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Possibility Abstracts: Taylor Ho Bynum, Nathaniel Mackey and Discrepancy (Abstract)

This is the abstract/proposal for a paper I am set to give at the Vs. Interpretation colloquium and festival on the improvisational arts, which is taking place in Prague in the Czech Republic on July 17-20, 2014. The colloquium is supported by the Agosto Foundation, and keynote speakers include George Lewis and Pauline Oliveros. The original theme for the colloquium had to do with “improvising across borders.” I am aiming to extend my own thinking about the intersections of improvisational practices and the poetics of listening by addressing the work of Taylor Ho Bynum and Nathaniel Mackey. So here it is:

Released in November 2013, the multi-format set of recordings of Taylor Ho Bynum’s innovative composition for improvising sextet, Navigation, both culminates and continues his fascination with the interfaces between the extemporaneous and the written, the scripted and the performative. Separate LP and compact disc versions of the work are paired with different fragments of text from poet Nathaniel Mackey’s experimental epistolary novel Bass Cathedral, a book that Ho Bynum has recently said, for him, is probably the best writing about music he has encountered. Earlier compositions by Bynum, such as his suite Madeleine Dreams, have not only used prose fiction as libretto, but more tellingly have striven to address sonically and structurally the complex and often fraught relationships between the musical and the diegetic, between sound and sense. Navigationtakes up Mackey’s own address to this interface, sounding what Mackey understands as creative discrepancy, an expressive troubling of formal and cultural boundaries. Name-checking both Sun Ra and Louis Armstrong, Mackey has noted what he calls a “play of parallel estrangements” in improvised music and in poetry, arguing that music “is prod and precedent for a recognition that the linguistic realm is also the realm of the orphan,” that is, of the limits of sense, a liminal zone of both orchestration and letting go. Ho Bynum’s recordings pick up not only on Mackey’s thorough enmeshment in jazz history, but also on his intention to pursue the expressive potential of language and of music at their textural boundaries, at moments of troubling contact between divergent worldviews, or between dissimilar social and cultural genetics. Composing using what Mackey calls m’apping – a portmanteau splice of mapping and mishap, pursuing what Mackey calls the “demiurgic rumble” of discrepancy, improvising across the gaps between careful craft and unruly noise – Ho Bynum conjures a hybrid and collaborative music that blends the complex Afrological heritages of jazz performance style (audible in Navigation’s network of gestures to Charles Mingus and Duke Ellington, to name only two key forebears) with graphic scoring techniques derived from Sylvano Bussotti or Wadada Leo Smith, among others. If improvised music, for Mackey, represents – and represents precisely – what defies descriptive capture in language, what eludes ekphrasis, then the music of Taylor Ho Bynum’s sextet aspires to invert that representational effort, to take up the discrepant aesthetic tactics of Mackey’s writing and to assess how the written (as graphē, as graphic score) can approach and test the expressive limits of making music happen. Taylor Ho Bynum’s compositions for improvisers offer exemplary instances of how to negotiate creatively the boundaries between text and sounding, and suggest a means of addressing, too, the graphic work of other composer-improvisers, including the work of Nicole Mitchell, Anthony Braxton and Barry Guy

Wanting Poetry: James Franco’s Frank Bidart

As if to excuse their obvious clumsiness in awkward reflexives – by claiming in poem after poem that it’s intentional, that it’s the smart aleck work of a trained persona; by casting himself as the pretender-poet and self-proclaimed emperor of ice cream, clothed in his own thinly-veiled, simulated nudity – James Franco keeps trying to profess that his poems aspire to the condition of poetry: not only that they’re the work of a deliberate and crafty wannabe, but also that this neediness, this craving for legitimation, is in and of itself enough evidence of something approaching technique to have us take him seriously, to get him. “There is a fake version of me,” he writes, “And he’s the one that writes / These poems”:

                  He’s become the real me
                  Because everyone treats me
                  Like I’m the fake me.
I mean, it’s not just that, throughout Directing Herbert White, the emperor has no clothes, or that he coopts the role of the mythically honest boy who’s willing to say so, even about himself, but more that he makes out of his obvious and self-evident fakery, out of the contrived self-fashioning that concocts and informs the persona of a semi-notorious Hollywood lothario named “James Franco,” a set of patently fake poems, and that this fakery might just be sufficient, if it’s repeated enough times, to be aesthetically interesting, to be artistic. “He wrote the poem,” he says of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in “Acting Tips,” “And then the poem wrote him.” Maybe it’s not the real Allen Ginsberg or even the poet Allen Ginsberg whom Franco’s describing here, but his own theatrical version of him, the alienated poetic genius he pretended to voice in a film: “In Howl I played Ginsberg, / And I was all alone. / My scenes were speeches / Given to an unseen interviewer . . . .” That line is a great one – “He wrote the poem / And then the poem wrote him” – and, ignoring the fumbled break, you can hear how the iambic cadence and the neatly turned chiasmus – both very un-Ginsberg – combine to firm up a certain sense of craft, of verbal mastery. That sense is fairly temporary, however; it’s really the only remarkable line in an otherwise flaccid and meandering text. But it does point up a potential that constitutes a genuine thematic centre for Franco’s largely ingenuous work: his want. He wants both to write and to be written by poetry, by these poems.
         Robert Polito sycophantically (there’s no other word for it, sorry) quotes this same line as evidence of James Franco’s genius when he introduces him at a reading and launch for the book in Chicago on February 19, 2014, alongside Frank Bidart, who’s obviously chuffed to share the stage with a celebrity who clearly idolizes him. (The title piece from Franco’s collection describes Franco’s efforts to make a film from “Herbert White,” the famous opening poem in Frank Bidart’s first book, and is also dedicated in part to the senior poet.) Franco, Robert Polito says, has become the “gifted filmmaker who aspired to be a poet,” and whose films aspire to the condition of poetry. In the staged interview that precedes brief readings from both Franco and Bidart, as well as a screening of Herbert White, Franco describes his trajectory toward legitimating himself artistically by pursuing a set of MFAs in film and creative writing more as a crisis of self-confidence: “I want people to treat me like a writer and not look at me as an actor writing,” he says. Now, these are just offhand remarks, and it won’t do to put too much critical pressure on them, but it is worth noting how concerned with likeness and with appearance he is in just about everything he says in this interview.
His poems, it’s not hard to see, obsess about overcoming the mediations of masking, of persona, by offering us a feint of candour, glimpses of the actor behind the actor, partial transcriptions of an imaginary episode of Inside the Actors Studio:
                  And I talk about my feelings
In the most intimate way.
It’s like I’m talking to the people
In the theater, as if they’re all my friends,
And I’m telling them
Everything there is to know
About me.
Any glimmer even of an artificial intimacy, disappointingly, is belied by the prosaic flatness of the style here, lines so “like” plain speech as to lose almost any sense of line at all. A voice that wants to produce a poetic version of Stanislavski’s magic if seems only capable, at this point, of an “as if” more Wayne’s World than anything else. “Dear James,” he writes to himself from an imaginary fan in “Film Festival,”
I don’t understand your festival. You were so great in Freaks and Geeks, why don’t you stick with that kind of stuff?
Viewers and readers, he’s suggesting, are impeded from understanding him (and his collection, for which I take this imaginary “festival” to be a trope) and from intimacy with his personal genius by the inflated expectations of fandom and by their attachments to what he has done rather than what he is trying to do, artistically. “And I’m my biggest fan,” he also says, suggesting his own ironic codependency on the very celebrity he’s trying to undo. But the humility—the negative capability— necessary to sustain this dialogue requires an actor’s practice of listening (something akin to the ways in which he describes himself listening to recordings of Ginsberg reading Howl, to  “get down Allen’s / Cadence” – and the feint of intimacy, being on an imaginary first-name basis with the poet, is also a tactic of Franco’s worth noting here), a practice of listening that the poems themselves show very little evidence of attaining.
Ultimately, as an interested reader and as a fan who genuinely loved and loves James Franco’s Daniel Desario, I feel a little cheated by a smugness pervasively offered to me in the guise of TV friendship, and by the lack of any perceptible, viable latches for my fandom. Flashes of an unregenerate and puerile misogyny, in a monody appropriating Lindsay Lohan’s voice or when he describes his encounters with underage girls or when he refers to the actress Michelle Williams as Heath Ledger’s “woman,” are symptomatic of what, all his self-excused fakery aside, must be a basic lack of self-awareness, an understanding that seems to me to be crucial both to the making of poetry and to concocting workable, if artificial links between him and his readers, his purported fans. Calling Hart Crane a “guy that [sic] could fuck sailors” and then noting how when he wrote “ ‘A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets, / Tilting there momentarily, shrill shirt ballooning,’ / He meant himself” is to counterpoint a sublime, even overdone lyric complexity (Crane’s, I mean) with a banality made ridiculous by comparison, sure, but it’s also to acknowledge a kind of intertextual straining, however short it might inevitably fall, to intersect with the contingently momentous, with the passing greatness of The Bridge, and to hear what Hart Crane is trying to articulate in these lines, to hear their poetic effort. I want to glean a sense, from his own poems, that James Franco does in fact strain to listen, if only a little.
         That said, I also think it’s very important not to, well, throw out the Franco with the critical bathwater. There are some worthwhile moments in these poems that, sometimes despite themselves, still merit thinking through. On April 19, Lemon Houndpublished “As James Franco Knows,” an ironic paean by Vanessa Place to the poetic naïveté Franco seems to epitomize:
As James Franco knows,  / 
Poetry makes me feel
 / like I can create whatever I want, because / 
all you really have to do is express
 / what you feel / 
emotionally and physically / 
and how this affects
 / the world around you
The knowing humour of this piece – and poems like this do get a laugh, I’m sure, at readings – troubles me, not least because it simply recasts the unrequited prosaic smugness of Franco’s many poems as Place’s snide pretentiousness, and doesn’t really offer up anything, well, poetic in place of her replicant dismantling of poems that don’t really stand up all that well as poems to begin with.  What seems self-evident, too, is that Vanessa Place’s Anne Carson-looking ribbon of lines isn’t any better poetry than Franco’s—which is maybe the point, and maybe why no better-crafted language emerges by her poem’s close. (Anne Carson is for me a writer who manages to transfigure banality by colliding textual and cinematic form, something Franco would clearly like to be capable of. However, Place’s piece doesn’t do any such transforming, either; it just rides blithely roughshod over Franco, doing nothing more than exploit his celebrity, his name-recognition.) It’s not that I’m trying to defend James Franco’s work against Place’s snark; it’s that I think defending him would be pointless. Franco’s poems don’t need to be satirized; in many ways, they do that well enough on their own. Rather than attack or parody James Franco, I think it’s much better to ask and to pursue what kinds of cultural and poetic work his poems actually do, or maybe want to do.
         I want to finish up by focusing on two moments in James Franco’s poems, both of which gain resonances from the February 19 reading in Chicago. The first moment involves the opening line – lines – of “Ledger,” his elegy for the actor he says he never knew, a metonymy of our own unknowing relationship to him, as readers: “I’ve tried to write about you. / I didn’t know you.” Evacuated of adjective or image, these flatly discursive hemistiches assemble into a slightly off-balance Alexandrine, which lends them a lightly magisterial finitude. Almost accidently, the poem launches with a firmness of purpose that belies the hesitancy it appears to worry over. At the end of the February reading in Chicago, Frank Bidart chooses to read this poem aloud, offering Franco’s text a performative imprimatur. More than that, Bidart’s measured reading lends the poem, at least at its outset, a density and, well, a grace after which the remainder of the text can only blunder: “I wrote a poem about you before, / Back when you died, / But it was coded and unclear . . . .” In fact, it’s not clarity that’s absent, but a sense of craft – not code, not abstruse virtuosity, but mere deliberateness – that Franco keeps hinting at and then missing. But, glancingly, as Bidart’s obliging elocution makes clear, craft occasionally still happens. And it happens, moreover, around his declarations of having tried, of what I am suggesting are his moments of straining. The most interesting poem by far in the book, is the title poem, a set of journal entries (more like prose fragments) around the making of the film version of Bidart’s dramatic monologue. There are, of course, many more moments of awkward literary naïveté: Franco seems to discover Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” for the first time, and notes its famous allusion to Paradise Lost (“Myself am Hell . . .”), an out-of-character “reference” that “Herbert White” appears to make at the end of Bidart’s piece—all of which has the poem totter a bit close to becoming a first-year undergraduate essay. Still, Franco’s “Directing Herbert White” becomes an extended meditation on audience and persona, on interpretation and misprision, that’s worth at least a second look. “Sometimes,” Franco concludes, “I would like to live in a tight space and be a spy on the world,” distilling the slippages of mask and voice into a syntactically tauter and sonically more coherent sentence (notice the assonance here, for instance, the looped long i’s) than he has managed up to that point to pull off. It’s as if, for a moment or two, line and poet begin to coincide, to listen to each other. And they coincide, too, in a line that thematizes both spectatorship and desire, to look and to like.
         Frank Bidart’s sense of line, and the prosaic character of his own poetry, is much more resonantly complex, involuted. His Herbert White, distanced from himself in the act of murdering a girl, perceives “Everything flat, without sharpness, richness or line.” The genius of Bidart’s work, the genius of this first poem in his first book, is his capacity to catch a vestigial pathos, a trace humanity, in a voice that remains self-consciously repugnant, and to do so – Richard Howardargues, in his introduction to Golden State, an essay James Franco also “references” in his on-stage interview with Bidart and Polito – in a poetry that remains essentially prosaic:
Prose . . . is the basis of Frank Bidart’s prosody, his organization of language to suit and serve his need, which is his quest: a poetry in search of itself. (viii)
You can feel Bidart’s need in the displacement of commas in the line from “Herbert White” I’ve just cited, in its distanced, displaced articulation of a self approaching a line, a poetry of resonant flatness. Franco, too, wants such a poetry, and writes about that pervasive want. At times, he catches in his own awkward slippages something like Bidart’s affective prosody, his aspirant line. Honestly, I hope he keeps trying.

Hearing John K. Samson’s "Highway One West"

We have been reading John K. Samson’s Lyrics and Poems 1997-2012 in one of my current undergraduate classes. One of things I want to interrogate critically about this book is the nature of that “and” in its title: what can these texts tell us, as close readers and as attentive listeners, about the relationship between lyrics and lyric, between song and poem? I’m looking to describe a certain nascent melopoeia in John K. Samson’s conception of how words work, in his conception of the cultural work of both singing and saying, of performing. What, he seems to be asking in most of these pieces (repurposing a famous provocation from Rainer Maria Rilke), what can singers and singing be for in a destitute time such as ours?
         I say nascent because, as you thumb through the book, you’ll see that most of the lyrics are printed as if they are prose, like brief essays or prose-poems. Spatially – at least, on the page – this visual arrangement in discrete typographical blocks echoes the cover design (which gestures, as well, at the cover for his 2012 album Provincial and at the graphic design of his webpage), a grid page from an old ledger, sections of which have been filled in with brown and blue hashmarks in pen. The effect, I think, is to gesture at an imaginary map of a parceled rural landscape, the Latin squares of prairie agricultural space. Hand-drawn lines – lines of ink but also lines of poetry – take on topographical resonances. These are songs preoccupied with articulating a human subject in space, with what amounts to placing oneself. In Canada, questions of who I am often become, following a lead from Northrop Frye, questions of where I am and where here is. But rather than fall back on mythopoeic cultural nationalisms – generalizing an Anglo-Canadian psyche as Frye might by locating and defining its (or our) territorial idiom – Samson queries that relationship, and tends to inhabit its inadequacies, and to create a pathos from and within that shortfall. In Vertical Man / Horizontal World, Laurie Ricou reframes the prairie psyche as nascent rather than determinate (and please pardon the gender bias here, which I think is symptomatic of the time at which Ricou’s study was published): “the landscape, and man’s relation to it, is the concrete situation with which the prairie artist initiates his re-creation of the human experience.” Ricou understands this particular landscape as initiating re-creation, as aesthetic disturbance, not as affirming a particular regional identity. The persona, the speaking or singing subject, of a Samson song is usually “left or leaving,” remaindered or else in the process of departure, “undefined” (as the lyric to “Left or Leaving” puts it), but always seeking a positional relation, for better or for worse, with a sense of home, tracking the “lines that you’re relying on to lead you home.” Those lines are also literally nascent, at least in their print form; reading the prose, you can hear metre and rhyme begin to realize themselves, as if lines were gently beginning to extricate themselves, audibly, from an undifferentiated (undefined?) verbal flow, a lineated poem emerging – although not quite emerged – from the prose. It’s not so much that the prose-poem aspires to the condition of song as it is that we experience a sort of hiatus, a space of what the lyrics for “Left and Leaving” might call “waiting,” between conception and realization, between text and song: a betweenity Samson thematizes as “and,” as an unclosed ampersand.
         The printed lyrics to “Highway One West” realize this betweenity both typographically and compositionally. The poem begins and ends with nine single-word lines. (The exception is the first line, which adds an extra word, tellingly the first word of the poem, another “And . . . .”) Framed by these narrow plummets, between them, are five lines of what look like prose – although they’re not prosaic in any sense, but tend toward metaphorical density:
And it
didn’t
take
long
for
the
words
to
slow,
roll over the gravel shoulder, thump into the ditch,
engine cut, battery dying, the station metastasizing
tumours of evangelists and ads for vinyl siding,
the city some cheap EQ with the mids pushed up
in the one long note of wheat.
Too
far
to
walk
to
any
where
from
here.
The 9 + 5 + 9 line-structure mimics a kind of overlapped sonnet. (“(manifest)” and “(past due)” from Reconstruction Site are both sonnets, in fact.) More than this ghostly resonance with literary form, however, the spatial disposition of the lines offers a visual analogue to the physiography in which the subject finds himself immersed. If you turn the page sideways, you can see the high-rise buildings of Winnipeg – or at least of “the city” – emerging in the centre of a flat prairie, the horizon created by a line of upended words. “Here,” the last word of the poem, is produced as a mimesis of distant surveillance, too far away to walk back to. The where of the poem is too far, moreover, from everywhere else; it is an elsewhere, alienated and alienating.

Notably, the song begins in performance with the looping repetition of the last segment (“Too far to walk . . .”), accompanied by a heavy, slow down-strum on the electric guitar, the repetition reinforcing the sense of resigned exhaustion, that “here” might be both everywhere and nowhere. The sounds coming over the car radio – not music but distant voices, a verbal garbage offering false promises of commercial or spiritual satisfaction – metastasizes into diseased noise, rough static. Sound technologies – both for recording and reproduction – offer another metaphorical (as opposed to metastasized) resonance to the geographical descriptors; that urban bump in the middle of the landscape mimics a graphic equalizer with the midrange sliders pushed up. The song gestures, in part, at the electronics used to produce it, and to reproduce it. But if, both visually and sonically, the lyrics and the recorded performance gesture at alienation and at loss, the text also frames and even recovers a degree of expressive potential – finds its voice – from within those horizontal margins, pulled over onto the shoulder of Highway One West, the Trans Canada. The page layout also mimics, coincidentally perhaps, a photograph of John K. Samson, used by The Globe and Mail, that looks like it was taken somewhere out on Highway One.
(I don’t know whom to credit for this photo.) The singer’s image, particularly with his back turned to the lens, echoes the middle section of the poem, while the highway and prairie skyline are picked up by the one-word horizontals. (Again, the page has to be turned sideways to see the mirroring.) What this accidental similarity suggests, for me, is a version of Ricou’s vertical man / horizontal world. The song itself has only a vestigial subjective presence: there is no “I” among the words, which are primarily objective and attenuated. But the voice, the speaking subject here, presents itself, ghosts itself into the song, as a hiatus, an opening in the mids and in the midst of this landscape.  The singer pauses on the shoulder, at the left-hand margin of the road and of the page, to look out and, especially, to listen. The song models, I want to suggest, a late or “weak” practice of attention, an opening of the self to audibility – both heard and hearing, left and leaving – that positions the subject as initiating its own recreation, cobbling itself together from interpellative fragments that he tries to hear, see and identify with as maybe, elsewise, his own.

Reading Patti Smith

[This essay, focusing on Patti Smith’s early songs, emerges from teaching and writing I’m doing around an undergraduate course on the poetics of song lyrics and pop culture studies.]
Patti Smith Complete 1975-2006 is more than an anthology of lyrics, and it’s also hardly complete. Patti Smith’s writing – along with her music and photography – is marked and informed by an essential contrariety, by a conflictedness suggested ironically in the book’s blandly generic title, which gestures, I’d say, toward an admixture of excess and fragmentation, of spontaneous overflow and fraught insufficiency that drives her thinking around the making of poems and songs and around her performance style.  She frames this set of contradictions, her sense of voice and of self as embodied contradictions, in the snippets of memoir and reflection scattered throughout the book; commenting on the lyrics for “Birdland,” a track for Horses spontaneously and collectively realized by her and her band in the recording studio, she says that the “concept of improvisation” – and it’s worth nothing that she says concept, rather than practice – “has long repelled and excited me, for it contains the possibilities of humiliation and illumination,” that is, both of the degrading and the vatic. “Sha da do wop da shaman do way sha da do wop da shaman do way,” she sings at the close of her extemporaneous soliloquy; song, as contingent melody, emerges (as in “Land”) off-and-on in the piece from passages of loosely narrative spoken word; the final gently looping chorus blurs doo-wop girl-group nonsense syllables into a vestigial chant of the word “shaman,” and it’s as a kind of nascent and androgynous rock’n’roll shaman that Smith wants here, at the outset of her singing career, to position herself. In a New York Times review of her 1978 collection Babel, a precursor to the “complete” collection we’re now reading in our course on song lyrics and popular culture, Jonathan Cott nicely encapsulates the contradictions that inhere in Smith’s stagy shamanism as he traces out the complexities of her performance persona, of her onstage self-fashioning:
Patti Smith has taken this magic amalgam and manifested it in what she calls “3 chord rock merged with the power of the word,” claiming that rock-and-roll is “the highest and most universal form of expression since the lost tongue (time: pre-Babel).” . . . [B]y adopting a paradoxical theatrical stance – one that confuses male and female roles and that combines the acoustic magic of Rimbaud and the Ronettes – Patti Smith has been able to develop, explore and create a certain shamanistic presence that has eluded many aspiring rock-and-roll seers and heroes.
Counterpointing bits of scripture with caustic fragments of French symbolist poetry, her performative “magic” emerges as an uneasy blend of what she calls – ventriloquizing Jean Genet’s poemLe Condamné à mort” on the back cover of her 1979 album Wave – a doubling of menace into prayer, of prayer as menace.  (In the pages of her Complete, the crux of the line – “Use menace, use prayer.” – becomes an epigraph to the section reproducing the lyrics for Easter [90].)
The infamous first line of “Gloria” – the first track and the first single from her first album, Horses – combines the liturgical and the blasphemous along this same trajectory: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.” As an opening gambit, her declaration doesn’t simply articulate what sounds like a resiliently agnostic, existential individualism, but also voices an entitlement – hers, “mine” – to her own deliberate marginality. Her rock-and-roll “magic,” understood as a gestural negation, isn’t so much about belief and shared redemption as it is about disturbance, about a faith – a belief both in and as resistance – that wants uncompromisingly to test its limits and to refuse any vestiges of comfort or assurance. While never quite rejecting Christian iconology and aesthetics (especially the ritual of Roman Catholicism, as the tone poem “Wave,” for example, makes abundantly clear, as well as a very recent photograph of her meeting Pope Francis) Patti Smith describes her Jesus, in the wake of viewing Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film The Gospel According to St. Matthew, as a  “revolutionary figure”: “I began to see him in another light – a teacher, a fighter, a guerrilla” (96). Her Easter is closer to an Easter uprising, a rebirth in turmoil that implicates her in an uncompromised, if not violent, self-remaking. As she appropriates and repurposes the glorified masculine desire that informs Van Morrison’s (as one of Them) original 1963 single “Gloria” (“And oh, she looks so good. Oh she looks so fine / And I got this crazy feeling that I’m gonna make her mine”), the subject position that defines itself in a tirade of possessives (“And I’ve got to tell the world that I made her mine made her mine / Made her mine made her mine made her mine made her mine”) degenerates into a repetitive chant that pulverizes poeisis, making, and diegesis, telling, into thudding particulate phonemes: her voice, the “I” that sings and by singing both hails and possesses its feminine other, becomes drumming, becomes unclosed, brutal and primeval rhythm, a beating. Liturgical responsorial from the Latin mass – gloria in excelsis deo– is both secularized into an erotic object and pulled apart, as she intones each letter of Gloria’s name, into the molecular fragments. The song at once catalyzes into insistent, thetic syllables and disintegrates into undifferentiated verbal noise: pronouncing and dismantling a beloved name that, through the poetic agency of the lyric itself, becomes simultaneously both mine and not-mine, supplement and other.
This double move is, I think, characteristic of many of Patti Smith’s lyrics, which often assert a confidently singular subject while gesturing to the iterative, collaborative and unsettled character of that voice, of her voice. The sexual ambiguity of “Gloria,” for example, as Patti Smith’s lyrics overtake and then fall into a cover-version, a repetition with difference, of Van Morrison’s original (sung, as the lyrics claim, to “twenty thousand girls” at an imaginary stadium concert), disturbs any clear sense of the erotic narrative in the song: Is this a woman ventriloquizing heterosexual desire? Does the song become a queer paean to same-sex desire? The indeterminate androgyny of Patti Smith’s stage persona unknits any normalizing of the dynamics between man and woman, suitor and ingénue. “Because the Night” (from Easter, two or three years later) thematizes desire as belonging, assembling want and succor into an amalgam of contrarieties that becomes more a testament to faith than its deconstruction: “Because the night belongs to lovers / Because the night belongs to us.” Notably, that belonging is shared, ours instead of mine. Smith describes herself as reluctant to listen to a demo cassette of an early version of the song, supplied through producer/engineer Jimmy Iovine from its composer, Bruce Springsteen. Taken by what she describes as its “anthemic quality,” she finishes the lyrics and “somewhat begrudgingly” presents it to her band to record (100). The resulting hit song, she says, is a “testament to Jimmy Iovine’s vision and the co-writer’s New Jersey heritage,” which is also close to her own. As with “Gloria,” what emerges on record isn’t so much a cover or a version of someone else’s song as much as it is a collaborative mix of voices and articulations. For instance, one line that I take to be closer to Smith’s idiom than Springsteen’s (though who can tell or separate them out?) offers in an archly poetic inversion a strong disavowal of the imperious first-person singular: “Have I doubt when I’m alone.” While such a declaration might easily be taken as an avocation of conquest (and assertions in the lyric about “the way I feel under your command” would likely only reinforce such a reading), it seems to me that what we also hear – given the ambiguity and even absence of gender markers for example – is an unsettled and androgynous collaboration, an affirmation that belonging consists in shared desires rather than in their satisfaction through erotic subjugation. When the song asks us to feel and to heal through touch, to “touch me now” in its performative moment, subject and object are inverted in the imperative form, as “I” becomes “me.” Demand and uncertainty produce a temporary hiatus, an almost: contact suspended in the looping repetitions of the refrain. For me, as a listener, this persistence of desire sounds itself in the rhythmic phase-shift of the chorus; because of where it’s placed metrically, “becáuse” becomes “bécause”, and the song gently but persistently jostles against its own formal limits.
Smith’s songs, though, are hardly ever so gentle. (There is nothing, nothing gentle about “Rock n Roll N****r,” an in-your-face provocation that offers a sort of blasphemous flipside to “Because the Night.” [The actual b-side on the 45 was “God Speed.”] I can’t bring myself to type the word without self-censoring: to me, it’s unredeemable and ugly, a verbal violence out of which Smith draws an insurmountable and irresolute alterity, a brutal vocal enactment of Rimbaud’s grammatically fraught claim that “Je est un autre.” There is a good discussion of much of the background to Smith’s reappropriation of the term n****r here.)
The sequence “Land” (also on Horses) begins with a spoken-word piece “Horses” that builds from rubato free-form narrative to four-on-the-floor incantatory, blistering rock. “Horses” sketches a tale of Johnny and his mirror-image, a nameless boy, who confront each other in an unspecified hallway. This doubling is also echoed, literalized, in the restrained overdubbing of another vocal track by Smith, out-of-synch with the lead, her words softly clashing and crashing into each other, as her delivery becomes more emphatic. As the boy approaches, “a rhythm was generating” the song tells us. Johnny is penetrated by the boy as he’s pushed against a locker. (Is this a high school hallway?) The boy disappears, but Johnny starts crashing his own head against the locker, a violence that seems to produce either delusion or vision, concussion or transcendence: either way, the “rhythm” Johnny now sees and hears with increasing intensity in his head, in his ears, sounds like the hoofbeats of fire breathing horses, a pounding verbalized in a chant-like repetition – similar to the chorus in “Gloria” – of a single word: “He saw horses horses horses / horses horses horses horses horses.” The surging drums and guitars behind Smith’s vocal reach a vatic climax – these are versions of the horses of the Christian apocalypse – only to find release into a high velocity version of “Land of a Thousand Dances.”
As with “Gloria,“ the group inhabits in the fierce present tense of their performances a dynamic trajectory through rock’n’roll history. The apocalyptic horses transform, in the first line of Wilson Pickett’s top 40 hit, into one of a set of teenage dance crazes: “Do you know how to pony like bony maroney” Smith wails. Whoever her Johnny might have been, as a representative disaffected teenager, he now appears to find a moment of catharsis and of shared vitality in the song’s hypnotic repetitions: it’s an old song recovered and made new, and it also asserts an insistently driven 4/4 rhythm in which you can’t help getting caught up and pulled to your feet – “Got to lose control and then you take control [. . .] Do you like it like that like it like that.” Spontaneity and self-control collide and smash; what you (not I and not even we, but the vocalist’s externalized other, her audience) . . . what you get to like in this music – liking taken both as likeness, as in the mirrorings and identifications inherent in popular music, and as Eros, as liking what you feel – what you get to like in this music are the conflicted pleasures of its own creative unmaking, its audible gristle. 

Short Take on Thumbscrew (Mary Halvorson, Michael Formanek, Tomas Fujiwara)

For the last four weeks or so, since its release on the Cuneiform label on January 21st, I have kept returning to the eponymous debut CD by Thumbscrew, a collective trio of Mary Halvorson, guitar, Michael Formanek, double bass, and Tomas Fujiwara, drums. It’s a consistently great album, offering up music that collides warmly responsive interplay with infectiously kiltered grooves. The opening track, a Fujiwara head called “Cheap Knock Off,” alludes texturally– you can listen for yourself and decide if this makes aural sense – to the early John Scofield trio with Steve Swallow and Adam Nussbaum, or, given the bell-like tone at times of Mary Halvorson’s guitar, even to the Jim Hall trio of the mid 1970s with Terry Clarke and Don Thompson.

But – despite the title – this is hardly derivative or imitative; it’s more of a music keenly aware of precedents and precursors but pushing forward along the leading edge of its own present tense.  What emerges sonically in these nine tracks is the trio’s shared practice of bending and unfolding time; they co-create in each piece a motile amalgam of historicity and futurity, gesturing (at least to my ears) at a rich set of musical antecedents from the jangling two-steps of Son House to the poly-intervallic melodies of Henry Threadgill, while simultaneously opening their improvised lines outward, palpably reaching, as Robert Browning once put it, to exceed their grasp. Michael Formanek’s big tone and rhythmic conception remind me of Johnny Dyani or Henri Texier: what’s remarkable is how he – and how the whole trio – manage to synch up with such metrical acuity (listen to those unisons) while driving so fiercely forward, right on top of the beat, meeting it head on, ahead. This trio, tightly together, gives the impression of an elastic looseness, a surge and release that’s a hallmark of the best kind of collaborative improvising. For instance, the toe-tapping shuffle of Fujiwara’s stick-and-brushwork on Formanek’s “Still . . . Doesn’t Swing” gives way to a raucously dehiscent free improvisation, as if the trio had momentarily lost its footing, only to reassert its cogency as melody at a slightly slowed tempo, transformed and tugged apart and then refolded onto itself again through Halvorson’s taffy-pull lines. Countable time comes unglued, seems to stretch and then reasserts its urgencies. Thumbscrew offers a music that moves, and that moves us along with them, listening: theirs is a remarkable and important record.

Profane Listening: Teaching Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments

In “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” John Donne famously cautions his beloved to keep composed and quiet – like a dying “virtuous” man – as they part from one another:
So let us melt, and make no noise,
No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;
‘Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love.
Rarefied, sinecured, privileged and private, their bond differentiates itself, at least as far as the poem’s speaker is concerned, from “[d]ull sublunary lovers’ love.” Refurbishing clichés of neo-Platonic idealism, Donne labours to distinguish their joys from vulgar heterosexual desire – his opening conceit enacts, literally, a mortification of the flesh – by linking love parasitically to a form of spiritually-ascendant class mobility. That elitism, moreover, is tied directly to a contradiction built into the poetic speech act: he’s telling her not to tell, creating an exclusive circle of two – speaker and listener – as his poem’s contingent public domain. Or maybe even a circle of one, himself, since the poem’s success depends wholly on whether his audience, the beloved interlocutor hailed by his lines, is even willing to listen, and to be correspondent to his desire, to do as he tells her to. There is a doubled model of listening articulated through the poem that seems to me to hinge on what its reader, its audience, is inclined to do with its profanity, its repurposing of the sacred for its own persuasive ends. Donne’s inflated coinage “profanation” casts our inner ears back, I think, to the word’s Latin etymology: the verb profanere (to desecrate, to violate, to make unclean) suggests being outside or before (pro-) a temple (fānum), which at least implicitly prods its listeners to consider the ersatz sacredness of this or any poetic text: how metaphysical, how hermetic, how divorced from this world, can such words ever be? The hyphenated compound nouns (“tear-floods” and “sigh-tempests”), while presented under prohibition, also make audible in their clashed, clumped consonants (rfl, dsn, stsm) the very – and very human, embodied – noise that Donne wants to suppress. The poem tends to profane itself, I mean.
         I am teaching The Commitmentsby Roddy Doyle  this week, and part of the reason I have started off with this excursus through Donne is that the novel is one of the most profane and noisy texts I have encountered. Reading excerpts and examples aloud in class, in public, activated some shame in me that’s most likely connected both to my own well-spoken intellectualism – despite common sense and academic privilege, it still felt a bit wrong and even a bit dangerous to utter all those “fucks” and “shites” and racist epithets in front of students – and to a hackneyed moralism circulating around how we listen to popular music, which is arguably the governing trope of the book as well as the focus of my course (and I’m thinking of how iTunes, for example, labels its downloaded songs, based on assessments of the lyrics, as either “clean” or “explicit”). The Commitments, at its heart, is an explicit, expletive text.
         It’s hard to gauge student reactions sometimes, but this class on the literature of popular song has tended so far to be a bit quiet, and who knows exactly why. Faced with reading Doyle’s novel, however, I can imagine they might feel a little shouted down, and a little affronted. In the book, as the band is cobbled together and starting to rehearse, they’re presented as Jimmy Rabbitte’s students. The book opens with Outspan and Derek asking for Jimmy’s musical advice, a moment that leads directly to the formation of The Commitments:
                  —We’ll ask Jimmy, said Outspan.  —Jimmy’ll know.
                  Jimmy Rabbitte knew his music. He knew his stuff.
Jimmy is the discursive centre for this particular configuration of Barrytown, this orchestration of their disenfranchised urban space, their north Dublin, and the vocabulary, the knowledge, in which he trades and which constitutes his cultural capital, is pop music. Jimmy, it’s worth noting, doesn’t play an instrument (well, none of them do, at first, except maybe for Joey The Lips Fagan), and he never performs on stage with the band; his music consists of talk, and his way of organizing the band involves giving lectures, correcting and managing what they “know” about and what they can learn through African-American soul music: “They loved Jimmy’s lectures,” the narrator tells us, although it’s not always clear that Jimmy has any more privileged access to Black music than anyone else. Even Joey The Lips’s stories of playing with Otis Redding, James Brown and just about any other “name” in R & B canon seem like a mix of fiction and wishful thinking; he claims to get a call to play with Joe Tex, but after he leaves Jimmy remembers that Joe Tex had died in 1982. When Joey The Lips confesses that “The biggest regret of my life is that I wasn’t born black,” the insurmountable disconnect, around race, between the given and the made, between provenance and aspirational self-fashioning comes crashing to the fore. The learning project in which Jimmy has the band engaged is doomed by its inherent dislocations, by its insurmountable, racially marked otherness. If “soul is community,” as Jimmy and Joey both contend, the success of their common project, the outcome of their commitment to any “real” provocation to social or cultural transformation through what Jimmy keeps calling “sex and politics,” remains inexorably out of reach.
         They can’t help but profane their lofty goals. The alteration they want to bring about by singing about “real” love is framed, as in the Donne poem, by the negation of overwrought, mundane clichés and by the evocation of a transcendent ideal – an African-American idiom that inherently resists the idioms of both saccharine top-of-the-pops and Irish folk: “—All tha’ mushy shite abou’ love an’ fields an’ meetin’ mots in supermarkets an’ McDonalds is gone, ou’ the fuckin’ window. It’s dishonest, said Jimmy.” But performing covers of James Brown or Wilson Pickett hardly seems any more honest, any closer to the lived realities of Barrytown: “— It’s not the other people’s songs so much, said Jimmy. —It’s which ones yis do.” Connection and commitment means finding material that somehow speaks to their experience, and for Jimmy, that speaking means a felt connection at the level of a pre-articulate viscerality, something he hears, for instance, in the rough “growl” of Declan Cuffe’s voice. Jimmy links this fleshy throatiness both to James Brown’s thoroughly sweaty, embodied performance – the grain of his voice, an association mired in sexual stereotypes around black masculinity – and, compellingly, to the band’s obvious inability to get beyond imperfect mimicry of that style; their cultural “politics,” inured in an experience of pervasive alienation, seems best represented by their failure to represent themselves musically in any idiom. Everything is imperfectly borrowed, mistaken, and troubled. In Jimmy’s bedroom, listening to the record of James Brown’s “Sex Machine,”the complexities and complicities of musical and racial appropriation emerge in a mix of sacrilege and idolatry, in a prose that both mimes what it hears and disrupts any easy mimesis:
         —Funk off, said Deco.
Outspan hit him.
Jimmy let the needle down and sat on the back of his legs between the speakers.
—I’m ready to get up and do my thang, said James Brown.
A chorus of men from the same part of the world as James went:  —YEAH.
—I want to, James continued,  —to get into it, you know. (—YEAH, said the lads in the studio with him.)  —Like a, like a sex machine, man (—YEAH YEAH, GO AHEAD.)  —movin’, doin’ it, you know. (—YEAH.)  —CAN I COUNT IT ALL? (—YEAH YEAH YEAH, went the lads.)  —One Two Three Four.
Jimmy positions himself dead-centre, as if to co-opt the sonic space of the recording, to claim it and manage it. The French-Joycean punctuation of dialogue with em-dashes tends to blur the distinctions between voices, to create a polyphonic overlay, a palimpsest. The identification of Jimmy with James manifests itself not only spatially but also in the collision of idioms from different “parts of the world”: James Brown’s sidemen aren’t Irish “lads” in any sense of the word, and when James Brown says “you know,” the point-of-view implicitly shared with Jimmy, the fella in the novel who, more than any other, presents himself as in the know, is both shared and dismantled; it’s worth noting how the transcription of the words in interrupted by editorializing and by typographical juxtapositions,  but also how the original record itself involves call-and-response banter that cuts across and disrupts closure. That disruption is also audible in the textures of the transcribed words:  “— GER RUP AH——“ they hear James Brown intone, abrading his words in a manner not too far removed from Donne’s noisy consonants. 
         If this record, though, is about affirming rough and vital cultural energies (YEAH YEAH YEAH), if it’s about the “politics,” of movin’ and doin’, Jimmy’s listening remains caught in a dynamic of negation and difference: “—No, listen, said Jimmy.” Making black music more “Dubliny” – by substituting, for example, the names of the stops on the DART line, moving North toward Barrytown, for the improvised train stops up the Eastern seaboard of the United States, tracing a kind of second-hand root for post-Civil War reconstruction, in James Brown’s improvised words for “Night Train” – enables what Jimmy wants to call “Dublin Soul” to be born, but those words also offer a fragile and finally untenable amalgam, as the band breaks up before it’s able to make even its first single on “Eejit Records,” and as Joey The Lips comes to realize that “Maybe soul isn’t right for Ireland. So I’m not right.” Their music, in its wrongness, is inherently profane, monstrous. But it also attains, in passing, in rehearsal, a kind of nascent greatness:
By now, The Commitments had about a quarter of an hour’s worth of songs that they could struggle through without making too many mistakes. They could sound dreadful sometimes but not many of them knew this. They were happy.
Though they’re unable to hear themselves, to “know” themselves for what they are – even when “[t]hey taped themselves and listened” – they still embrace the rough misprisions and imperfect “Dubliny” slippages and derive a happiness, a profane joy, in the struggle to connect with each other. The agonof music making, the profane and profaning effort to play together, forms a contingent community within that difficult nascence: “There were mistakes, rows, a certain amount of absenteeism but things were going well.” If the point seems to be not to put too much weight on the inevitable failure of their awful, unruly, “racialist” appropriations, neither is it to overlook or sanitize their offenses. Rather, we’re meant to bear witness to the possibility of creative coexistence, of producing a shared, poorly-recorded, mistake-ridden music that manages still, in its noisy and troubling way, to enact a poetry.

Hey, That’s Me: Bruce Springsteen and Audience, Part 1

Last week, I started off the current version of an undergraduate course I’m teaching on song lyrics and popular culture with a four-class unit about Bruce Springsteen. I have tried to use his music as an introductory case study in how popular music works, and in what it can do. One of the things we began to think through was the way in which his songs consistently thematize their own reception, representing both textually and musically a set of relationships between singer and audience. Specifically, I tried to read his songs as invitations not only into an erotic reciprocity – to touch and be touched, to feel each other’s presence – but also into a form of shared community: the nascent and loving democracy his “America” promises to be, even if maybe it can never realize that dream. These songs want to communicate, hopefully.
In what’s really the first essay in 31 Songs(2002), Nick Hornby asserts that his all-time favourite song is Springsteen’s “Thunder Road.” That song both addresses and enacts, for him, a durable and enduring moment of love, and it describes the living arc of his own long-term fandom:
I can remember listening to this song and loving it in 1975; I can remember listening to this song and loving it almost as much quite recently, a few months ago.
[. . .] So I’ve loved this song for a quarter of a century now, and I’ve heard it more than anything else, with the possible exception of . . . Who am I kidding? There are no other contenders.
This one song manages, whenever he hears it, to speak to him, for him and about him. I have to say, too, that I know exactly the feeling and exactly the identification that Nick Hornby maps out here, exactly what it is that “Thunder Road,” even despite itself sometimes, makes happen for listeners and for fans every time it plays. Hornby describes his experience of the song as a kind of mimesis, in its perennial capacity to “express who you are, perfectly”: who he is, he must mean, although the second person – in which the bulk of the song is written – is significant. The song itself begins – after a brief descriptive intro – with a series of apostrophes, of interpellations that present themselves as urgent invitations, open doors:
The screen door slams. Mary’s dress waves.
Like a vision she dances across the porch
as the radio plays.
Roy Orbison singing for the lonely,
Hey that’s me, and I want you only.
Don’t turn me home again. I just can’t face
myself alone again.
Don’t run back inside, darlin’ – you know
just what I’m here for.
So you’re scared and you’re thinking that
maybe we ain’t that young anymore.
Show a little faith there’s magic in the night.
You ain’t a beauty but yeah you’re alright.
The shift from the distance of romantic spectacle to something like discursive proximity – close enough to make yourself heard – hinges on another inset moment of audibility, and of interpellation: Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely” (echoed in the end rhymes) not only mimes the persona’s desire for Mary, but also hails him into existence, into audible range, as both a listening and a speaking-singing subject: “Hey, that’s me . . . .” Hearing Roy Orbison’s song on Mary’s radio gives him voice, and lets him talk, and also offers him a vocabulary and an idiom through which the rest of his own song can play out.
Professing desire beyond what he’s able or willing to say means for him returning to a literacy, to a kind of “talk,” a cultural field that the soundscape of rock’n’roll provides him with: “Now I got this guitar, and I learned how to make it talk.” Springsteen positions himself both as ventriloquizing fan and as nascent legend to produce a kind of proactive audience, a practice of listening that means trying to learn how to attend to others while still managing to talk for yourself, and to talk yourself up. The song offers an extended invitation to a feminized, idealized other; Springsteen, from somewhere within the heteronormative city limits of an imaginary Freehold, New Jersey, asks his own listeners – on this the opening track of Born to Run – to be like Mary and to get in the front seat of his car and pull out of the deadened space of here with him, to win. That idealization is also both fractured and resisted, even as it’s declaimed as an article of faith, by insistent disavowals and negations (“ain’t . . . ain’t . . .”), and by Mary’s coy but very real refusals. If she seems to be framed merely as an object of his desire, existing “only” for him to overcome his loneliness and affirm his masculine agency, his long cascade of pleas and poetic flattery, of goading and passive aggressive come-ons, also tends to undermine itself from the outset; after all, who in their right mind would accept a date from a man who tells you you’re not beautiful, but just alright? Sure, he’s just being honest, I guess, but the conventional hyperbole inherent in love song lyrics, diffused into something plain and mundane, also loses most of its persuasive tug, its “magic.”
What’s worth noting is that, even if we end up choosing not to go with him somewhere else (and as “Born to Run” puts it, to “get out while we’re young”), or if on the other hand we turn out to be willing to trade in our angelic wings for some very earthbound wheels, what we experience for the five minutes of “Thunder Road” is still a sustained and open invitation, a seemingly one-sided conversation that nonetheless keeps asking us to respond, and that leaves its requests unanswered, those imaginary responses as-yet and always unheard, either from Mary or from us: they’re all potential,  all unfulfilled promise. “The door’s open,” we’re told, “but the ride ain’t free.” And the return, that cost, is a commitment to reciprocity. So when Nick Hornby says the song expresses “who you are, perfectly,” what he must mean, what he can only mean, is actually opposite to perfection or to closure; the song’s conversant subject, the “me” who both listens for and sings to Mary, never coheres, but remains unfinished, a figuration of desire.

         When I was sixteen, I finished my grade eleven economics exam early, and I couldn’t leave the exam room, so I copied out from memory the lyrics to “Thunder Road” on the back of the exam booklet. It was a young fan’s act of mimicry, though I’m not sure what those lyrics might even have meant to me then, if I understood them or identified myself through them the way I might now, or might not. But what I do recognize in retrospect is that re-writing, transcribing, Springsteen’s words by hand was an initial gesture at that reciprocity. In those few free minutes, I started to write myself into a dialogue – a little like fourteen-year-old Terry Blanchard in Kevin Major’s YA novel Dear Bruce Springsteen – a conversation with whoever it was I’d always want to become. “My love, love, love,” he sings later and elsewhere, “will not let you down.” That’s not to say Springsteen’s songs will tell us who we are, but that they will always keep that reciprocal Eros, that mutuality, live and open, that invitation to join him heading down the road.

Ellen Foley, No Stupid Girl

In her disco-punk memoir The Importance of Music to Girls, Lavinia Greenlawfrequently dwells on a disconnect, an existential fracture that shapes and even constitutes her self-image; the book maps out her negotiations – some deliberate, some instinctive – among a conflicted mix of adolescent identities, of identifications, that seem to circulate around what it means to be a girl, to be called a girl, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I’m not being tentative when I say seem to: the work of seeming, as both pretending and appearing, is at the crux of her methodical self-fashioning. The book consistently returns to a vocabulary of wanting, of want. Greenlaw depicts herself as a teenaged wannabe, trading costumes, styles and surfaces: always trying, always coming up a bit short. For instance, she articulates her admiration for “Tina,” role-model for nascent disco queens, by collating a wilting deference to peer-pressure with an ersatz Amazonian fierceness:

I was becoming a girl as instructed by girls but I knew I wasn’t a real girl, at least not of this kind. I wanted to be a disco girl like Tina whose every aspect conformed to some golden section of girldom: her height relative to her shape, her prettiness relative to her smartness, her niceness relative to her toughness. Tina offered certainties. She issued instructions on how to dance, who to like and what to wear. . . . Each morning, her face would be retuned – the brightness turned down, the colour turned up – and she would stride into school, her hips and breasts armoured, her hair a winged blonde helmet. I wanted this shell, which she used to attract or deflect at will. To me she was wise and ruthless, a goddess of war.
Those certainties soon become illusory, their surfaces shivered. Greenlaw’s leave-taking from disco (to take up another set of surfaces, another glamour, in punk) involves an accidental collision – a moment of casual violence – with her friend on the dance floor; as she waits for help with her cut face, she catches a glimpse of herself in a washroom mirror: “the face I saw was mine but this was not a reflection. It was too far away, more like some inner self that had slipped free and looked back at me now with my own fundamental sadness.” Mimesis is belied by its own bad promises. What’s fundamental for her, as a girl, what’s essential to who she wants to be, can never be more than pathos in lack: a likeness – “more like some inner self” – that sadly never can or will make herself whole.
         Lavinia Greenlaw’s about my age. My own leap wasn’t from disco but from some sort of sci-fi soft rock – I liked Styx a lot – to punk and after, but the dynamics were roughly the same as hers. Except, of course, for the girl part. I was enabled by the same dynamic as Greenlaw, and I understand her preoccupation with want and fracture, with that fundamental sadness, but I came at it as more of an insider, as a boy. I didn’t seem to need my own version of that armour, and I could choose to identify more directly, though still at some remove, with Joe Strummer or (like Greenlaw) Ian Curtis or with any other self-styled punk frontman.  I perceived the homoeroticism in Pete Townshend’s 1980 song “Rough Boys” as emblematic of a transgressive effeminacy in punk ‘s – particularly the Sex Pistols’ – preoccupation with image, although I am not sure how far I was ever able to follow through on its gender trouble.
Still, I was reminded of this version of the girl problem with the release in November of About Time, Ellen Foley’s first album in about thirty years. (I haven’t listened to the record well enough yet, but it sounds to me so far like the power, the tough richness of her voice has remained undiminished, and I’m so glad to be able to hear her belt out some raw, driving rock and roll again.) Ellen Foley’s return to recording recalls how important her first two albums were to teenaged me – Nightout (1979) and Spirit of St Louis (1981) – as well as her vocal presence on Sandanista! by The Clash (who are essentially her backing band on the second record, which was made while she was dating Mick Jones, billed in the liners as “my boyfriend”). She was the girl, as far as I could see and hear then. Her sound, her image and her sensibility yoked together a seemingly fey prettiness – what Greenlaw says she wanted simultaneously to embrace and to throw off – and a powerfully resilient, gutsy resistance to bullshit effeminacy. Despite appearances, she was nobody’s girl, nobody’s fool.
         There is plenty to say about what Ellen Foley’s music comes to embody, but I want to concentrate on her take on the iconography of the girl. She first made her presence known in pop music as the female interlocutrix on Meatloaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” and she recorded duets with Ian Hunter (who had produced, and performed on, her debut album, Nightout) and others that extend her role as respondent, as the girl you serenaded but who could out-sing and even out-swagger you back. She performed a version of “We Gotta Get Out of Here” with Hunter on “Fridays,” ABC’s short-lived answer to Saturday Night Live, on May 5, 1980, a performance that suggests much about how Ellen Foley takes on a male-dominated stage.

She comes in half-way through the song – you can catch glimpses of her, back to the audience, waiting to pounce. Most importantly, for me, is her refusal to be subdued, even by Hunter’s obvious recalcitrance. (And it’s important to note that these are rock-and-roll theatrics: Ellen Foley has stressed in a number of interviews how grateful she was to Hunter and to Mick Ronson, and how happy she was with their musical relationship.) At the close of the song, she declares into the mike she’s going to have a dance contest with Hunter, and he turns to face her, but does nothing. Undaunted, she goes ahead and has a dance contest all by herself.
         She seems here in one sense to have donned the blonde armour, the make-up of girlish deference that Greenlaw describes around disco girls, but – strident in her flashy white pantsuit – she also becomes something more in this clip: unshaken, energized, assured. She owns the last minute of that song. This playful, ironic  doubling emerges most tangibly in one of the most memorable covers on Nightout (a song she still performs in concert), the Jagger-Richards penned “Stupid Girl”:
I’m not talking about the kind of clothes she wears 

Look at that stupid girl 

I’m not talking about the way she combs her hair 

Look at that stupid girl
You see the way she powders her nose 

Her vanity shows and it shows 

She’s the worst thing in this whole damn world 
Well, look at that stupid girl
The song first appeared on the Rolling Stones 1966 lp Aftermath, occasioned as both Keith Richards and Mick Jagger have separately admitted by their frustration with female fans and with their failed relationships. Prima facie, as the lyrics make obvious, it’s a misogynist rant. Girls are sick and stupid, Keith and Mick tell us, because they’re so shallow, so vain, because of their obsession with image. (Not at all like Mick and Keith. Not at all.) So why would Ellen Foley choose to sing this particular song? Because the thing is, if you listen to her version, backed by snarling guitars and thumping four-on-the-floor kick drums, you get no sense of anything but absolute commitment, of anything but digging in and digging deep. There is nothing vain, nothing insincere about Ellen Foley’s voice. It sounds completely like she means it.
But what exactly can she mean? Because, despite the venomous lyric, what we hear from her isn’t a woman calling others out, sniping at all the Tinas she can’t ever be. She’s singing the admixture of desire and loathing that the Stones song articulates, sure, but she’s also shoving it back in their faces, in their ears, our ears. I remember hearing this song as an adolescent listener, blasting it out of my stereo, and feeling that mixture of toughness and allure that few singers beyond Ellen Foley, in those transitional years, ever managed to catch. In a lip-synched video of “Stupid Girl” made for the Kenny Everett television show in1980, that catches a little of this pushback in its campy staging around body builders and beauty contestants.
When Ellen Foley sings into the beefcake armpit of some muscleman or into the plasticized coiffure of a pretty second runner up that “She purrs like a pussycat / Then she turns ’round and hisses back,” it’s not at all certain whose image – boy, girl or her own – is being confronted and undone. Rather than self-pity, the fundamental sadness that Greenlaw highlights, Ellen Foley offers her audience a means to uncover another certainty, a centredness that the unshakable timbre her voice enacts.
         Mick Jones wrote “Should I Stay or Should I Go” for Ellen Foley. As a provocation, it seems to offer a bitter critique of indecision, of a girlfriend unable to make up her mind and of a boyfriend in thrall to her waffling. I’m assuming the song comes at the end of their relationship, and the recording by The Clash does appear to offer a sort of vindicating, and maybe even vindictive, catharsis for Jones. The thrashing guitars and double time chorus enact a release, a letting go that the lyrics themselves never allow.

A 2007 audience video of Ellen Foley performing “Should I Stay or Should I Go” suggests that her vocal power remains undiminished, and goes a long way to reclaiming her agency, again by taking hold of the song and singing it back at the boy or boys who authored it. More than that, it points to the subtle ways in which the indecisiveness of the lyric comes not from the object of its attention – an interlocutrix who doesn’t really answer back within the framework of the song – but from its male persona, who stays bugged by his own irresolution, by the unsatisfied involution of his own desire. When he says that if he stays there will be trouble, but if he goes it will be double, he’s pointing – at least when we hear the song with Ellen Foley’s voice in mind, in our mind’s ear – to the essential conflict, the trouble, around heteronormative desire, around gender and identity, that Greenlaw’s memoir confronts, and into which it sometimes spins and stalls – the difficult importance of music to girls.  And for me, that importance, that insistence, sounds something like the intensity, like the depth and like the ruthless beauty of Ellen Foley’s voice.

Audio: Carnets de Routes Improvisées

Here is an audio capture of a paper I delivered on Thursday, September 5, 2013 at the Colloquium of the Guelph Jazz Festival, which took place at the MacDonald Stewart Art Centre at the University of Guelph. It’s called “Carnets de Routes Improvisées: Transcultural Encounters in the work of Guy Le Querrec and the Romano-Sclavis-Texier Trio,” and, like the title says, it connects a number of recorded improvisations by a European trio around the African photography of Magnum photographer Guy Le Querrec to certain concepts of decolonization and latter-day ethnography. I try to suggest, in a limited utopian vein, how viable transcultural encounters might be realized through improvisation – not only musical, but visual as well. I also refer to the compelling historical work of Julie Livingston around biomedical practices in southern Africa, particularly her book Improvising medicine: An African Oncology Ward in an Emerging Cancer Epidemic (2012). This paper formed part of a two-person panel on media and transculturalism; the other presenter was Alan Stanbridge of the University of Toronto. The moderator for the session, whom you can hear offering an introduction at the beginning of this recording, was Nicholas Loess.
Here is the abstract for the paper:
Sponsored by French cultural institutions, the improvising trio of clarinetist Louis Sclavis, bassist Henri Texier and drummer Aldo Romano formed in early 1990 to undertake a tour of central Africa, including performances in Chad, Gabon, Congo, Cameroon and Guinea. Other tours would follow in 1993 and 1997. Despite both appearance and funding support, this group wasn’t engaged in officially-sanctioned cultural promotion, but had been conceived as an artistic and cultural project by Magnum photographer Guy Le Querrec, who appears to have wanted to chronicle in images the encounters of European jazz musicians with mostly rural African audiences. Le Querrec had already taken numerous photographic trips to North Africa—in 1969-71, 1978 and 1984, for example—trips that had produced significant images in his portfolio concentrating on both the troubling appropriations of ethnographic image-making and the complex challenges and impediments to transcultural understanding. His work with the Romano-Sclavis-Texier trio, now seen in retrospect, constitutes a deliberate post-colonial cultural intervention, a re-engagement by both aesthetic and documentary tactics in parts of the world from which colonial France had withdrawn. Le Querrec curates this particular tour of leading voices in French free jazz—he is listed on the recordings as a fourth member of the trio, not merely as a courtesy but as an active if tacit participant in the performances—for two main reasons. First, Le Querrec is one of the preeminent jazz photographers in Europe, and several of his collections centre on historic images of canonical jazz musicians. A 1997 show in Paris saw musicians (including Texier and Sclavis) improvising to projections of Le Querrec’s work; the show’s title, Jazz comme un Image, suggests how closely Le Querrec links his photography to improvisational musical (and visual) practices, a connection he further clarifies in an artist’s statement for the performance:
Être jazz c’est avant tout une manière de vivre, de se promener sur le fil du hazard pour aller à la rencontre d’un imaginaire qui contient toujours l’improvisation, la curiosité, qui oblige à écouter les autres, à les voir, à être disponible pour mieux les raconter en manifestant sa propre poésie.
This complex sense of likeness, at play in the overlap between rencontrer and raconter, to encounter and to give account, traces itself back in the context of French colonialism and ethnography to the Dakar-Djibouti expedition of 1931-33, and particularly the poetic-documentary writing of Michel Leiris in L’Afrique fantôme and L’Âge d’Homme, the latter of which in particular focuses on the Afrological substrata of jazz. Second, both the trio’s music and Le Querrec’s photography investigate the give-and-take, the tensions between re-appropriation and creative misprision inherent in this jazz-based transcultural model. The music on the three compact discs released by the trio (Carnet de Routes, 1995; Suite Africaine, 1999; African Flashback, 2006; each accompanied by booklets collating Le Querrec’s photographs from their 1990, 1993 and 1997 tours) does not come from their live performances, which seem (apart from the photographs) to have gone undocumented, but consists of recordings in a French studio after the tours were done, improvised reactions to the photographs as well as compositions that emerged from their African experiences. The “poetry” of imaginative encounter that Le Querrec describes is enacted musically (and even visually) in the extemporaneous negotiations of difference, and the creative troubling of Eurocentrisms, that these improvisations offer. Rather than reproduce the exoticism and even nostalgia that shapes late colonial, modernist ethnography, these audio-visual “records” investigate performatively how a transculturalism of shared differences, a contingent community of unlikeness, can be brought extemporaneously into being.

Drummerless, on Paul Motian

I have been trying for some time to find proper, better words to describe what has now come to seem like my own very long commitment to the music of percussionist Paul Motian, who died nearly two years ago. His particular feel, the way in which his music characteristically unfolded and continues to unfold, sui generis, both temporally and spatially, has had a sustained effect on how I have begun to think about the poetic apprehension of time, the material experience of the human body in its textiles, its welter and wash. It sounds so generic, so mundane, so less than momentous, to say: for some time. And maybe I only mean to play on the titles of some of Motian’s compositions, which also both thematize the experience and elegize the ineffability of the temporal: “It should have happened a long time ago.” So I feel like I’m trying here, but inevitably falling short, even before I seem able to get started. But I think that this halting phenomenology might have something to do with the specifics of Paul Motian’s sound. Because there’s a semantic and temporal gap, a kind of hiatus particular to Motian’s sense of line and rhythm, that opens around the question of the thesis, Θέσις: of the subtle incursion of, say, a dancer’s footfall, of the give-and-take around every singular, embodied, creative pulse, step upon step. In Motian’s playing, each beat, each thesis, doesn’t drop into the lockstep of fixed metre, even when he plays in time, but tends to exist as a stroke, a temporal marker, relative only to the beat that preceded it; Motian always seems to be feeling his way forward through time itself, testing its viscosities, its resistances, its eddies, its flows. His sense of measure is tensile, and a little precarious: simultaneously countable and protean, refrained and free.
         I have been listening to Shadow Man, the second recording by Tim Berne’s Snakeoil quartet released (last week) by ECM records. I haven’t made it through to the end of the CD yet, because each time I put it into the player, I’m brought up short by the third track, a duo version – by Berne on alto and Matt Mitchell on piano – of Paul Motian’s composition “Psalm.” I had forgotten that Motian played on Berne’s Mutant Variations  and The Ancestors on Soul Note (both 1983) and also on his early Songs and Rituals in Real Time (Empire, recorded 1981); their musics, even then, appeared to share something of a preoccupation with rhythmic knotting and unknotting. In a 2009 interview with Ethan Iverson, Berne describes his first encounter with Motian:
I met Paul Motian when he was doing a gig with the bass player Saheb Sarbib.  And I just went up to him and I asked him.  And to this day I have no idea how I got the nerve.  But he sort of said “Yeah, man, send me something,” or whatever.  I may have given him a record or sent him a tape.  I called him up a couple of weeks later and asked him if he listened to it, and he said “No.” But then he said, “Yeah, whatever, I’ll do the gig.” And that was this gig that turned into this record. . . . And Paul was great.  I don’t know why I didn’t know to be more frightened.  I think I got more terrified when we did a tour, because then I was like “Holy shit, I’m on the road with Paul Motian.” There are two Soul Note records with Paul too, and he plays just great on them.
Berne’s version of “Psalm” offers a lyrical tribute to this yes-and-no meeting, but, fittingly, also audibly remarks on Motian’s posthumous absence: it’s performed drummerless, and fluidly rubato. (Notably, Russ Lossing has also made a brilliant solo piano CD of Motian compositions, Drum Music [Sunnyside, 2012], that theatizes the composer’s absence in a similar fashion, but which is also wonderfully attentive to the prod and pull of Motian’s lines.) The openness and the looseness of the duo’s time feel is wholly appropriate to Motian’s music. The melody, lightly fragmented by Mitchell’s right hand, is not especially definitive, and seems to emerge, to find its feet so to speak, out of an undifferentiated gentle swathe of long tones, here played sotto voce by Berne; on the original version by the Paul Motian Band – “Psalm” is the title track and the first cut on Motian’s 1982 ECM lp – the core line of the song (and many of Motian’s compositions consisted of not much more than melodic fragments) wells up tenuously from layers of saxophone, guitar and bass. In his liner notes to the ECM boxed set of Motian recordings that appeared earlier this year, also from ECM, Ethan Iverson describes how “Psalm” “begins like an emission from deep space before a chorale comes into focus.” And he’s not wrong: Iverson has keen, practiced ears, and he hears a kind of primal rhythm behind all of Motian’s playing, a well-defined, historically-informed sense of jazz time: “With Paul,” he wrote in a New York Times obit,“there was always that ground rhythm, that ancient jazz beat lurking in the background.” But I’m not sure I agree with him, or, at least I don’t know if I hear the same sense of beat he does. For me, Motian’s playing, at its best, digs into that ground, destabilizes it, turns it over. His time extends, distends, undoes and reknits the whole sense of primal beat, of pulse.  In the Berne-Mitchell version of “Psalm,” I think, a pliable tactility – the gesture toward measure and the soft refusal to fall into a countable frame – manifests, and reminds me, as I listen, of the ways in which Motian’s music wants to open both into time and out of it: to extemporize. That opening – sensible as hiatus or absence, certainly, but also as push, as motion, as the forward heft of a given line – seems to me to form a crucial aspect of Paul Motian’s legacy.
         One more brief note. I only saw Motian play live once, in Montreal in 1989 during the Charlie Haden invitational series early that July. I was at the gig – released as part of The Montreal Tapes – by the Haden-Motian collaborative piano trio with Geri Allen. What I remember most about that concert was that it was over too soon. There wasn’t enough time. It slipped away. Motian’s warm, flexible rhythmic touch is in evidence from the very first notes, on Haden’s fittingly titled “Blues in Motian.” I feel like I need to listen to that record again.