Saturday, October 01, 2005

 

I’ve added word verification as a requirement to the comments section. Some spam tool has been going into old comments chains and adding links to an online dating service.



Friday, September 30, 2005

 

Richard Manuel & Bob Dylan

 

Some thoughts on seeing No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese’s masterful biography of Bob Dylan, earlier this week.

Working only with archival footage – the intimate interview with Dylan himself had been conducted by Dylan’s manager prior to the decision to get Scorsese involved – the director managed to avoid what might be the greatest trap in an endeavor of this kind: reifying (if not deifying) its subject, or any particular version of the subject. During the period covered by Home, we see Dylan move through four distinct phases as a musician:

  1. A performer of other people’s music – this is Dylan the folkie, the one we find on his first Columbia album.
  2. The composer of his own topical tunes – this was the breakthrough work that got him identified with the topical song movement & the likes of Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, and others who writing songs about the events of the 1960s – the absence of these other writers is one of the noteworthy absences from the film, as is that of Ramblin' Jack Elliot, perhaps a more important influence than either Woody Guthrie or Dave Van Ronk.
  3. The composer of more poetic acoustic tunes – there is a wonderful scene of Dylan performing “Tambourine Man” at the “Topical Song” workshop at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964 as Pete Seeger sits behind him scowling, intently trying to fathom out this new more elliptical discourse.¹ This is the Dylan who is captured on Another Side, an album that was careful to telegraph that this was a Dylan you had not heard previously. In fact, tho, the Dylan of the eponymous first Columbia record was hardly the same as the one of Freewheelin’.
  4. Dylan in his first electric phase, the one that lasted through three solid albums (Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited & Blonde on Blonde), making it the longest period of consistency in his career, even to this day.

Reading Chronicles & other bios of Dylan, it’s apparent that there was another Dylan even before these four, the rockabilly teenager who played (miserably by all accounts) piano for Bobby Vee under the name of Elston Gunn. Scorsese elides over this period so quickly that I don’t think you can get a sense of it distinctly in Home, focusing more on Dylan’s own later appropriation of Bobby Vee’s name for awhile before Mr. Zimmerman headed off to New York City.

Θ Φ Θ

One year before the debacle over Dylan’s electric performance at Newport in 1965, the one after party I got to attend at the festival in 1964 – I’d been invited by Buffy Sainte-Marie – found performers like Sainte-Marie, Noel Stookey (Paul from Peter, Paul & Marie), John Sebastian, Dylan & others jamming songs from what was then the first Rolling Stones album. Indeed, that was where I first heard of the Rolling Stones.

The dichotomy between folk & rock was indeed fairly hard in those years, tho the emotional force against the music had much to do with the corporate control of mind-numbing music. While Dylan’s entry into rock opened up the music’s lyric potential, the British invasion – not just the Beatles & Stones, but also the Animals & John Mayhall, who took Chicago Blues rather than the Tin Pan Alley of Gary Lewis & the Playboys² and their ilk, as their point of reference – was already breaking up the tight-knit control a half dozen labels had on the pop charts. Indeed, within two years of Dylan’s going electric, I saw one concert at Winterland in San Francisco in which the opening act was Pink Floyd (who had just released their first album), the second act was The Doors (who had just released Strange Days, their second album), and the headliner was Donovan. The so-called San Francisco Sound of the 1960s – the Dead, the Airplane, Big Brother & the Holding Company – really was the influx of folk musicians into rock.

It was ironic that Columbia Records signed Dylan – and fortunate for him that John Hammond basically let him do what he wanted to do – when he’d already been rejected by Folkways and Vanguard, the two major folk labels of the period. Tho Columbia is now part of Sony, Dylan has stayed with the same label for 44 years. Bruce Springsteen is another John Hammond project who has stayed with the label his entire career. (Hammond’s own son, John Jr., a fine roots blues musician, originally signed with Vanguard.)

Θ Φ Θ

 

Hearing Dylan going electric at Newport in 1965 reminds me, more than anything else, of what a great blues band Paul Butterfield had. Between his death & Michael Bloomfield’s o.d., it left precious little as a record of its achievement. The loudest concert I ever heard was a Butterfield performance in the old U.C. gymnasium in ’65 or ’66. The recordings of Dylan on his world tour to the U.K. in 1966 with the Hawks (soon to morph into The Band), with Mickey Jones sitting in for Levon Helm at drums (Helm having been appalled at the booing Dylan was getting & wanting no part of that – he returned to the group during its long “hiatus” at Big Pink after Dylan’s accident) are nowhere nearly as cohesive instrumentally.

Some of the clips show Dylan wearing his herring bone suit when touring with the Band. I remember seeing him in that suit at a show at the Berkeley Community Theater in, I believe, early 1966, thinking that it was the type of clothing I’d only seen before on older blues musicians. To my eye, it still looks much quirkier than the polka-dotted blousy shirt he’s wearing in the photo above.

Θ Φ Θ

 

One of the more interesting moments in the film is Allen Ginsberg choking up as he recounts his experience of first hearing “Hard Rain,” played for him at a party in Bolinas by Charlie Plymell. “I wept,” Ginsberg says, clearly recognizing the reflection of his own influence in Dylan’s lyrics, “The torch had been passed.” I remember my own experience, first hearing that song. Lacking Ginsberg panoptic reading (he was 37 in 1963, I was 17), I can clearly recall the hair on the back of my neck standing up: I had never heard anything like that before anywhere. It was an announcement that the world was going to be different very very soon – in spite of its apocalyptic message, the song gave me an unshakeable optimism that I would return to often over the next couple of years.

Ginsberg’s presence on the film makes great sense, not simply because he knew Dylan. Nor is he the only writer in the film – James Baldwin shows up twice, we hear a snatch of Kerouac & in a shot of heads at the Cedar Bar you can make out Frank O’Hara as he blurs past, unannounced & unquoted. Dylan may or may not be a poet, depending on your definitions – in my book, the answer is not, but frankly I don’t think it’s an important question – but his aesthetic, in virtually all its phases, is distinctly New American. And if Dylan’s own sense of logic in his songs is never that far removed from Ginsberg & the Beats (hear, say, the echo of Ray Bremser in “Positively Fourth Street”), the writer he is most like (I’ve said this before, but Home underscores the point) actually is Kirby Olson’s Doubting Thomist, Gregory Corso. Compared with Ginsberg or Kerouac, Dylan is almost shockingly uneducated – he’s not kidding when he says that he didn’t go to classes at the University of Minnesota – and yet he’s brilliant & an absolute sponge of data, an autodidact whose program of study, if one can find it anywhere, is a peculiar combination of cultural studies – sans theory³ – and the Bible. These twin sources have been constant throughout almost all of his different periods & personae.

Θ Φ Θ

 

In the film, his oldest acquaintances call Dylan a “receiver” (what a Spicerian term that is!) and a “shape shifter” & to the degree that Scorsese has to settle on a Dylan to use as his focal point, the one he gives us is Dylan the chameleon, the artist who is always at a remove from his own public identity, an actor who is forever “on,” leaving betrayed friends who thought they knew which one was the “real” Dylan everywhere in his wake – virtually all of whom have decided to forgive him. At some level, that’s not genius, but a personality disorder, a kind of narcissism perhaps, but one that seems utterly disinterested in his own Self. Certainly that’s consistent with the artist who “don’t look back,” who has lived his adult life with an invented name & who has come up with a new Dylan roughly every three years now since 1960. At the same time, the line that will stay with me from this film perhaps longer than any other is a wistful Joan Baez, who seems still able to get in touch with some kind of love for the man, saying that she has no idea what he’s thinking, “I know only what he’s given us.”

 

 

¹ Tho I was at the ’64 festival, I missed that session, going instead to listen to the jug band of Sleepy John Estes, Yank Rachel & Hammie Nixon perform at a blues workshop. To this day, that is still the best acoustic blues show I’ve ever attended, so I can hardly say that I regret my decision. When I finally met Dylan at an after-party at the Viking Hotel later in the week & asked him what he was working on, he pulled a typescript of “Tambourine Man” from his coat pocket. I was already starting to read Allen Ginsberg & Michael McClure & the rather vaporous surrealism of its text didn’t strike me half as strange as it seems to have hit the older Popular Front folkies already in their 40s.

² On Lewis’ records, most of the roles played by “studio musicians” turned out to be Leon Russell.

³ He has the anti-intellectual’s distrust of theory in all forms.



Thursday, September 29, 2005

 

If Rodrigo Toscano & Maxine Chernoff have both produced volumes that are really chapbooks posing, through the miracle of book design, as more fleshed-out projects in perfect binding, Eleni Sikelianos’ The Lover’s Numbers, which appeared in the “by subscription only” Seeing Books Series in 1998, reverses the process, offering 66 poems that would surely to well over 100 pages were it printed in the same type & leading as either of these other volumes, but which instead comes forward as a crowded – there are virtually no borders at either top or bottom of the pages – in nine-point type.

Like Chernoff, Sikelianos’ approach is the palimpsest around a central topic – the theme throughout is her relationship with her husband. The topic here, by definition, is both meatier (in every sense of the word) and less bookish (or, for that matter, political) than either Chernoff or Toscano. The work that results is erotic, arousing, optimistic, happy – this book is going to appeal to a very different kind of reader. Here is “# 63”

       si vis me flere
                  – Horace

If you want to see me flower
vis-à-vis your hot diminuitive hand

my heliocentric little parliament of bees
then ellipse the bees as bees are
so perplexed when expressed in more abstract
terms & deaf
to the contiguity/stroke invention

if you want to see me flower                          parlay, name

the lacteal season in your mouth who’s dumb-housed now – Tell your ten fingers how far down to go – Below
             – Believe

& see how my hymn of her lies unmustered, distant (hymen)
& see how my lingua-clots uncloud

o erudite little ambush

if you want to see me flower
Then whistle.   Then whistle.

That largest line is printed with its “break” flush left (“fingers” is the first word of the second line in the book), a strategy halfway between poem & prose that I’ve seen lately on the part of a number of younger poets. The first few times I saw that, I thought the typesetter didn’t understand the function of a hanging indent. This obviously would not apply to Seeing Eye impresario Guy Bennett. So now I realize that it’s intentional – the nature of the poetic line itself is changing.

I’ve noted before the one of Sikelianos’ great strengths as a poet is her intuitive grasp of the line. Hardly anyone since Olson & Irby has used so complex a line with so much grace. The Lover’s Numbers is just one more demonstration of her sometimes breath-taking (note pun) capability here:

alba, luster-white, I grasp & train after
lust I err ever depeopling a night

’s somnambulance with wicked
umbrage caught in what’s about ‘I am

what I yam’   ‘who I was at what I am’
animus-rushed against the racing

rushes
           dear one

With a topic that is both indeterminate & limitless, Sikelianos is hardly bound by just what is here. I don’t frankly get the gist of her subtitle, “Crimson Coat (Trilogy),” but nothing I read here tells me that this sequence couldn’t extend indefinitely, through all of love’s stages over the course of a life. Even if this project doesn’t, it would be great to see this book available again & in a format equal to its subject’s heft.



Wednesday, September 28, 2005

 

A really useful – if in one way bizarre (because completely gratuitous – I simply happened to be reading the two books at the same time) – contrast to the claustrophobia that o’erwhelmed me in Chernoff’s Among the Names, is Rodrigo Toscano’s Partisans. Like Names, Partisans is a short book – 49 pages of text – generously spaced to enable perfect binding. Like Names, Partisans is a single cycle – in this instance twelve poems constructed around a dozen grammatical tenses, treated here more as theoretical relations toward time, manifested through engagements with the seven basic pronouns. Where Chernoff falls back on a rich realm of reading (she offers two pages of notes, essentially a running bibliography), Toscano builds outward from these simplest materials – I, you, he, she, it, we & they – using line, ear (especially the doubleness of puns) to expand meaning. The result is that where Names feels constricted, almost airless by its end, Partisans feels open-ended, almost limitless in its horizon:

Present Perfect Progressive

Through weeks of exchanges
of speech

(and not only speech)

Between persons
toward objects

Between products
toward futures

At a time like this
but of the past
toward up ahead · here
up ahead · here

Worlds

As in a tangled net

These attempts at inquiry
as blades

Or treats
perhaps
as samplers
of wordwork

For handlers
of wordwork

Albeit
muster
spite

(if not comedy)

An extracted surplus
does
go somewhere

A surplus
transforming
does
cause something

Who’s been verbing
around noun-fields


Flouting history, rambling spleen’d
< a sign of Timidity >

Fumbling segues, trancing sex’d
< a sign of banality >

Spouting ethics, shunning touch
< a sign of Celebrity >

Sorting concepts, draping needs
< a sign of Obscurity >

Been reading "world"
through shards, reflexive
famed "fragments"

(as compelled to)

Non-collective
petty
rebellions

Nevertheless
how could one have them translate
another’s
mine to yours
yours to mine
ours to theirs
theirs · to who’s?

(and why would one care to know)

Collective Desire

Consider
what can be sparked
by something like
how have you been?

how have you been
is an initial
seemingly containable
question / greeting

Been

Partisans even approaches Chernoff’s own domain of gifts, but instead in terms of debt, bringing in IMF & the World Bank (with the implicit grammatical problem of how it is that developing nations never end up developed).

Partisans consequently is an engaged, even optimistic work. Strictly on its own terms, it’s a delight to read, sharp, witty, polyvalent. It’s taken me six years to get around to reading it, but leaves me hungrier than ever to read everything else Toscano produces.



Tuesday, September 27, 2005

 

Maxine Chernoff’s poems often feel like palimpsests around a given topic, image or idea & in Among the Names – her most ambitious project to date – she raises this to a higher level: 33 poems, all directly or indirectly touching on the act of giving & the social relations it enacts. There is, especially in the early poems in the sequence, great pleasure in the cascade of short lines, often shorter than a simpler phrase –

(“her snazzy
           new Lexus”)

– that cumulatively feel a good deal like the work of the late Larry Eigner (tho without his own poems’ rightward drift across the page).

Chernoff at first is dazzling in the number of aspects she can raise with regard to this question or knot of interactions. Later, tho, as the book rushes to completion, I found myself irritated instead, as if, rather than opening issue up the way, say, Rachel Blau DuPlessis does the question of the unspeakable in Drafts, Chernoff is content to have her cycle, which ultimately feels claustrophobic & contained – if this book & its individual sections were only a fraction of what was/is needed if this to be a real investigation. Indeed, to yield just 53 pages of text for the 33 poems, Apogee has been most generous in its use of space, giving what is really a chapbook a major presentation – the cover is a photo of an Anselm Kiefer construction.

My dissatisfaction made me wonder if I was completely misreading this project. What if, for example, these 33 poems were in fact first drafts of texts that would ultimately come to five to ten times their current length, and what if they were then to be joined by possible twice as many others – really fleshing out the conception of gift? It made me realize that there is a major project lurking here, one certainly equal to Chernoff’s considerable skills as a poet. But Among the Names offers us just a glimpse, holding back far too much.



Monday, September 26, 2005

 

What is a lap? It exists only when we are sitting down, disappears the instant we rise. It, in some sense, is a fold in the body that is not the body as such, but which cannot exist without it. A lap is also a complete circuit such as one might make swimming or else running a circular or perhaps elliptical track. Again, it is neither the track nor the pool but only our circuit of this space – it cannot exist without it. Somewhere between these very different meanings, something exists that is, in a positive sense, a lap. Let’s call it Lapland. Or perhaps let’s not.

It is that positive, but ultimately unnamable space, that is the focal point of Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ longpoem Drafts. Poem after poem circles, crosses, comes to this place, never – at least through the first 38 sections – completely to inhabit it, precisely because it resists habitation. It dissolves the minute you stand up.

I have been reading Drafts it feels like forever. Reading any individual section, tho, is – or has always felt so me to me – much like first reading one of Pound’s Cantos or a new section of Zukofsky’s “A” – it’s not something you can do lightly. Reading any individual Draft is completely exhausting in much the same sense that climbing a very steep hill forces one to marshal & deploy all of one’s resources. Having now finally completed the first big Wesleyan volume, I find myself overwhelmed with the grief that is the inevitable consequence of completing a life-changing text. It’s something even the most compulsive or ambitious reader (I’m neither of those) gets to feel only rarely in one life. It has been ages since I felt it in mine with such depth or fullness.

For me, the key text in this first volume is Draft 33, Deixis,” a poem that casts every earlier poem in a new, deeper light, gave meaning to DuPlessis’ process of “folding” texts – identifying, so to speak, the location of the lap in each – transforming all of Draft’s stuttering & muttering – the very first Draft begins after all on an almost preliterate note, seeing the horizon of the alps, or something very much like it, in the shape of a capital N – into, in fact, the poem’s most articulate moments. Thus I understand – tho it has taken me this long to realize it – why that first Draft, composed some 19 years ago, should itself be entitled or subtitled “It.”

A friend said to me awhile back that they were surprised by my support for DuPlessis’ project, that she seemed so much more of a rationalist than I’m usually given to liking. That, tho, is her strong suit, her Objectivist or post-Objectivist heritage & what I think she shares with poets as diverse as Louis Zukofsky & Barrett Watten – the poet who sees their project in terms not alien to science, even if it is a science less of incremental testing & retesting & more of the cosmological sweep of thought we associate with Einstein, Leonardo or Goethe’s Faust.

The next volume, with the complicated title of Drafts – Drafts 39-57, Pledge, with Draft, Unnumbered: Précis, is of course already waiting, with its cover image of sculptures by the Philadelphia Wireman – the topic of earlier Draft 22¹ – and the first published map of the Drafts scheme to date, built around that most curious prime number, 19. At the rate I’m going, DuPlessis may actually have completed the poem entirely by the time I complete this volume – tho I note that its 20 sections take over 220 pages, where the first 38 took “just” 267 – there’s hope yet that a single Draft might scale to the size of “A”-12 if not longer. So I find myself setting forth on this next book with the sense – hope even – that there are worlds yet ahead to be discovered & that I plan to indulge myself completely, taking the time necessary fully to get there.

 

¹ The Philadelphia Wireman was an anonymous folk sculptor whose marvelous constructions were found one day in a vacant lot in 1982, discarded perhaps because the artist had died & his (or her) space was being cleared for new tenants. Everything else that is known about him (or her) must be deduced from the works.



Sunday, September 25, 2005

 

On Monday and Tuesday of this coming week, Martin Scorsese’ documentary portrait of Bob Dylan, No Direction Home, will be broadcast on PBS in the United States and on BBC2 in the U.K. The DVD of the show has been on sale for a week now, along with two new CDs, one music taken from the film itself, the other a pair of performances apparently recorded at the Gaslight Café in 1962, plus a coffee table book. I haven’t seen the DVD or book as yet, tho I’ve heard both albums, which are terrific, among the very finest of the “archival” projects that have shot up around Dylan outtakes & bootlegs over the years (the Gaslight performances have been circulating for years, tho never so crisply remastered). Part of what makes the No Directions Home CD so terrific is the quality and nature of the material on it, all taken from Dylan’s early career (indeed, there are some home recording & “pre-Dylan” tapes from Minneapolis included). Most of the songs, tho, are alternate takes from Dylan’s various Columbia recording sessions. By now, of course, people have become used to how radically Dylan can re-envision some of his songs in performance, so that they bear little audible (or emotional) relationship to their first recorded forms. Yet these are versions that were, in many instances, recorded the same day as the iconic performances we all grew up with. Even then, they suggest, Dylan could imagine the same song carrying a very different tone from the one that eventually was released in vinyl.

Like so many male poets my age, I have listened to Dylan’s best songs now for decades, forever trying to fathom how he is able to capture such surreal-yet-accurate images with a shorthand precision that, even after four decades of familiarity, is simply breath-taking:

Up on Housing Project Hill
It's either fortune or fame
You must pick up one or the other
Though neither of them are to be what they claim
If you're lookin' to get silly
You better go back to from where you came
Because the cops don't need you
And man they expect the same

What makes that stanza work is precisely the contrast between the convoluted “go back to from where you came” with the utter directness of the last two lines.

It has become something of received wisdom that Like a Rolling Stone is the best single rock tune ever recorded. But there are a half dozen other songs on Highway 61 Revisited that could just as easily compete for “best song”: Tombstone Blues, Ballad of a Thin Man, Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues – from which the passage above is taken – Desolation Row, the title track itself , and Queen Jane Approximately. That this intensely intimate vision came through such a crabbed & guarded personality at all is perhaps the best argument for Spicer’s concept of dictation, of voices being transcribed off the radio from Mars, that can be made. Beyond the lyrics, part of what makes that particular album work so well is Dylan’s own discomfort with the rock genre itself, to which he was still quite new¹ - he throws in things – organ, police whistle – that were pretty much unimaginable in 1965. It’s gaudier, more carny-like in tone. The end result is the surrealism of psychedelics combined with the paranoia of meth, a poisonous cocktail that captures that era perfectly.

From the CD, I get the sense that the Scorsese documentary ends at this point, or perhaps with the motorcycle accident a year later (a photo of Dylan on the bike is included), and perhaps that makes sense. The hiatus that followed clearly divided the young Dylan from the several other invented versions that began to show up thereafter. And as brilliant as many of the songs are after, say, Blonde on Blonde, none approach this unique combination of effects again.

 

¹ The No Direction CD includes the infamous recording of Maggie’s Farm that was roundly panned by the folk purists at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. The performance predates the recording of Highway 61 by just a few months.



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