Kicking My Legs

The other day, I found myself in a disconsolate mood.

This is not usual. I am temperamentally optimistic, which I used to think was my Midwestern heritage but now realize is primarily a function of my white male privilege (why shouldn’t I be expecting the day to go well for me when I wake up every morning?) and secondarily the by-product of my obsession with art and learning (I can be reasonably assured that every conscious day I live will bring me at least one moment of aesthetic or gnostic thrill, and I can live on one for hours).

But on this day I was down. For one–though I can usually keep the relentless ugliness of these times at bay by reminding myself that they are nothing new, it’s just that the mask is all the way down (so why should I start moping now?)–the sordid litany of the Cohen hearings had so penetrated my defenses I had come to feel like Washizu Taketoki at the end of Throne of Blood. For another, I had just had a miserable experience with my Stephens class, and having a miserable experiences when I am teaching–it is an action I love, no matter how difficult it may be–is foreign to me. I happen to be teaching a second-semester composition class that is mostly made up of freshmen who failed composition first semester–several of them who failed my class. This in itself is no problem; with three decades of high school experience with struggling learners, I am probably the best person on campus for this job. Things is, with this particular group, simple attendance and work completion is a struggle (remember: we’re talking college here), and it’s an 8 a.m. class, so enthusiasm for the education process is occasionally wispy in nature. In this case, I had prepared a lesson that I felt was very high-interest, exceptionally stimulating, and inarguably relevant to my class’ concern–and, out of 16 students registered at that point, five showed up. Five. I know what you teachers out there are thinking: Perfect! Small group–a more intimate, direct, and collaborative experience!  Yeah, well, cool and all, but I prepared the lesson for sixteen, and there’s the matter of the role it was not going to play in the success of 69% of my students’ upcoming papers. Not to mention that I like larger classes; I thrive off the gathered energy, and the possibilities of accidental inspiration and enlightenment are far greater. Thus, I scrapped the lesson and held writing conferences for the hardy humans who showed up. Useful, yes, but nothing fresh, fun, challenging, and interactive. (I know you’re wanting the deets, but they are too painful to recall; suffice it to say that it involved Dusty Springfield.)

I’d dismissed the class and was pouting at the computer (recording attendance, as it happened). I was literally shaking my head and contemplating harikari, and decided, of course, to take one last look at Facebook (when the bombs start falling on the first day of World War III, we will all be recording our statuses). I’d almost forgotten that, as one of the two songs I share every morning and have shared every morning for close to a decade for no discernible reason, with the hearings immediately swirling in my head upon having awakened, I’d posted the above video clip from the Bob Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back. “Even the President of the Yew-Nited States / One day must have to stand naked!”: really? That’s too easy, Phil.  Be that as it may, I absently clicked on the link, dimly aware that I still had the data projector on, its volume turned about halfway up.

As Uncle Bob’s screed rolled out–it’s damn near long as the Gettysburg Address!–I twisted out a grimace at the phrase “There is no sense in trying!” and reminded myself of my old-time idol’s cynicism. I am not really a cynic, but that line actually sounded pretty good to me and made me feel even worse. However, the song (I hope you do not need me to tell you this) is not only an astoundingly detailed catalogue of American failings imaginatively and skillfully written (though “propaganda all is phony” is a wince-inducing glitch), it’s not even completely cynical. “…[H]e not busy being born / is busy dying!”? “…[I]t is not he or she or them or it / That you belong to!”? “Although the masters make the rules / For the wise men and the fools / I got nothing, Ma, to live up to!”? And does he stick the landing!

My eyes collide head-on with stuffed
Graveyards, false gods, I scuff
At pettiness which plays so rough
Walk upside-down inside handcuffs
Kick my legs to crash it off
Say okay, I have had enough, what else can you show me?

And if my thought-dreams could be seen
They’d probably put my head in a guillotine
But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only!

Yep, those lines are anything but cynical. They’re motivating, liberating, life-affirming, and definitively sans bullshit. As I listened to them for the umpteenth time, my short hairs rose to attention, my heart leapt, my blood warmed, my grimace warped into a defiant smile. I was still shaking my head, but in amazement. And it was cool to hear it in the open air of the classroom…

Another teacher was holding court in my room after my class, and, in my hypnotic state, I hadn’t noticed that some of her students had rolled in, seated themselves, and were apparently remaining silent out of respect for my meditation. The vibration of those final words–“it’s life and life only”–deteriorated into our space, followed by about 15 seconds of silence, and one of the students said, “Did you like that?”

I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant; these days, you can’t be. But I blurted out instantly in response, “Oh yes. For me, that is the rock. If I’m barely treading water, that’s what I’m reaching for, and what I’m gonna stand on. It’s worked for me for years, since I was 17–still does 40 years later. So…did you like it?”

I inhaled sharply, awaiting potential injury.

She answered, “Yeah. That was amazing.”

“Truth,” I smiled–and bolted out of there, knowing that, if I lingered, the resulting conversation would overlap into my department head’s allotted time. But I’d crashed the cuffs off, and skipped out of the building full ready to be shown more.

 

Scattergories (August 13-18, Columbia, MO)

I continue to struggle to report more frequently, but maybe it’s better if I let things build up. Some areas of my life into which great music wormed its way this week:

Spousal Relations

Nicole and I are two peas in a pod (metaphor not simile), and living with me, she stays pretty up to date on things. Sometimes it might not be her choice. However, she made a discovery this week that made me very happy.  She’s voluntarily given me charge of keeping her vehicle’s iPod full of goodies. Massive folders of New Orleans joys, Memphis grit, and Dead Moon/Pierced Arrows wailings I’ve already built I am not to touch again, but that leaves me about 2.5G. I’d constructed her a rap playlist, vowing to stick to irresistible stuff so she could get her mojo going more easily on her drive out to school. We were riding together when this shuffled out:

Turns out she wasn’t familiar with the Dirt Dog, Big Baby Jesus, the late lamented O…D…to the motherfuckin’ B! Her expression registered both shock and delight at his unchained style (how well I remember the same feeling!). I explained that he reliably stole every track he ever guested on, that he’d stepped on a rainbow–I saw a wave of sadness sweep over her face–and that…well…there’s more where that come from. This very morning we repeat played “Ghetto Superstar” for his bars, and coming soon will be his levitation of “Woo Hah! Got You All in Check!” on the remix tip.

We also followed our informal Friday night ritual of a pizza, a pitcher, and some platters. We get comfy in the living room and stack a few CDs in the changer, then shut up and listen. Nicole’s better at being quiet than I am–sometimes both my enthusiasm and my teacher tendencies–“OK, now who do you think that is on sax? Yes, you do too know who that is?”–can interfere. Aretha’s passing has hit us hard like it has most music nuts, and we chose to concentrate on her Atlantic debut I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You and the later Lady Soul. I’d put ’em up against any great album you can name for the overwhelming amount of fine, sublime details. If I get started on them, I’ll never stop, but here were our two highlights:

School

I am about to step back in front of my freshman comp / pop music class for another semester, and I never like doing things the same way twice. I’ve been brainstorming, but haven’t gotten far–there’s so much I can do, it’s hard to focus, and if I have a demon, it’s that. All I’ve decided so far is to spend some time on Day 1 off-syllabus to find out how they listen to and write about music with something responsive, probably to (duh) a carefully selected Aretha piece. Maybe they will have had too much Re by Tuesday, when class begins; maybe I’ll employ Mitski, The Internet, JLin, or Lori McKenna; maybe I’ll use the never-has-failed clip of Anita O’Day at Newport ’58. Just something to draw them out and force them to furrow their brows. Probably not anyone named Minaj–that might seem desperate. It’s a women’s college, so I like to keep women in the forefront, but hearing this masterpiece over the closing credits of an Atlanta episode (we’ve just begun watching it, slow, sorry) has me currently tempted to lead with it–it’s about a great woman, after all:

Friends

We met our friends Brock, Annell, and George to take in the current big screen preparation of Elvis’ ’68 Comeback Special at one of the local theaters. I’d been on tenterhooks waiting to see it for the umpteenth time, this time with brighter colors (surely it would be restored!) and even more vibrant and powerful sound (surely the soundtrack would be remastered!). No, and no. Should have known better, considering the last, oh, forty years of Presley puke-up (sorry, it hasn’t been that bad, but nor has it quite approached mediocrity). In addition to the lazy preparation, the special was preceded by an awkward co-interview between producer Steve Binder and a very Madame Tussaud-looking Priscilla Presley that revealed little not already known, and followed by a gag reel in which 80% of the content was in the actual show. Somebody needs to look up the definition of gag reel; it was like a cinematic Having Fun with Elvis on Stage. They’d have been wise not to fuck with the actual special, but of course that was where they expended extra effort. I didn’t say smart effort. We did get to see some never-officially-viewed footage, but more frequently the additions didn’t make sense–and one subtraction was downright blockheaded: whose idea was it to CUT the opening to the black-leather-concert “One Night with You,” where Elvis experiences a flash of inspiration and says, “I think I’ll put a strap on this and stand up!”? It’s a great moment in rock and roll television: the strap fails, Elvis has to think quickly–and transitions into the “dirty” original version of Smiley Lewis’ song, then titled “One Night of Sin.” Instead, the new edit begins right after all that has happened. I’d include the full version here, but guess what? It’s not even on YouTube! Anyway, we did still enjoy it (probably everyone else more than I, since I was, I guess, laying for it, just waiting for the honchos to fuck it up)–because it’s hard to kill The King:

Also, my New Orleans pals Clifford and Robert sent me some gems via Dropbox. They are among my wisest and most broad-minded friends when it comes to music, and they’re overflowing with stories, too. From the former I received a mesmerizing tango album from 2007, Daniel Telingo’s Maldito Tango, that I’ve already played twice in the last 36 hours:

From the latter, who has been extraordinarily generous lately by also hipping me to numerous Brazilian musicians I was shame-facedly unfamiliar with, I received an infusion of rare tracks by the great Southern soul man and songwriter Dan Penn, whom we both admire:

Reading

I’ve been digging into the short fiction and non-fiction of Tennessee writer William Gay, and I just finished his neat reminiscence of Bob Dylan’s entry into his life, and the resulting social fallout he encountered. From my previous readings (the haunting Southern noir Twilight and a passel of short stories), I wouldn’t even have imagined Gay had been a Dylan fan. His fictional presence is McCarthian; I had assumed he might have set his musical bar sky-high, not that that’s a barrier to the man from Hibbing, but still. Anyway, “The Man in the Attic” is very charming–not a typical Gay quality–and very true. It can be found in the collection Time Done Been Won’t Be No More, which if you do Kindle Unlimited is at your fingertips, and which features some additional excellent music writing. Recommended to any Dylan fan, and it will prompt you into the stacks.

Purchases

If you’ve been reading me, you know I’ve been struggling to cut down on buying physical media–at least CDs, but I am fond of them, too. This week I bought two early Moe Bandy CDs from Amazon that I thought must be reissues, but I must have been distracted from reading carefully when I did the clickin’–they are those nefarious “ripped from vinyl” items that the website actually offers. Album art: check. Song list: check. Nothing else. No notes, no record label, no source info. At least I didn’t already have one of them (It Was Always So Easy to Find an Unhappy Woman Until I Started Looking for Mine); I’d already ripped my vinyl copy of I Just Started Hating Cheating Songs Today to digital myself! Dumkopf!

(The guy had a way with album covers.)

I also bought–oh, about 40 years too late (the story of my life, perhaps even my birth)–Murder by Guitar, a compilation of singles by the San Francisco punk band Crime. I knew about them from Sonic Youth’s cover of their “Hot Wire My Heart,” then got very belatedly reminded I needed to check into their work early this week after finishing Alice Bag’s terrific memoir Violence Girl–by the way, her 2018 album Blueprint is seriously underrated. So, I hit Discogs, ordered said comp, it arrived in a flash, and damn, folks, if you need a dose of serrated-edge punk rock and you didn’t know much about ’em either, act now. They sound to me like obvious precursors of what’s come to be called garage punk (nicely documented by New Bomb Turk Eric Davidson in his book on the genre, We Never Learn). Very, very exciting:

 

 

 

Dialin’ Up Dylan (June 4th, 2018, Columbia, MO)

I’ve been a Dylan freak since I was 15, and I’ll die one. I’m probably going too far here, but without him the best things in my adult life (teaching, the woman I chose for my wife, this life-long quest for knowledge) would never have materialized. I know I’d have been less happy in my alternate lives. The guy aggravates the crap out of me as well–I’m convinced that he’s the least annoying naked emperor around–but that’s just because he’s taught me not to accept bullshit. I bring this up because today I was finally able to dive a little more deeply into unsung reedman Michael Moore’s three successful attempts to prove Dylan’s music has modern jazz applications, one of which I’ve owned in a digital version for awhile, but all of which I just bought from separate Discogs vendors because I sense I may have few chances later. See, I told you I was a freak: Dylan? Jazz? YEAH! What Moore, bassist Lindsay Horner, and percussionist Michael Vatcher do is gamely improvise structures around snatches of melodies from the likes of “Dear Landlord,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” “Blind Willie McTell,” and “Boots of Spanish Leather,” then pretty consistently replicate the mood suggested by the songs’ lyrics when they cut loose within the structures. Moore, on clarinets, saxes, and bells, is the main soloist, evoking klezmer, British Isles folk, Arabia, and the blues. The commitment of the musicians to the concept pays off over and over again, and even when they don’t quite hit the mark, they sound like they’re making a gauzy B+ ECM record–no shame in that. Most important, they honor Dylan’s achievement and even make a case for extending it–when’s the last time you heard anyone raving about the man’s melodies, or nominating him for a spot in jazz’s standard repertoire?

Of the three the first, 2000’s The Music of Bob Dylan, is the best, taking the most chances with song selection (even covering a Dylan cover) and varying the attack more frequently. The third, Ships with Tattooed Sails (2003), with outstanding guest work by guitarist Bill Frissell, is next, and Floater, also from 2000, a bit too often lives up to its name but is still strong. For those of you who are free jazz shy, first, note my mention of structure above, and second, the songs’ duration seldom extend beyond five minutes–this unit’s focused beyond the standard. Also, Dylanophiles can amuse themselves by listening without the track list and trying to identify the songs; it’s not hard, but it’s not always easy–and it’s rewarding. The trio takes the original material and makes something new, and moving, out of it.

A sample:

You can also listen to the entirety of the group’s first record:

Speaking of making something new out of Dylanology, Nicole and I thrilled to these great new live performances by Bettye LaVette of songs from her new album of Bob interps, Things Have Changed:

Short-shrift Division:

Still hooked on pianistics!

The Ultimate Bud Powell

Phineas’ Rainbow

From the Page to the Earbud (May 20th, 2018, Columbia, MO)

A nice buffet of music journalism led me to some fantastic listening experiences this weekend. If you don’t feel like listening to today’s highlighted tracks, try the articles, and maybe you’ll change your mind.

First up was Adam Shatz’s simply beautiful New York Book Review piece on the recently departed Cecil Taylor. Aside from being very sensitively written, it’s awash in rare insights about the pianist’s work and life, and provides some links to other essential Tayloriana (including a brilliant Cesar Aira short story). Read “The World of Cecil Taylor” here, and check out this track, discussed therein:

I am barely conversant about classical music, but much of it I like, even if I can’t explain why. I like fury, apostasy, minimal stillness, angles–stuff like that. I happened across a New York Times review by Zachary Woolfe of a performance by the pianist Yuja Wang that piqued my interest. The title incorporated the phrase “dazed chaos”–perhaps that was a dig, but it intrigued me. In addition, an accompanying photo by Hiroyuki Ito reinforced the phrase’s intrigue; apparently Ms. Wang’s garb often has reviewers’ knickers in a twist, and she does indeed look fetching in Ito’s photo, but it’s the fury of her motion he captures that ran the hook further through my lip. Check the article out and compare it to a Wang performance, as I did. I haven’t yet arrived at a judgment yet–I’m harder on the classical genre than any other.

Finally, I stumbled upon a couple of reviews of albums by reedman Michael Moore’s now-defunct Jewels and Binoculars project, which was devoted to an extremely unlikely aim: interpreting noted melodist Bob Dylan’s compositions in a relatively free jazz vein. It’s funny how often I’ll drift to realities that oppose views I’ve just very reluctantly resigned myself to. I was carping here two days ago that, with the advent of streaming, it’s no use having music anymore. Where’s the fun? I have owned one Jewels and Binoculars release for awhile but–Eureka!–there were three, and one the two I don’t have isn’t streaming (from what I can tell). Grail mode reactivated (because the album I own is stellar, almost alchemic). After reading the reviews, in Jazz Times and The New York Times, I reacquainted myself with Ships with Tattooed Sails, the one I have. Try it, you’ll like it.

Short-shrift Division:

Now’s as great a time as any for a Black Arts flare-up in jazz! To wit:

Idris Ackamoor…

…and Shabaka and The Ancestors.

GOOD SHIT!