|. . . Smokey Robinson|
|. . . 2003-02-07|
Less theoretically, the mention of hip-hop summons forth a name capable of jerking the choke-chain on any lengthy bullshit Elvis rap: James Brown.
James Brown! the very words are like a bell!
In the 1950s, Brown covered as wide a stylistic range as Presley with more authority; his Wynonie Harris and Roy Brown derivations gave jump the best vocals it ever got. Then in the 1960s, when Presley was just screwing around, Brown invented a whole new style. Then in the 1970s, when Presley was just screwing around, Brown invented a whole new style again. Brown was producer and writer, singer and performer, America's Beethoven and Nijinski combined. And, unlike any of those guys, he shared a movie credit with the Queen, Lesley Gore: Ski Party, whose dialog supplied what I hope to be my own last words before succumbing to hypothermia: "Why, you're not the ski patrol! You're James Brown and the Famous Flames!"
So why aren't we celebrating James Brown twice a year (birthday and parole date), and why isn't he getting two-volume fifteen-pound biographies, and why aren't tourists swamping the name of the place Augusta GA, and why don't blowhards like Greil Marcus and me blow harder his way?
My blowhard instinct tells me to return to the initial thesis: James Brown was the hardest working man in show business, professional dancer, professional musician, whereas Elvis Presley's version of "TCB" was more like a four-year-old visiting daddy's construction site -- "What's this lever do?", and so on.
Amateurism don't cover all the bases, though. Frank Sinatra was both professional and criminally obnoxious, and you didn't see him dragged off to prison in his late 50s.
Nah, I'm afraid the answer's plain racism.
Of course, if I decide to drop concerns of narrative and media attention and think in terms of actual achievement, I have to admit that I don't listen to Brown all that often or Presley all that often. As far as career accomplishment goes, and it's pretty far in these cases, I haven't attended Presley nearly as much over as extended a period as Smokey Robinson, or the Ramones, or Louis Jordan (another natural born movie star), or Van Morrison, or Thelonious Monk, or, for that matter, since period extension doesn't matter that much if you can put the greatest hits on repeat, Nellie Lutcher, or the Shangri-Las, or Slim and Slam, or Gene Pitney, or, give 'im credit, Rufus Thomas.
Take away even the supportive statistics-slanting narrative of a reasonably sized career, and I find that mostly my shell-like ear is dedicated to scooping up popular music's brine shrimp and sea monkeys. Like Sam Phillips must've realized somehow deep inside, the moment doesn't require that narrative: the sales crew is who wants the narrative.
Maybe that's why us old-timey hip-hop fans have been let down, over and over, when we thought the star who could sustain had finally appeared out of the east or the west, re-establishing that nice secure rock-and-roll career path so the musicians who gave us pleasure wouldn't have to be scrounging around at pension time. Who we got as a grand old master all these years later, post Flash and Run and Roxanne and Markie and Marley and L. L. and Scott and the JBs and Kool G. and Polo? Dr. Dre, huh? Fuck. Dr. Dre, that's it?
Elvis means something to me, but the meaning only requires occasional pinches to wake it up. So Elvis must mean something outside of just listening to music proper.
That would make him a figurehead. A person who's a symbol. In this case, a hillbilly cat screwed up by too much money.
Is that politics? Kind of.
That's the thing with kings, right? They're politics, they're apolitical; person, symbol; your enemy, and not even in the same game. You don't get to pick them, and it doesn't matter much what you think of them. They change things when they show up. They're what you're stuck with till they die. (And if you're a good patriotic American, you won't be all that quick to replace them.)
And amongst the royalty? Forgetting Smokey and Mr. Jordan and so on, who were just working hard, doing their thing? Compared to icy pricks like Sinatra and Bing Crosby? Yeah, Elvis is my king.
|. . . 2006-03-14|
I would have no newes printed; for when they are printed they leave to bee newes; while they are written, though they be false, they remaine newes still.- Ben Jonson, Newes from the New World Discover'd in the Moone
Literature is news that STAYS news.- Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading
It's traumatic when performed art becomes recorded art. (Gawd, do I really sound that whiney?) And poetry's been traumatized longest. Sure, we have all that noise; sure, we can pattern it. But what's the point post-literacy?
So, there's been the pleasure of showing off, when someone's willing to be impressed, or when we can pretend that someone is. There's been seduction and devotion and advertising, when we want our words to stick and intrude far from support of paper. There've been brief re-marriages of written word with notated music before career ambitions drove them apart again. Pound and Zukofsky sincerely believed that poetry became corrupted as it drifted from song, but that didn't make them want to become Sappho or Thomas Campion or Smokey Robinson: it made them want to become a textual version of Brahms or Bach or Webern.
And then there's nostalgia for the days when sound made sense, because it was all the sense we had, even if we usually couldn't say what it actually meant, Remember the good times? Couldn't we bring them back before they're completely lost? The familiar problem of Ossian and Wordsworth, Olson and Rothenberg....
Traditional ballads and heroic epic didn't play much part in the social life of mid-nineteenth century Amherst, Massachusetts. To take them as role models would have been a purely literary affectation rather than a return to orality.
Dickinson's community did, however, include a lyric form comparable in centrality to (say) folk songs for Robert Burns: the hymn.
Of course the Protestant hymn was a written and notated form, but it was expressed in oral performance in public, in the family circle, and presumably within the concert hall of one's skull. (Limited seating, but excellent accoustics.) Would it be possible for an atavistic poet in a literate society to take that written devotional lyric as an origin for oral composition? What might such a throwback look like?
Well, we might expect a reversal of the written lyrics' preference for eye-rhyme. We might expect a return to assonance and slant-rhyme. We might even expect hypercorrection.
We might expect the formal grammar of written sentences to be replaced by the looser, more dramatic and fragmented syntax of spoken English. Since formal syntactic punctuation then loses its function, we might expect a simpler notation of phrase breaks and emphasis — dashes, say, and an occasional exclamation mark.
We might expect the literary meter to revert to some features of traditional ballad metrics. That is, a simple regular form might serve as a reference point for ear-and-mouth, perceived as a default mode even if frequently varied in practice. Again positing hypercorrection, it might be deviated from so often that irregularity became the real but imperceptible rule. (And we might expect a great deal of posthumous meddling from editors who prefer the properly regular.)
Dickinson is mostly thought of as a poet of hymnodic quatrains, and there’s no doubting she was partial to hymn meters. A survey (see appendix) of the first quatrains of the 295 poems she wrote in 1863—her most productive year, in Franklin’s dating (which I follow here), and the year that saw the creation of most of her renowned poems—yields one hundred in common meter (8686). At a distant second, comprising about one eighth (37) of the total, come the short-metered poems (6686). Another familiar meter, long meter (8888), Dickinson used only six times, each time rhyming it as couplets. There are also three poems in the sestet variation of common meter known as common particular meter (886886). But the surprising and wholly unrecognized feature of these celebrated poems is that Dickinson worked most frequently in none of the above, often inventing a meter for a poem and using it just that once. The number of poems Dickinson composed in 1863 in patterns rare or unheard of in religious or secular lyric poetry, including her own, surpasses even those in common meter.- John Shoptaw, "Listening to Dickinson"
We might also expect a re-re-definition of "verbatim recall".
Stand not upon Formality / For it leaves an Imprint
That poet-with-swing Jonathan Mayhew writes:
Some have repeated the claim that all of Emily's work can all be sung to the tune of "The Yellow Rose of Texas." This is clearly spurious, given the number of invented forms she wrote in.
"All" is a great exaggeration, true, but not so exaggerated historically speaking, since Dickinson's early editors mercilessly regularized her into acceptable common meter -- which is indeed singable to "The Yellow Rose of Texas" and probably hundreds of other tunes. (I mean, there's a reason it's called common meter!)
|. . . 2007-02-16|
What can you possibly do with more love? Smokey Robinson lost in ecstatic contemplation of his hundred lifetimes:
"Live it down.... Wear it down.... Tear it down...."
Elvis Presley's lascivious staccato:
"Punch it. Kick it. You can never win. You know you can't lick it."
From the great Elvis LP, "South of the Border".
Add another one - Bop It Extreme 2 - Bop it! Spin it! Twist it! Pull it!
|. . . 2007-05-22|
Pop music makes a horrifically misleading comparison point. English song and poetry in English have diverged too much since Campion's day, and as much as I love the lyrics of Chuck Berry, Lord Melody, Smokey Robinson, Tom Verlaine, the Coup, Mos Def, and Slug, none would fit a little magazine or chapbook.
A closer demotic relative of contemporary lyric is stand-up comedy, with its definitional dictions, its canonical revolutionaries, and its School of Quietude.... They're different forms with different capabilities, but there are examples from both who'd fit either.
Ask Ron Silliman about the Russian edition yoking him with Louis Zukofsky and Woody Allen.
"a something along these veins .."
And while we have for decades been told that the lyrics of Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith et al (rarely however is this said about Slug) can be read without music as standalone poems, the same is never claimed for the work of Richard Pryor or Eddie Izzard.
Ah, but Steven Wright...?
First thing they teach you in Narratology school is in the face of a literary theory scrutinize the selection of evidence. I counter with: Brian Eno, John Cale, 'Berlin' David Bowie, Early and mid Beck, Destroyer, Jonathan Richman, Pavement, MF Doom, Li'l Wayne, Ghostface Killah, and a bunch of Israeli stuff. Not that their lyrics are in anyway better or more interesting than your batch, just that they're all both a) very good, b) modern poetry is a somewhat relevant frame of reference to their work either historically or theoretically or both.
|. . . 2007-11-19|
Pop critics never paid much attention to Smokey Robinson's work from the 1970s and early 1980s. Maybe it's because a couple of his biggest hits were weak and written by other hands. And I guess Pure Smokey, an attempt to apply Norman Whitfield naturalism to middle-class family life, may be too peculiar for most tastes. (Although anyone capable of swallowing Mott the Hoople....)
But Smokey's Family Robinson, Where There's Smoke..., Warm Thoughts, and Touch the Sky all sound (and feel and move) like an Apollonian auteur at a comfortable peak. Off the singles-and-touring treadmill, Smokey's voice gained suppleness. Unlike the empty-pated yodel-birds who still rule contemporary R&B, he was able to maintain intellectual focus across a long groove. And whereas most quiet-storm songwriters travelled from point A to point A with an extended loll at point A, Robinson found a way to structure the new expanse.
Twist endings hadn't been all that uncommon in country or soul 45s — two lovers, both of them are you — but unless delivered by the most extravagantly soulful of voices, their effect was shallow: a startle, a novelty.
Instead of jokes, Robinson began to produce simulations of realistic emotional shifts, and the sting in the tail usually carried an anodyne. In numbers like "Into Each Rain, Some Life Must Fall", from behind an ostentatiously presented, ludicrously threadbare conceit, Smokey pulls a magically affecting image. Starting as post-separation lament, "Heavy on Pride, Light on Love" builds into a frenzy of middle-aged lust; starting from rarified sentiment, "Touch the Sky" reaches the same destination. As a collector of romantic-vengeance songs, I'm fondest of "The Hurt's On You," which seems at first like the usual smarmy sarcasm, then pivots on a single line into an expression of genuine empathy — of community, even.
But as pure concept, the most remarkable example is his belated answer to "The Love I Saw in You (Was Just a Mirage)": If nothing lasts forever, than our love can achieve the immortality it desires only by embracing impermanence.
Castles made of sand
Don't let our love be like
Castles made of sand
Blown about by strong ocean breeze
Scattered, scattered, in a million tiny pieces
Washed away when the tide starts to change
And nothing left, no, nothing, no trace of where it stood
If our love is made of sand
Then let it be a desert land
A desert land
Let it be strong and free
And wide and warm
Like a desert land
Let it be strong and wild
And free and warm
Like a desert land
|. . . 2007-11-23|
You read a story and suddenly there's a part that becomes just words because you know nobody ever did it like that, or said it that way but you have to pretend just to find out what happened. What I am describing is like that, too. Everything flattens out and isn't real.- The Captain, Equinox
My challenge was to not point out how our friendship, or Ian's encouragement of my artistic ambitions, or, for that matter, the laughter we shared watching Godard's Alphaville at the Bleecker Street Cinema, expressed possibilities of connection that our daily orgy of nihilism denied.- Jonathan Lethem, "The Beards"
I agree with Leonard that there's a thinness in much highly-praised contemporary fiction. But the thinning agent's not foreign blood.
In serious mainstream prose it's easier to incorporate John Wayne as a villain than to reproduce his attraction as a lead. An ambitious story or novel must make Ignatz genuinely destructive and Krazy purely female. The sensitive protagonist has no siblings; the jolly uncle is a child molester; superhuman privileges bring no joy and improve nothing.... These are generic conventions. They're integral to the story being told, but when I strike them my stride falters. I don't slip, but I slide a bit.
What disappoints Leonard are Chabon's, Franzen's, Moody's, and Lethem's references. What disappoints me is the familiarity of their disappointments. It isn't specific to these novelists, or to subjects like soul music or comic books. The same story's been told of painters and boxers, poets and actresses, gypsy fiddlers and twelve-tone composers: the transmutation of exhilarating matter into glum defeat.
Artists like Herriman, Hawks, and Gaye delight through the thrownaway (even if well rehearsed) gesture that transfixes. By nature, they're anti-plot — or at least anti-character-development. When narrative attempts to depict such lyric effects, they can only be given too little or too much attention. If it's made the point of the story, the point of the story must be loss. It only takes a few minutes to hear a song by Schumann or Mimms — and then where's the hero? Even as articulate an artist as Smokey Robinson can only tell us that rich guys love cocaine.
Alternatively, the writer may try to suggest some aspect of the experience in passing, using the critical equivalent of free indirect discourse, or may, like Stephen King and James Joyce, flatly cite brandnames.
In any case, narrative is saved: life is only interrupted. The choice has nothing to do with the referent itself, nothing to do with "high" or "low". Wagnerian opera was as bad for John Jones as hip-hop was for Arthur Lomb.
It may, however, say something about the referrer. Across media, a downward turn indicates depth. Chris Ware, like Lethem, started in high-art institutions, became revulsed by academic pretensions, was attracted by genre practitioners, established himself as a star in the most conceptually daring end of low-art publishing, and then (with a success that stunned his new peer group) was welcomed into the market covered by the NYRB&TBR. For both Ware and Lethem, disappointment was a vehicle.
On the other hand, prose fiction can embody its own sort of lyric effect. Lethem's "Sleepy People" is an example whose lack of critical regard shows how low beauty places in most readers' and reviewers' criteria. Although in some ways the career of Karen Joy Fowler anticipated Lethem's, her preference for comic structures puts her in constant danger of being reshelved from high-middlebrow to chick-lit or YA. And the most enthusiastically referential of storytellers — Howard Waldrop, Guy Davenport — unable to sacrifice the gaiety of their scholarship, remain coterie property.
Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.