Friday, July 31, 2020

BURIED MOJO

No One Here Gets Out Alive by Danny Sugarman | Classic Rock ReviewI was making one of my constant vain attempts to clean the apartment when I came across a dog-eared mass market of Danny Sugarman's Jim Morrison memoir No One Here Gets Out Alive. Sugarman passed away in January of 2005, and a little bit of a flash back was all I needed to drop the broom and delay the clean up. Sugarman had the fortune and infamy to have been hanging around with the Doors since he was a mid-teen, and spent a good part of his adult life cashing in on the fact. During the Seventies he was scheduled to do a college reading in San Diego, and the editor of a local music weekly I wrote for at the time gave my name to the events organizer to be  Sugarman's "local poet" opening act.  I didn't care for Sugarman's writing, but there was money in the deal, so I went and did the deal, and found old Danny to be a very nice guy indeed. Not a shred of detectable ego . It was the most enjoyable fifty bucks I've ever earned. I have to say that the least enjoyable fifty bucks I ever earned was having to read No One Here Gets Out Alive for a review for a local underground paper. Even as a young man who hadn't yet outgrown his obsession with the late Morrison's confused poetics and drunk posturing I thought Sugarman's book was too much of a love letter, a mash note he couldn't stop writing. That said,  I will add that I remember Danny Sugarman being a  super guy, friendly, supportive in my own writing. He bought a copy of a chap book I brought to the reading. Alas. The apartment, you guess rightly, is still cramped with stuff and dusty as ghost town plates.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

VAN DYKE PARKS: Americana Sublime



Song Cycle -- Van Dyke Parks
What to make of Van Dyke Parks? Purchased for a buck at a garage sale, an over-busy if an often inspired bit of Sixties art-pop. The ambition is the attempted embrace of the width and breadth of American popular music, and though Parks fails to accomplish this, the disc is admirable, with the embrace of Gershwin, ragtime, and Charles Ives being nicely enveloped within a semi-scored album where the "concept" album achieves what other rock art music fails to get; the concept meets up with continuity. Always interesting, though Parks' voice is nasal and over-enunciated. His lyrics have been described as "esoteric Rod McKuen", which is fine if that's all you can think of when poetry comes to mind. It reads more like if James Merrill rhymed consistently in his elongated stanzas. Fantastic job on Randy Newman's "Vine Street". "...But, in truth, more often I just reach for Harry Nilsson...." is what critic Miles Milo said in an online forum when the chatter dwelt on this disc for a few postings.

Point taken, in as much as Nilsson was as hooky as he was the musically brilliant; he was as much a wise guy as a whiz kid. That said, I am getting more into Song Cycle the third and second time I gave it spin today, and for all the obvious trappings of Sixties simulacra when it comes to replicating older regional styles, ala Sgt. Pepper (a curse a few survived when they tried the album-as-art business), this particular disc has integrity and some guts under the esoterica. Parks' version of this exotica is lusher, more loving, and akin to what E.L. Doctorow had done in his period novels Ragtime and World's Fair: the resplendent vision of a more elegant and simple time is made odd and unfamiliar as contemporary psychological crises emerge from the tasseled finery.

His perversions, his dissonances are delightfully bracing, if such a thing can be; the smart move is that he goes after Ives and molds the orchestrated and grandiose Americanism into something large, a little insane but not evil by any means. The ideas work as a unified whole. His grasp of orchestration and classical composition exceeds what Frank Zappa brought to the public. Plus, "Vine Street" is simply one of the best covers of a Randy Newman tune I've come across in my years. An additional plus is his deconstruction of "Donovan's Colours"; the original melody is all but obscured and obliterated outright by Park's inspiring pile-ups of sound and overt virtuosity.

BARRY ALFONSO: (Writer, journalist, essayist, biographer, adds his remarks).
 I thought I would add my praises not only for his music but for your insightful commentary, which nails Mr. Parks' sprawling and sometimes slippery genius as well as anything I've read, particularly your comment about how Song Cycle "molds the orchestrated and grandiose Americanism into something large, a little insane but not evil by any means." That's a key to understanding his peculiar vision: his grounding in American folk idioms, as well as his inherent sweetness and humanity as an artist. I might point out that Van Dyke told me years ago that he felt Song Cycle was something of a production strategy in search of a solid core of songs. I think he was way too harsh in his judgment; in any case, his production ideas were more substantial than many of the "serious" works of his singer/songwriter peers. From what I've heard of it, his latest album Songs Cycled is a worthy successor to his 1967 opus. I like your comparison to Doctorow also -- Parks is a visionary of parallel histories, both musical and cultural, ancient and yet so modern we still haven't caught up with him.

Friday, July 10, 2020

CLIVE JAMES v MODERN JAZZ


The estimable James, novelist, poet, and critic, has an opinion on everything having to do with culture and the arts, and with Cultural Amnesia , an alphabetized collection of essays on the artists, poets, musicians, writers and film makers he feels we should be conversant in, lest we forget, get lazy, or simply stop giving a good goddamn of what brilliant men and women are trying to do. James does give a damn, fortunate for us, and sallies forth with learned and nuanced barbs, jibes, praise, and digressions that evince a mind that will not stay in one place long. His range is impressive, though some of his views are questionable, given to subjectively defined absolutes, such as his long essay on jazz composer and band leader Duke Ellington; James does an insightful reading of the master's body of work, but goes beyond his kiln expressing his dislike of the modernism that caught up with jazz improvisation, claiming, in effect, that the faster, more bracing innovations of Charlie Parker, Coltrane and Miles Davis destroyed the form. Rather than admit that any vibrant art changes with the younger stalwarts who take up it's practice, James would rather that his beloved idea of jazz, rhythmic, melodic, and danceable, was "dead". This is rather typical of the book, where one enters what they think is a discussion of an intriguing personality only to find that James has a grievance he wants to address, a score to settle. He goes off topic with the topic he selects.

A mind as expansive as James' seems to be wouldn't make such closed-source claim, and one gets the feeling as they progress through his pieces on painting, film, literature and the like that rather than attempt synthesis with his tastes, he's formed a template on each of his subjects, a prepared statement that he can repeat time and again, on command. Elsewhere, he shows a knack for leaving his ostensible subject altogether to consider a tangent that makes for a mystifying transition; his essay on film director Michael Mann turns into a muddied meditation on terrorism and relative morality of fighting the scourge with clandestine means. It's something worth discussing, I suppose, but one feels cheated at these times in not getting what James promised he'd discuss. There are other subjects one puzzles over, such as his inclusion and other wise bright essay on talk show host Dick Cavett; the issues he takes up in Cultural Amnesia’s alphabetized format is to have readers be confronted with cultural figure who are truly crucial in the advancing (or retardation) in the 20th century, but one wonders whether Cavett, despite his wit and skill as an interviewer, is among those who contributions mattered to the degree that James immortalizes him further. Cavett himself might well be embarrassed by the critic’s lavishing.A particular annoyance is his habit of showing his rather narrow take on some of the arts he covers, especially in his remarks concerning the respective bodies of work from jazz composer and band leader Duke Ellington and saxophonist John Coltrane. 

John Coltrane's Testament to His “Spiritual Awakening” Still ...
Typically British and marvelously intelligent, James' goal is not just to inform the uninitiated to new persons and their ideas, but also to provoke a conversation, perhaps controversy among the cognoscenti. He does this effectively on a recent excerpt on Duke Ellington; the essay reads well and describes the composer's particular genius for writing three minute swing masterpieces, not a point of contention. He then takes the dimmer view of Ellington's later work, when he was composing and performing longer concert pieces, a denser, less swinging arrangements of colors and moods. James is not happy with The Duke's efforts: 
The ­art form he had done so much to enrich depended, in his view, on its entertainment value. But for the next generation of musicians, the ­art form depended on sounding like art, with entertainment a secondary consideration at best, and at worst a cowardly concession to be avoided. In a few short years, the most talented of the new jazz musicians succeeded in proving that they were deadly serious. Where there had been ease and joy, now there was difficulty and desperation. Scholars of jazz who take a developmental view would like to call the hiatus a transition, but the word the bebop literati used at the time was all too accurate: It was a revolution.
This isn't an unusual position, since critic Gary Giddins has written at length about why he considers Ellington's legacy resting not on denser, mature work in later years, but instead on the sheer wealth of shorter dance tunes he brought to light; all the invention one might wish in notation and sound are found in the work Ellington performed to keep America dancing. Yet Giddins admits the originality and greatness of much of the larger work, while James is harbors a resentment against the post-swing developments of Bebop complexity and post-Bop envelope-tearing improvisation of John Coltrane. Pretty much implying that one of the greatest betrayals against art was that of a younger generation of improvisers seeking ot expand jazz's lexicon, James cites with endearing relish the great Ben Webster's magical tenor work for Ellington against the wild man arrogance of a younger John Coltrane:
There is nothing to be gained by trying to evoke the full, face-­freezing, ­gut-churning hideosity of all the things Coltrane does that Webster doesn't. But there might be some value in pointing out what Coltrane doesn't do that Webster does. Coltrane's instrument is likewise a tenor sax, but there the resemblance ends. In fact, it is only recognizable as a tenor because it can't be a bass or a soprano: It has a tenor's range but nothing of the voice that Hawkins discovered for it and Webster focused and deepened. There is not a phrase that asks to be remembered except as a lesion to the inner ear, and the only purpose of the repetitions is to prove that what might have been charitably dismissed as an accident was actually meant. Shapelessness and incoherence are treated as ideals. Above all, and beyond all, there is no end to it. There is no reason except imminent death for the cacophonous parade to stop. The impressiveness of the feat depends entirely on the air it conveys that the perpetrator has devoted his life to making this discovery: Supreme mastery of technique has led him to this charmless demonstration of what he can do that nobody else can. The likelihood that nobody else would want to is not considered.
Jazz music shouldn't have evolved and stolen the happiness of his youth .The most noticeable element of this essay is Clive James' resentment that people and things change over time. Eloquent as he is about Ellington's great early period, there is less a convincing argument for the superiority of swing over more experimental strains of jazz than it is a barely contained lament for lost, youthful elan. As has been said already, the rhythms of the world changed after WW2, and the kids were taken with rock and roll's back beat rather than what was going on with jazz. Being able to swing was besides the point; the children of the Ellington era audience wanted to rock. The jubilation at the Ellington "comeback" concert was a good and great thing--good art should always cause excitement--but it didn't translate into the fabled return of the Big Band/Swing era. It's doubtful Ellington himself would have desired a return to the Golden Days, as he was far too interested in the new music he was composing and performing with his Orchestra. For such a bright fellow, Clive James has the queer notion that art, jazz in this instance, must not progress some vague peak of expression; band leaders should keep their writing chops focused on producing limitless three minute dance tunes, and soloists have to remain sweet, lyrical, and brief.Art is only interesting in that it evolves with successive generations of players, and it would be a strange and stale reading world if novelists adhered to perceived rules from the eighteenth and nineteenth century, or if film makers eschewed sound and color. Jazz would be a predictable shtick rather than a creative act.The truth of this is that audiences were turning away from jazz in general. Dispite whatever historic arguments advanced pitting traditionalists against experimenters in order to explain jazz's declining audience,both Ellington and Coltrane were both playing to diminished fan bases;the record buying public had gotten younger and leaned towards a simpler rhythm and blues style. This was true among black audiences, whose generational switch to Ray Charles, and Rufus Thomas influenced white audiences, resulting in the eventual rise of rock and roll. Everything gets displaced from the center. Clive James objects to both Ellington's widening ambition with his composing, recording and performance of longer concert pieces and to Coltrane's redefining what jazz improvisation could sound like. He seeks to locate the cause and the instance when jazz ceased being the world's all purpose sound track, and for as sweetly as he writes, seeks to attach blame. He forgets a crucial fact of being alive; things change .

James is at his best when he finds the clay feet of cultural icon and then wields a sure hammer to smash some other wise sensitive toes, especially in the case of German Communist playwright Bertolt Brecht. Supported by the government to write his plays and poetry in furtherance of the revolution, James takes delight in detailing the jarring contrast between the man’s image, that as an artist who was “of the people”, and his lifestyle” which, as he describes it, was as bourgeois as any cigar chomping capitalist he might excoriate in his art. Brecht, though, was mindful to keep up appearances; he apparently had the tailor who made his silk shirts manufacture them so that they looked like the rough textured denim that was the requisite dress of proletariat intellectuals. As for Brecht’s art, which was considerable and deserving of analysis on it’s own terms, James skirts the issue altogether with summary dismissals worthy of Paul Johnson (Intellectuals) and dwells on the gossip, the dirt. In that regard, Cultural Amnesia is deep dish indeed.