Archive for the 'the culture' Category

Liner Notes – My Life Was Saved By Rock And Roll- Part II: Rhythm And Blues, And All That Jazz

My first musical foray off the path of respectability was my discovery of Rhythm and Blues. Indiscriminate in my pleasures as only a kid can be, I was bowled over by a musical form every bit as foreign to my own life as Scheherazade had been just few years earlier. On a summer evening in1953, standing in front of a jukebox at Chain Bridge, a low-rent swimming place on the Neshaminy Creek in then rural Bucks County near Philadelphia, I first heard the Big Momma Willie Mae Thorton version of Hound Dog. I heard it, and immediately, I loved it. I was as irrevocably changed as one of Mencken’s maidens exposured to Richard Strauss.

At a recent NYU/ New York Times forum on the 1950s, Elvis biographer Peter Guralnick noted that in the fifties, the big cultural changes were on their way, with or without a Mr. Presley. He said that as early as 1953, the music industry was aware that there were white teenagers starting to buy Black music. He was talking about me. I came home late on a Saturday night with my 45-rpm copy of Hound Dog and insisted that my parents sit with me and listen to this new voice of God, as I had come to understood God. They were incredulous.

The only local sources for rhythm and blues were a couple of AM radio stations targeted exclusively to the then Negro markets. WCAM, 1310 on the AM dial, broadcasting from across the river in Camden, New Jersey, put on a three hour rhythm and blues show every evening from seven to ten called “Swinging in the Groove.” The list of sponsors demonstrated that we were not on the station’s demographic target. Between Howlin Wolf and Muddy Waters we were given pitches for Dixie Peach Pomade, Florsheim Shoes and a high style men’s store in downtown Philly. Each song was introduced with a number, the meaning of which I was never to know. A matter-of-fact announcer’s voice would say “Number 128, Joe Turner with “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” or “Number 322, Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters with…” As the years went on and the crossovers multiplied, I responded with a purist’s sneer to the sanitized Bill Haleys, Pat Boone’s and reflexively even to Elvis himself. I had become too cool to be cool. My embrace of Black music gave me one more outsider’s flag to fly, one more way to distance myself from what I believed was a smothering cultural fate.

Bandstand, later American Bandstand, began in Philadelphia in 1952. Two of my “girl” cousins were among the first regulars on the show. I was envious and would have loved to go find out what it was like, but on the path I’d chosen, cool ruled. A kid from my high school class had broken ranks and was spotted on screen. For that for that single indiscretion he endured a merciless and seemingly endless hassling. It was a cautionary tale I heeded.

The mid-to-late nineteen fifties were a golden age for jazz and probably the final chapter for jazz as a broadly popular musical form. The aura of jazz attracted me and yet much of it eluded me. But the cachet of something as hip as jazz was too important to my self-image. I couldn’t allow myself to be left behind by the real hipsters, the people who did dig jazz. My plunging into jazz was not entirely an affectation, much of it, particularly the progressive and Latin-based stuff absolutely knocked me out. In 1954, Latin music seemed to jump across to the Black community, and “Swinging in the Groove” went beyond Fats Domino and Johnny Ace to begin playing Joe Loco’s percussive piano mambos, and then onto the entire pantheon of Afro-Cuban superstars. For a brief period in the mid to late 1950’s, Latin music did a wider series of cross-overs, surfacing not only in Black music, but in progressive jazz, and then on into mainstream pop in the form of cha-cha novelties.

What became known as Progressive Jazz appealed to me in ways that classic jazz, bebop and even Parker and Coltrane only hinted at. At the core of the progressive movement was the Stan Kenton band. I became almost fixated on what was essentially abstract, symphonic jazz. And no wonder, coming off an immersion over my head in classical music, the complexity of the lush, yet austere Kenton arrangements, and the virtuoso solo riffs against choruses of section work, spoke to me of a creative perfection, and orbiting the musical world according to Kenton were people like June Christie, the Four Freshman and a host of other artists in ascending order of obscurity. Even now, encountering anyone who can discuss Kenton, or the work of Cal Tjader or the George Shearing collaborations with Candido can establish bonds transcending the routines of daily life. So many rewarding conversations have begun with a “hey man, have you heard…’” That in itself has become one of the peripheral but significant rewards of an unconditional acceptance of what would become the primacy of music in my life.

The sixties arrived and I continued on, appearing to be and even believing myself, a connoisseur of all that was cool in music. Meanwhile all around me, a new and revolutionary music was coming into its own. But by then I was a grownup, an adult, and all that kind of stuff, the Beatles and such, was for kids. Wasn’t it?
(to be continued)

John Brown’s Body

imagesDriving through cold rain and heavy traffic to pick up some lunch, I overtook an old barge of a car waddling along doing about twenty-five in what was a forty-five zone. A disheveled early 1980s station wagon, its flashers were on and its read-end was plastered with “Right to Life” stickers. As a card-carrying subscriber to The New Yorker and the NYRB, my opinions can be largely predictable. I shook my head as I sped past the crawling low- end heap and what I reflexively assumed was its yahoo driver.

Given all of the above, I am caught between a willingness to doubt all, my own opinions included, and the dangers of doubt’s smug certainties. While I remain instinctively predisposed to support a woman’s right to choose, I have no illusions about the reality of what an abortion entails. Having become of late a doting grandfather probably also undercuts the clarity of any absolute position on so volatile an issue. Moreover, I suspect that my antipathy to so many of the Pro-Life advocates and their fanaticism is reaction based upon style, upon reasonableness, upon taste. The not-so-easily dismissed truth that enters my mind is the fact that even the worst of assholes are not of necessity, wrong.

To state the obvious, one shouldn’t judge the merits of a case by the nature, behavior or even the stupidity of its adherents. A self-styled Left Libertarian, a leveler of sorts, I like to believe that where I feel compelled to choose sides, I do so after having listened to what’s being offered. And even when genuinely convinced that a position on an issue is the work of what Mencken would have called “serfs, goose-steppers and poltroons,” my conclusions are too often tempered by reference to Cromwell’s words to the Church of Scotland in 1650, “I beseech in the bowels of Christ think it possible you may be mistaken.”

images-1In coming to grips with an issue as disturbing as abortion, the most powerful touchstone against any kind of certainty could be the case of John Brown, the anti-slavery John Brown of Russell Banks’ novel “Cloudsplitter,” the absolute fanatic Pottawatomie Brown, the unrepentant murderer Osawatomie Brown. Deemed a deranged psychotic by most of his fellow Americans and executed by his government, poor, mad John Brown, in his time and in his place, just may have been the only sane man in The United States of America. His example is one to give pause to received, hasty or unexamined opinions.

A Credible Creationism


A Tank Is A Tank Is A Tank, Of Course

images2As a broadly curious dilettante, I know just enough about a lot of things to create an impression among the uninitiated that I might even know what I’m talking about. Last week during a tour of the U.S. Army’s Ordnance Museum and Restoration Facilities in Aberdeen, Maryland, the shallowness of my knowledge became all too evident.

A friend had invited me to the tour, and since I can glibly ID on sight, things like an M-4 Sherman, or a British Centurion, a Panzer Mk IV, or a Soviet T-34, I accepted the invite. And by the way, a 155-mm rifled gun was the primary armament on the Cold War version of the Centurion.

The Aberdeen tour was arranged for a convention in nearby Havre de Grace of an organization of affable eccentrics called AMPS, “The Armor Modeling and Preservation Society.” These are the highly skilled and even more highly knowledgeable hobbyists who build detailed scale-models of armored fighting vehicles, i.e. tanks. They periodically gather to bond and to pass judgments on each other’s works. Mostly middle-aged to older males, they tilt heavily toward the “gearhead,” engineer, “gosh gee-whiz” personae.

During the orientation preceding the tour, I began to get intimations of what I had fallen into. Surrounding me, were jackets and hats featuring embroidered tanks and the patches of the various regional chapters of AMPS. The fleece jacket on the camera-laden man to my left announced his membership in “AMPS, Ottawa.” The back of the T-shirt on one of the guys in front of me sported a silk-screened image of a Wermacht-era King Tiger and large Gothic letters proclaiming “Panzerfest 2007.” There I was, embedded among the true and obsessed literati of the machines of war.

There were almost one hundred or so AMPS attendees, just about all male. The few women present seemed to have the same attentiveness to the subject matter as the men. One guy, far too young to have served in WW II, wore a vintage khaki shirt with T-5 stripes and the shoulder patch of an armored division that had been deactivated in 1945. I felt I was staring out onto that slippery slope that separates a somewhat rational interest in the minutiae of history from the totality of reenacting.

Following our orientation, we were divided into groups, and in what turned into a complete muddle, dispatched to the restoration shops. With different disassociated crowds of lost armor tourists, we wandered the post’s workshops and warehouses in search of the restoration facilities. Being among the lucky, we found a workshop where a French, Renault FT-17 tank, used by the AEF in France in 1918, was being restored for display. That the AEF was equipped with Renault tanks was a reflection of the war ending before American factories could provide a suddenly gigantic U.S. Army with tanks, aircraft or artillery pieces.

The first thing that struck me about the shell of the Renault was its size, not much bigger than a VW Beetle. The thickness of the steel that made up the shell was as remarkable to me as the complexity of the over ninety-year old wheel assemblies that carried the vehicle’s tracks. Everything had been stripped-down and water-blasted to bare metal, a process that also removed any residual muck of a long-ago Western Front.

While I ruminated on this little wonder of a fossil in the evolution of armored warfare, an AMPS member next to me was busy shooting photos of a pile of stacked up tracks when one of his fellows walked up and began pointing at the tracks and excitedly going on. “See! See! I told you that the numbers on the underside of the tracks were on the inside as well as the outside.” I sensed it was time to move away.

Falling in with another group, we were passing a line of derelict and rusting vintage tanks that a Proving Grounds staffer told us were awaiting restoration for museums around the world. One enthusiast near us began shouting and pointing at a particular tank. “Look at that M-4. It’s an ‘Iwo’ tank.” Like a school of fish, we turned as one toward this “Iwo” thing. What had captured the attention of the group were the flotation rings on the hull which according to our excited expert had been fitted to a number of M-4 Shermans for the amphibious landing on Iwo Jima in 1945. In an aside to add credence to his declaration, he noted that he’d been on Iwo thirteen times, but being about forty-years too young for the battle, he announced that he’d been there as a “battlefield” tour guide. If that wasn’t enough, a guy standing near me noted that another M-4 actually had an A-3 turret. As all heads turned toward this new discovery, a murmered “Very rare, very rare” filled the morning air.

I discreetly suggested to my buddy, that perhaps it was time for us to get the hell out of there. What if this whole business was contagious?

Arrivedeci Roma!

imagesWhat ever has happened to the Roman Catholic Church, my church, the one I knew in the nineteen-forties and fifties, the church that seemed to utterly dominate my childhood? What happened?

The end of the church as I knew it, and it is over, might have begun more than a century ago in Rome’s choice of battles. Throughout its history, Catholicism has found itself involved in what it always proclaimed were the clear-cut struggles against the universal forces of darkness. In recent times, the battle for Christ was joined against the rise of atheistic communism. At the end of the Sunday masses of my childhood, there was an addendum directing us to pray for “the conversion of Russia.”

When the settling of scores in Central Europe after the Second World War resulted in the jailing of a couple of cardinals, the party line pushed on us by the nuns suddenly cast a name we’d never heard, the Yugoslav communist dictator, Tito, as the personification of all evil in the world. Tito’s demonization, not at all unwarranted, involved his arrest of a Croatian Cardinal named Stepinac, implicated rightly or wrongly in the wartime mass murders of Orthodox Serbs, Jews and Muslim Bosnians and Albanians at the hands of his Croatian Catholic brethren.

I suppose that the church’s vehement anti-communism reflected a valid understanding of a threat posed to the status quo by the godless scientific socialism of Karl Marx and Joseph Stalin. In seeing the survival of Catholic Christianity in terms of stopping communism, the church had always to choose among what it believed would be the lesser of evils. I learned later that during World War II, political expediency dictated that there would be no call from Rome on behalf of Europe’s doomed Jews in the face of Nazi Germany’s Final Solution of the Jewish Question.

Like the Soviets themselves, the church seemed never to appreciate that history follows no dialectic, but more often than not chooses the ironic. Catholicism never saw it coming. While Cardinal Spellman schmoozed with J. Edgar Hoover about the enemy within, a less visible but lethally profound threat was devouring the foundations of every traditional way of looking at life. In less than fifty years following the end of the Second World War, a tsunami of change, an exponential acceleration in the rate of social, economic and cultural change, would engulf, transform and in many cases destroy the traditions of centuries and millennia. The successful counterattack of the Roman Curia against the reformist trends of Vatican II, the long reactionary reign of John Paul II, continuing now with Benedict XV, and finally, the tone-deaf and foot-dragging institutional response to the horrendous clerical sex-abuse scandals, would seem to deny Roman Catholicism much of a vital role in the future of this world. But then again, who knows?

Many in my own generation were the last of their kind to have lived their daily lives in accordance with the liturgical calendar of the Roman Catholic Church. A continuity spanning a thousand years has been snapped in a half century. I have no idea of what it all means, but for many of us who remember what was, it somehow seems to embody the sense of anomie that marks so many of our lives in this first decade of a new century.

This latest Fall of Rome, certainly hastened by the church’s distracted irrelevance in the ordinary lives of its people, particularly by its blind obstinacy in matters of human sexuality, has probably already occurred. While I mourn the accelerating passage of the church of my childhood into Trotsky’s historical dustbin, I also mourn the passage of many other things that were a part of my childhood. The ultimate historical significance of the demise of the Roman Catholic Church may not even outweigh the end of knickers, the A & P, or the Studebaker. Because, within the context of the validity of the Word, none of it is any big deal. In fact, it actually could be a prerequisite condition if a vital new Catholicism is to ever arise from the messy ruins of the one we thought we knew. One of the many interesting things included in the primitive theology I was taught so long ago by the Sisters of Saint Joseph was the idea that for the true Church, the Mystical Body of Christ to continue on, all it really takes is one or more of true believers gathered together in His name. No danger of that not happening

You Had To Be There; 1951 and “A Place In The Sun”

t12633pzoe21Watching the Turner Classic Movies’ presentation of 1951’s blockbuster hit “A Place in the Sun,” with three other pre-war WW II-vintage friends, my own deconstructions of how the film had not aged all that well over the intervening fifty-eight years, raised some hackles with one of my fellow viewers. She had loved the movie in 1951, and did not appreciate hearing the ironic delight as we pointed out the now campy, corny and embarrassing aspects of the production.

Great art supposedly can transcend time, but a popular movie like “A Place in the Sun,” it picked up six Academy Awards, like almost all commercial art, ends up trapped within its context, within its moment. That’s not to say it’s not a good movie, maybe it’s a great movie, but whatever it is, it’s embedded irrevocably within the conventions, assumptions and the craft of movie-making as they existed in a time and a place. It is difficult to watch “A Place in the Sun” without being reminded constantly that it was made in Hollywood in 1951.

Think of the carpet-chewing performance by Raymond Burr as the prosecuting D.A., or of the sound track that telegraphs every emotional transition, and there’s the pre-feminist, pre-pill “American Tragedy” underlying the screenplay goes back to a 1906 novel. Best of all, try and look into the gorgeous gauzy face of a pre-Nicky Hilton Elizabeth Taylor without thinking of what’s yet to come in her life, or gaze upon the terminal handsomeness of a Montgomery Clift, and forget that he’s as yet still in the closet. It’s impossible to deny knowing all that’s been learned since 1951 and watch a movie like this in innocence. That doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyed, but In its presentation, the picture is so heavily laden with its own time and place that it almost necessarily distracts current viewers in a way a well-made contemporary movie can’t; but certainly will, given enough time.

Watching old movies, and I do love to watch them, I am forced by the distance between then and now, to watch on multiple levels, something I don’t or can’t do with contemporary films because the distances are as yet too close. Old movies, movies removed from the zeitgeist of their making, no matter how good, nearly always become artifacts whose incidental details can overwhelm a later viewer from what the creators of the piece were trying to do. I am told that occasionally a movie becomes timeless. I wish I could think of even one, but I keep coming up empty.

Life Imitates Art: Suburban Surrealism

images5The Surrealist movement of the early to mid-twentieth-century has not held up very well. It’s all come to seem and feel rather quaint; the soft clocks, the agoraphobic landscapes and supposedly jarring juxtapositions. The avant-garde aspects of life as it’s now experienced has rendered the entire idea of “surrealism” irrelevant.

Living in a near to mid-suburb of a major American city, I’ve had reason to revisit the concept of the surreal. The gym I frequent is a few minutes drive from our house. With one car in the shop, I decided to walk that short distance, an easy fifteen minutes stroll.

All was well for the first five or so minutes down our deserted tree-shaded street. Coming out onto an arterial four-lane township road, things immediately began getting weird. A continuous flow of high-speed traffic and the absence of a sidewalk made the enterprise boderline hazardous.

Making it safely to the major intersection where a county highway, another crowded four-lane raceway, I watched the maze of overhead traffic signals for the break I needed to reach the sidewalk on the far side of the highway. There were no concessions at all to foot traffic.

From my crossing point, the rest of the walk was easy, but that’s where things got really strange. In my half-hour afoot, coming and going, there were probably hundreds of cars within my field of vision. And yet, I saw not one other pedestrian, not one other human being who wasn’t inside a buttoned up car.

It was like one of those post-apocalyptic science fiction movies, where a world is filled with activity, but no signs exist of other human beings. I drive this very stretch on a daily basis and think nothing of it. But on foot in what I thought was my own intimate environment, I begin to feel myself, very much a stranger in a strange land.

John Prine On Sabu’s Visit To The Twin Cities

images2The movie wasn’t really doing so hot
said the new producer to the old big shot
it’s dying on the edge of the great Midwest
Sabu must tour or forever rest.

Hey look ma
here comes the elephant boy
bundled all up in his corduroy
headed down south toward Illinois
from the jungles of East St. Paul.

Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone… John Prine

You get a lyric like that spinning the hamster wheel in your head, and you’ll find yourself grinning at the most inappropriate times.

images-11Prine’s sly take on American popular culture in the nineteen-forties, maybe early fifties, nails the boundaries of Hollywood exotica in those times. But at least “Sabu the Elephant Boy” was relatively close to the real thing.

Worse was the oblivious casting of blatantly Caucasian actors when a leading Asian, or for that matter, any minority adult role had to be filled. Think of Ira Gershwin suggesting Al Jolson for the original Porgy. Charlton Heston wore a shoe polish facial gloss to play the Mexican detective in Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil.” Charlie Chan was split between Warner Oland and Sidney Toller, both of whom probably did on occasion eat in Chinese restaurants. Sam Jaffe was Gunga Din, and when a bloodthirsty redskin was required, more often than not, the call went out to a guy named Mike Mazurki.

But the thought of a song, moreover a song that works, about Sabu touring the Upper Midwest in winter to promote some awful “B” movie, seems a measure of the gentle genius of John Prine. In the final verse, he sings:

His manager sat in the office alone
staring at the numbers on the telephone
wondering how a man could send a child actor
to visit the land of the wind chill factor.

Sabu was sad, the whole tour stunk
the airlines lost the elephant’s trunk
the roadie got the rabies and the scabies and the flu…

Hey look ma
here comes the elephant boy
bundled all up in his corduroy
headed down south towards Illinois
from the jungles of East St. Paul.

Crisis? What Crisis?

sb43_090102_140x1051I got cranky last night watching the Super Bowl. Other than the playing of the game itself, the whole self-congratulatory vibe of the NFL has always kind of pissed me off, seeming to exemplify everything that’s gone wrong with this country over the past forty or fifty years. They did have Bruce on at halftime, and last year it was Tom Petty. But last night, awash in the worst a crassly commercial culture can dish out, I couldn’t help but contrast the celebratory hype for so many lousy overblown movies, the outrageously overproduced commercials for sugar-water sodas and the pitches for more outsized, gas-guzzling cars and trucks, all of it against the backdrop of an ongoing economic disaster. It all seemed just so inappropriate, so tone-deaf, so like striking up the orchestra on a sinking ship.

Let Us Now Praise Photorealism

images-11On a recent watercolor workshop, we were invited to bring art books to share with the group. I knew that my selection of painters would get at best mixed reviews, but I   wanted to test some nascent theories of my own about painters and painting. I choose two large-format retrospectives, one Robert Bechtle and the other, Richard Estes, both  reigning deans of photorealism. The reactions were predictable. Polite rejections of work by my fellow painters on the bases that the stuff looked just too much like photography. “What’s the point of painting like that?” This came despite the fact that almost one quarter of the plates in the Bechtle book were watercolors.

Bechtle’s watercolors of mundane suburban motifs are a path into one of the essential contradictions in the nature of photorealism painting as fine art. In those watercolors, particularly in the enlarged details, Bechtle’s mastery of traditional watercolor technique leaps from the pages. Despite the photographic effect of the image, there is no mistaking that these are nothing less than extremely accomplished and painterly watercolors. The same is true for the watercolors of another photorealist, Ralph Goings, whose back and forth between media had opened my eyes to the use of abstraction to create an effect otherwise taken for a mechanical process.

Richard Estes shows only oils, and among many figurative purists he is reflexively rejected for the photographic dazzle of his work. Unlike Bechtel and Goings, there are no Estes watercolors or drawings to force the viewer into considering why these are paintings of the highest order. To realize just what Estes accomplishes with pigments and brushes, the paintings have to seen in person. Looking at reproductions of Estes’ photorealism in oil, no matter how perfect the reproductive process, the paintings will always appear to look just like (ready for this), photographs! Duh… 

images8At a recent Estes show in New York, I rediscovered how much I like what he does and finally realized why so many fellow-painters believe they don’t care for photorealism. Estes’ paintings, no matter the subject; urban scenes, store-window reflections, forest interiors or Antarctic glaciers are always on a gigantic scale, six-feet by four-feet as an example. Looked at from five, six or from twenty-five feet back, they can pass for nothing more than gorgeous enlargements of color photographs. Get close, get very close, and you will discover that Estes’ works are the essence of, and in the traditions, of painting in the classical sense of the term. Up close, his work is pure painterly abstraction in the service of an illusion. And I would argue, that the effect of Estes work in its simplest terms is to force the viewer into considering in entirely new ways, the aesthetics of the world he or she inhabits.

If you ever find yourself in front of an Estes oil or a Bechtle watercolor, take the time to move slowly forward and back, forward and back, until the contrast between photographic effect and the technique of pure painting manifests itself, and if you are really lucky, knocks you on your ass.