In her disco-punk memoir The Importance of Music to Girls, Lavinia Greenlawfrequently dwells on a disconnect, an existential fracture that shapes and even constitutes her self-image; the book maps out her negotiations – some deliberate, some instinctive – among a conflicted mix of adolescent identities, of identifications, that seem to circulate around what it means to be a girl, to be called a girl, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I’m not being tentative when I say seem to: the work of seeming, as both pretending and appearing, is at the crux of her methodical self-fashioning. The book consistently returns to a vocabulary of wanting, of want. Greenlaw depicts herself as a teenaged wannabe, trading costumes, styles and surfaces: always trying, always coming up a bit short. For instance, she articulates her admiration for “Tina,” role-model for nascent disco queens, by collating a wilting deference to peer-pressure with an ersatz Amazonian fierceness:
I was becoming a girl as instructed by girls but I knew I wasn’t a real girl, at least not of this kind. I wanted to be a disco girl like Tina whose every aspect conformed to some golden section of girldom: her height relative to her shape, her prettiness relative to her smartness, her niceness relative to her toughness. Tina offered certainties. She issued instructions on how to dance, who to like and what to wear. . . . Each morning, her face would be retuned – the brightness turned down, the colour turned up – and she would stride into school, her hips and breasts armoured, her hair a winged blonde helmet. I wanted this shell, which she used to attract or deflect at will. To me she was wise and ruthless, a goddess of war.
Those certainties soon become illusory, their surfaces shivered. Greenlaw’s leave-taking from disco (to take up another set of surfaces, another glamour, in punk) involves an accidental collision – a moment of casual violence – with her friend on the dance floor; as she waits for help with her cut face, she catches a glimpse of herself in a washroom mirror: “the face I saw was mine but this was not a reflection. It was too far away, more like some inner self that had slipped free and looked back at me now with my own fundamental sadness.” Mimesis is belied by its own bad promises. What’s fundamental for her, as a girl, what’s essential to who she wants to be, can never be more than pathos in lack: a likeness – “more like some inner self” – that sadly never can or will make herself whole.
Lavinia Greenlaw’s about my age. My own leap wasn’t from disco but from some sort of sci-fi soft rock – I liked Styx a lot – to punk and after, but the dynamics were roughly the same as hers. Except, of course, for the girl part. I was enabled by the same dynamic as Greenlaw, and I understand her preoccupation with want and fracture, with that fundamental sadness, but I came at it as more of an insider, as a boy. I didn’t seem to need my own version of that armour, and I could choose to identify more directly, though still at some remove, with Joe Strummer or (like Greenlaw) Ian Curtis or with any other self-styled punk frontman. I perceived the homoeroticism in Pete Townshend’s 1980 song “Rough Boys” as emblematic of a transgressive effeminacy in punk ‘s – particularly the Sex Pistols’ – preoccupation with image, although I am not sure how far I was ever able to follow through on its gender trouble.
Still, I was reminded of this version of the girl problem with the release in November of About Time, Ellen Foley’s first album in about thirty years. (I haven’t listened to the record well enough yet, but it sounds to me so far like the power, the tough richness of her voice has remained undiminished, and I’m so glad to be able to hear her belt out some raw, driving rock and roll again.) Ellen Foley’s return to recording recalls how important her first two albums were to teenaged me – Nightout (1979) and Spirit of St Louis (1981) – as well as her vocal presence on Sandanista! by The Clash (who are essentially her backing band on the second record, which was made while she was dating Mick Jones, billed in the liners as “my boyfriend”). She was the girl, as far as I could see and hear then. Her sound, her image and her sensibility yoked together a seemingly fey prettiness – what Greenlaw says she wanted simultaneously to embrace and to throw off – and a powerfully resilient, gutsy resistance to bullshit effeminacy. Despite appearances, she was nobody’s girl, nobody’s fool.
There is plenty to say about what Ellen Foley’s music comes to embody, but I want to concentrate on her take on the iconography of the girl. She first made her presence known in pop music as the female interlocutrix on Meatloaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” and she recorded duets with Ian Hunter (who had produced, and performed on, her debut album, Nightout) and others that extend her role as respondent, as the girl you serenaded but who could out-sing and even out-swagger you back. She performed a version of “We Gotta Get Out of Here” with Hunter on “Fridays,” ABC’s short-lived answer to Saturday Night Live, on May 5, 1980, a performance that suggests much about how Ellen Foley takes on a male-dominated stage.
She comes in half-way through the song – you can catch glimpses of her, back to the audience, waiting to pounce. Most importantly, for me, is her refusal to be subdued, even by Hunter’s obvious recalcitrance. (And it’s important to note that these are rock-and-roll theatrics: Ellen Foley has stressed in a number of interviews how grateful she was to Hunter and to Mick Ronson, and how happy she was with their musical relationship.) At the close of the song, she declares into the mike she’s going to have a dance contest with Hunter, and he turns to face her, but does nothing. Undaunted, she goes ahead and has a dance contest all by herself.
She seems here in one sense to have donned the blonde armour, the make-up of girlish deference that Greenlaw describes around disco girls, but – strident in her flashy white pantsuit – she also becomes something more in this clip: unshaken, energized, assured. She owns the last minute of that song. This playful, ironic doubling emerges most tangibly in one of the most memorable covers on Nightout (a song she still performs in concert), the Jagger-Richards penned “Stupid Girl”:
I’m not talking about the kind of clothes she wears
Look at that stupid girl
I’m not talking about the way she combs her hair
Look at that stupid girl
You see the way she powders her nose
Her vanity shows and it shows
She’s the worst thing in this whole damn world
Well, look at that stupid girl
The song first appeared on the Rolling Stones 1966 lpAftermath, occasioned as both Keith Richards and Mick Jagger have separately admitted by their frustration with female fans and with their failed relationships. Prima facie, as the lyrics make obvious, it’s a misogynist rant. Girls are sick and stupid, Keith and Mick tell us, because they’re so shallow, so vain, because of their obsession with image. (Not at all like Mick and Keith. Not at all.) So why would Ellen Foley choose to sing this particular song? Because the thing is, if you listen to her version, backed by snarling guitars and thumping four-on-the-floor kick drums, you get no sense of anything but absolute commitment, of anything but digging in and digging deep. There is nothing vain, nothing insincere about Ellen Foley’s voice. It sounds completely like she means it.
But what exactly can she mean? Because, despite the venomous lyric, what we hear from her isn’t a woman calling others out, sniping at all the Tinas she can’t ever be. She’s singing the admixture of desire and loathing that the Stones song articulates, sure, but she’s also shoving it back in their faces, in their ears, our ears. I remember hearing this song as an adolescent listener, blasting it out of my stereo, and feeling that mixture of toughness and allure that few singers beyond Ellen Foley, in those transitional years, ever managed to catch. In a lip-synched video of “Stupid Girl” made for the Kenny Everett television show in1980, that catches a little of this pushback in its campy staging around body builders and beauty contestants.
When Ellen Foley sings into the beefcake armpit of some muscleman or into the plasticized coiffure of a pretty second runner up that “She purrs like a pussycat / Then she turns ’round and hisses back,” it’s not at all certain whose image – boy, girl or her own – is being confronted and undone. Rather than self-pity, the fundamental sadness that Greenlaw highlights, Ellen Foley offers her audience a means to uncover another certainty, a centredness that the unshakable timbre her voice enacts.
Mick Jones wrote “Should I Stay or Should I Go” for Ellen Foley. As a provocation, it seems to offer a bitter critique of indecision, of a girlfriend unable to make up her mind and of a boyfriend in thrall to her waffling. I’m assuming the song comes at the end of their relationship, and the recording by The Clash does appear to offer a sort of vindicating, and maybe even vindictive, catharsis for Jones. The thrashing guitars and double time chorus enact a release, a letting go that the lyrics themselves never allow.
A 2007 audience video of Ellen Foley performing “Should I Stay or Should I Go” suggests that her vocal power remains undiminished, and goes a long way to reclaiming her agency, again by taking hold of the song and singing it back at the boy or boys who authored it. More than that, it points to the subtle ways in which the indecisiveness of the lyric comes not from the object of its attention – an interlocutrix who doesn’t really answer back within the framework of the song – but from its male persona, who stays bugged by his own irresolution, by the unsatisfied involution of his own desire. When he says that if he stays there will be trouble, but if he goes it will be double, he’s pointing – at least when we hear the song with Ellen Foley’s voice in mind, in our mind’s ear – to the essential conflict, the trouble, around heteronormative desire, around gender and identity, that Greenlaw’s memoir confronts, and into which it sometimes spins and stalls – the difficult importance of music to girls. And for me, that importance, that insistence, sounds something like the intensity, like the depth and like the ruthless beauty of Ellen Foley’s voice.
The last lines of “Cornage” – the sixteen-part sequence of carefully-turned triple quatrains with which Carmine Starninocloses his 2000 collection Credo – frame the cultural work of a poem as an act of salvage, rag-picking language for splashes of unexpected colour (he has just rediscovered the resonances of the word “vermeil”):
Even this poem is one more example
of the usefulness in scavenging through
the day’s refuse, saving anything of value.
Starnino’s characteristic line, often an artfully balanced pentameter or (as if to register a little Gallic influence) hexameter, suggests at this point in the sequence a posture of measured resignation. The task he sets for himself isn’t so much to “purify the dialect of the tribe” (as T. S. Eliot once parsed and repurposed Mallarmé), although he might still aspire to breed lilacs out of a nearly dead land, a poetic labour that involves recovery more than rescue – to reanimate what he perceives, even in himself, as contemporary staleness with a mix of archival and ethnopoetic rummaging. The poet doesn’t so much conserve as curate, mindfully intervening in whatever lexical felicities cross his attention by unpacking etymologies and re-stitching phonemic meshes. (In part five, he lists the “[w]ords I’d like to get into a poem: eagle-stone, ezel, / cornage, buckram, scrynne, waes hail, sillyebubbe,” and proceeds to write poems that use most of them.) The idea is to “smuggle in / this fox-fire,” an audible and tangible vitality he feels missing from poetry. But the vatic intensity he craves is often either contained or held at bay in these poems by cautious and even anxious craft, a technical command I have to confess is also what I admire most in Starnino’s writing. He can be affronting – “gnarled turds” is quite a phrase – but it’s not shock that works best in these poems so much as their gently nuanced fabric of echoes and hums; notice above, for instance, how “usefulness” morphs and reduces into “refuse” or “scavenging” into “saving,” or how liquids and vowels from both words fuse in “value.” These words don’t so much flare up as entwine and accrete. I can call that meshwork anxious because I’m taking a cue from Starnino’s “Credo,” which remarks almost as an article of faith “the fear with which / a poem caskets away everything it wants to rescue.” Cultural and poetic rescue, as I said, seems closer here to recovery, a salvage rather than a saving.
What is it, then, that these poems do? What’s their function, their “usefulness,” in a contemporary cultural context, a Canadian context (if that’s not too much to demand of them)? Starnino already takes up the procedural challenge at the outset of “Cornage,” where he casts his ear back to a patriarchal medieval world to explain his reasons – as a poetics, in fact – for his choice of title:
Cornage was the duty of every tenant
To alert his distant master of approaching invaders.
I have thereby stationed this poem on a tout-hill, where,
In time of danger, it will blow a horn as warning.
He offers the recovered word as a moment of civic engagement, as cultural “duty”; more than that, the poem comes to act as a warning, as a ward – as portent, as monster (check the etymology, the Latin monstrum). But what exactly is the danger the poem confronts? A linguistic entropy? A verbal decrepitude? A lack of monumentality or durability, of poetic heft? I hear the problem Starnino wants to address, and I hear his trepidation. But I’m not sure how ultimately dire, even to a poet, this situation might be. And I am not sure that building a poetic casket out of that fear is the best way to go here.
is a critical as well as creative act, and value judgements are part of any good poet’s skill-set. Just as a literary culture is the sum of all our actions, a good poem is the sum of ruthless decisions toward every word in a draft.
In the unflinching self-awareness of the poems in Credo, most of them written a good fifteen years ago, I hear prefigured this interlace of critical and poetic sensibilities. I admire an editorial ruthlessness in composition, evident in the deliberateness of Starnino’s formalism. But I have to say that I don’t accept his over-simplification of aesthetic value judgment, as if there were merely right and wrong, soft and hard choices to be made. (And frankly, I don’t think the best of his poems accept this over-simplification either; they’re much better than that.) Starnino sees a risk, even danger, in critical candour, and he defends his cohort of poet-critics – he mentions Michael Lista and Jason Guriel, among others – as deserving “our respectful attention,” which they do. But I’m not sure that candour – as opposed to acuity, perhaps – is what’s especially missing in recent poetry and recent reviews, Canadian or otherwise: the rigour of poetic attention has always been a sticking point for committed readers of poetry. The issue for me has to be not whether a poet pays attention, but defining the nature and practice of that attention, of that respect.Saving “anything of value” needs to be made precise, carefully, and the diffuseness of that “anything” replaced with a materially substantive sense of what such value might be, and especially of what cultural and linguistic apparatus is producing that sense of value, of values. To this end, the poet’s task, it seems to me, doesn’t need to devolve into a parochial cosmopolitianism – ferreting out “the best” of what is thought and said in Canada and pushing it onto a fictional world stage – nor into a diffusely Canadian cultural nationalism, so much as to situate and to address, rigorously, the audible and tangible mediations between self and world that a poem – a good poem – wants to gather.
Wadada Leo Smith speaking to the audience in Guelph after the performance of Ten Freedom Summers
The citation accompanying the announcement that Wadada Leo Smith’s Ten Freedom Summers was a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Music stresses its monumentality: “An expansive jazz work that memorializes ten key moments in the history of civil rights in America, fusing composed and improvised passages into powerful, eloquent music.” He was also voted “Composer of the Year,” in Downbeat magazine’s critics’ poll, for this same work – as well as for his compositions for large ensemble, recordings with the Finnish orchestra TUMO issued as Occupy the World (TUM) earlier this summer. His comments on the Downbeat award, published in the August 2013 issue, stress more than history and canon, more than monument making, although Smith remains deeply conscious of his enmeshment in the continuum of African American musics. Smith points to community-building and change as key principles both in the historical self-awareness promoted by the AACM, through which his compositional and instrumental practices were first nurtured and supported, and in his own compositional practice, which stresses collaboration and mobility.
Those principles suggest, if not enact, a powerful cultural politics: a politics both invoked and put at issue in Ten Freedom Summers. His music, in many respects, offers aural analogues to grass-roots participatory democracy – mutual resonances that come together in practices of sounding and of sounding out.As Franz A. Matzner’s liner notes for Occupy the World put it, “Smith has long inhabited the space where political and artistic movements converge.” Matthew Sumera’s notes for the Cuneiform 4-cd recording of Ten Freedom Summersargue that Smith’s work produces much more than programmatic musical echoes of real-world engagement: “[This] music was not simply about the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. It was part of them.” He quotes Wadada Leo Smith’s assertion that the performances of the suite invite a proactive and imaginatively engaged audience: “They poetically suggest what can be done. . . . None of these pieces [is] meant to simply be listened to.” Sumera pushes this claim further: “Rather, they are meant to be lived.” Extending the reach of Smith’s music beyond the aesthetic (as merely music) into the political (as music that makes a difference, that matters) isn’t liner-note hyperbole, but gestures at the core impetus of his improvisational and compositional practice, of his fusion – as the Pulitzer citation puts it – of these two seemingly incommensurate conceptual frameworks.
I’m already sounding like I’m on board with the broader project, and I have to admit that I am. But it’s important, I feel, still to retain a certain level of skepticism in order to assess the critical potential of this nascent utopianism, addressing what I feel is a persistent need for colliding artistic and political ideals, but doing so in as open-eyed and keen-eared a manner as I can manage. This exact idealism certainly coloured my expectations when I bought a ticket for a scaled-down performance on Saturday September 7, 2013, at the River Run Centre in Guelph by Wadada Leo Smith’s Golden Quartet (without accompanying chamber ensemble) – which included Anthony Davis on piano, John Lindberg on bass and Anthony Brown on percussion. I was jazzed. This concert had the potential to be transcendent, epochal, monumental. The suite contains creative music – I had been listening at some length to the recording – of the highest order, and I really wanted it to deliver on its implicit promises of raised and altered consciousness – a promise that, in my earphones and on my stereo, I felt as if it had already abundantly kept, in fact. It sounds as if I was setting myself up for a disappointment, but that wasn’t the case. The quartet’s music was eloquent, deep, and uplifting. However, in performance, the often stringent demands of Smith’s conception and of the score itself also become a bit more tellingly evident. (A review of the performance by Alayne McGregor can be found here.) The Golden Quartet arranges itself in a semi-circle, with Smith stage left, rather than in the horns-to-the-front configuration of the typical post-bop ensemble. (Smith has often in his recordings worked with the spatiality of sound; on the ECM record Divine Love, for instance, he uses proximity and distance from the microphone to reshape the texture of multiple improvising trumpets.) While at first this spatial configuration might suggest a quasi-democratic leveling, in performance it makes Smith more visible to the other members of the quartet, leaving him able to direct the music more cleanly and organically.
During the Guelph concert, their eyes moved only from score – much of the music looks like it has been through-composed, though its sounds highly spontaneous – to Smith, closely attentive to the demands of structure and direction. In this particular instance, the rhythm section (all of whom are masterful composers, improvisers and bandleaders in their own right) appeared at times a little anxiously bound to the page, which gave the music at a very few points a brittleness, a slight strain that was out of keeping with the committed attack that the composition demands: it needs the instrumentalists to be on, fully inhabiting any given sound moment. While the musicians clearly share in the responsibility for carrying the larger design forward, Smith is still in charge; at several points in the Guelph set, when the collective energy seemed to lag, he strode to centre stage, pumping his right arm as if to impel the rhythm more vigorously forward. He frequently cued the quartet as to which of the nineteen movements they were playing next; rather than establishing a running order ahead of time, it appeared as if he were allowing the dictates of the moment to establish where the music would go next.
The larger design was always there, marked by definitively firm fragments of melody; I recognized (from my earlier listening to the recording) the In a Silent Way-like line from the second part of “America” (section 15) and the loping dirge of “September 11th, 2001” (section 16). (According to the review I’ve linked above, they didn’t play “America,” but I’m sure I heard it.) Jesse Gilbert’s video projections (of photographs of various civil rights activists, for example, marking several evocative moments in the suite) are also meant to suggest certain diegetic moments, when the music speaks its politics definitively. In the May 3, 2013, edition of The New York Times, Ben Ratliff reviewed the first of three nights of a complete performance of Ten Freedom Summers at Roulette in Manhattan, remarking on its simultaneously resonant and frustrating narrative aspirations:
This piece has stories to tell, or rather to refer to. It’s not meant to suggest a narrative but a series of images, evoked mostly through sound. It’s never obvious or literal, which is both very good and sometimes problematic.
A little of that frustration appeared to me to find its way into the urgency of Smith’s efforts to conduct the ensemble on stage in Guelph, visibly driving the music toward making it communicate, making it speak.
In the interview with Daniel Fischlin, Smith suggests that this tension is deliberate, and that speech – as democratically motivated debate and discussion – comes more as an after-effect of the listening experience, rather than as any expressive content of the music itself:
But the quartet still enacted a key aspect around the idea of productive debate, of musical performance as a thinking-through of the politics of voice and voicing. Smith still retained something like mastery over the set. His horn tone, for example, was magisterial, brassy, Armstrong-like, with a southern rawness to it: his own sound guided the ensemble fairly firmly. At the same time, Smith’s compositions aspire to what he calls multiple-dominance, a negotiation for aural space within the shifting dynamics of an ensemble:
I’m not sure I saw – although I may still have heard – a great deal of this sort of collaborative compromising during that set in Guelph; instead, it felt as if Smith were urging the other players toward a more definitive and confident co-participation in the music, but that the urgency and commitment still originated with him, with his instrumental voice.
In a very real sense, Smith wants the other performers in his groups to occupy his compositions. The liner notes for Occupy the World take an epigraph from Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience that speaks to a link between aesthetics and politics, a link that Mr Smith has pursued musically, improvisationally, for more than four decades: “Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man?” The aesthetic dimension might not leap at first glance out of these lines, but if you look again closely at what Thoreau says, it does begin to locates itself in the crossover between a phenomenology of recognition and the craft of organization: how, we could ask, does Smith’s music activate and intensify participatory attention as it organizes and re-organizes itself? The coincidence and dehiscence of individuated lines, the fluid rhythmic geometries of his conception, the resonant potentialities of diversely intersecting timbres are all for him avenues, in performance, for occupying music. There are, he has said, two crucial aspects to his “concept for composing,” which he calls (in the liner notes for Occupy the World) rhythmic and polylinear:
Firstly, my composition are non-metric designs in regards to their rhythmic and sonic construction. The horizontal flow of the rhythms and sonic elements of a composition [is] achieved through a proportional structuring of the music’s geometric forms that, in performance, is realized by the shape f the music’s properties and not by its metric count. [. . .] [Secondly,] when I compose, I do not change the tonality of the instruments being used. . . . I do not believe in reducing the sonic field to a singular tonal spectrum, where one could have a multiple sonic spectrum hat shares the same musical grid without losing the large world of possibilities inherent in the sound universe.
The sometimes clashing sometimes consonant textures of the given timbre and tonality of instruments enacts a dynamics of argument, of compromise and self-assertion that, for Smith, has the potential to achieve what he calls a “higher level of realization,” as both performers and listeners, audience members. I am not sure if this realization happened during the hour or so I witnessed The Golden Quartet perform Ten Freedom Summers: Smith has set the bar very high for his collaborators. The music, taken on its own terms, was wonderful, powerful, moving: playing of a very high order that I was privileged to hear live. In the Downbeat piece, Smith admits that his project remains necessarily utopian, a figuration of human potential. He evokes the Occupy movement in New York, and globally, as a vitally nascent politics in which his music, he hopes, might participate:
“That was a great re-imagining of the possibilities of our society and possibility for radical change of our society,” Smith said. “It has not achieved it as such, but nevertheless, the idea is still there and not going away.”
And that persistence suggests something of the feeling of monumentality, of significance, that Smith’s music evokes: its moment.
I have been putting up the odd poem in this blog, self-publishing what feel to me like more public pieces, and maybe worth getting out there quickly enough, after they’re done. There’s an element of the improvisational in these ones, for me, because they’re pretty immediate, not heavily revised. So here is what I have done in memory of Nelson Mandela, who not only called for racial justice, for human dignity and respect, but lived that call. I was listening to Eddie Danielsinterviewed last night on As It Happens on CBC Radio about his friendship with Nelson Mandela: powerful stories of Mr Mandela’s humility and the politics of care.