Posts Tagged ‘jazz’

Pomp & Circumstance

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014

 

sextant

Sextant drawing by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2014)

“Everything in life matters and ultimately has a place, an impact and a meaning.” Laurens Van Der Post

Been one of those weeks where every conversation with all kinds of different kinds of people began with talk of the drought and the state of our personal water supplies, and from there we spun off into discussions of the swiftly changing reality of what it is to be human on this little planet that used to seem so vast.

“The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it.” John Ruskin

You might have missed the news, or simply not given a hoot, that Stephen Hawking recently announced there are no black holes. Thus thousands of astronomers, physicists, science teachers, and graduate students are in various stages of shock that the foundation of their careers has been decreed by Mr. Black Hole himself to be a misconception, and that their decades of work have been about what isn’t there, and that billions of dollars spent on black hole-related research was essentially a big waste of money, not to mention time and space. Oops.

What made Hawking’s proclamation especially interesting to me was that the widespread foundational scientific belief in the existence of black holes was apparently not scientific at all, but mere conjecture. Hawking and his influential colleagues have abruptly changed their minds, so everyone else (including millions of people who ponied up the cash to buy Hawking’s A Brief History of Time) better change their minds, too, or risk…what? Not agreeing with the emperor who now blithely admits he wasn’t wearing any clothes, though he kind of thought he was, sort of? This is science? You betcha. Remember: medical doctors all over our scientific nation used to prescribe cigarettes to ameliorate symptoms of anxiety. Oops.

I hunted up Hawking’s explanation for why he and the entire scientific community were wrong about black holes, and I present his explanation here for your enjoyment. For extra fun, I suggest you imagine John Cleese and Eric Idle of Monty Python impersonating balding scientists taking turns presenting this blatantly self-contradictory proclamation—also pure conjecture if not outright balderdash.

“The absence of event horizons means that there are no black holes, in the sense of regimes from which light can’t escape to infinity. There are however apparent horizons that persist for a period of time. This suggests that black holes should be redefined as metastable bound states of the gravitational field. It will also mean that the CFT on the boundary of anti de Sitter space will be dual to the whole anti de Sitter space, and not merely the region outside the horizon.

“The no hair theorems imply that in a gravitational collapse the space outside the event horizon will approach the metric of a Kerr solution. However inside the event horizon, the metric and matter fields will be classically chaotic. It is the approximation of this chaotic metric by a smooth Kerr metric that is responsible for the information loss in gravitational collapse. The chaotic collapsed object will radiate deterministically but chaotically. It will be like weather forecasting on Earth. That is unitary, but chaotic, so there is effective information loss. One can’t predict the weather more than a few days in advance.”

“There are two ways of seeing objects, one being simply to see them, and the other to consider them attentively.” Nicolas Poussin

Songs nowadays are no longer songs as I used to think of songs being songs. That is to say, the things I still call songs can be listened to with my eyes closed. But the popular songs of today, the Grammy winners and the songs on all the charts of today’s music must be seen in order to be properly heard? Songs today, not the ones we oldsters think of as songs, but the new ones the youngsters live by, are inextricably bound to little movies for which music is soundtrack, and most of these soundtracks are composed of many layers of synthesized sonic noise underpinned by mechanically generated rhythm tracks designed to support the visuals comprising the little movies.

“Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter: second, telling other people to do so.” Bertrand Russell

I like that definition of work: altering the position of matter. I would add that for some position altering of matter one earns money, and for some position altering of matter one does not earn money; and there are two kinds of money: regular money and gig money.

Gig money is worth much more than regular money. I used to think the added buying power of gig money had something to do with black holes, but now that black holes no longer exist, perhaps the extra buying power is attributable to anti de Sitter space, but I wouldn’t bet on it. I think the extraordinary nature of gig money is alchemical. Now before you climb on your scientific high horse and declare alchemy a pile of mystical infantile wishful thinking black hole rabbit poop, feast your eyes on the following from Smithsonian Magazine: “There is growing evidence that alchemists seem to have performed legitimate experiments, manipulated and analyzed the world in interesting ways and reported genuine results. And many of the great names in the canon of modern science took note, including Sir Isaac Newton and Lavoisier.”

What do I mean by gig money? The word gig has come to mean job in today’s world. “I have a regular nine-to-five gig for a software company, but my main thing is recording random street sounds and turning them into rhythm tracks,” is common parlance today, but a gig used to mean a performance, usually of jazz or poetry, made with the hope of possibly making some money from the performance, but maybe not making any money. It is this maybe/maybe not making money aspect of a gig that endows gig money with its alchemical mystical extra-potent power. Why? Because nature abhors a vacuum or nature doesn’t abhor a vacuum. You choose.

For instance, one night I made forty bucks for reading my short stories and telling jokes in a used bookstore in Sacramento, the audience unexpectedly large, the donations jar overflowing. With that gig money I bought groceries for the entire week, went out for Mexican food twice, bought new guitar strings and three pairs of pants at the Salvation Army, and still had money left over. So I bought a pile of Russell Hoban novels at the used bookstore, gave ten bucks to a friend, bought my sweetheart some flowers, and splurged on three goldfish for the backyard pond, and I still had money left over. And if I hadn’t gone and cultivated negative thoughts about an annoying person who was just doing the best he could, I might still have that gig money because thoughts are actions and the karmic wheel rolls on ceaselessly. Which is why we should always endeavor to be kind and generous even when we’re just sitting still with our eyes closed listening to songs.

 “There are two kinds of fools: one says, ‘This is old, therefore it is good’; the other says, ‘This is new, therefore it is better.’” W.R. Inge

Currently in the throes of rewriting my new novel, I am carving up my printed-out pages with red ink flowing from a pen held in my hand attached to my arm and directed by my brain far from the madding computer and text on a screen. Writing longhand and editing longhand are considered by most writers under the age of fifty, and even by many writers over fifty, to be antiquated practices inferior to doing everything on the screen from start to finish. I beg to differ, but who cares if I can tell by reading a few paragraphs of a novel or short story whether the author composed his or her words longhand or on a computer? That doesn’t mean one way of writing is better than the other, but it does prove (to my satisfaction) that there is a qualitative difference between those two ways of writing, and I find the quality of one of those ways vastly superior to the other. But that’s just me. And speaking of black holes, here is a recently crafted paragraph from my new novel.

In the near distance Donald sees the sign known to every alcoholic and pool player for a hundred miles around, a gigantic square of blinking neon, pink and green and blue, spelling Hotsy Totsy, a misleading moniker if there ever was one. Home to three pool tables, a long bar, seventeen bar stools, six warped plywood booths, two hideous bathrooms, and a juke box full of rock music from the 1960’s and 70’s—nothing after 1975—Hotsy Totsy is a low-ceilinged beer-soaked bunker presided over by the bald and portly Hell’s Angel Calvin Jensen, owner, bartender, bouncer and popcorn maker, popcorn and peanuts the primary foodstuffs available at Hotsy Totsy.

Rewriting Kerouac

Thursday, January 3rd, 2013

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2013)

“Great things are not accomplished by those who yield to trends and fads and popular opinion.” Jack Kerouac

More than fifty years after his novel was first published (in 1957), a movie has finally been made based on Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I have not yet seen the film, but because the movie was written and directed by Walter Salles, the brilliant Brazilian filmmaker who made the most magnificent Central Station, I wager his movie of On the Road will be beautifully made. I will also wager that On the Road, the movie, will owe much more to Salles’s genius than to the text after which it is named.

“I have suffered a great deal from writers who have quoted this or that sentence of mine either out of its context or in juxtaposition to come incongruous matter which quit distorted my meaning, or destroyed it altogether.” Alfred North Whitehead

Any meaningful discussion of Kerouac’s On the Road must take into account when the book was written and published. The book is a loose-knit rambling account of male friendship set in America in the immediate aftermath of World War II, when automobiles and the advent of suburbia were swiftly reshaping the physical and social landscape of the country and accelerating the breakdown of the social mores that had defined America for generations. Outside of this specific historical context, much of the novel will have little or no relevancy for most contemporary readers.

I think many of the complaints (and they are legion) about On the Road being badly written, boring, misogynistic, juvenile, shallow, and a colossal waste of the reader’s time are the result of readers hoping the book will reveal itself to be a timeless masterpiece, a revelation that will elude the reader unless he is that rare bird who enjoys Kerouac’s speedy chatty name-dropping word flow that is short on plot and continuity and long on…word flow, which in the context of the literary style-revolution of the 1950’s is significant. I think it no coincidence that Samuel Beckett’s highly abstract existential play Waiting For Godot, about two guys hopelessly lost on the road, was written and produced at roughly the same historical moment that On the Road was written and published, both works eschewing many of the structural and grammatical rules that theretofore governed their respective literary forms.

“All our best men are laughed at in this nightmare land.” Jack Kerouac

I first tried to read On the Road when I was thirteen, a paperback edition being available on our living room bookshelf. I was hunting for sex scenes and hopeful of finding them because the cover illustration on the 25-cent paperback featured a sexy young stud in the foreground with little pictures of scantily clad women in the background, including one picture of a couple in bed making love. Racy! Alas, careful skimming of what was to my young mind nearly unintelligible prose, uncovered only a few references to people having sex or having had sex, with almost nothing remotely juicy or graphic or titillating. Even the Mexican whorehouse adventure—a sort of climax to On the Road—was not particularly sexy, but rather pathetic. Fortunately, I would soon discover Lady Chatterley’s Lover and need no other masturbatory aid for years to come.

 “Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?” Jack Kerouac

In 1966, when I was sixteen, I was introduced to the San Francisco Beat poets by my friend Rico, and over the next several years I attended poetry readings featuring Philip Whalen (my favorite), Lew Welch, David Meltzer, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Allen Ginsberg. In retrospect, I find it fascinating that though all these poets owed much of their notoriety to their intimate connections to the world-famous Jack Kerouac, I never heard a single mention of Jack at any of those readings. When I was twenty, and only because I was so enamored of Philip Whalen’s poetry, I attempted to read Kerouac’s Dharma Bums (starring fictionalized versions of Whalen and Snyder) but could not force myself to read more than a few pages, no matter how many times I tried. Then shortly after giving up on Dharma Bums, I learned that Kerouac had recently died at the age of forty-seven from cirrhosis of the liver caused by alcoholism.

“Write in recollection and amazement for yourself.” Jack Kerouac

And so I attained the ripe old age of thirty-two without ever having read any Kerouac (other than my teenaged skimming of On the Road). I was living in Sacramento and very much enjoying the local poetry scene when I was invited to participate in a show entitled October in the Railroad Earth, a celebration of Jack Kerouac and the Beat poets. My fellow readers were D.R. Wagner, Patrick Grizzell, and Bari Kennedy. The format of our show, which became an annual event for many years thereafter, was that we would read works by Kerouac and his Beat poet pals in the first act and our own work in the second act. The readings took place in October in various dives around Sacramento, and for the first few years one of us was assigned to read October in the Railroad Earth, Kerouac’s poetic prose account of riding the train from San Francisco to Gilroy in October.

When I confessed to D.R. Wagner (a great visionary poet) that I had never read any Kerouac and had no idea what to read for the show, D.R. suggested I find a little something in On the Road. So to find that little something I decided to read the book and see what jumped out at me. Alas, if Kerouac’s word flow was largely unintelligible to me as a thirteen-year-old, On the Road held even less interest for me at thirty-two. And so I resorted to skimming, which brought me to a passage in which the narrator (the fictional Kerouac) hooks up with a young woman he meets on a bus—a passage I hoped to perform with some success for an audience of inebriated poets and poetry lovers.

However, when I previewed my reading for an audience of friends after supper one night, the unanimous judgment was that despite my best efforts, the narrative was difficult to follow and essentially pointless. And so, though I knew I was committing a great sacrilege, I spent some time editing the passage, adding a descriptive line here and there, and clarifying the myriad antecedents therein, something Kerouac seemed little concerned with, as if he assumed his readers needed no such clarity.

“It is not my fault that certain so-called bohemian elements have found in my writings something to hang their peculiar beatnik theories on.” Jack Kerouac

When the night of our performance arrived—the venue appropriately a subterranean bar (appropriate because one of Kerouac’s novels is entitled The Subterraneans)—the place was packed with Kerouac aficionados and poets and the special sort of people drawn to such literary social alcoholic events. And as I listened to D.R. and Pat and Bari read their Kerouac selections, I was filled with dread about what I was about to do: read my rewritten Jack to some of the only people on earth who might know that I had dared revise the work of their god. Was I crazy? Well, I was young and arrogant, which sufficed, so I took my turn, read with zeal, and garnered loud applause for my perfidy.

During the interminable intermission, I was approached by an enormous man with a prodigious mustache and a menacing look in his eyes. I braced myself for condemnation, but none was forthcoming. On the contrary, he shook my hand and declared, “You nailed it, man. You got the rhythm of his words absolutely spot on. I could hear the bass line going as you read. Bravo.”

And hot on the heels of the mustachioed behemoth came a gorgeous woman wearing a slinky sheath that clung most pleasingly to her many admirable curves. She clasped both my hands in both of hers and gushed, “Wow, I hate to admit, but I never really got Kerouac until now. I just…he never made sense to me, but as you read that scene I saw everything so clearly, like a fabulous movie. Thank you.”

At the next year’s Kerouac reading, I read Jack’s October in the Railroad Earth, and I didn’t change a word; and as I read that lovely flow of words I really got what Jack was trying to do with language, which was, I think, to sing like a jazz musician, talking and emoting through his instrument of words while staying open, wide open, to the feelings of the moment.