Saturday, March 30, 2019


The Rolling Stones have many great songs in their catalog, but 'Gimme Shelter" is one that qualifies as a masterpiece. The stunning, foreboding weave of simple guitar lines at the outset, slow, cautious, stealthy, suggest two kinds of apprehension about the world outside the walls one lives in, both that of the stalker creeping up on a prey, and the stalked, shivering, rained on, seeking something to provide at least a moment's respite from the unpredictable, the nasty, the brutish possibilities of being alone. The thunder guitar lines, swooping bass and the short, simple, shank edge harmonica riff are then all around you, a house collapsing, a cliff falling into the sea, rockets bombing your home town, an earthquake. It is that crushing, smashing, lacerated feeling that the truth gas denied is about to enter and take center stage and proceed to uproot everything fastened down and not. Think of the feeling when you haven't enough money to pay the rent, when there is no more dope and the sickness is tearing you apart from the inside out, when a loved one dies, when you're confronted with someone with a bat with a nail through it, or a gun , or a knife. 

No solace, no quarter. The Stones dealt obsessively with life on the edge in their songs, inspired by a lifestyle they could afford in their off time , and anyone with a more than an glancing familiarity of the aftermath of having gone on an extended drug run, whether heroin, speed, cocaine, there is the phenomenon that the world has ceased to be anything else than a mere rumor of something that was attractive or worth fighting horrible wars to preserve order in. Not all of this was approached from the stance of panic or fear that is the spirit of "Gimme Shelter". "Moonlight Mile", a fragile, beautiful evocation of coming down from a needle-point, catches the half-conscious figure in mid-nod, addressing the drift he finds himself on as though it were a wonderfully calm and foreseen ascent to the next life, a transcendence of a sort. 

There are other roles that are played out in this theme of decadence, decline, and degradation, with the Stones, and Jagger especially, playing along with the age-old cliche of the romantic artist, the poet, the seer, pushing their senses to the limit to attain experience and to gain something of that fleeting, elusive knowledge that senses reveal only when they are placed drugged out duress. Most, though, wind up a wallow, a boast, a casual nod to the audience that it was either a put on or they survived the worse the drugs had to offer and walked out of the other side of the experience, ragged, battered, damaged, but alive to write more poems. "Gimme Shelter" differs, though,  because it really is one of the few songs where the voice doesn't sound like a well-constructed pose maintained with a professional distance from the subject.

 The ennui sounds not just real, but nearly fatal, Jagger plays the perfect role here, abandoning the poses, the personas, the macho -libertine man of destiny and expresses the naked fear that nothing quite suddenly and brutally makes the sense it used to; everything falls apart. There is the remarkable effect of the singer admitting that there is only the unknown forces of a world that have slid off the rails. Jagger's vocal and the lyrics sound like a man who is coming to the uncontested eventuality of his demise. Merry Clayton offers the defiant cry, a brilliant, rail-splitting wail that says that the worse of everything we can imagine is about to happen. She is the hard truth overshadowing Jagger's fatalistic admission. Mood, atmosphere, texture, a hook that comes in at the right time like a badly constructed car hitting every pothole on a troubled, abandoned road, this song remains foreboding, menacing, a song that continues to resonate and will always do so, I think, as long as we contain the imagination to devise our specialized means of insanity. It's an interesting set of perspectives that are represented by the presence of both white and black vocalists. 

Clayton, we may say, comes from a particular set of cultural conditions of racism, slavery, poverty, institutionalized and normalized violence, that makes the Hellhound- on -My- Trail not a poetic device for yet another woe-begone tale, but rather an allegorical representation of what is a fact of their existence. Mailer insists that black Americans have a knowledge unknown to most whites that violence can be visited on them for any reason at anytime precisely because they are black and "other". Jagger is the character, the young man, who enters into a Life on the edge and entertains his senses with the expectation that nothing matters and that this state of bliss, or the naive arrogance of thinking that one's pleasure is all that actually matters. Jagger's horror is that of the sudden, brutal and blunt realization that there are prices to pay for the indulgence, the excessive use of self-seeking. It is a knowledge that comes too late and the singer here trembles when there is a crushing sense that he is near the end of his tether. This fits in with what I think has been Jagger's real genius as an artist since he wrested command of the Rolling Stones away from Brian Jones, his ability, in conjunction with Richard's uniquely primitivist approach to rock and roll roots music, to assume several personas--droogy punk, drug addict,revolutionary, Satanist, hedonist, Sadist, bluesman, troubadour--without overburdening the songs with so much detail and contrived attitude that the music collapses under so many layers of baloney. He's been someone who has pretended to be many things but who, himself, is not pretentious, a distinction in that Jagger's interest is in the emotion, the sensation, the real stuff of experience. The emotional range he's been able to write from over the decades is extraordinary, far broader than his contemporaries, say, Lou Reed, Dylan, Lennon. Only Bowie, from what I think of at the moment, comes close to the variety of attitudes he's been able to inhabit, but even there-there is something always a little calculated in Bowie's keep--them-guessing stance. Jagger, in his best work, which I believe is a big part of his total ouvre (discounting the solo albums), is more fluid in his transitions from one voice to another. 

Jagger has the ability to create from a constructed identity and convince you of his empathy with the plight and drama of antagonist and protagonists; he has the instincts of a good short story writer, no less than Hemingway, O'Conner, Cheever. Fundamental to all this is Keith Richard, who's music contributions keep Jagger focused, believable, credible, relevant to the loud and soft noises that occupy a listener's life. Jagger is in awe of the sheer magnitude of a universe and existence that could make his life less than the sum of a box of burnt matches, but along with the fear is the attraction to the foul powers that lurk outside. There is a going back in forth through the song, while that persistent, descending chord progression hammers away, like a pounding at the door from a debtor claiming what's due him, the short blues riffs and the wailing, two note harmonica screeches that seem nothing other than a hard, cold wind blowing against the windows. It's a tension that builds and won't build, panic and exhilaration, extinction and transcendence felt in an overwhelming rush until Merry Clayton's unyielding exhortation of the chorus gives you release; the iconic cracking of voice on her final reading of the lyric is powerful enough to suggest that a door you've been pounding on for the shelter you've been demanding, praying for finally opens and you collapse, relieved, shivering, twitching under the might of the storm that seeks to extinguish you. It is a brilliant song, a masterful performance, a musical masterpiece, all that. This is one of these tracks where one needs to confront the raw phenomenology is experience and rethink any all certainties one has about what life owes them.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019


Brilliant as she has been, Joni Mitchell has also had made nearly as much music that is, shall we say, in equal measures underwritten, bombastic, pretentious, just plain pretentious? She coveted the sobriquet “genius” more conspicuously than any pop star I can remember--even self-mythologizer Dylan rejects the application of the word to his name. And has suggested. She complains of Dylan's lack of authenticity, when the whole notion of art and being an artist is  creating things that are inauthentic. The very words “art” and “artist” are intrinsically linked with the word artificer, a term that means, in general, some designed, made manually, an unnatural addition to what is already in place. She bemoans the lack of authenticity and forgets, perhaps, that she, Simon, Dylan and Leonard Cohen, poet-songwriters of the Sixties, were storytellers more than anything, fictionalizing their feelings, their politics, their biographies in the interest of a good yard, a good line, a good insight. Authenticity, I would argue, has more to do with the feeling that a writer succeeds in creating, not the emotion he or she, in fact, felt. She is grumpy, to be sure, but this will not suffice as a justification for her ire. She is famous and cranky, and frankly it's a tedious dirge she replays every chance she gets. Likewise, she virtually demands that she be taken seriously as a musical artist, and she has produced albums that have set out to force the issue. 

Her stabs at art song, serial music, jazz material, and feminist surrealist have given us mixed results at best. The fatal flaw in these ambitious efforts were that the worst elements of them were so impossibly precious and self-important that they summarily dwarfed what fresh ideas she might have had at the time. Her ongoing arrogance and bitterness leaves a bad taste. Listeners have taken joy in Joni Mitchell's continual insistence on changing her musical approach, so it wasn't unusual that the release of Hissing of Summer Lawns was hailed, for the most part, as a bold step towards personal and artistic growth. But while Hissing, and her subsequent and less successful Hejira, did indeed show Mitchell expanding herself to more adventurous motifs -- broader song structures, an increasingly impressionistic lyric scan, jazz textures -- the trend toward a more personalized voice has virtually walled her off from most of her fans. Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, her now double record effort, takes the ground gained from the last two albums and converts it into a meandering, amorphous culmination of half-formed concepts. The primary emphasis, musically, is towards jazz modernism, with several songs exceeding ten minutes in length as they ramble over Mitchell's vaguely comprehensible piano chords. She reveals a tendency to hit a strident chord and to let the notes resonate and face as she vocally ruminates over the lyrics while her side players--, Jaco Pastorius and Wayne Shorter from Weather Report, and drummer John Guerin,--do their best to add definition. The lyrics, following suit, are an impressionistic hodgepodge, a string of images, indecipherable references, and gutless epiphanies that should have been edited with a blue pencil. While the more hard-nosed defenders may defend latest with the excuse that a poet may express his or herself in any way they see fit, one still must question the worth of any effort to dissect Reckless Daughter the way one used to mull over Dylan albums. Though any number of matters that Mitchell chooses to deal with may have value to her audience -- spiritual lassitude, the responsibilities of freedom, sexuality into the Middle Ages—she doesn't supply anything resembling hooks, catchphrases or accessible points of reference for them to latch onto. Instead, she gives them art, whether they like it or not. The paradox in Mitchell's stance is that she has thrown craft well outside the window while endeavoring to measure up to “Art” in the upper case. 

She has gone from being an artful songwriter to being merely arty, which is a state of mind that takes hold of many of the public personalities who think they know it all and who conceive themselves as no longer bound by conformity. In her own way, Mitchell has joined the ranks of John Lennon, Yes and other bright talents who've over-dosed on their importance.  With her subsequent album Mingus, we find ourselves having to admire Mitchell’s willingness to expand and reach beyond the merely chatty confessionalism she’ come to be known for and serve up art that is truly artful. “Arty” is a more telling description, though, as her ambition to impress outstrips craft. There is an aroma of the untutored dilettante banging away on a piano she (or he, for that matter) doesn’t know how to play; the smarty-pants assumes we’ll think it bold and experimental. 

But she is not Mingus, the composer, the musician, the artist, and I pray she doesn’t think she is his equal because no one is.  I've nothing against an established artist setting out to break away from the stuff they've already done so that they might “advance their art,” but I protest artsy experiments in areas where an artist has no business being. To be specific, Joni Mitchell has little justification to be futzing around with the moody expressionism of jazz, as she does on Mingus. Though the music and lyrics gel better this time than on her previous Don Juan's Reckless Daughter (a bottomless pit of muted, foghorn atonality and free-associative lyrics that expressed the forgettable as to the incomprehensible), Mitchell's primary problem on Mingus is that she's not much of a jazz singer. Her voice sounds thin and attenuated when it should sound alive, brassy, and full-bodied, pallid when it should have color. You find yourself longing for Annie Ross, or Patti Waters. And as a tribute to the late Charles Mingus, this record doesn't quite wash. The bits of dialogue between songs, featuring Mingus reminiscing with the musicians and ever pondering his death, don't give the album any more depth than what the music -- some of it excellent, most of it half-baked -- already supplies. It smacks of tackiness.

Mitchell and other women musicians have are held to another standard, a standard that kept getting moved around I will, though, stand by my view that the kind of artist she wants to be is frankly out of her grasp--if we are to rely on the art, the art has to be good or demanding in ways that amount to an effort that enriches us, not demanding in manner that we create clever euphemisms to describe efforts that are frankly half-measured, half-baked, half-hearted. I was intrigued by and actually enjoyed quite a bit of Hissing, but thereafter, I think her work became spotty and a grind to listen to. I would say the same of Elvis Costello, whom I used to adore and was fairly obsessed by for quite a while, but who, for the last 15 – 20 years, has made music that is diverse, experimental, undercooked, under considered, a facile and heartless eclecticism. Tom Waits, contrarily, is someone whose work has gotten deeper, more profound, musically complex and more emotionally engaged with the characters and the narratives. I used to hate Waits for his Beat pretensions and Bukowski mannerisms, but now I regard him as one of our finest songwriters of the last half decade. I could go on, but my issue with Mitchell is that every interview I've read with her for the last couple of decades has her pissed off about something, something that is unfair to her, and it gets to be a drag to behold when what she's been releasing reeks of the kind of pretentiousness I'd accuse most progressive rock bands of being. Same with Zappa, whose cynicism and slap dash and unending guitar solos spoils a body of work I might otherwise enjoy. For me, it's not about gender, it's about the individual talent.

It's a matter of one expanding into areas what their technical capacity can genuinely, tangibly make new, exciting, hopefully original. Dylan is not a virtuoso nor a composer of extensive technical and imaginative range--he expanded into country, into rock, into reggae, into blues, soul, standards--forms that are mostly folk-based. His results varied, of course, but Dylan had the humility to not try to become something beyond his capacity. Mitchell can expand all she wanted, and the point I'm making isn't whether she should experiment. We're talking results, which have been uneven at best when in her attempts to work with jazz ensembles and symphony orchestras and the like, and her repeated complaints to interviewers that she's being treated unfairly in reviews.

Thursday, March 14, 2019


Marcus is one of the remaining first-generation Rolling Stone rock critics who, in his old age, has evolved into something of a Methuselahian sage for the artist and band's populating the Rock and Roll Canon. He is a fine writer, beautifully evocative at times, a widely read gent who brings his far-flung references of history, aesthetics, politics, and mythology into his generalized ruminations on the movemen
t of human history and how it was reflected and/or caused by the emergence of pop, rock and soul music. His idea, if he has any thesis at all, is that these were not merely forms of entertainment and distraction, they were cultural forces that changed the way we live. Marcus, as fine a prose stylist as he can be, and as momentarily persuasive as he can seem in his richer passages, actually puts forth little in the way of criticism; he rarely in his late writings spends the time to convincingly let you how songs, lyrics work internally. Craft is not on his agenda. 

With The Doors he does a good job of explaining what I've always felt for some time, that Jim Morrison was pompous,, vacuous to major extent, a mediocre poet, a pretentious intellect who happened to have some things going for him: good looks and sex appeal, an appealing baritone voice could bellow or fashion a slumbering croon, and that he was in a band of good musicians that compelled him, in the songwriting process, to peel away the mostly dreadful riffing in his poems and boil it all down to the genuinely strange, exotic and provocative. The result of that combination of Morrison's affectations and the talents of the other band members made for a number of first-rate original songs. Save for the near perfection of their first two albums, it also made for some mostly uneven records where Morrison's drunk insistence on being a drunk put his worst tendencies on full display. 

Marcus is smart and remarkably succinct here, rendering shrewd judgments, the key one being that while saying up front than in any other life Morrison would have yet another counter-cultural tragedy left for dead and forgotten, rock and roll made him at least briefly pull his resources together and give the world something memorable beyond his pretentiousness. TheThe Doors were a mixed bag for me; the first two albums are among the most important rock albums of all time, with the remainder alternating between the proverbial poles of brilliance and balderdash. As a band, they were simply sublime and unique, with the odd combination of blues, flamenco, classical, jazz, Artaud and epic theater being crafted in their hands to create a sound and feel that was singular and instantly identifiable. As a vocalist, Jim Morrison was often as evocative as the greatest fans proclaim, and it fit the half-awake twilight that seemed to be his constant state of consciousness. 

As a poet, though, I thought he was simply awful, fragmented, crypto-mystic surrealism that, save for some striking and memorable lines, collapsed from its flimsy elisions and obtuse vagaries. In his posthumous collections,, the pieces read too often like the notebook jottings of an introspective 17-year-old. I say that as one who was an introspective 17 year and is now an introspective 65-year-old. Morrison might have become the poet he wanted to be had he been able to write, edit, and finesse his work as he desired when he left for Paris. What I will say, though, is that being the vocalist in the Doors gave him the opportunity to go through his writings, his poems, and select many of the stronger passages for the band's more theatrical songs. The Doors, ironically seemed to be an institutional editor for Morrison's words, forcing the bard to decide which of his jottings was actually the most powerful, concise, emphatic.

Sunday, March 10, 2019


Image result for hobnail bootI stopped going to open readings about twelve years ago for a combination of reasons, lack of time foremost among them, but coming up near second was the weariness of being subjected to a continuous stream of encrypted banality. What is most striking about this collection of generalities it doesn’t sound like anyone who has learned a useful lesson nor gained an insight to a problem-filled existence. If that were the case, the reader would have the sense that some fact, independent of the narrator’s expectations, has been acknowledged and that the speaker is ready to change their thinking. That is, one would have sensed that some growth has occurred.
The sort of tract that many readers come across in airports and the shelves of bookstore self-help sections, though, resemble a poems less than they do knotted strings of re-fitted clichés that lacking value of irony or circumstantial variation ,These are more things one would say after an accompanying string of disasters and disappointments that work not to comprehend experience and, perhaps, gain a perspective on why things don’t go according to plan, but rather to rationalize and reinforce one’s attitude and manner of moving through the world. When all is said and done, Frank Sinatra said the same thing, but with more style and less pop-psyche cant: I did it my way… Not that Sinatra’s croaking croon makes this a desirable way to go through life.
We are who we, sure, but a large part of being human is our capacity to change our behavior based on experience. Existence is not something you experience passively or an event that merely happens to you. It is something you participate in. One is powerless in controlling final outcomes of events, but within the larger picture, which this poem attempts to present to us, we can change our actions, we can change the way we think. In doing so, we can, more often than not, influence the results one gets. Polson, I am afraid, is ruggedly defeatist here. She may be smarter than this poem lets on, but the stanza is a dumb, hackneyed sentiment. We’ve all had them at one time or another. Most of us grow out of them.
We are who we, sure, but a large part of being human is our capacity to change our behavior based on experience. Existence is not something you experience passively or an event that merely happens to you. It is something you participate in. One is powerless in controlling final outcomes of events, but within the larger picture, which this poem attempts to present to us, we can change our actions, we can change the way we think. In doing so, we can, more often than not, influence the results one gets. Such poets come across as defeatists in a Hemingway ammo belt.
Poetry is fun when it is good. This was not good.
Those who write poems, I think, are obliged to write the poems they are able to, whatever their style, and that they ought not to be surprised when they are criticized for using clichés and glittering generalities in place of real craft or inspiration. Introspection alone does make for any kind of poetry that seduces you into having a sit and staying with the page or pages until the poem (or poems )are finished, read again, contemplated, read again and gradually merged with the other noise-laden traffic that forms the walls of our considered cave. Whether the young poet admits it or not, they have a responsibility to express their inner lives in a fresh way that it’s interesting to readers in the outer world. Small thoughts are perfectly fine, and one need only inspect Emily Dickinson or the imagist poems of Pound or WC Williams for examples. Even the “less than earth-shaking” poem has a bar to reach; it should none the less be exquisitely expressed. Those who participate in their lives are not passive, they are engaged with it. Even the shy, weak, infirm, modest and laconic among us take pro-active roles in the directions we take and take responsibility. Most of all, there is the capacity to remain teachable, to learn from experience and change behavior and mindset; this is what keeps people interesting and useful to their fellows. Those who refuse to change their ways, to use experience merely as a rationale to reinforce ineffective methods to coping with existence, are jerks much of the time, or just irredeemably clueless. One stays away from these people and their poems.

Monday, March 4, 2019


This track is attractive because the famously relaxed, mellow-toned trumpeter Chet Baker performs with Archie Shepp, an outstanding example of the experimental improvisation termed "free jazz." Here, we have a fascinating and exciting jam highlighting a brilliant practitioner of what we'd call a mellow, melodic style with an Avant Gard genius of the period. Shepp, of course, is fiery and unpredictable with what his solos will contain even in a context this comparatively conservative; I find it amazing to hear him in a chart-driven, swinging context and realize he can more than cut the mustard. He brings his own thing to it; his solos are his alone. Baker, to be sure, appears energized by Shepp's presence--his phrasing is sublime, and his tone remains hushed and frayed around the edges--there are few perfectly round notes in Baker's playing--but it is something else again when he double and triple times his riffs against the rhythm section. Baker's playing gets an unfair rap, I think. At his best, he could do much more than many give him credit for and, when alert and prepared, was in perfect control of all his gifts.