Trumbo, Cranston and Ozymandias

Trumbo-Poster-Bryan-Cranston

A few random thoughts while watching ‘Trumbo’.

1. You should watch this.
2. Bryan Cranston remains an American treasure.
3. Can you believe people used to smoke in movie theaters?
4. Without exception –and excluding those who have served in the military– the people who historically have claimed to love America the most are, in no particular order, the most craven, opportunistic, ignorant and dangerous imbeciles of the generations they defile.
5. I’m still not certain if the cliché of film’s depicting writers writing while drinking bourbon and smoking and, especially, wearing ties, helps or hurts our cause. It’s probably a push, as a realistic depiction of authors scribbling in t-shirts and boxers or bathrobes would only serve to augment the confusion and disdain most serious writers inspire. (I get that the old school was different, but even trash collectors probably wore ties in the ’40s. And Tom Wolfe is possibly the only writer who has to write in a suit, and only then for the fruity affectation of it, and not for any aesthetic reasons.)
6. Poets, and novelists, really are and always have been, the unacknowledged legislators, as Shelley pointed out two centuries ago.
7. Speaking of Shelley, and Cranston, this, for all time:

Share

File Under: Man’s Inhumanity to Man (Revisited)

This hurts my heart and devastates my soul.

It makes me furious and leaves me deeply distressed. And with a helplessness that at once causes me to question my belief in humanity and at the same time feel radically energized knowing all we have done, and are still capable of doing.

Story HERE, but the long and short of it is thus: legend and one-time mayor of Niafunke, Ali Farka Touré’s music is now banned in Mali. Worse, all music is currently banned because of the backward, self-hating, world-affronting imbecility of the religious sociopaths who are further defaming their centuries old Muslim religion. (More on the practical imbalance –in human terms– of all religions, another time.)

Here’s the long and short of this disgrace:

Islamist militants linked to al-Qaeda have banned everything they deem to be against Sharia, or Islamic law. “They are destroying our culture,” says another of Mali’s most famous singers, Salif Keita. He is currently back home in Mali, preparing for a world tour to accompany the release of his latest album.”If there’s no music, no Timbuktu, it means that there is no more culture in Mali,” he adds, sitting in the grounds of his home on the small island he owns on the river Niger outside the capital, Bamako. Keita is referring to the destruction in June of the ancient shrines in Timbuktu’s mosques. The buildings were Unesco World Heritage Sites but considered by the Islamists to be idolatrous.

Father of the astonishingly gifted Vieux Farke Touré (whom I’ve gushed about HERE), Ali was not just Mali’s greatest artistic ambassador, he was (is) Mali. The unique sound he developed, over decades, brought this culture and artistry to the rest of the world, and it remains instructive to hear the deep connection between African “desert” blues and the earliest field hollers that birthed an American idiom. (As ever, art showing us how alike we are, and when stripped bare of possessions, petty grievances and misplaced emotions, we crave similar things and find resonating ways to express our joys and sorrows.)

I am genuinely humbled that I had the opportunity to see him perform, in an intimate venue, during the scorching hot summer of 2000. It remains one of the most moving and spiritual evenings of music I’ve witnessed. (“If I don’t see you again, I’ll see you all in heaven,” he said before he left the stage.) When I consider he’s gone, it always saddens me, but I can –and often do– listen to his music and it inspires me. The thought of him being silenced, by craven fanatics, in his homeland, is insufferable. It is an insult to life, a thumb in the eye of evolution and a brazen act of disobedience against the very God these bullies and brutes ostensibly worship. It is an intolerable act that we must not abide.

I’ve written about him HERE, and I considered his (solo) swan song, Savane one of the 50 best albums of the last decade (more on that list HERE). Here is what I had to say, in 2010:

When Mali legend Ali Farka Touré passed on in 2006, the world was robbed of one of its most important musicians. Granted, Touré was well into his seventh decade, but considering how late he was “discovered” (by the western world, in large part thanks to national treasure Ry Cooder), it still feels like we got cheated. On the other hand, that we found him at all, and have the work he left behind is a miracle with a capital M. If you are reading this and want to indulge me only one time, don’t hesitate to pick up everything you can find by this genius (and if you want a place to start, you simply can’t go wrong with either The Source or his aforementioned collaboration with Cooder, Talking Timbuktu).

Savane, the album Ali was working on when he began to succumb to the cancer that eventually claimed him, was released posthumously in 2006. It features the same deep, dark, profound expression (the CD cover acknowledges Ali as “king of the desert blues”) that Touré spent a lifetime perfecting, and it’s a very bittersweet swan song.

Priceless footage from those last sessions, HERE.

Writing about the posthumous release of his second –and final– collaboration with the brilliant Toumani Diabaté, I concluded my review thusly:

This is a deep, darkly beautiful work. The interplay between these two men is exceedingly rare in any type of music. Ali and Toumani is profound and powerful, with a soft accumulating force, like the individual drips of ice that form a river. This desert music is very much like the desert itself: it is expansive and immutable, and it will endure.

That sentiment is stronger than ever, and the truth of this statement is unassailable. No puny, pathetic human beings with hate choking their hearts will be able to silence this music for long. One thing is certain, this music will be living long after these forgettable cowards are long gone, blown back into the earth that they defiled.

*The image at the top of this post, incidentally, is the statue that purpotedly inspired Ozymandias, taken from the immortal poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desart. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

I will continue to cherish and celebrate the man and his music as long as I’m alive. I encourage you to do the same: acquire it, enjoy it, spread it around, and do your part to help LOVE defeat HATE.

Share

File Under: Man’s Inhumanity to Man

This hurts my heart and devastates my soul.

It makes me furious and leaves me deeply distressed. And with a helplessness that at once causes me to question my belief in humanity and at the same time feel radically energized knowing all we have done, and are still capable of doing.

Story HERE, but the long and short of it is thus: legend and one-time mayor of Niafunke, Ali Farka Touré’s music is now banned in Mali. Worse, all music is currently banned because of the backward, self-hating, world-affronting imbecility of the religious sociopaths who are further defaming their centuries old Muslim religion. (More on the practical imbalance –in human terms– of all religions, another time.)

Here’s the long and short of this disgrace:

Islamist militants linked to al-Qaeda have banned everything they deem to be against Sharia, or Islamic law. “They are destroying our culture,” says another of Mali’s most famous singers, Salif Keita. He is currently back home in Mali, preparing for a world tour to accompany the release of his latest album.”If there’s no music, no Timbuktu, it means that there is no more culture in Mali,” he adds, sitting in the grounds of his home on the small island he owns on the river Niger outside the capital, Bamako. Keita is referring to the destruction in June of the ancient shrines in Timbuktu’s mosques. The buildings were Unesco World Heritage Sites but considered by the Islamists to be idolatrous.

Father of the astonishingly gifted Vieux Farke Touré (whom I’ve gushed about HERE), Ali was not just Mali’s greatest artistic ambassador, he was (is) Mali. The unique sound he developed, over decades, brought this culture and artistry to the rest of the world, and it remains instructive to hear the deep connection between African “desert” blues and the earliest field hollers that birthed an American idiom. (As ever, art showing us how alike we are, and when stripped bare of possessions, petty grievances and misplaced emotions, we crave similar things and find resonating ways to express our joys and sorrows.)

I am genuinely humbled that I had the opportunity to see him perform, in an intimate venue, during the scorching hot summer of 2000. It remains one of the most moving and spiritual evenings of music I’ve witnessed. (“If I don’t see you again, I’ll see you all in heaven,” he said before he left the stage.) When I consider he’s gone, it always saddens me, but I can –and often do– listen to his music and it inspires me. The thought of him being silenced, by craven fanatics, in his homeland, is insufferable. It is an insult to life, a thumb in the eye of evolution and a brazen act of disobedience against the very God these bullies and brutes ostensibly worship. It is an intolerable act that we must not abide.

I’ve written about him HERE, and I considered his (solo) swan song, Savane one of the 50 best albums of the last decade (more on that list HERE). Here is what I had to say, in 2010:

When Mali legend Ali Farka Touré passed on in 2006, the world was robbed of one of its most important musicians. Granted, Touré was well into his seventh decade, but considering how late he was “discovered” (by the western world, in large part thanks to national treasure Ry Cooder), it still feels like we got cheated. On the other hand, that we found him at all, and have the work he left behind is a miracle with a capital M. If you are reading this and want to indulge me only one time, don’t hesitate to pick up everything you can find by this genius (and if you want a place to start, you simply can’t go wrong with either The Source or his aforementioned collaboration with Cooder, Talking Timbuktu).

Savane, the album Ali was working on when he began to succumb to the cancer that eventually claimed him, was released posthumously in 2006. It features the same deep, dark, profound expression (the CD cover acknowledges Ali as “king of the desert blues”) that Touré spent a lifetime perfecting, and it’s a very bittersweet swan song.

Priceless footage from those last sessions, HERE.

Writing about the posthumous release of his second –and final– collaboration with the brilliant Toumani Diabaté, I concluded my review thusly:

This is a deep, darkly beautiful work. The interplay between these two men is exceedingly rare in any type of music. Ali and Toumani is profound and powerful, with a soft accumulating force, like the individual drips of ice that form a river. This desert music is very much like the desert itself: it is expansive and immutable, and it will endure.

That sentiment is stronger than ever, and the truth of this statement is unassailable. No puny, pathetic human beings with hate choking their hearts will be able to silence this music for long. One thing is certain, this music will be living long after these forgettable cowards are long gone, blown back into the earth that they defiled.

*The image at the top of this post, incidentally, is the statue that purpotedly inspired Ozymandias, taken from the immortal poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desart. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

I will continue to cherish and celebrate the man and his music as long as I’m alive. I encourage you to do the same: acquire it, enjoy it, spread it around, and do your part to help LOVE defeat HATE.

Share

When I have fears that I may cease to be…* (Revisited)

 

I. Til Love and Fame to nothingness do sink

When I have fears that I may cease to be

Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,

Before high piled books, in charact’ry,

Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain…

If you are a certain age, or a certain type of person (or both) when you first encounter these lines, they lodge themselves somewhere deep and remain there forever. That is the gift the poet gives you; your gift in return is to read and receive the work and by never forgetting it you ensure that the artist never dies.

John Keats will remain immortal as long as humans are capable of reading words. Had he been aware of this while he struggled with the tuberculosis that would take his life at 25, perhaps it might have offered a consolation money, fame and even health could never approximate.

When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,

Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,

And think that I may never live to trace

Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance…

This particular work resonates with each successive generation because it grapples with the most profound fear any of us will ever experience: the acknowledgment that we will inexorably perish, not knowing what actually awaits us once we’re gone. That Keats, easily one of the incontestable geniuses of any era, had several decades—at least—of his life stolen by a vulgar disease tends to augment the import of his solemn meditation. There is nothing anyone can say that could possibly begin to explain or rationalize this travesty of karmic justice, this affront to life. It is the intolerable enigmas like these that make certain people hope against hope that there is a bigger purpose and plan, a way to measure or quantify this madness. But in the final, human analysis, whatever we lost can never subdue all that we received.

Does it make a difference if he is no longer around, if he never knew his words would be read, studied and savored centuries after he drew his last breath? Was he hoping he might witness that as he wrote the words; are we hoping we might see it when we read them? The questions are unanswerable, and the only thing we can be certain about is that he did live, he did write, and we do read. That is not nearly enough in terms of consolation for his death, and our loss, but it helps. As always, with art, it helps that we will always have the gifts the artist left behind. It is never enough; it is more than enough.

It is enough to make one consider asking more unanswerable—and unsatisfying—questions, like: “What kind of God would take a poet like Keats from us?”

Asking questions like that can lead one to answers that are at once the easiest and most difficult—to understand or accept: “The same one who gave him to us?”

This, of course, is not enough. It is never enough.

But somehow, it will have to do.

And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!

That I shall never look upon thee more,

Never have relish in the faery power

Of unreflecting love!—then on the shore

Of the wide world I stand alone, and think

Til Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.

II. Strength and Sanity

Eric Dolphy & Booker Little, “Fire Waltz”:

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, 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 quickly 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. Of the many worth mentioning, two tend to stand out because of their brilliance, potential and clean and sober lifestyles: Eric Dolphy and Booker Little.

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 and Lee Morgan—both 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. Let there be no doubt that Eric Dolphy warrants mention amongst jazz music’s all-time immortals.

And then there 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 euremia—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 not possible to listen to this music without hearing the history of illness, injustice and ultimately the transcendent human ability to, at least temporarily, overcome anything.

“Strength and Sanity” (from Out Front):

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.

“Man of Words” (also from Out Front, I challenge you to close your eyes for five minutes, listen, and not be moved to think about about what he saw and is saying: about his life, and how it causes you to contemplate your own):

*excerpted from my memoir entitled Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone.

Share

The Top 10 Albums of 2011, According To Me (Part Four)

1. PJ Harvey, Let England Shake

“You cannot get the news from poems”, William Carlos wrote. “But men die every day for lack of what is found there.”

Percy Bysshe Shelley famously declared poets the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Of course this was during a time when people actually read poems. Believe it or not, people used to write them as well. Poets, of course, are also the legislators for the unacknowledged: their observations and protestations are, aside from any and all aesthetic considerations, a shout from the silence; a candle for the dark places.

Throughout our time on this often-dark and occasionally silent earth, poets have cried out on account of the dispossessed, the least of our brethren who can’t or won’t speak for themselves: the elderly, the impoverished and those unfortunate souls sent out to fight our wars. These mostly undecorated and forgotten folks who are obliged to finish the fights started by people in high and heavily fortified places. As such, poems (and books, movies and songs) about war will always be relevant and timely because war is always with us. These days, it seems, we can’t find enough enemies quickly enough.

Enter Polly Jean Harvey.

The simple description of 2011’s Let England Shake is that it’s an album about war. The slightly less simple description is that it’s an album about war and the toll it has extracted on the people and land of England. The more complicated –and accurate—description is that it is an extended meditation on the conflicts England, its allies and its enemies have found themselves ensnared in, time and again. It is not an anti-war album as such; it dispenses altogether with sloganeering and simplistic appraisals. More, it’s not political so much as its personal: it concerns itself with the usually nameless soldiers and citizens who pay the ultimate cost, time and again. Another way to put it is that this is the album Roger Waters has always wanted to make.

What PJ Harvey is after here is slightly beyond ambitious. Let England Shake is a statement of purpose that strains—and succeeds—at articulating observations that are not unique to any country, party affiliation or language; in other words she is grappling with universal themes yet rendering them in ways that are deeply personal. Somehow, she manages to speak for—and through—dead soldiers, she weaves in her own (mostly dispassionate) reflections and, throughout, she embodies the voice of History, which does not render judgment so much as evidence of the events it has recorded.

This work would be a significant achievement just as words on paper, or recited lines. Adding the music and the full arsenal of voices Harvey can peerlessly conjure up, the results exemplify the distinctive and profound impact musical expression conveys. In addition to the crucial support of long-time collaborators John Parish and Mick Harvey, Harvey adds zither and saxophone to her usual guitar and piano. The resulting music is quietly forceful, and insistent yet restrained: like the lyrics, they are ostensibly simple, but reveal multiple layers after repeated listens.

The strategic touches, clever and cheeky, provide added depth, humor and pathos to the proceedings. For instance, incorporating a reveille into “The Glorious Land” is intentionally jarring; it’s totally out of place and should distract from the menacing undercurrent—but it doesn’t because it’s a sly and subtle commentary on the rush (literal and figurative) to fight that precedes and follows a declaration of war. “What is the glorious fruit of our land?” she asks. “Its fruit is orphaned children,” is the solemn response, making those trumpet calls both ironic and heartrending. On the title track she ingeniously incorporates the old chestnut “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” as a comment-within-comment about lost empires (real or imagined) and textbook epochs that ceaselessly recycle themselves. A similar effect is achieved on “Written on the Forehead” by sampling Niney Nine’s classic “Blood and Fire”: Let it burn, she chants, an avenging angel and/or the battle-weary lament of a scorched landscape.

The album comes out swinging and never stalls for a second, but there are three songs (the fourth, fifth and sixth tracks) that especially stand out, in the context of this work and everything else PJ Harvey has done. “The Words That Maketh Murder” uses a propulsive beat that would seem to belie the lyrics, until one realizes the tempo is appropriate for a battlefield scene, a racing heart or a shell-shocked brain. Harvey’s child-like voice is used to disarming affect (pun somewhat intended): in a sing-song cadence with a pleasantly chugging rhythm she recalls a unnamed soldier seeing “arms and legs…in the trees” and her repeated chant of the word murder is a declaration (this is what war is) and an indictment (this is what war does). As the song ends it invokes the throwaway line from Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” (What if I take my problem to the United Nations?): it is and, for the most part always has been, a sadly absurd, rhetorical query.

The centerpiece of the album is “All & Everyone” which, like many of the songs, concerns itself with World War I and the brutal Gallipoli Campaign. Of course this event literally invokes the aforementioned Constantinople, and still resonates as a particularly bloody and, arguably pointless conflagration. The pace is appropriately somber, almost funereal, with a languidly creeping tension that builds up to the moments that resulted in massacre: “Death hung in the smoke and clung/To four hundred acres of useless beachfront,” Harvey intones, employing a venom that is used judiciously, if strategically, throughout the work. As plaintive organ, sax and percussion march, like the helpless soldiers, into a resigned silence, her ethereal voice croons the preordained verdict: “Death to all and everyone.”

“On Battleship Hill” again invokes Gallipoli, albeit from the perspective of the present day. Naturally this calls to mind comparisons with current, controversial escapades that have left grieving widows and mind-boggling body counts. A whiff of thyme (a spice traditionally utilized in funerals for its pleasing scent and alleged spiritual properties) in the wind reminds the singer that “cruel nature has won again.” Commenting on the “caved-in trenches (and) jagged mountains…cracked like teeth in a rotten mouth”, Harvey once again uses the scarred land as an explicit reflection on the physical toll (on our countries; on our people) war inexorably extracts. The plodding pace of the song is like Nature itself: relentless, non-negotiable. After a propulsive introduction all sound ceases and it’s just Harvey’s voice: that siren wail, lustrous, fragile, immortal. Her voice, as those in the know can attest, is one of the miracles of modern music. Acquiescent and almost operatic, she sings out for the fallen soldiers, buried in the hard earth and rendered history by the unlucky circumstances of their ages and the age they lived in; the age we live in still. As the song spins itself out from the past into our possible future the doleful refrain “Cruel Nature has won again” is a requiem for our recklessness, which is unending as it is unnatural.

In the final analysis one is tempted to say that PJ Harvey has created a musical equivalent to Tim O’Brien’s celebrated collection The Things They Carried. Of course, being music, it’s different, and where O’Brien offers a first-hand account from the fields of fire, Harvey immersed herself in source material to give voice to people who never had a chance to account for themselves. Music and voices lend a solemn, ultimately beautiful import to words meant to shake and redeem.

In The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock T.S. Eliot’s despondent narrator laments “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each/I do not think they will sing to me.” On Let England Shake PJ Harvey has willed herself to become one of those mermaids, and this elegiac cycle of songs is her lone voice crying out to all those anonymous spirits. It is an act of witness and it is a call of defiance: against folly, against forgetting.

Share

When I have fears that I may cease to be…*

I. Til Love and Fame to nothingness do sink

When I have fears that I may cease to be

Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,

Before high piled books, in charact’ry,

Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain…

If you are a certain age, or a certain type of person (or both) when you first encounter these lines, they lodge themselves somewhere deep and remain there forever. That is the gift the poet gives you; your gift in return is to read and receive the work and by never forgetting it you ensure that the artist never dies.

John Keats will remain immortal as long as humans are capable of reading words. Had he been aware of this while he struggled with the tuberculosis that would take his life at 25, perhaps it might have offered a consolation money, fame and even health could never approximate.

When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,

Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,

And think that I may never live to trace

Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance…

This particular work resonates with each successive generation because it grapples with the most profound fear any of us will ever experience: the acknowledgment that we will inexorably perish, not knowing what actually awaits us once we’re gone. That Keats, easily one of the incontestable geniuses of any era, had several decades—at least—of his life stolen by a vulgar disease tends to augment the import of his solemn meditation. There is nothing anyone can say that could possibly begin to explain or rationalize this travesty of karmic justice, this affront to life. It is the intolerable enigmas like these that make certain people hope against hope that there is a bigger purpose and plan, a way to measure or quantify this madness. But in the final, human analysis, whatever we lost can never subdue all that we received.

Does it make a difference if he is no longer around, if he never knew his words would be read, studied and savored centuries after he drew his last breath? Was he hoping he might witness that as he wrote the words; are we hoping we might see it when we read them? The questions are unanswerable, and the only thing we can be certain about is that he did live, he did write, and we do read. That is not nearly enough in terms of consolation for his death, and our loss, but it helps. As always, with art, it helps that we will always have the gifts the artist left behind. It is never enough; it is more than enough.

It is enough to make one consider asking more unanswerable—and unsatisfying—questions, like: “What kind of God would take a poet like Keats from us?”

Asking questions like that can lead one to answers that are at once the easiest and most difficult—to understand or accept: “The same one who gave him to us?”

This, of course, is not enough. It is never enough.

But somehow, it will have to do.

And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!

That I shall never look upon thee more,

Never have relish in the faery power

Of unreflecting love!—then on the shore

Of the wide world I stand alone, and think

Til Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.

 II. Strength and Sanity

Eric Dolphy & Booker Little, “Fire Waltz”:

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, 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 quickly 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. Of the many worth mentioning, two tend to stand out because of their brilliance, potential and clean and sober lifestyles: Eric Dolphy and Booker Little.

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 and Lee Morgan—both 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. Let there be no doubt that Eric Dolphy warrants mention amongst jazz music’s all-time immortals.

And then there 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 euremia—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 not possible to listen to this music without hearing the history of illness, injustice and ultimately the transcendent human ability to, at least temporarily, overcome anything.

“Strength and Sanity” (from Out Front):

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.

“Man of Words” (also from Out Front, but no comment on the unrelated, albeit not unpleasant accompanying YouTube image; I challenge you to close your eyes for five minutes, listen, and not think about what he saw and is saying: about his life, and how it causes you to contemplate your own):

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

Share