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This is what he told me when we were sitting in one of the office chairs by way of an explanation of how he came to be in one of the office chairs in the office I had been borrowed to sit in with him who I had no relative idea of why I was watching over or why he too was sitting one of the office chairs fortunately no one was bleeding unfortunately I wanted to be somewhere else and had it not been for the incident of the two people in the hallway and a 36” set of headphone wires I would have been on my way to return from the airport via the gym and into my specific sense of a personal envelope of purposeful balanced  existence instead I was sitting in an office chair and in forced companionship with the bored curiosity that opens genius to view I listened to him tell me he had been in a history classroom when he was told to leave and then another person deliberately stood in his way blocking the hall and he said I’m not trying to hit you it was a linguistic misunderstanding at that point as well as a situational misunderstanding if he were an armed person threatening to fire a warning shot it would be interpreted to mean stop or the situation will become even more violent deadly force it would in that situation have a tone of malevolence over what was formerly referred to as much a veiled threat such as adjusting a jacket to reveal the pistol nodding to a gun rack or a NRA decal in a car window the prelude to or worse violence issuing from unassailable power justified and mimetic of  myth, a threat of a petit divinity’s retribution from a tradition of secrets the old world of breaking a child’s spirit breaking a slave’s spirit I’m not trying to hit you is a creole grammar determined by the placement of the negation the inflected “not” could be misinterpreted as I’m trying not to hit you which implies  the potential for violence is eminent, more so than I’m not trying to hit you which is colloquial I’m not trying to is an expression used to introduce an activity one is attempting to refrain from engaging in as I’m not trying to sell a call when LeBron James explains a contested foul call, he is both sports sophisticated and grammatically and mildly dominant culture transgressive it is an act of self-expression my friend at school was following roughly the same model LeBron James who is the highest paid athlete in the world NBA  Champion hero of Cleveland my friend is not LeBron any more than my Uncle Joey was Phil Michelson because he played golf left-handed imitation this is a form of attaching to a perceived symbol of power and a sixteen year  old person does little else but imitate it’s reasonably appropriate behavior to try to learn how to continue living in the world it’s a fundamental survival activity in any culture it would be over obvious to describe our culture as confusing and fluid that cellphone that was originally about to be refused to be confiscated is the current instrument of cultural fluidity currently capable of disposing the tasks the expensive history text  attempt to accomplish passively remaining in the room my friend was sent out of for engaging with a computer an ironic exaggeration nonetheless the point is made flexibility is a social elitism depends on your class  you’re skipping school to wait on line for a new iPhone or texting in class the consequences aren’t the same they aren’t equated equally even in a school of second chances like the one where we sit in the office and discuss what happened as if it happened to someone else in another  life a miniature version of a movie watched on a cracked cell phone screen something heard faintly on cheap earphones.

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Time Enough at Last

June 14, 2016

 

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I had my vacation reading packed for travel, the last Umberto Eco, the newest Murakami, several volumes of poems I wanted to reread without distraction, and my new travel companion, Wittgenstein’s Mistress, a novel I read only in places other than my home. Literature has developed specialized contexts for me. When I think of myself, I think of myself as ‘the reader’, one writers imagine, engaged, articulate, and active. In spite of my handicap of reading slowly, I am patient and willing to stay in a literary relationship. I’m a cash customer, I purchase the books I read. I ask no mercy from my authors and in turn demand they deliver sophisticated thoughts and ideas, not merely kill time or invent thrills. Beach reads and murder mysteries annoy me. The farthest I’ve gone down that path was Sherlock Holmes, but only as self-required reading in my Victorian period. A fascination that actually started as a teaching project when I was working in Galveston Alternative Center for Education. I wanted to connect the curriculum with preparing students to visit and participate “Dickens On the Strand”.

It was an edgy, complicated social and literary endeavor. Thestudents were ‘alternative’ to being thrown out on the streets for the greater good of their high school, but still required by law to have a school placement. ”Dickens On the Strand” is the traditional celebration of Charles Dickens imaginary visit to Galveston. Nine blocks of the old historical district fit themselves out for hand bells, charming parades and an open street costumed party. It’s the beginning of Christmas. Quaint shops, twinkling lights, buskers and carolers. It was less racist than Victorian England, but it was de facto segregated (as much of Galveston was). Although the majority of the students I taught lived no more than ten blocks from the Strand district, none of them had ever attended. To my belief they were far more Dickensian than the folks who rented gowns, capes and canes to stroll the fantasy laid out in Galveston’s historical district.

My students believed they lived in G-town and they were G4Life.

When fantasies collide they best one often hopes for is irony.

Sherlock Holmes, even in film version, was incapable of holding our collective attention. The dialog was too overwrought, the restraint of the English class system too condescending, and Sherlock himself was just too annoying for us to battle through, and any essay topic from a Sherlock Holmes story is constantly doomed to explanation rather than interpretation. Dickens we could bring to life, a bowdlerized version of Jekyll & Hyde and by way of Internet “Jack the Ripper” these fired synapses and made connections. I made the same bargain with my students that I make with the books I read. I won’t waste precious reading effort with foolish practice exercises. If they’re going to work hard, they’re going to get paid. Freshman read A Christmas Carol, sophomores took on The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde and Juniors and Seniors combined to work through Oliver Twist.  As we wrote we explored Dickens’ works and life, life during Queen Victoria reign, websites in England, the US and Japan, and the wonderful Brown University Victorian Web. They wanted the real literature, the same as other students. We all swam in Victorian literature and history. As the Strand date approached they knew more about our reading than anyone in the school that expelled them. They knew why gentlemen didn’t button the bottom button on the waistcoats, why ladies walked on the inside of gentlemen, where treadmills came from and what the staves in “Christmas Carol” were. On the day we attended “Dickens On the Strand” they recognized what was portrayed and they in turn were recognized as apropos portraits. It’s the type of genuine relationship more and more frequently denied students and teachers. It was one of the possiblitites teaching literature can provide. Reading was life changing.

In spite of burgeoning MFA Writing programs, there is a painful decline in the appreciation of capital L literature. There are many inter-related explanations for this, increasingly moderated curricula, focus of standardized testing, social media hive mind, loss of program funding, CAI lessons, the decline of libraries, anti-intellectualism, data driven values, and like philosophy, there’s not much money in reading literature. Beyond these cultural forces reading faces much more competition than it did when I was young. As I grew up it was books, senseless TV, family movies, church,sports or go to your room and build models. But now television and movies have transformed their forms from a half an hour or forty-five minutes of instantaneous gratification into long, brooding, completive inventions.

In spite of my predilection for bound books, I try at least, to remain neutral and open about the current and future states of reading. Consider the classic “The Untouchables” versus “The Sopranos” or “The Wire”, or the brilliant use of real time aging and realized fiction of the Harry Potter film/book franchise, or compare Batman as he appeared in Detective Stories #27 with Batman: Year One, Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke , or the variant toned film versions. I laud the collective genius of modern forms. I can divert myself to a binge of series, excellent graphic novels, thoughtful blog communities, complex multiplayer video games, Netflix, Tennis Channel, Hulu, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, e-mails and e-versions of magazines and newspapers, and constant texting to distract me from my chosen struggle to enforce my attention on a device that is a remnant of the end of the Middle Ages.

On vacation I can read or watch any of this without leaving my favorite chair…unless.

Unless something happens to my glasses. I’d been meaning to visit Dr.K., my longtime friend and Optometrist to have an exam and adjustment. It seemed my glasses weren’t clear no matter how often I cleaned them. But the school year and domestic events unexpectedly demanded days and suddenly I was gratefully driving to New Mexico. Except my eyes bothered me. They watered. They ached. Something seemed to be on my lenses. It was overcast and breezy on the drive, generally a blessing driving across west Texas, which in summer can be like driving on a brilliant griddle. Instead it was twelve hours of driving through sharp, gray glare. By the time we arrived in Amarillo I had a headache, a short temper and was an hour too late to get to the gym. The motel I used to have an ugly dog affection for had taken a few steps deeper into the surreality that makes a good story but a terrible night’s sleep.

It took fully twenty minutes of grimacing for the computer to yield a room number, a key and a registration to sign. Our room had been selected by the manager to be a recently renovated one, with wood floors, a queen bed and a flat screen television.  The door was the first one at the end of makeshift stone pathway near the empty swimming pool. After changing the air conditioner setting from frigid din to din, I looked up and noticed the smoke detector near the ceiling had been skillfully covered with a towel. When I attempted to call the desk to inquire about this anomaly, I noticed there wasn’t a phone. Fortunately, I didn’t sit down in the room’s single chair to make my non-call. It had been sloppily employed for other things, fluid things, terrifically non-hygienic things. The flat screen television the manager had proudly promised had indeed been recently screwed into the wall. Judging by the residue, patch and spackle work, it had put up a struggle.  After multiple trips to the lobby, it was clear the Internet was free, but didn’t work. I stood in line at the desk behind a dazed tourist from Germany whose room was flooded by the air conditioner and a man on his way to Missouri who had just spent two hours traveingl two miles on I-40 because a wreck closed the freeway. Waiting in line I recognized my situation could have been worse, and there was nowhere else to go. Cheerfully I mentioned to my wife that the dishabille of the room reminded me of our honeymoon room at The Chelsea Hotel; some things are better left… So I took an aspirin and sang myself to sleep trying to remember all of the lyrics to “King of the Road”.

In the morning I felt much better as I was the only person in the lobby who seemed to know how the waffle maker worked.  Any day that starts with a waffle shaped to resemble the State of Texas is bound to get better. In New Mexico it did. Miraculously there was an Optical Shop in a warehouse store open on Sunday afternoon. I took a number and surveyed the unfortunate selection of frames. In the past twenty-five years I’ve only had two pair of frames, number three was not going to come from their collection. I’m obsessive and my prescription is complicated and easy to get wrong. With the exception of sleeping I do everything with my glasses on. It’s been that way as long as I can remember. I feel about my glasses the way Vikings did about their swords. I want to be cremated with my glasses.

When Maggie called “#95” she looked around and hoped I wasn’t there. She was already tired out by the previous ninety-four. She straightened my wife’s frames and told her not to use the soft needlepointed case. We agreed on something; I liked Maggie already. She took my glasses, surveyed them and looked at me.

“I can’t get them clean.”

Immediately she seemed to know what that meant.

“The coating is coming off. What kind of coating do you have on these?”

None I knew I had paid for, but coatings are already applied to most lenses, so I had no genuinely useful information. I did however; possess a copy of the prescription. Presenting my prescription, I asked if she could use it to make me a pair of contact lenses without my reading correction so I could drive. We still say “make” in a nostalgic sense. No shop “makes” lenses in that they manufacture or grind them anymore. It’s too expensive to fight the economy of scale. I can buy glasses on the Internet from e-businesses that already know who I am, what I want and sells cheaper than Walmart. Most optometric offices examine your eyes, order your lenses and frames, and make sure they’re correct. They provide expertise and relationships. It’s why I visit Mark, both because he’s careful and competent, and because his father was my optometrist and we’ve know each other longer than my last two sets of frames. We call each other by our first names. In Maggie’s world I was the ninety-fifth person she’d seen on a Sunday afternoon in a crowded store that was still grabbing numbers. She wouldn’t even unfold the prescription. But about the coating…

“Dawn.” She said handing back my glasses. “Clean them with Dawn. It will take a long time and then they’ll get cloudy, but Dawn.”

I know I have Dawn at the place in New Mexico. I love Dawn.

So I’m in the mountains of New Mexico slowly, gently washing my glasses, coating them with Dawn, soaking them, waiting and repeating. Little by little they’re getting clearer. Mark called back. He didn’t know about Dawn. I asked him about an Internet hack I read of using SP30 sunscreen as a cleaning solution. It took over twenty years of building our relationship for him to be able not to sound like he thought I was vacationing next door to a meth lab. He’s sending me an emergency set of contact lenses. When I return we’ll make a new set of glasses. Neither of us want to think about finding new frames.

 

 

June 9, 2016

 

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The Night Cassius Clay Sent Me to Bed

 

The Old Man was working 12:00 to 8:00 at United Engineering & Foundry. It was a school night. We were living on Glenhaven upstairs in a duplex. My father and I were going to listen to the championship fight on the radio in the kitchen before he got picked up. Fighting was one of the my father’s ways of holding on to the world, like showing up for work for fifteen years without missing a day. His was a creed of a body alone at war with the world. Absorb your beating and take your turn, your brief, brutal chance at being even. We try to teach our children the lessons that cost us the most pain to learn. Slip the jab and throw a short right hook to the body. In the Old Man’s bargain, five or six jabs for a liver shot, or breaking a couple knuckles on a heart punch was a fair deal.

Under a bare bulb in the basement is where the Old Man demonstrated the trigonometry of boxing, the family physics of self-defense. On my better days I was a remedial student. We both recognized when the fight came, I was inevitably going to take a beating, the only question was how bad. In its way he thought of a beating as a representative good…being taught a lesson. Bruises build character. His knuckles were misshapen from fitting steel and his nose was broken. I was a cream puff who talked too much, wandered around the public library, and didn’t understand what work was. The first time I tried to pull my head back to avoid a punch he looked at me as if I had deliberately broken a window. It was not going to be like bestowing a Biblical blessing.

Sonny Liston wasn’t liked, but he was understood. He taped and gloved heavy hands with pure violence. He possessed a prisoner’s patience and moved with the bored gait of a mob enforcer. He was inevitable. Dependable as silence.

Cassius Clay disturbed the simplicity of the boxing dialectic. Punching was the tool and taking a punch was the test. Avoiding a punch was weakness. Cowards were revealed in the ring. He believed in “you can run, but you can’t hide.” I don’t think my father ever actually used the word cowardice, but boasting, slipping punches and winning on points he considered legal cheating. Cassius Clay was merely a constantly annoying jab. He was the loudmouth at the end of the bar you wanted to shut up. He was the company man in a short sleeved white shirt who looked through you and laughed as he did time/motion card studies on your job. He was the three card monte guy.

When you feel the punches start to slide off…  (He demonstrated the difference between hammering and peening on my shoulder.)  …then you set your feet. This was his illustration of recognizing your moment of opportunity. It seemed easy at eleven to dismiss this terrible wisdom as real.

When we turned it on, the radio broadcast could have been prattling about Liston’s two one round KOs of Floyd Patterson, or a commercial.  We both stood in the kitchen listening. No beer, no potato chips. The bell rang, the crowd screamed over the exaggerated tone of Les Keiter. He called Clay’s eyes “big as door knobs”. He criticized him for pulling his head straight back. At the end of the first round the Old Man nodded, vindicated. The rounds proceeded, on the radio it was less clear what was happening, except Liston hadn’t killed Clay. I was giddy. By the sixth round Liston was plodding, lunging, and bleeding; Clay was still circling and jabbing, delivering sharper combinations, and taunting the ringside press. His moment of opportunity had arrived.

Sonny Liston lost the heavyweight championship sitting on a stool; my father sat down in his usual chair in the corner of the kitchen. I wanted to hear more about the fight. Cassius Clay, wild with relief, proclaimed himself “King of the World” over and over, screamed “Greatest” as Howard Cosell asked chuckling questions. I wanted the beautiful chaos to continue, it felt like being allowed into an amusement park. Cassius Clay had jabbed and danced the inevitable world into surrender. Maybe I wouldn’t need to take the beating after all.

“Turn off the radio.”

My father said it as if I had done something wrong, as if I had something to do with the outcome of the fight. He was a good parent and I was a difficult child. He never hit me in anger, or complained about my continual problems at school, or made fun of my eccentricity. He took me places; we did things together. I thought of our six rounds as fun in the kitchen listening to a boxing match; we didn’t know we had been fighting. Father and son we listened to a bout of heavyweight boxing and left as mysteriously injured as Sonny Liston’s shoulder.

In my room I turned on the transistor radio I got for Christmas and listened to it under my pillow. It was jabber. Dad left for work.

 

 

Summer II

 

 

 

The End of It

http://youtu.be/UkKo-jXl2CQ    Annie Lennox “Summertime”

It’s a couple of days after Winter Solstice. What sun there is, comes cold, strained, and weak. Christmas feasting is over; I’m tired of liking FB pictures of other people’s children holding toys. There’s low grade despair on the streets as shoppers exchange gifts for bargains. Nobody really wants another cookie, but another one gets eaten. There’s no miracle to believe in or reason for wonder or song. In another age, I’d have been tending toward Romantic melancholy, now I’ll have to content myself with Seasonal Affect Disorder or a call to my Health Care Provider’s Call-In Advisor. Today was the day I found Annie Lennox superb version of “Summertime” and the conclusion to this piece I’d been searching for since the summer ended.
“Summertime” being farthest away seemingly brings it closer, makes it precious in its absence.

Beyond her evocative voice, Ms. Lennox has a pulse of zeitgeist that has kept her a successful pop star (over 85 million records sold), in her various public avatars for nearly three decades. She seems to know in detail what she’s voicing, and is able to sense what her audience is searching for, perhaps before they know it themselves. She remains one of the consummate rock/video artist from the brief golden age of that art form. Each of her video productions displayed her ability to interpret collaborative images into collective portraits that are both emotionally expressive and wryly self-conscious. “Nostalgia” and this version of “Summertime” won’t diminish that oeuvre. Ms. Lennox remains one of the most intelligent and creative of the vocal artists to undertake “Summertime” and this rendition on her recently released “Nostalgia” possesses that mélange of memory and expression that has made faux memoir the form of our current age.

The version I’ve been listening to in a cold room is a pristine emulation of a Blue Note recording from the period of the early sixties. Mid-century style being just beyond the cusp of its current trend, “Nostalgia” comes as a slightly askew interpretation of standards from that period. I doubt this recording will either increase or diminish her stature. It is pleasing and smart, but not overly ambitious. It speaks more to utilizing talents in an interior mode than exploiting them to the pop audience she has attracted in earlier years. She lends her intelligence to “Summertime” and a personal taste in interpretation that has a feeling of historical fiction. She recorded it at the legendary Blue Note Studios and engineered it for a vinyl recording.

This is the only version of “Summertime” from this century I’ve reviewed. I had considered including the pleasant enough Nora Jones/Marian McPartland version, but there seemed more etude than interpretation for my taste… at least not enough to bring me back from my autumn stasis. The Annie Lennox version revived my “Summertime” thought with its subtle invocation of the tradition of “Summertime” as a vehicle, sometimes awkward and other times inspired to carry a complicated cultural sensibility. In some still moments afterwards I can hear the conflicted spirituality of the original George Gershwin /Abbie Mitchell recording. In her singing I heard hints of Miles Davis, and Billy Stewart mixed with a smoky Rudy Van Gelder living room intimacy, longing for a past that could have, but never quite existed.

Perhaps there is a fundamental artificiality in “Summertime” that shivering, bleak weather brings clearer. I’ve been wandering holiday airport lounges. I overheard a stranger’s unexpected intimate confession to a child. I walk my daughter’s dog as frigid evenings empty another day after the holiday’s passing…it’s that long night when summer is a luxurious memory rather than a relentless presence.

Creating both “Summertime” the LP itself, required creating a sophisticated illusion to make the interpretation a real space for the listener. Its tone reminds me of the more intimate Frank Sinatra of “In the Wee Small Hours” (which included “Mood Indigo”, also on “Nostalgia”). Lennox’s version of “Summertime” is a song hinting at a cabaret license, cigarette smoke and violins, serious cynical drinking and a slow, beautiful exposition populated with loss. Like other pop, and rhythm and blues singers such as Linda Ronstadt, Rod Stewart, or Diana Washington, Ms. Lennox has found a mature interest in visiting “The Great American Songbook”.

“The Great American Songbook” is the traditional canon of Broadway and Movie tunes from the turn of the Twentieth Century Tin Pan Alley and ended in the1960s in the Brill Building (or with the invention of Bob Dylan). My travels with George Gershwin’s “Summertime” have deepened my familiarity with many of the Songbook songs, singers and styles that I had regarded as items folded in my mother’s bureau. They are songs that are easily memorable, relatively easy to sing (badly), and capable of enduring interpretation from a wide variety of styles, as my extravagant “Summertime” exercise has demonstrated. However they are mostly adult songs, complicated by experience and reflection. To interpret one, not merely musically correctly, but personally is what provides the challenge for the performer. Recalling Julie Andrews’ “Favorite Things” and John Coltrane’s interpretation provide examples of how much interpretation one of these standards could endure without losing its character. They are a treasury of two generation’s dreams and loss.

However, in the Twenty-first Century a standard like “Summertime” exists in a simultaneous multiplicity of interpretations. Annie Lennox in discussing her preparation for recording “Nostalgia” cites YouTube as a major resource. Ms. Lennox and I shared the kind of sonic research that began this essay six months ago that requires only an Internet connection, headphones and obsessive curiosity. The Internet is a portable research library, with semi-anonymous suggestions, hints, and wild hare tracks to follow. In the realm of language and opinion, the Internet has both sharpened and blurred the differences between academic and amateur scholarship. What were once Reviews of Literature, or anthologies, are now almost impossible to accurately compile because of the constant revision, insertion and invention of information on any given subject. In an area like criticism algorithms rule taste.

In the early eighties I recall purchasing a cassette tape of The Eurhythmics, “Be Yourself Tonight”, from a Boots Drug Store in London; they were breaking out of the hip dance club circuit and becoming MTV stars. Evenings after returning in rainy walks from the tube station I listened to it on a hand held tape recorder. Those nights harkened to the days when as a child I would listen to rock, girl talk, and rockabilly on a pocket sized transistor radio I kept hidden beneath my pillow. Both were relatively the same size, and just a little thicker than the phone I carry around now. The songs played over and over as I puzzled out meanings and nuance quite literally as if I were receiving personal coded messages from nearby space. Now they come to me as lullabies releasing scents of a Proustian memory.

I doubt the androgynous masked Annie Lennox of “Sweet Dreams” would have envisioned such a project as “Nostalgia”; still experience teaches the limitations and adjustments our talents. Ms. Lennox’s chosen repertoire has supported her voice with amplified inflection, style, and gesture. Regardless of her work’s high art aspiration, she’s in show business, in direct descent from the line of chanteuses, who have as Gershwin would have requested, can “put over” a song. What has made the difference is experience has deepened her emotional pallet, and created spaces for her share the spotlight with a song. My supposition is the intention wasn’t to possess “Summertime” the way her persona inhabits songs like “Why” or “Walking On Broken Glass”, rather something else more personally reflective and self-satisfying. It’s the accumulation of loss and disappointment, of age and maturity that makes this “Summertime” an interesting interpretation. It embraces the deep artificiality of the song’s original operatic premise as part of the broader reality of its interpretations.

Eighty-one summertimes have arrived and dissipated since George Gershwin adapted a spiritual fragment into a minor key blues lullaby. Only the song has remained constant in its dreamy dynamic of post card weather, someone else’s hope, and underwritten despair. It hasn’t brought anyone fortune. An almost incomprehensible 25,000 voices have waded in to record its melody and search for a way to negotiate its personal and cultural currents. Like a Christmas tree at the curb, or the string of lights outlining an RV window, an imaginary authenticity brings us past the original meaning, past decoration, to a strange, dark place, not without its agency of beauty.

PART FOUR Let Some Caterwauling Commence

In 1966 along with Donavon’s “Sunshine Superman” and The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City”, Billy Stewart had a hit with “Summertime” http://youtu.be/Mr7Qq_qUKb0 . It reached 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 and eventually became the biggest selling single for both Mr. Stewart and “Summertime”. It joined the legion of warm weather choruses that casually accompany vacations, graduation and summer romances like best friends. The Beach Boys and other surf bands, The Drifters, and Nat King Cole were all part of the transistor radio soundtrack that for three months accompanied Bermuda shorts, burnt hot dogs and the peculiar scent of Coppertone. Generally there was a song rotation of 2’30” songs lauding the bright brief season of navel gazing, and hopefully not only at one’s own.

 

Like secular Christmas carols, summer songs possessed shared cultural pleasures, magical optimism, and the promise of emotional acceptance. When the Summer of Love came along its musical precedence was well established. With that “Why not?” spirit “Summertime” has been recorded with, Theremins, twin guitars, twangy guitars, reggae skanks, jazz orchestras with strings, Hammond B-3 organs, angry pianos, every type of wind instrument from pan pipes to gold inlaid flutes and vocals ranging from smokey to saccharine. Many were experiments that for the promised eternity of the Internet might have found a quiet oblivion. Each interpretation brings its special palette, but perhaps not as much in the way of enlightenment.

In the legion of questionable recordings of “Summertime” here are some of the more eccentric starting with Clara Rockmore’s Theremin version and ending with the esteemed, but angry, Duke Ellington. Some “Summertime”:

http://youtu.be/j0c7p5geJZs  Clara Rockmore,

 

http://youtu.be/fNAFClBagfs Santo & Johnny,

 
http://youtu.be/LFWDpxqrOWU The Ventures,

 
http://youtu.be/JbWg_xKyi-M Herbie Mann,

 
http://youtu.be/j1bWqViY5F4 Charlie Parker,

 
http://youtu.be/q6L34MhPRak Ricky Nelson,

 
http://youtu.be/YlxxmNP2MKw Billy Preston,

 
http://youtu.be/e1nXeaE9og8 Eumir Deodato,

 
http://youtu.be/D7J4YWrZa80 The Zombies,

 
http://youtu.be/mPGG4SL7aFE Lloyd Clarke,

 
http://youtu.be/4JesgKVLqrA Johnny G Watson,

 
http://youtu.be/Tk90QyrkRTY Friends of Dean Martinez,

 
http://youtu.be/fGGJoTmlmAg The Walker Brothers,

 
http://youtu.be/0Rr_6VNF2To Booker T & the MGs,

 
http://youtu.be/5lAQltfRLfM Lawrence Welk, and

 
http://youtu.be/JzG3G4C8jMY Duke Ellington.

 

I’m indebted to John Tangari for his research on variant versions of “Summertime”. If you find you’d like more “Summertime” variations I suggest you visit his site, after that seek your own salvation diligently. http://everygreatsongever.tumblr.com/post/5767727618/30-versions-of-summertime .

PART THREE Revisions and Reclamations

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American movies have a knack for homogenizing issues into forms you can watch while you eat Goobers. “Porgy and Bess” didn’t have that kind of fortune. It was the last film produced by Samuel Goldwyn. The set and costumes were burned on the first day of rehearsals, rumors circulated that it was arson. Midway through production Otto Preminger took over as director and there was a lawsuit filed by the Director’s Guild. Harry Belafonte refused the role of Porgy, he was replaced by Sidney Poitier and the role was sung by Robert McFerrin. Sammy Davis Jr., the only performer who actually wanted to be in this production, played Sportin’Life . This only after Frank Sinatra pressured Goldwyn to cast him in spite of rumored racial slurs from the Gershwin family. Ultimately his vocals were replaced by Cab Calloway due to a recording contract dispute. The completed film has remained in litigation between factions of the Gershwin Estate and MGM who both continue contesting ownership rights. There hasn’t been a redeeming review of the film and the soundtrack was removed from distribution; that either was completed was a fruitless miracle. In many ways it typified the changing subtext of “Summertime”.

In anticipation of the film’s release and publicity several musicians produced interpretations of “Porgy & Bess”.

 

Louis Armstrong & Ella Fitzgerald 1957: http://youtu.be/LDF4_qVgbFU
In 1957 Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald produced a critically celebrated jazz version of selections from “Porgy and Bess”. Although it received a Grammy in 2001 to mark its historic significance, it seems a translation of a strange “as if “Summertime. It begins with the horn that Billie Holiday’s arrangement alluded to twenty years earlier, Louis Armstrong Hot Five. But here its tone is far from the insouciant genius of Storyville. In this recording he seems to be merely playing notes, more like an audition than an interpretation. The agile voice of Ms. Fitzgerald, sounds more like an ersatz Dinah Shore than Bess, and both Mr. Armstrong and Ms. Fitzgerald seem to casually walk away from the tune and lyrics. Ultimately they drift into scat vamps, mostly as decorations on no theme except pointless cheerfulness. It seems as removed from interpreting the possibilities of “Summertime” as television in 1957 was from interpreting life. It has replaced one set of racial stereotypes for a newer, emptier one.(Ten years later in 1968 Ella Fitzgerald recorded “Summertime” again with the Tee Carson trio. http://youtu.be/u2bigf337aUd . She seems to have reconsidered and produced a spare, more personal, emotionally felt rendering.) In spite of its apparent carelessness, this version has moved its interpretation of the original song into the milieu of popular culture.

 

That both artists publicly chose to make it seem nonchalant and workmanlike should not be undervalued. Racial segregation was an unresolved entity in America. That year Federal Troops were required to quell riots in Little Rock in an attempt to stop African-American students from entering high schools. In 41 states inter-racial marriage was illegal. Racial violence was organized and genuine. Mr. Armstrong and Ms. Fitzgerald were able to provide a coded message with the kind of disingenuousness people used to working and appearing cheerful may have understood. In my interpretation this was “Summertime” for showing up, doing the job, and getting paid. In 1958 my father, and millions of other Americans, had settled into jobs that featured long, boring shifts, managers in short sleeve white shirts, Labor Day off, and decades of cheerless smiles. They could have understood the constriction, perhaps appreciated the rebellion in performing a task correctly with complete artificiality and unspoken anger.

 

Less than a year after Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald in 1958, “Summertime” was also interpreted by Miles Davis and Gil Evans on the album “Porgy and Bess”: http://youtu.be/JN1uFMK3zZI .

 

In the Miles Davis interpretation old stereotypes were scraped away and its musical dialect was abandoned. The story remains, although retold from a different point of view. Miles Davis and Gil Evans reinvented “Porgy and Bess” from the inside out as “cool”.

 

In 1924 DuBose Heyward published a volume of poetry Jazbo Brown and Selected Poems. Jazbo is an amalgam figure based on itinerant Delta Bluesmen legends. He is the character playing a slow blues as the curtain rises on “Porgy and Bess” and his playing morphs into “Summertime”. In the Davis/Evans version the musical arrangement is reduced to echoing four bar phrase that resembles twelve bar blues. However, where Mr. Armstrong’s horn searched for a safe purchase, Mr. Davis examines the same melody as his possession.
He uses muted language as a code that sings in the double language of race, but not for protection, but celebratory display. Miles Davis took the chords, changes and melodies and voiced them into a sophisticated and aesthetically intellectual production.

 

In some sense he re-gifted “Porgy and Bess” to its African American community. Gone are what Duke Elington referred to as “troubling Negroisms”, no embarrassing sentimentality for segregation, no dropped -ings, apostophied elisions, no fumbling over Mammy/ Mama/ Mother. His interpretation reverses the setting and sense, where once “Porgy and Bess” was an awkward and pathos ridden opera of condescension to the lives of the ‘colored’, now “Summertime” is cool, hip, the object of envy, not pity. Neither does this interpretation dismiss the intimacy to drugs, pimps, prostitution and the underworld. Where the Armstrong/Fitzgerald version appeared audience friendly and nonchalant, the Davis/Evans version is intensely self-aware, disengaged and sophisticated.

 

If Mahalia Jackson’s spiritual lesson of racism was “in this world anything can be taken”, Mr. Davis understood that message as a secular lesson; he found himself capable of taking anything as well. Porgy has gone from walking on his knees to wearing Italian loafers. The muted notes imply that in his wry horn it can be transformed into the kind of cool Gershwin couldn’t imagine existed. It has transformed Catfish Row from a world white people believed they owned into a world they’re afraid they wouldn’t be hip enough to enter.

 

John Coltrane 1961: http://youtu.be/0bGqew020Zo

 

If Miles Davis “Summertime” was change by urban renewal, this is metamorphosis. The classic 1961 John Coltrane Quartet brought the same musical competence that von Karajan’s orchestra employed, but employed their virtuosity to repurpose “Summertime” into a vehicle of reflection and refraction. In this arrangement “Summertime” isn’t a lullaby about easy living in the big house. It becomes a series of extrapolations on the prepositional life near a house. Each improvisation comes close enough to acknowledge fragments of the familiar buried in a different conversations. It removes the languid time signatures, removes the fictive structures of the ionic scale and replaces them with modal short stories.

 

With John Coltrane’s interpretation the listener must imagine “Summertime” as jazz musicians do. It’s not a dialect, libretto or chord progression they’re changing, but the expectation of music.
The listener is the one who must generate the standard “Summertime” and in doing so the performed music becomes more apt, intimate and beautiful. The quartet assumes the person listening is participating at the core of the song. Try this experiment, Google lyrics for “Summertime”, start the John Coltrane recording and silently sing along. The unheard song you are singing becomes a foundation, while the sounded music of the quartet counterpoints the interior voicing. Once you understand that the actual “Summertime” requires you to participate, this interpretation comes clearer. The quartet follows a subliminal “Summertime” that acts as a conductor might. Like that conductor you must pay strict attention not only to the produced music, but also the music you must hear internally to bring about the next phrase.

 

By the time of this recording listeners had heard “Summertime” enough that it was in the bones of American culture.  In 1961 “Summertime” was presented not for the drowsy baby doing nothing but being lulled by tones, but an energetic prophetic ear. It is interpreted for someone who has the awareness and energy to go through the imaginary fourth wall. Punctuated by Elvin Jones percussion and McCoy Tyner’s left hand chording “Summertime” strides along extrapolating phrases, but it refuses to resolve them other than musically. There is no significant attempt to interpret the underlying fiction of “Porgy and Bess”.
At some moments Mr. Coltrane’s tone hearkens back to the Sidney Bechet recording in its open, realized virtuosity, but doesn’t attempt a closer connection with the spirit of the opera, since by 1961, it couldn’t be the same story. Suspension of disbelief was no longer possible, the tale of Porgy, the legless beggar and Bess, the beguiled victim, was symbolically nearly impossible to interpret without the overlay of race becoming more powerful than the dynamics of the rise and fall of any part of the libretto.

Let Porgy stand for the rising sense of power of African Americans, let Bess be white America. It could be true, but wouldn’t matter. Any musical expression would be juxtaposed next to Strom Thurman’s 24 hour filibuster on the floor of the Senate against the Civil Rights Act, or Governor Fabus, or Sheriff Bull Connor. In spite of the genius of Miles Davis revision just three years earlier, “Porgy and Bess” was a diminished language for discussing race.

 

“Summertime” had evolved into a musical prompt about describing intimacy and the tentative identity of relationships.
What John Coltrane’s interpretation of “Summertime” understood, opened, and expressed was essential to the American race dialog. The dialog Mr. Coltrane and the Quartet engage in is nearly pure music in a baroque sensibility, it’s variations on a given theme. Although it’s not without emotion, it’s largely without depiction. It’s an inner dialog focused on an internal mathematics. In an ironic sense it returned “Porgy and Bess” to the operatic warehouse where it could languish in obscure respectability.

IMG_20140308_141334025 Summertime

 

It is, as some say on the Gulf Coast, “hotting up”. Not quite change your shirt twice a day hot, but already stay in the shade hot. Among other things hot weather is good for ripening tomatoes, iced coffee and arguments over small things. My college roommate and I have been arguing out the fine points of topics like Victorian adversaries for decades. Over time we’ve become familiar with one another’s tastes, beliefs and exaggerations. Not long ago, quite unexpectedly he proclaimed an affection for Julie Andrews, Broadway musicals, professionally trained voices and proscribed all else to the exile of “caterwauling”. Late in ones’ life I expect a certain amount religious retrenchment, dietary conversions, even divorces, but a Pauline conversion to musical theater surprised me. Broadway repertoire has charms, but deleting the astonishing range of 20th Century recordings we had shared for years set me wondering.

 

In my life I’ve enjoyed friends who could sing long selections of musicals a cappella, who were dogmatic collectors of recordings of chanteuses, and others who had framed “Playbills” on their walls. I admire obsession. I get it, at the same time I confess too much of my childhood was tortured by overexposure to “The Sound of Music”. Julie Andrews did nothing culpable: she remains Maria Rainer. Her soprano was lovely and expressive; whatever problems I have with the singing are mine. So I did find myself taking less exception to the canonization of Broadway, but more the loss of so much music to the lesser realm of caterwaul.

 

To my ear, the rigid tonal structures of western music, while pleasing, seem an artifact of a lost age I often appreciate as a tourist. It requires little from me but a credit card, suspension of disbelief and a cultural predisposition to sit still for three acts. That’s not derogatory; it’s in the nature of Western art forms. “The Sound of Music” is entertaining. It pits romance and the diatonic scale against Nazis and monastic vows. While reinterpreting history is one of the basic mythic devices of western theater, the more complex differentiation isn’t about historical melodrama and artistic interpretation, but between attractive and beautiful. Attractive has a broader range, or conversely beautiful has a deeper, narrower range. Both are noble human endeavors. What is easy or pretty draws us away from the unpleasantness of our lives; what is demanding and transformative takes us back to something that may be less pleasing, but more a more demanding useful truth.

 

I have lived in a fortuitously peculiar period. The sonic variety of our collective musical mind has been infected by recordings. People like me, born in the 1950s, have heard more different types of music than perhaps any other generation before us. We have heard it and responded to it, but been physically present for proportionally very few actual performances. Radios, records, CDs, tapes, television, movies, MTV, iPods, download and YouTube provide a constantly changing kaleidoscopic soundscape possessing both novelty and historical delicacy. As with most things, we know more than we have experienced. The Nazis came and went before I was born. Race, jazz, poverty and class struggle have remained part of the conversation of my lifetime; I’d like to consider “Summertime” from America’s first major opera “Porgy and Bess” and the notion of expressive caterwauling.
Like the performance of most operas, a performance of “Porgy and Bess remains precious. More people have seen Lady Gaga perform “Monster Ball” in its two years of touring than the combined audiences for every performance of “Porgy and Bess”. “Porgy and Bess” is another of America’s awkward masterpieces. It has an unaccountably erratic history of productions, enjoying limited runs in 1935, 1942, 1952 and notably 1976 as a revival by Houston Grand Opera. The 1959 film version was a production melodrama nearly more dramatic than the script. It too is assumed to be well known, but also seldom seen. The film was never given wide theatrical release and was shown only once on network television in 1967. Like many, I claim to having seen it and recall scenes and songs, including “Summertime”.

 

Most operas exist in the repertoire of storage. They are an antithesis of ‘popular’ music, to most people there are musical fragments or costumes that are almost recognizable. Mel Blanc may probably be the most recognized voice of the Valkyrie for the overwhelming majority of Americans. By nature opera is caricature; in America opera is an intellectual cartoon. It represents pure music with extensively trained performers and a demand for educated attention that is expensive in many ways audiences are not often willing to purchase. Nonetheless Americans assume operas will exist whether or not they like them, understand them, or attend their performances. As an opera George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” has struggled to find an audience identity outside of its composer’s roots in Tin Pan Alley, the Jazz Age and Broadway shows.

 

George Gershwin published his first hit song at seventeen. He had some classical piano lessons and positive experiences in that realm, but found his immediate future and fortune in popular music. He wrote Al Jolson’s black face signature “Sewanee” in 1917. He wrote songs for theatrical productions that were primarily musical reviews, song and dance, chorus, comics and hits. He understood his audience, the task of the song, and wrote to its commercial potential. The term “selling a song” came from this Tin Pan Alley period.

 

The piano industry reached its peak in the 1920s then declined with the Great Depression. Until the crash, pianos were the most common ‘must have’ item for every household, school and public business. Even today, a hundred years later, that prevalence of pianos remains part of our cultural memory. We aren’t surprised if a piano player appears in Western movie, in fact they’re cliché. Nor does it strain our imaginations when the Little Rascals rescue someone from piano practice to play football, when Mickey Rooney sits down to write the show to put on, or in the background music for tenement scene, dive bars, or cocktail parties comes as the trebly sound of a nearby piano player. We not surprised to find a piano anywhere. Legendarily in the 1920’s there were so many composers sitting at pianos picking out so many different songs at the same time on West 28th Street that it sounded like beating tin pans as opposed to music, Tin Pan Alley. Pianos and sheet music were a profitable industry, those without a trainable daughter or son purchased player pianos. Gershwin both wrote songs families could sing around a piano and arranged songs for piano rolls. He was extraordinarily successful at it.

 

Like all people of ambition he aspired to something more without the knowledge of what shape that would take. Like many from immigrant families, he recognized it would demand acculturation, invention and energy. He flourished with the jazz age, studied in Paris, and saw his “Rhapsody in Blue” and “An American in Paris” performed at Carnegie Hall. The music he composed for “Porgy and Bess” was in some aspects the culmination of his successes. It possessed sweeping themes and singable tunes. Gershwin’s seasonal “Summertime” was composed for “Porgy and Bess”.

 

“Summertime” was originally set to a poem by DuBose Heyward from the novel Porgy by Mr. Heyward.” “Porgy and Bess” was initially described by George Gershwin as a “folk opera”, that is, inspired by common songs and rhythms and interpreted in classical musical form. No different from works by Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Bartok, or Aaron Copeland all contemporaries of Gershwin. It’s generally assumed “Porgy and Bess” drew melodies from spirituals and other tunes Gershwin heard traveling in the South. In preparing the music he made an extended visit to a North Carolina barrier island. (There is an alternative interpretation asserting that “Summertime” is based on Yiddish and Ukrainian lullaby melodies.) The style of symphonic composing that was Gershwin’s forte was a style of musical interpretation and invention with a long history in Western classical music dating from Bach and certainly Beethoven. It was, as Ezra Pound wrote “…what the age demanded.” [Hugh Selywn Mauberley]. The age demanded overblown nationalistic symphonic music for growing radio audiences, American music sanitized from the jazz of the Jazz Age. Unquestionably the most popular and resonant song from Gershwin’s American opera was “Summertime”.

 

Many summers ago I was driving in Austin and a local disc jockey spent a silly and obsessive two hours playing nothing but different renditions of “Summertime”. I was fortunate to have escaped that easily; there are between 25,000 and 30,000 recorded versions. But I did came away wondering what “Summertime” could mean, even to me. Today Catfish Row is like the village Pagliacci’s wagon arrives in. The Harlem Renaissance is archived, along with Vachel Lindsey’s “Congo”, the St. James Infirmary and the Cotton Club. The roar of the twenties retains perhaps an academic allure, but in its moments it was quite the wild party. Stocks soared, religion was booming business, evolution was on trial, people seemed blissfully surrounded by a bubble of debt too big to burst, and sex, race, gangsters and music met for cocktails in glamorous lounges. It was summertime as the Depression arrived in its own wagon.

Here is the first recording of “Summertime” Abbie Mitchell sings and George Gershwin plays the piano and conducts:
http://youtu.be/x0g12TrSnIE
Why this version is heard so seldom surprises me. It’s gorgeous, and not just for 1935. It feels both human and ethereal. It seems to speak in an almost ambient religious tone. However this is not the version that Gershwin decided to finally employ. Perhaps it was too ethereal to attract investors, or not in the swing fashion. He continued re-working the setting as he worked on “Porgy and Bess” making adjustments, although he clearly was pleased with the basic “Summertime” as a piece and employed it three times in the opera.

 

The next oldest recording I could locate of “Summertime” was recorded in 1936 by Billie Holiday about seven months after the show opened in New York. http://http://youtu.be/9xpq1pLk-sA . There are echoes of tawdry jazz age colors in the introduction. Then Billie Holiday’s vocal moves the song from a lullaby into an ironic despair tinged view of life and the false oblivion of childhood. The insistent tom toms and Artie Shaw’s clarinet bring a kind of faux jungle decadence that speaks to both the Porgy story and the political oblivion of the times, simultaneously containing the guarded slumber of a child and the monsters of Jim Crow and worse. By comparison to the 1935 recording this isn’t as fully realized, but it possesses qualities of expression that allow the singer and song to engage. The band allows itself to become an shorthand of clichés and within the vocal I sense a hesitancy and inexperience, which lend to the recording’s the overall effect of singing to an infant amid jostling. If that was the intended effect or not, I can’t exactly determine. The band was between styles, the singer young, but already abused, and the recording hurried in order to take advantage of what publicity there was surrounding the opening of” Porgy and Bess”. It arrives more as an etude for something larger and later, which is how the song is initially employed in the opera.

http://youtu.be/IG4nPM9uxwg

Sidney Bechet recorded “Summertime” June 8, 1939 with Teddy Bunn on guitar. Summer is the character; there may be a baby and it may or may not be sleeping. Mr. Bechet’s interpretive soprano voices some sense of an alley between Montmartre and Basin Street as the afternoon’s heat is abating. Mr.Bunn’s blues-influenced guitar counterpoints the free musical extrapolation with a feeling of languor and restraint. Already the song has traveled some distance away from Gershwin into the hands of the interpreter, and Sidney Bechet was seldom shy about taking possession of a song. “Summertime” was well on its way home from the opera.

End of Part One

Washing the Corpse

July 17, 2010

  

 

“and since they knew nothing about his life

  they lied till they produced another one.”

                                    Washing the Corpse, Rainer Maria Rilke

                                                            [translated by Edward Snow]

Tuesday my friend, Michael Silver Dragon died. He had been fighting his illnesses for as long as I knew him. He had been in hospice care for nearly a year. He was lifelong motorcycle rider; two summers ago he sold his motorcycle because he couldn’t ride anymore. A couple weeks ago he wanted to take me out for drive in his Tiburon. Over the last months he had taken up driving the mountain roads by himself and smoking little cigars while using his oxygen respirator. “I’m going to die soon” he told me” so cigar smoke isn’t going to kill me.” I suggested the exploding tank might; he laughed. It was a hacking laugh that suggested he was whacking things with a hatchet. I went on the condition that he wouldn’t smoke cigars while he was using oxygen. He took the curves and hills a little too fast, and drifted over the  line a bit while telling me what once was down this dirt road, or what Fenton Lake looked like before the highway went through. We laughed a lot with the loud laughter you sometimes hear in bars—that vague coughing sound that usually has little to do with what’s been said, but is releasing something that isn’t being said, but wants to. The paved road ran out and we decided to turn back. He was tired, but wouldn’t let me drive. We stopped in Seven Springs and visited a friend. We sat in her kitchen drinking tea and listening to the brook that runs outside her back door. It was a painterly moment…maybe a little too restless to be Romantic or Impressionist.

A silence fell into our conversation as our friends ate lunch. I looked at Michael and saw suppressed surprise in his eyes. He was lost, but I didn’t know where I should look to find him. Eventually the tea and honey found him and brought him back. Like most return trips we don’t remember many details, that was true of us and soon we were saying good-bye in the library parking lot where we left my car. By chance his wife and friend, Berta, was parking her car to attend a meeting. We all stood hugging and thankful. It would have been a kind perfection for things to have just evaporated into those instants of affection and fullfillment.

But they didn’t.

That is the kind of vignette that makes genuine human character rhetorical. It’s warm, sentimental and allows itself to be contrived by the pathos and a hinted knowledge of death. At this point Michael Silver Dragon is really dead. But in these scenes I have replaced him with my desire to produce an elegiac fictional Silver Dragon. I’m not writing an obituary; rather contriving a sweet eulogy intended to make my reader abstrusely sad, but also to engage in my fictionalization as a form of easy belief. You as my reader must believe this, in order for it to grow to be the truth. I confess to knowing practically nothing factual about Michael. For me he had little history other than our private shared adventures on my holidays and vacations. He could have been my Great Uncle Johnny. The day after he died I was asked to write the obituary. Those dictated facts were a series of revelations, which I suppose a certain amount any obituary actually is, but an obituary is also a symbolic punctuation indicating when the dead receive a new life as adjuncts to those of us who remain and construct memories. They belong to us, like movie characters or pop stars. We build the dead out of need. We shape them as the  poetic corpse washers shape the lies they need to tell one another. This is more about me, about my need to remember and forget the same thing. 

“Not all truth comes in beautiful words; not all beautiful words are truth.”

 Last Saturday morning Berta called from her panic. Michael wouldn’t wake up. Again. He had died several times in the years I’d known him. Yet he returned from the hospital again and again. He had fallen and hurt his neck, he had  pneumonia and he didn’t want to eat. When I arrived I found him twisted awkwardly on his bed. Berta was trying to support his neck. He moaned and pulled at bed clothes and the neck support pillow until his head drooped forward in a posture that made me cringe. Together we lifted and shifted him in their bed. He made noises, but not to us. Then he fell back to heavy sleep. Berta had hospice on the telephone. They were suggesting a hospital bed and neck brace. They were willing to bring them out that afternoon.

Things were collapsing too quickly.

Berta and Michael had scheduled respite care in a facility in Albuquerque so she could go to her father’s birthday party. I was supposed to spring Michael from the rest home the following Saturday. We would eat dim sum, find some mischief, then I’d bring him home. Berta and I surveyed the available space in their home. It would take some significant rearranging, but we could squeeze a hospital bed in somewhere, shifting out her study and furniture .

Things were spinning apart.

We tried giving Michael his medications. It took two of us to try to open his mouth. The pills drooled out on the wild goatee he’d been growing for twenty-five centuries. He was thrashing weakly. He was moaning. The medication took effect, he seemed quiet. I drove 30 miles to the Walgreens in Bernalillo for a foam cervical brace. We got it on him. The collar didn’t provide him any comfort. The hospital bed didn’t seem such a good idea. There were no beds available at the hospice hospital unit.

We’d have to wait for someone to die. 

The next morning Berta called.  A hospice bed on the unit was available. Michael would be transported by ambulance to Albuquerque. It would take most of the day to transport him and get his paperwork checked at the hospital. She wanted to do it by herself. She said she done it so many times, that alone was better. She suggested I come

later in the afternoon.

I drove to Santa Fe to the International Folk Arts Festival for diversion. I wanted to get lost in the crowds and ersatz open market of rugs, jewelry and carvings for a couple of hours. I had a couple of artists I wanted to see specifically. One made fantastic painted resin dioramas of Bolivian peasant life crossing barriers into other realms where they might be suddenly drinking or dancing with devils, angels or skeletons. The other was a Mexican muertos artist from D.F., who carved intricate calaveras on matchsticks. It was the last day of the festival; many of the artists were tired of listening to English. They sat sullenly painting, or dully detailing metalwork with small hammers. I couldn’t find the two artists I wanted to see. By chance I ran into Jacobo Angeles, a wood carver whose studio I had visited in Oaxaca. He was exhausted from shaking too many hands. His English met my Spanish and he turned me over to his nephew. “We have a website.” He handed me a card angeles@tilcajete.org. I bought a glass of iced tea made with all renewable resources. It had rooibos leaves, beet roots and ginger; I had a stomach ache, albeit a healthful one. It served to keep me from being dulled by the early afternoon sun.  There was drumming and dragon dancers were leaping on the plaza as I boarded the bus to the parking lot.

Driving back I found the World Cup final on the radio. It was being broadcast on a Spanish station. With the score zero, zero and cinque minutos left in regular time I spotted my favorite used bookstore in Santa Fe and a place to park. I found a used CD of the master copy of “John Coltrane at the Village Vanguard” and Edward Snow’s translation of Rilke,  A Head of All Parting. These items seemed essential in my immediate future. When I returned to World Cup the game was in extra overtime. Although I, along with the entire Spanish speaking Western Hemisphere, had waited for the elongated scream of “G-o-o-o-o-a-l!” when it happened I wasn’t much relieved. I stopped at the Santa Domingo reservation for gas. $2.59 a gallon. I chewed a few berry flavored Tums and drove towards the hospice hospital in Albuquerque.

Berta called on my cell phone, room #1029.

In Lovelace Hospital if you press the elevator button for the tenth floor any employee on the elevator, or getting on later, first is suddenly silent, tries to smile, then looks blankly away. Modern hospice care is a hospital service, not a dread Hotel Dieu, but quiet, orderly and intensely humane. What judgments the staff makes, they keep to themselves. They don’t use euphemisms; it’s death and dying. They look at you when speaking with you. When I asked at the desk, they knew who Michael was and that Berta was in the room with him.

Michael looked worse than the day before.

He was restless and more jaundiced,

He appeared to be suffering less.

We had had our last conversation.

I smoothed his hair and sat down.

Berta was exhausted and dazed.

We went out to find some dinner,

it turned out to be salads we pushed

with our plastic forks and then threw away.

She drove back home and I returned to #1029.

I sat as the sun was starting its slow summer setting. The hide-a-bed love seat sunk me deeper than was comfortable, but there was nowhere else to go. As distraction I wondered about Walt Whitman’s days as a nurse. How he must have learned, as these nurses had, how to intimately diagnose each detail of approaching death. I wondered how he was able to keep experiencing the buzz and yarp of the world. I wondered what that change meant to him as he walked home, or worried about enduring his persecutions and keeping his position a little longer. Did he still see the great cosmic body transcendent…or like me in this golden evening, seeing it struggling minute by minute, breath by breath, cell by cell, system by system, moving towards absence.

 Four years ago Michael completed translating The Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu. Having no Chinese, only his ambition translated the notion of wei wu wei.

[ http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/tao-te-ching-of-the-way-and-integrity/856790?productTrackingContext=search_results/search_shelf/center/1 ]

At the party when he finished it, I imagined, he’d discretely disappear along the huts at the Great Wall. But he didn’t, he continued living inside his dying.  Less than a century after the man who was the original author of the Tao Te Ching died, no one knew precisely when or where he disappeared along the frontier of the Empire. There were arguments over his family name, afterwards he was just called Lao Tzu, Old Man.

Michael Silver Dragon McKain (1939-2010)

Cistern of Atavism

June 22, 2010

The other morning I went out to hand water the garden. It’s a quieting ritual I share with a few birds before the sun comes over the mountain to my east. I noticed the hose didn’t seem to work to draw water from the catchment cistern. After various Laurel and Hardy-like routines of switching hoses, looking in working facets and so on, I climbed a ladder and peered in. The 500 gallon cistern was nearly empty. My body reacted the same way it did years ago when I sat on the curb and saw the car I wrecked, or watched police break through my door, or shook my grandfather’s hand the hot afternoon I got married. A physical sinking flush of realization that I was powerless to change what was happening, and that event was staring into me. Looking in that dark water I felt a deeper unmediated part of me silently shrieking. I felt as if I’d fallen off the ladder and was struggling to run away, but couldn’t…that dream. Be clear, as close as I come to farming is shaking hands with people at the farmer’s markets where I buy vegetables when the weather’s nice. My garden is herbs and ornamentals. I was raised in an industrial city in northern Ohio, not a drought plagued geography. My experiences with cisterns and drought have been limited to tourism, art and literature. So I was more surprised at my reaction than, the actual low cistern. Where did such a deep wild reaction originate from within me, some lost memory, the collective unconscious…was I channeling a maintenance message from the dead owners of this house?

Sometime in my more academically ambitious past I was researching possible relationships between the contemporaneous Rilke and Jung. I was interested not just in their theories of memory, art and the collective unconscious, but “Blood Memory”. Blood Memory, now primarily restricted to detective novel titles, old Star Trek episodes and confused fringe groups, was a fashionable theory at the turn of the 20th Century. It was a way of knowing without learning or experience. It extrapolated genetics into a primitive cultural feeling of déjà vu by inventing a corpuscular memory bank; it was popular with both artists and racists.  It gave credence to unarticulated feelings that seemed too real to be merely transient or random. My Grandparents would have learned about Blood Memory in the same passing way we understand Alzheimer’s disease or deep water drilling. It was Social Darwinism for those who didn’t want to accept or bother to read Darwin.

Eventually my project disintegrated into a pile of manila files, a shelf of pretentious books and unreviewed notes. For me the parts became more valuable than the whole. I traveled to Austria and had a deep, satisfying reading of Rilke in a small cottage with the wind whispering under the door, and spent a couple years in Jungian analysis, and seemed to have moved on. But the value of knowledge doesn’t reside in institutions and mere information, its nature is direct contact and experience. It is the tedious, hand to hand relationship with the world that forms (or deforms) every culture and art piece by piece. Failing to maintain that person by person integration leaves civilizations broken and in ruin. To integrate genuine knowledge of the world requires a marriage, a mutual possession. For the most part that possession is what a university lecture or a museum can only demonstrate in fragments…which in part brings me back to Rilke and Jung and a famous fragment of a statue. In “Archaic Torso of Apollo” Rilke explores a relationship of interiorities between the viewer and the viewed:

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

[Archaic Torso of Apollo, RMR, translated Stephen Mitchell]

He prescribed a kind of reflexive struggle of perception where the viewer encounters an object and is entered by that object. The jarring admonishment Rilke gives at the end of the poem comes neither from the viewer or the object, but from a voice created by possession.

Jung had a similar, if somewhat less lyrical description of possession”… In the state of possession both figures [animus & anima] lose their charm and their values; they retain them only when they are turned away from the world, in the introverted state, when they serve as bridges to the unconscious. “ [Concerning Rebirth C.W.]

The idea that a person can be spiritually or psychically held, enthused, ridden, inspired, taken over by a being or sense other than their conscious mind has been in human parlance since there has been human parlance. And in nearly every form of language possession has been used as a form of preternatural communication.

Possession isn’t at all a foreign notion to our age, not in a world where people strap explosive vests to themselves to fight Holy Wars, the Wall Street Journal publishes articles detailing whether or not members of Sarah Palin’s former congregations spoke in tongues, and people have images of dead loved ones tattooed on themselves. For a great many of us, we are our possessions. Excluding the explosive vests and war, I’m not too critical any of this. I suspect nearly all human beings need to be “possessed” at some times, and some quite frequently. Many of us go deeply out of our way to have that experience. We pray in varieties of ways to varieties of deities, dutifully dance to our favorite songs, do yoga (religious and secular), search for hours to buy rare trash on Ebay, fall in love with strangers, gasp at horror movies, write poems, meditate, keep our dreams in journals, sing in our cars, train for ultra marathons,  cry over tele-novellas, obsessively practice musical instruments, dress in period costumes to reenact Civil War battles, and ingest all manner of psychoactive concoctions…all for that perception of both being more than real and genuinely there at the same time. To varying extents we assess the value of our efforts based on the same criteria Rilke and Jung outlined…of being more fully present than we are in the tedium of most of our lives and an other-worldly awareness of simultaneous connection with the past and present and that this connection has resonance in our bodies. Being there.

But there is so seldom an authentic there. It’s a weird adverb; it’s always a relation, and always just there away from us. Both Rilke and Jung seem to agree that  to be possessed, to get there to recieve the message requires some courtship, a pilgrimage, a ritual..a great silence. For twenty or thiry years I pursued the mysterious people who built mounds and pyramids all over North America. Since my youth I’ve read and engaged in intuitive preparation, from visiting Mound Builder sites, to sleeping on earthwork serpents, building earthwork sculpture and crawling through terrifying humid tunnels in pyramids constructed to inter much smaller men than me. I didn’t want mere knowledge; I wanted contact.

Not too many summers ago I was standing in the noontime sun estimating how many billion cochineal it would have taken to dye the Placio de los Juguares red, just as my grad student tour guide at Tenochtitlan began presenting her theory of Las Vegas. “It is a simulacrum…designed to look like a Venice, Egypt, or New York, that doesn’t exist except by façade and in the imagination of tourists. It’s a pronoun without a physical antecedent.” Her implication was that tourists were too ignorant to know better, or wanted to co-opt another culture on the cheap. Somehow vacationers and gamblers had no right to experience even a faux physical knowledge of places they hadn’t actually visited. Her thesis was that American architecture had abandoned self possession in favor of the artificial security of commercializing things past.

Apart from the air conditioning, I asked, how that was different from our wandering Mexican ruins imagining the culture that had been there 1,000 years ago?

Unconsciously I had paid an erudite woman to distract my anticipated communion by generating a post PoMo critique of the Las Vegas strip while we were strolling the thousand year old ‘The Avenue of the Dead’. She chattered passionately covering the barely audible trickle of the baths that once fed and cleansed a city of 200,000 sophisticated human beings. She waited in a shaded café while I climbed the legendary Pyramid of the Sun,  a structure consecrated over and over in the blood of human sacrifice. The Aztecs visited these ruins, when they visited ruins.  It was the home of Quetzacoatl. We could only talk about a fake Vegas.

Neither she nor I could be were where we were, or who we were. She was distracted by a conceptual Las Vegas she found attractive, but not beautiful. I was ignoring the physical fragments of a city I had traveled an exhuasting distance by bus to visit. I wasn’t making a personal connection on any level in the presence of some of the most important monumental art on the continent. I had possession of nothing but a sunburn and a lecture.

And then suddenly one morning I’m looking down the hole of a water tank and I’m stunned. I’ve been siezed in the fangs of Tlaloc, the god of rain. I’m connected like lightning to a dark terrifying world of loss that both Rilke and Jung tell me I should live in and care for like my garden. I’m possessed.

It doesn’t take Rilke, Jung or even a second rate psychic to understand what a 58 year old man sees in the bottom of that well. I was possessed by my own death and it was looking back at me. The dry reality of my limited days and  the diminishing resources of my own life were my “borders” and “bursting star”. The message of the warm black water was the same as followed the polished white torso.

 Over the next few days when I thought or wrote about  the cistern, or Rilke’s broken statue, Jung’s unconscious realm of battling shadows, walking through Tenochitlan or even Venetian canals in Las Vegas. I became nervous and ennerated. I couldn’t read.  Mere knowledge was just so much stuff next to seeing my own death. Thinking made me want to brew more tea, drive in to town, check World Cup scores…watch “King Kong” again. Part of me had fallen into that cistern and  I couldn’t repossess it.

On a whim I stole a piece of my wife’s water color stock and mindlessly began painting circles with her water colors. First pale painted spheres the size of cherries, surrounded by yellow gold rings, then periwinkle and purple saucer sized loops nestled in the colors of shaded mountain grass, and this encircled by cloudy blotches of blue. It meant something to me, but I had only an inarticulate sense of what it might be. But it brought me  a deep physical relief and a faint whispering under my skin.

I believe there is  enough water in the cistern for the garden to survive. I believe it will rain soon; I can feel it in my blood.

The little house

 

 

 

 

 

 

Homes

My mother died last Christmas. I sold my parent’s house in Youngstown, Ohio this July. The process of selling the house entailed several trips back to my hometown. Most of my life there for eighteen or so years seemed to be mixed states of paralysis, acquiescence and rebellion. Time has been extraordinarily cruel to the former Steel Capital of the Mahoning and Shenango Valleys (also Murdertown, USA).  For three shifts a day it was artificially brilliant, genuinely crazy and the food was extraordinary. I still have a few friends there, but for the most part my visits are like wandering through my own fallible memory. As I drive through town I find only the places where things should have been that are now empty lots, or worse. The criminals I knew have been replaced with criminals I recognize, but don’t know. Only the violence doesn’t seem to have diminished. Homicide has always been one of the town’s parochial talents.

Youngstown was where I was born and raised, and where most of my family lived out their lives. It was predictable as the mill whistles, but it didn’t feel much like home. Probably I have the most feeling of familiarity on a tennis court, but that’s just a lifetime of habit, long afternoons and the reliability of painted lines. I’ve lived in quite a few places since I left my hometown, slums, communes, townhouses, apartment complexes, basement rooms, dormitories, sublets, suburbs and the neighborhood I live in now. I’ve traveled around, tried my hand at being a slumlord, been hustled on land contracts, bought and sold vacation properties, actually paid off a couple of mortgages—even returned to visit my Grandfather’s village in Italy.  But home has been elusive. For the last twenty-five years home has been wherever my wife was; the location still doesn’t matter much to me. Home is where I’m responsible for the repairs, or at least waiting around for whomever I’m going to pay to do them.

There always seems to be something nervous and obligatory about my entire concept of home.

 It’s a concept or feeling that seems to be made of unequal amounts of desire, memory and geography…more like Never Never Land than the house in Houston (which has more than a dusting of Peter Pan about it) where I keep my books, nap with the cats and have my bills sent. Kitchens feel most like home to me. Places where I’ve simmered winter soups, cleaned fish, rolled out pastas, or turned out a five or six course meal speak back warmly to me. I genuinely long to cook for people I’m fond of…I embrace all of it from the shopping through to the putting away leftovers. Some of my qualities of home begin there. There’s something about a crowded, slightly frenetic kitchen filled with laughing and shoving that resonates the best of home from childhood and has not abated as I’ve aged. The old expression is ‘hearth and home’. But my hearth also needs a dishwasher, a Kitchenaid mixer, German knives, stainless steel pots, cast iron pans and specialty devices my mother used to shake her head at amusedly.

I never knew anyone who actually had a familyhome. As I grew up no one’s home ownership extended beyond their childhood. Even the wealthiest of my friends could only drive me past where their grandparents used to live. It was Eisenhower’s America, people wanted to get out to the suburbs, away from where they worked, into tract neighborhoods with matching trees and ornamental fences. Unexpectedly housing developments appeared that adapted bits of Victorian culture and mores, like the obligations of appearances and denying any reference to the physical existence of work. Salesmen in polyester ties and short sleeve shirts sold split level dream parlors and promised garden terraces reminiscent of Jane Austen whom they’d never read. Suburban communities aspired to be a constructed existence of manners and denial, where all the stains and embarrassments of the working class were simply willed away.  Much of the tragic current real estate collapse began with those sales pitches—not the convoluted intricacies of subprime derivatives, but the belief that with the right property you could leverage your way out of your own life.

Although the war in Viet Nam and rebellion marked my generation, what defined the people I knew in high school was raw ambition. I didn’t know anyone who was satisfied. Everyone expected to go to college. Everyone would leave home as soon as they could—even if it meant running away, getting married or joining the army. Not because our parents were bad people, most of the parents I knew growing up were kind and worked terribly hard. But they demanded their children do better than they had.  In spite of the variety of languages, customs, religions and ethnicities each family translated that message—and we got it. We weren’t escaping anything as much as going somewhere else. The differences between our collective bus and Ken Kesey’s infamous Electric Kool-Aid International were ours wouldn’t say “Further” it would say “Better”. It would be driven by a realtor instead of Neal Cassady, and the key to expanding our mind would be in the lockbox hung on the back door. There wasn’t much separation anxiety in our generation. I got luggage as my high school graduation gift—and I was glad to use it.

The year I was born there were 186,000 people in Youngstown, the year I graduated high school the population had dropped to 139,000, currently there are 73,000. The cities of Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Baltimore, St. Louis, and Albany, all show similar (but not as drastic) declining demographic trends. During that time period while the US gained nearly 120 million more people, many citiesin the East and Midwest appeared to have been evacuated. Not to dismiss the realities of the recessions, changing economy, and psycho-sociological cultural shifts—a great many of us just left home.  We put down payments on seemingly aboriginal suburbs springing up where you could get “more home for your money”, be near beaches, mountains, deserts and drink in the clubhouses of thousands of ubiquitous new golf courses. We went off to college, or moved away for work and couldn’t bear to come back—except to visit.

For a while during this Spring I owned three homes, in three states Texas, New Mexico and Ohio. I lived in a realm of overextended worry, that an unobserved roof leak or random band of drug addicts could lurch me into scenario after scenario where subcontractors continually ask “Sir, could you come here and take a look at this…”.  For those few months I had exceeded even my own wildest dreams of property ownership, and like most wild dreams it turned dsitorted, tricky and wierd. I didn’t sleep through many nights, I ground my teeth and stopped shaving regularly. I gathered caches of hand tools in each house and shambled regularly through the nuances of product location in Home Depots in all three locales.

 The chief signal of my existence was a lamp attached to an automatic timer.

By mechanical illusion I could simultaneously awaken at 5:55 AM in three time zones and later begin switching off lamps between 9:30 and 10:20. I arranged for people to park in driveways, trim trees and in other ways pretend they were me, or my simulacrum living there. I was constantly somewhere else and relaxed nowhere.

Now I’ve sold my mother’s house. When she and my father purchased it in 1964 they could have traded it for 10 brand new Oldsmobiles. The selling price I was happy to accept would hardly purchase a single new car now, even if Oldsmobiles still existed. Where I’ve been living and traveling between, I have  favorite motels, melancholy private routes and some particularly dreaded restaurants on the road. I’ve learned to live within the light of my own illusions. Like hypnogogic Dorothy Gale spinning between the lessons of one world and the next I recite my affirmation.

”There’s no place like home. There’s no place…”