Thom Jones: The Pugilist at Rest (in Peace)

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i.

HERE’S THE THING about clean-up hitters: they strike out a lot.

Then again, consider some of baseball’s most prodigious home run champions: Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth, the top three, had career batting averages of .298, .305 and .342, respectively. In baseball terms, excellent, but that also means they didn’t hit safely about sixty-to-seventy percent of the time they stepped to the plate. And these are the best of the best. Making a career at writing is not dissimilar to becoming a big league ball player: a hit every third attempt might enable you to remain employed, to call yourself a professional.

Thom Jones, in this umpire’s opinion, struck out a lot. He was a fast ball hitter, and when he saw a meatball down the middle, he could get hold of it. Epilepsy, punch-drunk boxers and wounded men battling addiction (to drugs, to drink, to bloodshed) comprised his sweet spot, and he returned to it often, albeit with increasingly diminished returns. When he stepped outside his comfort zone, the results could range from embarrassing to unreadable, and those moments occur with distressing frequency in his second (Cold Snap) and especially third (Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine) collections.

With very few exceptions, no honest (or sane) writer would quibble with a publishing history that confirms every third or fourth story is generally regarded as a home run, a minor classic, or even one worth remembering. Indeed, a great many writers would be perfectly content with every third or fourth story being an extra base hit. And then there are the thousands (millions?) of undiscovered writers who would trade years of their lives for a solitary single.

No sane or honest writer would ever want to be measured by their batting average of every published piece, over the course of a career.

You write often, as well as you can, and pray that, with a ton of practice and a little bit of luck, you manage to knock one clean out of the park. Mostly you just hope to make contact; to not strike out. Most of these failures, at least, don’t offend any audience; they languish—half-finished drafts, false starts and unattainable visions—in desk drawers or recycling bins.

Most writers, aware of the long odds and erratic whims of both publishers and potential readers, do their best to craft honest work that is more or less within the bounds of conventional taste, trusting the material is at once sufficiently unique and, for lack of a better word, straightforward. That’s to say, most writers (and it could be argued whether this applies more to obscure authors or established, even famous ones) are singles hitters. This is at once a function of the way publishing works (or doesn’t work—another topic altogether), and the internal battle most genuine writers wage that weighs originality vs. acceptance.

Note: I’m not talking about writing publishable work; writing that, for practical purposes, constitutes a single. I’m referring specifically to writers who, through ego or ability or ambition—or a combination of all three—set out to transcend cliché and write something unadulterated, that breaks some type of mold and becomes a new standard of sorts; something inimitable that itself will be emulated by future writers.

ii.

Thom Jones, like many famous writers, resists easy interpretation. A good chunk of his work is redundant, repurposed rather than convincing variations on a theme, and his penchant for stilted dialogue and ham-fisted histrionics mars some of his output. (Considering the publications he appeared in and the editors he worked with, it’s at once amusing and appalling to count the clichés throughout his three collections.) Another good chunk is serviceable, solid: a string of singles and the occasional double. He even hit a triple or two (These are recorded in Cold Snap; Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine is extremely tough going; taken on their own, the stories are underwhelming; compared to the previous collections they are somewhat excruciating…it can be debated that Jones burned out, lost his edge or, for any number of documented health reasons, couldn’t produce like he once did). But what separates him, and makes him worth celebrating, is that he had the audacity—and the skill—to make contact in historic fashion. We’re talking home runs like Carlton Fisk in ’75, Kirk Gibson in ’88 or Joe Carter with the walk-off World Series shot in ’93.

As it happens, all of these occur in his game-changing debut collection The Pugilist at Rest. A remarkable effort that deservingly became a National Book Award Finalist, it established Jones as a writer who, like Roy Hobbs, seemingly came out of nowhere, fully formed as a superstar. The title story’s publication is every writer’s dream; that one-in-a-billion fantasy: rescued from the slush pile and published by The New Yorker. That feat alone would more than satisfy most aspiring authors, but Jones, having alternately labored in obscurity and deferred his dream with years of substance abuse and self-sabotage, was ready for the big call-up. Unlike his next two books, there’s not a solitary stinker in the bunch. More significantly, of the eleven stories, (at least) six of them are no doubt dingers. Sabermetrically speaking, that’s well over .500, enough to ensure Jones legend status, one of the seminal debuts in the second-half of the 20th Century.

(To belabor the Hobbs metaphor, had Jones simply produced Pugilist, at 48, and then strode off into the sunset, he really might be considered the Wonderboy of short fiction.)

Opinions will—and should—vary, but in this critic’s estimation, six of these stories could be anthologized and might be studied by anyone hoping to ascertain what makes fiction memorable; what makes it resonate, what makes it work. The aforementioned title story, “Mosquitoes” and “Rocket Man” (allegedly Jones’s personal favorite) all clear the fence and will impart joy and delight (and envy) upon repeated readings.

With “A White Horse”, Jones manages to shoehorn Dostoyevsky, Hunter S. Thompson and the New Testament into a compressed tour de force—as well as any other story, this one best captures the outcast-in-search-of-epiphany. As a metaphor, the wealthy but unsettled protagonist shelling out hundreds to save a dying horse he encounters (à la Nietzsche) in the slums of Bombay seems at once familiar and surreal—Jones deftly combine pathos and desperation in the service of a postmodern parable, and cuts it (crucially) with humor.

Another masterpiece, and grand-slam, is the story of a dying woman entitled “I Want to Live!”. Older (but not that old), semi-estranged mother dying, alone, of cancer. Sound familiar? It’s to Jones’s considerable credit that he takes a potentially hackneyed subject that’s too often played for crocodile tear aesthetics, and deals, indelibly, with the heaviest—and trickiest—of issues: dread of death, longing for love, fear of a life wasted, et cetera.

Her friends came by. It was an effort to make small talk. How could they know? How could they know what it was like? They loved her, they said, with liquor on their breath. They had to get juiced before they could stand to come by! They came with casseroles and cleaned for her, but she had to sweat out her nights alone.

In less than thirty pages, Jones modernizes “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”, without the lugubrious sermonizing and melodrama Tolstoy, even at his best, struggled to suppress. It’s an unflinching, albeit harrowing tour of a helpless but not entirely hopeless woman’s death courtesy The Big C. In addition to merely working, as literature, it can console one with intimate experience with the disease, or prepare uninitiated readers for something too many families are forced to confront.

“The Black Lights”, a novel in miniature, could work as a longer piece (the writing is so unsullied, the characters so memorable, the recurring tension so concentrated), but illustrates the curious, often ineffable magic of the short form. There’s enough backstory related through flashback to provide a sense of who the narrator is, but the action occurs in the present, and we have no idea what the future holds, nor should we. In one of many astonishing passages, a Vietnam veteran stuck in a neuropsych ward to recover from his anxiety-induced epileptic seizures describes his first experience in a straitjacket (after driving the fellow patients to distraction with his paranoia that a large homicidal rabbit is lying in wait beneath his bed):

I forced myself to lie still, and it seemed that my brain was filled with sawdust and that centipedes, roaches, and other insects were crawling through it. I could taste brown rabbit fur in my teeth. I had a horror that the rabbit would come in the room, lie on my face, and suffocate me.

Finally released, months later, our anti-hero exits the base in one of the more memorable—and satisfying—endings of any modern short story. A bit of dialogue he exchanges with a fellow Marine typifies Jones, at the height of his powers:

“…You want to know something?”

“What’s that?”

“I stole this fucking car. Hot-wired the motherfucker.”

“Far out,” I said. “Which way you going?”

“As far as five bucks in gas will take me.”

“I got a little money. Drive me to Haight-Ashbury?”

“Groovy. What are you doing, man, picking your nose?”

“Just checking for cockroaches,” I said weakly.

This is a story that does everything the best writing aspires to do: it stays read, and changes the way you read, and understand, subsequent work. (In terms of Jones’s work, he arguably set the bar too high to approach that level again himself, but in the final analysis what matters is that he ever got there in the first place.)

iii.

To once again invoke Tolstoy, it could be said that all writers are unhappy, but each writer is unhappy in his or her own way.

Thom Jones, by any benchmark, had a difficult life before, during and after The Pugilist at Rest was published (1993). An absent father who later committed suicide in a mental institution, Marine boot camp, boxing injuries resulting in epilepsy: these themes, which recur like grisly hallucinations in his fiction, all derived from his actual life. Indeed, by the time he was twenty, he’d already experienced the trauma and tragedy that would inform his best work.

Like Raymond Carver, Jones excels at depicting the seedier side of life, black and blue faces with blue collars as opposed to suits and suburban existential howling. Like Charles Bukowski, it’s not difficult to detect a clear line connecting the characters, situations and the person writing about them. Like Tim O’Brien, it’s not so much that his personal history serves as impetus but rather, the obsessions of memory, pain and regret are at once a unifying theme and creative cul-de-sac.

(Put another way, he was the anti-Updike; it is both refreshing and a little heroic that his work bulldogged its way into The New Yorker, unapologetic—but indubitably worthy—turds in that pristine literary punch bowl.)

Jones circled around these washed up palookas, chemically-altered outlaws and quiet nobodies in search of a rock to crawl under because he knew them; he was (or had been) one of them himself. His most compelling pieces seem unforced and unfettered because, while undeniably autobiographical, Jones used fiction as exploration, not therapy. In “The Pugilist at Rest”, the narrator invokes Theogenes, “the greatest of gladiators”, who fought—and won—fourteen hundred and twenty-five life and death battles. The statue commemorating this fighter (an image of which decorates the front cover) becomes the central metaphor not only for this story, but the entire collection. Indeed, the notion of a scarred and skillful brawler being called into the ring, yet again, to provide a spectacle, a distraction or voyeuristic pleasure, is an appropriate allegory for Jones’s career.

Jones once remarked that “in the act of writing I’m not Thom Jones. And it’s such a relief to not be Thom Jones.” How inspiring, how refreshing, how sad. It doesn’t seem a stretch to imagine that Jones had a strenuous life, even after 1993, and the inability to retain his title simply means he’s more Jake LaMotta and less Sugar Ray Robinson—not a one-shot wunderkind but a career scrapper who banged back at a world intent on beating the shit out of him. Whether or not he had a great deal more to write, the only fact that matters is that he took his one shot and made it count. Hopefully he redeemed a great deal of disillusionment with that triumph, but regardless, he had to know he’d escaped the most ignoble fate: obscurity.

His refusal to quit and unwillingness to sentimentalize his past is a testament to his character (that he didn’t need to sensationalize his past is testament to the extraordinary obstacles he overcame). That he plugged away, before and after he was famous, and that he turned his vocation into one long battle is a testament to his resolve, and artistic integrity. And while he wrote about manly men doing macho shit, Jones was the anti-Hollywood writer in the sense that he understood the sadness and futility of fighting, boozing, womanizing and hatred directed inward or outward. He learned how to write the way he learned how to survive: the hard way, with no short cuts and few excuses. His ability to craft unforgettable tales of otherwise forgettable people will endure as the ultimate testament to his distinct talent and warrior’s heart.

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This essay originally appeared in The Weeklings on 10/27/16.

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More Human than Human or, Do Atheists Dream of Electric Sheep?

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 i. “I am the business.”

Rick Deckard: is he, or isn’t he, that is the question. Human or android? Blade Runner or replicant?

Inexorably, fans’ perspective on this matter will radically inform their interpretation of the film. To an interesting degree, it may also offer insight into their philosophy regarding morality, and even existence.

It should be acknowledged that while Blade Runner, naturally, owes a considerable debt to the novel it’s based on—Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?—the two have significant differences and should be considered as separate entities, at least for the purposes of this discussion.

The central disparity between novel and film is that in Dick’s version, Deckard is unquestionably a human being. In the film, of course, the matter is decidedly more ambiguous; indeed, the concern of how one construes his “true” identity provides the film’s enigmatic tension, and its enduring resonance.

Complicating things further was the decision—at the studio’s insistence, after tepid audience reaction during initial screenings—to have Harrison Ford add hackneyed narration throughout the film, ostensibly to clarify important plot elements (read: to tell less discerning viewers what to think). This unfortunate concession effectively ensured that Deckard was, in fact, to be viewed as a human protagonist.

The movie didn’t do especially well upon its release in 1982 and, with hindsight, seemed almost predetermined to become not merely a cult classic, but an archetype of sorts even within that refined category. Its ostensible flaws as commercial fare remain a credit to its intelligence and ambiguity—two attributes that don’t typically portend box office success. More, what begins as a standard action/detective story gradually expands to become a thoughtful meditation on morality, a tour de force of existentialism.

The 1992 Director’s Cut (which, aside from the insertion of one brief but crucial scene, is actually the unfettered original version) makes a compelling, even incontrovertible case that Deckard’s a replicant after all. Harrison hated the narration and, in fact, hoped by delivering it in a fashion somnolent even for him, it would be discarded. He should have known never to underestimate the judgment and intelligence of studio bosses. Ridley, on the other hand, has remarked that while he too loathed the narration, he felt it was sufficiently obvious Deckard was a replicant. (His sardonic, if refreshing take on the matter: “If you don’t know you are a moron.”)

The pertinent issue, then, is not so much whether Deckard is human; it’s how this cognizance clouds—or clarifies—the sublime climax of the film, where Deckard’s prime target, the replicant Roy Batty, after overpowering (and outsmarting) him, saves his life—then allows him to live. And, while overt comparisons between Batty and Christ might seem banal on a superficial level, it’s his actions and not his character that accords Blade Runner an ethical gravity not found (or necessarily intended) in the novel.

ii. “Wake up! Time to die!”

Of the many questions this film poses, the ones that loom largest involve Deckard’s identity. If, for instance, Deckard’s not a human being, how does this complicate his actions and reactions (and, an implicit question for the audience: how does our knowledge of his true identity color our impression of his actions—and the reactions of others, human and otherwise)? Also, assuming Deckard is a replicant, does it not mitigate the import of Roy Batty’s ultimate decision to liberate him? (Answer: no.)

Batty discerns he’s about to die (or, expire), and harbors no illusions he’s human and that—for him, anyway—there’s an afterlife. He has been made to acknowledge, with certainty, nothing but nothingness awaits him; that existence is not merely arbitrary (a fundamental human dilemma) but, for him, fabricated. Nevertheless, he saves the life of a police officer paid to “retire” him. This act abundantly, if ironically fulfills Batty’s purpose of being “more human than human”. His decision, in this light, to act unselfishly despite recognizing there will be no reward, should be viewed as heroic, and not a little inspiring.

“Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave,” Batty says, resignedly, to Deckard. As we’ve seen, these replicants have been created solely to serve the pleasure of the men (gods?) who created them. Earlier models, it’s explained, were indeed used for slave labor; these Nexus 6 prototypes, led by Batty, are endowed with advanced physical and mental abilities. As such, they come to realize—despite being implanted with human memories—that their lives are predetermined, and very brief.

One can understand why they rebel. The revelation that they’re fanciful and expensive experiments is capable of making even nihilism seem quaint, beyond the ken of even the most smugly despondent post-structuralist. Or else a case study of detached deconstruction, taken to extremes that might make even Derrida blush: always-already aware that your reality—and utility—was carefully planned long before you ever assumed consciousness.

This comprehension, with good reason, generates dismay amongst the Nexus 6 replicants, and should arouse empathy from the viewer. How interesting (peculiar, even) that these same parameters, adjusted for aesthetics, are precisely what oblige the faithful to find value and consequence in their lives. Or, put another way, one can imagine even the most reflexively staunch believer appalled by the notion that there is a God, but life nevertheless ceases at death. Cynics can—and do—point out that a totalitarian dynamic based in fear is the very nature of organized religion. If we are, by decree, slaves compliant to our creator here on earth, we’ll be redeemed forever, in Heaven. This is the tacit covenant that makes belief agreeable, if bearable.

It’s inevitable to surmise, with the contextual evidence on offer (via the Director’s Cut), anyone still insisting Deckard’s a human is not unlike one who asserts—often with the self-righteous assurance of the zealot—that without the concept of God (and eternity) there is no grace; no reason for benevolence. This, of course, is merely cowardice disguised as faith: the need to believe says much about the individual and little about the ethos.

As such, we can conclude that because Batty’s act is witnessed and, more, received, it has meaning beyond the gesture: affirming life, and saving a life while one’s own life is ending. Batty’s deed is not an act of rescue so much as one of redemption. It underscores the hopes and fears of every sentient—or at least sensitive—being: What was I? What do I leave behind? What will I become? By living, Deckard keeps Batty alive; by remembering, he ensures Batty’s sacrifice has significance aside from the act itself. Of course, it would have meaning, in the metaphysical sense, even if it was unrecorded.

iii. “All those moments will be lost in time…”

The notion of doing good for good’s sake is an ideal articulated in the writings of difficult artists ranging from Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky to Melville and Poe. In the 20th Century, after the events that preceded and accompanied World War II, it’s remarkable that poetry, prose, music and movies continue to reinforce a defiance of despair as opposed to a begrudging—or lethargic—acknowledgment of life’s meaninglessness. Put more plainly, ample evidence supporting altruism exists that’s not contingent upon religious faith; indeed, much of it actively eschews dogma.

As humans we create meaning, even if we ultimately resolve that life is meaningless. Our outlook is still the result of deliberation, however dejected. It is, in fact, those insisting only God can imbue meaning (since He created everything) who argue that the absence of God obviates meaning. This position, inculcated by rote, isn’t merely flawed intellectually; it’s defective, morally. The correlation between religious fanaticism and the violence it can inspire—and provide cover for—is well-documented. Disturbingly, the thin line between faith and desolation is reason enough to be grateful many would-be sociopaths are compelled by their belief, or suspension of belief, to determine there’s actual value (or, again, meaning) in their own existence; there’s motivation to choose amity over annihilation.

It is, then, with Batty, that the film turns typical theology upside down.  The redeeming (and, redeemed) character is, in a sense, dying for the sins of others, but will receive neither reward nor restoration. Not for nothing does Tyrell, after confirming Batty’s worst fears, declare him to be “the prodigal son.” Certainly, one could make a career out of the religious imagery invoked throughout the narrative (the nails in the palms, the brutal beating he suffers, the futile entreaty to his creator, etc.).

On a purely practical level, if one reckons that the ends justify the means, the notion of using Christ as a model is commendable, particularly when it results in the pursuit of reconciliation over aggression. Indeed, the idea that organized religion was designed as a self-perpetuating (and quite effective) system to organize and supervise the masses is unoriginal enough to be dismissed as cliché. And yet, considering the ultimate objective of Christian fellowship is to inspire conduct sufficient to earn everlasting life, it’s difficult to argue which is more disingenuous: the self-serving ecclesiastics or those who see through it, yet utilize it for personal gain or to consolidate control.

The figure of Christ is enduringly appealing, as a literary figure, for His acts of kindness and care. But concerning the biblical moments of transcendence, the miracles distance Him from us; whereas Batty’s final gesture is made with the understanding that he’ll gain no favors, here or elsewhere. As such, it would cheapen his sacrifice to give Christianity unearned credit and declare this an act of Christ-like mercy; rather, it’s an enduring gesture of human grace. As such, it remains a persuasive and provocative advertisement for what we’re capable of when we’re most fully human or more, when we transcend our inherent (see: selfish) human limitations. Blade Runner remains the ultimate paradox: a movie about the impermanence—even the construction—of humanity, yet it makes one of the greatest cases for compassion and charity.

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Remembering Michael Cimino’s Masterpiece, ‘The Deer Hunter’

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Imagine this: Michael Cimino, fresh off five Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Director) and the next big “thing” fails to complete the filming of Heaven’s Gate (1980) and stops making movies, all because he couldn’t handle the pressure of following up on not only the movie he needed to make, but the movie America needed him to make: The Deer Hunter (1978).

Discussion would forever boil down to what masterpieces we were robbed from seeing, how a too-sensitive soul could not stand up to the pressures and pettiness of Hollywood, and so on. Bonus scenario: if Heaven’s Gate were only half-finished when he stopped directing, scholars would write dissertations about whether the next Citizen Kane (1942) got sabotaged, or was never meant to be, or too impossibly perfect to reach completion.

Instead, of course, Heaven’s Gate was finished and, due to its underwhelming commercial and critical reception, so was Cimino.

Over the top? Well, so was Cimino. I mean, have you seen Heaven’s Gate? Or even, dare we go there, The Deer Hunter?

In truth, Cimino’s The Deer Hunter has not aged as well as its younger brother, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), but there are many legitimate reasons for this. Apocalypse Now was always imperfect, and, in ways no one could have anticipated; its very messiness, inscrutability, and shoehorned ending only gain stature as the perfect metaphor for the imperfect fiasco that was Vietnam.

If Dostoyevsky had written about Vietnam it might have been a lot like Apocalypse Now; The Deer Hunter, on the other hand, is possibly the most Tolstoyesque American movie ever made.

The Deer Hunter was a novel on the screen, with plotting, tonal shifts, character studies, and a conclusion that, while equally rushed in its way—including the unforgivable kitsch of the crew singing “God Bless America” at the finalé, which is like being bludgeoned with a star-spangled sledgehammer—tries to tell it straight, illustrating not only the senselessness of what went on over there, but the horror of what happened to the people “lucky” enough to make it back here.

Certainly, Coming Home (also from 1978) had similar designs and was also a necessary turd in the punch bowl for anyone opining that we all needed to just move on. But compared to The Deer Hunter, Coming Home was a novella, or a short story; its scope was narrow and effective for keeping things focused, even if it gets a little fluffy toward the end.

It’s also interesting to consider how the respective films reflect the director’s drug of choice: Coming Home, by the time it’s over, is like taking a steam bath in an opium den; Apocalypse Now rips out of the gate on a cocaine rush, settles into an uneasy acid trip and, by the end, is a whole cocktail of uppers, downers, hash and whiskey—the pharmacological equivalent of whatever was happening, in real time, inside Dennis Hopper’s head.

The Deer Hunter, by contrast, is from an older school: its shot-and-a-beer sensibility is ideally suited for the steel town locale. It’s even old fashioned in its way: the aftermath (a separate war unto itself) was one long hangover, filled with regret, recrimination, and self-loathing. Redemption, too. It also, at times, suffers from the weird mix of self-consciousness (that wedding scene could easily have been cut in half and, with a lesser director calling the shots, it should have been) and shed inhibitions. Was it too many Rolling Rocks that convinced Cimino the aforementioned “God Bless America” singalong was not only a wise, but necessary, decision?

So if The Deer Hunter has not aged as well as most folks in 1978 would have anticipated, its fatal flaw was being, for both better and worse, as perfect as it could have been at the time. There probably wasn’t an American film with such recalcitrant confidence and stunning results, however indulgent, made until There Will Be Blood (2007). Both films have the modest aim of explaining everything, and using one event (Vietnam, the oil industry) to elucidate the tragedies inherent in America’s tendency to overreach, due to greed and inexorable recklessness.

Of course, The Deer Hunter must be celebrated for what it got so right, and while even the best scenes in Apocalypse Now have that quirky genius of lightning captured in a bottle of “33”—kind of like Hunter S. Thompson at the top of his game—Cimino’s masterpiece has a formal elegance, its ambition never overshadowed by its pretensions or showboating. For a study in contrast, consider Platoon (1986) which, while incredible and important for its time, can hardly be watched today without sensing Oliver Stone’s sweaty, self-satisfied mug in every other frame.

It’s regrettable that the movie is best or most often remembered for the gruesome Russian roulette scenes. Those moments were perhaps necessary for anyone delusional enough to think this, or any war, is a reductive contest of good guys shooting bad guys and vice versa (itself a horrific enough scenario to warrant unlimited empathy and funds to assist veterans of these affairs). Even as metaphor, the idea of brothers in arms holding guns to their heads is as eloquent in its insanity as, say, the surreal depravity of a white Alpha male blasting Wagner as he blithely massacres a village of men, women and children: all before breaking out the surfboards.

Again, The Deer Hunter does get war, including the lead up and load out, definitively in its sights, but it manages to also nail the beautiful, if banal simplicity of working class existence: the honesty of that industrious lifestyle, sculpted and fueled by sweat and pitchers of beer.

It takes only one succinct, devastating scene to demonstrate a screenplay worth of suffering in the relationship between Meryl Streep and her used-up and spit out old man. It skillfully captures the way men bond (shooting pool, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”) and fight (“This is This!”). It subtly conveys how alcohol enables dudes to express vulnerability (“I love this fuckin’ place!”).

There’s comic relief, with the immigrant mother browbeating (and beating) her son on the afternoon of his wedding. There are layers of meaning within the insinuation that the bride’s growing belly might not be courtesy of her husband. Then there’s everything about Stan (Jon Cazale): his character, the type of complicated coward everyone has met, and everything about Jon Cazale, whom everyone on set knew was dying while they filmed.

As a movie rightly celebrated for its epic scale and achievement, The Deer Hunter boasts a series of immaculate scenes which, when isolated, deftly encapsulate the whole in miniature, while standing on their own as iconic moments in cinema.

Certainly it’s a tad heavy-handed, but the agitated vet stumbling into the wedding reception foreshadows much that the giddy groomsmen don’t understand, but will. “Fuck it,” he repeats, unwilling to shake hands or even look at the young men he knows (and we know) are about to grow up in an abrupt and ugly fashion.

Flash forward to the first post-war reunion between Michael (De Niro) and Steven (John Savage). Michael, full of obligatory bravado and reassurance, smiles at his wheelchair-bound friend and says “We made it”, then leans in for the hug as the smile—and façade—disappears and he repeats, a forceful whisper, “We made it.” Or, the close-up on Michael who, after skipping his homecoming party, paces in a hotel room, doing everything he can to keep himself intact.

Yet, while certain scenes from the wedding, Vietnam, and in the woods will endure as classics, it’s one of the quieter sequences that packs, quite possibly, the most concentrated punch. Back from a successful hunt, the men have squeezed every morsel of joy out of their final hours before shipping off. Finally, more beers are opened, and a friend not headed to Vietnam (George Dzundza) sits down at the piano. As the others gradually recognize the tune being played (Chopin’s Nocturne #6 in G Minor), the merriment ceases and they pause, reflecting.

In a book, there’d be little choice but to tell; Cimino and the actors are able to show, without words, things both obvious and implied. They stare at each other lovingly, appreciating all that’s brought them to this moment but no longer able to ignore the ways so much is soon to change, and none of it for the better. The scene’s already indelible, but the way Dzundza looks at Cazale (who was about to succumb to cancer in real life) after the last note is played is the kind of perfection that can’t be planned; it’s the rarest instance of life and art imitating each other in the service of reconciliation.

In the end it’s this, along with several other subdued moments, that illustrate innocence not merely lost, but obliterated. It’s ultimately the story of decent men from an increasingly forgotten time and environment, and they, of course, represent the many thousands of men from similar places. They all went off to represent a cause they couldn’t fathom, and those that came back faced a different world that in turn couldn’t, and wouldn’t, understand them.

It’s for telling their story, and putting names and faces on uncomfortable statistics (the dead, the crippled, the suicides) that make The Deer Hunter a different, and better, kind of Vietnam movie. It’s a war story, but it’s also a human story. The Deer Hunter is the type of film that, once seen, is capable of creating the right kind of change. It’s for this, above all, that Cimino should be remembered and celebrated.

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Victory and Sorrow: Bright Moments from Three Masters (Revisited)

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HOW TO TALK ABOUT JAZZ MUSIC?

Well, perhaps it’s better to determine how not to talk about jazz music. Hearing is believing. That’s all there is to it. And if you hear something that speaks to you, keep listening. Whatever effort you put in will be immeasurably rewarded. During the decade or so that stretched from my mid-’20s to mid-’30s, I used to have more of an evangelical vibe. It’s not necessarily that I’m less invested now, then I was then; quite the contrary. But, if I wasn’t particularly interested in converting people then (I wasn’t), I’m even less so today. When it comes to art in general and music in particular, entirely too many people are very American in their tastes: they know what they like and they like what they know, which will continue to ensure that what they don’t know won’t ever hurt them. Also, let’s face it, the only thing possibly more annoying than some yahoo proselytizing their religion on your doorstep is some jackass getting in your grill about how evolved or enviable his or her musical tastes happen to be. Life is way too short, for all involved.

Volumes are devoted to the romantic gravity of the suffering artist syndrome—the suicides, the drinking and the desolation; these are the things that people who write about artists tend to write about. Certainly, the artists themselves express this angst in their art, but you seldom hear or see the solipsism on the screen or the stage or in the grooves of the vinyl. But then again, these artists don’t need anyone to celebrate their achievements, because the art they created does so with exceeding adequacy and eloquence. You can’t believe everything you read, but you can always have faith in what you hear; the ears never lie. Not when it comes to music. Not when it comes to jazz music.

For instance, what John Coltrane achieves on the final section of “A Love Supreme” could cause even the most cynical hater of humanity to feel stirred by the uniquely moving and profoundly positive force of musical expression. It’s not possible to remain neutral while listening to Charles Mingus, who, after amyotrophic lateral sclerosis confined the colossus to a wheelchair, was obliged to literally sing his songs, composing them with his mouth when he no longer could lift a pen. Here are three other musicians, all of whom deserve much wider recognition, not just for the astonishing music they made, but the circumstances they rose above to make it.

Booker LittleBooker Little

For many years—all through college and after graduate school—John Keats signified, for me, the ultimate artistic loss of all time. In terms of talent and potential versus time granted to practice and refine his skills (dead from tuberculosis, aged 25), Keats has even the most unbearable cases beat: his good friend and fellow genius Percy Bysshe Shelley (aged 29), their mutual friend Lord Byron (36). Even the great Franz Schubert (31) who, considering his abilities, may have amassed a body of work to be mentioned in the same breath as his fellow Austrian Mozart (himself only 35). Yet, like Mozart, Schubert was so stunningly prolific the collected output somewhat mitigates the loss.

Once I began seriously listening to jazz music, I came to recognize that this art form is littered with premature deaths. We know all about our famous rock stars, many of whom flamed out early in life due to self-destructive habits and hobbies. The typical, if irresponsible (and racist) assumption is that most jazz players were junkies and therefore each casualty must have died with a needle in their arm. In actuality, the number of luminous young men whose deaths were not self-inflicted is unsettling.

At the top of my list is Booker Little. Considered the heir apparent to the effulgent Clifford Brown (himself only 25 when he died, clean and sober, in a car crash), Little did not die so much as have his life defrauded, at age 23, from uremia—an especially brutal, and painful, type of kidney failure. Barely legal drinking age, Little had already led sessions that stand alongside the best post-bop recordings of the era (He neither drank nor took drugs, incidentally).

Little was able to complete two albums in the final year of his life; both considered masterpieces by aficionados, but largely obscure outside of jazz circles. This is ignominious on a number of levels. For one thing, the music contained in these releases captures the ethereal nature of life, the ecstasy of creation and the unique expressions our most gifted artists are capable of conveying. Beyond that, the albums are touchstones; perhaps the most poignant instances from any era of a human being defying death with dignity and joy, even as mortality circled his head like a demented buzzard.

What Keats was able to convey so succinctly, and enduringly, with words, Little achieves without needing a single syllable. His voice, of course, is his instrument, and his trumpet tells the story of his life: not for nothing was his final work entitled Victory and Sorrow. It’s impossible to listen to this music without hearing the history of illness, injustice and ultimately the transcendent human ability to, at least temporarily, overcome anything.

At once somber and serene, the compositions achieve an intense distillation of Beauty: the joy of inspiration leavened with the contemplation of transience. It is all in there, as devastating in its way as the symphonies of Mahler or the extended meditations of Tolstoy. Does the concentrated intensity of this sound derive from the soul of a man who sensed his time was, all of a sudden, just about up? It is almost intolerable to imagine that he was anticipating –and realizing– some of the experiences and emotions of the years he should have had, putting every thought, feeling, regret and ambition into his playing. Was he in fact dealing with significant pain while he composed and played this music? If so, we are getting into deaf Beethoven levels of drama and disbelief.

How did he manage? There is a tune on the album Out Front entitled “Strength and Sanity”, which could be a commentary on what any individual requires in order to survive—much less thrive—in a world where there is a distinct shortage of both. It certainly speaks to ingredients necessary for jazz musicians, incomparably talented men who were still, circa 1961, considered second-rate citizens, not to mention the additional stigma of being jazz musicians. But it is also a statement about what Little had to count on and cultivate just in order to get as far as he did, and deal with the hand he was dealt: performing, composing and playing against the dying of the light.

Perspective. That he was called on so young by the capricious machinery of Fate is enough to humble a hardened heart. That he succeeded in creating, and leaving behind, music that still inspires and consoles is a miracle; a miracle that, in the final analysis, equals or surpasses and possibly even overwhelms the illogical, unfair nature of his passing. That this blissful, restorative sound exists to help any confused, self-pitying individuals left behind, struggling to carry his baggage, makes a compelling case to consider the bigger picture.

 

dolphy

Eric Dolphy

It will be difficult to avoid clichés here. In their defense, clichés originate from an authentic place; they are mostly an attempt, at least initially, to articulate something honest and immutable. And so: Eric Dolphy is among the foremost supernovas in all of jazz (Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan and, of course, Booker Little—all trumpeters incidentally—also come quickly to mind): he burned very brightly and very briefly, and then he was gone. Speaking of clichés, not a single one of the artists just mentioned—all of whom left us well before their fortieth birthdays—died from a drug overdose.

Dolphy, the grand old man of the bunch, passed away at the age of 36, in Europe. How? After lapsing into a diabetic coma. Why? The doctors on duty presumed the black musician who had collapsed in the street was nodding off on a heroin buzz. To attempt to put the magnitude of this loss in perspective, consider that Charles Mingus, perhaps the most difficult and demanding band leader of them all, declared Dolphy a saint, and regarded his death as one of a handful of setbacks he could never completely get over. Dolphy holds the distinction of quite possibly being the one artist nobody has gone on record to say a single negative thing about. His body of work, the bulk of which was recorded during an almost miraculously productive five-year stretch, is deep, challenging, and utterly enjoyable.

Eclipse” from Out There: a tribute to another great composer: his friend, mentor and bandmate Charles Mingus. For my money, “The Wind Cries Mary”, by Jimi Hendrix (speaking of supernovas), captures the feeling of melancholy as well as any song ever has. But to achieve similar effect without words, as Dolphy does here, is a staggering achievement. The mournful cadence of Dolphy’s clarinet here gets right inside you, and the feeling expressed is magnified by Ron Carter’s bowed cello, which weaves in and around, at once among the corners and right within the heart of the song. The sounds these two men achieve are so unusual, so unsettling and surreal, it almost defies explanation. This is music best categorized as other and the album title, Out There, is more than a little appropriate. Dolphy was indeed “out there” in the sense that most of us are blissful or oblivious inside our little boxes, incapable of hearing, much less expressing, the joyful noises that reside in those most inaccessible spaces: within each of us.

One of the paradoxical reasons Dolphy tends to get overlooked, even slighted, is not because of any lack of proficiency, but rather an abundance of it. It does not quite seem possible—particularly for lazier critics and ringleaders amongst the jazz intelligentsia—that such a relatively young musician could master three instruments. In actuality, Dolphy was an exceedingly accomplished alto sax player, drawing freely (pun intended) from Bird while pointing the way toward Braxton. Perhaps most egregiously disregarded is his flute playing, which not only achieves a consistent and uncommon beauty, but more than holds its own against fellow multi-reedists Yusef Lateef and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Nevertheless, it is the signature, unmistakable sounds he makes with the bass clarinet that ensure his place in the pantheon: no one of note, excepting Harry Carney, employed this instrument on the front line before Dolphy and, arguably, no one has used it as effectively and indelibly since. Let there be no doubt that Eric Dolphy warrants mention amongst jazz music’s all-time immortals.

Dead at 36. There is nothing anyone can say that could possibly begin to explain or rationalize that travesty of justice; that affront to life. It is the excruciating enigmas like these that make certain people hope against hope that there is a bigger purpose and plan, a way to measure or quantify such senselessness. But in the final, human analysis, whatever we lost can never overwhelm all that we received. It helps that we will always have the gifts the artist left behind. It’s never enough; it’s more than enough.

 

rahsaan-roland-kirk1Rahsaan Roland Kirk

When listening to Rahsaan Roland Kirk (who was born blind and eventually taught himself to play three saxophones—simultaneously), the word that leaps to mind, which can certainly be applied to jazz in general and Rahsaan in particular, is dialogic. This is a term that the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin used to elucidate the ceaseless and very deliberately constructed internal monologues that are contained within Dostoyevsky’s novels. It concerns the notion of a narrative voice being aware of (or concerned with the exertion of) its authority, and anticipating reader reactions as well as a sort of running footnote, answering perceived questions and comments, and always attempting to maintain that autonomous position. It is many voices at once, or the same voice exploring many possibilities.

One of the many aspects of the dialogic voice in jazz music is the practice of quoting all musicians engage in, the process of referencing, mentioning, or giving props to a particular tune or composer, always with the intent of augmenting the overall effect and efficacy of the ongoing improvisation. With Rahsaan, this very purposeful and empowering technique arguably reached its apotheosis. Because he was an artist so well-schooled and hip to the history of all music, it is an education every time a Kirk tune receives the scrutiny it obviously warrants. And because jazz music is inexorably an indigenous black music, and this black music a uniquely American invention, one is necessarily immersed in a seamless expression of the dialogic articulation of America itself.

Joel Dorn (RIP), producer, raconteur and jazz ambassador, did as much as anyone to expose and celebrate the music of our national treasures. He developed an especially close relationship with Rahsaan (and made it a personal mission, during the mid-to-late 90s, to promote what he termed the “Rahsaan-aisance”). Some great reissues came out of those efforts, and his liner notes for the compilation Simmer, Reduce, Garnish and Serve might be the best I’ve ever read by any producer about any recording. In them he discusses Kirk’s final sessions, which occurred after a stroke left the musician without use of the left side of his body and forced him to undergo thrice weekly dialysis treatments.

He kept practically a pre-stroke pace in terms of live performance here and abroad and was committed to making records. His display of raw courage, grit, determination, whatever you want to call it, was mind bending. In order to fully appreciate Boogie-Woogie String Along For Real, it has to be viewed within the context of the herculean effort on Rahsaan’s part just to make it. When the session was done, Rahsaan gave me instructions as to how he wanted the album put together. We hugged goodbye, and I watched as he left the studio…(I) knew (I’d) never see him again.

Rahsaan often talked about bright moments: occasions where one feels deeply connected to the music, the message, and the soul of the messenger. To be sure, he made it rather easy: all you need do is listen with your heart as much as your ears and the music takes care of everything else—you’re just along for the ride. And yet, you’re not. You really do go somewhere: begin here and end up there: when you listen to the best jazz music, the experience is never static; you are always on your way someplace. Kirk’s ultimate legacy is creating so many bright moments, allowing us to comprehend—and rejoice in—the struggles and elations of the messenger, and the message he’s relaying: his victory and sorrow.

This is what jazz music signifies for me. As a dedicated non-musician, I use jazz as a viable source of empowerment; while it remains first and foremost a very real and easily identifiable source of extreme pleasure; it is also a vehicle, something used to get you someplace else. A stimulus that demands a response, capable of conjuring up words and concepts (and constructions) such as spirit, soul, God, karma—things that are almost unbearably oblique, or pretentious, or all-too-easily invoked, usually as readymade escutcheons for folks who ardently need a way to articulate the feeling they either can’t quite explain or desperately wish to get in touch with.

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O’Connor and Coltrane: Saints of American Art

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i.

I never, until this year, made the explicit connection between John Coltrane and Flannery O’Connor.

Why should I have?

One was an introverted white woman, a southern writer who tackled the Big Questions with a mordant élan and irony that’s seldom been surpassed. In her short stories, the themes of identity, religion and salvation get interrogated by and through a series of characters that are, by turns, innocent, evil and grotesque. Above all, they are fallible: whatever their station in life, the issue that obsessed O’Connor was Grace and whether or not we could get good with God, regardless of where He placed us or what He put in our pathway.

The other was a quiet but prolific black saxophonist, a man born in North Carolina who migrated to the cultural center of the musical universe, New York City, where he then participated in some of the most beloved recordings of the ’50s and ’60s. In his songs, the quest was salvation through music: initially celebrated for his famous “sheets of sound”, Coltrane continued to expand and grow, incorporating Eastern elements and extended improvisations. His live performances became legendary endurance tests, for the audience more than the performer. Coltrane was restless, but not because he was otherwise preoccupied or tortured; indeed he was the rarest of artistic breeds: focused and serene, uncomfortable only when he was unable to practice. By all accounts, his dedication to his craft remains unrivaled.

As Coltrane’s masterwork, A Love Supreme, celebrates its fiftieth anniversary in 2015 (and has just been reissued, again, with never-before heard material), and I finally found the time to read O’Connor’s journal entries, collected as A Prayer Journal (first released in late 2013), the question became: how could I not have made the connection between these two icons?

While reading (and then re-reading) A Prayer Journal, which obliged me to revisit (again) O’Connor’s selected prose, best or most easily found in Mystery and Manners, I could not stop thinking about Coltrane in general, A Love Supreme in particular. Considering them side by side, I was struck by one thing above all: these were artists who, due to circumstances as well as compulsion(s), cultivated an almost monastic approach to their art. Perhaps because illness claimed both of them entirely too soon (Coltrane died of cancer in ’67, aged 41; O’Connor of lupus in ’64, aged 39) theirs is a kinship forged in tragedy. Perhaps because they are both undisputed masters of their respective crafts who lived during roughly the same era it’s easier to associate them. But it’s their aesthetic sensibility that links them in ways few other artists of any genre can claim.

 

ii.

One need not be intimately familiar with O’Connor’s oeuvre to appreciate the exceedingly brief but extraordinary—and revealing—meditations contained in A Prayer Journal. Of course, anyone who has read, and savored her work will find the material, written in 1946 and 1947 while she was studying at the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop, at once affirming and revelatory.

O’Connor’s unwavering allegiance to her craft leaves little to the imagination: she wrote, she talked about writing, she thought about writing and she wrote about writing. Allegedly, she ate and slept on occasion. “In my stories is where I live,” she said, a statement applicable on a variety of levels. And so, the people who stand to be fascinated by this distinctly uneventful life are the very people who might be enlightened by reading about it: writers. O’Connor’s monk-like commitment to her vocation could and should be a study guide for all aspiring scribblers. Never mind that dedication like hers is probably impossible to imitate today because of all the noise—electronic and digital—distracting us. There’s also the fact that her work is inimitable: the style; the substance; the entire package is pretty much unparalleled in American letters.

I tend to feel uncomfortable throwing the G word around, but if any American writer of the last century could be called a genius, O’Connor is near the top of the short list. She didn’t manage to write the great American novel (though she may well have, had she been given even a few more years), but her best collected stories go toe-to-toe with any of the great white males (and females for that matter). She also happened to approach perfection on at least three occasions, with “Revelation”, “Everything That Rises Must Converge” and “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”. It’s the last of these three that most people know; like Beethoven’s Fifth and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, its ubiquity tends to diminish its actual import. As a remarkable point of fact, it’s even better than most people realize (and most people, if for no other reason than that they are told, recognize these things as immortal).

What O’Connor manages to do, in less than twenty pages, with “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” is lay bare the essence of what Dostoyevsky and, to a lesser extent, Tolstoy grappled with in their biggest (and sometimes bloated) novels: the nature of man, the existence of God, the possibility of Grace and the symbiotic tension between violence and love. When The Misfit declares (ironically, truthfully) “It’s no real pleasure in life”, he is (O’Connor is) succinctly expressing our fundamental philosophical and literary dilemma, post-Descartes. Beyond whether God exists (Tolstoy) or why God torments us (Dostoyevsky), and right to the darkened heart of the matter: we may betray God, but God betrayed us first.

As a reader and especially a writer, one can learn a great deal by studying her stories. Has any other writer so consistently applied mechanical precision with such emotional heft? Has any other author wrestled with the so-called big issues without using stick figures or preachy didactics? Take “Revelation”, for instance: O’Connor fits notions of class, the dilemmas of southern identity, religious fervor, old-school bigotry and redemption into one story. In fact, she pretty much pulls it off on a single page (and that last page not only invokes, but obliges the use of such otherwise unforgivable words as “haunting”, “chilling” and “moving”). More, the concluding image of “a vast horde of souls rumbling toward heaven” that includes the disenfranchised leading a troop of so-called respectable citizens—who of course have assumed their station by luck of the biological draw—whose “virtues were being burned away”, might achieve the impossible, serving as an allegory to satisfy both the devoted and the faithless. Consider that. This type of writing, needless to say, is inspiring but is also intimidating. My initial (and in many cases, ongoing) reaction to reading an O’Connor story is to ask, in awe, How did she do that?

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Yet aside from the singular example she sets, what should (can) one, living today, take from her hermetic life style in terms of practical application? Probably the same thing one might take from any worthwhile practitioner: whatever one can. It’s that simple, and it’s that unfathomable. For starters, one should be heartened (or, more likely, devastated) by the fact that even our greatest artists often struggle, and realize that the life they embark upon is likely to be painful and unprofitable. “What first stuns the young writer emerging from college,” she wrote in 1948, “is that there is no clear-cut road for him to travel on. He must chop a path in the wilderness of his own soul; a disheartening process, lifelong and lonesome.”

In her journal, she implored God to “give me the courage to stand the pain to get to the grace.” O’Connor was not granted nearly the time she needed—or deserved—to continue perfecting her craft. But we are all fortunate she had the years, not to mention the fortitude and faith, to leave behind her unique, inexhaustible bounty. Her work is like her life: full of beauty, full of pain.

iii.

For those whose definition of genius is either too encompassing or excessively narrow, John Coltrane poses no problems: there isn’t anyone who knows anything about music (in general) and jazz (in particular) who would contest that he’s among the most prominent, impressive and influential artists to ever master an instrument. Furthermore, to put Coltrane and the skills he developed in their simplest perspective, it might be suggested that no one has ever done anything as well as Coltrane played the saxophone. Plus, he was an exceptionally gifted composer and bandleader and, by all accounts, he was a generous and gentle human being, as well. All of which is to say, if there is anyone worthy of celebration in our contemporary American Idol Apocalypse, Coltrane should serve as both antidote and inspiration.

Coltrane’s prime years, the decade between 1957 and 1967, seem concise enough by typical human and even artistic standards. However, he recorded so much and went through so many profound changes, it’s near impossible to convey the scope of his achievements—and impact. Early on, it was apparent that Coltrane pursued his dream with an intensity bordering on obsession. “He attacked his (musical) problems,” Jimmy Heath once recalled. “He zoomed in until he solved it.”  Coltrane quickly but methodically cultivated an unsurpassed proficiency, and then he kept pushing. Like Charles Mingus and Dizzy Gillespie (and many others), Coltrane initially emulated the bebop progenitor Charlie Parker and listened to western classical music, especially the work of Stravinsky. Even in his formative years, though, Coltrane was already resisting the accepted (and acceptable) limitations and straining to explore the possibilities of his instrument.

It’s worth quoting, in full, these observations by drummer Rashied Ali, (from an interview with Howard Mandel), who played with Coltrane in the last years of his life.

He never stopped playing. When I used to go to hear ‘Trane, he would always be playing. He would be playing in his dressing room. He would be playing before he got to me. Just like a fighter would warm up in the dressing room, he’d come out in the ring and he’d be sweating from warming up, he would do the same thing in the dressing room. He would just play and play and play. He would break a sweat in the dressing room and then when he would come out on the bandstand, he had all that — I don’t know where he got that energy from. He was relentless.

He always had an instrument in his hand.  He was always playing something. He was always trying to be better than he was and it seemed like, you know, how could he get better? How could he do anything better than that, than what he’s done already? And after playing all these years with all these different people…the man still had a vision that he could be better than he was and he was still practicing.

Of course, Coltrane’s music was not universally embraced during the final years he was able to record and play. His solos became longer and (much) more intense, yet no matter how many listeners he alienated, it was apparent that in order to push the audience, he first had to push himself. Roscoe Mitchell, commenting on this spiritual searching, has likened Coltrane’s later music to what he witnessed in churches growing up, with people transporting into religious trances. This—the music and the explanation—is where more than a few draw the line; it’s just too out there; too much for the human ear. Coltrane contained multitudes, but his music, after 1964, was often uncontainable.

Coltrane knew where he was going, however, even if he couldn’t quite define what he was looking for. His wife Alice remarked that Coltrane was following a “progression toward higher spiritual realization…and development.” That type of sentiment can, and perhaps should, make people wary, but with Coltrane it was no pose, and this was no joke.

It was all over far too quickly. As is too often the case with our greatest artists, Coltrane fell ill and passed away long before his time should have come. It scarcely computes, even now, that the man making the music he recorded in early 1967 (particularly the shattering if cathartic Interstellar Space) was months from losing a battle with cancer. Where he would have headed had he lived is truly difficult to imagine. It remains more than a little startling, to consider the growth and refinement he demonstrated every few years, commencing in the mid-to-late ‘50s. Where he might have gone next is anyone’s guess, but it’s also safe to surmise that he took his instrument, and music, as far as anyone possibly could.

To understand the trajectory that took Coltrane from sheets of sound to A Love Supreme, it’s instructive to consider his composition “Alabama”, recorded in 1963. Inspired by the disgraceful 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, Coltrane said of his elegy: “It represents, musically, something that I saw down there translated into music from inside me.” It is one of his enduring and devastating performances wherein Coltrane, already considered amongst jazz music’s most emotional and sensitive players, manages to articulate the grief and the rage the occasion called for. A deeply spiritual man, Coltrane conveys the immutable senselessness of violence instigated by ignorance, but also hints at the redemption of peaceful power through unified awareness. As only he could, Coltrane crafts a solo that is angry, somber, and somehow hopeful; a subdued epitaph for the innocent dead, but also a rallying cry for the not-so-innocent bystanders who needed to join the cause. The Alabama bombing was a tipping point in the civil rights movement, and Coltrane captured that moment where confusion and rage inspired an outpouring of solidarity.

Another quote from O’Connor: “Dear God please help me to be an artist, please let it lead to you.” It’s clear that, for O’Connor, the journey was as important as the destination: being a good Catholic, she not only accepted that she’d have to suffer, she expected it. Coltrane’s suffering, for some time, involved the self-imposed heroin addiction he finally kicked in 1957 (years of alcohol abuse undoubtedly contributed to his eventual liver cancer). The liner notes to A Love Supreme, written by Coltrane and addressed to the audience (Dear Listener, they begin) leave little doubt what the album was “about” and exactly what inspired its creation—and its creator:

ALL PRAISE BE TO GOD TO WHOM ALL PRAISE IS DUE. Let us pursue Him in the righteous path. Yes it is true; “seek and ye shall find.” Only through Him can we know the most wondrous bequeathal. During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music.

It might be suggested we’ve never seen, in modern art, more abundant or eloquent evidence of Art leading to God than A Love Supreme. (And, if we can collectively embrace the notion that “God is Love”, no ecclesiastical concerns need sully the discussion.) It serves as a consecration of sorts, a personal yet intensely spiritual expression: finally, Coltrane was able to filter all that intensity into a perfect chalice, never before, or after, was his vision so focused yet peaceful. The music—and message—is a force of nature the listener must let wash over them, while repeated listens will refresh and renew.

O’Connor wanted to jolt you with the violent shock of recognition, and achieve some type of artistic if not spiritual consecration; Coltrane wanted to transcend the insanity altogether, altering consciousness through a profoundly moving colloquy. That he attempted this is remarkable; that he was able to achieve it remains miraculous.

This essay originally appeared in The Weeklings on 12/9/15.

 

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On Losing Faith and Finding Myself Instead

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AUGUST 30, 2002. I was in a church for the first time in forever. The church where I received the Sacrament of Confirmation. The church where my parents celebrated their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. The church where my sister was married. The church where I almost got married.

(My father had said: Obviously you’ll deliver the eulogy.

Question: How will I get through it?

 Friends and family asked: How did you get through it?

Answer: I don’t know.)

It had been half a lifetime since I’d experienced this vantage point. Standing on the altar, looking down at a church filled with somber, expectant faces. All those years as an altar boy, hearing the words and receiving the ritual on its austere terms, the practiced movements and mannerisms that sought to convey the meaning—and purpose—of existence in sixty minutes or less. Carefully studying the priest who presided over the congregation, routinely looking up at those stained glass images that looked down at us and filled the room with an inexpressible awe and approbation.

Periodically I would be called upon to serve at a wedding and less frequently, at a funeral. Weddings were preferable for both obvious and selfish reasons: happy events, pretty women and typically a few extra dollars for my time. The funerals were, in practically every sense, contradictory occasions. I had only been to one funeral before. At age ten I’d been old enough to remember it. I mostly recalled how surreal it was to see my grandmother in an open casket, and the way my mother, her siblings, and their father wept, and not being able to console them or fully grasp the depth of my own sorrow.

“Listen to the words,” my father told me, sensing my ambivalence before I prepared for my first funeral mass. “It is actually a very beautiful service.” I listened to him, and I listened to the words. I listened to everything, then. The passages and prayers—some familiar, some not—were carefully chosen, and went a considerable way toward impressing upon my adolescent mind how communal, and inevitable, this rite of passage was for everyone who drew breath. Someday each of us will watch a loved one die, and eventually all of us will pass on from here to there. That is where the meaning of the words, and whether or not you believed them, came into play. I believed the words; I believed everything, then.

***

God’s will?

Who knows? I don’t, but neither do you. No one can say except for the vulnerable ones who say it, who need to believe it in order to grant order or at least coherence to things that are, by any other measure, incomprehensible. Whether one is grappling with the death of a parent or contemplating the plight of impoverished people, there exists—in God—an easy, irresistible answer that removes doubt and eradicates responsibility (ours, His). When one is young, or weak, or wanting, the concept of God is less a matter of belief than an enchanting vindication or our inability—or unwillingness—to confront our own fates.

Whether it’s a relationship, a job or a religion, as soon as your participation seems pointless, or painful, or if it ceases to inspire you, it’s time to look around, or better yet, inside, for other options. Some people need an answer; some people can never stop asking questions.

***

The worst moments, of course, occur in the waiting room. It’s unconscionable the way families are obliged to receive the news, good or bad, in front of each other: that negative diagnosis a public spectacle hardly tolerable for loved ones, much less strangers; a positive diagnosis a slap in the face of those anxious and suffering within earshot. In ’97 the news had been unexpected—and not good—but they caught it (They got it!), so the shock was mitigated by how much worse it could have been (She’s going to make it!). 2000 was the same scene, only more so. 2001 was disconcerting, a surprise (It’s back) coupled with an inconclusive report (We can’t get rid of it all). We absorbed this verdict in the crowded space where everyone else sits and waits, a nerve-wracking purgatory we pay to provide (and, if possible, avoid).

“I’m going to the chapel,” my father announced, and I followed him. “You don’t have to come with me,” he said, almost gently. It was the first time I’d seen him this close to defeat, the first time I’d noticed the thinnest red streaks on either side of his mouth—burst blood vessels from clenching his jaw so long and so hard. “No, I’ll go with you,” I said. It was the first time I’d ever voluntarily accompanied him to a place where you pray for things.

I sat while he kneeled. I put a hand on his shoulder and we each thought our own thoughts. And even here, in this poor approximation of the churches we’d always attended, even as matters of life and death were being decided all around me, that familiar voice could not keep quiet. That voice inherited as birthright by anyone born into a family of faith, the conscience inside and beneath the sense of right and wrong, somewhere between my gut and my memory, the voice that sustains itself by feeding on fear and fantasy: Maybe if you believed it would work. Maybe, I thought, looking at my old man, his eyes squeezed shut and his mouth mumbling words I didn’t need to hear. Maybe if we all believed nothing bad would ever happen, the troubles we cause could be more easily explained. Maybe if nothing bad ever happened we wouldn’t need to believe. Maybe if we didn’t believe we would never inculcate this formula that can make a human being like myself, at his most frail and vulnerable, capable of entertaining thoughts like this.

***

Believing in miracles requires faith. Faith in miracles, faith in faith.

The Bible, taken on faith, is God’s word and the document of His work. Miracles are, for the faithful, not merely possible or even expected, but inevitable. Blood into wine. Blindness into sight. Death into eternal life. Virginity into conception and then ascension, beyond and back into the skies. With faith all things are conceivable.

One becomes wary of miracles the same way—and for the same reasons—one disdains forced faith. After seeing a magician reveal his tricks, whether he’s wearing a black cape or a white collar, the spell can never again be unbroken.

One conditions oneself to put away childish, or unreasonable things: one learns not to pray for miracles, to neither count on nor believe in them. It has less to do with forsaking faith in the possible and more to do with reconciling oneself with what’s not possible.

***

Was that as bad for you as it was for me?

That’s the question I didn’t ask when Father _____ left our house. On to his next appointment; all in a day’s work.

Extreme unction: the old-fashioned term for that quaint custom. It serves its purpose even now, I suppose, but I couldn’t help thinking on this particular occasion it’s more often a ritual designed for everyone except the person lying on his or her death bed.

Speaking only for my mother, she was too busy dying to want, much less appreciate, the solemn incantations and grim officiating on offer. It didn’t help matters that our local church’s current pastor had a personality that made even the surgeons we’d dealt with seem convivial. It wasn’t his fault; he was an older man from an older school: the twenty-first century didn’t suit him, just like it wouldn’t suit over-the-hill academics and the stratified folks still clinging to every ism they could get their claws on. The world keeps spinning and younger, more insolent models keep popping up to replace you. Some learn how to take this in stride; others resist and end up like insects flying against traffic. And some just disengage and surf that sluggish wave into the safe haven of senility. Father _____ was of the latter ilk; it wasn’t that he was going through the motions so much as the motions were going through him.

And who could place blame at the exhausted feet of a man ten years past retirement age? Not I. Can you imagine earning your living re-reading the same book (no matter how much you enjoyed it the first thousand times; even if you believed that as soon as the words left your humble lips they ascended straight to God’s impossible ears) and knowing, every day, how this particular story ended? Worse, telling a tale with a conclusion that already occurred, since everything we do—if you follow this narrative—has already been plotted out in that great workshop in the sky. And all this role required was that you promise to anyone willing to listen the same salvation you could never be sure of; no matter how certain you were, no matter how achingly every aspect of your existence relied on this deus ex machina.

Father _____ had quite apparently made peace with his place in the world (or worse, resigned himself to it) long enough ago that by now every rote gesture was divorced from anything approaching passion. But was passion, in his case, even a prerequisite? He was, at this point, incapable of being surprised by anything: in certain vocations this might signify the highest possible level of proficiency.

In any event, I couldn’t know—and didn’t particularly care—if his visit was doing anything for him (that was between him and the surprise ending awaiting him once he got a taste of his own unction). I knew it was doing something for my old man, so I contented myself with the diminishing returns of dubious blessings. Pops was receiving the same dispensation he attained at each Sunday service: a box checked off, a chore completed, an obligation fulfilled. It was, at best, a somber sort of solace, but I certainly wished, for his sake, it was bestowing some measure of spiritual respite.

“Does she want to receive communion,” the holy man said, more a statement than a question as he reached for his stash, a to-go Eucharist in what looked like a Tupperware container. At that moment he more than a little resembled a parent ready to placate an unruly child with a treat, and I realized (reflecting on this later) that my observation signaled the tipping point of an extended but ultimately unsatisfactory experiment with the Catholic faith. The priest’s indifference (even worse than the indignation he may have managed in his younger years) when my father broke the news that his wife was not able (none of us could say she was not willing, but we all had our opinions) to partake didn’t rankle me as it might have in my younger years. If this had gone down a decade earlier, I wouldn’t have yet seen enough of the world—and the ways it wears on all of us—to appreciate how even the noblest occupations are, at the end of the day, a way to put bread on the table, even if that bread is supposed to signify the body of Christ.

It wasn’t anger I felt, just relief that when finally confronted by the thing I feared most in the world, I was neither willing nor able to clutch at the redemption he stuck back in his coat pocket. I couldn’t feel disappointed and I dared not feel pity; what, after all, did I know about all he’d seen and the things he felt? I hoped then, and hope even harder now—though I’m not quite willing or able to pray—that he was still alive somewhere inside, or had been at one point. I hoped, although his extremities were growing cold, that an ember of faith and hope blazed warmly somewhere inside the recesses of his worn-out heart.

***

You don’t lose faith (and here I refer to Faith with a capital F, or maybe that should be faith with a lowercase f—whichever kind we can associate with feelings not involving supernatural entities—the bigger kind, or smaller, depending on where you stand on such matters).

When you lose a loved one or something indelible happens to shake your balance or even shatter your belief that there’s anything sensible about this life, you eventually come to a place where the one remaining issue is the only one you can’t avoid or get around, and it turns out to be the thing that saves you. You’re still alive, you’re still around to try and make sense of it. Or, short of that, to keep drawing breath and taking more out of existence than it takes out of you. Just being is winning in the existential sense, no matter how cynical or nihilistic one feels about such matters.

Only until it happens to you, until you get your own death sentence (or, if you’re lucky—or unlucky, depending on where you stand on such matters—you die suddenly and unexpectedly); only when your own light is about to be extinguished (forever or temporarily, depending on where you stand on such matters) do you have to confront whether or not you still have faith in how your life has played out.

In my case, my mother’s death didn’t shatter my faith; I’d already taken care of that matter on my own.

***

Milan Kundera, in the book Testaments Betrayed, explains his vision of the novelist’s acumen, which is “a considered, stubborn, furious nonidentification, conceived not as evasion or passivity but as resistance, defiance, rebellion.”

In The Brothers Karamazov, during the chapter entitled “Rebellion,” the mercurial Ivan lays out his rationale for rejecting God. If the ostensibly benevolent—and omnipotent—Being who created us in His image can be credited for everything we see and achieve, He must also be accountable for all the inexplicable misery. Ivan is, ultimately, less concerned with Heaven or Hell than what occurs on God’s watch, here on earth. Even if his personal salvation was secured, even if every soul’s redemption was guaranteed, the arrangement is intolerable if it depends upon one innocent child being forced to suffer. Ivan is incapable of accepting any circumstance where ultimate peace is contingent upon anyone’s pain. This is his rebellion.

Ursula K. Le Guin takes this scenario one step further in her short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” synthesizing elements of what both Kundera and Dostoyevsky describe. In her tale, once certain types of people ascertain the way things really work (on earth as it is in heaven), they turn their backs and forsake the security of organized society. Unable to reconcile the cost of a not-so-ignorant bliss, Le Guin’s heroes rebel by refusing to endorse—or even abide—the practical, and spiritual cost of doing business.

In Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut draws an intractable line in the sand (or salt), siding with vulnerable humans over an infallible God: “And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human.”

***

Once I’d dispensed with organized religion and then determined that academia was no longer a suitable solution, I might have become paralyzed, either because of other options or the lack thereof. Instead, I felt oddly liberated, although that realization by no means occurred overnight. Eventually, I found I wasn’t running away from anything so much as feeling compelled to run toward almost everything. Avoiding quiet desperation became my approach; finding ways to make art into life and life into art was my new mantra. (So simple, so impossible.)

My rebellion, if it could accurately (or fairly) be described as such, was rather simply an antagonism against cliché: clichéd thoughts, actions, excuses, and even intentions. I still wasn’t certain what was going to work for me, but I was steadily recognizing what wasn’t going to work. Understanding that bills had to be paid, relationships had to be cultivated, mistakes had to be made, and, above all, that one day I would no longer be around, my objective revolved around an obsession to live a life nobody but I could live. During those post-graduate years I steadily fortified, for all time, the most important—and rewarding—relationship of my life: the one with myself.

***

I visited my mother’s grave the first several years for the same reason I used to attend church: it was expected, it was meant to make me feel better, it was supposed to signify something. I stopped going for the same reasons I ceased attending weekly services. Catharsis by commission most likely satisfies only those who don’t realize the game is rigged, spiritually speaking. Or else, they do know it’s a game and they couldn’t imagine it any other way. (It’s not the people with genuine faith the faithless have reservations about; it’s the folks who find their faith so onerous or insufficient that it causes them to act in ways antithetical to the precepts they purportedly approve.)

The historical intersections of culture and psychology suggest that there can be no archetypal way to grieve, just as there are no ultimate answers for how we might reconcile our place in the world, including the non-place before we are born and wherever we go when we die. But there is certainly a wrong way to grieve and grapple with the transient nature of existence. Anytime we are encouraged—or obligated—to follow a path someone else prescribes (particularly someone who is getting paid for the prescription), it’s a shortcut to resolution we can only attain for ourselves.

Cemeteries are like churches: created to contemplate people not accessible to those still living. They serve as memorials, affording an opportunity to ponder this world and reconcile our place in it.

I’ve been to the cemetery, and I don’t mind going to the cemetery. From a purely aesthetic perspective it is a lovingly constructed memento for departed souls: names and ages and years connected by what all of us ultimately have in common. The cemetery is where my mother’s body rests. Anyplace else I go is where she lived; where she still exists. Wherever I go, she accompanies me.

But sometimes this is not enough.

So I return to the lake by my father’s house. The house I grew up in; the house where my mother helped raise me; the house where we helped her die. The same lake I walked around during those last two weeks, my own routine once the August sun began its slow descent and most families sat down to dinner. The only place I was ever alone those last two weeks: a respite from crowded and uncomfortable thoughts; a retreat from the inevitable rituals of adulthood. The same lake where my father and I ended up, later that final night, after it was over and my sister had returned to her family. The lake we silently circled, not saying much, not needing to do anything other than exist.

This is where I go. I return to this lake. It is my church, my sanctified place for reflection. The water flows and recedes, feeding and restoring itself. The trees surround the water, their leaves emblems of Nature’s enduring procession. The sky stares down impassively to see its ancient face reflected up. At night the stars strain toward the earth, fulfilling their preordained purpose.

sean lake

This piece originally appeared at The Weeklings on 8/26/15 and was also picked up by Salon on 8/30.

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Victory and Sorrow: Bright Moments from Three Masters (Revisited)

Eric+Dolphy++Booker+Little+eric+dolphy+booker+little+five

HOW TO TALK ABOUT JAZZ MUSIC?

Well, perhaps it’s better to determine how not to talk about jazz music. Hearing is believing. That’s all there is to it. And if you hear something that speaks to you, keep listening. Whatever effort you put in will be immeasurably rewarded. During the decade or so that stretched from my mid-’20s to mid-’30s, I used to have more of an evangelical vibe. It’s not necessarily that I’m less invested now, then I was then; quite the contrary. But, if I wasn’t particularly interested in converting people then (I wasn’t), I’m even less so today. When it comes to art in general and music in particular, entirely too many people are very American in their tastes: they know what they like and they like what they know, which will continue to ensure that what they don’t know won’t ever hurt them. Also, let’s face it, the only thing possibly more annoying than some yahoo proselytizing their religion on your doorstep is some jackass getting in your grill about how evolved or enviable his or her musical tastes happen to be. Life is way too short, for all involved.

Volumes are devoted to the romantic gravity of the suffering artist syndrome—the suicides, the drinking and the desolation; these are the things that people who write about artists tend to write about. Certainly, the artists themselves express this angst in their art, but you seldom hear or see the solipsism on the screen or the stage or in the grooves of the vinyl. But then again, these artists don’t need anyone to celebrate their achievements, because the art they created does so with exceeding adequacy and eloquence. You can’t believe everything you read, but you can always have faith in what you hear; the ears never lie. Not when it comes to music. Not when it comes to jazz music.

For instance, what John Coltrane achieves on the final section of “A Love Supreme” could cause even the most cynical hater of humanity to feel stirred by the uniquely moving and profoundly positive force of musical expression. It’s not possible to remain neutral while listening to Charles Mingus, who, after amyotrophic lateral sclerosis confined the colossus to a wheelchair, was obliged to literally sing his songs, composing them with his mouth when he no longer could lift a pen. Here are three other musicians, all of whom deserve much wider recognition, not just for the astonishing music they made, but the circumstances they rose above to make it.

Booker LittleBooker Little

For many years—all through college and after graduate school—John Keats signified, for me, the ultimate artistic loss of all time. In terms of talent and potential versus time granted to practice and refine his skills (dead from tuberculosis, aged 25), Keats has even the most unbearable cases beat: his good friend and fellow genius Percy Bysshe Shelley (aged 29), their mutual friend Lord Byron (36). Even the great Franz Schubert (31) who, considering his abilities, may have amassed a body of work to be mentioned in the same breath as his fellow Austrian Mozart (himself only 35). Yet, like Mozart, Schubert was so stunningly prolific the collected output somewhat mitigates the loss.

Once I began seriously listening to jazz music, I came to recognize that this art form is littered with premature deaths. We know all about our famous rock stars, many of whom flamed out early in life due to self-destructive habits and hobbies. The typical, if irresponsible (and racist) assumption is that most jazz players were junkies and therefore each casualty must have died with a needle in their arm. In actuality, the number of luminous young men whose deaths were not self-inflicted is unsettling.

At the top of my list is Booker Little. Considered the heir apparent to the effulgent Clifford Brown (himself only 25 when he died, clean and sober, in a car crash), Little did not die so much as have his life defrauded, at age 23, from uremia—an especially brutal, and painful, type of kidney failure. Barely legal drinking age, Little had already led sessions that stand alongside the best post-bop recordings of the era (He neither drank nor took drugs, incidentally).

Little was able to complete two albums in the final year of his life; both considered masterpieces by aficionados, but largely obscure outside of jazz circles. This is ignominious on a number of levels. For one thing, the music contained in these releases captures the ethereal nature of life, the ecstasy of creation and the unique expressions our most gifted artists are capable of conveying. Beyond that, the albums are touchstones; perhaps the most poignant instances from any era of a human being defying death with dignity and joy, even as mortality circled his head like a demented buzzard.

What Keats was able to convey so succinctly, and enduringly, with words, Little achieves without needing a single syllable. His voice, of course, is his instrument, and his trumpet tells the story of his life: not for nothing was his final work entitled Victory and Sorrow. It’s impossible to listen to this music without hearing the history of illness, injustice and ultimately the transcendent human ability to, at least temporarily, overcome anything.

At once somber and serene, the compositions achieve an intense distillation of Beauty: the joy of inspiration leavened with the contemplation of transience. It is all in there, as devastating in its way as the symphonies of Mahler or the extended meditations of Tolstoy. Does the concentrated intensity of this sound derive from the soul of a man who sensed his time was, all of a sudden, just about up? It is almost intolerable to imagine that he was anticipating –and realizing– some of the experiences and emotions of the years he should have had, putting every thought, feeling, regret and ambition into his playing. Was he in fact dealing with significant pain while he composed and played this music? If so, we are getting into deaf Beethoven levels of drama and disbelief.

How did he manage? There is a tune on the album Out Front entitled “Strength and Sanity”, which could be a commentary on what any individual requires in order to survive—much less thrive—in a world where there is a distinct shortage of both. It certainly speaks to ingredients necessary for jazz musicians, incomparably talented men who were still, circa 1961, considered second-rate citizens, not to mention the additional stigma of being jazz musicians. But it is also a statement about what Little had to count on and cultivate just in order to get as far as he did, and deal with the hand he was dealt: performing, composing and playing against the dying of the light.

Perspective. That he was called on so young by the capricious machinery of Fate is enough to humble a hardened heart. That he succeeded in creating, and leaving behind, music that still inspires and consoles is a miracle; a miracle that, in the final analysis, equals or surpasses and possibly even overwhelms the illogical, unfair nature of his passing. That this blissful, restorative sound exists to help any confused, self-pitying individuals left behind, struggling to carry his baggage, makes a compelling case to consider the bigger picture.

 

dolphy

Eric Dolphy

It will be difficult to avoid clichés here. In their defense, clichés originate from an authentic place; they are mostly an attempt, at least initially, to articulate something honest and immutable. And so: Eric Dolphy is among the foremost supernovas in all of jazz (Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan and, of course, Booker Little—all trumpeters incidentally—also come quickly to mind): he burned very brightly and very briefly, and then he was gone. Speaking of clichés, not a single one of the artists just mentioned—all of whom left us well before their fortieth birthdays—died from a drug overdose.

Dolphy, the grand old man of the bunch, passed away at the age of 36, in Europe. How? After lapsing into a diabetic coma. Why? The doctors on duty presumed the black musician who had collapsed in the street was nodding off on a heroin buzz. To attempt to put the magnitude of this loss in perspective, consider that Charles Mingus, perhaps the most difficult and demanding band leader of them all, declared Dolphy a saint, and regarded his death as one of a handful of setbacks he could never completely get over. Dolphy holds the distinction of quite possibly being the one artist nobody has gone on record to say a single negative thing about. His body of work, the bulk of which was recorded during an almost miraculously productive five-year stretch, is deep, challenging, and utterly enjoyable.

“Eclipse” from Out There: a tribute to another great composer: his friend, mentor and bandmate Charles Mingus. For my money, “The Wind Cries Mary”, by Jimi Hendrix (speaking of supernovas), captures the feeling of melancholy as well as any song ever has. But to achieve similar effect without words, as Dolphy does here, is a staggering achievement. The mournful cadence of Dolphy’s clarinet here gets right inside you, and the feeling expressed is magnified by Ron Carter’s bowed cello, which weaves in and around, at once among the corners and right within the heart of the song. The sounds these two men achieve are so unusual, so unsettling and surreal, it almost defies explanation. This is music best categorized as other and the album title, Out There, is more than a little appropriate. Dolphy was indeed “out there” in the sense that most of us are blissful or oblivious inside our little boxes, incapable of hearing, much less expressing, the joyful noises that reside in those most inaccessible spaces: within each of us.

One of the paradoxical reasons Dolphy tends to get overlooked, even slighted, is not because of any lack of proficiency, but rather an abundance of it. It does not quite seem possible—particularly for lazier critics and ringleaders amongst the jazz intelligentsia—that such a relatively young musician could master three instruments. In actuality, Dolphy was an exceedingly accomplished alto sax player, drawing freely (pun intended) from Bird while pointing the way toward Braxton. Perhaps most egregiously disregarded is his flute playing, which not only achieves a consistent and uncommon beauty, but more than holds its own against fellow multi-reedists Yusef Lateef and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Nevertheless, it is the signature, unmistakable sounds he makes with the bass clarinet that ensure his place in the pantheon: no one of note, excepting Harry Carney, employed this instrument on the front line before Dolphy and, arguably, no one has used it as effectively and indelibly since. Let there be no doubt that Eric Dolphy warrants mention amongst jazz music’s all-time immortals.

Dead at 36. There is nothing anyone can say that could possibly begin to explain or rationalize that travesty of justice; that affront to life. It is the excruciating enigmas like these that make certain people hope against hope that there is a bigger purpose and plan, a way to measure or quantify such senselessness. But in the final, human analysis, whatever we lost can never overwhelm all that we received. It helps that we will always have the gifts the artist left behind. It’s never enough; it’s more than enough.

 

rahsaan-roland-kirk1Rahsaan Roland Kirk

When listening to Rahsaan Roland Kirk (who was born blind and eventually taught himself to play three saxophones—simultaneously), the word that leaps to mind, which can certainly be applied to jazz in general and Rahsaan in particular, is dialogic. This is a term that the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin used to elucidate the ceaseless and very deliberately constructed internal monologues that are contained within Dostoyevsky’s novels. It concerns the notion of a narrative voice being aware of (or concerned with the exertion of) its authority, and anticipating reader reactions as well as a sort of running footnote, answering perceived questions and comments, and always attempting to maintain that autonomous position. It is many voices at once, or the same voice exploring many possibilities.

One of the many aspects of the dialogic voice in jazz music is the practice of quoting all musicians engage in, the process of referencing, mentioning, or giving props to a particular tune or composer, always with the intent of augmenting the overall effect and efficacy of the ongoing improvisation. With Rahsaan, this very purposeful and empowering technique arguably reached its apotheosis. Because he was an artist so well-schooled and hip to the history of all music, it is an education every time a Kirk tune receives the scrutiny it obviously warrants. And because jazz music is inexorably an indigenous black music, and this black music a uniquely American invention, one is necessarily immersed in a seamless expression of the dialogic articulation of America itself.

Joel Dorn (RIP), producer, raconteur and jazz ambassador, did as much as anyone to expose and celebrate the music of our national treasures. He developed an especially close relationship with Rahsaan (and made it a personal mission, during the mid-to-late 90s, to promote what he termed the “Rahsaan-aisance”). Some great reissues came out of those efforts, and his liner notes for the compilation Simmer, Reduce, Garnish and Serve might be the best I’ve ever read by any producer about any recording. In them he discusses Kirk’s final sessions, which occurred after a stroke left the musician without use of the left side of his body and forced him to undergo thrice weekly dialysis treatments.

He kept practically a pre-stroke pace in terms of live performance here and abroad and was committed to making records. His display of raw courage, grit, determination, whatever you want to call it, was mind bending. In order to fully appreciate Boogie-Woogie String Along For Real, it has to be viewed within the context of the herculean effort on Rahsaan’s part just to make it. When the session was done, Rahsaan gave me instructions as to how he wanted the album put together. We hugged goodbye, and I watched as he left the studio…(I) knew (I’d) never see him again.

Rahsaan often talked about bright moments: occasions where one feels deeply connected to the music, the message, and the soul of the messenger. To be sure, he made it rather easy: all you need do is listen with your heart as much as your ears and the music takes care of everything else—you’re just along for the ride. And yet, you’re not. You really do go somewhere: begin here and end up there: when you listen to the best jazz music, the experience is never static; you are always on your way someplace. Kirk’s ultimate legacy is creating so many bright moments, allowing us to comprehend—and rejoice in—the struggles and elations of the messenger, and the message he’s relaying: his victory and sorrow.

This is what jazz music signifies for me. As a dedicated non-musician, I use jazz as a viable source of empowerment; while it remains first and foremost a very real and easily identifiable source of extreme pleasure; it is also a vehicle, something used to get you someplace else. A stimulus that demands a response, capable of conjuring up words and concepts (and constructions) such as spirit, soul, God, karma—things that are almost unbearably oblique, or pretentious, or all-too-easily invoked, usually as readymade escutcheons for folks who ardently need a way to articulate the feeling they either can’t quite explain or desperately wish to get in touch with.

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Victory and Sorrow: Bright Moments from Three Masters (Revisited)

Eric+Dolphy++Booker+Little+eric+dolphy+booker+little+five

HOW TO TALK ABOUT JAZZ MUSIC?

Well, perhaps it’s better to determine how not to talk about jazz music. Hearing is believing. That’s all there is to it. And if you hear something that speaks to you, keep listening. Whatever effort you put in will be immeasurably rewarded. During the decade or so that stretched from my mid-’20s to mid-’30s, I used to have more of an evangelical vibe. It’s not necessarily that I’m less invested now, then I was then; quite the contrary. But, if I wasn’t particularly interested in converting people then (I wasn’t), I’m even less so today. When it comes to art in general and music in particular, entirely too many people are very American in their tastes: they know what they like and they like what they know, which will continue to ensure that what they don’t know won’t ever hurt them. Also, let’s face it, the only thing possibly more annoying than some yahoo proselytizing their religion on your doorstep is some jackass getting in your grill about how evolved or enviable his or her musical tastes happen to be. Life is way too short, for all involved.

Volumes are devoted to the romantic gravity of the suffering artist syndrome—the suicides, the drinking and the desolation; these are the things that people who write about artists tend to write about. Certainly, the artists themselves express this angst in their art, but you seldom hear or see the solipsism on the screen or the stage or in the grooves of the vinyl. But then again, these artists don’t need anyone to celebrate their achievements, because the art they created does so with exceeding adequacy and eloquence. You can’t believe everything you read, but you can always have faith in what you hear; the ears never lie. Not when it comes to music. Not when it comes to jazz music.

For instance, what John Coltrane achieves on the final section of “A Love Supreme” could cause even the most cynical hater of humanity to feel stirred by the uniquely moving and profoundly positive force of musical expression. It’s not possible to remain neutral while listening to Charles Mingus, who, after amyotrophic lateral sclerosis confined the colossus to a wheelchair, was obliged to literally sing his songs, composing them with his mouth when he no longer could lift a pen. Here are three other musicians, all of whom deserve much wider recognition, not just for the astonishing music they made, but the circumstances they rose above to make it.

Booker LittleBooker Little

For many years—all through college and after graduate school—John Keats signified, for me, the ultimate artistic loss of all time. In terms of talent and potential versus time granted to practice and refine his skills (dead from tuberculosis, aged 25), Keats has even the most unbearable cases beat: his good friend and fellow genius Percy Bysshe Shelley (aged 29), their mutual friend Lord Byron (36). Even the great Franz Schubert (31) who, considering his abilities, may have amassed a body of work to be mentioned in the same breath as his fellow Austrian Mozart (himself only 35). Yet, like Mozart, Schubert was so stunningly prolific the collected output somewhat mitigates the loss.

Once I began seriously listening to jazz music, I came to recognize that this art form is littered with premature deaths. We know all about our famous rock stars, many of whom flamed out early in life due to self-destructive habits and hobbies. The typical, if irresponsible (and racist) assumption is that most jazz players were junkies and therefore each casualty must have died with a needle in their arm. In actuality, the number of luminous young men whose deaths were not self-inflicted is unsettling.

At the top of my list is Booker Little. Considered the heir apparent to the effulgent Clifford Brown (himself only 25 when he died, clean and sober, in a car crash), Little did not die so much as have his life defrauded, at age 23, from uremia—an especially brutal, and painful, type of kidney failure. Barely legal drinking age, Little had already led sessions that stand alongside the best post-bop recordings of the era (He neither drank nor took drugs, incidentally).

Little was able to complete two albums in the final year of his life; both considered masterpieces by aficionados, but largely obscure outside of jazz circles. This is ignominious on a number of levels. For one thing, the music contained in these releases captures the ethereal nature of life, the ecstasy of creation and the unique expressions our most gifted artists are capable of conveying. Beyond that, the albums are touchstones; perhaps the most poignant instances from any era of a human being defying death with dignity and joy, even as mortality circled his head like a demented buzzard.

What Keats was able to convey so succinctly, and enduringly, with words, Little achieves without needing a single syllable. His voice, of course, is his instrument, and his trumpet tells the story of his life: not for nothing was his final work entitled Victory and Sorrow. It’s impossible to listen to this music without hearing the history of illness, injustice and ultimately the transcendent human ability to, at least temporarily, overcome anything.

At once somber and serene, the compositions achieve an intense distillation of Beauty: the joy of inspiration leavened with the contemplation of transience. It is all in there, as devastating in its way as the symphonies of Mahler or the extended meditations of Tolstoy. Does the concentrated intensity of this sound derive from the soul of a man who sensed his time was, all of a sudden, just about up? It is almost intolerable to imagine that he was anticipating –and realizing– some of the experiences and emotions of the years he should have had, putting every thought, feeling, regret and ambition into his playing. Was he in fact dealing with significant pain while he composed and played this music? If so, we are getting into deaf Beethoven levels of drama and disbelief.

How did he manage? There is a tune on the album Out Front entitled “Strength and Sanity”, which could be a commentary on what any individual requires in order to survive—much less thrive—in a world where there is a distinct shortage of both. It certainly speaks to ingredients necessary for jazz musicians, incomparably talented men who were still, circa 1961, considered second-rate citizens, not to mention the additional stigma of being jazz musicians. But it is also a statement about what Little had to count on and cultivate just in order to get as far as he did, and deal with the hand he was dealt: performing, composing and playing against the dying of the light.

Perspective. That he was called on so young by the capricious machinery of Fate is enough to humble a hardened heart. That he succeeded in creating, and leaving behind, music that still inspires and consoles is a miracle; a miracle that, in the final analysis, equals or surpasses and possibly even overwhelms the illogical, unfair nature of his passing. That this blissful, restorative sound exists to help any confused, self-pitying individuals left behind, struggling to carry his baggage, makes a compelling case to consider the bigger picture.

 

dolphy

Eric Dolphy

It will be difficult to avoid clichés here. In their defense, clichés originate from an authentic place; they are mostly an attempt, at least initially, to articulate something honest and immutable. And so: Eric Dolphy is among the foremost supernovas in all of jazz (Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan and, of course, Booker Little—all trumpeters incidentally—also come quickly to mind): he burned very brightly and very briefly, and then he was gone. Speaking of clichés, not a single one of the artists just mentioned—all of whom left us well before their fortieth birthdays—died from a drug overdose.

Dolphy, the grand old man of the bunch, passed away at the age of 36, in Europe. How? After lapsing into a diabetic coma. Why? The doctors on duty presumed the black musician who had collapsed in the street was nodding off on a heroin buzz. To attempt to put the magnitude of this loss in perspective, consider that Charles Mingus, perhaps the most difficult and demanding band leader of them all, declared Dolphy a saint, and regarded his death as one of a handful of setbacks he could never completely get over. Dolphy holds the distinction of quite possibly being the one artist nobody has gone on record to say a single negative thing about. His body of work, the bulk of which was recorded during an almost miraculously productive five-year stretch, is deep, challenging, and utterly enjoyable.

Eclipse” from Out There: a tribute to another great composer: his friend, mentor and bandmate Charles Mingus. For my money, “The Wind Cries Mary”, by Jimi Hendrix (speaking of supernovas), captures the feeling of melancholy as well as any song ever has. But to achieve similar effect without words, as Dolphy does here, is a staggering achievement. The mournful cadence of Dolphy’s clarinet here gets right inside you, and the feeling expressed is magnified by Ron Carter’s bowed cello, which weaves in and around, at once among the corners and right within the heart of the song. The sounds these two men achieve are so unusual, so unsettling and surreal, it almost defies explanation. This is music best categorized as other and the album title, Out There, is more than a little appropriate. Dolphy was indeed “out there” in the sense that most of us are blissful or oblivious inside our little boxes, incapable of hearing, much less expressing, the joyful noises that reside in those most inaccessible spaces: within each of us.

One of the paradoxical reasons Dolphy tends to get overlooked, even slighted, is not because of any lack of proficiency, but rather an abundance of it. It does not quite seem possible—particularly for lazier critics and ringleaders amongst the jazz intelligentsia—that such a relatively young musician could master three instruments. In actuality, Dolphy was an exceedingly accomplished alto sax player, drawing freely (pun intended) from Bird while pointing the way toward Braxton. Perhaps most egregiously disregarded is his flute playing, which not only achieves a consistent and uncommon beauty, but more than holds its own against fellow multi-reedists Yusef Lateef and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Nevertheless, it is the signature, unmistakable sounds he makes with the bass clarinet that ensure his place in the pantheon: no one of note, excepting Harry Carney, employed this instrument on the front line before Dolphy and, arguably, no one has used it as effectively and indelibly since. Let there be no doubt that Eric Dolphy warrants mention amongst jazz music’s all-time immortals.

Dead at 36. There is nothing anyone can say that could possibly begin to explain or rationalize that travesty of justice; that affront to life. It is the excruciating enigmas like these that make certain people hope against hope that there is a bigger purpose and plan, a way to measure or quantify such senselessness. But in the final, human analysis, whatever we lost can never overwhelm all that we received. It helps that we will always have the gifts the artist left behind. It’s never enough; it’s more than enough.

 

rahsaan-roland-kirk1Rahsaan Roland Kirk

When listening to Rahsaan Roland Kirk (who was born blind and eventually taught himself to play three saxophones—simultaneously), the word that leaps to mind, which can certainly be applied to jazz in general and Rahsaan in particular, is dialogic. This is a term that the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin used to elucidate the ceaseless and very deliberately constructed internal monologues that are contained within Dostoyevsky’s novels. It concerns the notion of a narrative voice being aware of (or concerned with the exertion of) its authority, and anticipating reader reactions as well as a sort of running footnote, answering perceived questions and comments, and always attempting to maintain that autonomous position. It is many voices at once, or the same voice exploring many possibilities.

One of the many aspects of the dialogic voice in jazz music is the practice of quoting all musicians engage in, the process of referencing, mentioning, or giving props to a particular tune or composer, always with the intent of augmenting the overall effect and efficacy of the ongoing improvisation. With Rahsaan, this very purposeful and empowering technique arguably reached its apotheosis. Because he was an artist so well-schooled and hip to the history of all music, it is an education every time a Kirk tune receives the scrutiny it obviously warrants. And because jazz music is inexorably an indigenous black music, and this black music a uniquely American invention, one is necessarily immersed in a seamless expression of the dialogic articulation of America itself.

Joel Dorn (RIP), producer, raconteur and jazz ambassador, did as much as anyone to expose and celebrate the music of our national treasures. He developed an especially close relationship with Rahsaan (and made it a personal mission, during the mid-to-late 90s, to promote what he termed the “Rahsaan-aisance”). Some great reissues came out of those efforts, and his liner notes for the compilation Simmer, Reduce, Garnish and Serve might be the best I’ve ever read by any producer about any recording. In them he discusses Kirk’s final sessions, which occurred after a stroke left the musician without use of the left side of his body and forced him to undergo thrice weekly dialysis treatments.

He kept practically a pre-stroke pace in terms of live performance here and abroad and was committed to making records. His display of raw courage, grit, determination, whatever you want to call it, was mind bending. In order to fully appreciate Boogie-Woogie String Along For Real, it has to be viewed within the context of the herculean effort on Rahsaan’s part just to make it. When the session was done, Rahsaan gave me instructions as to how he wanted the album put together. We hugged goodbye, and I watched as he left the studio…(I) knew (I’d) never see him again.

Rahsaan often talked about bright moments: occasions where one feels deeply connected to the music, the message, and the soul of the messenger. To be sure, he made it rather easy: all you need do is listen with your heart as much as your ears and the music takes care of everything else—you’re just along for the ride. And yet, you’re not. You really do go somewhere: begin here and end up there: when you listen to the best jazz music, the experience is never static; you are always on your way someplace. Kirk’s ultimate legacy is creating so many bright moments, allowing us to comprehend—and rejoice in—the struggles and elations of the messenger, and the message he’s relaying: his victory and sorrow.

This is what jazz music signifies for me. As a dedicated non-musician, I use jazz as a viable source of empowerment; while it remains first and foremost a very real and easily identifiable source of extreme pleasure; it is also a vehicle, something used to get you someplace else. A stimulus that demands a response, capable of conjuring up words and concepts (and constructions) such as spirit, soul, God, karma—things that are almost unbearably oblique, or pretentious, or all-too-easily invoked, usually as readymade escutcheons for folks who ardently need a way to articulate the feeling they either can’t quite explain or desperately wish to get in touch with.

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Pas de deux: Outside the Text*

 

Il n’y a pas de hors-texte

–Jacques Derrida

An elderly man, thinking about nothing in particular, walks casually down the Champs Elysees, as he has done countless times, on his way to meet an acquaintance when he experiences a sudden, familiar sensation—a vague remembrance:  recherché du temps perdu, when he was a much younger man, a boy even—and he finds himself automatically reciting, like a child memorizing a psalm, those profound lines he had first encountered in his youth (which now seemed like so many lifetimes ago):  “nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada…” and as he whispers these reassuring words, undesirable images begin to crowd his aging mind and he is startled to find that the defenses are not as quick in coming:  this was not as he had trained and mastered himself to be—or not to be—he thinks, and before he can suppress it, a quick, shrill laughter escapes him, coming from he knew not where; somewhere deep, somewhere he did not until that moment know existed and as he stands motionless on the familiar Parisian street with the mild breeze blowing the leaves delicately over his freshly polished shoes, for the first time in his extremely secure life, he fears, or rather, he entertains the fear that his fac—his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s were not intact.

“It shall pass,” he murmurs, closing his eyes and deciding that the only reasonable course of action is to remain calm and try to think about nothing

but he can’t stop shaking, in spite of himself.  “Well no wonder I am trembling, the snow is falling down like I have never seen it before, and here am I, totally unprepared for these wretched conditions.”  He sighs, looking at his silk trousers and sports coat, which were offering pitiful protection from the shrieking wind.  “Why did I not hire a cab, and now it is so late,” he thinks, looking wistfully ahead at Izmailovsky Bridge, its enormous frame scarcely discernible in the distance:  no more than a mile away, mockingly close, and yet such a far walk in this frigid, filthy slush.  And so our hero resolutely exhales, deciding that it was all for the best, after all, and that all the wrongs would soon be righted.  And with this conviction, he begins walking again

gazing up at the wall of ice that surrounds him on all sides, and above it all, Mont Blanc, its solemn sheen glistening:  silence.  Then there is a noise behind him and he looks at what appears to be the figure of a man running toward him, descending the mountain with superhuman speed, covering in seconds the ground it had just taken him nearly two hours to traverse, and he thinks desperately:  It is me—it is for me that he is coming.  He prepares to flee, but realizes that if he moves quickly he will lose his footing and topple to his death among the icy crags.  He watches the distant form sprinting toward him and is surprised by the indignant fury he suddenly feels—unsure how his emotions had so quickly changed from one extreme to the other, because he is now ready, and welcomes the confrontation as he stands rooted to the spot, all thoughts of flight extinguished.  The creature approaches and stands in front of its adversary, towering over him.  It says nothing, but stands silently with a malevolent grimace, apparently waiting for a response to its unheeded appearance.  The elder man measures his opponent and feels a lifetime of dialogue welling up inside him, and speaks thus:  “Devil, you dare to approach me…I had hoped this moment would never come to pass; in fact, I must confess that I have meditated less frequently than I care to admit about its inevitability.  But this is insignificant, because you do not exist and therefore cannot threaten me.”

The creature receives this and responds bitterly:  “You know very well of my existence, doctor, as it was you who created me.  I live and I think… and that is why you fear me!”

The elder man breathes deeply, drawing himself up to his full height, and looks up at his enemy.  “You say I gave you life,” he hisses.  “Very well.  Undoubtedly, I have the power to take that which I have so rashly bestowed…”

“You have run doctor, and I have followed.  Verily, I have followed you to the ends of the earth.  And now you shall satisfy me.”

The elder man hears this and then the harsh, hollow laughter, and realizes wearily that his powers are waning, and that he may have only one remaining chance to escape.  “If I close my eyes and ignore it, it will disappear,” he thinks.  “And when I awaken again, he shall be gone…”

After what seems a lifetime of vacuous silence, he opens his eyes and

there is nothing there; nothing at all but darkness.  He feels a faint sickness in his heart—on account of the dampness of the catacombs.  “Now if only I might find my way out of this cave, so that I may return to the carnival and those that await me there…”

“But you cannot leave—not yet!” a voice calls out behind him in the still, dark air. “You have not yet tasted the Amontillado!”

As the elder man turns the opaque air is suddenly illuminated, revealing a hooded figure, which holds a torch in one hand and a bottle, raised expectantly, in the other.  “Come, let us sample at once.  I believe it to be an excellent vintage, but you must inform me if I have been duped!”

The elder gentleman assesses this development and feels a sluggish panic overcoming him as he stares at the uncanny presence before him:  a garish red mask draped over its face, a ridiculous costume capable of frightening only the young or the feeble-minded. Yes, the disguise, in and of itself was so preposterous and unoriginal it could only evoke laughter, yet, as is the case with all successful ruses, it was the identity which the mask concealed that inspired fear in the heart of the elder gentleman.

“Excuse me, let me pass,” he says, invoking the authoritative tone he has relied upon in so many previous formal lectures, readings and personal confrontations.  But the stranger, unabashed, steps in front of him and blocks his way.

“I cannot allow that,” the costumed man cries, throwing the bottle forcefully against the wall, where it crashes in a crimson spray.  “Not until you answer me one question.”

Now the elder man is extremely nervous:  that strange foreboding he felt earlier— which seems somehow to be playing itself out in such an inconceivable fashion, even as he wishes against it—has him at a loss for the first time in what seems like several lifetimes, but he realizes he has only one chance and struggles to maintain his composure.

“I am a busy man…what is it I can do for you?  Be brief please.”

The unidentified man snickers and stands closely until his face is inches away.  “Look in my eyes,” he says, reaching out.  The old man tries to step away and feels himself being grabbed with an agility and force that has long since become a shady memory of a distant past.

“Mon frère,” the older man starts, reeling inwardly at the unthinkable subservience of his tone and amazed at the sound of these simple, but scarcely recognizable words of gentility—the common courtesy he was once taught to value and had chosen to shun—these words which he has not uttered in so many lifetimes.

The stranger takes hold of his arm and with one hand reveals his grinning, leering face.  “Look at my eyes and tell me who you see!”

And the older man cannot resist and he looks, and sees, and calls out urgently in a voice very unlike his own:

“For the love of God, Montresor!”

“Yes,” the other replies, nodding his head.  “For the love of God,” and he kisses the old man on the lips and then disappears

in the bright and suddenly crowded Parisian street, he is quickly lost among the throng of university students.  Presently, a colleague and dear friend approaches and sees the older man sprawled out on the pavement, staring blankly at the sky.  He bends down and calls out in alarm:  before his eyes his mentor seems to have transformed into a gigantic insect.  He rubs his eyes and the bizarre miracle passes as abruptly as it came, and once again he is looking down at his comrade, who seems to have aged several years and looks pitifully defenseless, supine on the cobblestones.

“Qu’est-ce que passe, mon ami?”

And the old man awakens from uneasy dreams and gazes up at the familiar face, hearing the undisguised contempt of his voice:  “Hypocrite lecteur!–mon semblable, mon frère…” while        

he looks up and it seems there is a mirror being held over his face:  for a moment he sees himself, but then the image moves and he fancies he can see not one, but many figures huddled around him, tittering and pointing.  Despite this humiliation, he finds it oddly comforting that every one of their faces is obscured:  he looks at their clouded, blank visages and welcomes their undeniable nonexistence.  “It is nothing,” he thinks calmly. “All nothing at all.”  But then before his eyes the men surrounding him begin to twitch and shake and amidst the sudden, horrible laughter he watches as their true, real identities are revealed to him and he must confront this irreversible reality as he feels himself slipping into the heart of an immense darkness.

       ***

When he opens his eyes he is staring expressively at the world around him:  at the verdant trees which loom overhead, and the inestimable expanse of lucid skies that stretch up and away from him.  He hears strange birds calling, and he can somehow understand this other language and in the last moment he comprehends how simple it all actually was, and how it could have been for him.  But he sees that the wall before him is too high.  In his youth he could have scaled it easily:  now he is old and too mired in his soft flesh to master this ivory wall, this wall which he can only lie and look up at—the infallible fruit of a life’s labors—all for naught as he fades away into the nothingness that he always desperately feared would be waiting for him.

 

*This short story, an exorcism of sorts, was first written in 1994, when I was struggling to determine if I wanted to continue staggering up that ivory tower, theory books in hand and deconstruction in my head. It’s too romantic by more than half to imply that this piece, conceived and written in one single burst of inspiration, effectively provided me with direction, a divine intervention of sorts. The writer saved by his muse, exiled to the oft-fallow fields of creative writing instead of the more secure environs of academia. It’s more than half-true, but it took a while longer for me to make my decision. That day came when I found myself able to write fiction again, and it gradually dawned on me that the decision had already made itself. (More on that HERE.)

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Rebellion*

i.

Question: What are you rebelling against?

Answer: Whaddya got?

The thing most adjusted adults eventually understand is that everyone who marches to that proverbial different beat does so not necessarily out of abandon or indifference; it is usually a calculated, even cultivated design for defiance. Of course, when you’re young you have your youth to burn, like Marlon Brando on a motorcycle. Or perhaps you long to improve upon the petulance of previous generations: you hear the different drummer and then refuse to march even to that music. It isn’t that you’re going nowhere; you are content to not even go there—to keep one step ahead of oblivion, and achieve it by any means necessary so long as you’re still inside the cyclone. Or something.

 

ii.

You think: Sometimes it’s better not to think.

Ignorance, after all, is bliss and a little ignorance goes a long way, especially in this hyperspace, computer-chip information overload moment in time. A moment that is in perpetual fast-forward. Time, it seems, can scarcely keep up with itself.

On occasion (every day, more or less), you find yourself overwhelmed by a compulsion to comprehend the things you cannot control that have complete control over you. Things like aging and illness and quantum space and the mysteries of compassion. For starters. The things that only poets understand, and who understands poets? Each person, it seems, must ultimately develop a progressive inability to understand this world in which they suffer and survive. And maybe this is a good thing, all things considered. Maybe this is for the best. If the necessary miracles of evolution unfolded in ways we could readily fathom, anarchy would likely ensue. If people understood how Nature really worked and the ways in which the game is rigged, think of all the would-be Robinson Crusoes, setting sail for the deserted islands that no longer exist. They simply aren’t there.

The future, as it always seems to be, remains at once exciting and intimidating to consider. And yet: thinking about the reality, the inevitability of the 21st century, it doesn’t seem altogether possible. Can’t we just slow things down a bit and grapple with the century that we let get away from us sometime back in the mid-to-late 1800’s? The Pony Express, the phone, the phonograph, pasteurization, planes, product assembly lines, atomic bombs, Apartheid, All The President’s Men, politics as usual. Prosperity. Privation. Privacy. The Internet. Enough.

After a century of explosions—overpopulation, death, wealth, squalor, apathy, ethnic cleansing, e-mail—is there anything left to establish or invent? Haven’t we already outdone ourselves? What does the new century, the future, have to dole out that we have not already discovered? What do we have to fear that doesn’t already stare us dead in the face? Aside from the fact that we are still unable to cure ancient diseases, we can’t feed everyone, superstitious tribes are ceaselessly quarreling, and every single one of us will eventually, inevitably die.

To be continued.

You think.

 

iii.

Milan Kundera, in the book Testaments Betrayed, explains his vision of the novelist’s acumen, which is “a considered, stubborn, furious nonidentification, conceived not as evasion or passivity but as resistance, defiance, rebellion.”

In The Brothers Karamazov, there is a chapter entitled “Rebellion” wherein the mercurial Ivan lays out his rationale for rejecting God. If the ostensibly benevolent—and omnipotent—Being that created us in His image can be credited for everything we see and achieve, He must also be accountable for all the inexplicable misery. Ivan is, ultimately, less concerned with Heaven or Hell but what occurs on God’s watch, here on earth. Even if his personal salvation were secured; even if every soul’s redemption was guaranteed, the calculus is intolerable if it depends upon one innocent child being forced to suffer. Ivan is incapable of accepting any circumstance where ultimate peace is contingent upon anyone’s pain. This is his rebellion.

Taking this scenario one step further, Ursula K. Le Guin, in her short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, synthesizes elements of what both Kundera and Dostoyevsky are describing. In her tale, once certain types of people ascertain the way things really work (on earth as it is in heaven), they turn their back and forsake the security of organized society. Unable to reconcile the cost of a not-so-ignorant bliss, Le Guin’s heroes rebel by refusing to endorse—or even abide—the practical, and spiritual cost of doing business.

In Slaughterhouse Five Kurt Vonnegut draws an intractable line in the sand (or salt), siding with vulnerable humans over an infallible God: “And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human.”

What they said.

 

iv.

Once I’d dispensed with organized religion and then determined that academia was no longer a suitable solution, I might have become paralyzed, either because of other options or the lack thereof. Instead, I felt oddly liberated, although that realization by no means occurred overnight. Eventually, I found I was not running away from anything so much as I felt compelled to run toward almost everything. Avoiding quiet desperation became my approach; finding ways to make art into life and life into art was my new mantra.

My rebellion, if it could accurately (or fairly) be described as such, was rather simply an antagonism against cliché: clichéd thoughts, actions, excuses and even intentions. I was still not certain what was going to work for me, but I was steadily recognizing what wasn’t going to work. Understanding that bills had to be paid, relationships had to be cultivated, mistakes had to be made and, above all, that one day I would no longer be around, my objective revolved around an obsession to live a life nobody but I could live. During those post-graduate years I steadily fortified, for all time, the most important—and rewarding—relationship of my life: the one with myself.

*From a non-fiction work-in-progress entitled Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone.

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