game. It is always amazing to re-discover what a supreme pianist Hancock can be, and the sheer genius of Williams on drums makes you angry that he ever wasted his gifts on the bulk of his fusion efforts. His early death stilled an amazing, revolutionary musician. Wayne Shorter, of course, is all over the place, pushing his broad sweeps over melodies that crackle with electricity


Last Friday night, noise, random bleats of bass lines and cursing twenty-year-old males drunk in apartments by the Pacific Ocean, burning away the night with tequila and swear words. It's all I can do from climbing the stairs and slamming a fist on the door, screaming a rude word from the many I know, demanding quiet, silence. Pacific Beach, just south of LaJolla, is the party town of San Diego County, a collection of streets that are a characterless grid of box houses and gross condominiums that crowd the shoreline of rock and gravel that have replaced what used to be a white sandy beach. Drunks, homeless and crazy people stack themselves on top of one another in this peninsular wedge, and between those moments of relative calm and sanity, there is always something to contend with, some vague threat that dogs you into your sleeping hours.

None of that. I'm not in the mood to have my face punched in, though most of the time these amateur drunks defer to my gray hair and the grit in my voice that reminds them of their dads, no doubt,and fall quiet after some apologies and other gestures to restore the eternal serenity that was formerly part of the weave of darkness. Instead, I look at my watch again, and again it says that it's after two in the morning. I look up to the window where the voices are coming from. Screams, goddamned screams, names against dad, something about a goddamned fucking piece of shit table being broken. My neck hurts as the voices climb an octave and break on the weakest syllable; this is the border between hysteria and hilarity. The wind creeps along the sidewalk along the courtyard I stand in; I'm wearing no socks and my feet are cold, numb by now.One of these young men is crying. Shadows cross the room, silhouetted against the drapes. There is that flat, smacking sound of someone doing a high five with their best buddy who doesn't quite have the knack of pounding the flat of their palm against the calloused palm of another. Sometimes I wonder why I quit drinking if what's left for me is to listen to the results of other sons of jerk offs squander a good buzz with clotted rage and self-pity.

They could at least play some better music.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018


This recording of a live French radio broadcast of Larry Coryell (guitar), Jack Bruce (bass) and Mitch Mitchell (drums) has been circulating for years. Bruce and Mitchell were no longer with their respective former bands Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience (though Mitchell would rejoin JH not long after this date) and Larry Coryell, recently of the Gary Burton group, was an emerging jazz-rock pioneer who'd already released a number of albums under his own name. The audio quality is excruciatingly bad, with the muddiest sound and scratchiest ambiance imaginable. 

The sub-par fidelity may be fitting, though, or at least ironic, as the mega power trio here, winging through a selection of tunes like "Sunshine of Your Love" and such features the energy of skilled musicians jamming against the static of the spheres. This is closer in spirit and execution to the proto-grunge thrash of  1969's Emergency, the first album by the Tony  Williams Lifetime, an early fusing of fleet improvisation fury and rock's bludgeoning power. Before it became slick, polished and professional,  before it morphed into the slick and largely gutless form termed "fusion", jazz-rock was dissonant, blaring, something of a battle of hard tones and contrasts as much influenced by Ornette Coleman and free-jazz advocates. 

These were the pains of something raw and beautiful coming into being. Coryell, Bruce, and Bruce get some of that on this recording, slipshod though the presentation may be. This is of historical importance mostly, I suppose, since none of these musicians would have signed off on something this woefully recorded to be released to the public no matter how cheap it might have been priced. If you're willing to bear with the barrage, chatter, and distortion,  you'll have a sense of what might have been. Bruce and Mitchell criss-cross rhythms in ways neither of them did in their previous bands; both had jazz backgrounds and this shows a little of what they might have done. Coryell is at his choppy best, a veritable geyser of dive - bombing riffs, Quicksilver runs, thorny power chords and swaths of strategically placed feedback. He plays like a man liberated, a high tension combination of Sonny Sharrock and Albert King, with more than a little Joe Pass and Link Wray tossed in. This trudges, stumbles, energizes and rocks the box it came in. Again, the worst recording you're likely to encounter, but worth a listen.

Monday, November 26, 2018


In my mind, there was a decade's long debate as to who the best rock and roll poet was, Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen. Being the kind of ersatz pundit who argued passionately for the minority opinion, my champion was Cohen. Critics and audiences and what used to be called Mass Media reached a consensus that gave Dylan the Keys to the Kingdom. All is to say that Dylan has Tin Pan Alley throwing a large shadow over his work. And now, with the death of the Canadian-born poet, novelist songwriter and recording artist on November 10 at age 82 gives the lie to the nonsense of pitting the two songwriters against each other in hypothetical grudge matches; that was the stuff of high school bull sessions, teenage certainty at its most insufferable. Ironically, Cohen’s music was about growing up and, eventually, growing old, if not with grace but certainly with the full intent of living fully to the last. This was the rare instance where his work became more profound as I aged, deeper, more nuanced as personal experience matched the literary craft of the songs I admired long and enviously.
His songs were an impetus for me to do the same as he, a callow seventeen impatient, in some sense, to grow up and experience heartbreak so that I might wallow in a notion that mine, too, was a life lived fully, if not well, as Cohen seemed to convey in his lyrics. Dark rooms full of teenagers , a thick odor of pot and incense , Leonard Cohen’s voice, a rumbling monotone that made you think of a man speaking low or softly who had just then raised his volume just enough so that you suddenly heard him speak with alarming clarity of phrase and image, a constant, three-chord strum on a guitar, this was my first encounter with the songwriter, an artist that planted the seed in many of us to go into the world and experience it deeply, to contemplate those experiences closely and completely, and to write the inexpressible in terms of the unforgettable. How many of us actually did anything remotely like that is unknown; jobs, marriages, wars have serious ways of sidetracking or eliminating careers as poets. But Cohen managed it, in a career that began in 1956 with the publication of his first book, The Spice-Box Of Earth. The sacred and the profane were subjects that were constants in his writing, not so much mashed together, the arbitrary fusion of unlike propositions, but rather intermingling, the aspects of sensuality and solemnity weaving and through each other, elements of the human spirit’s need to experience feel fully alive. Cohen’s chronicle of how he followed his muse over decades, in songs, poems, novels reveals a man who, I think, obviously believed in God, a deity, though, who might possibly not have a Grand Plan for good people after this life surrenders us to darkness. His Higher Power, though, has a subtle and powerful sense of Irony. If God is in the details, He is in laughing, smirking at least, wondering what is we might learn from the collected experiences a lifetime accords us.
What inspired the poet in me to come alive and chase the muse of learning how to create suggestive sentences was the expansive flashiness of Dylan’s writing, vernacular fireworks that, in their best expression, made no literal sense but still left you with the chilling effect that something was happening that needed a new language to describe the vibe. His songs were public, his lyrics were cast in broad swaths of angular, cubist-bent non sequiturs that were perfect for a generation of youth that vaguely wanted a destiny that would form as all utopias theoretically would, by consensus, without rules, distortions, based on cooperation, in harmony with a natural order that had gotten lost in the rapid shuffle of change since World War 2. Cohen was the other extreme, personal, isolated, reflective to the degree that you felt as though you were invading a private space as you played the albums, the effect of walking into a room you thought was empty only to discover someone in there staring into a dark corner of the space, talking to themselves. Cohen felt deeply, considered his affairs, his pilgrimages, and his constant search for an experience that might allow him to grow spiritually and so uncover a more profound notion of a love that does not die.In poems and especially in songs, songs like “Suzanne”, “Hey , That’s No Way to Say Goodbye”, “Hallelujah “, and “Tower of Song”, Cohen artfully balanced two sides of a persona , the soul-scarred and deepened by profound happenstance, and the observer, who wittily and with enormous amounts of bemusement recounting a new subtle lesson or a lesson that needed to be learned yet again. This isn’t to say Cohen is philosophically ponderous or didactic; although his songs are prone to many stanzas, Cohen’s lines and images are crisp, ironic, a masterful use of the snappy line no less agile than what Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe would offer. “Tower of Song”, I think, gives full evidence of this songwriter’s ability, to be honest, and curtly honestly with his allegories and yet  keeps it comical.
Well my friends are gone and my hair is grey

 I ache in the places where I used to play
 And I’m crazy for love but I’m not coming on
 I’m just paying my rent every day
 Oh in the Tower of Song
 I said to Hank Williams: how lonely does it get?
 Hank Williams hasn’t answered yet
 But I hear him coughing all night long
 A hundred floors above me
 In the Tower of Song
I was born like this, I had no choice

 I was born with the gift of a golden voice
 And twenty-seven angels from the Great Beyond
 They tied me to this table right here
 In the Tower of Song

His songs, which I find the finest of the late 20th century in English–only Dylan, Costello, Mitchell and Paul Simon, have comparable bodies of work–we find more attention given to the effect of every word and phrase that’s applied to his themes, his storylines. In many ways, Cohen was a better writer overall. Unlike Dylan, who has been indiscriminate for the last thirty ways I would say Cohen is a better lyricist than Dylan because he’s a better years about the quality of work he’s released, there is scarcely anything in Cohen’s songbook that wasn’t less than considered, pondered over, measured for effect and the achievement of the cultivated ambiguity that made you yearn for the sweet agony that accompanies a permanent residence in the half-lit zone between the sacred and the profane.
This originally appeared in the San Diego Troubadour. Used with kind permission.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Wynton Marsalis goes hard Bebop

The shame of it all is that Wynton Marsalis has come to represent everything a public considers to be the 'art'of jazz, and as he continues to proffer tame music, the adventurous stuff, the "out" playing that keeps the music alive remains unheard and alien to the curious listener. That there is a Jazz Canon that needs to be loved and preserved is not disputed, it's just that Marsalis acts as if all the innovation is now past tense. Maybe he believes it is. His style is conservative and chiseled after his heroes, Miles, Clark Terry, and Clifford Brown. Their music, though, came as a result of extending their technique into areas that were unknown in the culture. Marsalis has done none of that. He is cheating himself, and boring the rest of us to death. Marsalis started the conversation, really, that it was time for African-American intellectuals and artists to define what aesthetics and historical lineage of the culture is, not European-Americans, who, though well-meaning, have dominated the discussion and have been, I'm afraid, patronizing. I say that as an Irish-American from Detroit where black music is strong and vital. Marsalis made a stab to finally place jazz in the category of High Art, and more power to him. And to you, Thad, more power to you and your points. The body of work that makes up the canon needs to be debated. Fine. Let’s make the claim for all of them. Let's just not mindlessly bash Marsalis as if he were the cause of the music's state of affairs. He brought jazz back into the cultural equation, and that's more than anyone has done in decades.

The distinction between an ongoing spotlight between jazz musicians defining musical sensibilities among themselves, at work, and that of Marsalis discussing such things is that Marsalis has the spotlight, the media, and the audience goes to him, and it is there where the debate, this debate begins. We disagree as to the role of critics, but I think the ghettoization of jazz is to be laid precisely at the feet of white writers and intellectuals. Amiri Baraka is a great man and an important critic, and presented jazz as a continuous aesthetic of liberation, and correctly defined African American music as music about freedom and struggle, and the search for new knowledge, the extension of the voice, the exploration of the soul into new knowledge. As Baraka is an unapologetic socialist until now, a brave and lonely vantage in a culture that thinks a free-market can resolve permanent problems in the human condition, I don't think it accidental that his views are ignored, and frankly unknown to most. Marsalis William Bennett-ish view, that jazz should embody virtues conduce to conduct in a democratic society, is a valid one, and we may understand it's broader appeal, but really, neo-bop purism is needed in an art like jazz, as art, any art, cannot remain a living thing, generation-to-generation, if the past is not known. Simply, Marsalis is part of a generation of artists and intellectuals in the African American community who are no part of the mainstream dialogue in America. Stanley Crouch, Albert Murray, Cornell West, bell hooks, Gerald Earley--these are actually first-rate thinkers, agree or not with their conclusions, but the fact of the matter is that we need more high-profile cats like Marsalis, from every facet and corner of the black community to debate, to clamor, and to insist on jazz is a great American art form they created, and thus claim their rights Americans. Again, Marsalis is not my favorite player, and I think his dalliance in two camps, classical and jazz, dilutes his performances in both, but he did get us arguing something that really matters. I will say it again, for that much, he deserves our thanks.

For the ghettoization of jazz, my impression from reading Feather, Lees, Giddins, and Balliet, is the lack of lyricism in their prose, the lack of imagery in their description. The tendency--noticed over three decades of reading their stuff on and off in dailies and in journals--is that they approach jazz merely as a matter of technique and stylized virtuosity. Maybe this is the only way they could approach, perhaps these were the blinders they couldn't remove, but the approach still reduced jazz to a sub-category of European music. The rise of the black artist and intellectual into this conversation is to say, all matters being undecided that jazz is not a subcategory of anyone's music. This upsets many people. I think it's one of the most interesting cultural debates going on in America currently.

The issue for is that through jazz is a quintessentially American creation it is the creation of black-Americans, who forged the music, who have been its prime movers, and who continue, en masse, to be the innovators who define what the music will be. I agree with Isaiah. Outstanding white players, band leader’s composers and arrangers dot the historical landscape, but jazz importance as an African American art form should not be contested. Someone with the high visibility of Wynton Marsalis who takes it upon himself to speak for jazz is a resentment waiting to happen, but doubtlessly Marsalis knew this, and went ahead and ran his mouth anyway. But his project is a noble one. He recognizes that Jazz is the premier American contribution to world culture, and that it is a black art form as well, but also that the black community was forgetting about the culture that is their right to claim. Leaving specific utterances aside, specific feuds unmentioned, let's just say that his insistence on the black accomplishments in jazz, technical, social, moral, spiritual, have made a lot of white people nervous, as we white people tend to become whenever educated black men and women take back the discourse about black culture.

I've already stated that I think Marsalis is a political conservative, a William Bennett sort who has his own 'Book of Virtues' agenda in his educational projects and with his directorship of the jazz program in Lincoln Center, and that I view his music as less than the fiery blaze of Freddie Hubbard (a better trumpeter than Wynton, really) and less composed textured than Ellington. But who says there has to be a consensus in the debate. To the degree that Marsalis has opened up the discussion to the larger culture, he has rendered a service to the state of jazz. To the extent that he has gotten many people's dander up, well, I think that is a good thing too, because in the hands of dusty musicologist moonlighting as critics, jazz has seemed a gasping, brittle artifact, like old furniture in a museum display, that one appreciated for its former glory, for all its accumulated history. Whatever stripe you happen to be, Marsalis implies, jazz is not past tense, it is not a thing of history, it is a living thing that has a history.

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

My criteria is whether someone can play with the desired combination of technique, feel, and wit, by which I mean the nuance, the slight twist in a note, or a phrase, that is their personality. That is an element I hear a lot of, it seems, and younger players have their stamps to put on the music: proof for me the music lives on, that it breathes regardless of what verbs we throw at it.The entire point of something being called classical music is that it withstands the passage of time and still has relevance to audiences a perhaps a hundred years or three into its future. Name your favorite dead white composer in this slot. The music is listened to because it transcended the fashions and resentments of its own time. It still sounds good.

Wynton displays this chops, and reveals his empathy for the music, and though I think he pales as a major jazz composer--the Pulitzer prize is suspect when its awards venture past journalism categories-- his trumpet is a sparkling, if hero-defined voice that smoothly works up a sweat on the standards, and at best cooks in smaller ensemble settings. That he's an articulate spokesman for his cause troubles folks: it’s hard to be near someone with sweeping statements and intractable opinions who can handily back them up on the bandstand.

Wantons' efforts are ultimately worth it. Jazz is a discovery, and Marsalis is a good starting place for many--nascent listeners can venture through the record stores as we did and investigate the deep history. That is good for jazz. There is interest; the audience grows by just a few. This whole charge that he's nothing but an adept but soulless technician is aggravatingly ancient, and unbelievable on the face of it, and it flies in the face of my pleasure in listening to him. Granted, he does assume the voicing and attacks of his mentors--you provide the list--but he plays them in a way that makes them alive, full of grace, limber and still, voice to voice, able to be relevant to any contemporary set of moods, however, sliced and diced by the anxiety of postmodernism. He is a master at this, he entertains, and he invents within the voices he uses. And the larger point is that the world is large enough for lots of different players making jazz from numerous directions. The reality of Marsalis hardly warrants a threat to the continued livelihood of the music: it will continue to evolve and change, I'm afraid, in ways and in manners that all of us here are ill-equipped to predict. And that is a good thing.


Image result for paul rodgers
It was my good luck to see Paul Rodgers, former vocalist for Free, Bad Company and the Firm, in concert along with pioneer flash guitarist Jeff Beck and Ann Wilson, formerly of the vocalist of the hard rock hit machine Heart. Beck was brilliant, a revelation on a minor scale, as he seems to have ramped up his chops for this tour; I was convinced boredom and old age had permanently convinced him to be chintzy with his chops, offering a stale, scratchy minimalism in place of the old eruptive practices. That night he was anything but minimal, he was maximalist to the furthest degree. I felt I owed him an apology for doubting the quality of his current skill set. 
Ann Wilson was very good as well, her voice remaining a clarion wail and a serene melodic passage at once. She can handle nearly anything piece of material, any style put in front of her. I'd be pleased if her new work, an even more revved up version of the already animated power rock she performed with Heart, gets her a new audience and new success. Now, Paul Rodgers.....was kind of a bore. In good voice, a wonderful voice, in fact, he offered the crowd the greatest hits tour, generous doses of Free and Bad Company and some miscellaneous coves thrown in for good measure. 
A crowd-pleasing performance, professional and as stiff as a Wayne Newton matinee show. Rodgers can sing, he sings better than anyone of his generation, and his voice is amazingly resilient and soaring against the wear and tear decades of blues belting and soul shouting can bring to a rock and roller's voice. Rod Stewart, Roger Daltry, cases in point, two fellows who have seen their grit and growls reduced to a whispery, puny version of a formerly big and impressive noise. Rodgers retains the voice, if not the hairline. Shall we consign ourselves to witnessing the vocalist become merely professional, a lounge singer, a man merely making a living? 
It’s my view, after a weekend of rummaging through old albums, that Paul Rodgers is the best singer of his generation, and is the only singer from that era who has gotten better as a vocalist. Roger Daltry and Robert Plant and a host of other blues shouters have had their voices go south, wither, get reduced to a miserable croak, but Rodgers has only gotten better--power, control, feeling, range, the whole shot. Though it's not for everyone, his Muddy Waters Blues album, a tribute to the great bluesman, is a super fine blues/rock effort, with Rodgers belting, blasting and swing blues standards in ways very few Brits were ever to do. The songs, classics all, are bulletproof, made for a talent like Rodger's to grace. Rodgers is a brilliant vocalist who is also one of the worst songwriters of his generation, post-Free.

Bad Company were an OK band, but not geniuses in any department, and the kind of blues-bathos that Rodgers and cohorts tossed at us made the band seem like a Foghat with a good singer. They had a run, they were popular, I saw them several times, but anyone who listens to the old Free albums, especially Tons of Sobs or Heartbreaker, and not notice the depreciation in song quality, or conviction of performance really hasn't been paying attention. Rodgers sometimes sounded like he was droning into a nod, that his last held note often sounded like they were going to transform into snores, and we might have had the sound of our singer falling to the floor, napping hard. Crash!!! Bad Company's best album was Straight Shooter. After that, it was cruise control rock and roll, hard rock MOR. Nothing especially rich or interesting, basic as bread and water. The Page/Rodgers matchup didn't do much for me, not completely, but I did like their version of "You've Lost That Loving Feeling". But the fact is that the Righteous Brothers version is untouchable, though others have given the songs decent readings: Bill Medley, the lead vocalist on the original version, a performance that is a legend. The right voice for the right song. I think Rodgers would have better luck teaming up with VanHalen, at least for one album. But only if he let Eddie write the music and David Lee Roth scribe the lyrics, provided Roth can holster his ego and content himself with being Bernie Taupin to Rodgers’ Elton John. Not likely, though, and that’s too bad.

long live jazz fusion

Devotion, an early McLaughlin early solo job has been getting a lot of play around here the last month or so, mainly because the sound is raw and appealing, and what were the obvious beginnings of a commercial sound hadn't had time to become bad habits. Buddy Miles, of all people, acquits himself surprisingly as the session's designated "rock" drummer, though I wonder what the mix would have been like if it McLaughlin had Mitch Mitchell (or Ginger Baker) on hand. McLaughlin's guitar work is a wheezing grind and buzzing of devices and attachments, fuzz tones and foot pedals galore, and his riffs are choppy, sharp, angular. Larry Young is the textural component here, simply a genius on his outre minimalist take in a tradition still in the making.  

Electric Guitarist offers up a bit of a recovery of McLaughlin's verve and status after some noodling experimentation in his post-Mahavishnu work. It's something of a resume album, each track with another slew of stellar jazz men and fusioneers --Jack Bruce, Tony Williams, David Sanborn, Stu Goldberg -- playing in a variety of styles ; McLaughlin plays with the sort of frenetic heat that is breathtaking, to coin a phrase; not that he's ever been the fastest guitarist on the block--any number of nimble nitwits play guitar faster than he does with less effect or feeling--but what he does do is use the solo as a blow torch. He burns, in other words, and the neo-Coltrane chase "Do You Hear The Voices", patterned after the obstacle course dash that is the master's classic vamp "Giant Steps", we have the rare time when accelerated improvisation doesn't approximate a balloon going limp in the final stretch. The playing of Stanley Clark and Jack DeJohnette, bass and drums respectively, remind how disciplined these fellows are in the tradition. The metallic distortion McLaughlin brings to this track updates and invigorates a tireless form.

At Fillmore: Live at Fillmore East -- Miles Davis

Holds up amazingly considering the years that have passed since I've heard this;  a recent discussion on the value of the electric work of Miles intrigued me enough to listen to a  succession of his pioneering jazz-rock releases, coming finally to At Fillmore, which came as something of a revelation. As much as the trumpeter's later rock/jazz/funk fusion tended t resemble a triple large unpressed suit, Davis makes it work with trumpet work that's bold, brassy, snarky and snaky all at once as he darts between, over and through the churning keyboard dialogues of Corea and Jarrett. Jack DeJohnette and Holland are a blistering rhythm section here; the drums and bass patterns achieve the impossible, maintaining a rock beat and firm bottom that avoids the supreme tedium lesser rhythm sections contrive. Part of the joy of this early electric jazz-rock experiment is the lack of obvious heads or signature riffs that keep the music well mannered, orderly and constricted, as well as the loose ensemble fit. There are times that it seems the band is hopelessly lost in a riff fest, going toward the cliff at quick, shambling pace, but all that is deceptive; this a discipline with a different philosophy and use. This is a choice purchase.

Friday, November 23, 2018


Guy Grogan is an established presence on the alt-rock terrain, someone who confesses his sins without fashioning a persona of being either saint or sinner. For all the hurt , malice, lurid joy and occasional bits of humanity and kindness this fellow chooses to write songs about with his hook-driven genius, Grogan is the common guy, the everyman, the guy in the bar you see at the daily happy hour, or the dude you espy daily at the bus stop at the same time each instance, going somewhere, with things to do. His music conveys the stories of a regular Joe with tunes that are simple but melodic, guitars that rock but don’t bludgeon, lyrics that let it all hang out without creating earache .”My Own Way Out”, a medium rocker from his new album Dynamite Bouquet, commences with a killer power chords, is the testament of a man giving voice to a feeling that he’s trapped in a conspiracy he is only vaguely aware of.
...hey you come down from there when you feel like 
you’ve made despair come true you’ve made despair come true sometimes I don’t much care for me I don’t much care for me sometimes I decide to leave me be I decide to leave me be...

Their pronouns change, from “you” to “I”, and there is the mystery of who Grogan’s is talking about; I’m in favor of thinking that he keeps his practice to everyday speech and uses the altering references as interchangeable ways of the narrator talking about himself. It feels natural, it feels un-strained, confused but not cluttered, startling in its brevity. With a voice residing somewhere between the nasal croon of Elvis Costello and the soulful braying of Tom Petty, his tunes are not guitar bashes alone, revealed in “River Like a Cry”, a ballad surmising the end of an affair that has gone deep to the bone, the moment of realization that any chance of reconciliation is passed , that all that remains for the parting couple is to
let it go with the river let it go like a cry you tell me when we will wither i tell you when we will die.

This does approach the bittersweet pleasures Costello composes, but where Costello lyrically extends beyond his established talent at poeticizing miserable experiences and giving listeners a collision of competing metaphors and similes(some brilliant, some not so good), Grogan’s spare evocations make the telling more vivid, more heartfelt, and there is the feeling this serves to create the underlying idea that life goes on, one pushes on , one is not done experiencing the joy and heartache that is their birthright.An intriguing songsmith, Grogan is providing an album’s worth of tunes in a variety of styles that sweetly and succinctly reveals his weaknesses and strengths and the hard-won humor a songwriter who remains in the trenches with the rest of us. Dynamite Bouquet stands apart from most others in the genre that is full of songwriters who make their music unlistenable, in large measure, by theatricality they bring to their emotions. Grogan is more in the Hemingway school, a man with the knack for the terse summation, the toughness of getting on with it. The feelings go deep and still, life goes on and still, Guy Grogan continues to rock it as hard as he needs to. He makes his  awkward  phrasing and his mulling equivocation over emotional hot    buttons whose loathsome pangs    don't abate into something endearing; this is the unique combination of a songwriter who tersely combines a worldview of permanent ambivalence with  a guitar rock that contrarily makes you feel that he'll  get over his agonies and conundrums stronger but wiser. Waiting for that too happen has often enough a sore point with artists who begin intriguingly as poets of post-college emotional shapelessness but, over time, evidence arrested development thematically as they grow older and release. 

For the time being, Grogan's situation lures you in because of the compelling grind of his brand of guitar rock. Will he age into a new Neil Young, who has used his advanced age to bring out a subtler worldview while still producing some of the grungiest electric guitar of this and the last century,  or will Grogan be the newest 60-year-old teenager still moping about lost love decades after it happened? Stay tuned, and in the meantime enjoy this spikey set of condensed, 4/4 mood pieces.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018


 (This appeared originally in the February, 2016 of  The San Diego Troubadour. 
 Reposted here with kind permission).

Fans of Hollywood movies concerning the trials and troublesome turns in the lives of gifted musicians, real and imagined, will doubtlessly note a curious habit among many of the movies attempting a cogent blend of music and moving image. What I’m thinking of in particular are those portraits of a singularly brilliant musician, a jazz improviser, who struggles to rise to the top of his game, a savant obsessed by his art at the sacrifice of all other things. Not especially well-read; insecure; socially awkward; manic depressive to a degree; and perhaps bedeviled by drug addiction, alcoholism, or some other inescapable self-destructive impulse, it becomes a story that you can anticipate the progress and resolution of before the second reel.

The musician has a series of good breaks, achieves success in finance and romance, and then, through an unlucky series of bad breaks that result, as often as not, from bad decisions and sheer selfishness, our genius player hits the skids and descends to the gruesome and grimy depths of incomprehensible demoralization. Hitting bottom, perhaps, whatever the reason, but this being the product of Hollywood myth-making, recovery and reconciliation is on the way. Our brilliant player climbs up the mountain a changed man, with humility and gratitude, returned to his art with a greater purpose. A happy ending, a Hollywood ending.
Against my better judgments I’ve watched and re-watched movies concerning daring musicians, both real and fictional, attracted by the assumption that a story about someone capable of making music that forces you to suspend your disbelief and spend time in that enticing sphere of pure joy and elation might be just as exciting as the sounds themselves. But where the music was often the hallowed “sound of surprise” that kept your attention, the tale of the musicians depicted on screen lack any such spontaneity. They were a  hodgepodge, rarely rising above the level of a soap opera. Where the music was lively, the fictionalized biographies were two-dimensional, utterly flat, and unconvincing in their attempts to move us. Music, something that we consider the invisible but persistent essence that gave life a pulse, a verve, a general massage of the senses, had become something akin to drab and irrelevant wallpaper to a string of clichés, mere cues for ham-faced depictions of convenient emoting. I doubted I was the only one who felt cheated by how Hollywood was treating the creators of vital music.

Young Man with a Horn, a 1951 film directed by Michael Curtiz and starring an unlikely combination of Kirk Douglas, Doris Day, and Danny Thomas gives us a tale of a deadbeat ne’er-do-well whose life is on a rudderless cruise, unmotivated until the main character, performed by Douglas, discovers that he has a knack for producing wild sounds with a trumpet. As such, he attracts attention, becomes popular, achieves fame and fortune and much acclaim, but he becomes a victim of his own success. Becoming insufferably self-centered and coming under the lash of vicious alcoholism, the young man falls apart. A particular scene highlights the young man, in a wildly melodramatic performance by Douglas, hitting bottom after he tries to play his trumpet and is unable to hit the high notes, producing only a muffled gargle of a sound. He tries several times again to get that golden high note—that piercing, clear sound at the highest end of the register that had been his trademark—but again there’s nothing but glottal choking.

Kirk Douglas, who always seemed to me to be on the verge of nervous collapse, is especially overheated in this sequence, collapsing in a slew of tears and whimpers, a man utterly defeated and hitting bottom. It comes down to the convenient solution of a good woman’s love and dedication and a humbling of oneself to the source of true happiness, the sharing of a musical gift for the joy of others rather than his own personal gain, which retrieves this sorry musician from the trash can of life. It is a cozy, comforting resolution to a life’s dilemma and utterly unsatisfying. The glory of improvisation was reduced to an analog for the young man’s egotism and self-seeking. I watched the film a number times for matters of pure style and to appreciate how splendidly unreal Kirk Douglas’ vein-popping histrionics were, but it was not about the music, it was merely an excuse for a morality tale whose insights were, at heart, pedestrian.

It wasn’t just a habit confined to jazz musicians, of course, as we can witness in the classic Elvis Presley movie Jailhouse Rock, released in 1957. This Richard Thorpe-directed effort is one of Elvis’ first films and is something of a guilty pleasure. Released from prison after serving an inexplicably short sentence for manslaughter, Vince Everett, an uneducated hick but oozing with a certain kind of slicked-haired sexuality, comes to the attention of a record promoter due to his knack for singing a tune and strumming a guitar. Fast-forward, he gets a contract, has success, and is the heartthrob of a nation of bobby soxers. Vince, though, is uneducated and fantastically insecure, a man who knows not the world nor books but only his sense of not fitting in.

Early in the story line, a female record promoter takes him to a party filled with effete intellectuals smoking pipes and wearing owl frame glasses, drinking high balls, and listening to modern jazz. Introduced as a musician, Vince is asked what he thinks of the discordant, post-bebop jazz that’s been coming from the stereo. Here is Presley’s best bit of acting or of acting naturally; Vince stares at the woman who had asked him the question, baffled by the inscrutable jargon he’d been listening to, his eyes half cast and empty. He feels threatened that he’s being mocked. His response: “Lady, I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.” Ashamed, Vince Everett leaves the party abruptly, his head slumped between his shoulder blades.Jailhouse Rock repeats this theme throughout its playing time. With each humiliation and success Vince becomes more self-centered, autocratic, and a real dick. This goes on until such time that at the peak of his success, after reneging on a bargain he made with a cellmate prior to his success, he gets punched in the throat. He cannot breathe, he cannot sing, everything looks like it’s going to hell in a handbasket until—wait for it—Vince realizes that he’s been a bastard and that those around him care for him and want to help him and that he needs to appreciate them and conduct himself as a man among men, not a king among subjects. His voice comes back, his career continues; everyone is happy. Fade to black, cue the commercial.

Jailhouse Rock has its naive virtues despite the hokey incidents that enable the dangerous carnality of rock ‘n’ roll is conquered by the civilizing effects of good manners and right living, as it contains a terrific sequence of Presley performing the title song. Presley is seen less like an intelligent being than as a force of nature. The sequence remains a joy to behold—Elvis on screen before his persona was lobotomized to be something safe, cuddly, cute, and ineffectual. It's worth noting that the sequence was choreographed by Presley, which makes us ponder how diverse a career the singer might have had if the unfortunate Col. Parker had been elsewhere. The film, though, follows the conventional thinking of how a musician’s story ought to be conveyed to the screen: the struggle from humble beginnings and hardships, the rise to the top from hard work, the fall from grace due to character defects or bad habits that reverse a hero’s fortunes, the recovery commencing when the artist admits his faults and is able again to pursue his life and provide the audience with a greeting-card bit of philosophy.

We can go to great lengths to list Hollywood films that show the lives of musicians as tawdry tragedies whereby the gifts that the players have been matched with the character’s genius for getting in their own way. Self-destruction is a default position. A Man Called Adam was released in 1966 and directed by Leo Penn. This brief précis on the IMDb website states: “A famous jazz trumpeter finds he is unable to cope with the problems of everyday life.” 1959’s The Gene Krupa Story from director Don Weiss is based on the true story of the jazz drummer and concentrates on the musician’s career decline from a marijuana bust. Unable to get work because of his drug arrest, he gets the chance to be a guest drummer at another band’s concert. Introduced to the unsuspecting audience, Krupa is mocked by the cynical crowd. Nervous, he flubs the opening of his solo, which draws more jeers and boos. Krupa, though, starts again at the urging of another drummer on the stage, and soon enough Krupa is wailing and flailing in full fury, getting the crowd on his side. Reputation restored, the miracle cure applies again. To say that this was a formula that Hollywood producers stuck to for decades is an understatement; the soap-opera-fication of musician-themed films influenced the collective opinion of what a performer’s lot is—that of quick riches and sudden tragedy resulting in occasional redemption but, more often, death. It was something akin to a strain of poetry criticism, which implied that poets of the confessional variety, those poets who wrote about embarrassingly personal issues and disorders, had to commit suicide or die in a loathsome manner to confirm a person’s bonafides as a poet.

Many earnest conversations about the art and the artist over several decades convinced me that otherwise intelligent people with impressive tastes in writers and music believed that being creative was nearly the same thing as a death wish. The artist, successful or not, had their narrative already mapped out. It was the fate of the artist, the poet, the bluesman, and the jazz innovator to have their creativity stunted earlier on. This wasn’t, though, a deranged view that floated only among those with high IQs and fancied that they had a grasp of the metaphysical dynamics of tragedy. Rather, the flawed concept spread into the popular culture. What had been a perversion of the romantic view of the gifted artist had become an easy means with which to get a reality TV show on the air.

Case in point: the loathsome example of the VH1 cable channel’s show Behind the Music, a reality program that tells the stories of pop and rock musicians, managing to concentrate the artists’ stories into 60 to 90 minutes, featuring the highlights and the low blows, the success, the ego battles, divorces, deaths, lawsuits, renewed success, or the continued lingering in pop culture limbo. The criteria, of course, was to expose the musician’s clay feet and how easily they could be shattered. Old footage, interviews with band members, producers, divorced spouses, and high school friends who wanted something first-hand to report about marginal pop music acts decades beyond their five minutes in the sun pushed the idea that music, above all else, mattered most of all to the background, even out the back and into the alley of anyone’s concern.

Behind the Music spotlighted has-beens from across the pop spectrum, whether it was Madonna, Usher, DMX, Ricky Martin, Donnie and Marie, REM, and KC and the Sunshine Band, the idea being that style of music, choice of dress, sexual preference, and the sort of drugs of you did or didn’t do had no sway over the quality of life you’d have as a musician lucky enough to experience financial success and popularity. It was implied that dark things were going to happen; they were unavoidable. The same demons that visited the fictional young man with a horn pestered the insecure Vince Everett and added a drug charge to Gene Krupa’s resume will indeed visit them with a custom-made batch of tough luck and bad breaks. I sometimes wish that this notion of the genius musician being fated for awful things would have evaporated long ago and that we could henceforth do justice to the artists and the music they create. This is not the case, though; I was just a bit despairing to learn that Behind the Music, which first aired in 1997 and is still playing, is making a mess of the stories and earning a profit while doing so.

Was there a way around what seemed like an intractable impulse to sensationalize the lives of musicians, real and imagined, when they are brought to the screen, theater, or television? What if an acclaimed director noted for his counterintuitive approach to assembling a narrative arc in films were to take interest in an actual self-destructive music genius? Wondering how a filmmaker would take on the assignment of making a compelling film of someone whose biography appears to fulfill the clichéd formula and avoid the easy way out of the plot complications is a question worth asking. This is where Clint Eastwood meets Charlie “Bird” Parker.

Much of the inspiration that helped elevate Eastwood’s 1988 Parker biopic, Bird, comes from smart choices in the treatment of the material, with a good amount of the credit going to the Joel Oliansky’s circumspect script. The screenplay doesn’t sensationalize Parker’s weakness for alcohol and heroin. What emerges instead is a fuller picture of a man wrestling with both his virtues and his vices. Eastwood’s direction maintains equipoise, walking the line between the sensational and the sentimental with impressive agility. The final result is both a fitting tribute to and power of Charlie Parker’s talent and a compelling portrait of a gifted man creating something beautiful despite great personal and social hardships. The basic story of Parker is well known: a young black jazz saxophone player makes the rounds and pays dues in myriad jazz circles and societies, finds himself impatient with the way the music had been played from a generation before his, and is eager to find other musicians with whom he can explore new ideas and techniques of improvising, thus creating different kinds of harmony and reconfiguring old song structures to provide a basis for increasingly complex and accelerated methods of soloing. He meets like-minded visionaries and, to be sure, a new music—bebop—comes from the combined talents of Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Red Rodney. Quite unlike the host of other jazz-themed movie narratives, Eastwood focuses on Bird with the music in the forefront. This allows the camera to linger a bit on a live performance and present the preternatural fluidity and pace of Parker’s spontaneous compositions to command the audience’s focus. The legendary problems with drug addiction and the consequential inconsistency of Parker’s personal life—missed gigs, infidelities, shirking of obligations to business arrangements and to those closest to him—handily avoid the kind of countdown effect of past biopics that signify the artist’s deteriorating state. Rather, the personal disasters are less a device to forward the plot than they are simply a part of the loosely woven fabric of Charlie Parker’s convoluted life. Parker was a literate man who has blessed a large talent and cursed with large appetites. Forest Whittaker’s performance is a subtle, understanding interpretation of an amiable musician who an intriguing web of contradictions that come undone; charismatic, exasperating, brilliant, and unreliable. What is compelling about Whittaker’s performance and the way Eastwood handled the story is that Parker reminds you of someone most of us know from our lives, a real person who has the best of intentions but who cannot be depended upon due to problems of drugs or other mental quirks. This Bird is not a cartoon depiction of a smack-crazed hep cat looking for crazy kicks; he is a complex, fully realized character, more human than we’ve ever seen him before. That makes Charlie Parker more relatable and, I think, makes the audience feel the tragedy and loss of drug addiction even more deeply.

Eastwood has shown a genius for the ways the events in his films are paced and how the narrative events are layered over one another with the emphasis, stylistically, is the textures and tone of a story as it’s revealed, not the otherwise pedestrian approach of cause and effect. Mostly, though, it is not a matter for Eastwood to hit all the marks, to land exactly, to mix the parlance and all the chord changes with a metronome’s exactitude. A jazz lover and pianist himself (Eastwood composed the soundtrack for his 2008 film Grand Torino), there is a jazz-time feel to the way the film unfolds. Strategic points of narrative and editing strongly create the sense of a jazz soloist being at the moment, anticipating being on the beat, behind the beat, in front of the beat, and alternating among the three aspects of time-keeping, which reveals what’s occurring in a fuller, richer context. Instead of being just about the skill of the soloist in a clinical display of riffs, we have instead spaces, color, and suggestions of emotions more varied and subtler than mere virtuosity can give us.

Bird, though, is not a perfect film. It contains transitional devices that seem contrived—a flying cymbal somehow became the repeated image that mechanically cued the flashback sequences—but it is a revelation in what good a good filmmaker if there are sufficient levels of empathy with the subject matter and the music that was made. I had hoped in 1988 that Eastwood’s film would raise the bar on future musician-centered movies and that the old way of telling these stories would be cast aside. Audiences love tragedy, though, and the musician-as-fallen-angel paradigm remains with us in force. There is hope, however, a glimmer that the treatment of real musician’s stories can change at least some things.Ray, the 2004 tour-de-force telling of the story of Ray Charles, deftly directed by Taylor Hackford, highlights a singular performance by Jamie Fox as the blind singer/pianist. Charles, we know, was a man who overcame his adversity—racism, blindness, anxiety, and the like—who went on to have a long and brilliant career. It was a hit, a big one. Jamie Foxx won an Oscar for best actor. It seems to me that moviegoers are up for musical heroes on the screen who don’t kill themselves.