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.