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.