Thursday, April 20, 2017

Eyes on the Prize

During a week of prize-giving-- not the Olympics or Grammies, but the Pulitzers… I begin to think about what it is writers do, about what sort of literary cream rises to the top in this era of digital hocus-pocus.  Undoubtedly there is traditional wonderful work being done.  This is the first time I actually knew one of the winners; he seemed to be sort of a peer, and yet now he is crowned-- he has risen, perhaps never to return.

But which comes first: the poet or the poem?  Does everything that leaves the designated poet's pen become a poem?  Is mediocrity the inevitable by-product of awards?  So often the precious stereotype of the starving, desperate artist, awash in inspiration, drowning in passion-- it begins to peel away, to shrink beneath the satin robes of achievement.  

I've been playing blues for years.  For so long I had no deep respect for the tradition; I didn't 'get' it.  The first time I stood beside John Lee Hooker, some epiphany came through me like a sword… the music began to rise, it told its own story-- it wrapped around and inside and quietly shook me where I stood.  It was familiar, and new, and it took me with it like a train.  I've sat on the laps of Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon, I've stood beside them and felt something real and important-- some undeniable true cry of life listened to words that rhyme with heartbeats.   Does this merit a Pulitzer prize?

Last night I found myself in a neighborhood I don't often visit-- midtown east.  It was flush with tourists, bus-groups and wandering families buying Starbucks and souvenirs, looking up at office buildings and passing Duane Reades and bank lobbies on wide, lit streets.  Is this New York,  I asked myself?  Please, I wanted to urge the visitors-- this is nothing-- -these are convenience stores and real estate-- there is no city here.  There is no warp and weft and living tapestry; there is no music and no poetry-- no grit and color and shouting and history.

I grew up in the myth of my city.  I created my own legends, absorbed the atmosphere of the artists and writers and composers I sought out, breathed their breath and inhaled their message.  I grew up wanting to create my own language and a voice with which to speak.  I needed to have something to say, and I tried to dissect moments as I lived them so their content became my raw materials.

Recently I published a book of poetry.  It is a nostalgic collection of memories through which I'd hoped to honor the dream of my first serious love affair, and the first person through whom I began to see a version of life that was visionary and spiritual.  Of course, it could have been the psychedelics and other drugs, but there was music and original songs-- passion and a voice I will never forget.  He died so young, and I recently found a cache of letters he'd written and I'd never received. I felt compelled to write-- or maybe the poems wrote themselves.  I could have gone on, but I made a book… it has some truth for me, a fairly uncontrived recovery of the moments as they were revealed to me-- with some hindsight, but not too much.

I've had it on my mind to reach out to his family whom I knew very little, so long ago.  Today I managed to find a brother via Facebook, explained in a message who I was, asked if I could send a book.  He replied with coldness that he'd rather just 'leave it as it is'.  I was not just shocked but hurt, devastated-- cried for hours… knew I'd picked the wrong brother, that he'd never convey anything to the more sensitive sisters, or anyone else…  it was a dead end; I felt he'd sliced off my outstretched hand.

I often wander the city… listening to my own voice which feels sometimes like the crying woman in that Picasso mural who to me is the human 'star'.  I see so many broken people and these are the ones that enter me-- the ones I take home, the ones who tell their story at night through my fingers at the keyboard, or who sing to me as I pick up my guitar.

The man who won the prize-- he'd shared some poems before the book came.  They were large poems-- they had a purpose and a subject… but most of all, I realized, they were larger than the room in my apartment where he read them; they were podium poems-- a sort of speech or declaration… an 'address'.  Maybe that is the secret.  They were made to be heard.  To be spoken.  They were already famous.  He is a professional.

It's taken me 35 years to call myself a musician and even there I feel unworthy.  This is my work, my job.  Poetry is a calling--  a process-- a verb.  To call myself a poet seems premature and pretentious-- it presumes everything I write I consider some kind of 'art'.  My poems-- well, they are my poems; they are voices or songs or whispers.  They are as they arrive-- in their naked, broken awkward intimacy.. part of a process that weaves listening and coaxing voices from inside things.   They are not sure of themselves… they are being born, they are quiet and not famous-- not podium fare or poster-ready.   'Keep your eyes on the prize' is a famous American gospel lyric.  My poet friend certainly knows these words and they certainly guided him to some winning.  As for me, I guess I am too busy looking down-- listening.  I'm afraid I wouldn't know a prize if it hit me in the head, and I'm in some fine company here.  Amen.


Friday, March 31, 2017

The Anti-Saint

Death is in the house this week.  Not that he is ever anywhere else-- I often feel his cold breath on my right hand, reminding me not to take my eighth notes for granted.  Some nights it is my left ear-- like he is whispering to me in some weathery language: Listen to the rain, he says… or Notice how the fog speaks-- how it blurs lines and descriptions-- yes, this is his language, his courtship-- his entry…

Last week I sat with him by the side of my friend.  He taunted me-- She's mine, he said; she's been mine for years now… this is just the final approach…  Then stop the suffering and have her, I scolded him…  Ahh but don't you enjoy this time with me, he asked?  You and I and Jesus-the-cat in this lonely dark apartment, you with your silly rosary beads and your sympathy?   Me just having a rest in the city-- usually I must be quick and urgent here.  Exhausting, these urban hubs-- with the hit-and-runs, the shootings and overdoses… the jumpers and depressed, the muggers and murderers who beat me at my own game.  Then I have to consider revenge.  But you-- you're so quiet here…you the writer of my music… you're so facile with the language of gravestones and black winds… it's so peaceful sitting with you in the dark, watching…

This is the way Death spoke to me while he also watched my friend writhe in her extended agony without emotion.  He was quiet, he was cold.  I left him for a few hours and he finished the deed, left his mark and no sign that there was peace at the end.  My vigil was clearly over, and I ended up without a souvenir, without closure-- on the other side of the hideous yellow police-tape which was used to mark off her doorway.  No answers, no autopsy; without a will or testament, she is legal property of the city medical examiner's office, another cold corpse in the morgue awaiting the appearance of some kin or family who never showed up during her illness-- so why would they want to pay for a funeral?

There is little I can do; after all the nights and days of fear and diagnosis, treatment and suffering and anxiety… the questions and tears--- decisions and research… I cannot even be certain of her name.  She is another mystery-- another open wound in the sequence of human experiments for which I have somehow enlisted, my friends tell me-- out of some genetic defect which continues to prompt me to turn around every time someone says 'help'.  Or 'Mommy'. Or even 'Mami'.

I can't seem to sign up for lucrative jobs-- me, who turned down a Harvard Law scholarship-- the sore thumb of my family, with the ivy league black sheepskin.  I refuse to gig in club-date bands or even tribute projects which might compensate reasonably enough for me to afford groceries like a normal person--  to take a taxi every once in a while,  to see a movie that's not on free TV, have a coffee I didn't make myself… to buy anything that hasn't been used by someone else.  I admire your conscientious deprivation, Death commented-- As thought you're preparing for the next life-- when all bets are off.  And he has spared me, once or twice--- or many times-- when a city bus brushed so close as I crossed an avenue-- when a plate glass window fell 60 stories and sprayed me ever so lightly with the tiniest splinters… he's definitely loaned me a few free passes.

So how do I explain my attachment to a no-win situation-- a doomed patient who was not particularly loving or nice or even appreciative, although at the very end she did express some tough gratitude, and I assured her it was my privilege to have been able to be there? Was it my privilege?  Was it my own personal penance, my perverted version of twisted sainthood to atone for all the mistakes I've made-- the bad marriages and the failures?  I definitely identified somehow with my poor deceased friend, who had paid a lonely price for a pile of bad choices.  Was that it?

The truth is, I love my life.  I cling to my bizarre stoicism and spartan lifestyle and I manage to produce something I feel is worthwhile.  My distractions are emotional and empathetic ones; my path is often lonely and without luxury.  I read a description of middle-income housing  qualifiers last night and was shocked to discover the low-end cut-off was 10 times my annual income.  I am not just low, but below poverty income-qualifying.  Who is going to sit by my side at my end, with no prospect of reward or inheritance?  I have yet to come across my own double.

Still, I know I would have made the same choices, again and again.  We can't take all this stuff with us, and I have plenty of meaningful stuff, although I have no fortune.  No, I did not ask Death for a bit of extra time for good behavior, although maybe that is what I intended, subconsciously.  I have work to do-- things to leave behind that someone some day may value.. not in dollars, but in worth.   There is no closure at the end; there was no relief for me, and I feel the spirit of my friend wandering the dark streets--- after all, she is in the morgue, a kind of urban  purgatory; she did not help herself or me with any information or truth that might have made the process easier.  I, too, am stubborn and have some pride; I might have wanted control of my own end, when I had lost all else-- even if it meant dying like an abandoned dog, in pain and without loved ones-- only some version of me, which in itself is doubtful.  What separates me from my friend? I leave my poetry-- my music-- I make cds and books-- my 'calling'.  Do people acknowledge even the artistic version of sacrifice?  Occasionally there is a comment, or praise, or 'likes'… but in the end, it is another item for the loss column, on the balance sheets of pragmatism and poor financial health.  But I will continue, despite lack of closure.

For my friend there is perhaps burial-- or cremation, or scientific autopsy-- but there are still dreams and memories, and a past somewhere-- customers who drank what she poured, men who made passionate love to her-- cats and pets who slept at her feet.   And then there is me, the sleepless writer who will continue to commemorate this woman's poor life, to try to find some meaning and beauty, perhaps rescue something from her self-imposed obscurity-- martyrize her anti-heroics and pedestrian eccentricities, make some attempt of poetry out of the raw materials of disease and squalor.  Then-- like the rest of us, I will wait for my hour to look Death in the eye and say.. Remember me?  This is what I have done.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Ad Lib

A late-winter snowstorm gives us all a chance to breathe-- and even though I knew this one was going to be a let-down, I still took the vacation day and binged on TV films.  On the heels of International Women's Day, I've thought a lot the past week about women in the arts.   So my first choice was Within the Whirlwind-- the autobiography of Evgenia Ginzburg, a professor of literature who was sentenced for 18 years to a gulag in Siberia during Stalin's reign of terror.  Ginzburg, played poignantly by Emily Watson, managed to survive inhumane conditions of extreme cold and starvation and-- a little like Patty Hearst, I couldn't help thinking-- fell in love with the prison staff doctor.

The other film was from 1975-- an early Chantal Akerman work called Jeanne Dielman--  a nearly 4- hour masterpiece showing 3 days in the minute-to-minute life of a middle-class Belgian woman.  Without much dialogue or drama we follow her tedious daily routine--  hours of washing-up, meal prepping, shopping, shoe-shining… occasional baby-watching, and brief daytime prostitution with the same prim, emotionless attitude and clean-up as the housekeeping.  By the third day, subtle small things begin to go awry… and unexpectedly and without drama, she kills her afternoon john.

Evgenia eventually wrote her memoirs which were published abroad and which document her heroism and bravery.  Separated from her sons and her husband, she used her survival instincts; not least of these was her beauty, which appealed to the doctor and earned her better treatment than some of the women inmates.  She was nevertheless selfless and compassionate and courageous.  The film, written and directed by women, celebrates her intelligence, her art and her strength.

Watching Jeanne Dielman, I couldn't help seeing my own mother-- with the perfectly coiffed hair, and the lipstick… the well-tailored skirts and nylons and elegant shoes--- putting on aprons, gloves--- delicately scrubbing the stove, cutting vegetables, setting the table, pouring coffee, straightening papers, emptying ashtrays…  the daily shopping trips dressed in fashionable coats and scarves… the relentless claustrophobia of domesticity that made me swear every single day I would never get married.

Obviously the act of murder was a kind of emotional breakdown, a disconnect… a shocking climax to a drawn-out hour-by-hour monotony with very little insight into her psyche or mental state.  It is hard to even feel sympathy for her…  and then it ends,  with the heroine sitting quietly at the kitchen table, fresh blood on her hands and mouth.

What we are capable of-- we women, what is expected of us-- it is a different trajectory than that of men, no matter how equal or even superior we may be in so many ways.  We have children, we clean up, we care for sick friends with much more frequency.  We rebel and rock and roll, but so many of us inherit these expectations from our mothers, and we carry out these chores with or without resentment-- because it's simpler to do it than to ignore and feel incomplete.  It's part of being a woman, to let things go sometimes--- children are watching or listening, and we learn to gloss over with silence things that should be argued or protested.

I visited with a woman today who is clinically depressed, who is young and lovely and intelligent and cannot seem to accept being on the brink of middle age… even though her husband is devoted and loving, and she is 20 years younger than I am; she is blind to what we see, and unable to find her footing.  For some of us, life events intervene and force us to appreciate whatever years we have as a gift-- as luxury.  We stop obsessing about our own image and find our context.  For others, the mirror is their confidante.  They scrutinize and compare, worship physical beauty and attractiveness as their gauge of worth.  The culture seems to encourage this.  It also encourages people who are apparently blind to their own image, and deaf to their personal noise.    I watched a photo shoot in Harlem on Friday-- a woman dressed in a blue fur and a blonde wig with way too much make-up… voguing and pulling up her dress.  What version of beauty is this?  What role model for the young girls passing with their schoolbags and plaid skirts on the way home from the Sojourner Truth school?

I am old enough to realize I now am what I do, what I create.  The 'I' visual is no longer relevant or iconic or memorable.  I am one of the army of women who try to find meaning in their life and leave something behind for our daughters and little sisters.  Chantal Akerman suicided in her mid 60's.  She was depressed; perhaps she'd run out of ideas-- she'd been teaching in Harlem.  Today I long to speak to her, but can only find her work.  It seems important that I watched Jeanne Dielman and that it was shown without commercial interruption on a free television station.  It is difficult to explain to my young friend that these things are enough for me-- that the slow snow day of solitude and black coffee and rice is fine, but maybe not enough for tomorrow when I will resume my place by the typewriter, by the window of my brain and the weather of my ambition, where I will avoid the feminine prison of domesticity and self-devaluation by forging my own path forward, scripting as I go.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Keep the Change

It's been a banner flu season.  The weather fluctuates from 16 to 70 degrees arbitrarily, robbing us of a proper winter (no one complains, really).  Our current administration doesn't believe in climate change, despite the science and all evidence, and is supported by a significant sector of the population that maintains that God controls weather anyway. He apparently created man about 5000 years ago, despite the fossils and relics in the Smithsonian; he had Noah build an ark and board two of every creature.  Even I, in Bible School at the age of 6, asked, 'Where did the dinosaurs sleep?' and got sent to sit in the hallway.

I shun vaccines and get my immunity from sharing microphones and water bottles with my fellow musicians.  We're exposed to so much coughing and sniffing and germ-swapping, it seems to keep us going.  I let my baby boy eat plenty of dirt in the NYC sandboxes; he didn't miss a day of school until he began willful truancy-- another story.  My ill friend won't eat ice cream or drink Gatorade when she's dehydrated, because she thinks sugar causes cancer.  She has stage 4c advanced metastatic disease that is so bad the tumors surely weigh more than the little that is still woman.  The pain is off all charts, the doctors avoid her, the nurses speedwalk in and out of her room, recommending things for which there is no technician available.  The drains are not functioning, her intestines are blocked, her ribs are on the verge of cracking and it's tough to breathe in most positions.

Being an actor, she watched the Academy Awards the other night; she still votes as a SAG member, and it provided some distraction.  I do not watch these things, but she told me about the envelope at the end-- how it gave her some hope that maybe she has been misdiagnosed.  We both love Idris Elba.  Was he even on the show?  I have no idea because I haven't seen a Hollywood movie in years.  I pray now that her TV won't break down because besides the morphine and oxy's, this is the main drug.

Tonight I am making her chicken soup.  I am a little happy because she craved it and it's something I can provide.  I am whistling inside; we had a great talk this evening in between her induced sleep cycles, and she can manage a few spoonfuls in the morning if I strain it carefully.  It's as though we're in the midst of a massive California brushfire in our tiny log cabin and I am outside calmly throwing glasses of water at the wall of flame.  These are my dreams.

In the world outside her disease, there is this metaphorical political American cancer.  Forget the influenza epidemic.  It's as though people in this country went to the polls and decided-- well, here we have the common cold… and here we have-- well, whooping cough or something.. .and then here we have-- yes, cancer.  Let's try cancer for a change.  It's really only a diagnosis… which my friend had at the beginning, when her laugh was still boisterous and theatrical and her red hair bounced around when she bartended.  It was like a script… a drama?  I'm not sure how she processed it, but she did omit some of the difficult choices that were recommended because reality is a strange scenario for most of us, and despite the nomenclature, nothing is real for most of us until it is on-fire/in-your-face.

When you are suffering and ill and even your dreams are blurred with medications and pain, the world is difficult to understand.  You become narcissistic not-by-choice and unable to think.  You occasionally lash out in bitterness and agony and it's difficult for those of us in the room, when the elephants begin to rage and stomp.  My friend is a staunch Democrat, as are most of the more artistic and talented people I know.   In her moments of clarity, she rants about the current President and administration.  Life in America is less appealing, we agree.  Despite all the negatives, despite the unbearable worsening existence to which she is sentenced, day after day, she refuses hospice care; she has an incorrigible belief that somewhere, somehow, there is going to be a way out.  Someone is going to find the key to this door of the house of terminal hideous illness.  It is a kind of belief and if Jesus were here, he would wash her feet.

I have just published a new book of poetry.  My friend has no interest in this, finds my lyrics depressing and would rather watch TV or talk.  The book is under an indie umbrella and we all have to foot the bill for these projects.  I am forced to do an amount of promotion to pay the debt.  My friends know that I live far below the radar of any economic level.  I don't know what a vacation is.  I have no practical containers for the chicken soup because I don't get take-out, ever, on my food budget of $20 a week total.  On the way out, I ran into a neighbor who looks quite a bit like Trump, and surely voted Republican.  He has the mannerisms of a self-made non-charismatic man whose money causes people to treat him with deference.  So, he says to me, I hear you have a new book…. should I buy one?  I shrug.  I happen to be carrying a few to the Post Office. He puts his hand out… opens his wallet as though he is tipping me.  I have a $50, he says, is that okay?  It's $20, I answer, without emotion, looking down so I won't see his billfold even by accident-- with the black and platinum cards and the fat wad of green.   I don't have any small bills, he announces… So why don't I slip it under your door later?  I shrug again… as he rolls..ROLLS my precious book like a newspaper, like he is going to beat a dog with it… my precious lovely book with the expensive matte-coated cover which cost me close to $20, each one… I resist the urge to cringe, and mumble the Post Office, time, deadlines, whatever...

So I get home…is there a bill under my door?  Somehow the guy seems to recall (he did smell a bit like he'd had a cocktail or two) that he'd given me a $50…. So there is a note…no envelope.. a note… which  says.. 'Hey I read the first poem-- about the Chevrolet-- good stuff… Keep the change.'  Trumped I am.


Monday, February 13, 2017

Exchange

I live on the edge of two neighborhoods… on the cusp, on the border.  It suits me.  I am close to the park and short blocks from grand homes and institutions.  I am also two blocks from the projects.   Across the street from me, my neighbors have an East Harlem zip-code, although I'll wager all of them have a better income than I do. Personally I spend most neighborhood-time going north and east-- past the projects-- exploring bodegas, playgrounds, small bakeries and shops, listening to languages besides English, browsing among vegetables and fruits used in Mexican recipes,  reading labels in Spanish.   Even the Christmas decorations have a different flavor.

At this point in life, I am spending more and more time alone.  I walk; I think; I soliloquize and invent… I may even talk to myself.  I wander-- down strange and familiar streets, into places; when I am alone my ear is sharper-- I hear things outside and inside my own head.  It''s as though I dare myself to become lost in my own city--- to lose myself, to become someone else, in a way-- like a character in my own story… a kind of odd controlled schizophrenia; I leave my house and turn left and suddenly I am anonymous and unknown.  I blend in and I am simply a woman.  No one greets me or looks at me… I am free, in a way-- unencumbered and clear.  It rests me… it provides my blank canvas.

I think I've always craved some kind of solitude-- even the kind you have in a group.  I like people but am reluctant to commit myself to any society that excludes me from other choices. Maybe it was my dysfunctional family (we all have them) and their failure at honesty-- but I never feel that I completely belong anywhere.  Even marriage felt odd to me-- it required my husband convincing me this would be a good thing… and besides, I'd be making someone incredibly happy and giving up nothing.  It seemed to make sense.. and I got to cross another border-- to belong to two countries, as I chose-- and that suited me… but the boundaries of marriage never felt right to me.  Maybe I was a terrible wife, but other women encroached on the walls of my own marriage-- my husband failed to protect me, and I left.  Motherhood was quite another issue-- but I was still someone's daughter, someone's lover, someone's sister… I could still live between identities, go from neighborhood to neighborhood-- play in bands and enjoy my son's basketball games with pride.

It's possible that solitude gives us clarity… in my case, the acceptance of my own penchant for straddling borders--- for being two people, in a way-- the one who walks and the one who observes--  the speaker and the listener.   At my age, I notice I am more blunt, more honest.  I say things directly; occasionally I offend people.  I see my own peers walking around clearly burdened with their pasts.  We have all experienced so much; for some, they are stooped with the weight of it, fearful that little will happen in coming years to balance or complement their life.

My son's friend asked me to help him return a ring he bought his fiancée a few years back.  It's such a beautiful thing-- it's vintage-y and unique.   He lost his Mom recently, and maybe that somehow altered him; he also knows I've returned rings and changed my own mind many times.  It doesn't bother me and I've never really regretted much in my life; it all seems to have brought me to where I am, which is not a bad place.  There's a book of poems I remember reading: Loving a Woman in Two Worlds.  I've always loved that title… as though this is the way I've lived.  Returning the ring-- dealing with the receipt and the agreement and the salespeople… it all seemed so absurd that this intimate, personal decision we make gets so 'handled' by so many people-- the processes-- the invitations, and name changes-- the paperwork and vows and all the guests and witnesses-- the home-buying and the furniture choices… and suddenly it was as though I was so close to my own relationship thresholds-- maybe in the very same store where my fiancé  had bought the lovely ring that had felt to me like a 25-pound weight.

It took my son's friend 5 years: maybe 2 to really believe he'd made the wrong choice, and 3 more to actually find this ultimate closure.  Finality.  He has a new girlfriend now.  When we get older, some loves we realize were addicting, or consuming, or manipulative-- or they looked like someone else, or they reminded you of something, or your best friend talked you into it… or whatever.  And then some affairs look absurd and like some kind of period of insanity.  And after it all, after a lifetime-- there are those moments that shine-- through time, from the half-light of this moment, back to that one… there is still this beauty-- something right and true… and we feel lucky, even though we never held on, that we felt this way.

We have so little present-- all of us.  Just this nanosecond of awareness-- the rest is just a movie-- an invention.  So few of us take the time to appreciate these tiny things we are holding at this moment only-- unless we are on the verge of loss.   We mourn at funerals, we bathe in morning light when we are aware our days are numbered-- we love those we can no longer see, and we miss what we no longer have.  Handing over the ring, I was aware someone else's moments were in my hand briefly--- even the feel of the box-- I could imagine how much it must have meant at the time, and he'd spent many multiples over what was appropriate ('in over his head', as he put it)… but there it was, becoming an item in a shop window for someone else to give their loved one, to become part of someone else's story.  I felt empathetically unburdened.  These symbols never had much credence in my lifetime, as I've said… and the truly spiritual instances of the meaning of marriage are more like star points in the dark liquid sky of my own history.  But then again, I am someone who likes to cross borders, to travel between worlds and rooms and to inhale winter evenings and mix them with older constellations and lyrics I have surely misread or mispronounced… and I emerged, on my way back toward Harlem, to the song of the melting snow, me stepping every block from past to present to future, between worlds.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Amateur Our

Every winter  I interview prospective freshman for my alma mater.  It's a rewarding task; it enables me to pay back a little for the really stellar education I received, and it allows me to connect with these amazing young women who are eager for knowledge and skills to change the world, to solve problems, to heal the wounds of humanity and make a contribution.  Most of them come from poorer families and need financial aid.  They are prepared and bright; they are enthusiastic and compassionate.  Few of them will win admission, but most of them deserve this, and all of them will go on to have productive lives, I am quite sure.

To support the mission of diversity, many of these girls are from immigrant families.  For some of them,  they are recent immigrants, and English is a second language; they have overcome challenges and have seen things most American kids can only imagine.  This week several of them happen to be from countries on the new 'banned' list.  While I am a kind of ambassador for my alma mater, we are now confronted with confusing issues and worries I cannot wholly facilitate.  Politics is not a subject on the interview agenda, but this year we cannot help but acknowledge current events.  I feel apologetic and ashamed of my country.  The real irony is, 18-year-olds whose native language is Farsi and Arabic have been studying government and American history-- requirements to embark on a higher education program.  All of them are better versed in constitutionality and American justice than our current president.  What kind of world is this?

My friend is tall and statuesque, and looks like a model.   She loves music.  She is even married to sort of a rockstar.  She sings; she gets up on amateur stages and wails.  She has all the great moves and gestures, but she is truly a terrible singer.  So she got it in her head to try her fortune at the Apollo Theatre.  I have to give her points for guts; she stepped out on the stage with all confidence, and every man and woman in the place was taken with her appearance.  But then she opened her mouth.  The audience, in reaction, opened their mouths in disbelief.  It took about 45 seconds before she was booed off the stage.  Democracy.  Did she learn something?  She is still making recordings, taking lessons from people who are quite willing to take her money, trying to jump onstage with people.  In her favor, she is hurting no one; fooling no one.

Night after night, I play alongside other bands of all varieties.  Some have great ideas and lack the musical skill to execute; some are well-practiced and derivative.  And some have absolutely no clue what music might be.  A classical orchestra requires auditions, a level of achievement and a competitive field of music students who are ready to make the leap to professionalism.  But re: rock and roll and pop-- it seems all bets are off.  Last night a combination of people took the stage who seemed to have no common thread except an umbrella band name.  No one played their instrument with any competence; the songs were formless and the performance was not even comical.  Technical issues and lack of experience kept them onstage far longer than their allotted slot.  No one booed, no one turned the power off.  I guess they had some friends in the house… but it was a true 'Little Miss Sunshine' moment.  I've witnessed altogether too many recently.  What happened to the 'hook' by which I mean not the song, but the stage removal device?

I have recently been to a few young art galleries.  At one, the director started a conversation with me about abstract expressionism, the New York School, etc.  She consistently mispronounced names and
misstated facts.  She seemed to have no frame of reference or context, no sense of art history or even contemporary culture… yet was exhibiting at art fairs alongside established, experienced gallerists, selling student-ish derivative paintings for $20-50,000.  P.S…. she is very attractive and well dressed.  But who are her buyers?  Her next show is 'pre-sold', she bragged.  I couldn't help thinking this was the kind of smoke-and-mirror game we used to play when some guy called us and we claimed we were busy, night after night… until he finally swore eternal allegiance in exchange for one dinner.

Next week is the Superbowl--- an American institution, an athletic contest with a huge audience and the significance of a kind of annual war-game.  Plenty of athletes may not have leadership qualities, but they are fierce and well-trained.  No one suits up for pro football who has not spent thousands and thousands of hours in drills and scrimmages and grueling exercise.  The game itself has a certain number of variables, but either team has hard-earned the opportunity to compete.

Maybe the best man doesn't always win the American presidency, but never before has the reality-show culture usurped our politics.  This is a serious job, with serious repercussions.  It is a position of leadership and power.  Kings and queens in history have on occasion inherited an office for which they were unsuited, but never has the collective consensus of a nation been so willingly corralled into idiocy.  I have had enough.  A week's worth of incompetence, blatant inexperience and bad decision-making has awakened even the most soporific of dreamers and optimists into a reality check.  The inauguration felt to me like a kind of funeral and after 9 days of mourning, I'm sick to death of the cult of mediocrity and amateurism.  I refuse to sell out my fellow countrymen to what is not a compromise but a dangerous regime of lunacy.  One man's hyper-extended fantasy of narcissism and abuse of office is not going to deflate and sicken the platform of civil rights and humanitarian ethics that has defined much of my generation's decency.   I've never been a patriot, but it's damned unAmerican and way past time for the proverbial 'hook'.  Time for the sound of one hand clapping… and as the emcee says, 'NEXT...'




Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Oh what will you give me...

When I was 16, my parents sent me on one of those international exchange programs.  I chose Mexico where I lived as a native in a rural place in the state of Veracruz.  It was a life-changing time; my host family had never even seen an airplane-- had no electricity or plumbing-- and there was nothing but our common humanity to provide a basis for bonding.  I ate strange food, rose with the roosters, lived simply and without worry.  At the end of my stay, all the students in the Americas met up at an international conference in Mexico City at the soccer stadium, where I was asked to play my guitar and sing something uniquely American.  I performed Universal Soldier in front of a massive audience; I even got an encore.  Racking my brain to find a song promoting world peace and unity, I tried out The Bells of Rhymney but halfway through the second verse realized I didn't know the words.   I choked, left the stage while the announcer mumbled something about la señorita being 'muy despeinada'.

After I met Andy Warhol several years later (he often passed by the gallery where I worked)  I told him the story, as my first public humiliation.  He laughed and said as long as no one filmed it, it wouldn't be held against me.  I wanted to ask him if that might have been my 15 minutes, but he didn't really like questions; he liked answers.  So many years later, I still dread solo gigs, as much as I feel this is as close to my real core, and am somehow compelled to subject myself to this.  I've analyzed and analyzed: who cares if I'm terrible?  Plenty of people are terrible?  Nothing helps, and really, few people care.

I'm not sure if it's my age and impatience, but I've recently found myself reacting with increasing bitterness and cynicism at the state of culture in general.  Music disappoints; I rarely see films or concerts-- I cannot really afford these things anyway.  I know Carnegie Hall lives on, the Philharmonic-- and maybe this is a sad omission but I don't miss them; I have cds and records.  What I do miss is the complete paralyzing excitement of seeing something like the de Kooning women in the 1960's-- Andy's wallpapered room of cows-- the first Graffiti show, early Jean-Michel… Hendrix.  John Lee Hooker-- before I knew about him, or Tim Buckley in the 1960's.  I've wondered if I'm just too old and ruined to see anything with new eyes.

My neighbor is a famous editor and writer.  His work is indisputably important and post-modern.  He is critical of what I do, although he occasionally praises me.  There's a certain snobbery in his circle; contemporary writing has to be tough and terse.  I browsed one of his recent books; one section is just a list of words… difficult words, uncomfortable words outside of most people's reach.  Okay… maybe like a Donald Judd or some minimal sequential thing-- but Judd has a certain universal, unpretentious simplicity.  The literary version is awkward and I hated it.

Personally I know my poetry is flawed; it is human and personal and maybe too emotional.  It is overly confessional and sympathetic, and I want it to be accessible and not difficult.  I think I'm not sure whether at this stage of my life I'd fall in love with Proust again, or be able to read Georges Perec or even Jean Genet with the intensity I gave these so many years ago.  I might be critical of Henry James now, or find Trollope excessive or silly.  I cringe occasionally at Anne Sexton; I worshipped her in the 1970's.  Some of the books my neighbor promotes-- well, they are brilliant, in a way--- but they do not sweep me off my literary feet, and I care little for the characters.  The language doesn't get in my blood.  I want to be better, and I want my heroes to be better, as well.  I am not claiming to be an artist or a great poet, but I do want to be read, and understood.

Again, I am not sure what I am expecting.  I do know that few millennials have the sense of context that my generation was given.  Education has changed; history, aside from phenomena like Hamilton-the-musical, seems less pertinent to this generation.  We used to be able to look at a painting or hear a recording and place it in a timeline; not so, now.  Reading has changed for so many, and the way people perceive music.  They listen to so many things simultaneously, while multi-tasking; even volume has become subjective.  Art seems to play to this audience-- it is rare that I enter a gallery and find quiet simple canvasses.  There are crowds and chatter-- phones and selfies.  There is theatrical lighting and music and there is performance;  at my one and only visit to the new Whitney, there were roving performance artists; they were embarrassing and distracting.  I could not 'hear' the paintings.

But most of all there seems to be this sense of 'self'… I mean, even Andy Warhol had anxiety about his work-- insecurity.  A true artist hears his voice and executes as best he can, but he is never sure-- he has doubt and asks questions.  He knows his work is a process.  This culture seems to be so sure of itself-- so smug and narcissistic.  And a majority of the audience is obedient; they like what they are told to like, they hear what they are given, they wear what they think they should wear, what their 'icons' wear.  This worries me-- the diversion and commercialization of the process.  Art and fashion have become bedfellows; this has energized fashion but cheapened art.  And while I detest the massive cultural joke of Jeff Koons, I am also left cold by the more pretentious, dehumanized, technology-heavy exhibitions.  And there is so much out there-- trillions of images and soundbytes-- so much spectacle-- so many celebrities and events, a million channels.  How can we expect anyone to connect deeply and intimately with ideas the way one reads an old book in a quiet room?  Somewhere in every country, artists are despairing-- important canvasses and books are burning in a digital bonfire.  A sacred tree is surely falling at any given moment in a night forest, and no one will hear.

Still, I have this relentless need to communicate, which I think is the seed of all art, and a certain faith that I may touch even one person, or change something.  I suppose the experience of being dropped into a strange cultural river at 16 taught me a certain lesson… and I am grateful for The Bells of Rhymney, the riveting and beautiful words of a Welsh coal miner who educated himself, which somehow found their way into music and onto my teenage record player and changed my life.