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.
Posted on March 9th, 2012 at 8:39am.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
By David Ross. Erik Mongrain’s “Air Tap” (see above) is a genuine benchmark of the modern guitar. The composition is perfect, the technique largely novel. Beyond the slightly uncharacteristic “Air Tap,” Mongrain’s music seems at first merely atmospheric in the Windham Hill tradition, but his compositions turn out to be aggressively intricate and even scholarly – as it were solutions to thorny riddles of musical theory. One realizes that Mongrain has fully departed from bop and rock histrionics in order to create a new mode on an entirely different basis of order, symmetry, and almost Asian apertures of silence. If Bach had played the koto, he might have sounded something like this. Mongrain’s two albums – Fates (2007) and Equilibrium (2008) – are as deceptively understated and precisely reflective as Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” (1913):
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet black bough.
I would call Mongrain a link in the guitar’s fundamental evolution. He is, of all things, a Quebecois – see here for biographical details.
Posted on October 11th, 2011 at 11:32am.
By David Ross. Two propositions about James Brown: 1) He was the highest energy performer ever. In full overdrive, he was the rubber-legged soul incarnation of Chuck Jones’ Tasmanian Devil. Nobody – not Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, or Bruce Springsteen – ever approached Brown’s expenditure of calories per second or approximated his capacity for what amounts to self-detonated metabolic nuclear explosion. 2) His bands of the late fifties and sixties – featuring vocal backup by the Famous Flames and best captured on the classic album Live at the Apollo (1963) – were the greatest of the R&B and rock era. These bands were not necessarily the most gifted, but they were the best rehearsed, the most cohesive, the most rhythmically agile, and in all ways the most pinpoint. The most virtuosic rock units – The Who, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Led Zeppelin, Mahavishnu Orchestra, The E Street Band – sound tattered in comparison. While the rock ethos tended toward drug-induced laziness, Brown was an obsessive-compulsive Karajanesque whip-cracker, as his sixties-era sax player Maceo Parker recalls:
You gotta be on time. You gotta have your uniform. Your stuff’s got to be intact. You gotta have the bow tie. You got to have it. You can’t come up without the bow tie. You cannot come up without a cummerbund … [The] patent leather shoes we were wearing at the time gotta be greased. You just gotta have this stuff. This is what [Brown expected] ….
This YouTube chestnut (see above) shows footage from the famous T.A.M.I. (Teenage Music Awards International) concert, which was held in the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium on October 28 and 29, 1964. In addition to Brown, the concert starred the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, Marvin Gaye, Chuck Berry, the Supremes, and Smokey Robinson. The Stones famously whined about having to follow Brown onstage – one understands why. You can purchase the full concert here.
By way of bonus, here’s Brown, circa 1966, belting out an epic version of “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.”
Posted on October 3rd, 2011 at 1:33pm.
By David Ross. In the annals of the prematurely departed, nothing compares to the world-catastrophe of Keats’ death. English literature lost its best chance at another Shakespeare; Western civilization lost its most promising spokesman. Here’s my Hall of Fame of Bereavement, my Tenebrous Top Ten, in descending order of regret:
• John Keats (1795-1821)
• Percy Shelley (1792-1822)
• Jane Austen (1775-1817)
• Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970)
• Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986)
• Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964)
• Charlotte Bronte (1816-1855)
• Richard Parkes Bonington (1802-1828). Perhaps the most gifted of all British painters.
• Sandy Denny (1947-1978). See here for additional elegy.
• Stevie Ray Vaughan (1954-1990)
Steve Ray comes last on this list only because the blues is a relatively blunt instrument. All the same, his death is a raw and bitter recollection. While Jane Austen and possibly even Charlotte Bronte had entered a terminal pattern, Stevie Ray was in the process of transcending the constraints of I-IV-V and taking up the kaleidoscopic jazz fusion that Jimi Hendrix had initiated (see here) before wastefully doing himself in. Listening to “Lenny,” recorded at Toronto’s El Mocambo Club in 1983, we’re haunted by the sound of things never to come. The song is an epitaph for Jimi, for Stevie Ray, and for an entire school of American music that was conceived but never born.
Posted on September 26th, 2011 at 1:46pm.
By David Ross. In Catcher in the Rye, Holden goes down to Greenwich Village and hears Ernie the piano player and says:
“You could hardly check your coat, it was so crowded. It was pretty quiet, though, because Ernie was playing the piano. It was supposed to be something holy, for God’s sake, when he sat down at the piano. Nobody’s that good. About three couples, besides me, were waiting for tables, and they were all shoving and standing on tiptoes to get a look at old Ernie while he played. He had a big damn mirror in front of the piano, with this big spotlight on him, so that everybody could watch his face while he played. You couldn’t see his fingers while he played – just his big old face. Big deal. I’m not too sure what the name of the song was that he was playing when I came in, but whatever it was, he was really stinking it up. He was putting all these dumb, show-offy ripples in the high notes, and a lot of other very tricky stuff that gives me a pain in the ass. You should’ve heard the crowd, though, when he was finished. You would’ve puked. They went mad. [ ...] In a funny way, though, I felt sort of sorry for him when he was finished. I don’t even think he knows any more when he’s playing right or not. It isn’t all his fault. I partly blame all those dopes that clap their heads off – they’d foul up anybody.”
Whenever I hear Oscar Peterson, this passage goes off like a firecracker in my head. I’m sure this is terribly unfair, but there it is.
Peterson, in any case, is indeed “that good.” He’s preposterously good, impossibly good, infinitely over-the-top in every way relating to the intersection of the piano and human fingers. This heated blues romp – an encyclopedia of forms and variations and cute little subversions thereof – is typical. If you happen to play the piano, be advised that whatever little self-regard you’ve developed over the years will be completely crushed. This is for non-players only.
Posted on September 20th, 2011 at 1:06pm.
By David Ross. Every so often I dip into contemporary literature to confirm my sense that I’m not missing very much. I recall forays into the work of Paul Auster, Angela Carter, Douglas Coupland, Dave Eggers, Bret Easton Ellis, Jonathan Franzen, Michel Houellebecq, Jay MacInerney, Cormac McCarthy, Rick Moody, Chuck Palahniuk, Salman Rushdie, Jeanette Winterston, and other passing fancies of Time and Newsweek. Zadie Smith waits her turn on my shelf. All this sifting of silt has produced only a few glinting nuggets. I discovered in Houellebecq a fierce and welcome fellow despiser of modernity (see my comments here), and something even more in David Foster Wallace: a vast nineteenth-century mind struggling to find itself.
The “covering cherub,” in Blake’s parlance, was the postmodernism that DFW formally embraced against the grain of his personality. He was profoundly sincere, empathetic, and humane, a believer in “the sub-surface unity of things,” as he puts it in his famous Kenyon graduation address of May 2005, and yet devoted his career to self-conscious intricacies of irony and gamesmanship. He made great art in this mode – only Nabokov and Borges are his postmodern betters – but it was not, I can’t help feeling, the art he was born to make.
I have additional misgivings about his prose, though he is the only prose writer of his generation even worth noting. While meticulously attentive to his art, he was ambivalent about the formality of his art, the ideal of the well-wrought urn. His language is often splendid, but always splendid despite a certain scruffiness and loose-limbed sprawl. My eye is always instinctively performing the function of an editor, pruning, reshaping. He was too invested in his own unpretentiousness, too much infected with the modern American ideal of jeans and sandals, which ultimately expresses a yearning to be liked, to be no better or different than the rest of the crowd. I suppose this is the symbolic meaning of DFW’s hallmark bandana, an accouterment of kitchen and field workers, housewives and athletes. Great writers don’t care about being liked. They scorn our right to judge. They discover themselves amid the execrations of the crowd.
Even with his foibles and arguable failings totted up, DFW was the redeemer of his literary generation. He saved it from the humiliation of being the first generation in American history to lay nothing – not the least nosegay – on the graves of Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman. He saved it from the gaping wound of a great naught.
DFW’s rightly famous Kenyon Commencement Speech (here and here) has become a pop-cultural touchstone. Perhaps enthusiasm for it has already become a bit of a cliché. Yet I defy anybody to listen attentively without succumbing to its moral seriousness and sinking into an inner hush just as the initially boisterous Kenyon audience stills into an outer hush. In the guise and moment of his speech, DFW defies the default setting of the culture. He sheds his celebrity – the unpeelable skin of the Oprah era – and becomes the conduit and servant of a message more urgent than himself. Thus Emerson spoke from the podium of the Concord lyceum.
Alex Niven, a friend of a friend, comments intelligently on the speech and on much else concerning DFW.
Posted on August 24th, 2011 at 2:04pm.
By David Ross. The kiddy culture – the culture of sneakers, fast food, and video games – has subsumed the adult culture; or rather adolescents have stopped graduating from one to the other. Thus, as I read in Mark Steyn’s latest tome, the chilling and funerary After America, “males 18 to 34 years old play more video games than kids: according to a 2006 Nielsen survey, 48.2 percent of men in that demographic amused themselves in that way for an average of two hours and forty-three minutes every day – that’s thirteen minutes longer than the 12- to 17-year-olds” (181). Kay Hymowitz provides the definitive account of the new “child-man” in City Journal.
The kiddy world is characterized by impulse; the adult world by purpose. The kiddy world belongs to the playpen of the present moment; the adult world tethers itself to both past and future. The kiddy world passively imitates and downloads; the adult world discriminates and invents.
If I had to offer a living symbol of the “adult world” – its tenderness, stoicism, rigor, mature calm – I would point to Tony Rice’s version of “Shenandoah.” I would say to our thirtysomething sneaker-wearers, this is what it means to be grown up, to carry yourself like a man.
Posted on August 15th, 2011 at 10:34am.