Saturday, June 10, 2017

Without Certificate

“Isn’t there something slightly disappointing about our need to equip all artists with a certificate of darkness?”

Julian Barnes
painting: Still Life Centrifugal Expansion of Colors (1916)  by Gino Severini

Friday, June 09, 2017

This Thing and the Next Thing

Let history record that a number of bars in Washington opened early on Thursday.  They served special drinks, often featuring Russian vodka, and one new cocktail called the Covfefe.  They opened for those not watching the James Comey testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee at home with a bowl of popcorn, having called in sick to the office.

And that's the way it is in June of 2017. Aside from the any excuse for a party or tweet-worthy event Washington crowd for whom politics is their reality TV, all this suggests pent-up frustration, the release of fear, the escape from disgust, and a lot of righteous Schadenfreude.   Let this national nightmare, this march to the darkness, be over.  Or since that's unlikely to happen soon enough, let's get drunk and release the laughter.

Here's another indication of where we are: the guy who was the FBI director about a month ago repeatedly called the current incumbent in the White House a liar, and that wasn't even the headline. (Update: well, not until later anyway.)

Comey advanced the case for obstruction of justice and abuse of power in at least two ways, verified that the special counsel is investigating criminal obstruction.  But there's still too much wriggle room to make impeachment a realistic possibility this year.  As long as it depends on what remains basically a he said/he said encounter on the Flynn investigation, and contradictory statements on why Comey was fired, it's not enough to push R legislators to a doomful act.  If you enjoy the spectacle though, you're probably in for a year of it at least, with a number of perp walks (including perhaps, it was suggested today, the current AG) to precede political action.

As for what this tells us about our apprentice dictator, it only confirms and illustrates what we already knew: he thinks like an apprentice dictator, or as E.J. Dionne puts it, an authoritarian who has no idea of what being President of the United States actually is, or means:

  "There has been a lively debate among Trump critics about whether he’s dangerous because he’s inclined toward authoritarianism or because he’s incompetent. The Comey episode allows us to reach a higher synthesis in this discussion: Trump is incompetent precisely because he believes he can act like an autocrat in a constitutional democracy."

But this thing did manage to obscure the next thing.  Democrats lambasted the White House for announcing the name of the man to be appointed as the new FBI director on Wednesday, in a transparent attempt (they said) to distract from the Comey testimony.  But it worked beautifully the opposite way: the Comey testimony took all the attention, and nobody was scrutinizing the appointment.

But it is, as the DC lawyers say, problematic, at the very least.  When the choice of Christopher Wray was announced in a tweet, the first stories were uniformly positive.  He was praised, or at least seen as non-controversial.  But Christopher Wray has questions to answer.

He's known for defending Chris Christie in the bridgegate scandal, and he's a Republican partisan, contributing to R candidates.  Did the apprentice dictator ask for his loyalty?

Wray made his name in the government investigating Enron and other corporations, but since then he has made his money defending them, particularly against charges under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.  Not exactly the ideal resume for an FBI director.  Then there's his possible involvement in justifying torture during his time in the GW Bush Justice Dept.

More directly to the point, his law firm represents interests of the man who says he will appoint him.  And even more directly, his firm represents two huge Russian oil companies, that both are mentioned in connection with the ongoing Russian investigations.  This article outlines some of the conflict of interest problems that could compromise those investigations, as well as investigations that may arise involving the interlocking Russian government, "intelligence," and oligarch-run banks and industries.

He may not be as incompetent as most of the cabinet, or as obviously corrupt as...well, members of the cabinet, and it's a big relief that somebody who isn't an utterly laughable stiff is willing to be appointed.  But that's not really enough.  If this guy has problems, there could be bigger problems ahead if they aren't addressed.  

Thursday, June 08, 2017

About Time and the Dickens

I've recently finished reading Bleak House, one of Charles Dickens' big novels which some consider his best--some call it the best English novel of the 19th century.

I remember being impatient with 19th century novels when I studied literature in college, partly I'm sure because they were long and I was impatient with everything that didn't move along at the speed of rock music, and partly because of the tedious experience of being forced to read a few such tomes in high school classes, including Dickens' Great Expectations.

But my college teachers didn't insist on them, and as a writer I was more interested in 20th century novels of the so-called Modern period (as opposed to Contemporary, which were by living writers and hence not yet literature.  We were however expected to read contemporary stories and novels for writing classes.)  The irony is that by the late 1960s, the Modern novels and novelists were almost as obsolete in terms of contemporary writing as the 19th century novels.  But we still wanted to be Hemingway or Fitzgerald or James Joyce or Virginia Woolf.

It's true that the diction and style, and the rhythms of 20th century fiction were closer to what writers were writing then.  But we were encouraged to believe that the Modernists had rejected the past and so relevance started with them.

Like a lot I thought I learned in those classes, it turns out not to be true.  And that's one of the delights of living awhile--the perspective of your years and the opportunities to explore more of the cultural timeline expands and deepens a sense of the continuum.  You learn that nothing is completely new, that every artistic work takes a lot from the past as well as whatever else is around.  It became clear to me first in music, learning the roots of rock and other contemporary forms, not through theory but through people and the music itself.

Except for some exploration of French classics in the 70s (under the influence of Truffaut films no doubt) it wasn't until the 1980s--some 15 to 20 years after I left school--that I could re-discover the diction of the 19th century (for in fact I'd absorbed some with boyhood reading of  The Three Musketeers, Huckleberry Finn, etc.)  I read all of Jane Austen I could find, and took on Moby Dick (which influenced my entire approach to my final draft of The Malling of America, though not in an obvious way.)  Of all the things I "knew" about Moby Dick without reading it, I didn't know that much of it is very funny.  I read War and Peace and Anna Karenina, the latter of which I found amazing, and I wished I had read it as a student writer.  My conception of what was possible in the novel would have benefited.

Similarly I was startled by the freedom and virtuosity of Dickens in Bleak House as well as his powers of description.  In the immense space of that novel he could be satirical and naturalistic, transparently heartfelt and slyly ironic.  Some of it bordered on surrealism.  The moderns must have stolen a lot from Dickens, perhaps even while denouncing him.  (If I remember correctly, Dickens especially was pretty unfashionable in the 60s.)

But after 881 pages of the Signet paperback edition, I read the short afterword by Geoffrey Tillotson and learned that Dickens not only riffed on some of his contemporaries like Carlyle and Tennyson but learned his satiric technique from 18th century poet Alexander Pope.  This is the difference between working writers, who beg, borrow and steal from the best no matter their current standing, and the critics and teachers of literature, who decide who is fashionable and legitimate to read.

I recently saw the Richard Curtis movie About Time.   It concerns a contemporary young man who learns from his father that the men in their family can travel through time, though only the past times of their own lives.  When his father (played by Bill Nighy) reveals this and the son asks him how he's used this gift, the Nighy character says he's used this infinite time to read books.  He's read everything he's wanted to twice, and Dickens three times.

At my age I read for the experience of it, while I'm reading.  I don't worry about how much I retain.  Well, I do notice the loss, but it doesn't stop me from reading as much as I can.  One thing has remained true, and perhaps become more true: I read not so much for story or even characters but for the diction, the vocabulary, the rhythms.  The words, the sentences, and so on.   I guess you can say I read for a good time, but what constitutes a good time for me would probably mystify most people.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

And You're Gone: Sergeant Pepper Memories

It was fifty years ago today, give or take a few days, that I was walking along the main downtown street of Galesburg, Illinois.  I was just passing the department store, heading for the corner where I would cross the street and head down that side street back to the Knox College campus.

But I saw someone turn that corner from campus and head briskly on that side of the main street in the direction opposite to mine.  It was Bill Thompson, a friend and fellow student.  From the brisk and exact way he cut that corner and the sense of purpose in his determined stride, I knew exactly where he was going and why.

He was hurrying down to the town's record store.  He'd evidently heard--by dint of having called or because he was called--that the long-awaited album had arrived: Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

I immediately crossed the street and joined him in his quest.  We returned to his offcampus digs and played the record, both sides, all the way through.  My first response was that I was tantalized.  I wanted more.  But it turned out, more came with repeated listenings, all that summer, and then for the next fifty years.

Rolling Stone magazine, which today officially calls it the best album ever made (while others, me included, aren't sure it's even the best Beatles album), has a series of appealing historical articles on each of the songs.  A lot of the content has been known but there's some deeper research (into people who inspired songs like "She's Leaving Home" and the first part of "Day in the Life") and some stuff that's either new or I'd forgotten it, like the fact that Paul McCartney's "When I'm Sixty-Four" had been a novelty tune in the Beatles repertoire since their live club act.

Other articles are fascinating though, especially the first one, on the Sergeant Pepper idea and song, the haunting story of the first person mentioned in "Day in the Life" (someone in their London scene who ushered McCartney through his first acid trip)  and more background about Lennon's "Good Morning, Good Morning."

That last mentioned article used the well-known story of Lennon being inspired by a cereal commercial he saw on TV (as we all did that year) to make the case that all his lyrics on this record reflect his post-touring life of suburban domesticity, and his ways of escaping the tedium through reverie and creative imagination.

After that first listen, and after a week or so of hearing it pouring from the windows of the residences of the few remaining students, I returned to western PA and what turned out to be a summer of suburban domesticity and tedium.  Before school was out I'd had my choice of three summer jobs.  But I returned to find that the one I'd chosen had fallen through.  So I was separated from my student companions and milieu, stuck at home with no money and nothing much to do.

However, there was Sergeant Pepper, which became the soundtrack of my life.  I played it repeatedly, all day when my parents were out, no matter what I was doing.  I remember it playing while I was in the bath.  If something like mp3 players or Walkman's had existed then, I would have listened to it continuously.  As it was, when I took off walking to town or wherever (braving dumbfounded hostility for my growing hair), it was playing in my head, and when I returned, I would immediately put it on again.

I reveled in the music that matched the beat of my blood and my soul, in the lyrics that sang of a familiar world in a new way.  Even the English major in me reveled, as I noted the irony of "fixing a hole" that "keeps my mind from wandering," you know--closing something up in order to wander freely.  And of course, the multiple meanings in just the title of "Within You Without You."

I thought about it obsessively, devoured anything in print I came across.  It was touted as the first "concept album" but the concept didn't extend to many of the songs.  I figured out one element that gave it unity that I don't think anyone else has since noted: the spaces between the songs on the album were shorter than on previous albums by the Beatles and others.  They would soon be shorter on most albums.

The outside world there was very much the one the lyrics were often about, and the Beatles provided not just a knowing rejection but an upbeat alternative, a bit of acceptance but a lot of finding internal resources, and internal worlds to live in. ("Somebody spoke and I went into a dream.") It's the way that it can be getting better all the time.

At this point I hadn't so much as gotten stoned on the new maryjane yet.  I was high on Sergeant Pepper's, on the music.  It's variety, energy, wit and freedom, its hints of new worlds, all inspired me.

And I was inspired.  In the heat of that summer I spent hours in the cooler basement, writing and performing my own music, recording on an old reel-to-reel that I rigged somehow to do sound-on-sound, so I played with multiple tracks.  I had a guitar which I electrified with an old microphone.  I had a broken down piano and a dubious chord organ, rejected from the living room.  I used empty coffee cans and whatever else for percussion.  I experimented with random overdubs and found sounds.  I wrote at least an album's worth of songs, probably two.  In between takes I cut out pictures from magazines and newspapers and made elaborate collages.

Soon it wasn't just Sergeant Pepper. That was the summer that the music exploded. While the television was the same crap (with something very occasional like a segment on Twiggy) and the local radio stations were unadventurous to say the least (this was still the era of AM), very late at night my transistor radio could pull in a station from Cleveland--and on some nights, from Chicago--that played Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane and the Doors, including "Light My Fire"--the long version!  

It was also to become known as the Summer of Love.  But that was happening elsewhere.  I was basically alone.  I received and wrote letters, often filled with phrases from Sergeant Pepper songs, as one letter I still have from my PA friend and co-composer Clayton, who was spending the summer with relatives in Los Angeles, though his factory job precluded much scene-making there.  He did bring a bunch of buttons back (buttons were big) including one for me: "Lennon Saves."

I did have one brief adventure in the outside world--my friend Mike and I took the bus into Pittsburgh to see the Mamas and Papas at the Civic Arena, dressed in our best approximations of Carnaby Street duds.  We may even have started moustaches by then. We got there hours early on a hot day, and wandered around in a nearby hotel to escape the heat, eventually chased down by some overexcited teenage girls who took us for members of that evening's warm-up band, Moby Grape.  At one point we pretended to take an elevator up to our rooms, and wound up hiding on a back stairwell, wondering at our only experience of fame.

(We also made futile attempts to find some sort of scene in the Pittsburgh area of Shadyside where it was rumored to exist. The sixties eventually came to western PA-- in the mid 70s.)

"I say in speeches that a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit," Kurt Vonnegut wrote in his last novel, Timequake. "I am then asked if I know of any artists who pulled that off. I reply, 'the Beatles did.'"

They did it from their first record to their last.  But with Sergeant Pepper's they also gave us a little ecstasy.  As they were already learning, and as we all would learn in the 60s, a little ecstasy can be a dangerous thing.  But if you can get past the danger, you've had something that lasts the rest of your life.

They opened up the confinements of what was then the normal.  In some ways, the Beatles ruined me.  I could never quite get over not being able to just live in one of their movies, or their songs.  But that wasn't their fault.  They also gave me ecstatic moments of creativity as well as the fantasy and fulfillment in listening. Especially in contrast to how bad the next summer was going to be, living inside Sergeant Pepper's gave that summer a particular definition that, however mixed and complex, remains memorable.