Saturday, December 29, 2018


This is too sad for words, all the talent that Amy Winehouse had now silenced because she couldn't muster up the strength to confront what was killing her.  Her song "Rehab"  showed she had an ironic awareness of her drug use, but this demonstrates, again, that self-knowledge unaccompanied by action is inadequate. The insidious thing about being an addict is that the thought of stopping what you know will silence you forever abates quickly after the craving takes over and the first FIX of the day is taken. Self-awareness vaporizes, you forget or ignore the truth of the matter and wallow in the nod and the eventual panic to get still more drugs. As talented and smart, even brilliant, as Winehouse was, she seemed more or less without a clue to the severity of her situation. Drugs make you stupid, they reduce your life to a banal statistic despite whatever genius potential you began life with, they kill you and make you another deceased cipher. The real tragedy is less that a brilliant artist is silenced too young in her career, but that we are bound to keep reading variations of this sad scenario for the rest of our natural collective lives.The moral of this tale is simple: Save your own life.This is a nicely written tribute by NY Times culture monger Guy Trebay on how the recently deceased Amy Winehouse will last, but it presents what I think will be the sort of article that will dominate the flux of Winehouse postmortems to come: more concern with what she looked like rather than how she sounded. It's a paradox that on the one hand, the host of articles that are yet to come will praise what were he conspicuous gifts, that unique voice (a combination of Billie Holiday and Diana Ross) and a surreal grit as a lyricist, and yet have the conversation drift, as if directed by gravity, to the matter of her appearance. I sympathize with Trebay, who was required to write so many snappy column inches with so little actual Amy Winehouse music to refer to. It's not as if there was something to surmount in her art as there was in Sinatra's when his voice deepened and grew coarser, darker; he changed the way he sang and selected different songwriters to write for him, to brilliant effect. It's not like she's had an evolution as a lyricist, like Joni Mitchell or Elvis Costello, both of whom started out as awesomely gifted who, with time, transcended their skills and became pretentious and pedantic. No, there is only a very slight bit of studio work in her brief stay with us, enjoyable, full of promise and, alas, she's dead.  This isn't unusual for an icon who didn't release many studio albums during her lifetime. It was a mere two for Winehouse, and basing a discussion of her work solely goes static before long. The valid conclusion is for us to ponder what might have been and then give a sigh, but since we're not yet finished wringing our hands over her passing, we have pundits applying a slipshod semiotics... to her sense of style, dealing in tortuously strained metaphors to wrench more cultural significance from her departed presence. It strains credulity and it insults her fans and it insults her.


Image result for melanie safka

It does no one any good to pretend that Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock" is a poem; it is, in fact, a badly aged piece of propaganda that these days radiates the grim nostalgia of an audience that has gone beyond mourning their lost youth and instead wonders who will mourn for them. I was one who took up the cause of rock and pops lyrics being "the new poetry" in the late sixties and early seventies, but I didn't know much about poetry at the time and had no real basis for any claims I made. Poems and lyrics are different crafts, the difference being that song lyrics are not usually interesting, arresting, or effective as language unless joined with the music they're meant to work in concert with. One can't recite "Desolation Row" or "Hey Sixteen" without recalling and missing the original Dylan and Steely Dan melodies. Generally speaking, perhaps too general, a real poem, though musical through various means to achieve euphonious, ringing and hooky results, read very well aloud, off the page, without the music to bolster the effect the worlds would have on the reader's/ listener's pleasure center. Realizing, of course, that poetry and songs are linked throughout history, let us fast forward to the current situation and realize that poetry is stand alone, by itself, a medium of words, not musical notes. Poems as we regard them, though, do just fine, sans melody, provided the poet does the work of doing interesting things with the sounds of their word selection. That said, Mitchell has a genius of a strong variety, and her lyrics achieve a poetic shading that rises above the host of self-serious tunesmiths who consciously strive for a literary feel; where others sound for the most part as though they're trying in earnest, Mitchell shows no strain at all. There is ease of expression, unusual turns of phrase, remarkable associative leaps. The difference needn't be mysterious. Mitchell is simply a better lyricist than most of her contemporaries, and better than the artist who claims her as an influence.

Written by Melanie Safka

Record people ain't like others
They give bullets to their lovers
They get T-shirts and they get buttons
They go from having to having nothing

Movie people make the moves
Record men live in the grooves
They're always flying to better weather
They go swimming in the middle of the winter

Ma, I'm on the move again
You see, I married me a record man
We gotta move to California
Oh Ma, I guess this is goodbye
You see record folks live very high
To shake the hills of California
Wanna shake the hills of California

I was shot down right in the middle of the fog
Shot down, poor thing
She was shot down, oh she was, poor thing mmm
Was shot down right in the middle of the thought
In the middle of. . .
Shot down, oh, I was shot down, shot down, shot down

Oh Ma, I'm on the road again
You see, I married me a music man
We gotta move to California
Oh Ma, I guess this is goodbye
You see record folks live very high
To shake the hills of California
I'm gonna shake the hills of California

Lawyers who become producers
They schuk and jive the golden goose
Movers and comers who write and publish
Chicken parts, rhubarb, hot ones and rubbish

Ma, I'm on the move again
You see, I married me a session man
We're gonna move to California
Oh Ma, I guess this is goodbye
You see record folks live very high
To shake the hills of California
I wanna shake the hills of California

Record people ain't like others
They give bullets to their lovers
They get T-shirts and they get buttons
They go from having to
Go from having to
Go from having toGo


Melanie Safka was an artist I always liked during the early part of the seventies, a young woman with a big voice and a quick pen who wrote catchy melodies wedded with frequently sharp lyrics, often surreal, witty, honest, cleverly phrased.Like many , I'd forgotten about her work for a long time until , thanks to the existence of YouTube, I came upon her songs again and so became reacquainted with the artist. "Candles in the Rain", her initial hit dealing with her fear of performing in front of four hundred thousand people at Woodstock, was a grand and sweet tribute to the event, but other songs. 'Record People", "Brand New Key", "Bobo's Party" among others, revealed a sly presence lurking among the love beads and incense crowd . Her best music has traveled well through the many decades since ; the songs resist the trends and fashions that chip and grow ragged with time. Her voice,her plain but unexpectedly poetic turns of phrase, her skill at making observations of social currency without climbing onto a soapbox has kept her work fresh and vibrant.  

Melanie is an underrated lyricist, I think, who has cursed her hits Top  "Candles In the Rain" and "Brand New Key"; having pop hits for some songwriters diminishes stature, some critics assume. How could anyone presume to write a song that many listeners wanted to hear more than once? Gauche and gross.  This lyric, though, does yield meaning when merely reads it on the page,  her rhymes are interesting. Her colloquial language fits the narrator's persona well; chatty, catty, just a tad sardonic, someone addressing the myths of Hollywood success through a thinly disguised refusal to suspend disbelief. What the lines cry for, though, is the absent melody. Unlike formal poetry, which would require the writer to make these lines come alive as page poems through a mastery of rhythmic and euphoric techniques that would make the piece a literary object, the lyrics get their push but the lift, lilt and folded nuances of a melody that , in turn, is anchored in place by chord structure. Though the lyrics here, in themselves, communicate the author's intent, the punch, the sweet spot, as it were, is missing. The melody is required for full effect.


Barry Afonso comments: Glad to see someone is showing Ms. Safka some respect, finally. But to your main point … I think the rigid distinction you draw between song lyrics and poetry is just a tad arbitrary. What do you make of someone like Edgar Allan Poe, for instance? By today’s standards, “The Bells” is practically a song lyric; in fact, it has been set to music as recently as the 1960s. Poems published in American popular magazines were often turned into commercially-successful songs during the 19th Century. Best-selling poets like Edgar Guest and James Whitcomb Riley likewise wrote the sort of rhymed, sentimental-to-clever verse that is very close to old-fashioned songwriting. As far as I can tell, the modern distinction comes from the loss of rhyme in poetry and the increasing separation of “serious” verse from pop culture. These are developments that did not have to happen. Yes, it is true that pop song lyrics frequently rely upon melody to round out their ability to express themselves. But this is certainly not always true, no more than every mouthful of words spewed out at a poetry slam qualifies as“poetry” according to your definition. There IS a difference between a lyric and a poem, but the line between them can be ambiguous and porous. Art is like that sometimes.

TED: Art is art because it's an expressive mission in constant flux, which means that the definitions are of what a lyric or a poem happen to be are slippery suckers indeed. Fact is, though, is that Poe was a mediocre poet, an arch-romantic rhymester given to obsessive surface effects because, I believe, he realized the vacuity of his content. One never responds emotionally to Poe's cadences; rather we appreciate them for their scansion, which is a distinction as banal as his best rhyming work. For all the talk of poems and lyrics being arbitrary distinctions at best, one needs to admit that the aesthetic of poetry has changed dramatically since the days of yore; reciting rhymed verse is more likely to seem affected and goonishly cute than stirring; there is always the genius who will rhyme brilliantly and with emotional power, but said poets are rare things. The upshot is that rhymes sound stilted, mannered, over thought to the contemporary ear. Recited sans music, one is greeted with the feeling of a peg-legged man pacing a creeky wood floor. As awful as so much free poetry can be, the poets do not, by default, sound ridiculous reading their work. Theirs is a different kind of banality altogether, starting with the waste of their parent's money to send them to a writing program.

Barry: These changes you cite in poetry are not marks of progress, only shifts in fashion. Rhyming seems anachronistic and even goofy in the modern era, but hell, a toga looked pretty good on Caesar Augustus. The times favor the sort of artistic expression that suits them best; the new innovations are not necessarily better, only more appropriate. Eddie Poe (and Eddie Guest, for that matter) may be stilted and corny, but they are still poets. And the likes of Dylan and Mitchell (and Lady Gaga) may well be their inheritors.

Ted: All the same, the criteria of what makes for credible poems has evolved along with the style in which poems have written; although one may take from the past and revolutionize it to some degree, it's a new set of idioms that make up the current sensibility. Dylan and others may also be the inheritors of what Poe, Crane and still others have done, but they do so in the practice in another art, related to but distinct from poetry, which is songwriting. Dylan is a songwriter, not a poet.

Absorbine Jr: Jack, I must dip my toe into the warm broth of this discussion to bring up the case of Leonard Cohen. Did he cease to be a poet when he began writing songs? Don't his song lyrics echo the same themes and techniques as his work for the printed page? I think these questions need to be faced frankly and squarely, lest we give birth to firing squads.

Man Tied to a Chair: The lyrics to the song "Sisters of Mercy", written as lyrics, remain lyrics. In that case, Mr.Cohen is a lyricist, a songwriter. As the author of the haunting poetry sequence "Flowers for Hitler", he is a poet. He is a poet and a songwriter, and we appreciate what he does in either in both fields by related, but finely distinct standards. Poetry, written for the page, in a tone closer to vernacular speech, has greater range and may make use of more literary devices and is, as a result, capable of greater depth of feeling, allusion, association. Given the skill of the page poet, the poems have a life, a musicality when they are read aloud. Song lyrics, no matter how "poetic" they sound (or indeed, how actually brilliant they may be), are confined to the contours of the melody they accompany. Cohen songs, Costello Songs, Dylan Songs, Mitchell songs, Hendrix songs sound stiff, silly and vaguely pretentious when read aloud, as speech, sans melody. Ours is not an age of great rhymed poetry.

Grelb: Do not forget, my red-combed comrade, that many song lyrics are written first, with melody applied afterward. The confines of the rhyming form are restrictive, but so are many other literary conventions. It may well be true that the lyrics by the songwriters you cite sound silly or pretentious when they are read aloud. This is not, I submit because they rhyme. Rhyming does not damn all of the verse of the pre-modernist era to the realm of non-poetry. The very fact that most critically-accepted poetry does not rhyme today probably means that rhyming will eventually return as a revolutionary gesture. For better or worse/You read it here first.

Sunday, December 23, 2018


Image result for ELVIS AND GUNIt's been argued by rock and roll philosophers for some time that Elvis Presley was everything truly rock and roll are supposed to be, a cross-pollination of gross historical contradictions that meet, fuse and give rise to an expressive result that is fundamentally insane. In this instance, it is the mythological fusing of what is said to be the innate sexuality and vitality in African American blues and the slave culture that created it, and the inbred, Christian determinism that filters through the racist and goony backwaters of the American south, a strand vaguely disguised by the soft soaping pathos and lilt of Country Music. Elvis wrote this poem, a klutzy bit of doggerel, and gives us a clear example when these combating buts of cultural DNA find a place in the same utterance:


"As I awoke one morning 
when all sweet things are born, 
a Robin perched upon my sill 
to hail the coming dawn. 
It was fragile, young and gay 
and sweetly did it sing,  
and thoughts of happiness and joy 
into my head did bring. 
I listened softly to his song 
and paused beside my bed, 
then gently closed the window 
and crushed it's  fucking  head."
A recording of Elvis reading the poem to some friends can be heard here. 

 The result is a volatile example of pure ID, an insatiable appetite, a force so uncontainable that when left alone without the pieties of Church hymns and the sleepwalking good manners evinced in most public moments, the urge is to destroy the world, kill what is delicate, turn what is held as beautiful and permanent into a smashed, crushed, trashed path of rubble and bloody guts. Elvis is said to be the Ur Punk, a barely contained insanity that will inevitably find freedom and its full expression in demolishing the house of excuses we pass off as firmly planted foundation of moral certitude. ““The pure products of America / go crazy," wrote William Carlos Williams. Elvis, among others, fulfills the prophecy.


I  admit that I have an unnatural attraction for Cream's busy, jittery, and bombastic blues improvisations for decades, as they've been a source of pleasure since I saw them first and three-time total at Detroit's Grande Ballroom in the late Sixties. Euphoric recall? Maybe, but I still play the thirteen minutes of "Spoonful" from Wheels of Fire a couple of times a year, and the sheer mania of Goodbye's "I'm So Glad" gets played just as often. The riffs, interweaving, and interjections of the three musicians holding the stage was a busy sort of vibe that was somewhere between musical worlds--too fast and loud for blues, too repetitive and unmelodious for jazz, too arty for rock and roll. It was a sound from the nascent electronic wilderness that was a new kind of improvisational sound, influenced by the three aforementioned styles (with occasional garnishes from Classical or English music all traditions), but coming in the end as a new sort of strident, crackling noise; metallic, assertive, all-conquering, sometimes searing when guitarist Eric Clapton was in the mood and made each of his blues intonations speak volumes of what his own voice could not manage. 

It is something that has less to do with sheer mastery of their respective instruments--in a heartbeat, I could name a dozen musicians who are better guitarists, bassists, and drummers than Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker--but with how the three of these guys gibed and gelled, how well their busy techniques meshed."Meshed" might not be the right word. Still, what it gets called, Cream's sound was a wonderful clash of distortion and blue notes, a feedback-laden trio of howling wolves. There is a less shamanistic howl in the reunion double CD set Royal Albert Hall May 2-3-5-6 2005, which is understandable given that all three members--Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce, and Eric Clapton on drums, bass, and guitar respectively--are in their Sixties. It wouldn't be incorrect to say that there are enough rousing performances here of old Cream and blues standards to fill one excellent live disc. Still, this is better than any expectation I've had over the last four decades daydreaming in off-hours about a make-believe reunion; the performances are solid for the most part, and I'm glad that Cream's essential duty as performers is to stand there and play their instruments. 

Unlike the Rolling Stones, whose rebel youth glory days have given way to a routinely graceless stage presence that would make a newcomer to their music wonder what the big deal ever was about these guys, Cream has only to instrumentalize, extemporize, improvise. Again, you wish there was only one disc, as some of the material suffers from obvious nerves, miscues, a lack of direction. There are moments when Clapton's guitar work simply quits in the middle of an idea, with the rhythm section failing to pick it up again and fill the arena with the sort of muscular blues Cream made its reputation. The best performances, in fact, are the blues number, especially Albert King's "Born Under a Bad Sign" and "Stormy Monday," wherein Clapton vexes self-anointed blues traditionalists yet again with some guitar work that transcends income, nationality, or skin color. It's not a conspiracy against the blues that B.B.King and Buddy Guy have no hesitation saying wonderful things about his playing. 

The mouse moves around and is not at all loyal to matters of class, race, or political stance. In this case, the essence of what allows blues music to convince you, at least momentarily, of the universality of a nuanced sort of suffering has taken home in the center of Clapton's best fretwork. His own solo work in the days since Cream's demise in the late Sixties has been largely wretched pop variations on roots music--please note that Layla is the very notable exception-- but however mediocre a songwriter he has become, his touch on the blues is the touch of a master." It's all in the wrist" said Frankie Machine, the junkie in Nelson Algren's masterpiece The Man With The Golden Arm as he tries to describe the sort of body finesse it takes to win at throwing dice. It's all in the wrist with Clapton as well, and the fingers as he awards us with one ghostly tremolo and one screaming ostinato after another, the approximation of the human voice emerging from the din of electronic straining. It's spellbinding work, and it is these moments make the less animated performances on Royal Albert Hall...2005 worth the while.


Jack Bruce is not the stuff that harmonica heroes are made of, but playing on "Train Time" from the Wheels of Fire album live sides was a big motivator for me to pick up the harmonica. That, along with seeing the original Butterfield Blues Band in a no age limit Detroit folk club called the Chessmate in the same period, the late Sixties. While lacking chops as we currently define them, Bruce had tone, energy, drive, and soul. What he was doing with the harmonica was a mystery to me then. I had to solve it. I am still playing harmonica 46 years later. I am still trying to solve that mystery.

The Cream reunion was a significant disappointment; on the day, they were hungry and ambitious and arrogant enough to think that they were the best on their respective instruments. This certainly fueled the long jams they embarked on. There were energy and an interplay that is still palpable in their live recordings from their period. Clapton was certainly a much more aggressive guitarist than he is now. The reunion was weak tea compared with the old days. Although everyone played well, generally, the performances were lifeless and make work. No one seemed into the performances.

This is a world away from jazz musicians who, as they get older, generally remained determined to play near the top of their game, that each performance of something from their repertoire was a unique and original artistic experience. This marks the difference between genuine improvisation and merely competent riffing.

Ginger Baker’s lugubrious drum solo, “Toad” by name, was the only percussion piece that I could fall asleep to; it wasn’t unlike getting used to the screaming and the crashing dishes in the apartment next door and falling asleep. That’s sad. The principal thing he did for me was to motivate me to discover other drummers' glories, mainly jazz drummers. Jack DeJohnette, Tony Williams, Buddy Rich, Billy  Cobham,  Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones. Jones and Baker had a drum battle decades ago in New York City, with Baker and his ramped-up drum set and Jones himself, the master behind the fury and pulse of John Coltrane’s finest improvisational extravaganzas, setting up a small kit. From what I read in Rolling Stone, Jones gave Baker several lessons in drumming that evening, proving that is not how many dream heads and cymbals you have, but what you do with them. 

Eric Clapton has earned the right to be called a blues guitarist—no one sounds like him when it comes to this basic and beautiful musical style. He does, though, have a history of going through bands the way gluttons plow through pastries. A few years ago, he did a series of concerts with fellow Blind  Faith member  Steve Winwood, with whom he performed a smart cross-section from their respective bands. It was a great combination, Winwood’s and Clapton’s singing a perfect blend of blues brine, and Clapton playing some the best guitar he has ever done in his career. Really, he makes much of his previous live guitar work sound workmanlike and perfunctory—on this session, he came alive.  The problem is having to wait decades for him to get inspired to play with feeling and conviction results in many other things not getting attended to. 

I lost interest in Clapton's guitar work quite a while ago. Post-Cream, his solo work was pretty lazy, with outbreaks of inspiration, such as Layla or his wonderful blues disc From the Cradle. Others may feel differently, but he seems to have recycling old riffs for decades; I count from Wikipedia that he has released 16 live albums under his name over the years, a sign of laziness, as no new material is coming forth, but also of arrogance, a conviction that each of his long blues solos is a work of art, ready for prime time. This works worth Coltrane to a large degree, in my view (and tastes) and much less satisfactorily for Keith Jarrett (who noodles as much as I combust with inspiration). It's not so objectionable for a jazz musician to have numerous live albums over the course of a long career since a tenet of the jazz aesthetic is that no two improvisations on the same song are alike. 

Each performance is a unique work of art, and jazz players can recast,re-imagine, re-brand their signature songs continually. Clapton is not a jazz musician but a blues player, with a far more limited vocabulary of ideas that simply repeat themselves. There is redundancy in his execution that becomes wearisome with all those elongated solos. These days, where he gets my attention is less the addition of new musical ideas or context, but rather by the quality of fire, he brings to the old material, to the signature riffs and phrases. My favorite example is his reunion with fellow Blind Faith member Steve Winwood from 2009. Clapton's guitar work burns hot, fevered, intense, inspired throughout the two discs. This two-disc set more than reclaimed Clapton's greatness from the drifting, plodding and dispirited money grab that was the 2004 Cream reunion.


Image result for bob dylan
Bob Dylan, I think, is a class of artist who had an enormous, galvanizing, revolutionizing style for a period of his career, years in which he released an impressive series of albums, from Another Side of Bob Dylan up to Blood on the Tracks, that is one of those bodies of work that are untouchable works of genius . Fitting perfectly well within his interesting notion of the Anxiety of Influence, Dylan's songs and lyrics in that period so profoundly changed the nature of what popular songwriting can be that all songwriters, regardless of style, write in the shadow of that genius. Younger writers can write further into the direction they believe Dylan was headed, taking further risks, bigger chances, or they can go in the other extreme, writing away from the pull of Dylan's gravity, writing in a way no less risky and perplexing as those who become Dylan apostles. Dylan's case, within that of songwriting, is comparable to that of Shakespeare's, an influence so vast that no artist, even those who intensely dislike the work, can ignore the artist; lesser writers, "weaker” writers as Bloom would put, cannot help but be influenced by the profundity of the work that has gone before. Like it or not, it is a standard that compels you to make a stylistic choice. Genius, though, is fleeting, and Dylan's ability as such was that it came out of him in a flow that was, I believe, effortless, nearly savant-like, requiring less craft than a brain that was firing on all cylinders and producing a language that seemed to compose itself. But genius leaves a good many of our great artists--it is a spirit, perhaps, that takes residence in a person's personality long enough to get the work done and then leaves, sometimes quickly, sometimes gradually.

Other things come into play as well, such as a change in why one engages in the kind of self-interrogation that writing essentially is; Mailer dropped his high style, my favorite style when he came across the Gary Gilmore story and wrote in simpler terms as his fiction become more nuanced and rich. This is was a plus. Allen Ginsberg became a Buddhist and fell in love with the notion of "first thought, best thought" and essentially transcribed his continuous notes to himself, unedited, unmediated by literary qualification, in the effort to present a truer, constantly evolving face to the public in his books of poetry. Much as I like the reasoning and dedication, AG's poetry became far, far less exciting, interesting, became far less good. For Dylan, after his motorcycle accident, he has taken up with simpler more vernacular language, and we see the good it offered he and the listener, with John Wesley Harding and  Nashville Skyline. The language was simpler, and the sources from which Dylan took his inspiration, folk tales, old songs, country western bathos, navigated closely to the banal and hackneyed, but we must admit that Dylan had the skill, the instinct, to manage his language no less artfully than Hemingway would have done at his prime and kept matters enticingly elliptical at the heart of things: there are ways to create a sense of what you're getting at without too much artifice and pretension, useless . He was masterful in creating simpler lyrics that still drew you in and still kept you making intelligent guesses. Hemingway, this virtue wouldn't last, in my view; Hemingway fell prey to depression and concerns of his virility and sought to write his way out of his depression, the result is a series of late-career books that lack the grace or conviction or the brilliance of insinuation of his great work; he veered toward self-parody. Dylan's work, post Blood on the Tracks, became alarmingly prolix and parochial in ideas and a contrived rural diction that sounds completely false, the phoniest I've heard since the quaint southern tales of Erskine Caldwell.

I know that Dylan has always trafficked in clichés, but what he did previously with stale phrases was to subvert them, place them in unexpected juxtapositions, and cleverly invert their meanings to expose their shortcomings. He is not doing that these days--rather I think the good man just starts writing something without an inherent sense of where to go or when to stop or where to edit and seems to write in an attempt to maintain equilibrium. He seems to need to hear himself write; it is more the process than the result that matters. His use of clichés or banal phrases seems more stitchery than rehabilitating the language; they are means that he can connect his stanzas, do patchwork on an incomplete idea.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

TOO ROLLING STONED: poem v lyric

 Seems that we all have rocks in our head, or at least the idea of rocks, notions of round hard things that can damage us if they strike,  solid masses of earthen material that defy our ability to out think them. Stupid rocks. Ideas get in the way of things, a tenet shared by flightier versions of zen and more solid versions of a modernist decree. The essential point is that one cannot know anything about rocks until they retire from the debating society: all the focusing on how tight one's theory is as it clashes with the dense physicality of reality is like taking a trip only to worry about the contents of the luggage. You can win the argument and walk away with nothing but a fleeting smug satisfaction that your designs held fast. Zbigniew Herbert's poem "Pebble" offers us a picture of the title entity as something that is gleefully self-contained, caring less about the content of our arguments or the character that makes them.


by Zbigniew Herbert

The pebble 
is a perfect creature

equal to itself
mindful of its limits

filled exactly
with pebbly meaning

with a scent which does not remind one of anything
does not frighten anything away does not arouse desire

its ardor and coldness
are just and
full of dignity

I feel a heavy remorse
when I hold it in my hand
and its noble body
is permeated by false warmth

---Peebles cannot be tamed
to the end they will look at us
with a calm and very clear eye
An interesting contrast for this poem would be Paul Simon's song "I Am A Rock", recorded when he was in Simon and Garfunkel; the most notable difference between the lyric and Herbert's poem is that Simon, at the time, was suffocating in his mannered seriousness. 

 I Am A Rock
by Paul Simon

A winter's day
In a deep and dark December;
I am alone,
Gazing from my window to the streets below
On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

I've built walls,
A fortress deep and mighty,
That none may penetrate.
I have no need of friendship; friendship causes pain.
It's laughter and it's loving I disdain.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

Don't talk of love,
But I've heard the words before;
It's sleeping in my memory.
I won't disturb the slumber of feelings that have died.
If I never loved I never would have cried.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

I have my books
And my poetry to protect me;
I am shielded in my armor,
Hiding in my room, safe within my womb.
I touch no one and no one touches me.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

And a rock feels no pain;
And an island never cries.

 Simon eventually became a solo artist and shed the freshman composition overreach of his earlier poetic style. He developed a consistent sense of humor and revealed a superb sense of irony; best of all he pared back the dried garlands of creaky literary language from his work and was able to convey his subtler points in a fluid tongue that was informal, direct, understated. He decided to abandon Big Themes--Alienation,  Despair, Inability to Communicate--and instead take what was in his own backyard.  But he did write some grandiose statements while he was a serious younger man who hadn't yet learned to live life like it were a loose suit. Everything was so damned important, so damned serious. How serious he considered it seems nearly comical in retrospect.His desire to be a rock was the extrapolated angst of a teenager who had been hurt in love and is aghast at how cruel the world has turned out to be, It is, if we recall, a young man's first experience of having his idealism betrayed by an intrusive and uncaring world. "..and a rock feels no pain" is what S and G sing in the refrain and it comes across as whining and a wallow. Teens like myself, sensitive and eager to experience the bigger world in a hurry, related to this paean to self-pity; it is a song I have been embarrassed to admit to ever liking. It seems like only a modified version of the typical Bobby Vee or Gene Pitney three-hankie wounds of the heart that held the music charts not long before.

Herbert, in contrast, has his rock, his pebble more precisely, seem like nothing less than an entity unto itself, neither representative of anyone's anger nor a metaphor for anyone's bad experience. The pebble, in fact, is offered up as an example to be noted, studied, emulated in some sense;

The pebble  
is a perfect creature  
equal to itself  
mindful of its limits  
filled exactly  
with pebbly meaning  

"...filled exactly with pebbly meaning. " This goes along with a notion from William Carlos Williams' idea that the thing itself is its adequate symbol. This was something that I had heard by way of Allen Ginsberg in a broadcast some years ago, and it stays with me because it really does get to the heart of much of the modernist poetry aesthetic, which was to cleanse the language of the freight of a several hundred years of metaphysical speculation and restore the image of the thing as something worth investigating in itself. Herbert presents us with an item that is minute and already perfect, complex and intriguingly self-sustained; it is a mystery for us to parse on terms outside our egos. His is a poem that invites a reader to discover the world with it mind that we have to abandon our filters and templates and formula paradigms that gives phenomena an easily classifiable meaning.


Image result for paul simonWith the exception of parts of Hearts and Bones and Graceland, Paul Simon has been unexceptional. His work for the last decade has been boring in the extreme. Boring to you, perhaps, but Simon, in fact, has been quite clever and adroit in the last decade, with much of Rhythm of the Saints and Music from Capeman being among the best and varied work of his career. Not being in a rush to release new albums keeps his averages high. Granted, although saying that Simon's work in the last decade or so has music is "... among the best and varied work of his career" isn't an unreasonable statement, since in my skewed take there is more than a little that’s on a par with his best work, career wide. It's a reasonable statement. Simon easily beats the rap of being a dull artist for the last decade. "Boring in the extreme" is implausible, taken as a whole. But no matter. Comparing Lennon, or anyone, to Simon hardly amounts to a description of decrepitude. But it's not likely Lennon would have been anything remotely like Simon: it's a bad comparison when hazarding that kind of guess about what he would have sounded like if he lived. The elliptical feel to some of Simon's lyrics isn't quite the same as him being obscure, a quality in lyricist that too much of the time is ploy by lesser lyricist that disguises a lack of anything to say, or at least an interesting way of talking about what it is they think they know about the world. "Evocative" is the better word for Simon. I like a good number of the songs you've mentioned precisely because he selects his images and detail well, and creates a strong sense of the personality and tone of his situations rather than telling us how we're to respond. 

Again, a listener has a fighting chance of bringing their own ideas to the narrative span in order to complete the scene and the sentiment. It's not always a success when he undertakes this, but there is little of the abstruse density you find in Dylan, or Beefheart, or Cobain, the saddest of all the sad cases. In any case, writing about marriage needn't be Hallmark cards: it's one of the central events in anyone's life, a consolidation of the complicated strands that make up love between two folks, and marriage is indeed a place to find even more inspiration as one finds out more about oneself in relation to the world. It was within Lennon's scope as a feeling artist to suss through these matters: it's a bigger shame that he never had the chance to express more of what he might have found out. You sit and wonder, after listening to the engaging, if unspectacular love songs on Double Fantasy, what interesting moods might have pushed him into his next Great Period. Dylan, Lou Reed, Joni Mitchell, Costello are songwriters who entered into new and interesting areas of writing as they came into the later periods of their life, each after some time wallowing and casting about with albums that seemed undecided, repetitive, played out. In each case, some things in their personality and personal circumstances gelled finally and gave them the legitimate voice they sought, the rebirth. Double Fantasy was a transitional album, I think, and one feels the cheat of an honestly seeking and imperfect artist finding that set of riffs and inspiration that would have enlarged his life's work.

My life became richer after over fifteen years of constant record and concert reviewing simply because I survived the accompanying trappings of what I thought a critic needed to have; certainly, plain old burn-out is a factor: what I loved was killing me, and the habits I had to enhance the listening experience became mere habits, after all, booze and copious drug taking. I was a drunk, rattled, a chain-smoking wreck of a pop pundit by the arrival of the early eighties, scarcely able to keep my rants on Monk, Beefheart or Phil Oches on separate tracks, I couldn't keep deadlines, and I couldn't show up at interviews my editors had scheduled. As the free albums stacked up and my trash can filled with empty vodka bottles, nothing really seemed worth having a passion for. Anyway, I sobered up eventually, taking note of friends and others I knew started to turn up dead by various means and checking into a world famous drug and alcohol treatment center in California. In any event, let us just say that my life is richer because I'm still breathing and I've had the benefit of being the rare alcoholic who has a chance to start over and reappraise what's really of value. Music, indeed, is a richer experience for me, wider and far more curious than it had been, and there is a freedom from not having to construct an instant analysis of usually unattractive people who make exotic sounds for a CD release. Another benefit is that friends don't cross the street when they see me coming since I'm not in the habit these days of laying on them spontaneous rants about Miles Davis' racial theory regarding drummers, or how Wallace Stevens' notion of a Supreme Fiction undermines Steely Dan's surface post-bop cool. It's been more fun actually talking to associates about music (or art, books, film) rather than attempt to deliver a lecture every time I opened my mouth. I'm even invited to places these days. I


Image result for sgt pepper
Like it or love it, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is among the most important rock albums ever made, one of the most important albums period, and forty years after it's release, it is time to assess the album free of the globalizing hype and mythology it's biggest supporters have honored it with, and to veer away from the chronically negative reaction those less in love with the Beatles and the disc have made a religion out of. It is, in my view, important for any number of reasons, production, and songwriting among them, and for me it's not just that Lennon and McCartney have set the standard on which such things would be judged against from now on, but that they've also given us the examples with which rock critics, paid and unpaid, by which we can tell who is being pretentious, phony, unfocused, incoherent, just plain bad. Sure enough, the best songs have survived--"A Day In the Life, "Getting Better", "Good Morning, Good Morning", "Mr.Kite", but sure enough the less accomplished songs, all manner, pose, nervy and naive pseudo-mysticism and intellectuality as in "Within You Without You" and "She's Leaving Home", are hardly played anywhere, by anyone, unless one turns to an XM satellite station where the playlist is all things Beatles, without discrimination. What the Beatles did with the songcraft, the central genius and downfall of much of Pepper's legacy are that they've introduced thousands of forthcoming arty rockers to new levels of sophistication and fantastically dull pompousness. I love the Beatles, of course, that's the standard qualifier among us all, but this is the album with which rock criticism was finally created. Lovers and Haters of the disc finally had a rock and roll record that might sustain their liberal arts training. Sgt. Pepper also gave us brilliant and much less brilliant rock commentary. Here you may pick your own examples. The reasons Beatle fans in general (rather than only) "hipsters" prefer Revolver to Sgt.Pepper is for the only reason that really matters when one is alone with their CD player or iPod; the songwriter is consistently better, the production crisper, the lyrics succeed in being intriguingly poetic without the florid excess that capsized about half of Sgt. Pepper's songs, and one still perceived the Beatles as a band, guitar bass, and drums, performing tunes with a signature sound that comes only after of years of the same musicians performing together.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018


I've been a fair weather fan of Steve Miller since his first album, someone I can take or leave, but he's become my hero for his savaging the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame after his induction in  2016. Given that a band I consider to be a profound game changer in the way hard rock is played and thought about, the MC5, are absent from the roster of 2019 inductees, I think it worthwhile to revisit Miller's remarks here . It's a fraudulent scam dedicated to massaging the ego and finances of Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, a situation that is a minor bit of ironic comedy. Rolling Stone was once a vital critical engine of both rock musicians and the counterculture itself, believing in the power of the music to move the country in a more progressive direction, but was willing to call bullshit on those who seemed false, fake, mediocre, or just plain making a useless spectacle of themselves. 
Image result for the mc5
Over time, the magazine  became just another cog in the fabled star-making machine. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the most obvious manifestation of Wenner's expensive variety of hero worship, serves less as a venue that honors the art of rock and roll or the many brilliant kinds of music that make up  it's crazy-quilt brilliance, but rather a tourist attraction,a commodified think rendered inert; this is a situation where all the rude brilliance and raucous expression is past tense, things that happened, never to return.  Instead of yelling tripe when tripe was served, RS became the unruly gruel shoveled onto the plate.I gave up on this bullshit when the inductions began to include artists and bands who have done nothing to warrant a so-called "hall of fame" level of greatness and influence. Miller is blunt, very blunt, and effectively pulls the covers from this bunch of fat cat corporate assholes who make a big deal about the rebel nature of rock and roll while acting like conservative execs protecting their bottom line. Rock and Roll isn't dead, I suppose, but the mummification of the art by the RRHOF doesn't speak well of how healthy or vital it might presently is, or might be again.