Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Notes from Bizarroland 5: Nearing One Month

Ma and I descended upon the homeland yesterday. Homeland in two senses: the house and the neighborhood. The house in which I grew up, in which the vast majority of my parents’ life together played out. The neighborhood is a humdrum borderland that we always called Forest Hills but that is apparently within the bounds of Rego Park. It may have been considered part of Forest Hills decades ago. The problem is that the house in which I grew up, which before it was my parents’ belonged to my maternal grandparents – a Slavic immigrant couple who met in New York during the depression – resides right near the boundary separating Rego Park and Forest Hills, these neighborhood designations in Queens that may or may not have significance now but that linger on as reminders of the collection of towns that made up western Long Island before the consolidation of the five boroughs. So I spent the earlier part of my youth saying I was from Forest Hills, and then sometime during my adolescent years I acquiesced and admitted I grew up in Rego Park – a name that for those in the know carries considerably less cachet.
            In any case, the “homeland” – this neighborhood that contains buildings I’ve looked at since infancy, this place I still call “home” in spite of increasing feelings of alienation I feel at the changes in the local landscape. Where there is now a mall containing Sears, Marshall’s, and other stores there used to be a monolithic branch of the old NYC department store Alexander’s. Before there was a discount dollar store of some sort on Queens Blvd. there was a Nobody Beats the Wiz. Before the Wiz there was…I can’t remember now… Ben’s Best Delicatessen is still there, serving classic New York Jewish deli fare.
            Within the neighborhood there are streets I walked hundreds of times with both grandmothers, my mother, my father. Over the past few years, each time I’ve visited my parents’ house I recognized fewer and fewer of the neighbors on the block – a block like many others in Queens, made up of red-brick connected row houses, these a bit larger and admittedly nicer than similar blocks elsewhere in Rego Park, Astoria or Sunnyside. Last year the next-door neighbor Helen died at a ripe old age of…hmm, don’t know…shortly after my grandmother Jean did. Her daughter still owns the house next to ours, and I guess that makes her and my mom the longest-term current residents on that block.
            Something about Rego Park – my section of it, started to annoy the shit out of me since I moved out in 2005. The increasingly chintzy storefronts, the motley folks bumbling around, the disappearance of restaurants and stores that should have remained, if only for my sense of continuity. Yet as much as the damn place annoys me, I can’t loathe it. It’s too much about me, so when I look at it and feel disdain for it I’d be feeling disdain for myself too.
            The house itself is now a large brick-and-mortar ellipsis for me, the gradual process of my parents’ move out of it and fully into their new house in Tucson having been interrupted by the revelation of Dad’s terminal cancer. Of course walking through it yesterday there were memories. Of course. While my mom sorted through mail, I found myself looking for artifacts proving Dad’s existence. I knew where to find his notebooks from about ten years ago – artist journals, I guess you’d call them, into which he pored out all kinds of mental activity, some insightful and beautiful, some morose and tiresome. The red-and-black ink drawings still strike me as brilliant: garish caricatures of people both real and imagined. I slowly read through some of his writings, laboriously deciphering his horribly messy hand. It occurred to me that I might be eavesdropping, invading his privacy by reading these jottings, but somehow I didn’t feel any guilt of trespass.
I won’t lie; a lot of the writing conveys a keen feeling of depression, of anxiety about how to go through life. Not only did Dad mull over his own tribulations, he wrote out his sympathy, sometimes pity, for family and friends – a piece describing his observations on the neglect of his half-sister by other relatives, an entry pondering the bullshit of the W. Bush regime via worrying about my oldest friend’s being called to duty for the Iraq invasion of 2003. My friend, and my dad sat there scribbling out his worry for him. Well, sure, why not. I mean he treated the guy like a fucking nephew since sometime in high school, and the guy came out to see the old man, full well knowing it might be to say goodbye before Dad kicked it.
Then there were the photographs. I just started to look around through the many MANY photos my mom took over the years, knowing I was looking for images of Dad. I found a good deal – photos from the late 80s and early 90s, photos of trips to Vermont, Florida, pictures of my dad’s 50th-birthday celebration in 1992 with some of our Czech relatives with us in Queens. Photos of both of my grandmothers, Anna (my mom’s mother) already suffering the symptoms of Alzheimers’ in 1990, though you can’t see it in the images. Anna, looking healthy (as she physically was) at age 78; Jean with a head of almost all-brown hair at age 74. Photos of Dad looking spry at 45, 48, 50. Photos of Dad and me – he a slim man in early middle age, thick dark hair on his head; me an incredibly dorky 10-year-old, with baggy pants and a baseball cap the diameter of which fit my head but still looks outsized on me. I had read some stuff in his journals from 1999, stuff about how he realized he needed to let me live my own life, about how at age 19 I was grown up (I’m sure he later realized that I was anything but grown up, even if I thought I was), about how he still wanted to help prevent me from making the mistakes he had made. Quintessential concerns of a father, perennial hopes for the good fortune of his son. 
So I spent a couple hours being an archaeologist of my own past, of my father’s life and past, of my family’s past, of the house, the neighborhood. Whatever.
The thing is, with all the feelings of futility and fatigue brought on by this archaeology, this recollection, there is so much I want to tell you…
There’s so much I could tell all of you out there about the crazy and hilarious interactions Dad had with the neighborhood freaks and goons: Chester, the homeless guy who gradually went more crazy over the course of a few years, who started to bend the windshield wipers on peoples’ cars, whom our neighbor Abe wanted to pulverize with the help of my dad; “FBI,” the fucking maniac who walked the streets of Rego Park screaming out “I’m FBI, don’t mess with me!” or things like that, and who then actually got shot by a Central-Asian Mafioso (they started to pop up with the influx of Bukharian Jews into Rego Park during the 1990s) for yelling his bullshit, a mobster paranoiac who actually thought “FBI” was yelling it at him, warning him that he was in trouble; the bizarre conversations Dad had with The Late-night Streetwalker, a neighbor on the block who will remain nameless, who spewed vitriol about his family and about the revenge he would exact upon anyone who dared block his driveway. These people all existed.
There’s so much I could tell you, so much I want to tell you, about how I remember all those games of catch, how I too remember the time you played basketball with me and my teenage friends, when I made that one basket that won the game – that game you scribbled about years after it happened; about how much I enjoyed watching those Marx Bros. movies for the first time with you, how it opened up whole worlds of laughs and ideas when you showed me the Marx Bros., the Pink Panther movies, W.C. Fields, how even though you annoyed the shit out of me at times in Tucson this past year I still wanted to laugh with you at the Marx Bros. and Louis C.K.; about how I remember that you taught me how to understand baseball and basketball, these rituals of fathersonhood, these rituals of Americana, those hours we looked up all kinds of shit in the huge baseball encyclopedia you bought in probably 1993, the year the Mets sucked more ass than we thought possible, the year the Knicks were great but not great enough, the year the Phillies caused you agony when Mitch Williams completely blew it, “CHOKED” as you talked about at length, fucked it all up and gave up the Series to the Blue Jays…
Now, and for the past four weeks, I have so much to tell people about, so much to tell you…so much to tell…
And I wonder who it is I’m telling, and, for that matter, who’s really doing the telling.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Notes from Bizarroland 4a: Music Is the Healing Force

As I sit and begin to write this latest installment of literary effluvium, the unbridled soul and humanity of Dr. John Plays Mac Rebennack, vol. 1 vibrate around me. Since Dad’s expiration, even minutes after we all returned home from his deathbed at the hospital, I sought something from music. I sought comfort, consolation, escape, indulgence. Music has been a fix, a drug. “I’ll take a shot of James Booker followed by a chaser of Howlin’ Wolf.” Or, “Can’t do that right now, I’m about to sit down and gorge myself on Schubert’s most misery-soaked slow movements – a few of them back to back should do the trick.”
            On the Tuesday of his death, I wanted to hear music of celebration, music that Dad loved. During the last six months of his life, he whittled down his listening habits to the music that most sustained him during his sixty-eight years on the planet – the blues. Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, John Lee Hooker – the aces of the Chess catalogue, these were Marc’s aural bread and butter. His admiration for James Booker also peaked during the summer and autumn of 2010. I am glad to say that I played a part in this: during my stay in April, I purchased Booker’s The Lost Paramount Tapes, a sickeningly good collection of “previously-unreleased” recordings the Bayou Maharajah made in the early ‘70s. Seeing how much my dad enjoyed it, I left it in AZ while I returned to New York so we could pack up the Eastern homestead and head West.
Anyhow, on Tuesday afternoon and into Tuesday night, I blasted Muddy, Booker, Dr. John, Wolf, Clapton’s all-blues album From the Cradle. Somehow the good vibes flowed, probably aided by the bottles of Black Bush Irish whiskey and wine my uncle had brought home as sweet spirited salve. My uncle and I had a joke that we were going to honor Dad by making up for all those years (26 of them) that he didn’t drink – he put the bottle down in 1984 and never picked it up again. Well, we didn’t quite reach the goal that night.
Dipping into the wellspring of the black music of the Delta was my attempt to somehow keep my father’s spirit going. Since the vibrations of energy that make up “life” had escaped from his body, I guess I tried to conjure them up using my parents’ stereo – and all our ears – as surrogate flesh. I had brought in a small kitchen stereo and played him some blues, Miles, and Bach Cello Suites during his last days in the hospital. I’m pretty sure now and then he heard it and possibly enjoyed. I know that on the afternoon of 21 November it thankfully calmed him and even lulled him into a brief nap. I put on some blues and New Orleans R&B in the few hours on Tuesday before he unexpectedly checked out at 1:25pm.
We all knew that music would continue to sound in the house over the coming days. I knew because it had to, for my own sanity. I gradually began searching for music that would help me realize my own grief; these I would listen to privately, with headphones. I sought recordings that could provide me with a sonic mirror, reflecting back to me the feelings of melancholy, pain, loneliness and plain stupefaction I was experiencing. Reflect those back, and in the process help define the situation, help me trace out the landscape of myriad and at times conflicting emotions that had been continually forming itself in my mind. I knew that Bill Evans would provide a sure shot of melancholy, and his recordings did not disappoint. Especially effective were the albums Since We Met (1974) and You Must Believe in Spring (recorded in 1977 but not released until after Evans’ death in 1980). I have held the former in special admiration since I bought it in college…some ten years ago. It’s not one of Evans’ widely-lauded recordings, but there just seems to be a spark in his playing, a sonic twinge that speaks to me of the cold, hard streets of lower Manhattan in January, when Since We Met was recorded. I have no idea of what the lyrics of the title song of You Must Believe in Spring are, but listening to that tune, and hearing the aggregate mood of the whole album, I imagine the lyric going something like, “You must believe in spring, because the winter of this world sucks.”  
So at night I would wrap myself in Bill Evans’ melancholy. I would imbibe of it. I would glut myself on the sweet stinging pain of his piano. Isn’t there at times an exhilarating edge to an oncoming wave of misery? As good as I was doing with Bill, defining my own sorrow, erecting an imaginary monument to my pain, my feeling of loss (me me me), I knew there was someone else I was forgetting. I would shuffle through my CD collection at random times of day and night, trying to remember who else’s music I should be listening to the way a person searches for the proper word which has of course escaped her at just the wrong moment in discourse. Who…? Not Tchaikovsky, well not quite – too many fast movements interfering with the slow agonized pathos I need. Not Chet Baker, too pathetic himself…Not Schumann, too thick, too German, too…something…Some of Kenny Wheeler’s recordings worked very well, but there was still an unexplored territory in my mind’s ear.
Then two nights ago it dawned on me. Chopin. Like a starving dog shown scraps of meat, I greedily pulled out CDs containing Chopin’s Mazurkas and Nocturnes, for me the most wistful and stately of his music – the furthest from the exuberant, virtuosic mode. Yes, the Nocturnes especially fed my ears and soul well. Yes, soak in the misery of these sounds, the regret. The excruciating nostalgia of some of the middle sections that is then crushed, ground into dust by the return to the opening material…I’m really thinking specifically of the C-minor Nocturne, op. 48/1. Years ago during my Master’s program, I performed a Schenkerian analysis of this piece. I spent hours studying the music note by note – hours consuming the wealth of feeling, which was never depleted by my scrutiny. So I know the piece well. The loose, little narrative about the piece I’d constructed for myself years ago fit the current situation magnificently. The “A” section, with its stately march-like texture and minor mode, is funereal. In the “B” section, Chopin switches to the major mode. From C major, the Nocturne moves into brighter the brighter keys of D and then E major. The music grows increasingly fervent; pounding octave figures become manic, hallucinatory – a hallucination of a beloved past, of a lost love, of a dead father, whatever. It was always clear to me what the return of the opening material in the A1 section did to this hallucination-reminiscence-whathaveyou: it smashed it. It brought the nostalgic reverie to a crunching halt, and brutally reminded the subject (= Chopin? Me? You?) of the current reality.
It then occurred to me that by hanging out in the aural headspace of Chopin and Bill Evans, I was getting in touch with my Slavic soul. (Half of Evans’ ancestry was Rusyn. I am of all Eastern-European stock, at least half of it Slavic.) And I started to think, What I really need is for the Chopin interpreters and Evans to take it to the next level. More. More sorrow. More pianistic pain.
I imagined a recording of the C-minor Nocturne wherein the pianist doesn’t just play those B-section octave figures in a robust forte, but hammers them out. I imagined an ├╝berpianist with hands of titanium attached to arms of granite pulverizing the piano keys, SMASHING them in that B section. In my mind’s ear I heard a recording of almost farcical pathos – an overdubbing of bombs exploding to coincide with the punctuations of the octaves. As the bionic pianist-hulk smashes the piano keys, eventually pulverizing the wood, metal, and ivory, the piano simultaneously crumbles under his weight, explodes, and then, like a video-game character flickers back into view as a “new life” is used. Huge crashing of bombs, dynamite – no, bigger – nuclear blasts – accompany the decimation of the piano – One can listen to the overlapping sounds of wood splintering, metal strings cracking and bending, and massive explosions of air molecules caused by gargantuan bombs.
I imagined an analogously grotesque Bill Evans recording, one in which the listener can hear Evans’ keel over from the suffering and misery of his own music - No, better yet, make a video of it – A DVD that shows him in the studio performing the achingly beautiful tune “The Peacocks” and imploding at the end of the take – shriveling up on the piano bench – and to the shock of Eddie Gomez and Eliot Zigmund, crumpling like a deflated balloon on the studio floor.
If we’re gonna do grief, let’s do it right - Let’s REALLY get into it – On one side, I want Chopin’s music making pianos explode – I want the piano to be the detonator for a collection of hydrogen bombs – setting off a chain of pulverizing impacts that feed back into the musical groundswell of the Nocturne – On the other side, I want Bill Evans to play himself and all of us into a musical-metaphysical blackhole – his sound creating a central vacuum that sucks us all into ourselves and out of existence.
To me it’s only the flip side of an aesthetic of excess that has been so brilliantly cultivated in African-American music for decades. James Baldwin, Fred Moten, Amiri Baraka, and others have celebrated this aesthetic of excess. It’s in the music my father and I love so much – the good-times thump of Muddy Waters and Hooker, the screeching excess of James Brown, the all-out musical, sartorial, and performative excess of James Booker – a willingness to let it all hang out, a celebration of the rough edges of life. Of course an aesthetic of excess isn’t only the province of African Americans. Among many other folks, cultivated excess is no stranger to my father's side of the family. (If you had spent a few hours listening to the cackling and absurdly raucous humor that took place when my father, my uncle and I got together, you’d know.) Excess – more is more. More, in some cases, is better. Listen to the music louder. Pound those drums harder. Make those guitar slides wilder.
Dad was a practitioner of excess. If one ibuprofen pill helps that headache, maybe six will help it a lot more, and faster. He did stuff like that. I don’t know if he truly believed on an intellectual level that more ibuprofen would work that much better, but it was his practice. 

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Notes from Bizarroland 3: Letter from the HVAC Monster

During the week Dad spent in the hospital, I noticed an occasional buzzing sound coming from the ceiling intake vent just outside the bedroom my wife and I have been using since moving to Tucson. It first became audible one morning as an intermittent buzz…buzz…buzz when the thermostat prompted the system to give off warm air.

For a couple of days before and after Dad’s passing I lost track of the buzzing sound, being of course preoccupied with other matters. Yesterday evening the intake vent let out more than just that intermittent buzzing. From the grill covering the vent fell a clean white envelope containing neatly-folded letter-size sheets of paper, upon which was typed a letter. Paranoia seized me from the intestines up. Upon touching the crisp white sheets of paper I instantly had the premonition that a hideous creature, some malformed, shrunken, troll-like being had been living in the ducts of the HVAC system in my parents’ house. This goblin, this monster, had powers of clairvoyance that would boggle and frighten the human mind, and it had composed a private letter to me. The parcel looked like something that might be issued from a law office, so clean were the folds, so crisp the black ink. It is written in a stilted and somewhat pompous diction…

To the First- and Only-Born Son,
            Perhaps now you see that you are a fool. Perhaps now, after witnessing the emotional work of months and weeks, the preemptive mentations you erected to shield yourself against the eventual onslaught of the inevitable, hammered and quickly felled by the vicissitudes of an unknowing Cosmos, perhaps now you can truly perceive how foolish was your hubris, how ill-founded your sense of poise.
There are so many things I could tell you about yourself, young one. Yes, young, as you well see now, despite the recent occurrence of your thirtieth birthday, in contradiction to the feelings of weariness this milestone incited in you, you are still young.
            I can still see you standing in the hospital room after the abrupt utterance of a nurse new both to your family and your ailing father, “He’s gone.” And this said almost in haste, nearly blurted out, as if this nurse somehow knew the events of the past days and held the same expectation of at least a day or two in the relative comfort of hospice care that you had held. You notice the redness and gleaming of her eyes, creases of incomprehension upon her forehead as she tells all of you the news she ascertained not two fifths of a second before the speaking of it, “He’s gone.” I can see your mind digesting her words, then this same mind realizing that it had fallen behind just a bit, that your stomach had actually digested moments before her motions with the stethoscope over his body, the beginnings of worry in the skin and muscles of her face. And yet, in the next moment, as you relay the fact to your mother, who has already begun to weep because of the sadness of his being toted off to a hospice to perish and not because she has just seen the perishing itself, you cannot yourself understand it. And so as your mother immediately embraces the full thundering pulverizing truth in a forward swoon and instant wracking sobs, you offer the most pedestrian suggestion - “Come here, Ma” – and clumsily catch/lift her in your arms lest she fall face first onto the linoleum floor from an apparently pure grief that you cannot yet know.
            Yes, I can still see at this very moment into the cavern that looms beyond the opaque, obsidian lacquer painted by your words of a few minutes later, “I don’t understand.” I can see behind and beneath those sounds to what even they in their awkward inarticulation hide: raw fear. You feared not only the jarring closure, not only the grief and anguish to come, but you feared the dead body. You feared a foreign object in the room, a mass of protein, minerals, and water that stood in as a perverse doppelganger for what had moments before been your father. The seizure of your body and mind by fear was analogously sudden to the switch of animated being into dead matter – and, yes, I know and knew at that moment that your bloated, overanalytical mind was already spinning out myriad explications; I detected even from my lair back home the concoctions of a suffocating psyche gasping desperately for some whiff of knowing or being rather than gagging on its own production of putrid thought and theory. You feared the great mystery of this instant transformation of your father into notfather, as many others have. Your own ignorance confronted you from without – ignorance of how easily you slipped into the awe and dread about death that you knew had plagued human hearts for millennia, but which seemed to have been resurrected afresh for your own private torment. Not “death” as an abstract concept to be discussed round a table amidst vague friends and hearty drink, but death as the plain cessation of breathing, death as the sudden metaphysical flattening-out of a person with spirit and mind into a body with only volume and mass.
            I can look ahead, too, to see your bafflement at how the work of eight months seems to be erased in the passage of a day. I can peer into your embryonic questioning of Causality, Effort, Time, Memory. I can already hear the tiresome discussions you will hold about the meaning of a life, whether your father was reconciled to his death even as he perceived its coming, the stunning infinity suggested by the finality of his departure from a physical and apparently objectively-verifiable reality. I can feel my stomach turn when I listen to the pre-echoes of your pontifications about “anima” and “breath” and how “expiration” is a fitting word for death since it refers to the final irrevocable release of breath.
            I have chuckled quietly to myself over the past few days as I have listened to you repeatedly observe the habitual nature of Mind, surprised that you keep expecting to find him sitting in his usual armchair when you enter the house or to see a missed-call alert from his number on your mobile phone. And I know, perhaps more than anyone else, that each one of your verbal utterances to this effect hides countless more silent reminders whispered to yourself, that you will never see him AGAIN…

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Notes from Bizarroland 2

My mom and I went to the funeral home yesterday morning to "make arrangements" for my dad's cremation. That was what my mom said the funeral director told her the appointment was for: "to make arrangements." I had wondered what it meant. Ma already told him over the phone that we wanted a basic cremation, no service, no urn. (At some point we'll decide where to scatter the ashes.) Besides paying, what "arrangements" needed to be made?

There was a bit more, but not much. A few forms to verify and sign; some minor details to confirm. Then the funeral director asked if we had any more questions. Ma and I looked at each other, she shrugged, she asked, "I don't know, Matthew, is there anything you wanted to ask?" 

I paused and began to simultaneously shrug and shake my head "no." But a number of questions demonstrating an idle curiosity about the mortician's craft had shot through my mind. 

"When you got the body from the hospital, where were they keeping it? Was it a morgue? What does the morgue look like?"

"Do you keep the body refrigerated at the funeral home until the time of cremation? Or since it's going to be burned anyhow, do you not bother? Let it begin to decompose?"

"What about all the smoke? Is there any environmental regulations?"

"If we wanted to, could we see the body now? Not that I do want to, but...if I wanted to...?"

I decided it was better to just leave than to ask these questions.

Dad and I had once had a conversation about a sleazy funeral director somewhere in New York that tried to guilt-trip him...I think it wasn't pertaining to a relative of his, but a friend and work associate - but I really can't be sure now. I think it was something about how the undertaker tried to convince my dad and the other person he was with that the deceased deserved better than a pine box, how the deceased should be honored with something more noble or elegant or dignified - and definitely a shitload more expensive - than an unadorned wooden box. My dad had related the story so that we could share a feeling of contempt about the inappropriate behavior of the undertaker, and so we could share a meditation on the grotesque humor of a hard sell taking place in an awkward moment where stale grief met tedious bureaucracy. 

I was glad that my mother and I were not subject to any hard-sell techniques, even if we inevitably had to spend a few absurd moments acquiescing to a compulsory bureaucracy.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Notes from Bizarroland 1

I’d like to tell Dad that a cool spell came to Tucson in the past couple days, the kind of brisk weather he’d had been eagerly awaiting.

The specific circumstances of his death were the kind of thing he and I would have discussed at some length. We would have hashed it out, talked about how odd it was that he died at the very moment he was about to be put on a stretcher to be driven from the hospital to the in-patient facility at TMC Hospice. Just as he had told me a bit over a year before that he kept wanting to call his mother and tell her the news – that she had died – I instantly had the feeling that once we left the hospital and drove back home I had to let Dad know that he had expired, and that it was bizarre.

My uncle and I had a laugh about the fact that within a few moments of Dad’s passing, I had the inexorable urge to take a dump. The lavatory in Dad’s hospital room had run out of toilet paper sometime recently – possibly that morning, possibly the night before, during the many hours that we all spent in the room with Dad, occasionally pissing and shitting as one must do. Uncle Michael ran out to the nurses’ desk to procure a roll while I sat down to begin my business with the toilet. He handed it to me through the slightly ajar door.

At home the following day I realized that the need to defecate must be my personal manifestation of grief. Following a wave of anguish and a welling-up of tears I once again got a heavy feeling in my gut. That was yesterday. 

Today is the second full day in this reality without my father.

Friday, October 22, 2010

My Hearing Belongs to ME

I recently read  a description of Miles Davis' album In a Silent Way (IASW) that gave me a start: 
It was the sound of Miles Davis and Teo Macero feeling their way down an unlit hall at three in the morning. It was the soundtrack to all the whispered conversations every creative artist has, all the time, with that doubting, taunting voice that lives in the back of your head, the one asking all the unanswerable questions.
This is from Phil Freeman's book about Miles' electric period, Running the voodoo down: the electric music of Miles Davis. I haven't really looked at much more of the book, and it hasn't been a book that has held much interest for me otherwise. I ran across the excerpt above in the Wikipedia entry on IASW; I was curious to see what Wiki had to say about the album after giving it a serious listen for the first time in over a year. I realize it's not entirely fair of me to write off Freeman's book without reading some more of it - but that's not what concerns me here and now. 

As I said, Freeman's description gave me a start. These musings about Miles and his producer Teo Macero wandering through an unlit hall, about secret interior dialogues in the heads of artists...these comments, though juxtaposed with some historical information and contextual analysis, are certainly evaluative, definitely subjective, and don't even try to be critical or historical. One might say they're also poorly-written. Freeman switches perspective in the second sentence, beginning by describing "every creative artist" in the third person, and then switching to the second person, talking about "that doubting, taunting voice that lives in the back of your head" - "your head." And isn't "creative artist" a redundant construction? Doesn't the second word, "artist," already imply the adjective "creative"? Yet the interpretive thrust of Freeman's gloss gnawed at me - maybe the way he imagines the voice in Miles' head, or any creative artist's head, gnawing at him. There was something about Freeman's notion of IASW as the sound of being lost, of contemplating the infinite, that struck a chord within me. 

I was going to continue here, to recount my personal history with IASW, probably get a bit mushy at times, etc. (See below for previously unreleased excerpts of this reminiscence.) Well, what was happening was that for a few days it felt like Freeman had stolen my hearing of IASW. Yes, stolen, taken the way I hear the album, the way I feel about it, think about it, know it away from me. But then a few days elapsed, and Freeman's slick yet for me nevertheless uncanny gloss on IASW lost it sway over me, and I started to regain my own hearing of the album. I became able to reconcile Freeman's "unlit hall" with my own dimly-lit space created by IASW

And then I remembered that Freeman's book belongs to the greasy, fetid, and even depraved industry of Miles Davis publications - a entire subcategory within music books - and I said to myself 
The still-growing number of vapid monographs on Miles Davis - or some period of his life, or one of his albums - is another topic altogether, one which I intend to address in my very next post.

Unreleased Reminiscence Outtakes
[This is an album I've known well since the age of 16, 38 minutes of music which I've listened more than 200 times, possibly more than 500. Miles' trumpet sound immediately struck me as incredibly beautiful - as full and cushiony as on Kind of Blue, and yet with a new timbral variation, especially in the high register. It was also the album from which I really got to know Wayne Shorter's sound on soprano - still one of my favorite sounds among the recorded jazz I know. There are so many moments on IASW I could tell you about, so many aspects of the recording that have fascinated in different ways at different times. I could really talk someone into oblivion about it....

....I never really thought of IASW as "being about" being lost, if that's even what Freeman is getting at in his words. For me, IASW has often been about something unknowable, both something unknowable about life, the universe, the human condition, and its own unknowability - the music's own inscrutability. There was something evocative about Freeman's thoughts, about the idea of the album being a soundtrack to an internal dialogue of metaphysical questioning. So reading the excerpt, I had an experience of the uncanny. Freeman touched on a feeling I too had gotten from the album - a feeling of contemplating the infinite through music....

...In my late teens the things Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea were doing on the Fender Rhodes keyboards, and the things Joe Zawinul did on the electric organ, held infinite fascination for me. I imagined that as I continued to learn about music, I would someday be able to explain what made the web of keyboard sound on the album so intriguing; I'd be able to analyze it - break it down into its component parts and understand the how and why of the keyboard soundweb. When I started to really delve into music theory in college, I would sometimes return to IASW, maybe play a few phrases on my trumpet along with the record, and think to myself that I was getting closer to being able to analyze that thick, inscrutable fog of keyboards....]

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Louis Szekely (a.k.a. Louis C.K.)

I've been seriously digging on the comic Louis C.K. for the past few weeks. (Thanks to my oldest friend on this earth for introducing me to him, by the way.)

His comedy strikes me as wide-ranging. He can do a lot of very funny observational things; it's social satire with insights as brilliant as the language is plain. His current show on FX  combines this observational/satire stuff with some real quirky plots and great moments of absurd and/or surreal humor. I highly recommend. 

What I really appreciate about him is that he's a white comedian who is not afraid to deal with race and white privilege. Now it's not like I keep tabs on all the comedians out there, but it seems to me that C.K. has few white colleagues who are willing to venture into those kinds of comedic waters. I want to share a brief but very pithy bit he did about the "N-word" a couple of years ago: 

Suggested viewing/reading of related interest:




Monday, October 4, 2010

"Things Are Crazy"

[WARNING: Ranting ahead]

I'd like to propose an indefinite moratorium on the following phrase, and all synonymous variations: 

"Things are crazy."

Last week a beloved friend inadvertently woke a sleeping giant when he included this phrase in an email to me. Said friend, who is an adept writer and talker, inspired me to finally compile and present my thoughts on the matter of the above phrase.
Initially I want to address the ambiguity of the phrase "things are crazy." It is a simple enough grammatical structure, a three-word sentence in the indicative mood; the speaker is saying that it is a current reality that things are crazy. But already things (not the "things" of the phrase, though) are becoming vague. Is this an observation of a general condition of existence? Are things always crazy? To remedy this ambiguity, people often modify the core phrase as follows: 
"Things are crazy right now."
"Things are crazy these days."
"Things have been crazy this week."
Here we already are considering some of the synonymic variations I refer to above. So it could be an observation about how these "things are" at a specific point in time, or during a specific period.

But what of these things? What is their nature, beside an apparently volatile mental condition? To alleviate my annoyance at hearing the phrase, I often amuse myself by imagining the "things" in question. When someone tells me that "things are crazy," I pciture his or her living space filled with small creatures, of reptilian or perhaps amphibian type, who are causing havoc. These small things might resemble gremlins or imps, running around the house, knocking things over, spilling liquids, and generally causing a ruckus. Perhaps they have behavioral problems. Possibly they experience hallucinations and hold deluded views of reality. 

You see, not only do I lack knowledge about the nature of the "things," I also don't know in what way they are "crazy." Do they suffer from recognized mental conditions such as sociopathy or schizophrenia? Or are they just plain old fuck-ups and hence projecting their fucked-upness onto the poor human's life? 

More likely than not, the speaker of the phrase "things are crazy" does not intend it to be a statement about monstrous creatures who have intruded into their lives and torment them. He or she probably doesn't even mean to be making a statement about the way of the world, or the human condition. The actual scope of the statement - what the person is really talking about - is usually much more limited. 
"Things are crazy for me."
And I'll give folks the credit they're due - I often do hear or read this particular variation. Though unfortunately the observation far too often remains unqualified by any pronoun. It is often qualified by reference to a location, or a specific situation. 

The family of phrases I'm grouping under the general archetype of "things are crazy" is a favorite utterance of academics: "It's a crazy time of the semester" which leads to common variations like "It's a busy time of semester," "It's a rough time of the semester" - all of which I have heard employed during the first week of classes, right after midterms, or during finals week - basically any time of semester can be a crazy time and can cause those things to get all hot and bothered. 

So let's take stock of the taxonomy we have so far. There's the ur-phrase:
"Things are crazy."

There are the time-specific variations:
"Things are crazy right now."
"Things are crazy today."
"Things have been crazy this week."
"Things have been crazy for months."

Then there are substitutions and variables on "crazy":
"Things are hectic."
"Things have been all over the place."
"Things are busy this week."

Sometimes folks even remove the "things":
"This week has been nuts."

When most people utter the phrase, I hear a strange echo, a kind of veiled sonic afterglow. It usually goes something like this:
"Things have been just crazy the past week." [pause of a few seconds...] I've got a lot going on in my life....
That's the secret message there in italics. When a person tells me "things are crazy" this person is usually also indicating how busy s/he is, how rich his/her life is, how many endeavors/projects/tasks/ongoing-something-or-others s/he has got his/her hand in. (This is an observation that go-getter types, into which category most academics fit, really like to make about themselves.)

But I'd really like to acknowledge that the phrase-type "things are crazy" belongs to the rhetorical category of bullshit - that is, a statement without truth value, one which can be proven neither true nor false. The usefulness of the phrase-type "things are crazy" lies not in its observatory power. No, the power of the phrase lies in its application, and in how it communicates what it does. When we say "things are crazy" (and yes, of course I have used it too...unfortunately), we are exculpating ourselves. A more truthful transformation of the phrase would go something like this: 
"I know I was supposed to do [insert task here]. I'm sorry I haven't done it; I just did not get around to it. I have no excuse, but I'm asking your understanding, since we have all been in this position at some point."
But when we say "things are crazy" we displace our own inability to do the things we should be doing outward and turn our own temporary lack of organization or irresponsibility into an external and general condition of reality. 

So once again I propose an indefinite moratorium on the phrase-type "things are crazy." For my part, I will make a concerted effort to admit openly when I have not been able to look at someone's email/call someone back/get something done when I said I would. I will not talk about those pesky apparitions we call "things." Because let's be honest, 
when aren't things crazy?