Mar 092012

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By David Ross. YouTube is the most irresistible seduction of them all. Holding temptation at arm’s length, we say, “I’d like to, but I shouldn’t.” YouTube turns even our conscientiousness against us. In so many cases, we really should. Morally, spiritually, intellectually. A case in point is “The Riddle of Poetry,” a lecture delivered by Jorge Luis Borges at Harvard University in the fall of 1967 and spring of 1968. It’s so full of grave wisdom; its language, so austere and precise, is a moral lesson unto itself. Live in the spirit of Borges’ prose seems to me a reasonable credo. Among other things, “The Riddle of Poetry” conveys what it means to be a gentleman of the mind – or rather what it meant, for the type is extinct. Borges’ comportment – his code of intellectual order and etiquette – now seems as quaint and remote as bending at the waist to kiss a gloved hand.

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The Riddle of Poetry: Part 1 (above), Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.

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Posted on March 9th, 2012 at 8:39am.

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Feb 092012

By David Ross. Devotees of Kerouac will remember his little homage to blind Anglo-American jazz great George Shearing in On the Road:

“Shearing came out, blind, led by the hand to his keyboard. He was a distinguished-looking Englishman with a stiff white collar, slightly beefy, blond, with a delicate English-summer’s-night air about him that came out in the first rippling sweet number he played […...]. And Shearing began to rock; a smile broke over his ecstatic face; he began to rock in the piano seat, back and forth, slowly at first, then the beat went up, and he began rocking fast, his left foot jumped up with every beat, his neck began to rock crookedly, he brought his face down to the keys, he pushed his hair back, his combed hair dissolved, he began to sweat. The music picked up. The bass-player hunched over and socked it in, faster and faster, it seemed faster and faster, that’s all. Shearing began to play his chords; they rolled out of the piano in great rich showers, you’d think the man wouldn’t have time to line them up. They rolled and rolled like the sea. Folks yelled for him to ‘Go!’. Dean was sweating; the sweat poured down his collar. ‘There he is! That’s him! Old God! Old God Shearing! Yes! Yes! Yes!’ […...] When he was gone Dean pointed to the empty piano seat. ‘God’s empty chair,’ he said.”

The above clip, a torrid version of “Lullaby of Birdland,” makes the theological point. Here’s another, very different version of “Lullaby of Birdland,” at once silky and propulsive, with Peggy Lee gamely gliding through Shearing’s harmonic obstacle course.

For more impossible pianism, see Oscar Peterson here.

Posted on Feburary 9th, 2012 at 10:43am.

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By David Ross. The dynamics of rock and its offshoots are very strange. Young men make a ruckus and recede into burnt-out abeyance or empty iconicity. Why should this be? The law of diminishing returns does not especially apply to painting, poetry, or fiction. Milton began Paradise Lost at age fifty. Yeats did not begin to write his greatest poetry until roughly the same age. Yeats’ late poem “An Acre of Grass” indicates his geriatric ferocity:

Grant me an old man’s frenzy,
Myself must I remake
Till I am Timon and Lear….

Why do bluesmen deepen and roughen and come to perfection, while rockers become parodies of themselves? Drugs take their toll, I’m sure. It may also be that rockers’ aesthetic aspirations merely euphemize the deeper lust for fame and fortune, upon achievement of which the creative apparatus begins to shut down.

Flamenco’s great guitarists shame the oligarchs of rock. These liver-spotted old men play with immense pride and passion, confirming what Hemingway says in Death in the Afternoon, his treatise on Spanish bullfighting: “In Spain honor is a very real thing. Called pundonor, it means honor, probity, courage, self-respect and pride in one word. . . . Honor to a Spaniard, no matter how dishonest, is as real a thing as water, wine, or olive oil.” The Spanish flamenco guitarists of the previous generations were full of honor in this sense. Like the great toreador Maera, they “gave emotion always” as a matter of their own arrogant mastery. Can we say the same of any member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

Sabicas (b. 1912) is my ideal; so too Carlos Montoya (b. 1903), despite occasional errant notes (for Sabicas, see above; for Montoya, here and here). They represent precisely the “old man’s frenzy” that Yeats has in mind. Coincidentally or not, both were of Romani origin.

The great Flamenco guitarists of the younger generation – Paco Pena (b. 1942), Pepe Romero (b. 1944), Paco De Lucia (b. 1947) – are astonishingly virtuosic, but cooler and more clinical, less evocative of old Spain as I imagine it. Fair or not, I see conservatory practice rooms instead of sun-baked streets, dusty markets, girls parading in the evening. What’s lacking is swagger, sensuality, the manly disregard that purifies Maera in Hemingway’s telling:

He was driving and the bull was driving and the sword buckled nearly double and then shot up into the air. As it buckled it dislocated his wrist. He picked the sword up in his left hand and carried it over to the barrera and with his left hand pulled out a new sword from the leather sheath his sword handler offered him.
“And the wrist?” the sword handler asked.
“F*k the wrist,” Maera said.

Posted on January 10th, 2012 at 7:54pm.

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By David Ross. Every ten years or so Jeff Beck emerges from manorial seclusion to prove why he’s the fifth best guitarist in history (so says Rolling Stone this month). His most recent groundhog cameo was his 2007 live set at Ronnie Scott’s in London, which the BBC, making itself useful for once, preserved for posterity. The highlights are Beck’s pair of unlikely duets with the arty poetess Imogen Heap. Always at his best with a strong vocal foil – Rod Stewart being the original case in point – Beck found his match in Heap. She’s as melodically sly as he is, and there’s something weird and entrancing about her great height and beauty – her regality – as it were stooped to the earthly traffic of the blues chestnut “Rollin and Tumbling” (above).

Beck and Heap radically reverse themselves on Heap’s own “Blanket” (here). Seeming to grow darker with each listening, the song is a confession of decadence in the nineteenth-century vein, a confession of forlorn and weary compensation for the loss of something irreplaceable. If music is the only possible sanctuary–the blanket of the song’s title–the song’s dreamy washes of electronic sound evoke the kind of world from which sanctuary is necessary: a floating world of pattern recognition and virtual light (to borrow phrases from William Gibson), of Calatravian airport terminals and glass needles spiring above Asian cities. The song’s irony is that the narrator can express her alienation from this world only in the tonality of its ennui; if music is a sanctuary, it’s a compromised one.

Posted on December 22nd, 2011 at 11:17am.

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By David Ross. Bert Jansch, storied fingerpicker and warble-voiced bard of the British folk movement, died last month at age 67. He achieved quiet glory as a guitar stylist and as guiding light of the folk group Pentangle, in which he was paired with equally legendary guitarist John Renbourn.

Above, Jansch performs “Moonshine,” a lovely tune of his own composition, circa 1975. Here Pentangle performs in the lush first flush of its jazzy, bluesy thirteenth-century folk rock. Jansch is seated to the right, the bearded Renbourn to the left. Jacqui McShee could not sound or look more the part of the British folk chanteuse. Her pale, somber, chinless face is a lovely study in the art of the church altarpiece, lacking only a halo and a swaddled Christ.

Jansch’s influence on Jimmy Page’s acoustic style is unquestionable. Page’s “Black Mountain Side” from Led Zeppelin I is a note-for-note nicking of Jansch’s “Blackwaterside” (here), which appeared on his 1966 album Jack Orion. Jansch was miffed enough to consider suing Page, but he could not afford a legal crusade on a folk guitarist’s salary and let the matter drop. One can easily construe Tolkienian epics like “Stairway to Heaven” and “The Battle of Evermore” (featuring Jansch’s old protégé Sandy Denny) as grand bastardizations of Jansch’s antiquarian interests. Admittedly, Page is the more gifted musician. In this clip, he transforms “Black Mountain Side” into a frenzied druidic raga, achieving an intensity that was well beyond Jansch and Renbourn.

Jansch’s complex, open-tuned stylings equally influenced Nick Drake, the Keats of British folk, in whom the movement’s decade of research and experiment became something new and consummate. As far as I know, there is no extant footage of Drake performing live, but a tune like “Cello Song” (here) gives the feel of his exquisite little nocturnes.

To have schooled both Jimmy Page and Nick Drake is to have helped midwife the music of the twentieth century. I hope that Jansch, his work done, rests where he belongs, in some old churchyard, amid the moss and weathered stone.

Posted on November 23rd, 2011 at 11:31am.

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By David Ross.The Beatles were uncanny craftsmen, but their music interests me almost not at all these days. I listen to a Beatles album once every few years. I invariably feel awed, bored, and irritated. The irritating part is the self-importance of the whole shtick (this self-importance later became fully obnoxious in John Lennon’s insufferable “Imagine”). Nobody can deny that the Beatles were peerless in their ability to craft albums, but the music itself, for all its endless melodic invention and vast tonal spectrum, so often seems hollow. The long suite that ends Abbey Road is at once the most amazing feat in the history of rock and the most abstract and elaborately empty.  In the end, the Beatles’ preeminence is a Baby Boomer phenomenon. I don’t believe it will entirely survive the transition to a post-Boomer culture.

On the other hand, I never tire of the Who. I love to feel the whiplash of their sonic overdrive: the skittering cannonade of the drums, the waves of guitar thunder, the endless frisky invention of Entwistle’s bass. In terms of instrumental prowess and cohesion, the Who far exceed the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and even Led Zeppelin. The band’s defining idiosyncrasy – in many ways the secret of its success – was the unique reversal of the guitar and bass parts. So often Townsend establishes the rhythm or adds tonal effects while Entwistle carries the melodic burden. Watching the Who play live, one realizes that what sound like guitar parts – power chords, dashing melodic runs – are actually bass parts. The primacy of the bass gives the Who’s music such underlying movement and momentum. The most dynamic aspect of the music is buried deep in the tonal structure and speaks to some primal lobe of the brain, the part that remembers the pulse of the womb. Jimi Hendrix was the greatest rock instrumentalist of all time, but Entwistle may be in his quiet way the second greatest.

Above, the Who perform a kaleidoscopic mini-suite as part of the Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus, a 1968 made-for-TV extravaganza that also featured John Lennon, Eric Clapton, and Jethro Tull. The Stones sat on the footage until 1996, allegedly because the Who so utterly upstaged them. We now know how long it takes the wounded rock star ego to convalesce: 28 years.

Equally magnitudinous is the Who’s performance at Woodstock (see here), which somehow manages to dwarf the audience of 500,000. The Woodstock version of the “See Me, Feel Me” sequence from Tommy is a career highlight. Rarely has a band been at once so powerful and so soulful. Like no British band before them, they here enter Otis Redding territory.

Posted on November 18th, 2011 at 1:46pm.

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