So It Goes: Reflections on Kurt Vonnegut (Ten Years Later)

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Kurt Vonnegut would say in speeches that a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit. Often, he was asked: Have any artists successfully accomplished this? “The Beatles did”, he replied.

Vonnegut, whom time finally stuck to last week, lived a lot longer than he thought he would. For fans, he lived longer than many of them thought he would, too. Most of his avid readers have been preparing for his death, in earnest, since his suicide attempt in 1984. As it turned out, there were many more Pall Malls left to smoke. Then, in 1997, the author’s caliginous assertion that Timequake was to be his last novel did seem rather like a settling of accounts.

Fortunately, there was still time to tend to some unfinished business, and for another decade he would clean out the proverbial closets and compile the essays found in A Man Without a Country. He managed to remain active, and indignant, right up to the end, most recently sounding off on the idiocy of the Iraq misadventure. That the current administration caused him to consider Nixon in a fonder light speaks volumes of Vonnegut’s sensibility, and needs no elaboration. To be certain, Vonnegut made many people appreciate being alive more than a little bit; indeed, his greatest achievement may have been helping some people realize that they were alive, with his body of work that at once admonishes us to question reality and, whenever possible, to enjoy the ride.

And yet, Vonnegut was, in critical terms, on borrowed time pretty much for the duration after the unanticipated—and unimaginable—success of Slaughterhouse Five in 1969. The good news: maybe about five writers per half-century write defining texts that they can be certain, while they are still alive, will live on after them. The bad news: having to live with that (and never achieving that height again) while still trying to write new novels. That is to say, it is all but impossible for an author to impress anyone—his readers, the critics paid to write about what he has written, and mostly, himself—after composing a masterpiece in the middle of his life. The only thing more arduous is the incessant hangover of dread and expectation awaiting the novelist who knocks off a tour de force right out of the gate. Suffice it to say, Slaughterhouse Five proved to be a line in the literary sand he could never jump across (and not many other authors have either, for that matter), although he came as close as anyone should have reasonably hoped with Breakfast of Champions , a book that looked forward from World War II and its aftermath to the here and now of a country confronted by new concerns, such as Watergate, and more of the same old problems, like growing old and dying. That book, from 1973, if written by anyone else, could constitute a career. It’s not even unreasonable to imagine that, if Vonnegut had never parked himself in front of a typewriter after 1963, Cat’s Cradle would garner even more attention and receive more accolades than it already does.

(Too often, it seems, we are either celebrating artists too late, or we coronate the unworthy too early. It is not as complicated with our athletes when they retire: it’s generally a buoyant affair, with the extended goodwill of a swan song season, complete with gifts, accolades and standing ovations. Sure, there is some sadness in seeing a great performer leave the limelight, but the more famous the athlete is, the easier the transition to sanctified superstar afterlife. They are allowed (and perhaps entitled) to assume membership in an elite fraternity that never expires. Theirs is the glory to unrepentantly live in the past, invoke (even embellish) former flights of fancy, and generally rest on the laurels established in their youth.

With artists—novelists in particular—there are a completely different set of standards and expectations. The only ones at liberty to soar on the effulgent wings of yesterday’s triumph are those who have died, which renders them largely unable to appreciate the accolades. Indeed, not only is the living novelist forbidden from basking in the refractory glow of a former conquest, they are often haunted by it, forever in its insatiable shadow. One thinks of Ralph Ellison and the irremediable pressure he faced to somehow achieve anything after composing one of the surpassing texts of the 20th century, Invisible Man.)

In any event, one could sense a disappointment, even a petty resentment, in the rather tepid reviews and faint praise that Timequake generated. It was as if the prospect of an author of Vonnegut’s stature declaring, with his faculties intact, that he did not think he had any more novels in him called unaccustomed attention to the evanescent nature of any life. The fact is, Timequake did, in many ways, effectively and gracefully sum up several of the themes and concerns we could clumsily, if accurately call “Vonnegutian”.

If, on the other hand, he had just disappeared after writing Slaughterhouse Five—pulling a willful J.D. Salinger, or an inadvertent Percy Bysshe Shelley or a tedious, haphazard Malcolm Lowry—we would be in more familiar territory, allowed to write our own stories of what might have been. As socially perceptive literary architect, Vonnegut’s body of work simultaneously reflected and defined our times—often with a generous dose of humor, irreverence and buoyant elasticity. Vonnegut often confirmed what we already know (the world is crazy) while finding innovative ways to depict and deconstruct the machinations causing the craziness. He did not hold a mirror up to the world, per se, so much as he provided a blurred distinction between the sensible and the insane, the powerful and the unprotected, between justice and charade, reality and simulation. He understood, in short, that for most of us, our better angels are busy drowning in acculturated gray matter.

While never considered one of the more authoritative literary technicians, Vonnegut nonetheless was a model for clean writing that avoided pretense and overly polished prose. He wrote, directly, about concepts and chaos that are anything but simple to understand, and even more challenging to describe in a novel. Always with that grouchy finesse, not quite the wizened grandfather, more the wise uncle. Where Mark Twain, with whom he is often compared, could justifiably be accused of occasional crankiness, Vonnegut came off as a curmudgeon (at times) only in interviews; in his fiction his heart was so large and soft the pages are practically wet.

Autobiographical elements abound in Vonnegut’s work, and significantly, he paid the types of dues that were once a bit more obligatory: after the military he labored in a job he detested (working in public relations for General Electric) before managing to support himself, barely, through his writing. Still, his pain was our profit: he had already witnessed enough inanity and atrocity to provide fodder for the obsessions that would inform practically every line he wrote. What Vonnegut made seem effortless is a talent every writer should seek to emulate, and what more writers than you may think do desperately want to imitate: writing books that are embraced by the so-called highbrow and lowbrow readers. Vonnegut established a style that went deep by seeming simple and was disarming by being accessible. Take, for instance, Breakfast of Champions, which features actual drawings (by the author) scattered amongst the action: in just about anyone else’s hands this impertinence would seem distracting, even self-indulgent. Likewise, there is an authorial intrusion late in the novel that perhaps best evinces the dialogic narrative strategy Vonnegut used—mostly to perfection—throughout his work. His novels remain able to make all the copycats who tried to imitate him seem bromidic and drably predictable.

And yet Slaughterhouse Five, like virtually all of Vonnegut’s novels, concerns itself with one of the oldest—and most perplexingly commonplace—human dilemmas: man’s inhumanity to man. But how does one discuss war, violence, insanity, and injustice (for starters) without either preaching or unintentionally trivializing? This was Vonnegut’s special gift, and why the concept of Billy Pilgrim coming “unstuck in time” is revelatory: the author was not using science fiction pyrotechnics to mask an inability to express his ideas directly, he had actually hit upon a means by which he could communicate what our increasingly disjointed world was like to live in. In this way, Billy Pilgrim is everyman even as everything he describes is unlike anything the average reader is likely to have experienced (walking in the snow behind enemy lines, living through the Dresden firebombing, being abducted by aliens, and being taught an entirely different theory of relativity by those aliens, the Tralfamadorians). Vonnegut, of course, was really writing about the ways in which the alienated, often lonely person is affected by the pressure and perversity of life. Never before had hilarity and horror danced on the same page in quite this way. Not surprisingly, people (especially younger people) responded. On the other hand, the fact that Kurt Vonnegut was—and remains—much more popular with college students than adults says more about us than it does about his novels.

Interestingly, the sporadic outer space antics that surface in much of Vonnegut’s early work are, in fact, a prescient strategy of grappling with the very real—if inexplicable—horrors of our world after The Bomb, one of the many ways science fiction was—and remains—well equipped to critique today by projecting where we might be tomorrow. We look to works like Catch-22 that lampoons the military, books like Revolutionary Road or A Fan’s Notes that peel back the noisome carcass of quiet desperation hidden under the sit-com sensibility of the ‘50s, or anything from, for instance, Flannery O’Connor and Charles Bukowski that depict the desperate, the seedy, the unredeemed and mostly the inconspicuous citizens whom nobody otherwise acknowledges. But Kurt Vonnegut, as much as any single writer, connected these copious threads, and his collected works comprise a sort of freak flag that flies in the face of complacency, offering an alternative version of the official alibi: he managed to merge the lunacy and the aggression of his time in a broth of brio and vulnerability that could literally make you cackle and weep, all at once. In this regard, his writing is very much connected to the 20th Century, yet it is unlikely to lose its immediacy or relevance since it deals with the same problems that plagued us before he lived and will remain with us, long after we are gone.

So it goes.

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Time is on Their Side: The Stones Turn 50 (or, Get Yer Blah-Blahs Out…)

There they go again.

I’ve got nothing. Full marks to any act that is able, much less willing, to strut around the stage after doing it on and off for half a century.

I like to tell the story about seeing them in 1989, fall of my sophomore year in college (I was 19; or put in a different context, more time has passed in my life since then). I told my semi-skeptical buddy “We have to go. What are the chances we’ll ever be able to see them again?”

Ha, ha, right?

But Living Colour was on the bill, and that was the extra incentive I needed. Also, this was the last days of an old-fashioned era when you could actually buy (or buy scalped) tickets without getting a second job. It was, in short, an era when a broke-ass college kid and his roommate could roll up to RFK Stadium with neither tickets nor a clue, and score, as expected.

The show itself? Eh. Of course, this is coming from a dude who thought the footage from the ’81 tour was lackluster. (There are a mere handful of rock acts who can still crush it, consistently, in a live setting after the age 40, and The Stones, for my money, are not in that category. That said, last night’s gig is getting mostly solid reviews, so good for everyone involved.)

It’s almost enough to make a younger lad forget the band once owned the joint when they strolled on stage. Almost.

As such, since they have neither burned out nor faded away, I’ll give the devils their due (but no sympathy) and as they continue to cackle and stagger all the way to the bank, the rest of us can remember the better days. (From the PopMatters review, 11/09, HERE.)

The Greatest Rock & Roll Band in The World: Liver Than They’ll Ever Be

Best live album ever?

Who cares. What is beyond dispute is that 1970’s Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out is certainly the best live album the Rolling Stones ever recorded. And here we are, 40 years after the concerts took place in NYC at Madison Square Garden. World’s Greatest Band + World’s Greatest Stage = Deluxe Box Set! What are we looking at here? The original, remastered album? Check. Six unreleased tracks? Check. Bonus disc of opening acts B.B. King and Ike & Tina Turner? Check. Bonus DVD mixing live songs and offstage antics? Check. Obligatory booklet with critical essays and never-before seen photos? Check. Caveat emptor: for anyone thinking of shelling out $40-to-$60, be warned that the extra Stones material and the DVD are both less than 30 minutes in length. For Stones enthusiasts, this newly unearthed bounty is essential and price should be no object.

Let’s leave aside the sociopolitical implications of whether or not the ‘60s effectively ended at Altamont. The conventional shorthand analysis posits that the decade died the moment that unfortunate 18-year-old was stabbed to death by a member of Hell’s Angels while the band played on. Revisionist historians will always have a tough time selling the fact that Woodstock—an event only a few months old at this point—signaled the full flowering of Flower Power, and yet the Altamont tragedy slammed that door forever shut. The Stones, of course, did not make it to Woodstock (they were not, in fact, invited). And so there is more than a little symmetry here: the band some considered too incendiary to take part in the festival upstate went ahead and claimed New York City, then closed the book on the decade a week later in California. Or something.

 

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Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! (and the subsequent Altamont concert, as well as the corresponding footage captured for posterity in the documentary Gimme Shelter) showcase the band stepping into the spotlight and becoming the undisputed alpha dogs of rock and roll. The Stones did more than fill the considerable void left by the dissolution of the Beatles; they were putting the finishing touches on a full-circle consummation of the British invasion—that musical and cultural phenomenon both these bands helped engineer. To appreciate how far the music had come in less than a decade, consider the formula for some of their earliest hit singles: ambitious, if tentative imitations of songs (most famous, some not) by Americans (some white, most not). More so than any other band (except possibly the Animals), the Rolling Stones were infatuated with American blues music. This is played out, in a literal sense, courtesy of the two distinctly uncommercial blues tunes they chose to perform. “Prodigal Son” (covered on Beggars Banquet and featured during this tour) and “You Gotta Move” (played on the tour and included on the subsequent Sticky Fingers) are respectful nods to their elders as well as confident statements of purpose. The band had found its voice, but was unafraid—and quite willing—to celebrate the milestones that made their music possible.

By the time Mick and the boys, who had taken to calling themselves—without a trace of irony—the greatest rock and roll band in the world, took the stage at MSG in November 1969, they were smack in the middle of that unprecedented (and possibly unrivaled) stretch of studio albums. On Beggars Banquet (1968) and Let It Bleed (1969) the band had convincingly incorporated certain elements of the blues idiom but, crucially, transmuted their influences and aspirations into potent material that blended danger and abandon. And attitude. No matter how hip John Lennon was, or how earnest Paul McCartney tried not to be, there was no question that those two cared; they wanted—and likely needed—approval (from the world; from each other, and the perceived lack thereof did more than anything else to split up the band). The Stones, on the other hand, presented the image that they could care less. Even if it was a calculated stance (and in fairness, we are talking about Mick Jagger, a man who never met a camera or mirror he did not court), it was convincing. And irresistible.

Having wallowed (quite purposefully) in the deep, dark blues on Beggars Banquet, the group lived the blues following the death of original member Brian Jones. That they were able to respond and deliver an album as rich and revelatory as Let It Bleed says more than a little about the resolve and focus the boys were radiating circa 1969. Indeed, the silver lining—artistically—in Jones’ departure (he was asked to leave the band shortly before his death) is the recruitment of guitarist Mick Taylor. If anything, Taylor augmented the band’s sound (this should not to be mistaken as a slight to Jones, whose contributions, at least through 1968, were considerable—but his drug use and personal problems had eventually made him a distraction who brought little to the table). All of a sudden, the band had a hungry, talented young guitarist who was quite comfortable playing blues and rock (indeed, he was recruited from John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers). This paid immediate dividends in the studio and significantly burnished the band’s live sound.

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The music recorded for Ya-Ya’s traces the artistic path they’d been blazing, but it also anticipated the next two masterpieces: Sticky Fingers (1971) and, of course, Exile on Main Street (1972). With one foot in the past, represented by the band’s loving (and rollicking) covers of lesser-known Chuck Berry tunes, and one foot already in the next decade, evidenced by the nuanced renderings of recent and older original material, the Stones were an unstoppable force. They were also, like the Beatles before them, tinkering with the mechanics and possibilities of what rock music could be. Or, more to the point, what it needed to be in order to remain vital. The countrified vibe of “Let It Bleed” and “Country Honk” would continue to evolve on songs like “Wild Horses” and “Dead Flowers”. The urgent synthesis of old-school blues with raw-nerve rock demonstrated on “Gimme Shelter”, “Jigsaw Puzzle” and “Midnight Rambler” would further ripen on songs such as “Sway” and “Sister Morphine”.

So there they were, in November 1969, about to cement their status as the band. In a quintessentially New York City moment, the DVD shows pre-concert footage outside Madison Square Garden, where the billboard states: Today: the Rolling Stones. TOMW: Rangers. SUN: Knicks. Welcome to the Big Apple, baby. The camera catches the band exiting the limousine and they file into the arena one by one, a procession brought up from the rear by none other than Jimi Hendrix. It’s a moment that will make you do a double-take, and quickly rewind, as if to say “Was that really?” It is, really.

The set list is a solid representation of oldies (“I’m Free”, “Under My Thumb”) and cuts from the album their tour was promoting (“Live with Me”, “Love in Vain”) and recent singles (“Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, “Honky Tonk Women”). From the first notes of the first song, that heavier sound is in full effect: without an acoustic guitar softening the playful edges, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”—grounded in Watts and Wyman’s wonderfully sludgy rhythm section—is dark and decidedly unflashy. Jagger, the consummate frontman, has the audience eating out of his palm immediately, as he playfully announces that he has busted a button on his trousers: “You don’t want my trousers to fall down now do ya?” After the obligatory squeal from the crowd, the band launches into Chuck Berry’s “Carol”. This version sounds more deliberate and dirty than their early single (one can hear the formulation of a sound that would be splattered all over Sticky Fingers), and the boys are fully locked in. Next is a dense (but not sloppy) reading of “Stray Cat Blues”, followed by a plaintive take on “Love In Vain”: the unvarnished agony of the originals is augmented by Richards and Taylor’s twin-guitar assault. (It’s difficult not to feel nostalgic here, appreciating the dutiful silence of the crowd: this is indeed a document from better days when people employed their ears and eyes and not their mouths at live shows.)

And then comes the centerpiece, which elevates these proceedings above and beyond even the best live albums by almost all other contenders. A snare drum roll and an electric guitar strummed as if being wound up, with a quick harmonica blast, and the singer’s opening salvo: I’m-a talkin’ bout the midnight rambler, everybody got to go… The version on Let It Bleed is an uncanny tour de force: it frightens, it stalks, and by the end, it exhausts. Against all probability, each of these elements are improved upon in this live take (and if, understandably, you are inclined to wonder how it’s even possible to improve upon the verb “stalk” or what on earth a verb is doing being invoked in the service of a rock song… just cue this one up, again). The Let It Bleed version is like a wrenching documentary about a serial killer; the live version is that psychopath kicking down your bedroom door. And more than that, this is what makes Mick—and the band—so inimitable: it is raunchy, it is spooky; it’s also sexy and intoxicating. Listen to those women (and men) in the crowd. When the band slows down the freight train (Wyman and Watts, again, are in very fine form), Mick’s muted, feral harmonica honks sound at once guttural and ecstatic, while his vocals blend braggadocio and intimidation. Some folks in the crowd think the song is over and begin applauding. Sit back down suckers. When Jagger toys with them, scoffing “Honey, it’s not one of those”, he is the crafty spider catching several thousand ecstatic flies. These nine minutes represent the closest any rock band came to sounding like Slim Harpo and Howlin’ Wolf. No other band could, and no other band ever tried.

Amusingly, a young lady toward the front, unconvinced, oblivious or ready for the coup de grace, asks for more. “Paint it black, you devil!” Right on cue, the band descends directly into the belly of the beast, firing up “Sympathy for the Devil”. Like “Midnight Rambler”, it is difficult to imagine this song being successfully rendered live. Unlike “Midnight Rambler”, this version does not surpass the original (how could it?) but it is a spirited and successful attempt. After an accelerated rendition of “Live with Me”, the group fires up its second Chuck Berry offering, a brilliantly measured deconstruction of “Little Queenie”. Once again, elements of the deceptively sloppy but confidently narcotic sound that permeated their next two albums are on delightful display: you can hear embryonic snatches of Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street throughout.

A faithful run-through of “Honky Tonk Women” is followed by a crisp, guitar-heavy rendering of “Street Fighting Man”. The bonus disc includes similarly professional interpretations of “Satisfaction”, “I’m Free” and “Under My Thumb” (the latter being an especially effective showcase for Jagger’s distinctly laconic vocals). The real gems are the two mid-set acoustic numbers, “Prodigal Son” and “You Gotta Move”. It’s nice to hear, but it’s incredible to watch (once again, these additions will be worth the price of admission for any Stones enthusiast). The DVD’s five tracks match the unreleased tracks on the CD, but the DVD has some hilarious footage of Mick cajoling the stoic Charlie Watts to sit astride a donkey in the freezing cold for a photo shoot. During the concert, both Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin can be seen (Joplin bopping behind stage and Hendrix rapping with Keith Richards in the dressing room). At the end, The Stones find themselves stuck on the tarmac with The Grateful Dead, waiting for their tardy plane. It’s awesome, but also somber to see these three deceased legends, two of whom would not survive the following year.

Finally, the real bonus must be the CD featuring B.B. King, followed by Ike & Tina Turner. In 1969, B.B. was already easing into elder statesman status and not quite the lean and mean machine featured on Live at the Regal (speaking of all-time great live albums). This is nevertheless a thoroughly enjoyable, if abbreviated set, and there is something genuine and beautiful about B.B. being on the bill at all. The Stones, like their British brethren, borrowed extensively from these blues gods; The Stones, perhaps more than any other band, went out of their way to pay tribute and share the love. The set from Ike & Tina is no slouch either, and it’s instructive to recall what a ball of fire Tina was back in the day. The band is real tight, offering supremely satisfactory versions of “Proud Mary”, “Son of a Preacher Man” and “Come Together”(!). But the highlight has to be Tina’s powerhouse performance of Otis Redding’s classic “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”.

So, once again, the question of the day: best concert ever?

Well, taken in context—and considering the inclusion of both opening acts—it does not seem inappropriate to suggest that this represents as good a live performance as one could reasonably imagine. Put another way, wouldn’t you have given more than a little to have been there that night? Unless the possibility of time travel is perfected, this is the closest we’ll ever come.

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So It Goes: Reflections on Kurt Vonnegut (Five Years Later)

April, 2007.

Kurt Vonnegut would say in speeches that a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit. Often, he was asked: Have any artists successfully accomplished this? “The Beatles did”, he replied.

Vonnegut, whom time finally stuck to last week, lived a lot longer than he thought he would. For fans, he lived longer than many of them thought he would, too. Most of his avid readers have been preparing for his death, in earnest, since his suicide attempt in 1984. As it turned out, there were many more Pall Malls left to smoke. Then, in 1997, the author’s caliginous assertion that Timequake was to be his last novel did seem rather like a settling of accounts.

Fortunately, there was still time to tend to some unfinished business, and for another decade he would clean out the proverbial closets and compile the essays found in A Man Without a Country. He managed to remain active, and indignant, right up to the end, most recently sounding off on the idiocy of the Iraq misadventure. That the current administration caused him to consider Nixon in a fonder light speaks volumes of Vonnegut’s sensibility, and needs no elaboration. To be certain, Vonnegut made many people appreciate being alive more than a little bit; indeed, his greatest achievement may have been helping some people realize that they were alive, with his body of work that at once admonishes us to question reality and, whenever possible, to enjoy the ride.

And yet, Vonnegut was, in critical terms, on borrowed time pretty much for the duration after the unanticipated—and unimaginable—success of Slaughterhouse Five in 1969. The good news: maybe about five writers per half-century write defining texts that they can be certain, while they are still alive, will live on after them. The bad news: having to live with that (and never achieving that height again) while still trying to write new novels. That is to say, it is all but impossible for an author to impress anyone—his readers, the critics paid to write about what he has written, and mostly, himself—after composing a masterpiece in the middle of his life. The only thing more arduous is the incessant hangover of dread and expectation awaiting the novelist who knocks off a tour de force right out of the gate. Suffice it to say, Slaughterhouse Five proved to be a line in the literary sand he could never jump across (and not many other authors have either, for that matter), although he came as close as anyone should have reasonably hoped with Breakfast of Champions , a book that looked forward from World War II and its aftermath to the here and now of a country confronted by new concerns, such as Watergate, and more of the same old problems, like growing old and dying. That book, from 1973, if written by anyone else, could constitute a career. It’s not even unreasonable to imagine that, if Vonnegut had never parked himself in front of a typewriter after 1963, Cat’s Cradle would garner even more attention and receive more accolades than it already does.

(Too often, it seems, we are either celebrating artists too late, or we coronate the unworthy too early. It is not as complicated with our athletes when they retire: it’s generally a buoyant affair, with the extended goodwill of a swan song season, complete with gifts, accolades and standing ovations. Sure, there is some sadness in seeing a great performer leave the limelight, but the more famous the athlete is, the easier the transition to sanctified superstar afterlife. They are allowed (and perhaps entitled) to assume membership in an elite fraternity that never expires. Theirs is the glory to unrepentantly live in the past, invoke (even embellish) former flights of fancy, and generally rest on the laurels established in their youth.

With artists—novelists in particular—there are a completely different set of standards and expectations. The only ones at liberty to soar on the effulgent wings of yesterday’s triumph are those who have died, which renders them largely unable to appreciate the accolades. Indeed, not only is the living novelist forbidden from basking in the refractory glow of a former conquest, they are often haunted by it, forever in its insatiable shadow. One thinks of Ralph Ellison and the irremediable pressure he faced to somehow achieve anything after composing one of the surpassing texts of the 20th century, Invisible Man.)

In any event, one could sense a disappointment, even a petty resentment, in the rather tepid reviews and faint praise that Timequake generated. It was as if the prospect of an author of Vonnegut’s stature declaring, with his faculties intact, that he did not think he had any more novels in him called unaccustomed attention to the evanescent nature of any life. The fact is, Timequake did, in many ways, effectively and gracefully sum up several of the themes and concerns we could clumsily, if accurately call “Vonnegutian”.

If, on the other hand, he had just disappeared after writing Slaughterhouse Five—pulling a willful J.D. Salinger, or an inadvertent Percy Bysshe Shelley or a tedious, haphazard Malcolm Lowry—we would be in more familiar territory, allowed to write our own stories of what might have been. As socially perceptive literary architect, Vonnegut’s body of work simultaneously reflected and defined our times—often with a generous dose of humor, irreverence and buoyant elasticity. Vonnegut often confirmed what we already know (the world is crazy) while finding innovative ways to depict and deconstruct the machinations causing the craziness. He did not hold a mirror up to the world, per se, so much as he provided a blurred distinction between the sensible and the insane, the powerful and the unprotected, between justice and charade, reality and simulation. He understood, in short, that for most of us, our better angels are busy drowning in acculturated gray matter.

While never considered one of the more authoritative literary technicians, Vonnegut nonetheless was a model for clean writing that avoided pretense and overly polished prose. He wrote, directly, about concepts and chaos that are anything but simple to understand, and even more challenging to describe in a novel. Always with that grouchy finesse, not quite the wizened grandfather, more the wise uncle. Where Mark Twain, with whom he is often compared, could justifiably be accused of occasional crankiness, Vonnegut came off as a curmudgeon (at times) only in interviews; in his fiction his heart was so large and soft the pages are practically wet.

Autobiographical elements abound in Vonnegut’s work, and significantly, he paid the types of dues that were once a bit more obligatory: after the military he labored in a job he detested (working in public relations for General Electric) before managing to support himself, barely, through his writing. Still, his pain was our profit: he had already witnessed enough inanity and atrocity to provide fodder for the obsessions that would inform practically every line he wrote. What Vonnegut made seem effortless is a talent every writer should seek to emulate, and what more writers than you may think do desperately want to imitate: writing books that are embraced by the so-called highbrow and lowbrow readers. Vonnegut established a style that went deep by seeming simple and was disarming by being accessible. Take, for instance, Breakfast of Champions, which features actual drawings (by the author) scattered amongst the action: in just about anyone else’s hands this impertinence would seem distracting, even self-indulgent. Likewise, there is an authorial intrusion late in the novel that perhaps best evinces the dialogic narrative strategy Vonnegut used—mostly to perfection—throughout his work. His novels remain able to make all the copycats who tried to imitate him seem bromidic and drably predictable.

And yet Slaughterhouse Five, like virtually all of Vonnegut’s novels, concerns itself with one of the oldest—and most perplexingly commonplace—human dilemmas: man’s inhumanity to man. But how does one discuss war, violence, insanity, and injustice (for starters) without either preaching or unintentionally trivializing? This was Vonnegut’s special gift, and why the concept of Billy Pilgrim coming “unstuck in time” is revelatory: the author was not using science fiction pyrotechnics to mask an inability to express his ideas directly, he had actually hit upon a means by which he could communicate what our increasingly disjointed world was like to live in. In this way, Billy Pilgrim is everyman even as everything he describes is unlike anything the average reader is likely to have experienced (walking in the snow behind enemy lines, living through the Dresden firebombing, being abducted by aliens, and being taught an entirely different theory of relativity by those aliens, the Tralfamadorians). Vonnegut, of course, was really writing about the ways in which the alienated, often lonely person is affected by the pressure and perversity of life. Never before had hilarity and horror danced on the same page in quite this way. Not surprisingly, people (especially younger people) responded. On the other hand, the fact that Kurt Vonnegut was—and remains—much more popular with college students than adults says more about us than it does about his novels.

Interestingly, the sporadic outer space antics that surface in much of Vonnegut’s early work are, in fact, a prescient strategy of grappling with the very real—if inexplicable—horrors of our world after The Bomb, one of the many ways science fiction was—and remains—well equipped to critique today by projecting where we might be tomorrow. We look to works like Catch-22 that lampoons the military, books like Revolutionary Road or A Fan’s Notes that peel back the noisome carcass of quiet desperation hidden under the sit-com sensibility of the ‘50s, or anything from, for instance, Flannery O’Connor and Charles Bukowski that depict the desperate, the seedy, the unredeemed and mostly the inconspicuous citizens whom nobody otherwise acknowledges. But Kurt Vonnegut, as much as any single writer, connected these copious threads, and his collected works comprise a sort of freak flag that flies in the face of complacency, offering an alternative version of the official alibi: he managed to merge the lunacy and the aggression of his time in a broth of brio and vulnerability that could literally make you cackle and weep, all at once. In this regard, his writing is very much connected to the 20th Century, yet it is unlikely to lose its immediacy or relevance since it deals with the same problems that plagued us before he lived and will remain with us, long after we are gone.

So it goes.

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So It Goes: Reflections on Kurt Vonnegut (Revisited)

April, 2007.

Kurt Vonnegut would say in speeches that a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit.  Often, he was asked: Have any artists successfully accomplished this? “The Beatles did”, he replied.

Vonnegut, whom time finally stuck to last week, lived a lot longer than he thought he would. For fans, he lived longer than many of them thought he would, too. Most of his avid readers have been preparing for his death, in earnest, since his suicide attempt in 1984. As it turned out, there were many more Pall Malls left to smoke. Then, in 1997, the author’s caliginous assertion that Timequake was to be his last novel did seem rather like a settling of accounts. 

Fortunately, there was still time to tend to some unfinished business, and for another decade he would clean out the proverbial closets and compile the essays found in A Man Without a Country. He managed to remain active, and indignant, right up to the end, most recently sounding off on the idiocy of the Iraq misadventure. That the current administration caused him to consider Nixon in a fonder light speaks volumes of Vonnegut’s sensibility, and needs no elaboration. To be certain, Vonnegut made many people appreciate being alive more than a little bit; indeed, his greatest achievement may have been helping some people realize that they were alive, with his body of work that at once admonishes us to question reality and, whenever possible, to enjoy the ride.

And yet, Vonnegut was, in critical terms, on borrowed time pretty much for the duration after the unanticipated—and unimaginable—success of Slaughterhouse Five in 1969. The good news: maybe about five writers per half-century write defining texts that they can be certain, while they are still alive, will live on after them. The bad news: having to live with that (and never achieving that height again) while still trying to write new novels. That is to say, it is all but impossible for an author to impress anyone—his readers, the critics paid to write about what he has written, and mostly, himself—after composing a masterpiece in the middle of his life. The only thing more arduous is the incessant hangover of dread and expectation awaiting the novelist who knocks off a tour de force right out of the gate. Suffice it to say, Slaughterhouse Five proved to be a line in the literary sand he could never jump across (and not many other authors have either, for that matter), although he came as close as anyone should have reasonably hoped with Breakfast of Champions , a book that looked forward from World War II and its aftermath to the here and now of a country confronted by new concerns, such as Watergate, and more of the same old problems, like growing old and dying. That book, from 1973, if written by anyone else, could constitute a career. It’s not even unreasonable to imagine that, if Vonnegut had never parked himself in front of a typewriter after 1963, Cat’s Cradle would garner even more attention and receive more accolades than it already does.

(Too often, it seems, we are either celebrating artists too late, or we coronate the unworthy too early. It is not as complicated with our athletes when they retire: it’s generally a buoyant affair, with the extended goodwill of a swan song season, complete with gifts, accolades and standing ovations.  Sure, there is some sadness in seeing a great performer leave the limelight, but the more famous the athlete is, the easier the transition to sanctified superstar afterlife.  They are allowed (and perhaps entitled) to assume membership in an elite fraternity that never expires. Theirs is the glory to unrepentantly live in the past, invoke (even embellish) former flights of fancy, and generally rest on the laurels established in their youth.

With artists—novelists in particular—there are a completely different set of standards and expectations. The only ones at liberty to soar on the effulgent wings of yesterday’s triumph are those who have died, which renders them largely unable to appreciate the accolades.  Indeed, not only is the living novelist forbidden from basking in the refractory glow of a former conquest, they are often haunted by it, forever in its insatiable shadow. One thinks of Ralph Ellison and the irremediable pressure he faced to somehow achieve anything after composing one of the surpassing texts of the 20th century, Invisible Man.)

In any event, one could sense a disappointment, even a petty resentment, in the rather tepid reviews and faint praise that Timequake generated.  It was as if the prospect of an author of Vonnegut’s stature declaring, with his faculties intact, that he did not think he had any more novels in him called unaccustomed attention to the evanescent nature of any life. The fact is, Timequake did, in many ways, effectively and gracefully sum up several of the themes and concerns we could clumsily, if accurately call “Vonnegutian”.

If, on the other hand, he had just disappeared after writing Slaughterhouse Five—pulling a willful J.D. Salinger, or an inadvertent Percy Bysshe Shelley or a tedious, haphazard Malcolm Lowry—we would be in more familiar territory, allowed to write our own stories of what might have been. As socially perceptive literary architect, Vonnegut’s body of work simultaneously reflected and defined our times—often with a generous dose of humor, irreverence and buoyant elasticity. Vonnegut often confirmed what we already know (the world is crazy) while finding innovative ways to depict and deconstruct the machinations causing the craziness. He did not hold a mirror up to the world, per se, so much as he provided a blurred distinction between the sensible and the insane, the powerful and the unprotected, between justice and charade, reality and simulation. He understood, in short, that for most of us, our better angels are busy drowning in acculturated gray matter.

While never considered one of the more authoritative literary technicians, Vonnegut nonetheless was a model for clean writing that avoided pretense and overly polished prose. He wrote, directly, about concepts and chaos that are anything but simple to understand, and even more challenging to describe in a novel. Always with that grouchy finesse, not quite the wizened grandfather, more the wise uncle. Where Mark Twain, with whom he is often compared, could justifiably be accused of occasional crankiness, Vonnegut came off as a curmudgeon (at times) only in interviews; in his fiction his heart was so large and soft the pages are practically wet.

Autobiographical elements abound in Vonnegut’s work, and significantly, he paid the types of dues that were once a bit more obligatory: after the military he labored in a job he detested (working in public relations for General Electric) before managing to support himself, barely, through his writing. Still, his pain was our profit: he had already witnessed enough inanity and atrocity to provide fodder for the obsessions that would inform practically every line he wrote. What Vonnegut made seem effortless is a talent every writer should seek to emulate, and what more writers than you may think do desperately want to imitate: writing books that are embraced by the so-called highbrow and lowbrow readers. Vonnegut established a style that went deep by seeming simple and was disarming by being accessible. Take, for instance, Breakfast of Champions, which features actual drawings (by the author) scattered amongst the action: in just about anyone else’s hands this impertinence would seem distracting, even self-indulgent. Likewise, there is an authorial intrusion late in the novel that perhaps best evinces the dialogic narrative strategy Vonnegut used—mostly to perfection—throughout his work. His novels remain able to make all the copycats who tried to imitate him seem bromidic and drably predictable.

And yet Slaughterhouse Five, like virtually all of Vonnegut’s novels, concerns itself with one of the oldest—and most perplexingly commonplace—human dilemmas: man’s inhumanity to man. But how does one discuss war, violence, insanity, and injustice (for starters) without either preaching or unintentionally trivializing? This was Vonnegut’s special gift, and why the concept of Billy Pilgrim coming “unstuck in time” is revelatory: the author was not using science fiction pyrotechnics to mask an inability to express his ideas directly, he had actually hit upon a means by which he could communicate what our increasingly disjointed world was like to live in. In this way, Billy Pilgrim is everyman even as everything he describes is unlike anything the average reader is likely to have experienced (walking in the snow behind enemy lines, living through the Dresden firebombing, being abducted by aliens, and being taught an entirely different theory of relativity by those aliens, the Tralfamadorians). Vonnegut, of course, was really writing about the ways in which the alienated, often lonely person is affected by the pressure and perversity of life. Never before had hilarity and horror danced on the same page in quite this way. Not surprisingly, people (especially younger people) responded. On the other hand, the fact that Kurt Vonnegut was—and remains—much more popular with college students than adults says more about us than it does about his novels.

Interestingly, the sporadic outer space antics that surface in much of Vonnegut’s early work are, in fact, a prescient strategy of grappling with the very real—if inexplicable—horrors of our world after The Bomb, one of the many ways science fiction was—and remains—well equipped to critique today by projecting where we might be tomorrow. We look to works like Catch-22 that lampoons the military, books like Revolutionary Road or A Fan’s Notes that peel back the noisome carcass of quiet desperation hidden under the sit-com sensibility of the ‘50s, or anything from, for instance, Flannery O’Connor and Charles Bukowski that depict the desperate, the seedy, the unredeemed and mostly the inconspicuous citizens whom nobody otherwise acknowledges. But Kurt Vonnegut, as much as any single writer, connected these copious threads, and his collected works comprise a sort of freak flag that flies in the face of complacency, offering an alternative version of the official alibi: he managed to merge the lunacy and the aggression of his time in a broth of brio and vulnerability that could literally make you cackle and weep, all at once. In this regard, his writing is very much connected to the 20th Century, yet it is unlikely to lose its immediacy or relevance since it deals with the same problems that plagued us before he lived and will remain with us, long after we are gone.

So it goes.

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The Greatest Rock & Roll Band in The World: Liver Than They’ll Ever Be

 

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Best live album ever?

Who cares. What is beyond dispute is that 1970’s Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out is certainly the best live album the Rolling Stones ever recorded. And here we are, 40 years after the concerts took place in NYC at Madison Square Garden. World’s Greatest Band + World’s Greatest Stage = Deluxe Box Set! What are we looking at here? The original, remastered album? Check. Six unreleased tracks? Check. Bonus disc of opening acts B.B. King and Ike & Tina Turner? Check. Bonus DVD mixing live songs and offstage antics? Check. Obligatory booklet with critical essays and never-before seen photos? Check. Caveat emptor: for anyone thinking of shelling out $40-to-$60, be warned that the extra Stones material and the DVD are both less than 30 minutes in length. For Stones enthusiasts, this newly unearthed bounty is essential and price should be no object.

Let’s leave aside the sociopolitical implications of whether or not the ‘60s effectively ended at Altamont. The conventional shorthand analysis posits that the decade died the moment that unfortunate 18-year-old was stabbed to death by a member of Hell’s Angels while the band played on. Revisionist historians will always have a tough time selling the fact that Woodstock—an event only a few months old at this point—signaled the full flowering of Flower Power, and yet the Altamont tragedy slammed that door forever shut. The Stones, of course, did not make it to Woodstock (they were not, in fact, invited). And so there is more than a little symmetry here: the band some considered too incendiary to take part in the festival upstate went ahead and claimed New York City, then closed the book on the decade a week later in California. Or something.

 

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Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! (and the subsequent Altamont concert, as well as the corresponding footage captured for posterity in the documentary Gimme Shelter) showcase the band stepping into the spotlight and becoming the undisputed alpha dogs of rock and roll. The Stones did more than fill the considerable void left by the dissolution of the Beatles; they were putting the finishing touches on a full-circle consummation of the British invasion—that musical and cultural phenomenon both these bands helped engineer. To appreciate how far the music had come in less than a decade, consider the formula for some of their earliest hit singles: ambitious, if tentative imitations of songs (most famous, some not) by Americans (some white, most not). More so than any other band (except possibly the Animals), the Rolling Stones were infatuated with American blues music. This is played out, in a literal sense, courtesy of the two distinctly uncommercial blues tunes they chose to perform. “Prodigal Son” (covered on Beggars Banquet and featured during this tour) and “You Gotta Move” (played on the tour and included on the subsequent Sticky Fingers) are respectful nods to their elders as well as confident statements of purpose. The band had found its voice, but was unafraid—and quite willing—to celebrate the milestones that made their music possible.

By the time Mick and the boys, who had taken to calling themselves—without a trace of irony—the greatest rock and roll band in the world, took the stage at MSG in November 1969, they were smack in the middle of that unprecedented (and possibly unrivaled) stretch of studio albums. On Beggars Banquet (1968) and Let It Bleed (1969) the band had convincingly incorporated certain elements of the blues idiom but, crucially, transmuted their influences and aspirations into potent material that blended danger and abandon. And attitude. No matter how hip John Lennon was, or how earnest Paul McCartney tried not to be, there was no question that those two cared; they wanted—and likely needed—approval (from the world; from each other, and the perceived lack thereof did more than anything else to split up the band). The Stones, on the other hand, presented the image that they could care less. Even if it was a calculated stance (and in fairness, we are talking about Mick Jagger, a man who never met a camera or mirror he did not court), it was convincing. And irresistible.

Having wallowed (quite purposefully) in the deep, dark blues on Beggars Banquet, the group lived the blues following the death of original member Brian Jones. That they were able to respond and deliver an album as rich and revelatory as Let It Bleed says more than a little about the resolve and focus the boys were radiating circa 1969. Indeed, the silver lining—artistically—in Jones’ departure (he was asked to leave the band shortly before his death) is the recruitment of guitarist Mick Taylor. If anything, Taylor augmented the band’s sound (this should not to be mistaken as a slight to Jones, whose contributions, at least through 1968, were considerable—but his drug use and personal problems had eventually made him a distraction who brought little to the table). All of a sudden, the band had a hungry, talented young guitarist who was quite comfortable playing blues and rock (indeed, he was recruited from John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers). This paid immediate dividends in the studio and significantly burnished the band’s live sound.

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The music recorded for Ya-Ya’s traces the artistic path they’d been blazing, but it also anticipated the next two masterpieces: Sticky Fingers (1971) and, of course, Exile on Main Street (1972). With one foot in the past, represented by the band’s loving (and rollicking) covers of lesser-known Chuck Berry tunes, and one foot already in the next decade, evidenced by the nuanced renderings of recent and older original material, the Stones were an unstoppable force. They were also, like the Beatles before them, tinkering with the mechanics and possibilities of what rock music could be. Or, more to the point, what it needed to be in order to remain vital. The countrified vibe of “Let It Bleed” and “Country Honk” would continue to evolve on songs like “Wild Horses” and “Dead Flowers”. The urgent synthesis of old-school blues with raw-nerve rock demonstrated on “Gimme Shelter”, “Jigsaw Puzzle” and “Midnight Rambler” would further ripen on songs such as “Sway” and “Sister Morphine”.

So there they were, in November 1969, about to cement their status as the band. In a quintessentially New York City moment, the DVD shows pre-concert footage outside Madison Square Garden, where the billboard states: Today: the Rolling Stones. TOMW: Rangers. SUN: Knicks. Welcome to the Big Apple, baby. The camera catches the band exiting the limousine and they file into the arena one by one, a procession brought up from the rear by none other than Jimi Hendrix. It’s a moment that will make you do a double-take, and quickly rewind, as if to say “Was that really?” It is, really.

The set list is a solid representation of oldies (“I’m Free”, “Under My Thumb”) and cuts from the album their tour was promoting (“Live with Me”, “Love in Vain”) and recent singles (“Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, “Honky Tonk Women”). From the first notes of the first song, that heavier sound is in full effect: without an acoustic guitar softening the playful edges, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”—grounded in Watts and Wyman’s wonderfully sludgy rhythm section—is dark and decidedly unflashy. Jagger, the consummate frontman, has the audience eating out of his palm immediately, as he playfully announces that he has busted a button on his trousers: “You don’t want my trousers to fall down now do ya?” After the obligatory squeal from the crowd, the band launches into Chuck Berry’s “Carol”. This version sounds more deliberate and dirty than their early single (one can hear the formulation of a sound that would be splattered all over Sticky Fingers), and the boys are fully locked in. Next is a dense (but not sloppy) reading of “Stray Cat Blues”, followed by a plaintive take on “Love In Vain”: the unvarnished agony of the originals is augmented by Richards and Taylor’s twin-guitar assault. (It’s difficult not to feel nostalgic here, appreciating the dutiful silence of the crowd: this is indeed a document from better days when people employed their ears and eyes and not their mouths at live shows.)

And then comes the centerpiece, which elevates these proceedings above and beyond even the best live albums by almost all other contenders. A snare drum roll and an electric guitar strummed as if being wound up, with a quick harmonica blast, and the singer’s opening salvo: I’m-a talkin’ bout the midnight rambler, everybody got to go… The version on Let It Bleed is an uncanny tour de force: it frightens, it stalks, and by the end, it exhausts. Against all probability, each of these elements are improved upon in this live take (and if, understandably, you are inclined to wonder how it’s even possible to improve upon the verb “stalk” or what on earth a verb is doing being invoked in the service of a rock song… just cue this one up, again). The Let It Bleed version is like a wrenching documentary about a serial killer; the live version is that psychopath kicking down your bedroom door. And more than that, this is what makes Mick—and the band—so inimitable: it is raunchy, it is spooky; it’s also sexy and intoxicating. Listen to those women (and men) in the crowd. When the band slows down the freight train (Wyman and Watts, again, are in very fine form), Mick’s muted, feral harmonica honks sound at once guttural and ecstatic, while his vocals blend braggadocio and intimidation. Some folks in the crowd think the song is over and begin applauding. Sit back down suckers. When Jagger toys with them, scoffing “Honey, it’s not one of those”, he is the crafty spider catching several thousand ecstatic flies. These nine minutes represent the closest any rock band came to sounding like Slim Harpo and Howlin’ Wolf. No other band could, and no other band ever tried.

Amusingly, a young lady toward the front, unconvinced, oblivious or ready for the coup de grace, asks for more. “Paint it black, you devil!” Right on cue, the band descends directly into the belly of the beast, firing up “Sympathy for the Devil”. Like “Midnight Rambler”, it is difficult to imagine this song being successfully rendered live. Unlike “Midnight Rambler”, this version does not surpass the original (how could it?) but it is a spirited and successful attempt. After an accelerated rendition of “Live with Me”, the group fires up its second Chuck Berry offering, a brilliantly measured deconstruction of “Little Queenie”. Once again, elements of the deceptively sloppy but confidently narcotic sound that permeated their next two albums are on delightful display: you can hear embryonic snatches of Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street throughout.

A faithful run-through of “Honky Tonk Women” is followed by a crisp, guitar-heavy rendering of “Street Fighting Man”. The bonus disc includes similarly professional interpretations of “Satisfaction”, “I’m Free” and “Under My Thumb” (the latter being an especially effective showcase for Jagger’s distinctly laconic vocals). The real gems are the two mid-set acoustic numbers, “Prodigal Son” and “You Gotta Move”. It’s nice to hear, but it’s incredible to watch (once again, these additions will be worth the price of admission for any Stones enthusiast). The DVD’s five tracks match the unreleased tracks on the CD, but the DVD has some hilarious footage of Mick cajoling the stoic Charlie Watts to sit astride a donkey in the freezing cold for a photo shoot. During the concert, both Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin can be seen (Joplin bopping behind stage and Hendrix rapping with Keith Richards in the dressing room). At the end, The Stones find themselves stuck on the tarmac with The Grateful Dead, waiting for their tardy plane. It’s awesome, but also somber to see these three deceased legends, two of whom would not survive the following year.

Finally, the real bonus must be the CD featuring B.B. King, followed by Ike & Tina Turner. In 1969, B.B. was already easing into elder statesman status and not quite the lean and mean machine featured on Live at the Regal (speaking of all-time great live albums). This is nevertheless a thoroughly enjoyable, if abbreviated set, and there is something genuine and beautiful about B.B. being on the bill at all. The Stones, like their British brethren, borrowed extensively from these blues gods; The Stones, perhaps more than any other band, went out of their way to pay tribute and share the love. The set from Ike & Tina is no slouch either, and it’s instructive to recall what a ball of fire Tina was back in the day. The band is real tight, offering supremely satisfactory versions of “Proud Mary”, “Son of a Preacher Man” and “Come Together”(!). But the highlight has to be Tina’s powerhouse performance of Otis Redding’s classic “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”.

So, once again, the question of the day: best concert ever?

Well, taken in context—and considering the inclusion of both opening acts—it does not seem inappropriate to suggest that this represents as good a live performance as one could reasonably imagine. Put another way, wouldn’t you have given more than a little to have been there that night? Unless the possibility of time travel is perfected, this is the closest we’ll ever come.

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August 26, 2002: Remembering My Mother in Music

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Blogs are, or can be, like diaries.

Except that diaries, by nature, are private. Which begs the question: do people who blog censor or soften the observations, complaints or critiques that in other times would exist inside a document designed to remain unread by others? (Or more to the point, should they?) To be certain, only a few years ago, thoughts like the ones I’m about to express would have been safely ensconced inside a journal, not read by anyone else, even including myself (I don’t often return to old journals, hopefully because I’m too busy living in the here and now). And for whatever it’s worth, I am humble enough to know that small numbers of people visit this blog, and I have enough sense (or self-respect) to instinctively acknowledge that nobody is well served by overly earnest airing of personal trivia.

Put another way, I don’t begrudge anyone else documenting every last detail of their existences (no matter how mundane or mawkish); I simply remain uninterested in reading about it. In that regard, blogs are self-regulating: if you don’t write things that others will find interesting, you won’t have an audience. And who cares anyway? In that regard, blogs are like diaries: people post on them because they want to, or need to, and the concept of friends or strangers reading their innermost thoughts won’t necessarily hamper their willingness to compose. Still, only the sensation-seekers looking for notoriety (usually the already famous, and even those folks have a shelf-life of about six months) go out of their way to wax solipsistic in a public forum.

When it comes to the death of my mother, I of course have meditated on the loss privately and publically, and anyone who knows me (or reads this blog) understands that her life and death are an unequivocal component of my ongoing existence. Nothing remarkable about that, really: it is what it is. I am not alone; in fact, one need not suffer the untimely death of a parent to understand that their presence is inextricable from one’s own. That said, it’s not because my feelings or experiences are unique, but because they are the opposite that I have little compunction sharing some thoughts on this plaintive anniversary. Indeed, for me these occasions are much more a celebration of her life (and her unambiguously positive influence in my life) than any sort of disconsolate meditation on death. It is what it is.

 

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As I have mentioned in other pieces (most recently on my birthday), one of my earliest and most positive memories of art and discovery is associated with my mother: listening to Nutcracker Suite and drawing pictures. Tchaikovsky has a real Proust-like effect on me (and, I suspect, a great many grown-ups who have indelible memories of the Nutcracker or Fantasia, or both), but on a purely aesthetic level it is like Bizet’s Carmen: I can (and do) enjoy it on purely musical terms. Moreover, I prefer it that way (and having seen my share of holiday performances and the opportunity to enjoy a full performance of Carmen, I’m happy to have those experiences and need not go there again). Anyway, there are more than a handful of favorite moments (coincidentally or not, conductor Fritz Reiner’s version from 1960 is the first compact disc I ever purchased, in 1986), but the one that gets me every time is the sombre yet majestic “Coffee: Arabian Dance”.

 

There’s no shame in my game. I cannot deny my past and the fact of the matter is, back in the ’70s I thought Jesus Christ Superstar was pretty awesome. Moms, sis and I knew this one by heart (at least Side A of the 8-Track, which received heavy airplay in the Ford Grenada). This was in the pre-Kiss and post Fantasia time period, and of course before I discovered the original “rock opera” Tommy (not the last time ALW would be influenced by a rock band). In any event, this was my first and last dalliance with Andrew Lloyd Webber and while I can hardly stomach it now, oh how I loved it then. And you know what? A handful of moments are still worth reliving.

 

I’ve also alluded to the fact that we worshipped at the altar of the White Album, and we’d listen to the cassette (taped from the original double record) constantly in the car. Our favorite singalong was (obviously) “Rocky Raccoon”, but one of my favorites that I can never hear, now, without thinking of my mother and those million car rides is another great song by McCartney, “Mother Nature’s Son”:

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It was pretty cool to watch movies with my mom, who was much more lenient than Pops when it came to the Rated R ones. One we watched many times (which I haven’t seen in ages and suspect I’d like much less now) was The Big Chill. Of course, the soundtrack was ubiquitous at that time and did for Motown what soundtracks like O Brother, Where Art Thou? did for bluegrass and Goodfellas did for oldies (or at least Tony Bennett). It’s silly to contemplate now, but it was almost a novelty to hear Smokey Robinson and The Temptations in the very arid early years of the ’80s. Indelible baby steps for an impressionable young honky:

Beethoven. I’ve spoken often in regards to my worship of Ludwig Van. Everyone encounters the symphonies first, but once I latched onto the piano sonatas, that was it. It still is. I’m not sure if I ever succeeded in getting my mother to really appreciate the immortal  Mondschein, but she at least tolerated how often it was played during the late ’80s and early ’90s in her house. Since I’ve already thrown Barenboim a bone, I’d like to give props to Freddy Kempf’s superlative rendition of one of the truly sublime compositions ever written:

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The other great discovery and love of my life around this time was Bob Marley: kind of like Beethoven and the symphonies, it’s impossible to have ears and not be exposed to Legend at some point in high school or college. When the amazing Songs of Freedom (by far the best box set of all time) came into my life during grad school I latched onto it like a remora. This career-spanning set opened a large door wide on Marley’s music (particularly the mostly unknown, and remarkable, work from the late ’60s and very early ’70s), and eventually, reggae. Moms needed no convincing, she formed her own deep love and appreciation for Marley and would sing his songs on my answering machine. Suffice it to say, our shared love of the great man is one of the very special bonds in my musical and spiritual life.

I think she saw pretty quickly that I was going to be a special case, and there is little doubt that regardless of anyone’s opinion, I was off and running early on, and little could come between me and music. Nevertheless, her encouragement (from Kiss to The Beatles to The Doors all the way through classical and then jazz) was generous, ceaseless and always appreciated. It’s kind of neat to consider that a CD she originally bought for me my senior year of college (when I explained to her that it was very important for both my studies and my sanity to procure this album) is one I wrote about almost twenty years later. I can’t think of a more beautiful song from a more perfect album to commemorate my gratitude.

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Not too much needs to be said by way of introduction to Jimi Hendrix, but my mother definitely dug some of his (less experimental? more accessible?) work. This one was, and is, a no brainer: a song he wrote about his mother (who passed away when he was ten years old): “Angel”:

August 27, 2002 was the first day of the rest of our lives. Anyone who has lost a loved one will recall (or half-reall) the blur of events that come after, all of which are a blessing in the disguise of distraction. I did a lot of driving: driving from father’s house to my place, from funeral home to father’s place, to the airport to pick up relatives. The emotions and sensations would become overwhelming at times, and there are those awful moments when you wonder how you can possibly find peace or make sense of anything ever again. During one of these episodes I was coming or going somewhere and I had not been paying attention to my car stereo, and then this song (by the great Israel Vibration) broke through that haze like the sun and saved my life:

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Finally, and this one is the most important, for me.
The ’70s: this one reminds me of coming home from school and spending time in the house in between games of soccer or kickball or whatever else I was up to in those days. I have a memory: it was either autumn or winter, but it was a day I couldn’t play outside, so I was stuck inside the house and my mother had first dibs on the sounds. She was a huge fan of Janis Ian (as I would become, and remain) and I don’t think it’s a stretch to consider Between The Lines one of the better albums of that time, or anytime. “At Seventeen”, “Tea and Sympathy”, “Light a Light”: this is as good as it gets. But it’s the swan song, “Lover’s Lullaby” that affects me most; it haunts and restores me in equal measure. This one makes me think of my mother, so young; myself, so young, and even the beautiful Janis Ian, so incredibly young and so unbelievably beautiful. Sentimental? Not so much. True, this is wistful on multiple levels, and while my nature is to embrace or confront things that I consider cliche, it still took me quite a while before I could bring myself to listen to this song after my mother’s death.

I can, now, and when I do I naturally think of her. And inevitably I think about myself:

Be thou, Spirit fierce,

My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe,

Like wither’d leaves, to quicken a new birth;

And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth

Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!

Be through my lips to unawaken’d earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

 –Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ode to the West Wind”

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Two Things That Make Me Happy

This face:

dog

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And this story.

Azaiah immediately took to the dog, whom he named RaeLee (pronounced “Riley”). Segovia and her sons bought the dog a collar, leash, ball and brown bed from the dollar store, and all that day, Azaiah played with the dog, laughing gleefully whenever RaeLee licked his face. “Don’t fall in love with him,” Segovia warned.

Segovia and Savige made 4,000 FOUND flyers with the dog’s picture, stuffed mailboxes and put an ad on Craigslist. When no one called, RaeLee stayed the night at the Segovias’ house. His dog bed was placed in the living room, but when the boys climbed into their twin beds, RaeLee dragged his bed down the long hallway and bunked with the boys in their room.

By Saturday — four days later — no one had called to claim RaeLee, and he was still living with the Segovias. The honey-colored terrier had started responding to his new name. He almost never barked, loved playing rambunctiously with Azaiah, and was tender with Christian.

One afternoon, the dog settled himself on the floor near Christian as he watched a “Barney” video in his room. Segovia was outside watering the plants when the placid moment was shattered by the sound of RaeLee crashing into the screen door and barking crazily. Alarmed, Segovia opened the door, only to have the dog race back through the house towards the boys’ room. Segovia followed, screaming when she caught sight of her son. Christian was “slumped over, his body writhing in a seizure, blood streaming from his nose and mouth.” RaeLee stood next to him yelping, but suddenly went quiet when Yolanda reached down to hold her son.

“If he hadn’t come to get me,” Segovia said, “the neurologist said Christian would have choked on his own blood and died.” The dog, she decided, was a keeper.

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We’ve Come A Long Way, Kind Of…

From today’s NYT: On July 21, 1925, the ”monkey trial” ended in Dayton, Tenn., with John T. Scopes convicted of violating state law for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution. (The conviction was later overturned.)

toast

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