Thursday, January 22, 2015

Letter Never Sent

   The last thing my brother wrote was a letter to my first girlfriend.
   He didn't finish it.
   Three pages from a note pad. Smallish. Green ruled lines on yellow paper. The kind engineers might use for the grocery list. 
    Phil wasn't an engineer but he had lovely handwriting. Legible, lithesome even, untortured like that of the rest of the men in the family - but he did leave some letters undone, some words half drawn. 
  Like a boxer who couldn't finish a punch. Or a swimmer exhausted who can't get those fingers to the wall. Ballet like. 
   His writing had an unfinished grace.
   He'd sketch most of a word. You could fill in the rest.
   You didn't have to wade into the bracken of a script like mine and bend it back into the language it once was, piece it together like a plane gone down in the Everglades blown into cursive mud and strings of steel.
  Anyhow.
  Allison wrote Phil to tell him he'd been a fine swim coach, a role model, and a friend to a teenage girl with mad smarts, mad talent, and more than a little madness that could have taken her either way - to the psyche ward or to Yale, which is where she went.
  (Not that going to Yale has anything to do with being sane or being a decent human....in fact, quite the contrary ....but I'll leave that to another day....)
  Phil had been dead a few days when I found the letters, his response and then hers. It was such an odd sensation: hearing a woman I hadn't seen in 30 years but whose voice still lived in my head. And hearing my brother, clear as day, who I'd never hear again.
   The two of them talking back and forth, the soft baritone he used when he felt safe with someone and her nasal coo - Alison always sounding like she was about to give you the punch line- but with Phil she leveled it, and leaning up against the side of the pool with her swimmer's shoulders on the concrete, Phil golden brown and blonde in his guard chair, the two of them would trade stories for hours.
  We dated, but I imagine she probably loved Phil.
  And he was a good brother.
  He was worth loving. Or as a director once said about me to an amorous leading lady "He's great, seriously, a great guy...long as you don't date him."
  Oh well. It's a fault.
  But I know a worser one.
  I wrote Allison and thanked her for writing to my brother. She'd actually sent him a letter. In an envelope. She'd spelled out at some length his contribution to her life. Simple, yet generous. A professional woman with kids, she'd made the time.
  Lots of folks posted stuff to Phil. They got on social media and "shared" their condolences to a man not yet dead or they engaged in the power of positive thinking in public, but very few people put themselves down on paper to someone they had once loved. Very few took the time, alone, to compose their thoughts, to fold the sheet, find the stamp, wait for the response. One woman actually called me and said she was nervous. How would Phil respond if she wrote, what should she do? I almost laughed.
   Allison wrote me back and in short order told me about her career, her kids, and her husband. She repeated that Phil was unique and that now she valued more those days spent by a pool in a dying steel town that we were all desperate to get out of.
  I was almost pleased to sense, feel, intuit no nostalgia on her part for me. No references to two awkward kids trying to kiss, trying to meet, trying however briefly - and what was it, a month, a summer?-  to figure out some way to be "two" together, when all we'd ever been was us. Kids.
  Not even a ripple really of being someone's first love.
  And it's still there....the memory, how can it not be, of realizing, "Jesus Christ this is what it is to miss someone."
  Maple avenue runs East North East through Edgewood, the smallest borough in Pittsburgh, and 150 yards on its left as you turn up from Swissvale avenue, is the local school.
  Allison's parents were dropping me off in front of the oldest section of the school, a dramatic arched entrance that even then was glassed in, and as I waved she tilted her head back by the window and laughed. I think we were 13, 12? She was a year younger. We'd been at a swim meet or maybe I'd gone to one of her Pitt practices and been totally outclassed, I don't remember, but I do remember when they drove away a buddy of mine walked up and said "That's Allison Kean right?" And the simple sound of her name bent my heart around my throat and I thought, " I love Allison Kean."
  Right there, on the sidewalk, 13 stupid years old, how could it be? I thought it then and I think it now - how could I feel this at such an age? I didn't say a romantic word to her for another 2 years, didn't kiss her for three, and then we fucked it all up over nothing for over a decade- twenty somethings still avoiding each other at reunions- but I knew it then.
  My nephew is 13 now and if he told me he was in love with some girl I'd chalk it up there with his love for Star Wars figurines and Percy Jackson books. I'd think, "Shallow boy."
  And I'd be right.
  And oh, how I would be wrong.
  And there's a longer story to be told, or that could be told and shouldn't ever, about first loves and starkest memories and the deepest engraved images burned on all of our brains and how they echo, when it comes to them, those first kids we adored, without reason. Without compare, because there was no one to compare them to. The particular blue grey of Allison's house that to this day makes me love winter skies and pewter and Jasper Johns paintings and the letters Van Gogh sent to his brother saying, "If you cannot learn grey, learn it every day in all its different shades, you can never paint." What chlorine and soda ash do to a young girl's golden hair and how the plaited sheen of it plastered toward her shoulder gives me pause. The shape of her nose, too long, too big, planted in my face when we kissed, but which makes me speak up when a pack of guys start talking about perfection and beauty and how one ever needed the other.
  But that's not what I'm thinking here, or trying to say....I was pleased that Allison, greying, grown up, childborne Allison, didn't stoke any nostalgia because it made me realize what I should have admitted eventually even as a teenager, and that was she didn't have any.
  People cry at Romeo and Juliet not because they both die, not because they both love each other- and they do- people cry because they know this love cannot be. It ONLY exists on a stage or in our minds but both are so powerful, so insanely powerful, they make us believe it can happen again and again.
  It's strange but it helps to realize you were not the first true love of your first true love. The same thing didn't happen as she drove away in her parent's car, "I love David Conrad." And it didn't happen no matter how many times that kid tried to convince her it should.
  But we believe our own hearts, even when they're not quite moored to another's.
  That might be the worser fault.


  
  

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Sympathy for the Orcs


   There was a ten year period when the best American movies made were films about Vietnam. Coming Home. The Deer Hunter. Apocalypse Now. Platoon. Full Metal Jacket.
  Tremendous work.
  But then I read a review, or it could have been an interview, where someone said "We'll never come to terms with that war until we make a movie where the heroes are Vietnamese."
   I say this as prelude to a rant against violence. Not destruction, or the pyrotechnics of filmic chaos, or even the brutality of movie warfare, but narrative violence, violence that knocks against the heart.
  Violence that's a cruelty of story. Any tale that needs to make of one people, or tribe, or race- the Japs, the Vietnamese, the Arabs, the Zombies, the Orcs - needs to make them into a horde wherein any one of them can die without question, without reference, without pause.
  I find this filmmaking insufferable. A visual soullessness.
  And we feed from this trough of trash, this new fascist bucket, at a steady clip.
  Unbroken, Black Hawk Down, The Walking Dead, WW Z, 28 Days After.
  And....go ahead and laugh....each and every one of the Hobbit films.
  They're the end of the Epic. They're the nerd versions of Schwarzengger flicks- money on screen, character in the toilet. But oh how cute!
  Fake films made about fake literature where no one of any consequence to the narrative ever dies, no one has sex, and English gets tortured into ye olde modes of courtly speech. Nabokov's "poshlost" come to a theater near you.
  Shoot me. Just fucking shoot me. Or stab me with your plus ten paladin dagger.
  The Hobbit films are the worst things made since the last season of Leave it to Beaver when Fred McMurray hated everyone so much he demanded to be on set alone and spoke his lines to balloons with faces drawn on them. The Hobbit films make the Femme Nikita sequels look good. I'd rather watch Clash of the Titans. (The stop motion one from the 80s.)  I'd watch all 7 Fast n Furious flicks before I ever try to sit through the Desolation of (anyone who tries to watch) Smaug.
  The Hobbit films slay narrative. They drown its demands - the demands for opposition, for a contrary, for context, and most crucially, for loss.
  All saga is tragedy. All journeys have a price. Faye Dunaway's gotta die in Chinatown. Chow Yun-Fat kills em all and gets the girl in Crouching Tiger...but only for a second.  Jesus Christ, John Wayne dies in The Green Fucking Facist Berets! Laugh out loud bad Will Smith even has a second in "I am Legend" where he realizes the boss zombie's mad at him because his attempts to "cure" the undead look like torture to the boss.
   The only part of Desolation Smaug Electric Boogaloo I actually registered? That penetrated the Wonka color scheme and reached my ear? Orlando Elf has captured an Orc and his even Blonder Boss wants to interrogate the creature. Mid way thru the basso profoundo Gauntanomo sequence the camera gives the Orc a close up and you see him shift his eyes. These amazing pin like lion yellow eyes. He doubts, he pauses, and all I could think was, "My God, real drama. An actual moment." This Orc must have had an Orc mom, and ran around like Orc kids do, and kinda felt something for Geenie the Orc girl and maybe he's asking himself right now if this ravaging and killing lifestyle is worth it, and maybe some kind of dialogue between these massive opposites is about to occ- and then Platinum Greg Allman chops his head off and makes a joke. And as the Orc twitches and bleeds out in a wide shoot, all of us could care less.  Gotta get on with "the Story". Don't slow down the plot!!
   I could watch cars go by on the 405 in Mid Wilshire and feel more emotion for a random Hyundai than I did for Team Bilbo.
 "But it's just a fairy tale!"
  Yeah and that magazine in France just drew cartoons.
  Blow me.
   I can't watch it anymore, these mindless mowings down of the troops of "evil". Orcs tossed about like wheat stalks, like garbage thrown into a river, it's film history told by the Bush family, by the Pentagon. It's empty of meaning, of effort, of cost, of impact.
  And it's made for kids? Making slaughter cute, like a dance or video game? It's the tail of the shit. The black poisoned end. What emptiness draws up these millions and millions of dollars, spent to avoid emotion, to avoid question, to avoid empathy.
  We need to give a shit about Orcs. We need it.
  Empathy for the devil.
  Beowulf has it. Gilgamesh has it 3000 years before!! Shakespeare has it in spades. And well basically any film made before the Reagan Administration has it. They remind us- Heroism has a cost. No story can ignore its contrary.
  When it does what you're making is a template for a video game. You're designing marketing platforms, product to be sold to kids for whom re-spawning is a daily event.
  War and Peace. A modern epic. An industrial age attempt to wrestle with The Odyssey or The Iliad. And its most moving passage? Four pages among 1200. When the Russian officer Andrew Bolkonsky runs before a French assault and as it bears down upon him he asks frantically, continually "Who could this person be who wants to kill me? He's equally as lovely, as human, as simple, he must see in me the same, HOW could he want to kill me?"
  There's nothing else in War worth knowing.
  All else is simply the horror we feel as we fight with that realization, the impulse that all of us share. "He must be as human.."
   Abandon this and you make propaganda. You make a kind of crime. Re-birth of A Nation.
   Film is art it's not news. Yes some guy beheads five tourists for jihad take him out and kill him, that's "the world". But if you're going to make a movie about some guy who beheads five tourists show me how and show me some attempt at WHY.
   You can't make a war movie unless your enemy has a reason, a calling, a hope, a family.
   You can't tell a fairy tell unless your wolf needs to eat.
   You end up singing to Himmler if all your elves and dwarves and hobbits can do is endlessly slay things that don't even have a name.
   Nothing's without a soul.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Holiday Done.

  I can't write about Christmas. It matters too much. Not in the cosmic order of things but to me, simply. As I can't write about Pittsburgh. Or about my mom. Or sex. It's too sloppy, comes out too messy. "I love you!" One of most powerful things you can say. The least powerful thing you can type.
  You can't be more important than the words on the page.
  And when the one overpowers the other you write for shit. 
  Tennessee Williams could write like that but his words don't stay on the page. They get up and walk around. They speak. You meet them, literally, face to face. Print despises indulgence. Theater can handle melodrama. It's temporal. Like us. It inherits all the excuses we grant to the living. 
   
   I have a friend, a writer -a sharp, reputable writer- who won't write about things she loves. Too much. Her family. Her childhood. The city we both spent time in. 
  I used to think that was sad, an admission of weakness or some kind of failure and now I think it's wisdom. It's brave.
   Good writing needs good tooling. It is good tooling. The medium inseparable from the content. When you get to poetry it's practically a visual art. 
  Nothing greatly human by necessity leads to great writing. Nothing's worth reading simply if it's about sin or war or love or children. Often it's the opposite - mush, blather. You spray too much feeling into the words and they end up splayed on the page. Boiled milk. Too many colors come to brown. 
    Passion played out using the proper nouns of the people you knew, the places you've been, turns toward the confessional. 
   Did Beckett write about the War or Joyce or the Easter Uprising? Did Nabokov write about his father's murder or the loss of his homeland? Does Stoppard write about his children? 
  Which great writer, without essential guile, without a mask, speaks from the heart - or about that which lives closest to the heart? 
 And the ones who did? Who looked their most personal demons in the eye, called them into the room and then cast them in their work?
   James Agee dies of a heart attack in a cab in the middle of Manhattan. He was 46.  Fitzgerald dies in a duplex off Laurel Canyon road listening to a football game. Crushed. $13 dollars and 13 cents in his bank account. He was 44. Gene O'Neill locked himself in a room for a decade and broke his health writing 4 plays about his insane family that he insisted were never be performed until he was dead a decade. Anne Sexton/ suicide. She was 46. Plath- you know it-31. John Hersey never wrote anything worth a damn again after Hiroshima. Ditto Harper Lee. Thomas Wolfe dead at 38. Kerouac at 46. Jim Carroll a corpse at 35, body dies at 60. 
   Confessional lit become unconventional suicide. 
   Cloak/ deflect/ defend + Intrigue, deception and speed = Silence, cunning, and exile.
   So in an awful, bloggy personal digression ...I don't know what I'm saying here. A tribute to my fine fine friend who works with such diligence and passion, the guts she has, the fire, how I wish her a long life? How I eat her words like air.
   Or if I'm just a little thrown to realize I'm older now than Fitzgerald ever was, or Kerouac, and if I met Sylvia Plath walking down the the street,  I'd ask a friend, "Who's the kid? Young to be a mother, no?"
  Or maybe it's just today. Tonight. With four inches of snow finally fallen on a barren Pittsburgh. Filling the trees, their narrow little arms outlined in white. January 6. The Day of Kings. The ignored holiday when the three magi reached the Christ. And if you think about it - isn't that when you'd actually celebrate a baby? After it was born? I always think of the poor priests and deacons around the city throwing the big Epiphany service for no one. Music and color and chant and ceremony and everybody's home nursing a hangover, The Slavic minority singing in their churches not far from where I sit. It's Xmas there. Standing, only singing, a religion without any instrument but the voice. How it shakes me. Holy dissonance.
   Christmas. When your mind wanders. The whole city, street by street marked with symbols, talismans, wreathed in evocation. Wired to make you replay your life or the lives you wish you could have touched but only knew them in their work. Maybe that's the best gift in any season: I have Anna Karenina. I didn't have Tolstoy for a father.
  So beware the bio, the portrait that's not a pastel or an oil, the confession, the sell, the branding.
  If there's something to hope for in 2015 it'd be less Eating some Praying and and a healthy suspicion of a Love that dares not do much but shout its name.
  
   

  

Monday, January 5, 2015

The ten best of 2014?

   So yeah it's 2015. But things never happen like they tell you. Or when.
   When you're a kid the year ends with a punch on the last day of summer / the first day of school, when you're a romantic the year ends December 21st, the winter solstice when every possible pagan force is working in your melodramatic favor, and when you're an adult...? The year never ends. It just rolls on from one bright room called day into another, quarter after fiscal quarter. 
  It never happens like they tell you: Pearl Harbor- or when they tell you: Jesus' B-day.
  So just for kicks let's say it's still last year and for us right here, right now the year won't end till tomorrow - January 6th, the day of Kings, the end of the Epiphantic feast of winter Christians and the famed 12 days. 
   2014 - my list.
   Things I hate.
   Prologue- 
   I hate lists of things.
   Writers who take the old breather once a year (or more- "Summer's ten best!") from the column to make "the list".
   The best of, the worst of, the bucket list, the list of who we've lost, what we've gained, and what we should be thankful for. Should be thankful they get paid to be writers and write.
   I hate them. Lazy shits.
  10)  I hate contractors who work on Thanksgiving. Yep.
  Utter peace prevails as I walk down the abandoned streets of my mother's miserable suburban beach town and then I hear them. Reports. Like gun shots. I thought some madman has finally found this place which so deserves a rampage, or some twit has leftover fireworks. And then I discover sadly -
  No, It's a nail gun. Some guy's framing a house. On Thanksgiving. At 3 in the afternoon. He's got his illegal immigrants and newly paroled tweaker pals out on the job.
  What a bunch of shits.
  Put the work down and shut the fuck up.
  Obey the Sabbath. Kiss your kids. Stop giving ADHD a public face.
  10b) I hate guys on cell phones in museums (who are probably, half of them, contractors out with a mistress, pretending to be interested) Answering a cell phone in a gallery!? Having it on ringer? I pretend I work there and tell them to put it away. I'll say Im a board member, they should be ashamed. I'll follow them around till they leave. I'll stand a foot away and listen. You wanna talk in the museum, I'm more than happy to eavesdrop. And hey, when I come by your office to finish my landscape don't mind the linseed.
  9) I hate dry muffins with no fat, I hate fat cookies with no crunch, crumbly awful tasteless dust with "real" sugar in it and no flavor that people pretend to enjoy enjoying the denial. You want denial? DON'T EAT. I hate that everything has no nuts in it cause people found they have allergies. Yeah like potheads find they have a medical condition to keep smoking their apolitical-toe dragging- God's gift to the Republican agenda- asses into oblivion.
  9b)  I hate lactose free milk. I had to listen to a cyclist go on and on once about how no grown mammals drink the milk of other mammals!! Only humans!! We're the only ones! It's an aberration in the natural world.
   I thought yeah, and so is Beethoven's Ninth, you ass-hat. So is Sanskrit poetry and Japanese printmaking and Appalachian plain song and language itself and Fallingwater and electricity and sanitation. Not many other grown mammals work with those either. I felt like telling him all this but then I just decided to drop him and his lactose free legs as we climbed back up into Bergen County. Later hooker, enjoy the headwind.
  9c)  I hate people - most of whom will tell you they're lactose intolerant- who speak loudly enough in a line for you to hear that they're mad about waiting but don't have the guts to actually complain to the people making them wait. I hate complainers. I love to complain. I hate people who can't think two different things at the same time. Like, "I love you" And, "I want to kill you."
  9d) I hate people who can't raise their voices because it's bad. It's aggressive. (The tyranny of lactaid!) It's male. I hate that those are the same people who just can't get enough of Game of Thrones, or The Sopranos, or Sons of Anarchy or that Tea Party masquerade of racism and Idaho survivalism The Walking Dead. Castrate the culture around you but revel in the fascism coming out of your tv. Sociological SnM streaming into the comfort of your own home.
  8) I hate people who watch a play and ask "What does it mean?" I hate people who read the wall text more than they look at the art.
  8b) I hate folks who have no rhythm. (because they spend most of their miserable lives reading wall texts). I hate men who sing off key. I love when women do.
  7) I hate the culture of closure. "He's been dead for 8 months now, about time I moved on." Or  "Slavery's been over for years, when will they let it go? I mean, the Irish suffered, the Italians, the Koreans had a hard go there for awhile why is it only the blacks who can't seem to move on?"
  I hate that I usually don't have the guts to start a fight every time I hear some miserable fucking half brained lactose intolerant zombie loving contractor fool say something like that.
   7b) I hate that men can't fight anymore. That boys can't. That you go to jail for assault when you used to punch each other for awhile and then go have a beer and get over it (unless of course they're racists shits).
  7c) I hate the Confederate flag anywhere outside of a movie theater or a re-enactment of Gettysburg. You fly one of those any other time it should be open season on your ass. Any black fellow, lady of color, whatever name you wanna use, should have the legal right to slap you across the face, bust out the window of your car, tear it off your porch, and burn it before your eyes.
  Talk to me about the bravery of some of those soldiers a century and a half ago, sure, but don't talk to me about "the cause" (that some of my ancestors fought for so don't throw Yankee at my feet you fake southern shits) or the flag it flew under. Don't put it up on a pole.
  Or go right ahead but sign a waiver- a public declaration - any person of color is free to take a shot at my ass and the stars and bars, above and beyond any federal or local statutes.
  Cowards.
  I hate anyone who says "the Civil War wasn't fought over Slavery! It was State's rights!'
  Yeah. Guns don't kill people, bullets do.
  Blow me.
  6) I hate Leonard Cohen. I usually hate Dylan ( except when I love him), I hate singers who can't sing but "write good".
   You wanna be a poet be a poet, don't sing it to me unless you CAN ROCK MY WORLD with its SOUND.
   Lyrics don't rock people, music do.
  5) I hate women who don't smell. 
   Or who only smell like perfume and hair spray. Women who smell like the hair spray from their 400 dollar haircuts, furs or  4000 dollar (faux) leather jackets, carrying three shoulder bags, spending 15 minutes ordering a coffee, who then talk about male oppression. (But they're better than contractors. Or guys who play fantasy football, guys who answer cell phones in museums or turn a table for four -the handicapped table!- at Starbucks into their private real estate office, wearing a hoodie after the age of 40, who can't cook, who wear dark socks with khakis…which kind of takes care of most men.)
   5b) I hate people who won't dance. 
   Who won't sing. 
   Who turn down the music when they're lost. Who while listening to the Who or ACDC or Chopin or Stravinsky keep talking about whatever miserable detail of the days events it's more important to rehash than SONIC IMMORTALITY.
  5c)  I hate people who use the term Haters. I hate people who think "Cause Im Happy" is a song about being happy.
   4) I hate men who play video games. I hate gamers. I hate comicon. I hate graphic novels and comic books. If you can't concentrate and can't read and imagine that your deep thoughts and visions are more important than your ability to express them, then just admit it kids.
   4b)  I hate slam poetry. I hate improv comedy. I hate standup. Because most of these "art forms" are forms of …aggression. They're efforts to make people shut up, so YOU, Holy you can finally Get Your Say (and make a top 10 list). Did Rosa Parks make a speech when she took her seat up front? No. She just did it. That kid who stood in front of the tank in Bejing in '89, did he do a one man show? No. He STOPPED A TANK.
   You wanna act? Act with people. There's a reason they call it DIAlogue. Because it's like a synthesis - it's about compromise, about human communion. You don't take the sacrament alone. Or show other people how good you are at taking the sacrament and then ask them to applaud you.
   3) I hate guys who won't stand up when a woman walks into a room. I hate women who resent that men stand up when they walk into a room. I hate anyone who puts their hand on the door when you're holding it for them. I hate folks who don't wave when you let em merge. I hate folks who won't let you merge. I hate anyone who's afraid of water. Or dogs or horses or cold air. I hate that I'm afraid of cockroaches. I hate people who hate cats. In fact I more than hate them. I actively plot their deaths. I strategize how to harm and humiliate them. Or who hate dogs or horses or mice or any kind of animal. I hate men who make fun of people who cry, who mock anyone who's failed or fallen or tripped. I hate dudes who can't admit that daddy lied, that daddy was wrong, a liar, a bigot, a republican cunt who had no value system upon which he based his behavior other than "This is mine and you can't have it. But I love my family! " Kill em all. I hate guys who hunt endangered animals. I hate men who make fun of deer hunters or bird hunters. I hate deer hunting, bird hunting rednecks who love the coal companies that buried their grandfather and the drilling companies that'll cripple their kids and the smelter plants that'll give their wives cancer before they're fifty.
   Still 3)  I hate guys who can't wear a tie. I hate guys who can't wait to get back in their jeans after the wedding. I hate baseball caps indoors or shades on when it's dark or when you order a drink or a coffee or ask directions- please, take the fucking things off and show some respect.
  More 3) I hate folks who say America's the greatest country on earth. I hate knowing that I think that could still be true. Someday. 
 2)  I hate divisions, manichean visions of order - yes or no, right or wrong, good or bad, love or hate, black or white - What's your favorite movie? What's your favorite song, painting, country, hair color, car ( really? Could anything matter any less?) I mean follow the logic to its conclusion- follow it down and realize it all leads to "Who's your favorite child?" Answer that.
   And realize the one can't live without the other- there is no Romeo without Tybalt, and more importantly it's what happens between the two, what's conjured up out of their collision that's worth listing or talking about, --- and that it all adds up to what no great painting can live without, will have no glow within without - and maybe no art really, even the great Whitmanesque art of ourselves can ignore - and that's grey. A grey area. That which underlies everything. Context, condition, exception. The holy maybe behind it all.
   (Bad Examples of 2 or Preamble to number 1 of crap I forgot)  I hate Renoir, Koons, and Poussin. I hate Nicholson. I hate Mike Nichols, Joan Baez and Steiglitz. I hate Ira Glass and David Sedaris. I hate Jack Johnson and Dave Matthews. I hate libertarians. I hate that the possessive of Jesus is Jesus's and not Jesus'. I hate anyone who likes the Cowboys. I hate Ayn Rand. I hate pan-poodlers. Drummers and boxes and toys. I hate grown ups who won't watch Xmas specials or who hate Xmas cause it asks for so much! There's so much pressure! It's so materialistic! )
   Boo fucking who. Snooze. 
  1) But at last and most of all…... I hate New Year's Eve.
      More than I hate hacky sack, more than I hate Mark David Chapman, more than I hate Hell, I hate that number one, top ten, top of the list for the lamest most amateurish night out of the year when idiots count down from 10-1 and try and kiss each other and the next day are forgotten the ten bests of every poor scribbler from here to Hong Kong who was too tired to write some prose about the deepest time of year when the footsteps of a friend and half heard music and the smell of the bread your mom just made move you thru decades of experience in a moment. When every other city block can call forth some kind of emotional roll back into a memory you know lasted one day 20 years ago with someone you haven't spoken to in half as long but which still matters twice as much as the ten best of 2014.
   Happy New Year and what's left of a Merry Christmas as the 12 days draw to a close and the Orthodox - those OC/ Original Christians- bring down the lights of the season.
   Let nothing you despair.
   Until you hear Nelly Furtado on the radio in a waiting room where you can't change the….sorry, I'm done.
 

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Flamenco

 So the cliches go:
 It's a modern world. A little one. Interconnected. A global village.
 The iPhone the guy across the restaurant from me in Granada is tapping on is the same as mine. When the Venezuelan waiter brings me a glass of Rioja I gradually parse out, in my non existent Spanish and his broken English, the same terms any sommelier in the States would use to describe a good vintage.
  We do the same stuff. We dress the same. We shop the same. We hang together on a giant electric web, a nervous system for the lonely and the ambitious that takes the same texts the same emails the same emoticons, likes, vines and grinders the world over.
  Languages themselves are beginning to seem now almost like currency. Pre-euro. Quaint in their differences from country to antiquated country.
  But ….there are those things….those ways... which don't cross borders. Deep habits. Practices so culturally dyed into the skin they're hard to reproduce.
  Watch a Japanese team unload your luggage.
  Sit in a Gospel church in the States.
  Sit in an English stadium and listen when they take a moment of silence.
  Listen to a Russian recite a poem.
  Difference.
  Sure.
  Racist? I don't know..
  But.
  Listen to a Spaniard, well a Romany, play Flamenco.
  Very different.
  One could risk saying singular.
  If there's a practice, a habit, a way of life, an art form that to me doesn't "travel" it's flamenco.
  A kind of guitar playing? Folk music? A primitive thing?
  Put it this way: I had a guy tell me once that if what the Gypsy Kings play is "flamenco" than the shit you took this morning is the french cuisine you had last night at Daniel.
  I just got back from Spain - most of the trip spent in Andulasia - Flamenco's heartland and the experience made me dig around and find something I wrote down on a page and in my heart nearly a decade ago.
   One night - 2006 I listened to three professional guitarists talk - one a classical player who Id known at Juilliard, the other two his pals- talk about the best in the business, the players they admired most, and the ones who they wish they could have heard live, for hours in language I could only vaguely understand (major disclosure I PLAY NOTHING) and I was so transfixed by their segues, their emotional outbursts I took notes- Hendrix of course came up, a few delta blues legends, Richard Thompson they marveled at, Robert Cray, Sharon Isbin, and a series of session folks and classical legends Id never heard of- they swept out and talked about Sitar players, about odd one-stringed African banjos with tonal variety they didn't think possible, they talked about Oboes and bagpipes and why it's so hard to find a great balalaika player- and way at the far end of the conversation when I felt like it was okay to toss a question in and take the abuse I asked "What about the flamenco guys?" And they all, as one, more or less threw up their hands-
    "Oh forget it, what they do you can't even try. I mean maybe if you'd been kidnapped and grew up with a family but there's shit going on in there nobody but them can even HEAR."
   Can even hear?
   What?
   Oh you feel it, but you don't know what you're hearing.
   Wait what if like with what happened to Coltrane's solos there was some maniac who took a recording of the best flamenco players and transcribed it note by note? Couldn't you "figure it out" then?
   "Well first of all, recorded flamenco is not really flamenco. That's like saying the film of a tiger is a tiger. Im drunk- anyhow- it's a LIVE art form. Or it's a way of living that just happens to occasionally come out as "art". You can listen to it sure on tape and it can be amazing but it's mind blowing in person- I mean for a guitarist. A person who's a guitarist. But all that …phenomena aside…no you couldn't transcribe it all….I don't think. There's stuff I hear them do and I can't tell you what they're playing, seriously I can't tell what strings they're hitting. You hear me? There are only 12. For real, there are Django recordings no one can play. People have been listing to them for 80 years and nobody can play them. Nobody. And those are 6 minute songs, max. There are systems within systems, loops of tonal forms in Flamenco that repeat and half repeat and echo each other over and complete themselves in time registers and get mixed up in the time registers of the singers and the dancers and the next dancer and then there are the microtones created by the collision of all of them....there's no way to describe. It's geological man."
   Now yes this is me David Conrad writing dialogue - and right off let me say again I do not play the guitar-  but I can see this guy talking to me in New York in Swift's bar down near the Bowery 8 years ago. I can hear him. It stuck because he was saying stuff I didn't think could be true. And maybe some of it isn't. But it's brilliant. It stuck in my head because at the end of his speech he was crying.
   So I asked other people. Other musicians. Some don't know any more about Flamenco than you or I. Some say it's just great folk music. But the ones who've studied it treat it like it's - and I can't think of another word- otherworldly. That it comes from the same place that unicorns and Atlantis come from. Or where women lift up the car about to squash their kid and monks sit under freezing waterfalls all day. It doesn't add up. It's not a question of practice. Which I imagine to a musician must be like saying "I'm sorry you can't drink out of this fountain."
  So in our modern terminology wtf?
  So here goes- from my notes, from what they said, from what I've fashioned into sense, what Ive been told and since it's about a live thing we're talking about, a living thing, I thought you should hear this like I did. Out loud.  

   "Empirically yes, sure you could notate the music- a flamenco performance and there's a machine I'm sure could sonically imprint the notes and the counter tones etc and reproduce that as notation or even sound but in this music it's not simply what's being played which is mad genius enough it's why and when and how often it changes keys and rhythms and switches time sequences and doubles back on itself - it's not like Tchaikovskys violin concerto, which was originally thought unplayable, but which is THERE right?- it exists as an edifice you can figure out. 
  Imagine - okay and this is with a very good flamenco performer- a great one of which there are more than a few- you're hearing something at the level of the Tchaikovsky concerto, hearing that the week it came out, every single night. Every night. For years. 
   Listen to a great American guitarist that everyone knows and for your sake we'll chose a rock n roller: Stevie Ray Vaughan. Pick one of his best solos say the one in Dirty Pool where he strums at like 100 mph and all he's doing is changing chords and it sounds like he's humming you know humming the whole history of the blues- that's good guitar in 2D. 
  Flamenco is great guitar in 4D.
  I'll try to explain that and yeah I skipped 3D- let's call 3D what we imagine the cello or viola solos were like in the late baroque period or Coltrane at his best and a lot of folks will argue that great jazz lives at the same- many would say deeper- level than flamenco but I'd argue the exception.
   Coltrane or Ornette Coleman or Roland Kirk weren't playing for anyone. And by that I don't mean they didn't have an audience or didn't care about them what I mean is the flamenco guitarists play for  the dancers and the singer on stage with them. They tell a story together.
   It's a truism or a natural inclination to think this accompaniment issue would reduce the complexity of Flamenco the way ballet and opera orchestration aren't what we call the heights of "music" - Stravinsky the giant exception, sorry Igor- music fades in the hot house of narrative, it's not a denotative art, it doesn't play well with story. 
  But here's this Spanish - Islamic- Southern Indian- Jewish guitar stuff that's as primal as the bagpipe or Senegalese drumming and yet it thrives inside the little house built by a couple dancers and the story they tell. Somehow- contrary to usual musical logic Flamenco actually needs its narrative "other". 
   Why? 
    It's weird. But I'll go there. And I'll tell you straight out a lot of musicians won't follow me:
    A) because maybe this is what theater originally was. What it is or should be. The Ancient Greek theater was sung. So was the Indian. The chorus was on the stage. Those fricking boots the they wore the kothornai musta made some noise... What if that stuff- Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophones, the Maharabata- what if that drama was what the posh people went to see and the real shit was happening out at the edge of the woods with the servants and the slaves and the outcasts singing and dancing a people's ancient drama? And what if flamenco is the great and astonishing echo of that kind of thing? The thing we say drama should be able to achieve but rarely does.
    B) because the flamenco instrument is not the guitar. 
     The flamenco instrument is the guitar plus the feet of the dancers plus their hands clapping plus their voices. All of it. That's the musical instrument. Separate them and they die. You can wrap them up and package them you can them release as DVDs so people can have candlelit dinners on the Upper East Side with an appropriately seductive soundtrack, you can have outdoor sunlit festivals where fans eat lunch on a towel and clap at a 2/4 beat and have their cell phones handy to check up on- but ....
   You know after the first 6 moves of a chess game the potential moves after that are in the millions? 
   So with Flamenco u have like 50 palos- 50 forms of musical approach. Of which like 12 or 14 are played regularly. But if I have 12 strings and 19 Frets and four feet and four hands and two voices all of which can produce polyrhythms and tonal variations in reaction... How many moves you think we got there? 
    C) Flamenco songs- the works of art that are Flameco- are years long. Decades long. The "songs" are the successive performances of the players and the dancers- which yes have their tropes and systems- but it's the living interaction that expresses itself into music that is the tapestry we have to follow. 
   The Japanese call their finest performers and artists "living treasures". That's the lens you have to bring to flamenco- that's the paradigm. 
  And oddly enough as fetishized as flamenco is it hasn't been studied from this angle. Probably because people think it's an esoteric way to look at art or they think it's racially exclusive- that we're- I'm- exoticizing them- there aren't real metrics for the wider genius of Flamenco.
    It doesn't sit still long enough I suppose- or you'd have to compare the recordings or the performances over decades. Folks get it on certain terms and then move on. 
  So if it's a question of hearing, am I saying you'd have to be "one of them" to figure it out? IE you have to be black to really get Gospel or you have to be Russian to understand Ahkmatova? 
   I just think it's situational - Flameco culture has maintained a level of apprenticeship/ a truly unusual tradition of learning by rote by hand at the knee of someone else for centuries that very few cultures support these days. It just doesnt happen. We don't let it happen. We think it's crazy or ...primitive. 
   Do u have to BE Romani to be a great Flamenco artist? No. But you either have to be a one in a million genius like De Lucia or you have to tie yourself to a great player at a very young age and NEVER STOP. 
  We don't let that happen as a culture much anyone ...unless....unless the societal reward excuses the antisocial price- Midori practices 10 hours a day till she's 17- does she have a "normal" life? But she's an affirmed word class violinist playing music upper class people the world over pump millions into. 
  Archie Manning turns his three sons into a BF Skinner experiment to prove a point - are those "normal guys"? Does anyone care when we see them titles and millions? 
  You latch your child at age 8 say - if u wanna start late- latch them to a Spanish Gypsy in a foreign country - allowing the child to be surrounded by a culture that is seen by the world as quasi criminal, poverty stricken, not law abiding, misogynist, uneducated and you let them do little else but ....play. And what's the pay-off? Carnegie Hall?
  Who's gonna have your back there? Where are the societal pillars to support that decision? 
   Flameco is a sonic expression of exclusion. Art by outcasts. Those often labeled criminals. The unclean. It's pre-industrial, it's unproductive, it's violent, it's "sexist", it's dangerous really - it's the voice of all that's been pushed to the perimeters, the banlieus, the Sacramontes of our world. It still is. 
   It's a core sample of a people's resistance to mass culture, to societies that have hounded and pushed the Romani about the globe for centuries and to the demands made all the more firmly on all of us that we confirm buying and selling and renting and measuring, defending and conquering as the central senses of our being. 
  Flamenco is a simple man's Critique of Pure Reason. It's Kant by The Who. 
   And yeah I'm idealizing this "other", these people on the periphery who still make this music…..by doing so do I need them to be on the periphery? 
   Would Edward Said have said I'm orientalizing? And then say the same thing I did and say it's okay cause he's "from there"? 
   I don't know.
   But I feel what I'm saying is true. I feel it. 
   And ask any Flameco or Flamenca what the key to their work is - beyond playing every day since they could stand-  which to them really isn't practice so much as a condition of being and they'll say "You must feel it , here." 
  When that Voyager spacecraft got sent off beyond the Galaxy and they recorded whales and English and Urdu and Beethoven and Chuck Berry they shoulda sent some flamenco up there too. Having heard that any alien would've said "Now there's a people worth meeting." Or leaving alone huh?
  I think whales would like Flamenco. They'd get it. The feet like their constant clicks, the drone of the guitar like their hidden voices. Yeah. And wolves. 
   Although both species are so much kinder than we are - they'd miss the cruelty. In the beauty. Or vice versa. 
   Lucky I guess.
 
  He cried right around the selling and renting part. We'd had a lot to drink.
Greatness is exhilarating to be around. And exhausting. I always think of that scene in Searching For Bobby Fischer when Ben Kingsley goes into the young boys room ….he looks at the "mess" that are the boy's toys on the floor ...and steps carefully around them. Like there's some pattern in the scatter only a genius could figure out. 

Friday, January 2, 2015

Four Days in Spain


   What I learned in four days.

  Sevilla is both a port and an inland city. It has a bull ring with the grace and delicacy of a roller coaster. Yes, orange trees everywhere.
  Granada to the north was originally called Elibiryg or Illiberis by the Romans.  Not Gra-nat. Even though the pomegranate "una granada"  became the city's symbol.
  It grew up along a river- a mountain stream, called the Beiro. "Elibiryg"- By the Beiro. River of the….Iberians. Or as the Catholic Spanish call her now with their eliding Bs and Vs - Elvira.
  So next time the dull and painful thud of that fateful country chorus reconquers your memory : fight. Fight, fight, to envision a stunning hill town - like a Venice laid among quiet foothills racing toward the peaks of the Sierra Neveda with a fierce little brook running below a palace and right by a street so gorgeous it's listed by UNESCO. And on that street is an Irish bar that didn't stay open late enough for me watch the Steelers win the conference. A bar in Spain shutting down before I did…I've seen it all.
   "And do people living in Toledo know that their name doesn't travel very well ? And does anybody in Ohiiiiiiiioooooo dream of that Spanish citadel. L L. "
   Google it. 
   At the other end of this famous riverine street is a cemetery and a hill- called Sacramonte where legend has it the Sephardim and Mariscos - the Muslims who met the same exiled fate- went and hid from the Inquisition. And it was here they say that the cantors and the muezzin met the wandering folk of the day - Romani- living at the edge of the wilderness and created a thing called …Flamenco….to put their sorrow somewhere into words and music. And of course, stamping feet.
   You're told often that the Jews "were given" 4 months to decide whether to leave Spain (with nothing) or convert. That order was given from the throne of a Moorish castle sitting 300 feet above me- as I typed this four days ago- called the Alhambra. On that day in 1492, with a little dramatic pressure from the inimitable Torquemada, Ferdinand and moreso -I get the impression- Isabella, decided to turn on Spain's "creative class".
  The Dictat of Expulsion. Even though "their Jews" had paid recently for a trip by a man named Columbus. Even though Isabella let no man - even Ferdinand more and more so I'm beginning to believe- let no man touch her but her physician. Who was Jewish.
   200,000 Jews. Probably more. Out of a population of 6 million.
   How many left? How many stayed? It's all recorded and stored in neatly written files on the third floor of a stately building in Sevilla that handled the Office of The Spanish Inquisition - katty corner from a Starbucks- an offshoot of the Vatican's Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Inquisition which changed its name in 1908 but which, "in name" at least, continues to this day.
  The Spanish expulsion held sway until the mid 19th century.
   Ive heard stories about catholic Portugese families in Providence Rhode Island who up to the late 50s lit candles on Friday nights …well, because they always had. Certain Spanish mother's have pans for meat and pans for dairy.
  In 1992 King Juan Carlos formally invited Jews with any record of their Sephardic roots to return.
  There are 30 families in Grenada.
  There are 15,000 total, mostly in cities like Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia and Sevilla.
  There are more Jews in Poland. And Uruguay.
  And there are families in Istanbul, in Israel, in Greece, in the United States that have keys they've kept in vaults, wrapped in drawers, or hung from their bedroom walls made in the 15th century or sometimes earlier. House keys their ancestors walked out of Spain with, thinking, this madness will all be over soon and we'll come back.
   A family from Turkey returned not long ago and discovered that their ancestors had lived in a house in the Arab section of medieval Granada, rather than the Jewish quarter which was leveled and of which nothing remains. Possibly they were counsel or physicians to a prominent family that wanted them close by. A few palaces and homes from the time of the Moors still stand in the Arab section, the Albaicin. One of them has several ancient doors which this now Turkish key still opens.
   Thus far Spain hasn't invited back the Muslims.
   Who ruled it for 7 centuries.
   And I wonder, when you kick out a group that's run "your" land for 7 centuries are you really kicking out someone else or just other Spaniards that have land and power you want and happen to practice Islam? I mean maybe at one point they were them but after 3/4s of a millennia aren't you they and them you? By then hasn't - to paraphrase True Romance- hasn't blonde hair and blue eyes become black hair and dark skin? Can someone say Sarajevo?
  But Hell, look at the Irish.






Monday, December 29, 2014

Spain: prequel

   I get worried when I land in Spain. You arrive with the morning, light rakes across the fields picking out every crack and crinkle in the landscape and from 20,000 feet the place looks like the sun's been hitting it with a hammer for 1000 years. Hard land. Hot white light. Flat flat flat.
  The coastal range around Barcelona looks just like LA. It always makes me shiver.
  And then I get in among the Spaniards and it all goes away.
  You gotta love a people who wheel their children around at 11pm, feed them sweets and let them dance on a table at a restaurant and then talk about something else beside "How long it took to put Jimmy down!" last night.
  I mean "Put them down"? That's an American idiom? We debate laying our children in their beds with language built to describe killing a dog.
  Somehow I imagine the Spanish do not.
  Full disclosure I do not speak Spanish.
  I just like to walk among them. I like how they have a lust for strolling. They amble all day, irrepressibly, linked arm in arm in packs of youth or geriatric phalanx happy to be taking in the air. I guess when 70% of the time the air feels like a furnace you take to the evening with some pleasure.
   They like their pleasures. They treat them normally and not as some Protestant sin to be dipped a finger to. And I Love, that in the midst of a lecture on Moorish history, I mentioned I was "As christian as it gets " and was then met with incomprehension when I said I wasn't Catholic.
  These folks are tribes down here. Citizens of city states bound less by a nation than a name.
  And they eat like kings, or more accurately like happy peasants. In France I always felt the meal elevated the social stature of the room and that everyone in it was somehow a tad more royal or that we'd all been allowed to be "citizens", citizens, till dessert - but in Spain I feel the way I do when I eat on a functioning farm, or out in the country where some friend grows or makes half their own food. You feel like you're closer to the ground, together, munching away. The way sometimes you need to bend down and breathe in the grass or the leaves.
  The Spanish are handsome of course. Stunning at times like their sun, like the flat of a sword, but they don't dress up like the French or the Italians. In fact one of the things I like about Spain is how bad the fashion sense can be and how little they care. The men wear atrocious shoes. They have hairstyles you wouldn't wish on Crispin Glover. The old folks combine shades of grey and dull green Ukrainians would shy from, the tendencies toward clashing clay reds and oranges is astonishing, but somehow they pull it off. Kind of like Pittsburghers they don't seem to give a shit. Folks always ask about my hometown - Man is there nothing to do on a Sunday? And I always imagine how many Pghers would just shrug and say Yeah that's cause we're with our families.
  I imagine the Spanish are so internal - so geared toward the house and the family meal- shutters closed- that when they go out they go out with a vengeance. Two blocks from a spanish bar at 4 pm it sounds like your approaching an American bachelor party or a playoff game but take the corner and it's just another days sit down.
  Look I don't speak Spanish. I don't speak French a little better. I maybe don't speak Russian best of all -which doesn't get you very far once the novelty wears off- so traveling for me can become a combination of semaphore, primitive phrasing and a continually renewed respect for the European educational system
  But
  I will say this. In English.
  Most people live the a fog of their own language. The cloud of their own bullshit.
  Americans more so than Id say any other culture since our bullshit backs up into the core of a country that hates introspection.
  So when I'm outside the states surrounded by people I can't understand what kicks in might be closer to an animal tracking of the truth.
  People at home relentlessly ask me "You're an actor, how do we know when you're acting?" IE how can we know you're telling the truth?
  And my considered response is "Because we know the difference." Usually followed by an unspoken  "Cunt" or "fuckhead".
  One of the benefits of traveling out into the untranslatable world is that you begin to fall back on your mammalian sense of presence. You start to watch what people do: how they lean, or raise their voice, or pause or sweat and touch each other rather than how they chose their words.
  The tools you bring to the table in a play or a dance come to the fore- how to read someone's intent, their belief and their passion thru the body and the tone, not the word. How power and desire literally move.
  Martha Graham had it right, look at the shape of the bodies in Renaissance sculpture and let them tell you the tale. IE torque don't lie. When people truly MEAN something you can see it move through them. You can feel it. In a Valezquez painting, in Freud's portraits, in Hopper or Homer or Goya look at the gesture, the line of the movement and you'll follow the story.
   People do this today as well, even with our bedraggled, folded mobile phon-ed ways of being. We still give it away when we mean it and when you can't catch more than a word or two -not even the gist- you start to read people according to their form- the thing you've been studying since you were 20. Bodies come to life, and it's almost uncanny, you start to see faces out of Carvaggio or Ribera or even a painting out of a Roman home done two millennia before you were eating dinner in a restaurant off the Calle des Catholicos in Granada one Xmas season in the mid teens of 2000.
  There they are- walking, talking, lusting, brushing past- in proof that eternity is our domestic friction not our wars or our economic will or our faith.
  Or ….climb up the Sacramonte in Granada and listen to four Flamenca pour it out, nothing I can say says it better.