. . . Van Morrison

. . .

"Ouaii? ... O! Re! Come il King!"
"Che? ... Ah, si, si! Come i Kinks!"

- Florentine conversation, 1989

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.

. . .

Oulipo boy, a long way from home

I'm with A. Waggish, Org. in finding explicitly Oulipolitan assignments the least significant components of the Oulipocorpus. Like most exercises in self-indulgent discipline (like most exercise, in short), they're for the benefit of the exerciser. My Van Morrison cover, for example, kept me in a slightly better temper while bussing from the BART station to the CalTrain station. The experiment met its goals but the goals were of limited interest.

Earnestness and fooling around aren't always so easily contrasted, however. The extent to which abs-tightening is purely self-indulgent depends on how dependent others might be on one's abs: the infantry, after all, has to travel on 'em. And I for one can easily imagine earnest and significant jerking off.

If the Oulipo Program readies the exerciser for anything, it's in an improved ability to apply oneself seriously to transparently arbitrary make-work. Under what circumstances might that prove significant?

Jacques Roubaud's The Great Fire of London and Samuel Beckett's Watt obviously differ, and equally obviously Beckett has the advantage. But they both seem as solidly significant as one might possibly want to deal with this side of the grave. And they both achieve this solidity by being "about" the need to work through and after and around trauma. (Personal trauma for Roubaud; historical for Beckett. Thus Beckett's advantage: prose fiction is less friendly to pathetic fallacy than to metonymy.)

Given the magnitude of the trauma, any response -- any work -- seems pointless, insulting even. Something to force oneself through, numb, dumb, and foul. Its only justification is its necessity, while belief in its necessity is impossible to maintain.

Embodying this recognition of survival's triviality in the very work of survival is the point and foundation of the works' significance.

Although myself a mere observer of significance, I venture to guess that the triviality boot-camps of Oulipo and Murphy found their justification in helping the workers along.

. . .

Physics assures us that if the artist is to produce a viable artifact distinct from the artist, external assistance is required. Such supplements of idiot intention we call "the Muses." (Or, equivalently, "radio transmissions from Mars.")

They're often at odds with dignity as well as conscious intent: Van Morrison's dour Ulster affect 1 jerked down hill and up alley by the loping Irish wolfhound of his vocal impulse; Zukofsky backed into La Parfumerie's stacked display of zebra-fragrance by the words, the words, the tintinnabulation that so Tin-Pan-Alley blurts from the words, words, words, words, words, words, words.

Sometimes the top of the head comes off; sometimes the trousers fall down. What inclines the individual toward one startle effect over another?

1. A countryman, rustic, or peasant.
  1563 BALDWIN Mirr. Mag., Rivers xliv, The cloyne contented can not be With any state.

    b. Implying ignorance, crassness, or rude manners: A mere rustic, a boor.
  1848 MACAULAY Hist. Eng. I. 320 Language..such as we should now expect to hear only from the most ignorant clowns.

I've written before about the class lines obscured under the Modernist blanket. "Modernism" was a defense of endangered privilege, but "Modernism" was also an attempt to prove that one could fit into an imagined meritocracy, that one was more than one's slum.

Although I wouldn't claim that the aesthetic is atemporal, by definition it's antitemporal. Attempting to confine such a formulation to a particular range of "modernist" years will make it squirt out between one's fingers and all over one's nice dress shirt. Class trauma had something to do with Joyce's move from solemn epiphany to sarcastic sentiment, yes, but it also helps explain Hans Christian Andersen's risky move from hifalutin novels to the ecstatically naked resentment and shame of his fairy tales. And Jerome McGann argues that John Keats 2 anticipated Frank O'Hara's insolent mingling of low and high diction.

As for "Postmodernism," it's not like verse regained its eighteenth-century position in the cultural mainstream after World War II ended. If you want to be a contemporary countertenor, you'd better have a sense of humor about it.

(Not that I've ever met a countertenor who did.)

1 My favorite example of Muse as obnoxious practical joker isn't anything from Hopkins or Zukofsky, but fireplug Van Morrison advising his "Ballerina" to "fly it; sigh it; come on and diet."
2 In Yeats's indelibly cruel description, "the coarse-bred son of a livery stablekeeper" "with face and nose pressed to a sweet-shop window."

. . .

Dangerously tiny dancer

Bhikku, l'ascoltatore migliore, looks in his own ear and writes:

Re the "come on and diet" line, the whole thing is arsy-versy anyway because previously hasn't he advised her to "Grab the ketchup"?

My favourite bit is the most heart-felt bit of singing and the emotional climax of the music, when he tells her where to find the light switch.

. . .

Comics comment: Acme Novelty Datebook

Nick Lowe summed up a tour with Van Morrison: "He's completely mad. But he sings like a fucking bird."

Robert Crumb draws like a fucking bird sings, and so his sketchbooks tend to contain his best work. The structural labor of comics narrative cramps him; heedless of beak and plumage, he lunges for the easiest way out.

Chris Ware is no fucking bird. Instead, he's driven by structural concepts.

The structural concept of his sketchbook is that he wishes he were more like Robert Crumb.

. . .


Corrected Nick Lowe quote:

Well, it was good fun except old Van is such a miserable old fucker.... I just think he needs a good clip around the ears, that's what I think he needs, actually. Stop taking himself so bloody seriously. Coz it ain't that hard to get up in front of a crowd of people that really groove on you, and sing a couple of tunes, which comes naturally -- he sings like a bloody bird -- so it's not that hard for him to do it. If it is causing that much pain, why doesn't he go and bolt fucking wheels on Fords? It's just, it's just so... rude, y'know.
We regret any inconvenience this may have caused.

This was from the same issue of CREEM that ran "the world's shortest (no pun intended) Bob Dylan interview":

DYLAN (on stage): This next number is a song I once did with The Band. You remember The Band, don't you? It was on an album called Planet Waves. It sold twelve copies.
CREEM (Jeffrey Morgan, sitting in the front row): Why?
DYLAN: Get this guy out of here.
Looking again at this crap, I can't help but be impressed by an incidental benefit of hip-hop's ascendency: articulate interview subjects.


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All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.