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...'

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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.

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