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Wisdom of William Parker, Musician


In the late afternoon of Thursday, September 5, at the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre at the University of Guelph, composer and bassist William Parker delivered a keynote talk for the Guelph Jazz Festival Colloquium (this year’s theme: “Sound Knowledges: A World Artist Summit”) called “Sound as Medicinal Herb: Creative Music 61 Years in Transition.” (The “61 years” refers to his age, he told us.) He was introduced by drummer and musical compatriot Hamid Drake, who spoke about “an energy of compassion and understanding that exudes from Mr Parker” and who acknowledged the important role that William Parker has played in fostering “my own artistic potential and awakening.” For about 40 minutes, interspersed with video clips of Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra and Don Cherry, William Parker offered what was essentially an extended set of aphorisms, reflecting on his philosophy of music and on the social impact of artistic practice. If it works, I’m going to reproduce my transcriptions of key sentences from William Parker’s largely improvised remarks; this, for me, is an example of one form of improvisational pedagogy, a gathering of reflections and provocations. Any errors or infelicities are my own.


Sound acts as a medicinal herb.

The core of music cannot be taught, the self-sound of a musician’s playing.

Why does the musician exist? Save, elevate, inspire and heal.

Muse plus physician equals musician.

As soon as you are born you become part of music.

Music is not something you learn. Music is something you are.

We need to redefine musical terms.

No one owns music. Nobody. Nobody owns music.

Music is the possibility of a miracle occurring.

It is a medicinal herb that heals.

You are responsible for your own self. You play the changes you want to play on a tune.

Sun Ra: “I didn’t know anything about music. It came from someplace else.”

What is the difference between knowing and feeling? You can know all of the answers, and you still can’t get anything right.

You don’t have to understand it, you have to feel it.

You need to be flowing with the spirit.

Jimmy Lyons was a shaman. Shamans heal and move us through sound. The have the juju.

Part of it comes from the blues. You can hear it. All of the musicians from Chicago, where’d they come from? Not Chicago. From the South.

They play extensions of Afro-American Improvised Creative Music.

If you play for three hours with Cecil Taylor and Jimmy Lyons, that’s some magic. And I played eleven years with those cats.

How can you play music and not know anything about it? You don’t need to know anything about it. What’s important is whether your music works.

We have to have a revolution in the world. The music has to step it up a notch. We have to play revolutionary music so that we can enter into the tone-world.

You take a tone, you vibrate it enough, and then you’re in the tone-world.

Each room in the tone-world is a secret of life.

It’s not about making money, but to make music and to heal people through sound.

Don Cherry knew something about music. But at the same time he knew when not to let it get in the way.

Everybody can be an accidental shaman, a shaman for the day.

You don’t want to be a shaman for a day. You want to be a shaman every day.

The listener is also a musician.

The sound of what you say and what you do is so very important.

You are your instrument.

You have to find the Don Cherry in you and the Sun Ra in you.

Wear your colours.

We can all be brighter and bigger than what we are.

What’s the difference between a musician and a shaman? You wouldn’t hire a shaman to play at your wedding.

Music in America is more about entertainment than inner attainment.

Rahsaan Roland Kirk had a composition he called “Volunteered Slavery.” Now what we’re dealing with is a system of volunteered slavery. You just have to go along with the system and enslave yourself.

The best musicians never get recorded because they’re left out of history.

The Guelph festival is very very important because it brings the people who want to hear, to be fed, to rejuvenate, to be inspired.

“It’s as serious as your life.” [Or, “It’s as serious as a laugh.”]

What’s the future of jazz? In one sense jazz is dead, it has no future. Don’t cry. But: music has a future. All your major players are dead: Jimmy Heath, Johnny Griffin. For me, I don’t hear anybody playing any jazz. Jazz has moved on. We just find something else. But hope goes on.

“In order to survive, we must keep hope alive.”

There is a universal tonality.

Boom. Let’s go. Let’s play. Boom.

Juju is in every country. It’s universal.

It doesn’t make any difference what you call it but it will go on.


Texture, Line, Frissure: Kathleen Jamie and Birgid Collins

In addition to reading her newest volume, Frissure, which is a collaborative set of mediations on healing and attention, I have been re-reading Kathleen Jamie’s 2005 gathering of essays, Findings, to prepare for a set of first-year lectures on prose non-fiction I am set to deliver over the next few months.  The earlier volume appears to lay some of the groundwork for her more recent prose poems. In the pages of Findings, Jamie consistently demonstrates a palpable gift for perceptive clarity, an attunement to visual and auditory detail: the eleven mediations on the “natural and unnatural world” – “world” meaning contemporary Scotland – that make up the book reflect on her own all-too-human need to accrete what she sees and hears, to hold and remember it, to catch something of her sensory drift and document it on paper before it skitters beyond her field of view. She listens and watches, she notes and collects. And what she often ends up attending to, in each piece, are the gaps and uncertainties in the apparatus of her own consciousness. She comes to observe herself wanting to observe, trying to see and hear her way toward a sublimity, a sense of the near-absolute alterity of nature, that keeps refusing her any absolute access. She often directs her creative energies toward collection and preservation, picking up souvenirs and compiling wrack and flotsam from shoreline scrapheaps, a tactic that recalls the poetic salvage of “Mr and Mrs Scotland Are Dead.” (“Do we save this toolbox . . .?”)
Salvage is also self-directed, when she visits, for example, the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh and peruses the formaldehyde-filled anatomical specimen jars: the human form, a late version frittered from Da Vinci’s homo mensura, becomes a collation or an assemblage of posthumous, scattered parts, bottled samples and amputations. “At certain shelves,” she writes, “you have to bend and look closely, without knowing what you might see. It will be pale and strange, and possibly quite beautiful. It will be someone’s catastrophe and death” (from “Surgeon’s Hall”). Bodies are catalogued, labeled, textualized; she sees them as particular, uncanny artefacts, almost art-objects that, with their vestigial humanity, still resist the aesthetical gaze. Medical and representational objectivity is mitigated by empathy, by the traces of human suffering and of feeling – not affect, but feeling – that persist in these fissured bodies, at once remembered and dismembered: “a stranger’s arm with his [not ‘its’] corroding carcinoma, a diseased breast, a kidney taken from a man gassed on the Western Front, all call forth the same plain tenderness, “ for Jamie.
“Pathologies,” the first essay in her subsequent collection, Sightlines (2012), develops this empathetic scrutiny further, when Jamie describes her visit to a pathology lab to observe clinicians performing biopsies. What she thinks of, plainly, are the people with whose tissues she has gained, as she scrutinizes samples through a microscope, a strange and unbidden intimacy, an impossible closeness. This complex ethic in which she finds herself implicated had already been hinted at in Findings, in the essay I’ve been citing, where she offers a précis of one of the earliest accounts, in “an Edinburgh book” from 1863, of a Victorian surgery: a certain “Mrs Ailie Noble, suffering terrible pain from breast cancer[,] is taken into theatre, and in full view of the young medical students undergoes a mastectomy.” Jamie’s writing practice is often highly iterative – texts embedded into texts, marking the retreat of an abyssal subjectivity – and she quotes her source text to close her own essay; but her point is not to remark a futility, so much as to emphasize the shared pathos of loss even in the seeming detachment of patriarchal science:
He says “Don’t think [the students] heartless . . . they get over their professional horrors and into their proper work, and in them pity as an emotion ending in itself, or at least in tears and in a long drawn breath, lessens — while pity as a motive is quickened and gains power and purpose.
Pity converts from romanticized, narcissistic amour-propre into viable empathy for others, an intersubjectivity of care (to borrow a phrase from Julie Livingston), a call to feeling that Jamie seems to discover somewhere between the jars she observes and the archive she re-reads: reminder and remainder. 
Frissure emerges from Jamie’s collaboration with visual-tactile artist Birgid Collins. When she turned 49, Jamie notes in her preface, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and underwent a mastectomy. For her, she writes, “it seemed ironic: a case of life imitating art.” She had written extensively, as I’ve just noted, on pathology labs and breast cancer, and now her own body was subject to medical scrutiny and intervention. Redirecting her own attention selfward, negotiating the now intimate collision of observer and observed in her own physiology, seems to come to mean, for her, finding some kind of balance point between the aesthetic and the lived, a means of sensible transcription that would become part of her healing. She ended up approaching Birgid Collins to draw her mastectomy scar, to try to find a means of inhabiting this intersubjective tension; collaboration entails both deferring to perspectives outside of your own, and simultaneously voicing yourself against that deference: both seeing closely and being closely seen, in this instance. The scar is an unruly line, not only in the literal sense of a mark on her skin, but also in both the visual and the poetic senses: “Whatever it was, it was a line, drawn on my body. A line, in poetry, opens up possibilities within the language, and brings forth voice out of the silence. What is the first thing an artist does, beginning a new work? He or she draws a line.” She and Collins, in their various media, begin from a contingent, shared understanding of line.
“With that, a line of Burns arrived in my head. ‘You seize the flo’er, the bloom is shed.'”
Jamie composes a number of prose-poems during her recovery, which become part of their collaboration; Collins pastes fragments of text into her constructions, and incorporates found matter and textiles described in Jamie’s texts into her compositions, which she comes to understand not as drawings but as dimensional constructions she comes to call “Poem-Houses,” which she creates in “conversation” or “exchange” with “K’s fragments.” Line here becomes a trajectory of intersections, an empathetic give-and-take (though not without difficulties and uncertainties). Collins begins with drawings, then introduces “natural” matter onto her paper, then builds dimensionality beyond the surface of page or sheet. The resulting hand-sized sculptures, if that’s the right word, have a raw, stunning beauty, an intricacy and a delicacy of texture that suggest an uneasy balance between the found and the made, the fractal and the formal, the aleatory and the intentional, the natural and the unnatural, that informs much of Jamie’s best writing. (You’ll have to buy the book to see photographs of these Poem-Houses; Collins’s website also has plenty of images of similarly-realized constructions.)
The sense of line in these prose poems, for example, is more latent than manifest: the rhythmic shape of each sentence remains insistent but not (yet) fully differentiated from the rhuthmos, language’s unruly cadence, its natural flow: there are no clean lines, but, like Collins’s art, an attention to the besmirched, the impure, the incipient. “What is a line? “ Jamie asks in “Line”: “A border, a symbol of defence, of defiance.” But a body, such as hers, isn’t healed by being defended, medically or poetically, against its own enmeshment in the natural world, by the surgical repair of its boundaries and limits. Rather, healing for Jamie involves a return to the permeability, to the interpenetration, of body and world:  “To be healed is not to be saved from mortality but rather, released back into it: we are returned to the wild, into possibilities for ageing and change” (“Healings 2”). The textures of Collins’s work derive from this enmeshment, emblematized at a number of points in economies of reciprocity, mutuality and interchange, as healing gifts mailed to Jamie from friends, and passed on to her, like letters written in natural scraps, from the landscape around her: “Spilling from an envelope, a get-well gift of silverweed, bog-cotton and thrift.” (The brief catalogues of found matter in these texts recall the collected flotsam of “Findings.”) To heal, for Jamie, is not to protect or to defend herself in art, but to open up her language to the textures of the inhuman, of the given, and to listen carefully for a “music at the edge of sense . . . the sound of the benign indifference of the world.” (“Healings 1”). Tacitly, and amid its contingent stillnesses, Collins’s work performs this same close attentiveness both for and with Jamie, and both for and with us.

Audio: Embouchure, Guelph (2011), with Eric Lewis

Here’s a recording from two years ago. In Guelph for the colloquium and jazz festival, on September 9, 2011, following a talk and a reading by Jayne Cortez, I read a suite of poems from Embouchure, which was then pretty hot off the press, accompanied by Eric Lewis improvising on trumpet and cornet. The introduction is by our good friend Sara Villa. You can visit my Sound Cloud page for more audio, or check out the audio section of my web page.

Improvisation, Text and Media: Research Questions

At the final meetings of the research team for the “Improvisation, Community and Social Practice” research initiative, held on Monday September 2, 2013, at the University of Guelph, we had an opportunity to divide into our various research streams and interest groups, and to reflect on achievements and outcomes over the past six years of the grant, around the establishment of the interdisciplinary field of Improvisation Studies. (Co-ordinators for each of the seven clusters were invited to present at a panel during the upcoming colloquium, on Wednesday morning.) Rather than catalogue books, performances, courses, etc., what many of us elected to do — to reflect the on-going and open-ended aspect of research on and around improvisation — was to produce and hone a set of research questions that had come to inform the work being done by our group.


Here are some of the questions we collectively arrived at, in the “Improvisation, Text and Media” stream, for which I have served as co-ordinator.

How do improvisatory practices affect the production, dissemination and reception of new media art?

What are the impacts of electronic and social media on poetry, literature and other textual practices? How is the study of print culture impacted by a critical emphasis on improvisation?

How can methods and approaches that have emerged from improvisation studies be deployed to assess the velocity of information, and the pace of the transformation of the human archive? What are the emerging temporalities of writing?

How do new media offer a means to investigate the permeability of the academic and non-academic worlds?

What are the key tropes around which inquiry into text and media in improvisation takes place? (Some of the tropes we mentioned included membrane, network, fractal, pod, articulation, mix, polyphony, voice, texture, ear.)

How does improvisation both expose and re-instantiate inherent social power structures, especially around concepts of authority and expertise?

How do social and electronic media influence reading and reception?

How do text and media studies articulate with improvisational pedagogy across the disciplines?

What does the study of improvisation, text and media bring to the understanding of canon, of expertise, genius and orthodoxy? How are we to accept or to resist the tendencies for improvisational tactics to becomes orthodoxies or ideologies?

How are practices of appropriation, borrowing, imitation, representation and revision managed through improvisation?

Our hope was that these questions, and others, might serve as contingent focal points, both to understand the work that has been ongoing in this sub-field and to provoke and urge the development of new work.

Double Short Take on Two Guelph Gigs: Indigo Trio and KAZE

Robert Kerr introducing Indigo Trio, with Hamid Drake and Harrison Bankhead

There were a number of standout performances at this year’s Guelph Jazz Festival, but for me two gigs in particular really made something happen, small concerts by Indigo Trio and by KAZE. I’d like provisionally to map my own reactions, even at this slight remove in time, to those moments, because they have stayed with me, and will for a while. (These sets both took place last week – one on Thursday night, and one Saturday morning.) Both performances modeled and enacted improvisational listening practices, modes of attention not only to aesthetics – the practiced formal tactics of shaping sound into music – but also to the sociality of audition, to how human beings empathize with one another, sense each other’s embodied co-presences, at the level of texture, resonance and pulse. The kinds of immersive listening into which an audience is invited by both of these ensembles are not, for me, a way of losing yourself, of becoming absorbed into and overwhelmed by their music, but present instead opportunities and openings for intersubjective moments, as our ears focus and refocus on the interplay and divergences of line and shape that occur as each performance unfolds, live and spontaneously both before us and with us.
Indigo Trio, from the back of the room: Nicole Mitchell, Hamid Drake, Harrison Bankhead
Indigo Trio –Nicole Mitchell, flutes, Harrison Bankhead, bass, and Hamid Drake, drums – offered two extended extemporaneous suites Thursday night, September 5, in the re-purposed hall of St. George’s Anglican Church in Guelph. I have been avidly listening to them since their first album appeared, on Dave Douglas’s Greenleaf label, in 2007, a recording I think of their first performance as a trio in Montreal in 2005. As then, their music remains rich, warm, flexible, free, accessible and dynamic: a paradigm for collaborative co-creation. I don’t know which composition is which, but each suite gave the impression of morphing or evolving forms, particularly around the loping, deep grooves Harrison Bankhead set up on his big upright. I thought, as did a few others there that night, that we could hear traces of the firm, warm sound of Wilbur Ware or of Malachi Favors Maghostut in his playing, echoes of departed mentors and colleagues, but also of a Chicago sound-palette that imbued his playing with a powerful historical dimension. Harrison Bankhead’s predilection for danceable lines, for groove, coupled with Hamid Drake’s strong sense of rhythmic pockets – what I’d describe as his sanguine, organic feel – drew the audience into the trio’s playing, and kept them rapt: toe-tapping, hip-swaying and happy. Nicole Mitchell played a shattering solo on piccolo, but rather than disrupt the flow, it only intensified the room’s commitment to what was happening. Each improvised “suite” concluded with Nicole Mitchell singing, in a bell-like soprano, what seemed like Afro-futuristic lyrics – two song forms, the first of which I think was a hymn of praise to Gaia, while the second, concluding piece affirmed the entwining of strength of purpose and of the embrace of difference that shape Indigo Trio’s music:
When you find the truth you will realize
You’re a stranger in a strange land
But you’re not alone
You’ve got to stand strong
What I hear, here, is a call to community in difference, community of difference: strength among strangers, audience.
KAZE: Satoko Fujii, Natsuki Tamura, Christian Pruvost, Peter Orins
KAZE is a collaborative quartet that has been in existence since at least 2011, pairing the longstanding duo of Satoko Fujii on piano and Natsuki Tamura on trumpet with two members of the French MUZZIX (sounds like “musiques”) collective, trumpeter Christian Pruvost and percussionist Peter Orins. Nominally (on the programme) Satoko Fujii’s band, the group operates more as a collective, showcasing compositions and concepts from each of its four members. I had never heard them play, either live or on CD, before Saturday morning at the River Run Centre in Guelph, although they have already recorded two albums as an ensemble: Rafale (2011) and Tornado (2013), both released by Circum-Disc in collaboration with Fujii-Tamura’s label, Libra Records. I have to say that I was blown away by their collective virtuosity and by their kinetic interaction, from the first notes they played. The two-trumpet line, in some ways, hearkens back to Louis Armstrong and Joe Oliver, and there are echoes of the playfulness and smart-aleckry of early music, although there is little in their work, in my view, of the subversive. They play with sounds, the trumpeters ebulliently incorporating “little instruments” and percussive sound-makers into their arsenals of sound-sources, but the idea is never to undermine or interrupt: disruptions are creative, centrifugal, happily unruly, both provocative and strangely supportive. All four appear to celebrate and to uphold each other’s contributions to the collective: no cutting, no ego. At the same time, both trumpeters self-evidently have technique – extended technique – to spare. Tamura and Pruvost are masters of their instruments, and then some. And, well, if you like your trumpet by turns limpid and wicked, seductive and fierce, this is the music for you.  Satoko Fujii’s virtuoso piano formed an integral part of the ensemble, negotiating between polydirectional rhythms and entwined melodic lines, sometimes subtending the performance harmonically, sometimes offering percussive counterpoint. Her playing is dynamic, ever-present, but also open and responsive; she is never at a loss for something to add in, but also never crowds at her cohorts: a paragon of give and take, of response listening. Peter Orins’s drumming was, for me, a revelation: he has a way of propelling a performance forward, while striking each tympanum with an attack that somehow individuates and momentarily savours, pulse by pulse, the elastic beat-patterns he conjured. His style of improvising at the drumkit reminded me at times, if this makes listening sense, of Ronald Shannon Jackson’s definitive touch.
         The group played two or three extended suites – akin in structure, though not in idiom, to the Indigo Trio’s set – combining, I discovered afterward, most of the compositions featured on their recent disc. (I think they recombined “Wao,” “Tornado,” “Imokidesu” and “Triangle,” although I’m relying on memory here.) Each of their forays began with quiet hiss and suck from the horns, breath feeling its way into tone, gradually ramping toward more organized thematic statements or unisons, then negotiating a series of polyglot interchanges and exchanges toward the next composition way-point. The group operated as a living assemblage, an organism pursuing not so much coherence or closure as open-edged symbiosis, a generative, sustaining autopoeisis. Each piece did, of course, reach a tenuous end, but it felt that, even after the concert was done, KAZE’s generative soundscapes still kept roiling and resonating in our minds’ ears.
         For me, hearing both of these groups had an epochal aspect, an impact not unlike, say, hearing the Parker-Guy-Lytton trio, or Wayne Shorter’s recent quartet, or Charles Lloyd’s “New Quartet,” or one of David S. Ware’s quartets; they seemed to represent something of the power and possibility of distinctive new directions in creative improvised music. A greatness.

Breakfast, Nearly, with Pharoah Sanders

I think I’m more than a fan, much more than a fan, of what people in my various small circles of friends and fellow listeners would call The Music. Not just music, but The, with a capital T. What my colleagues and I usually mean to indicate with this definitive and emphatic article is a certain lineage or a set of lineages in recent jazz, lineages that can trace their origins to consciousness-raising performances and recordings in the mid 1960s around the civil rights movement and the emergence of Black cultural nationalism in the United States. I am neither Black nor American, but I know that I have had a powerful personal investment in this music since my mid-teenage years, when, and I have no idea how to explain this objectively, my friends and I started buying jazz records. The Music has – again, powerfully – helped to shape who I feel I have become, who I think I am and how I think. For some reason, across a number of tangible cultural and social boundaries, this music came to speak to me: it’s an experience that’s not unique to me, but it does seem a bit strange that this feeling of connection occurred in small-town Nova Scotia in the late 1970s, in a place that still feels remote from the contexts out of which this music came. The Music was not in the air very much, at least not where I come from. But that’s not exactly true, either: there were people around us who knew things, there were kids like me who wanted to know, and there was the odd record that arrived in the bins of Kelly’s Stereo Mart that we could buy. The first jazz-like record I ever bought – copying what my friend had done – was The Vibration Continues, an Atlantic two-fer that appeared in 1979 two years after the death of Rahsaan Roland Kirk. It was an album that would change everything for me, or at least cause as much change as any one record can. The sense of tradition as well as of extemporaneous experimentation that vitally energize the tracks on that compilation epitomize what Mr. Kirk called “Black Classical Music,” and help me to consider the collisions and intersections of the creative and the critical, of music and poetry, of history and innovation, that seem to me to make cultural performances of all types come to matter.
         Listening to Rahsaan and to Miles Davis and others soon led me outward – tracing the networks of connections and sidemen they deployed – to John Coltrane, of course, and especially to his later, more tumultuous post-1964 music: recordings that had become established, by the time I could have encountered them, as touchstones of The Music, fierce beautiful classics. In the summer when I was seventeen, I bought a copy of Meditations. The opening track on that album, “The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost,” with the stuttering, surging and entwined tenor saxophone lines of Mr. Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders, was transformative for me, at once devastating and profoundly moving. I don’t know how many times I have played that first side over; I can hear it in my mind’s ear even now. There is nothing like it. I think I read an interview some years ago with Carlos Santana, where he said that he tries to listen to Coltrane every day – for “spiritual nourishment” – and he mentions “The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost” in particular. I know what he meant, what he means.
         I have been in Guelph, Ontario, for the past week, attending at the university there an academic colloquium about, among other things, The Music. The colloquium is tied to an ongoing research initiative called “Improvisation, Community and Social Practice,” and to a yearly Jazz Festival, programmed for twenty years now by Ajay Heble, who is both its Artistic Director and the Principal Investigator for the grant-funded academic initiative. Because of the relatively small size of Guelph, many out-of-town attendees end up staying at the Delta hotel there, which is where most of the musicians playing the festival stay, too. So you tend sometimes to cross paths. This year, the festival headliners included Wadada Leo Smith’s Golden Quartet, performing a scaled-down version of his Pulitzer-nominated suite Ten Freedom Summers, and Pharoah Sanders, collaborating with an amalgam of Rob Mazurek’s Chicago and Sao Paulo Undergrounds. (I’ll say something about these performances in another piece.) I was returning alone to the hotel by taxi after a wonderful concert by the Indigo Trio on Thursday night. As I came through the sliding glass doors into the lobby, there in front of me, leaning over the front desk trying to check in, was Pharoah Sanders. I knew him immediately, from photos on LP jackets I had poured over and scrutinized while I listened, headphones on, in front of the stereo downstairs in my parents’ house years ago. It was Pharoah Sanders. And for a moment, I had no idea what to do.
         Of course, I didn’t have to do anything. I felt as if I ought to approach him, ought to say something. I have been immersed in his music for decades, and feel a kinship, because of the effect that it has had on me over those years, that of course he couldn’t have shared. He has no idea who I am, or how his music has changed my life, the way Rilke once said all great art ought to do. My impulse was to try to walk up and tell him something then and there about my own story, the story of my love for his music. But, it would have been pretty rude to bother Mr. Sanders while he was trying to sort out his arrival. So I got into the elevator, went up to my room, and put up an excited jazz-nerd blurb on Facebook and Twitter about having just passed The Pharoah Sanders in the lobby.
Along with Mr. Smith, he was doing a public interview the next morning, which I was going to attend, so I would get to see and hear him anyway. And I had my ticket to the concert the following night. Great.

Wadada Leo Smith and Pharoah Sanders, after  the interview Friday morning, 6 September 2013
         At the interview Mr. Sanders wasn’t especially voluble. (A video recording of the interview ought to appear on the ICaSP website sometime in the near future.) What might appear as reticence in that interview could also be an after-effect of all of this public adulation and esteem, this spiritual fandom. Not that he shouldn’t be rightly and justly praised for what he has done, for the lives his music has affected, but he may have been a bit wary of the kinds of closeness that listeners like me seem to need to claim and to feel. It’s easy to forget to accord the person, the human being, the dignity and the respect, the personal space, that they deserve – and that every human being deserves. Listening, even as closely as many of us do, needs still to be kept at a remove from entitlement. And this distance, around historically significant and culturally transformative artists such as Mr. Sanders, can sometimes present a very difficult line to walk. (“He became his admirers,” says W. H. Auden of the passing of W. B. Yeats: such appropriations have a moribund aspect, I think. They objectify the living, and reify their creative energies, often without intending to, as real people get turned and admiringly calcified into their own self-representations, their myths.)
         There was another great concert Saturday morning, by KAZE. I was up a little later that morning, but still had some time, so I decided to treat myself to a warm breakfast in the hotel restaurant. As I stood by the please wait to be seated sign, waiting, Pharoah Sanders was suddenly there, coming out of the restaurant towards me; he had obviously been eating breakfast. Okay, I thought, now was my chance to say something, anything. “Mr. Sanders,” I said, “I’m a great admirer of your music.” And I held out my hand to shake his. “Thank you,” he said, and then put his own hands together in a gesture of prayer.
“My hands,” he said. “Of course,” I said, though I didn’t know exactly what he meant. (I have spoken with musicians and others who have to shake hands with strangers often when they’re on the road: they tell me that folding your hands this way is a good practice to keep from having viruses spread to you.) And then a waitress showed me to my single table, at an extended curved bench along the restaurant’s far wall.
Someone had been eating at the small single table next to me. I looked down at the menu, to figure out what I wanted to order, and then looked up again. Pharoah Sanders was coming back into the restaurant towards me. I had been seated beside his table. It turned out he hadn’t been leaving at all, but had been making a second visit to the breakfast buffet, which was located just the other side of the please wait to be seated sign. He sat back down next to me. I was becoming a little concerned he might think that somehow I was following him, so I didn’t want even to try to pester him with small talk. We ate side by side quietly at our separate tables, together. I took no photographs. I don’t know why it would even have occurred to me as something I could so, and it’s embarrassing to admit that I even considered it, so intrusive, so disrespectful of someone else’s space. When I left, I did manage to wish him a good day, and to say I was looking forward to his concert that evening. “Thank you,” he said. “Thank you.”
The concert was tremendous. As I said, I’ll post something more detailed about it soon. It ended around midnight, and I managed to flag a cab back to the hotel, amid what turned out to be masses of partying students newly arrived in town for the University’s boozy Frosh week. (None of them had anything to do with the music, with The Music. It’s a coincidence that the Jazz Festival and the academic colloquium happen simultaneously with the first week of classes.) I got back late, and went to bed.
Pharoah Sanders (and Chad Taylor) performing at Guelph on September 7, 2013
I had to be up early the next morning to catch a shuttle van to the Toronto airport. I came down to check out at 6 am, and the desk clerk asked if I had got the message that the shuttle was postponed until 6:30. (I hadn’t, but it didn’t matter.) The idea, it turned out, was to fill all seven seats on one shuttle, rather than have to send two vehicles. So, fine, I took my bags over to the hotel foyer, where coordinated brown and beige couches had been arranged to look something like a furniture showroom at The Bay.
As I sat down to wait, someone else appeared at the desk to check out. It was Pharoah Sanders. He did what he needed to do at the desk, and then came over to join me on the couches. I thought at this point that if he realized I was this same guy who kept appearing wherever he was, he might have started genuinely to worry. But he smiled and nodded at me, and started to chat. Like me, he was headed to the airport to catch a flight west. He asked where I was headed. He said he found it a bit cold in Guelph. He told me he’d had trouble with the air conditioner in his room, which kept coming on at night, and I told him I’d had exactly the same trouble, which was true.
Others arrived who were taking the same airport shuttle, all of them musicians who had performed the night before, including Wadada Leo Smith and Anthony Davis, both of whom are indisputably major composers and performers in contemporary music. The shuttle arrived; I told Mr. Sanders it was here, and he went to stand over in front of the sliding glass doors at the hotel entrance.
The doors opened, and the shuttle driver, clipboard in hand, came through, and walked right up to Mr. Sanders. “Who are you?” he asked bluntly. Mr. Sanders gave his name. “Right,” said the driver, “one of the jazz musicians.” I thought, oh, maybe I’m not on this shuttle, so I went up and asked. It looked like there wasn’t going to be enough room. “Nope,” said the driver, “this is your shuttle too. You’re the one non-musician.”
He managed to load all the bags, and told us to climb in. I ended up in the front pair of passenger seats, sitting next to Pharoah Sanders, again. I hope he didn’t mind. There was some confusion about airlines and paperwork. Pearson airport has three terminals, each of them linked to different domestic and international carriers. The driver got in, turned around in his seat to face Mr. Sanders and the rest of us, and said: “Don’t worry. I have a master plan.” I thought I heard a few chuckles, though maybe not. I don’t think the driver was deliberately making a kind of joke – he genuinely had no idea that one of Pharoah Sanders’s most praised and beloved recordings is called “The Creator Has a Master Plan.” But in that moment, what started to emerge was a troubling irony, one that creative musicians such as these must have to confront on a fairly regular basis.
“Say,” the driver said, as he started the engine and pulled away, “I’ve got the radio tuned to the jazz station.”
“No, please,” said Mr. Smith. “No music.” It was still really early, and no one had had more than a few hours of sleep.
“I thought you might want to hear some jazz,” the driver kept on. “You know, I like Billie Holiday.”
“We all like Billie Holiday,” said someone from the back of the shuttle. The driver tried to play the radio a little lower.
“No, please,” said Mr. Smith. The driver finally obliged.
The 40-minute drive east along the 401, with a fine reddish sun emerging from the clouded horizon in front of us, was silent. Most people just dozed in their seats, the way people do.
When we arrived at the airport, the first three let out included Mr. Sanders. He said goodbye, and wished everyone and was wished a safe journey.  He smiled and waved, and that was it. When the driver climbed back into his seat, he turned around and asked those who remained – except for me, the one non-musician – what kind of music they played and what clubs in Guelph they’d been playing in. (I don’t even think Guelph has a jazz club: the downtown as I’ve experienced it seems to be full of bars catering to students.) “Clubs?” said Mr. Davis. “It’s been a while since I have played in a club.” “No clubs,” said Mr. Smith.
The driver seemed mildly surprised that their performance had taken place at the city’s opera-house style concert hall, the River Run Centre. I asked if they liked the venue, and both of them said yes, and talked a little about acoustic space, about spatial acoustics. Then it was my turn to go. I wished them a safe journey, too.
After we pulled up at the terminal, the driver came around to help me unload my bag. Out of earshot of the musicians, and feeling some kind of mistaken kinship with me, he told me: “I expected this trip to be more hilarious, more fun, with, you know, those kind of . . . jazz musicians.”
Why was it, I wondered, that he waited until we were both outside of the van to tell this to me, like some kind of secret. Like I might understand him.
And then realized I knew why.
And then I knew: when he said “non-musician,” I don’t think he was talking about music. He may not have known himself what he intended. But I think I hear it now.
Pharoah Sanders, Wadada Leo Smith, Anthony Davis, and the others who happened to be on that shuttle, are among the most forward-thinking and brilliant musical geniuses of their, of my, generation; they perform and compose, for those who want to hear, a life-altering, profoundly moving music, coalescing jazz, art music, folk, and other styles and practices into their own idioms and sound-worlds, but all drawing on the creative impetus of the wide African diaspora. “If you have to ask,” Louis Armstrong is purported to have said, “you don’t need to know.”
Maybe so. But at the end of their interview on the Friday morning, Wadada Leo Smith made a point of encouraging listeners, simply, to try to speak to our neighbours, to connect with other human beings. “Consider the fact,” he said, “that someone else is important, and make that work in your life.” And it’s hard work, for sure, to overcome even a few of the complex barriers presented by ignorance and, strangely, by adulation, and instead to try to find the human gesture, both besides and beside ourselves.

Vowel Meadows: Seamus Heaney’s Catches

Like so many, I have been very deeply saddened to hear of Seamus Heaney’s death this morning. Like so many, I have held his work closely for many years, and have heard and continue to hear in my mind’s ear the echoes and soundings of his careful resonant lines. He remains a presence. He has been for me one of the few poets who maintained a thorough and unwavering faith in the capacity of the lyric to speak in and to and with our late world. He seemed always to believe, when others fell away, in the essential and abiding interdependencies of earth and speech. He listened. Spoken, his poems each found a particular catch in the voice.
I have been re-listening to The Poet & the Piper, a collaborative recording he produced with Uilleann piper Liam O’Flynn a decade ago. Most of the poems Heaney reads on the CD have to do with folk music, with listening, with voice, and many of them are closely familiar to his readers.  The second-to-last track is a recitation of “Postscript,” a poem that comes from his 1996 collection The Spirit Level:
And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.
The rhythmic lilt and lift – setting the withheld beat that closes “capture it,” for instance, against the firm iambic heartbeat asserting itself in the rhymed phrase, “a slate-grey lake is lit” – is all Heaney, and reinforces the medial position, “neither here nor there,” in which he characteristically positions himself in his later work. But this shore-line sense of self and place – and the geography is specific and significant: Clare south of Galway on the western edge of Europe, the light and wind smashing and buffeting in from the mid-Atlantic – has little to do with poetic diffidence or last-Romantic fraughtness. (Are those Yeats’s nine and fifty swans?) This isn’t, for me, Heaney’s more violent version of the poet’s body as an Aeolian (or even Uilleann) harp. Rather, his lyric frames and expresses a different order of self awareness. What catches and moves him involves both the estranging sublimity of the oceanic – the bottomless centre of his “Bogland” well – and the necessary inadequacy of language, its pathos. The “catch” in the last line, I think, names both the beautiful and moving brokenness of speech and the song-form – a catch is a traditional round – that utters this insufficiency and makes it sing, in second-hand human terms. The poem, with its opening unlinked conjunction, sounds to me more like a promise to make time “some time” to revisit that sublimity than an assertion or claim to have done it. His autochthony – emblematized in a diction obsessed with turf and rock and root and water – strikes me never as a given but always as a coefficient of desire, as want. In “Postscript,” he wants to keep the experience unfinished: a futurity, a need. And it’s this address to uncaught air and light, to the medial textures of encounter, that lets Heaney’s poem do its deep, keen work, that crafts his faith.

Hard Frailties: MD and PiL

Always be merchandizing.

I bought a re-issue on LP of the first Public Image Ltd record a couple of weeks ago, and I have been playing it over and going back to my other PiL records, particularly the key four of the first albums (including Second Issue, Flowers of Romance and Album). I don’t know why, but I hadn’t had these out in a while. Maybe they still have a certain repulsion about them, wanting to push listeners back and keeping them estranged. It’s not exactly likable music. In their specific ways, they also have a raw immediacy and a loose fierceness – not just in the dissonant snarl and visceral whine of John Lydon’s vocals, but in the way the music assembles itself – that shake me every time I put the needle down. Even as each track locks palpably into its particular, febrile groove – and from Jah Wobble to Bill Laswell, these remain definitely groove-based records – you often get the sense that things could also shatter at any moment; songs, particularly on the first album, hang vestigially in scissions and fractures. Sometimes, they sound like the reassembled shards of songs, songs that can’t quite piece themselves together again, if they were ever whole to begin with. Setting the new-age steady on-the-beat pulse of “Public Image” against the unkempt noise of its b-side, “The Cowboy Song,” suggests the antithetical aural tug-of-war in which Lydon and companions consistently engage: centripetal and centrifugal sound. The attenuated slow drag of Wobble’s bass on “Theme” teeters on the verge of collapse, then lurches forward a bar at a time, still locked into its deep rhythmic pocket. These are compelling and unsettling collaborative performances that take aim at the sonic foundations of popular music.
The uncertainties and incommensurables inherent in the collaborative process – that there are differences among performers that can’t be overcome, and instead need to be embraced – seem to me to play a significant part in PiL’s music, in how it unfolds. Still, the track I most want to repeat on the player is “FFF” from Album (1985), and what draws me to it isn’t this uncertainty, but rather a sense of its absolute, unshakeable beat: the confident, driven heaviness of Tony Williams’s drumming, and Bill Laswell’s bass-line. In contrast to the dehiscence that I have been suggesting lies at the heart of PiL’s output, “FFF” and most of the tracks on Album (or Cassette or Compact Disc) feel intentionally stable and powerfully coherent (Lydon’s singing aside, perhaps). Album is famously a Bill Laswell project, assembling studio musicians and colleagues from Laswell’s Material bands, mixing funk players with avant-gardists, to produce a set of tracks onto which Lydon’s vocals could be overdubbed. Lydon’s liner notes to the 1999 compilation Plastic Box admit as much:
In some ways, Album was almost like a solo album, [guitarist] Keith [Levene] and [drummer] Martin [Atkins] weren’t around, and I worked alone, with a new bunch of people. Obviously the most important person was Bill Laswell.
Importantly, Laswell employs a number of forward-thinking – some might even say inappropriate – improvisers to lay down tracks on the record, most peculiarly perhaps acoustic bassist Malachi Favors Maghostutfrom the Art Ensemble of Chicago, although any potentially startling or obvious improvisational work seems to me to be largely lost in the mix here. It’s the idea of employing Favors, perhaps, rather than the quality of his actual contributions, that seems to matter – an instance of artist cred derived from public-image-making, no doubt, although Laswell also withheld the musicians’ names at the time of the record’s release, toying with the weight of notoriety in music marketing. My point is that Laswell’s pool of players offer substantial potential for creative, rule-breaking performances, although he also very audibly, musically, reins every one of them in.
         Lydon’s note continues with another significant moment of name-dropping:
But it was during the recording of this album in New York that Miles Davis came into the studio while I was singing, stood behind me ands started playing.
         Later he said that I sang like he played the trumpet which is still the best thing anyone’s ever said to me. To be complemented by the likes of him was special. Funnily enough, we didn’t use him.
There isn’t any corroborating evidence that this encounter took place, and it’s not clear what Miles Davis would have been doing in that specific studio at that time. I’m not sure how well Laswell (who had elevated his credentials working on Herbie Hancock’s Future Shock LP, which may have put him in Davis’s viewfinder) knew Davis. (Tony Williams, who would collaborate on Laswell’s Arcana, was one of Davis’s greatest drummers, but the instrumental tracks were done, and only Lydon would have been in the studio that day. Davis may also have been working on Steve van Zandt’s anti-apartheid Sun City project around that time, so their paths may have crossed around those recordings in New York.) Panthalassa, Laswell’s “Reconstruction & Mix Translation” of Miles Davis’s 1969-74 music, only happened years after Davis’s death. (Wikipedia offers another account of a fabled unreleased Laswell-Davis session from the period: “Laswell has stated in numerous interviews that he met with Davis a number of times and discussed working together, but busy schedules kept them from arranging such a recording before Davis’ death, though Laswell’s chief engineer reports an unreleased Davis recording session from 1986.”)
But there are some very real connections that might be worth pursuing about this missed encounter between Lydon and Davis, illuminating something about their respective senses of “voice” and phrasing. Paul Tingen quotes PiL bassist Jah Wobble praising Laswell’s “mix translation” of On the Corner: “The weird thing is that when I thought of On the Corner, I have always heard it in my head the way Bill mixed it. That’s how it really is. Bill’s in the one. That’s the real deal” (Tingen 140). Wobble goes on to associate the music of Davis’s pre-retirement period, the mid-1970s, with the early performance style of PiL:
Dark Magus is my favorite Miles album of that period because it is so raw, with such a hidden power, such a mixture of dark and light. When I first heard it, in 1978, it was one of those magical moments. It had an overall sound that was similar to what Public Image Ltd was about. I couldn’t believe it had been recorded several years before us. I imagine Miles deliberately threw in these new musicians at the last moment because musicians get complacent. I can imagine how he wanted to affect their psychology, and so the music. I also know that musicians can think something is not representative of their best work, and yet it’s actually great and a lot of people love it.
This doubled sense of an improvisationally rough, groove-driven music pushing itself forward even as it seems to come apart at its seams links early Public Image Ltd directly to Davis’s aesthetic, though as (what he called) “social music,” Davis lays claim to a racial provenance that both eludes Lydon and company, and also becomes an ironically appropriated foundation for their work. (“I could be black I could be white / I could be white I could be black” Lydon yawps in “Rise,” rejigging lines from a South African torture victim as a provocation against prejudice; the shock-tactics title of his memoir, Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, venomously throws racist signage into its reader’s faces.) But when Lydon recounts Davis saying he sings like he plays, he creates a collision of similitude and difference that results in a species of violent fragility, or fragile violence: an antithesis, a negative identity, that emerges not through or against but as voice: “Like me, / you are unlike me,” Lydon snarls in “Fishing,” recalling Shakespearean manipulations of self-image from Twelfth Night and Othello, in which both Viola and Iago assert that “I am not what I am” – or, perhaps for the latter, “I am what I am not.” Selfhood – as (public) image, as seeming, as performance – consists in its own negation.
         And how does that negation sound? (Or maybe better, what does it sound like?) How is it voiced? Lydon may not be much help here, but Davis suggests in his autobiography that he derives his own sense of line, of musical phrase, principally from the human voice:
See, music is about style. Like if I were to play with Frank Sinatra, I would play the way he sings., or do something complementary to the way he sings. But I wouldn’t go and play with Frank Sinatra at breakneck speed. I learned a lot about phrasing back then listening to the way Frank, Nat “King” Cole, and even Orson Welles phrased. I mean all those people are motherfuckers in the way they shape a musical line or sentence or phrase with their voice. (70)
And later on, near his book’s close, comes another version of the same claim:
I had a chance to work with Frank Sinatra a long time ago. [. . .] But I couldn’t make it because I wasn’t into what he was into. Now, it ain’t that I don’t love Frank Sinatra, but I’d rather listen to him than maybe get in his way by playing something that I want to play. I learned how to phrase from listening to Frank, his concept of phrasing, and also to Orson Welles. (395)
There are some structural ironies here as well, given that the text is principally poet Quincy Troupe’s imitation of Davis’s speaking voice, culled from hours of taped conversations: it isn’t really Davis speaking directly here at all, that is. But, more importantly for my purposes here, is the recognition that Davis appears significantly to mishear his own voice. In practice, his fractured, bent phrases – no matter how lyrical they may be – have very little in common with Sinatra’s mellifluous, soporific baritone or Welles’s theatrical declamations. His connection with Lydon comes through, if at all, in the steely and fragile awkwardness of his lines, their bent uncertainty. The Barbadian-Canadian novelist Austin Clarke once told me he heard anger and fierceness in Davis’s Harmon-muted horn; this was no soothing balladry. “Anger,” sneers Lydon, “is an energy.” What’s valuable for me in the early Pil sessions isn’t so much the audible anger as this vicious, cutting lyricism, the probing, needy and breaking articulation that, for me, also makes Miles Davis’s bittersweet electric music of the 1970s so vital.

Davis, Miles, with Quincy Troupe. Miles: The Autobiography.
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.
Lydon, John, with Keith and Kent Zimmerman. Rotten: No
Irish – No Blacks – No Dogs. New York: St. Martin’s P,
Tingen, Paul. Miles Beyond: The Electric Explorations of Miles
Davis, 1967-1991. New York: Billboard Books, 2001.

Shortish Take on Neil Gaiman, Reading Live and In Person

During a question and answer session between readings from his most recent books (one just published, one to appear in September), Neil Gaimanconfessed to a sold-out Vogue Theatre in Vancouver last Thursday that he seemed to have graduated into some next level of fame, when people who hadn’t actually read his work still knew something about who he was and what he did. I have to confess, too, that I haven’t actually read too much Neil Gaiman (some Sandman and a little Coraline,— and I have watched the two Doctor Who episodes he scripted in the last three years), although I’m keen now to read much, much more. I was there not so much as a fan, but just to see and hear him. What started to become compelling about this public appearance were the ways in which he both enlivened and managed his fans’ expectations. They adore him, and every time he (pretty expertly) name-dropped the title of one of his books, at least two-thirds of the audience hooted and cheered. He’s now much more than a cultish comic book and fantasy writer, but he assiduously and warmly cultivates connections with his readership, with his audience, around their willing buy-in to his myth-making: the mythworlds of his fiction, yes, but also the myth of Neil Gaiman, author and impresario of a set of collective subcultural imaginings.
His performance was excellent, and well worth the modest ticket-price. It combined reading from recent work, as I said, with him answering questions audience members had submitted on cards ahead of time. (He told us our – Vancouver’s – questions were the best he had had for the whole tour, probably an untruth, but a nice appeal to our west coast intellectual vanity.) He stayed after the reading for at least three hours, signing books and chatting – briefly, given the numbers – with his keen readers. And that extra willingness to stay on, which was anticipated in media build-up to his appearance, is the first part of his myth: he gives you the sense not of distraction but of caring engagement with his readers, making sure that they have some modicum of contact with him, that they feel that he’s present to them. Neil Gaiman takes considerable pains to offer his audience a feint of intimacy, disclosing what felt like private details of his life particularly around his relationship to femrocker Amanda Palmer – Amanda Fucking Palmer (“No Neil Fucking Gaiman tonight,” he joked) – which were the kinds of details he also occasionally lets slip via Twitter. (He recently tweeted about his happiness waking up in bed beside her, for example.) Now we all do this kind of thing on Twitter, mingling public and private idioms for an indiscriminate readership, but given the extent of Neil Gaiman’s following, as it shifts from cult to mass, it’s this feeling of access, of closeness, that seems to firm up his fan-base, to keep them attached to, immersed in, his writing.
This autobiographical myth-making particularly both frames and informs his new book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which bears the dedication “For Amanda, who wanted to know.” (Indeed, it’s precisely I’d say the idea of an intimate knowledge – or of a knowing intimacy – that started to become an issue here, as Gaiman read to us, in person. What exactly was it that Amanda wanted to know? How much access were we, as listeners, as over-hearers, being given to that knowledge? Something is described in the book, he told us, about his past, his childhood. This book, he said, came about because he missed his wife and wanted to make her love him by giving her a short story (which developed into a “novelette,” then a novella, then a short novel) with “something me-ish in there,” some small “slices of real life and one slice of imagination when I was a child.” Slices, maybe, like the slices of burnt toast in the passage that he read from the second chapter, which begins with the narrator’s depiction of his detachment from the world – “I lived in books more than I lived anywhere else” – but which, through the slow careful accumulation of descriptive detail (like that toast), gradually reconnects the observer to what seems to be going on around him at a remove, even without him.
The narrator’s doubled perspective – a forty-year-old man recalling what he experienced as a seven-year-old – reinforces the essential interestedness (as opposed to detachment, objectivity or disinterest) of the narrator, his being-with as opposed to standing apart-from, those around him, which is how he’s positioned, or positions himself, at the discovery of a corpse (I’m trying to avoid any spoilers) in his father’s car:
I don’t remember who said what then, just that they made me stand away from the Mini. I crossed the road, and I stood there on my own while the policeman talked to my father and wrote things down in a notebook. (18)
Writing, here, is limited to sparse note-taking, and the limitations of perspective and memory are candidly foregrounded; we can’t even read over the policeman’s shoulder to see what he has written down. Intimacy or closeness, in other words, remains denied to us, Gaiman’s committed readers. He’s withholding, through the device of an unreliable juvenile focalizer. Generational dictions meld throughout the chapter (adult vocabulary often mingling with childish self-interest, for example), but you can also hear, even in this short excerpt, Gaiman’s inclination toward austerity and directness: how committed to the matter being described here is the voice doing the describing? How involved or how removed?
This point-of-view feels like objectivity, but during his presentation Thursday, when asked about the differences between writing for adults and for – or perhaps about – children, Gaiman asserted that what makes for good writing around children is to “make every word count.” (I’d suggest, too, that there is something of that directness cultivated in his writing for television and especially for graphic texts.) What we might take for empirical distance here, in other words, is shaped by close child-like observation, by the directness and directedness of a child’s eye and ear (not just for descriptive detail, but also for details of speech, of words themselves). While our narrator waits, he thinks back on his father’s constant burning of toast:
At home, my father ate all the most burnt pieces of toast. “Yum!” he’d say, and “Charcoal! Good for you!” and “Burnt toast! My favorite!” and he’d eat it all up. [The American spelling is original to the edition I have.] When I was much older he confessed to me that he had not ever liked burnt toast, and had only eaten it to prevent it from going to waste, and, for a fraction of a moment, my entire childhood felt like a lie: it was as if one of the pillars of belief that my world had been built upon had crumbled into dry sand.
The doubled age of the voice in this passage, audible in the mixed diction, also maps onto a personal mythopoeia around burnt toast and the simultaneous demythologizing of those intimate patrilineal memories, as his whole childhood begins to feel “like a lie” (although likeness, it’s worth asserting, isn’t the same as it’s being a lie). The with-ness of interest, of the narrator’s and the reader’s inter-esse, is caught up in this double movement of Gaiman’s narrative, which both intimates and debunks.
         I mean to approach, just so briefly, something of the dynamics of fandom that inhere in Gaiman’s own writing, and in his performance – his reading – last Thursday.  The declarative clarity, the confessional candour that circles through his speaking subjects, his voice(s), isn’t so much a masterful feint as it is a self-conscious address to the capacities of language itself to disclose, to tell. Or, perhaps more clearly put, to give us what we want to know. Gaiman’s success, in this terrific new book, strikes me as in part enmeshed in a virtuosity of disavowal: the well-honed verbal craft of making his readers keep wanting, even as he gives them more of the feeling of intimacy, of personal proximity, that they crave. In a very peculiar and particular sense, what Neil Gaiman offers us all is a species of mythical close reading, a closeness both inand as reading. It’s what must keep us coming back to his work, even if it’s for the very first time.

Keith Jarrett, Yard Sales and the Commodification of Genius, Part Two (Yard Sales)

Two days ago, pianist Matthew Shipppublished a blog entry at The Talkhouseessentially excoriating Keith Jarrett: “I have always felt a tremendous amount of pretense surrounding his whole universe. Of course he has some real skill, and sometimes sounds inspired. But I just can’t get past the layers and layers and layers of pretension.” One of the points I’m aiming to make in this extended take on Jarrett and “the commodification of genius” is to evaluate the materiality of what Matthew Shipp understands as pretense: how is the reception of Jarrett’s music and of his image tangibly shaped by the production and dissemination of his music? What privileges his work? Pianist Ethan Iverson (who has interviewed Jarrett, and is an admirer) yesterday offered something of a rebuttal to Shipp’s critique – defending Jarrett’s virtuosity, for example, but also admitting something of Jarrett’s enmeshment in American capitalism and marketing hype: “Jarrett owns too much real estate and is too abrasive a personality not to be taken down a peg once in a while,” he writes. My aim in this series of posts – culled, as I mentioned last time, from an extended book chapter on Jarrett – is to assess how the spectre of value, its genius, attaches itself to his recordings, especially his much-lauded and best-selling Köln Concert. In the first part, I tried to set up an approach to the commodification of culture and of cultural artifacts. In this section, I’m focused almost exclusively on the concoction of value at yard sales, a site of vestigial counter-capitalism. I don’t really mention Jarrett directly in these particular pages, but my acquisition of an LP of his lies behind the whole essay. In the third part, I’ll deal directly with buying the album and with Jarrett’s relationship to American capitalism. In the fourth and final part, I’ll offer my own analysis of The Köln Concert, and its transcription. Here is part two, then, on yard-sales.
Saturday ought to be a day of rest. Instead, we used to get up as early as if it were a workday, but to shop. And not ordinary shopping: Saturday morning early is prime time for hitting yard sales.
It had become an early-stage addiction with us. We rarely missed a weekend, and had started to turn into what yard sale vernacular calls “early birds.” Usually a label applied to unscrupulous junk-dealers and avaricious collectors, the moniker comes from the obvious cliché about worms. Get to someone’s stash soon enough, you’re liable to unearth the dusty treasure you’d imagine you’ve been searching for your whole life, though you hadn’t realized, some personal grail of cast-offs; apocryphal stories of lost necklaces mistaken for costume jewelry and sold for a dollar, or of an unknown Van Gogh unloaded for five bucks, keep buyers motivated, anxious, hawk-eyed. You never know.
Most people, however, aren’t in it for big scores, but for everyday bargains. And what we find isn’t necessarily worth anything to anyone else; we have tastes and preferences, although those tend to be fluid, depending on what we think we need, or what we happen to like that day. I like old and weird records. Most people sell boxes of warped lps that have been in their attics for a decade: not usually a source for anything good. But every now and then I get lucky. Mostly it involves pawing through stacks of mildewed Billy Joel, Boney M. and Barbra Streisand, hoping for odd gems. It’s important to keep yourself open, since you have no real way of knowing ahead of time what might be available at a given sale. Some people — maybe half on a particular Saturday — run ads in the classified section of the Friday paper, but those are vague at best (“furniture, clothes, other good stuff”), and often misleading. One time we headed for a sale advertising a “HUGE [all caps] selection,” only to find four men smoking on a concrete patio around cardboard box that contained (no lie) a broken toy fire-engine, one badly dog-eared John Grisham paperback, and a crumpled flowery blouse still on a wire hanger. We asked no questions, left quietly. So, while its possible to go with specific objects in mind — and at our own garage sales I’ve been queried for everything from toy trains to Limoges (“no harm in asking”) — chances are you won’t find it. Personally, I like to let the sales shape my interests; often I never even knew I wanted something until I saw it.
Early birds sometimes get into trouble. Some people don’t like bending the rules. If they say a sale starts at nine, then no one gets to buy anything at 8:55. Ads say things like “No early birds” to ward us off, although in practice it usually doesn’t work. Some try to make “early birds pay double,” which seems like a more effective strategy. At a recent sale, the homeowner was adamant, and refused even to let potential buyers touch what he called his “merchandise” until the hour had come; he pulled clothing, pottery, frames, even cross-country skis from out of people’s hands, bellowing “No fair! No fair!” as he grabbed each article back. Naturally, the buyers were affronted (even if they were technicallyin the wrong). One woman muttered she wasn’t going to bother to wait, this idiot had lost a sale; but she didn’t actually leave, and ten minutes later owned a framed imitation Group-of-Seven print.
What Walter Benjamin once diagnosed as the “helpless fixation on notions of security and property deriving from past decades” (Reflections 70) — a vestigial psychosis haunting the proprietors and capitalists of his Weimar Germany who clung to the slippery and indeterminate commodities as if values, both economic and moral, could somehow be stabilized, fixed — ghosts itself into the present day yard sale in the guise of rules and standardized “value.” This necklace or that vase, we’re be told, must be valuable, rare, worth something. Play fair or pay double — or maybe you won’t be allowed to buy at all. Such resolute assertions of order and such fixations on worth suggest much more than grubbing for extra cash, since the sellers at garage sales have no hope of recouping anything remotely close to the price they paid for an article, or, in the case of “antiques” and “genuine” curios, whatever they might sell for at a dealership. Money isn’t exactly the issue here, and has little to do with value. What comes into play through ascriptions of worth, in the process of reselling, is personal history, largely unreadable but nonetheless tangibly present. I am selling an object no longer of use to me, but at the same time continue to attribute value to it based on the history of its possession, what I got out of it and what I invested into it over the course of my time. What I did with it makes it valuable, not in Marx’s sense of “use-value,” since the person buying it has no direct relationship to whatever I might have done with it, and may never use the thing in the same way. (We once bought an old pail, for example, which we polished and painted and now use as an outdoor planter.)  Nonetheless, clinging to that object as a sort of aura, imperceptible to the buyer but colouring the object visibly for the seller, is the private history of its presence: a tack-hammer I used to hanging wedding photos in our old apartment, a t-shirt I bought five years ago at a jazz festival, a collar my first cat wore. The buyer isn’t necessarily purchasing these associations, and in many ways they vanish once the object is sold. (We have no idea who had our pail before us, where it might have been.) But a vestige of someone else’s nostalgia, a hopeless gesture toward fixity, assigns its price, even as it dissolves into the a-historical moment of the sale itself. Prices (and rules, and formalities) at yard-sales are temporary stays against confusion, an essential but futile attempt to cling to an un-archived past in the process of being released, unknit, let go. 
Garage-sale manuals and guide-books I have come across almost unanimously recognize the tug of what they call “sentimentality” in establishing prices, but they argue for the virtues of “objectivity” in pricing:
Emotion Has No Place in Pricing. It is vitally important that vendors not allow their emotions to affect pricing decisions. Completely objective judgment is necessary in order to arrive at prices within market range. Sentimental ties and family history of a sale item have no relevance to the price that buyers may be willing to pay. Stand back and ask yourself, “If I were a purchaser, how much would I pay for this?” Analyze the practical use of the item, then draw on your sense of what price might be reasonable and fair, not on your recollection of how dearly the item cost you. (Stratas 44)
Pleas for rationality and abstracted detachment such as this one necessarily appeal to what they call the “market” for a sense of both fairness and order, but the problem is that the market value of what this particular guide calls “clutter” (defined as “usable, practical surplus goods” as opposed to “junk . . . broken ugly decrepit stuff” [Stratas 23]) is far from simple to determine, and becomes — as this paragraph suggests — an impressionistic judgment call, hopelessly inflected by the discriminations of history and past uses that the author wants us ostensibly to avoid. How much would I pay for this? The full price, of course: I already paid just that. There is no yard-sale collectivity in a “market” like that of commodity trading or even retail sales. Setting a so-called reasonable price is an impossible task, since the structure and form of the rationality to which one appeals is far from determinate or stable. Even the idea of practical “use” offers no real standard, since, as Marx sagely points out, use-value is differential at best, at once flexible, indeterminate and local (cf.Keenan 125). How I use an object, how I value it, cannot be transferred to another buyer; uses do not coordinate, except in abstract exchange, at which point, as Marx writes in Capital, the only “objectivity” has become “phantom-like,” unrelated to the specific use or dinglichaspect of whatever it is I own (Capital1.128). (My wife and I had been looking for colanders. We already owned a good one, stainless steel, but heard they make good planters for geraniums.) We trade in spectres. Despite attempts at regulation and order that these guide and manuals tend to impose on the yard-sale, it tends to remain unruly, irrational; the only traces of fixity, the only determinants of value, are those trivial and personal emotions which paradoxically, as books remind us, have no “real” part to play in value itself. In practice, in our experience, all of these factors — what someone paid for a thing, how much it means to them — come forcefully into play during any driveway sales-pitch.
So, how are these rules for yard sales, as sets of conventions or accepted forms of conduct, laid out? A number of books in circulation have codified them, but in my experience they tend to be a fluid etiquette, situationally determined. “Listen” to buyers, says one book; adopt “a cheery enthusiastic voice that communicates enthusiasm and fun”; “watch the eyes of browsers and buyers for reliable hints about their desires for sale merchandise”; don’t be offended by haggling, but also don’t give in too easily; “[d]emonstrate the excellent value that your prices represent by drawing comparisons with current retail prices. . . . Remind [buyers] that if they don’t buy the merchandise in question, the next person will” (Stratas 98-101). A garage-sale is a discursive formation, structured by conventional interchanges. Imagined values are traded, reinforced. A sale involves more or less a mutual bolstering of subject-positions, ensuring that the respective desires for a fair price and for some cool, semi-useful junk are both satisfied. “Negotiation,” exclaims one guide book, “must appear to be a win-win situation for you and the buyer!” (Williams 58). We need to “feel,” the authors remind us, that we’re getting a bargain, or that we’re receiving enough cash for our precious clutter. In most cases, haggling is socially acceptable at these events, even expected. Usually, things are priced with magic marker on bits of masking tape; we usually price our things a little high, anticipating some bargaining so that we’ll get more or less what we want for the stuff. (I never trust sales that have no pre-set prices on things. Often these types will turn to their friends, asking what they think something’s worth, or will give different prices each time you ask. Or else they’ll say, “make me an offer,” which is only infuriating. A lack of a price suggests a little too much self-serving fluidity. Sellers ought to know at least roughly what they something’s supposedly “really” worth to them.) With that general rule in force, price slightly high, the outcome can only be good. Either someone will be shy, and give you what you’ve asked, or else they’ll bargain with you, and you’ll get what you wanted anyhow. Plus, they’ll think they got a deal by talking you down, so everyone’s happy. We usually add at least a dollar or two, expecting to deal. Decorum wants maintaining.
Certain sellers can’t stand haggling, and are insulted if you try, as if their precious discards could possibly be worth anything less than they imagine. Typically, such types will insist that for (let’s say) a vase they paid three times what they’re asking in some exclusive Kerrisdale shop, or that since they’re grandmother knit the sweater they couldn’t take less than ten dollars. These always seem bathetic – rhetorical excesses – always implicitly posing the same question: if it’s worth so much, why are you trying to sell it at a garage sale? The discourse has its limits. Personally, I prefer people willing to undersell themselves, and not simply because I don’t want to spend much. The whole point of these sales, it seems to me, is to clear out your mess, to put the bruised and broken goods back into circulation, to re-cycle. Yard sales are interchanges, not profit-making enterprise. Like I said, you will never get anything close to the amount you paid for a thing, so why bother trying? Let things go. Experience bears out a peculiar truth: the sellers with the lowest prices often make the most at the end of the day, because they sell in volume. You keep your prices high, and you won’t sell much, and then you either have to cart all your dear crap back inside, or else call the Sally-Ann truck and give it all away to charity.
Yard-saling — and it is a verb, at least in this vernacular — also involves a form of interpersonal circulation. It isn’t only money or stuff that moves, but also people. The night before we’d go through the paper, copying out sale times and locations: we’d usually budget about 15 minutes per garage. After breakfast the next morning, usually by 8:30, we’d load our baby daughter into her car seat, and head out. (Her schedule sets our time-constraints, since she has to nap by 10:30. The baby actually enjoys these outings more than we do; she gets an inordinate amount of attention from all types of smiling strangers.) Using a map-book of the city we bought at the grocery store, we’d plot a rough course, coordinating start-times and locations. Usually, you have to choose a particular neighbourhood on the east or west side. Trying to do too many dispersed sales is only frustrating. And there are plenty of people who don’t advertise in the papers, which means you have to keep on the look-out as you progress around your circuit. Half the time, we don’t make it to the majority of the sales we’ve plotted, since our course has been interrupted and diverted by other possibilities: bristol-board posters on corners, clusters of balloons. There is a semiotics of garage sales, a code: certain kinds of signage catch your eye and draw you along. Come and buy, they plead like Christina Rossetti’s goblins, we’ve got good stuff cheap.
What happens, however, over the course of several weekends is that a certain spatial formation develops, a sense of the various negotiable routes through urban geography. You get to know the city, but not its landmarks, not at least in the touristy sense. What you start to acquire is the feel of particular areas, the network of lanes and alleys, driveways and paths that weave the place together as lived and living. Yard sales grant permission to cross property lines, to walk temporarily over someone’s lawn, through their gate, to traverse backyards and porches — some even let you into their houses, especially if they’re moving and want to clear out furniture. You meet people, certainly, and briefly discuss where a thing came from, or who made it, or what makes it nifty. But more significantly, you circulate yourself: you don’t have to buy anything, but you do have to cross boundaries, park in people’s back driveways, trample (oops) their flowerbeds, paw trough their junk. The semiosis here, as a sum of meanings generated, isn’t necessarily commercial, although it does hinge on the promise of goods exchanged; rather, what is produced, what’s signified, is a kind of subcultural spatiality, a sense of movement and arrangement that exists in the interstices of official channels (roads, storefronts, malls), rather than properly contained and demarcated by them. There are junk stores aplenty, and I have even seen a “garage-sale store,” which set itself up as a big garage sale, though nobody was fooled: this is where the stuff goes that the “early-bird” dealers buy; these are cast-offs converted back into goods, commodities, proper fare. Yard sales inhabit the space behind, around, between these sorts of operations, a harmless black market (since nobody would be silly enough to charge GST in their back yard) which tends to turn city blocks temporarily inside out, making the rear alley into an ephemeral store-front, and to re-map the ways in which the urban space is zoned, gridded, understood.
Urban planning is being temporarily upset, though not finally disturbed; it is subverted ephemerally from within by a species of consumption which it cannot quite recognize as proper, or reconcile wholly to the mechanisms of value and exchange that bouy up the urban economy. In One Way Street (1928), Benjamin commented on what he called “the decay of aura” in the contemporary world, a loss of immediate contact with originality or what he called the “cult value” of objects like works of art: “Just as all things, in a perpetual process of mingling and contamination, are losing their intrinsic character while ambiguity displaces authenticity, so is the city” (cited and translated in Caygill 130-31). However, for Benjamin the urban experience, described here as loss, involves not so much a lamentable nihilism as a call to embrace a new fluidity, “the possibility of a new experience of space and time” (Caygill 131). When one attempts to apply a century-old analysis like Benjamin’s to the yard sale, however, one finds the terms curiously reversed: what these fly-by-night (or day) sales create is an unstable counter-urban space, one which sets itself against the fixities of urban commodification and the relatively stable networks of commerce represented by the grid of the city in our map-book or by the five or six day work-week to which we all adhere. Paradoxically, as we have seen, the yard sale also holds out the promise of a contingent and ephemeral aura in its pricing and sales practices, as the spectres of domestic and personal history dissolve into the exchange of used goods for a little cash. Homey sales offer a vernacular alternative to the false rigidities of urban consumerism and capitalism by simultaneously subverting that rigidity and offering the figments of a longed-for authenticity long since purged from the city’s form.
Sometimes the weather matters, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sales will have “rain dates,” just in case: usually the Sunday. But for those of us with garages, a little precipitation means nothing. It may keep a few customers away, but then again the dedicated yard-salers will brave almost anything up to a gale. Your sign is your promise: if you advertise, people will expect you to sell, and will turn up whether it’s raining or not. Once, we held a sale in our friends’ kitchen, since the yard was too wet. I think more people trapsed over their linoleum than might have shown up if the sun were shining (in which case many would likely have gone to Jericho Beach instead of to our sale). Benjamin offers a little allegory of rain and money in One Way Street, the text I’ve been citing:
Money and rain belong together. The weather itself is an index of the state of this world. Bliss is cloudless, knows no weather. There also comes a cloudless realm of perfect goods, on which no money falls. (Reflections87)
Benjamin’s perfect world is a realm where goods may be exchanged, acquired or traded without the intermediary of money, without the bothersome abstractions of exchange values, trying to decide what is worth what, and how you might even form such equivalencies in the first place: a central and vexing problem for Marx. Bliss is plenitude here, but in his and our fallen world, the world of ambiguities, inauthenticities and tarnished auras, exchange takes on the chaotic uncertainty of weather. The “rain or shine” promise of the yard sale, however, proffers perfected exchange that disregards weather, and ignores the complex objective variables of commodity trading; values are assigned not on the basis of what Marx might call “abstract human labour,” the universal “spectral” standard by which, for instance, we can determine how many hammers are worth a shovel, and so on: – the leveling quantification of money. In the Grundrisse, Marx gestures toward this universalizing property, which at the beginning of the first volume of Capital he was later to hone into his theory of “abstraction” in commodification and exchange:
the proportion in which a particular commodity is exchanged for money, i.e. the quantity of money into which a given quantity of commodity is transposable, is determined by the amount of labour time objectified in the commodity. The commodity is an exchange value because it is the realization of a specific amount of labour time; money not only measures the amount of labour time which the commodity represents, but also contains its general, conceptually adequate, exchangeable form. Money is the physical medium into which exchange values are dipped, and in which they obtain the form corresponding to their general character. (Grundrisse 167)
What you pay, for Marx, is determined by how much work, quantified by money or pay, goes into that object, roughly at least. But yard sales detach themselves from such quantifications; money is still used, and still obtains its value on some level from human labour, but what is being exchanged has nothing to do with the production or exchange of manufactured goods. The second-hand objects are wholly detached from their making, and value emerges somewhat arbitrarily from the sense of what an object might be worth, not in terms of its use or its cost or the labour that produced it, but (as I have been trying to claim) through the personal, domestic, dissolving history which that object momentarily signifies. Michel de Certeau refers to this individual imaginative reading of places or objects as a “poetics” which cuts against the “technical rationalities and financial profitabilities” which corporate structures and institutions tend to reserve for themselves (Certeau 106). This is a private form of association, a creation of value that cannot be subsumed by the absolute equivalences and the leveling abstractions of Marxian exchange value, since if it were shared it could possess no tangible value as a commodity. (The commodity, Marx writes, is a “born leveler and cynic, it is always ready to exchange not only soul, but body, with each and every other commodity, be it more repulsive than Maritornes herself” [Capital 1.179].) My “stuff,” as George Carlin notoriously joked, might be your “junk,” and vice versa. Personal value is relative, fabricated, poetic. Only at the moment of exchange itself do such values, as they dissolve or evaporate, become luminous. You can have no access to what an object means or has meant to me, but at the moment it changes hands, the object bodies forth that unreadable history, which makes it worth something. For a series of instants, in other words, as each purchase takes flight, the yard sale offers what Benjamin calls bliss, the ephemeral moment of pure exchange, unmediated even by abstract constants of value like money: uncommodified. It is interchange prior to the economies of value, outside those terms. And it is fiercely imaginary.
In Marx’s terms, the yard sale appears to operate as a return to early, pre-capitalist forms of barter and exchange, where money is only phantasmagorical or imaginary:
The first form of money corresponds to a low stage of exchange and of barter, in which money still appears more in its quality of measure rather than as a real instrument of exchange. At this stage, the measure can still be imaginary . . . . From the fact that the commodity develops into general exchange value, it follows that exchange value becomes a specific commodity; it can do so only because a specific commodity obtains the privilege of representing, symbolizing, the exchange value of all other commodities, i.e. of becoming money. It arises from the essence of exchange value itself that a specific commodity appears as the money-subject, despite the monetary properties possessed by every commodity. In the course of development, the exchange value of money can exist separately from its matter, its substance, as in the case of paper money, without therefore giving up the privilege of this specific commodity, because the separated form of existence of exchange value must necessarily continue to take its denomination from the specific commodity.  (Grundrisse166-7)
The yard sale, however, need not be understood as a historically displaced feudal economy, or as a throwback. Rather, the symbolic form entailed by monetary exchange in these contexts has simply shifted away from the notion of labour central to Marxian conceptions of value. Instead, the symbol becomes detached, slippery, personal. Value is ascribed and exchanged not as a function of the universal constant of money, but in fact traces out the symbolic formations that give rise to money in the first place. In other words, what yard sales represent is the process of commodification itself rather than the interchange of preformed commodities leveled by a particular monetary scale. The yard sale returns us to the imaginary fabrications that underlie the valuing of money, the emergence of its symbolic power; money, Marx argues, cannot be if it is to have value merely a “symbol” or “the arbitrary product of human reflection” (Capital 1.186), not an “imaginary” value (185), but must encrypt “the direct incarnation of all human labour” (187). Yet despite his work to objectify that labour, to shift from mere arbitrary symbolization to a kind of direct embodiment, Marx remains, as Thomas Keenan points out, at a loss to identify that universal object materially, and must fall back on abstraction: “Nothing —  at least, no thing —  is left, it seems, certainly not the fact that things are the product of labor” (Keenan 112). Marx himself confirms this reading in the first pages of Capital: “[The concrete forms of labour] can no longer be distinguished, but are all together reduced to the same kind of labour, human labour in the abstract” (Capital1.128). But what this means is that (again, as Keenan points out, echoing Derrida, Laclau and others) a “phantom-like objectivity,” as Marx himself writes, is all that remains to ground the objectivity of exchange (1.128): “In the rigor of abstraction, only ghosts survive. The point is to exchange them” (Keenan 115). But such an interpretation, fostered by Marx’s own rhetoric, undoes the possibility of objective value, and converts value itself into purely imaginary work. What happens at yard sales, against the grain of the objective values traded as commodities on the actual marketplaces of the city —  malls, institutions, stores —  is an intensification of that ghosting, whereby value itself becomes purely spectral (as if such a thing were possible, since spectres are by definition liminal, impure, creatures neither here nor there, bodies which both are and aren’t). The process of re-symbolizing value, of remaking commodities in the different imaginations of trader, buyer, seller, participant.
It seems appropriate then to defer to the jumbled notes of the Grundrisse in this case rather than to look to the more chisled political economy of Capital. Marx’s earlier work, as Thomas Kemple points out, has a kind of garage sale style: “It is by now a commonplace for readers of Marx’s writings to remark upon their fragmentary, scattered, and condensed aspects, their overall roughness and incompleteness, and thus the difficulty of making sense of them” (Kemple 11). Marx himself wrote to Engels as he was in the midst of composing his notes that “The devil is in that manuscript (it would be a fat volume in print) everything is jumbled up together like beets and cabbages. . . ” (53). The point is not that the Grundrisse is a failure as a treatise, though it most certainly does not cohere, but that it traces out a process of philosophical formation. It is a negation of the economy of the book itself, writing across and against conventions of economic logic even as it acknowledges and accepts them. Garage sales offer parodies of commerce; one garage-sale manual even concludes by suggesting that monthly sales could be held in unrented spaces at local malls, as if to convert the domesticated detritus they feature into renewed and renewable consumer goods (Williams 88). At garage sales, real money is exchanged for real goods, just as in malls or on commodity markets; but the nature of the value attached to those goods and the symbolic worth of that money are far from clear-cut. Value itself is thrown into question by the arbitrary, imaginative jumble of the sale table. What yard sales offer, like Marx’s manuscript, are themselves what Kemple calls “mediatized fictions of the market,” an exchange which foregrounds the mediating contrivances of its own making. Yard sales turn commodification against itself, even as they revel, sometimes playfully, sometimes frustrated, in its contingencies and pretenses.

A negative commerce, a form of commodification that resists the reifying pressures of the commodity, flourishes in the front lawns and back lanes of our Saturday neighbourhoods, as we go to rifle through cartons of musty, useless textbooks and card-tables stacked with mismatched cutlery, dust-bunnied macramé and broken ceramics, elbowing among the shifting gaggles of neighbours and strangers, scrums of hawkeyed second-hand dealers and ravenous bargain hunters, who mass in yard after yard, trampling shrubs as they rummage through cardboard boxes. After a few weeks, we even begin to recognize certain faces. Garage-sale people appear to be creatures of repetition and habit, making their rounds in vague community, drifting with apparent abandon through the same restrictive orbits, a cloud of chaotic particles loosely bound by their strange attractors. (I know one guy named [withheld], but I “know” him only because he seems to like the same sort of records I do, and so I’m always trying to beat him to sales. When we meet, we eye each other a little suspiciously, though I try to be friendly. “Hey [withheld],” I say, and then I show him the cool electro-acoustic John Cage LP I just found, or he shows it to me, if he got there first. Then we nod and try not to scowl.) Some oddly competitive instinct seems to nudge me gently into the fray of single-minded, full-blooded consumers jammed around a picnic table of used books, a feeling that I’m missing something over there, amid that pile of coloured glassware, that everyone desires, the thing at which I really ought to get a better look. Whether I actually need it is immaterial; the need is always generated in the hungry, gently seething morass, as we mill through piles of hand-me-downs; you have to listen carefully, pretending to be considering a moth-eaten shirt while actually cocking an ear to catch the sotto voce asides of some couple whispering about a cookbook, or someone admiring a broken Victrola, or two children pawing a carton of figurines for the really good ones, whatever those might be. Keeping your ears open is crucial; you have to hear what’s hot, and you have to be fast. Garage sales are pure desiring; possessing isn’t really the point, since most of what you buy is junk anyhow, and will probably end up in your own sale a few months later. What seems to matter is the chase, the process, the act of exchange. The experienced garage-saler, suddenly seized with want, spotting across the grass a kitchen gadget he or she just has to have, keeps silent — saying anything would alert everyone else to the desire, and the object could easily be lost — and, firmly but quickly, strides over and stakes a claim. I have watched many times how subtly such need arises: objects of no consequence become ardently wanted as soon as someone else simply hints that he or she might buy it. For me, I’ve come to a conclusion that it’s inevitable: I begin by feeling detached, but soon lose myself in the general drive to acquire whatever it is, a dozen different and tacitly-coveted objects for a dozen potential buyers, to fill that uncertain lack that can never really be filled since it inevitably can’t say precisely what it wants. It only knows that it does.
I have plenty of first-hand true-to-life takes about the value of holding your tongue. I like, as I said, to buy old records. 78s, in my experience, usually run a dollar or two, no more, and people generally have no idea who the artists are. Most have, justly, faded into obscurity, and many scratched lacquer discs of Scottish marches and third-rate big bands are hard to see as worth much at all (unless you don’t care, and simply like the look of “old” discs). So, if you’re sharp, you can sometimes find things people don’t know they have. I bought a Hot Lips Page record for a dollar, which remains one of my prize finds to this day. And I almost had a few others, but for my big mouth. A man was selling an old Victrola: it still worked, and he’d had it refinished, so he was asking a hundred dollars for it: not exactly yard-sale pricing, but you never know. In the cabinet, however, were about ten old 78s, which he said he wanted to keep with the player but was willing to sell separately. “How much?” I asked, not really looking at what they were. “Oh, I don’t know,” he said, “what do you think they’re worth?” Replies like that, as I said, are always annoying: he ought to have known what he wanted for them. (If ever asked such a question, always reply “fifty cents,” or less. The seller will react by letting you know what he or she really expected.) And then came my big mistake: I looked at the labels. They were original pressings of Albert Ammons and James P. Johnson, and a late Louis Armstrong with Sid Catlett on drums. “Wow,” I said, foolishly, aloud, “these are amazing. Originals.” A cult value of which the seller hadn’t even been aware suddenly kicked in, and the price became ten dollars each. I couldn’t afford them, and we left. Never show your hand.