DomZuccone's Blog

PART SIX The Bird That Caged Herself

Summertime reversed.bmp
It seems there must be some monsters in any “Summertime” discussion; they are unavoidable. There are so many masks in the creation, production and interpretation of this lullaby based in lost racial caricature that there will always be distortions to amuse, distract, and not infrequently offend someone. Most disturbing versions in my personal survey are the “Summertime” recordings of Janis Joplin. .
Since 1968-69 time hasn’t been kind to Ms. Joplin, particularly with her two recordings of “Summertime”. The lens of fifty years has magnified their flaws and diminished their contextual meaning. That doesn’t mean that they are somehow dishonest, but rather that like many recordings from that period of experimentation and excess, they have difficulty escaping being classified only as artifacts. It requires effort to review these recordings. In spite of the fond memories they contain for me personally, if I…

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The Other Monster

July 15, 2017

Monte Alban 2


“This is the hour when moonstruck poets know
What fungi sprout in Yuggoth…”

I recall “Weird Tales” as a vestigial memory in the magazine rack of my childhood. I didn’t know anyone who read it, but I didn’t know anyone who read” Scientific American” either. There’s something embarrassingly peeper and voyeuristic about it, like smut promising men’s adventure mags, it was a publication that adults warned children to stay away from…or at least keep in the basement by the paint and turpentine…

Oh no wait, I’m having either a disgusting Proustian moment, or planting a memory. My Uncle’s Uncle may have been a perv…now I only have 3,999 more pages of recherché…

Or maybe he just found them and kept them like he saved other kinds of paper. Maybe that’s either part of his concealed perviness. Or it’s symptomatic of a mental McGuffin meant to throw me off the plotline that he had a second family in a village in Greece, a wife disfigured in WWII who he had tried to poison but failed, however she has turned mute either as a consequence of the poison, or to disguise her own plan for revenge, but having only a partial right hand she remains even more dependent on him than most Greek peasant wives. Nonetheless one Tuesday morning he leaves her promising to find their fortune in America and send for her. He sends her money orders from the illicit quarters and nickels he makes collecting “bug” slips over on Squirrel Hill. She can’t write. He sends money but more and more sporadically, not knowing if she’s alive or dead. The cover of that issue of Weird Tales” is illustrated with a man with an open shirt, sweating heavily, looking anxiously over his shoulder at a shadowed twisting road…yet stereotypes can translate with unexpected nuances. The picture may have served as something like an icon of his guilt, or a protective image of the patron saint of constant flight.

Otherwise he seems annoyed and busy with keeping books. When he does that he puts on reading glasses that disturbingly make him appear as if he is both reptilian and dozing, at the same time his lips move silently mouthing his calculations and column headings in Greek. He is rude, nearly abusive, to his ‘second’ wife who is from a second-generation Greek immigrant family rooted on a desolate island. He berates her in English, she mutters back Greek folk sayings that could be curses or protective jests, then lights another filtered cigarette. She is pious, laughs nervously, bakes incessantly, and blesses even the smallest of events, laying down a low trump card, or flicking her cigarette and missing the ash tray. Perhaps she was the one who found the magazine. Her frugality is relentless. She saves Christmas used Christmas paper under her bed.

In my memories I don’t recall seeing my Uncle’s uncle paint, or do a single domestic chore…perhaps the paint, turpentine and “Weird Tales” belonged to a different person altogether. A relative of a relative who barely spoke English and needed work, or needed to barter off a debt. After he had painted the interior, he arranged the leftover supplies neatly stacked on a basement shelf with the magazine he had been trying to read to practice English, but found he had no form in any of his languages to correctly translate the events that the cover and pages promised to unfold, so he left it behind, not wanting to throw away a book, even though it had no meaning. Perhaps during the war, he had witnessed book burnings, been forced to burn his own books, or been coerced to burn the books of others…somehow found himself stimulated by it. He may have carried some kind of sensibility in his fingertips as he riffles the pages of a book the way others might feel pleasure caressing fur. Leaving the magazine perfectly arranged on that shelf gave him an incomprehensible, detached satisfaction, a quiet sense of order. Perhaps he tore up a different copy to wrap his paint brushes when he had finished cleaning them. Folding the pages of the fantasy sub-Hells into envelopes to keep the bristles straight with the kind of ingenuity that comes from a generational tradition of endemic poverty that demands painstaking thrift, and intimate focus on re-utilizing and preserving. He left it then as a bonus, a kindness, that indicated gratitude and optimism.

Or the basement isn’t a basement in that house on Ravenwood, but a waiting tentacle of some Lovecraft creature beneath, the untranslatable fungus that paints itself with fear, but only as a lure…an attraction to the unconscious mind of someone who has picked up that edition of “Weird Tales”. It is another eternal fungus that lives by eating memories. For decades it may rest dormant, encased in a seeming insignificant forgotten detail, and then once remembered it’s released and begins its awful blooming. I can barely recollect my Uncle’s uncle now. He has been dead for more than two generations. I didn’t like him very well. Whether he had a disfigured second wife or no, he was a short-tempered, unpleasant man with poor digestion, who always appeared to want to be somewhere else than where we were. Although I try to keep any memory with the kind of compulsive hoarding the “Weird Tales” has come to represent. If by long meditative work I could organize my memories into a Memory Palace, he would be in an imagined basement represented by a peripheral and disregarded fantasy magazine that, strangely, if it could be removed from its immutable location, I would read it, but with the amplified depth and expectations I might bring to translating a remnant form of a different civilization, perhaps a fragment of a myth not included in “The Metamorphosis”…at least as a text with a meaning beyond its circumstance. On the cover is a man looking over his shoulder at a shadowy twisting road. Like so much, it is incomprehensible, but will not stop.

Reader don’t leave me here. Do you feel what this horror pulp has generated? Or is this merely near the 15th day of the Seventh month…and I’m being psychically enlisted to bring magazines to my dead relatives whose spirits Chinese bankers have come to possess through collapsed junk bond loans wherein a side codicil encumbered the souls of immigrant dead as collateral. Or I put my own family in Diyu when I set a scribbled drawing of a nu gui on fire and tacked it to a classroom wall as an illustration. Either way I must pay rent in Diyu. I know nothing about the hungry realms after death, except we will sweat through our shirts to try to escape, and some of us would rather remain here as even as a fugitive, intermittently growing fungus buried in an obscure publication than enter an existence predicted only by the longing we feel for things that aren’t there.

Perhaps this extrapolation can be dismissed as merely a rare, but possible, side effect from my last two weeks of writing and rewriting a sonnet about Georgia O’Keeffe’s black door paintings, and then looking up from my computer to discover “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die”, in all its B & W smuttiness, had replaced my expected distracted viewing of Wimbledon. O ironic cosmos that places stars into the boot soles of Whitman, and larvae in the commas of Lovecraft, why have you denied me the pleasure of watching images of deer-like women athletes chasing across green lawns and left me hypnotized by the image of woman’s sadistic, disembodied head ordering murders and capriciously refusing to be grafted onto the body of a gullible strip tease artiste’? Why must there always be a monstrous hand behind the locked door? Why should a sleazy tenor sax solo be the prelude to another failed giant leap in scientific titillation? At least in the film’s Armageddon the other monster escapes, Deus ex Machina, in time to rescue the peculiarly gullible stripper, then surrounded by gray fire, the talking head laughs like my Uncle’s uncle’s wife.

Now I really must end, “Victor Frankenstein” is on in Spanish and I’ll have to concentrate to translate dialog from a burning circus in Victorian London. Except this, two weeks ago a woman sent me an e-mail asking me to critique a poem wherein the Frankenstein monster tritely would ask its maker “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” I suggested she change the line to “Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani?” for period resonance, reflecting how the Brits used to love dead Greeks at the end of the Romantics. Tuesday night, I ran into her at a poetry reading. She whispers,“Did you know, it’s what Jesus said…on the cross, I think.” O fungus come now. It’s been that kind of summer, lots of turning roads, dark doors, bad translations, and resurrected monsters all whirling in the rearview mirror. We all used to love terrible things; we try to convince ourselves to believe we still don’t.

Demon Ship

November 26, 2016


Demon Ship

Last Sunday I’d been rereading D H Lawrence’s “Ship of Death” with the slow careful reading I lavish on revising. Revision is a peculiar human act, I don’t think any other creature revises its past to effect its present. I awoke that Sunday hearing Lawrence reciting from an unbidden memory I carried from a recording I used to listened to in 1975. Reading Lawrence on line during travel in the mountains of New Mexico near where his ashes are buried briefly felt apropos enough to disguise my unconscious attraction to the voice asking “Have you built your ship of death…?”. It’s been a year of changes.

It began in January with a family death. For most of my life I’ve been estranged from my relatives, so when we share passages the distance is more apparent and unforgivable, the summer family reunion was only a little less awkward than the wake. Then came an unusually despairing spate of manuscript rejections. The top of the guitar I played for thirty years split. I began the frenetic task of opening another new second chance campus in a defaulted church community center. Happily and tearfully, I walked my daughter over a rough bridge to the meadow where she was married. I turned sixty-five. Donald Trump was elected. A water leak changed my library into the room that used to contain my library. Erasure/revision has directed me to re-think what I believed I knew in different, sober directions.

 Piecemeal the body dies, and the timid soul // has her footing washed away, as the dark flood rises. “The Ship of Death”, D.H. Lawrence 1929 [41-42]

Some days I’m lucky enough to stay in a house on a mesa road above an abandoned cloister. It possesses enough quiet I can pretend to hear the hiss of the earth rotating. I spend the days in a few chores, walks in the cold, arranging visits, and preparing meals. Without the distraction of paid work, the days feel pleasant, refreshing, but fraudulent. Learning to re-think emptiness borders on the barely possible. I failed at my first retirement, the burden of filling the hours with myself was too exhausting. That effort also taught me to recognize that the dream I carried of being a writer was probably only going to make me an interesting correspondent, a private poet, and romantic author of blogs a few people read. Still, adjusting to leaving dreams behind seems nearly impossible too.

The dreams of writing and literature I’ve carried unquestioned since I was an altar boy, in turn they have carried me to quiet, to repose. They give me license to disengage and observe the world. In payment I dutifully provide a few decomposed sentences that have been revised, rewritten, questioned, tortured for more information, and then filed as magnetic data. It’s something like religion. Writing has been my monastery. A near silent lifetime of reading and writing has been the defining and confining discipline of my life.  And still its secretive possessive revelations, archane processes, and continual self-criticism attract me. It rewards me with spiritual struggle and a community of phantoms, living and dead. It sounds pompously creepy.  I go there to serve; ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam.

But my days of confession, redemption, or therapeutic explanation are past. In this cold now, the signal traumas of my personal past mean less and less, whether Freud, Jung, Maslow, Bill W., or Dr. Phil was right, doesn’t matter. There are plenty of drugs to help me not feel any specific discomfort I choose. Even if I were more cured, more self-actualized, or even more published, it will do little to change the day to day of my future. I will write. I will die. We don’t have to talk about the why of it anymore. It seems a fitting time to consider the captain of the Ship of Death.

For many of my generation the shock of the election of Donald Trump has been like encountering a Tibetan Demon in person…or more accurately, on social media. The Internet is a distant image of a nearby world, constantly scrolling, infused with confession, anger in minutiae, religious and poetic imagery, mendacity, and a menu of fears d’jour. Many of my FBBFs are negotiating anxious apocalypses, released depressions, moral catastrophes, and dooms writ large and small. Many are writers,  I understand their stylish flourishes of dismay.Many are defriending. I will allow my age to permit me to declare much of this, illusion. Maya. Mara. Mirage. Mr. Trump may be as horrible a demon as some suppose, perhaps worse. He should be credited for the intellectual and spiritual havoc that surrounds him already. But the specific and social versions of our responses are our own projections. Those are our own orange headed demons. I read a woman’s post describing being overwhelmed, “I have to see it on social media to know if it exists.” A Twenty-first century variation of reality.

Mr. Trump’s projections are presently beyond my ken. Saying nothing ameliorative about the politics of the moment, Mr. Trump won’t be on my ship; I doubt I’m on his. He’s an active symbol in this depressive moment, but I don’t want him to possess my moments. He’s just one more part of the struggle for me to revise personal change. As I grow older, most change is revising losses. So I use some of the accreted wisdom from writing about being conscious for fifty years to attempt to write and revise this experience into a meaningful nothing special, a not inspired, a commonplace. Right now I need to write a vehicle of perseverance and appreciation to travel into these moments.

I need to see them in writing to be sure they exist. At the same time, drawing on my recent experiences I know any and  every one of the pieces I create, revise and complete can be washed away in plumbing mishap, bagged in black plastic at the curb awaiting heavy trash day, or just kicked around like any other thing in the material world until it falls to nameless ruin. Although it’s  years of invention, concentrated self-criticism, re-revisons and labor unfulfilled or completed, I know my work is already traveling in the continuum of the random past. It’s a ventriloquist’s dummy in a suitcase I carry to tell you my life. It’s already on board the ship of death.

darkness at one with darkness, up and down // and sideways utterly dark, so there is no direction any more // and the little ship is there; yet she is gone. “The Ship of Death” [68-69]

However, encountering a demon is both illusory and real. Demons serve a transformative purpose in our world.Random annihilation exists for all things. I have no notion if inanimate objects know fear or pain. There are quite beautiful experiments showing clear water possesses the molecular capacity to reflect both serenity and distress. My cosmological universe begins with Ovid and Lucretius and finds its ceiling at chapter five of “A Brief History of Time”. I can’t conceive of the fractal my sixty some light years of motion would delineate in the space/time continuum without feeling dazed. Theoretical physics has the same effect on me as Zazen. For me the nature of being alive is to continue on in the arc of life for as long as we can endure. At a friend’s suggestion, I read The Hidden Life of Trees, an account of the consciousness of the arboreal world. According to Peter Wohleben trees have prescience of their impending demise and flower abundantly. Most humans don’t possess the prescient grace of trees; that’s why we need apparitions of demons like D. H. Lawrence and Donald Trump.

Ages ago as a species we internalized the herd instinct to flee into intellectual worlds of panic and anxiety. We evolved internal migration clocks into obsessions with mechanical timekeeping. We continue to travel in migratory urges in a proud variety of vehicles, in rigid commutes, and vacation pilgrimages. But more essential to our character, we can translate personal death into abstraction. We’re not the only creature that understands or mourns death; we are the only creature that mourns its own death before it happens. We also belong to a species that has learned to distract itself from death by fixating on revising its world. We defer the simple processes of living and species procreation to construct abstract tasks. It’s as selfless and self-serving as building a church or writing an essay. I abandon living my life temporarily to write about my life. Writing is like reading only better, it empowers writers to slowly revise the tenor and details of our existence. But we always read and write in a burning library.

So…One evening I’m walking towards a labyrinth and as a bell sounds I see a Tibetan Demon.

If I revise this sentence enough times the factual details blend with what the reader needs to have happen. For instance, the labyrinth and bells do exist in my neighborhood, but the bells didn’t ring. Those realities don’t matter. But when I wrote I live near a labyrinth, readers began to doubt me more than when I wrote I saw a demon. However, for the sake of the one line story it’s imperative a Demon arrive,  although it’s the most improbable of the three  events. More fantastically I have chosen a demon that bears a passing resemblance to Donald Trump, and that fabrication makes all of it more credible. Writer and reader create an imagined bond of shared veracities in the process of writing and revising.  Not everyone lives near a labyrinth, but everyone lives near a demon.

Recall initially I was writing about “The Ship of Death”, contemplating my mortality by stanza. Instead you and I now seem to have strayed off task pursuing a Tibetan Demon that vaguely looks like the President elect. We will collaborate on this distraction only for as long as it provides us the shared pleasure of belief. Belief allows us to endure absurdity. I contemplate sad nuances of my demise and you enjoy it. What holy demonics are we looking at?

Tuesday afternoon I met friends for lunch in Santa Fe. New Mexico’s capital prides itself on being spiritually hegemonic. As we strolled around it was impossible not to see the borders of belief are constantly crossed. Posada style skulls embroidered on linen aprons, Ganeshes molded in local beeswax, milagro embossed crosses made of dried chiles, clan totems and fetishes in silver and turquoise laid on the sidewalk, prayer rugs hung in display windows next to crocodile boots, santos night lights, sandalwood malas, gemstone malas, greeting card prayers to the patron saints of domesticity, a three foot polished brass Shiva surrounded by earrings, cartons of scented votives, hand knotted Persian Qoms stacked in rolls as makeshift office walls, Kachinas scaled human and rendered in glazed ceramic and gold, mandala coloring books, calavera coloring books, sitting Buddhas in garden stone, sitting Buddhas of hardened clay, Our Lady of Guadalupe marking a ladies room, illuminated Mughal manuscript pages, imported Polish painted wood crèches, pinon incense in miniature pueblo houses, gold pendants of Gaia, prayer flags hanging above a tamale cart, Palladium prints of Angkor Wat, a startled Mexican peasant hand carved on a crucifix, bundles of white sage next to an image of the Dali Lama, nazar amulets in blue glass, Mudra broaches, nazars by Swarovski, Quan Yin standing on a sea of cashmere pashminas and, of course, windows and walls decorated with brilliant demons from Tibet in a variety of formats.

Some of this artwork is genuine, some religious replicas pretending questionable provenance, and some mere decoration, but all of it is for sale. It’s an ironic market of distractions designed to help a supplicant overcome worldly distraction. Negotiable memento mori. Visiting spiritual bazaars like these I feel at ease, floating, as if I’m almost at home, arm and arm in the company of friends. I saunter in raw weather surrounded by iconography.

A gypsy refrain played by a band of itinerant musicians drifts across the plaza. Probably I’m not much different from a medieval peasant daydreaming during services in an unheated cathedral. It was near the eve of a holiday for me, the secular-religious feast of Thanksgiving. Walking down San Francisco street, I found myself devoutly grateful to be back in love with the world. Pleased to wander through this reconstructed city of commercially celebrated death, not yet surrendering to Lawrence’s silent sea of abandon, or enduring Trumpian rule, but still alive, looking for my car along the transcendent backstreets of holiness. The lesson of the demon is always to make one see the virtues of the ordinary life, to appreciate a sip of water, a shivering afternoon drifting past silver breath by silver breath.

The flood subsides, and the body, like a worn sea-shell // emerges strange and lovely.    “The Ship of Death” [97-98]

Hegelian Timex

October 30, 2016




Since August I’ve been wearing a watch again. A cheap Timex, my Internet fancy from summer, delivered for less than the price for lunch for two. Periodically I fixate on looking at watches, for a while I tried out their intimate ticking to cure insomnia, one more failed cure. At weddings and family funerals, I wear my father’s Enicar. I bought it in Switzerland; I was fourteen. It doesn’t bother to keep time more than a day. To know today’s real time, I use my phone. My new handsome Timex used to be what was termed a whim, a trifle to look in. Around dawn I woke up on the couch. “The Isle of Dead” that I was watching as I fell asleep morphed into a teenage girl (portrayed by an older actress) who discovers an odd text on hypnotism that entrances adults portraying adults into romantic slapstick. It was Saturday, I didn’t have to make a time clock click, so I tucked back under the covers upstairs. Back in bed Carol & I read our phones in luxurious weekend pace. We were waiting for Junior to come by to explain why the roof leak I traded a months’ pay to disappear, reappeared.

Since August completing simple tasks at my job have been shifting from middling stressful to middling chaotic. Friday my coworker & I shared an AM commute to work with Devo singing along to “DNA Smart Patrol” until we turned at the block the new campus shares with sex workers. Silence seemed inadequate. Stressful and chaotic are relative vocational terms. Confusing innocence with not having done something, I imagine I might be cast as one of the passing townspeople in “Nights of Cabiria”. In reality from, poets to prostitutes, we all get paid, or pay people to act in tasks we don’t want to spend time from our own lives to do.

My job at my new school remains frustrated by temporary technology and backorders. For five days this week I’ve been salaried to waste time walking up and down stairs to check pages at a printer, deliver a form for a signature, or travel one office to another to ask or answer a question. Hopefully I’ll replace myself with devices. Clever machines that are manufactured, and later disassembled, by people invisible to me. Those lives may appear a bit better than the women walking the street in a moral sense, but not much different in a qualitative or quantitative sense. They’ll be abused, abandoned, die early. Everything moving takes us along willing or not.

This year is also the 246th birthday of Hegel. Most of my life I’ve been willful in misinterpreting Hegelian Dialectics as egocentric relativistic analysis rather than a reflection of an absolute bipolarity. This morning that process appears roughly equivalent to memories of a former lover’s expression, sighing the line from J. Alfred Prufrock, “that’s not what I meant…”   Still I’m older than Hegel ever was (longevity being a different relative value). Being philosophically orthodox has currency, but life accrues like tree rings. I’d rather profit by dark parsing with a lost lover than diagraming reflexive arrows, but I can’t now.

What matters in this current now, is the ceiling has been leaking from the room above the library. The leak is real and metaphorical, it’s symbolic, but it doesn’t symbolize anything specific. Who Carol thought to be Junior calling from his habitual tardiness, was a friend explaining their tardiness returning a call with a date for dinner. Time, as Dali depicted it in Tempus Fugit feels less painful than the exegesis of that intoxicated distortion, time is a narcotic.  We hoard time in dreams, cut it like addicts with razor blades and triple balance scales dividing years into minutes, seconds and femtoseconds. We decorate gardens with sundials, astrologically measure out futures on ancient charts of stellar sand, reckon time in disintegrating atomic fountains of combed atoms, crust clocks with filigree, or construct private time machines like my father’s watch. They are legerdemain, illusions to slur perception of our time’s inexorable passage, at best, like a Hegelian dialectic, they allow a transitory sense of correctness. It was now 9:41, but 9:41 has already disappeared. Yet that once misinterpreted lover’s glance continues, she continues brushing back her hair and brushing back her hair, if only to me, only lost without periodization.

The dinner engagement in the telephone call was being postponed due a trip to Brussels, polite domestic disarray, and his Halley’s mind is slowing, dissolving, cognitive slippage. She has forgotten more than I’ll ever…her lyric goes twisting off, a comet disappearing as her past present future. She’s dying by many names, diabetes, hypertension, arthritis. It’s monstrous and horrifies me. The prayer to St. Joseph I memorized as a devout pre-adolescent seemed inconceivable then, now a desperate, sincere sentiment. Even the iconography, a robed figure resembling Santa Claus carrying a lily, come to fetch life from peaceful sleep is attractive. It’s exponentially more attractive than the 1945 Boris Karloff portraying a Greek general opening his wife’s grave on an island quarantined by a disease that can be stopped only by a sirocco. Still the plot’s misguided cinematic fellow travelers will forever share a film of life inhabited by thieves, servants, and a semi-comatose killer in a negligée.

That’s where I fell asleep. Mr. Karloff, expending a last sigh of screen time into his near canine expression of pathos, the sad grimace of television, we the unseen audience, aren’t anticipated to recognize until the ironic last line. “He was only trying to protect us.” He wasn’t such a monster after all, just pretending…another patriarchal titan obliterated as the credits rise to disappear. William Pratt (Boris Karloff) spent much of his time exploring bipolarity of a dialectic inherent in the artifice of monster and victim. His craft was a construction of flickers, nuances, voice tones and eyebrows to encompass intimate loss and cosmic rage. At the films’ end our common factual knowledge returns as words superimposed, in a contrived order for a floating instant, then replaced by the name of the second assistant director, the key grip, part of the union contract with Marx and Hegelian dialectics. Who does work, who profits?

That morning I had been reading [How to Legally Own Another Person] in bed by touch screen phone. The article began nuancing behavior between employees and contractors, then somehow concluded the Saudi Government profited from subcontracting monstrous men to fly stolen planes into 9/11. For a minute it resonated within my experiences (excepting Saudi references), at least the detailed behaviors in the P/L food chain resonated enough to allow me time to contextualize the frenetic running I had been doing for days. We bind people to tasks we won’t exchange our time to accomplish. The pay, the trade of monetized time for real time builds the scaffold. Why do I tie my own tie?

My dialectic shifted with St. Basil’s chapel high noon chimes. I’m not sure if they signify arrival or loss. Junior knocked. He arrived to survey the residue. He wasn’t wearing a hat, uniform, or any branding (or a watch). He looked annoyed and hurried, according to the article, that made him a contractor, or a terrorist. Another exchange, an additional reflexive line. The longer the arrow, the greater the opportunity for interference. I work for a woman, a devout and apostolic believer. She points to a continuous relationship with her personal salvific moral imperative, direct and vigorous. Her prayers get answered by God’s Bullseyes, no deflections. Her information demands obedience, powerful as a shaft of sunlight extending from a divine furnace. Miracles, martyrs, ecstasies and mystics don’t require wrist watches. It’s my contemplative, bent reflexive arrows that require waiting to reflect on what desire means, the lunar pulling that turns, waxes and wanes. My arrows diagram the tenuous.

This morning in my pajamas I think I’d like to have breakfast and I’d like to travel to Bayreuth to endure    the Ring Cycle Festival. Two thoughts, the first simple, requires no historical exploration beyond the blind physiology of hunger. It doesn’t matter if it’s morning or midnight. Bayreuth can point tangentially to Hegel, to my experiences visiting historical localities. Maybe some detail in the geography or architecture will signal an idea. Another diagrammatic arrow strays, points to Nazis.  Did Richard Wagner unconsciously write the theme music for the NADSP? Wagner’s admirer, Adolf Hitler, never missed a production of the Cycle at Bayreuth until he decided to invade Poland. Der Fuehrer made Wahnfried, Wagner’s villa, his second home. I treasured Niebelungen since I chanced on the Arthur Rackman illustrations.  I was just a boy. However even moral imperatives as relative as mine struggle justifying Hitler and Nazi iconography with a vacation impulse.

The reflective arrows for my trip grow a dandelion crowned with 180 degrees of yellow fingers pointing accusingly. I’d be disingenuous to pretend the direct impulse that Dylan Thomas christened “green fuse”, to be catechism or intellectually less, (or even genuinely here). It’s always louche to be irreligious, I can’t be. Theology might be argument, but religion is held in bodies. It’s an instinct, a need to follow backwards, to touch water and light. The shadows set by monoliths at Stonehenge, sun tunneling into Newgrange, stone gates of a bull star, laurel left in the Parthenon debris, crawlspace down in chambers of a Zapotec pyramid, temporary blindness in Muir Wood, Raven’s stolen fire told with salmon on the table, the raw beginnings of Heaven. It’s who we are. I love the Fool, but not the foolish, I know morning’s Hegelian dandelion has exploded in tetrahedral parachutes, floating past recall or recapture.

In another week I’ll be back in a hotel room. Following God, or more likely where God used to be.  It’s the overture that opens the way over the mountain pass, a perfumed breeze after winter. We are so often pilgrims without destination, hearing the hush between stone columns, blinking in a granite pool holding the sun’s circle, hunching on plastic hospital chairs. We seldom find what we’re looking for. We seldom find anything. Old God, my God, why have you forsaken me here of all places? In the muddle of a dialectical as familiar as dead relatives, as aimlessness as looking for a ghost wandering the corridors of the Pollard Hotel. Below me lurk bears and early snow vowing a late summer marriage.


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.

Iconography @ Starbucks


Dogg @ Starbuck’s brunch

“Summertime/Doin’ Time” was a vague adaptation of the Gershwin song, but apparently enough to warrant legal credit. It appears on the album entitled “Sublime” which sold over two million copies and was certified double platinum. Their interpretation opens with a rough choral singing of the first line of the original; it wasn’t sampled and mixed in. Sublime’s use of “Summertime” was literally a cover for “Doin’ Time”. In 1997, Bradley Nowell, the band’s guitarist and founding member, died of a heroin overdose. The band had already been under increasing contractual pressure to tone down their anti-social activities, although it was the same behavior had made their reputation as a live act and sold recordings. That same story has been nearly a trope for bands and musicians in the rock, hip hop, gangsta, bad boy industry.

Also during 1997, rapper, Snoop Dogg, was acquitted of a murder charge, nearly instantly he become nearly omnipresent on recordings and videos. Although Timothy McVey was the genuine face of terrorism, magazine covers showing Tupac Shakur’s “Thug Life” tattoo terrified parents even posthumously. Loose Dickies, cornrows and bandanas became chic, gang tags appeared on shopping malls. There were heartfelt televised discussions of casual misuse of the “N-word”, while white America fumed both oblivious and outraged by athletes and entertainers surreptitiously flashing gang signs and colors on network television. The ironic phenomenon of suburban and mainstream co-opting urban gang culture became a burgeoning industry. Notorious B.I.G. was shot in a drve by shooting and Strom Thurmon became the longest serving Senator in US history. Into that pre-Millennial incarnation of Catfish Row the Sublime interpretation of “Summertime” was released in three different versions, and a fourth version I have chosen was unreleased except on the Internet.

In all four of the Sublime interpretations, “Summertime” appears first as a syllabic substitute for the words, doing time, then fragments of the melody blend ironically into the atmosphere of exhaustion and excess. It uses the feeling, first line and musical refrain of Gershwin, then inserts a secondary lyric describing constriction in a relationship with a philandering woman in prison terms. In spite of the heavy-handed metaphor, the song maintains a summery pop feel. Like much of the work of Sublime, the song asks little of its listener and borrows melodies and styles from other genres. At best it’s a pleasant pastiche for beer buzzed fantasies of rebellion, at worst it’s three chubby party boys usurping musical styles and masquerading as criminals. That’s been the business of rock and roll since its inception.

In spite of, or perhaps because of its shortcomings, unfinished qualities, limited invention and technological theft, this version of “Summertime” is intriguing to me, at least for dissection. The seventy-odd years from the first Gershwin recording to Sublime may appear much greater than three generations, but it’s a period not much different from that separating the Emancipation Proclamation from that same recording. It does seem too far of a distance to recall Al Jolson’s contemporaneous black-faced 1927 performance in “The Jazz Singer” was widely regarded not as minstrelsy, but as an assault on racism and prejudice. In some readings of that performance Jolson’s character finds his true identity by changing his name and singing in blackface. In the film, as the character , Jack Robbins, (formerly Jackie Rabinowitz) Jolson produces a heart breaking “Mammy” sung in blackface to his mother as an explanation of refusing the constraints of his Jewish roots. . In spite of ts cultural impropriety, Mr. Jolson knowingly employed a racial mask, not to diminish cultural conflict, but to express it.

Sublime has no similar context to mitigate their cultural investment in “Summertime”. Instead of a sophisticated sentiment, Sublime produces a sluggish melange of complaint and then embroiders it with Snoop Dogg’s rap. A rap intended to lend a depth of street credibility “wickedness” and represent “The strong beach, the wrong beach, the L.B.C.”. Mr. Broadus rented his reputation as a Death Row “G” in the attempt give the song depth by making it appear dangerous. Sublime became guys pretending to be in the same barroom as Stagger Lee. It is a peculiar artistic choice for either a pop version of “Summertime” or a lover’s complaint. Unlike Jolson’s complicated adoption of a temporary race, Sublime chooses a convenient mask to hide behind for commercial advantage and intoxicated bravado.

Crown, from Porgy and “Porgy and Bess” was Dubose Heyward’s Doppelganger, a shadow symbol to wrestle with Porgy in Heyward’s struggle to resolve his own identity issues. As a stereotype, Crown, was a mask for racist fears and African Americans sense of powerlessness. To accomplish these ends, regardless of their ethical values, Crown has to be dark, fearless, savage and violent, a character incapable of change. Crown is always a manifestation. Nearly all of the racial stereotypes from the Jazz Age persist nearly a century later. The Mammy, Jezebel, Magic Negro, Sambo and Mandingo Savage continue to function as roles in artistic media shorthand. Al Jolson attempted to re-interpret the blackface mask outside of the realm of stereotype. Sublime made the artistic choice to draw on a diminished, but still corrupting image, Crown as criminality. Crown, who from “Birth of a Nation” on, must be subjected to extra legal control.

Our culture continues to profit from and manipulate these images, in some ways they are more sensitive, subtle and thoughtful depictions. If anything, in the current information age stereotypes are more vital to emotionally support talking points, substitute anecdotes for facts and swell emotions and fears. The tragedy of the death of Trayvon Martin rests, in part, with the superimposed residual image of “Crown”. It was the image George Zimmerman shot at; it was a seventeen year old student he killed.The current controversy and discussion regarding Kara Walker’s installation of “A Subtlety, or The Marvelous Sugar Baby,..” is acerbically insightful in revealing how much race does still matter in stereotypical imagery. I would ask you not only to read the article, but the pursuant comments for a sense of the depth of feeling. Yet in spite of academic discussion or subtle artistic changes, African American stereotypes remain vital in mass and social media.

The super-imposition of the Savage onto the faces of young African American men has been a contributing factor to abnormally high rate of arrest and imprisonment of African American youth. And perhaps even more corrosive are the residual complications from the internalization of that image withn those young people. Regardless of its value as a shorthand to sort groups or entertain, it’s both dehumanizing and inaccurate. A believed stereotype feeds in the invisible realms of ignorance and insecurity until it’s strong enough to force its way into the physical world.



It has been part of my good fortune to have taught English in an alternative school (State mandated alternative to expulsion) in Galveston, TX in the late 1990’s, in the midst of a gang war fought in two square miles. Students were quite kind to me in spite of the fact that I’m obviously obsessive, long-winded and dry. It was a small population, we enjoyed lunch together, students brought what effort they had to class and we enjoyed the work, projects and growth. We all made the school a safe place. Still they were routinely tried as adults,  rousted by police, beaten going home across the crazy quilt of gang sets and territories and in one year particularly horrific school term they murdered four of their classmates. All this was described as the price of “being too deep in the game”. They taught me how to read gang signs, tags and the alternative street map of G-town. They were victims, but not innocent. In writing they often perseverated on 2Pac’s death the same as other generations collectively mourned the loss of their idols with that mixture of shared fantasy and sudden vulnerability. Although violence and shootings were nearly commonplace in their neighborhoods, the death of a media deity meant something more to them. He was a stereotype they believed; he was “real”. The intensity of the internal beliefs they attached to this shadow figure I only guessed by topic frequency and their willingness to revise.  Mr. Shakur was shot in Las Vegas following a Mike Tyson fight. (Mr. Tyson was another human being who had to grow up and live inside the “Crown” stereotype). Also wounded in the shootout was “Suge” Knight the CEO of Death Row Records, the recording label of Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and 2Pac. Mr. Shakur, like Mr. Broadus and Mr. Tyson made substantial sums of money allowing themselves to be manipulated as stereotypical African American thugs. Like the seventy year old image of Crown they were portrayed as powerful, violent, criminally out of control and lacking interiority. They were paid to carry racial fears and prejudice into public arenas of resolution.




The life of a psychopomp brings visions that few other humans have to experience: the daily realities of their business are exaggerated illusions. We ask pop artists to act out our stereotypes without disturbing our sense of personal responsibility. As the media world has evolved since the Jazz Age the demands of creation, performance and marketing have both increased the sizes of audiences and the nuances of intimate manipulation. As an industry, music finds continually newer, more malleable replacements. Each artist struggles to both create and emotionally survive in a cynical industry. Not infrequently they disguise themselves; they wear masks, it is an act fundamental to performance. The danger comes as my Jungian friend pointed out in underestimating the power of shadows and types like Crown. Even though the song was a faded echo of “Summertime”, barely recognizable, the images it invoked were still potent enough to take the life of Mr. Nowell.

Sublime (altered)

Sublime (altered)

A Jungian analyst friend warned me more than once about underestimating the danger of shadows and types. There is a specific version of stereotype involved in the invention and production of “Porgy and Bess” that was problematic at the time, and continues to be a complicated projection, the monstrous attraction of the “Negro Savage” or “bully”. The plot of “Porgy and Bess” begins with a murderous fight following a dice game between the bully, Crown, and a Catfish Row local, Robbins. It is a conflict that alludes to the legendary battle between Stagger Lee and Billy Lyon. In his folklore studies DuBose Heyward would have heard versions of the tale and adapted it in part to “Porgy and Bess”. According to St. Louis Globe that particular barroom brawl between Mr. Lee Shelton and Mr. Billy Lyons took place on Christmas Night, 1895 at Tom Turpin’s Rose Bud Saloon.

Lee Shelton, reinvented as Stack-o-Lee has been by versions been a levee worker, a bully, a “maquereau”, a brute, but always a he possesses a .44 and a Stetson hat. Billy Lyons is variously an affable pimp, a dice cheat, a family man, who always fatally underestimates the savagery of his opponent. By the 1920s the story of their brawl was known in African American communities all over the Mississippi River and Delta, and east to the Carolinas and Atlantic. Currently as a song “Stagger Lee” has nearly 500 recorded versions (not counting YouTube). Older versions of “Stagger Lee” took the forms of field hollers, ballads, blues, jazz, coon hollers (song sung by whites in blackface), and commonly toasts. Toasts were traditionally male rhyming conversations generally boastful, insulting, scatological, and competitive, commonly their topics involved sex, drinking and fighting. The genesis and the popularity of this murder ballad remain a Jungian shadow singing about masculinity and its shadow fears. Similar shadow songs still flourish today in forms including corridos, country, rock, folk ballads, blues, and most recently rap.

These mythic caricatures engage the singer/song/listener in an iconic relationship formalized to exert some cultural control over dangerous disenfranchised males. They have existed in the Western musical tradition of romanticizing murder, adultery and theft that dates since beyond the chansons of minstrels of the Middle Ages. Their character is essentially rebellious, sexy and willing to operate outside of legal and moral arenas regardless of restrictions of culture, poverty and race. By depicting transgressive figures with formal attention they are subsequently subject to manipulation within the parameters of those forms, i.e., detail, context, and consequence. They can be exaggerated, situationally interpreted and punished. There are traditional examples of songs enduring as poetry, “Don Juan”, “Beowulf”, the “Nibelung Saga”, or even tales of the rounder Odysseus. But by and large they are sung songs existing in the mouths of the singer and the air that holds them. As imagery their popularity depends on predicating events, personal needs and cultural situations, but always they contain an underlying cautionary tone.

I grew up in a small city once called “Murdertown, USA”. It was also home to all the Italian gangster stereotypes epitomized in films like “The Godfather” or “Goodfellas”, sharkskin suits, gambling, flamboyant floral displays at funerals, smoky backroom offices above bars, and a cohort of bookies and prison hardened men with names like “Louis Bad Eye” and “Cadillac Charlie”. The criminals in my hometown were real, people were killed, and violence was part of the day to day relations with gangsters. They did as they pleased with relative impunity and regarded legality as an interference to business, but little more. We learned to recognize their cars, homes, tables at restaurants and lounges, and accepted criminality as commonplace and endemic. They were corrupting and ruinous, but I also developed a subconscious personal utility for these criminals. My genetic bond to the power of their criminality brought me a certain level of cultural respect, or at least prevented open disrespect.

Italians, as well as other ethnic groups, had been victims of discrimination since their arrival in America. There was a language of epithets, jokes, caricatures and a full history of media exaggerations. Since the Depression there had been a steady supply of gangster stories that were staples in the film and media industries. On the other hand, briefly consider “Chico” Marx, of the Marx Brothers. His movie dialog was a conglomeration of dialect jokes, he carried around salamis, was constantly larcenous, and clownishly dressed. Leonard Marx developed that character and employed it on stage and screen to international popularity and fortune. Although I still maintain affection for Marx Brothers films, “Chico” remains an embarrassing depiction created at the expense of my grandfather’s generation. In my youth I learned to endure similar “dago” jokes as one more indignity in the dominant culture’s imaginary rite of assimilation. At least in daydreams mobsters were something like shadow heroes for the more primal energies that I was forced to either deny or repress. Even if I didn’t want to wear suede and knit cardigans, or cream loafers I shared some pride in their refusal to obey, in their capacity to thrive as outliers. The same distortions that bound me to Chico Marx’s family, also bound me to the brutal Trafficante Family. So it has been with Stagger Lee, Crown and the gangster rap stars who continue that tradition.

In his essay “The American Negro in Art” DuBose Heyward describes the genesis of the character Porgy as a newspaper article describing the arrest of Samuel Smalls, a Charleston beggar arrested for aggravated assault. It was his second arrest for shooting someone. Although Porgy is the nominal hero of the opera, he arrives in a goat drawn wagon congenitally injured. He represents what is dependent, abused and tamed. In Porgy Heyward describes him “with totally inadequate nether extremities” and”black with the almost purple blackness of unadulterated Congo blood.” He possesses “like a stagnant pool of flame… an atavistic calm. And would doze lightly under the terrific heat, as only a full blooded Negro can.” His pleasure comes from listening in the late afternoon to the piano playing of a white woman in a white-clad gown as her music drifts down from a second story window. His single vice is gambling. Heyward could have been describing a neutered tomcat.

Crown, by contrast, is described during the fight following a dice game “Miraculously the tawny, rigid bodies tore through the thin coverings. Bronze ropes and bars slid and wove over great shoulders. Bright, ruddy planes leaped out on backs in the fire flare, then were gulped by sliding shadows. A heady, bestial stench absorbed all other odors.” Moments later as Crown kills Robbins after holding him with “one mighty arm” then “…he dropped his victim, and swaggered drunkenly toward the street.” Crown is a dimensionless stereotype of the savage “buck”, preternaturally strong, ignorant and instinctively impulsive. Like a lower evolution of Caliban he proudly battles God and both the natural and human worlds.

Later Porgy kills Crown with the “prodigious strength he has gathered from being a beggar”, yet he becomes disconsolate and even more subservient. His inability to negotiate a path outside of the law costs him the titular relationship with Bess. By contrast Crown lives and acts in a transgressive world. He abuses Bess to his own ends. He’s free, empowered and untroubled by conscience or consequence. DuBose Heyward set those social-psychological forces in motion in both the novel and libretto. He had a rich subconscious bank to draw upon to set up that dynamic.

The Heyward family descended from one of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence; they were slave owners who in a few generations of landed aristocracy had fallen to ‘decay’. He was a writer who earned his living in insurance. DuBose Heyward had a lifelong affection for African American music, language and the life he observed in Charleston and the Gullah communities. Like any artist he was an alien intimate in both the worlds he observed and created. He had also endured bouts of polio and debilitating illness. Regardless of the exaggeration in the depictions of his male characters, he was capable of interacting with manifestations as if they were genuine emotion and part of a common reality. Like other white artists during the period Langston Hughes referred to as “…when the Negro was in vogue” Mr. Heywood, Eugene O’Neil, or Vachel Lindsay successfully wrote to the market for racial stereotypes, but perhaps with less malicious “racist” intent than some. Their work would have been shelved and reviewed alongside Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Jean Toomer’s Cane , or James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombones.

Shadow types like Crown and Stagger Lee, continue to give rise to hundreds of rap figures characterized by street names like Master, Ice, Big, Boyz, Gangsta, Young, Lil’, who understand the attraction of the appearance of criminality. They utilize AKAs as DBAs to allow their artistry to try wearing Stagger Lee’s infamous $5 Stetson Hat. A rap persona who could be easily cast in “Porgy and Bess” with minimal transformation, might be the persona created by Calvin Broadus, “Snoop Dogg”. In a YouTube selection he’s mixed into “Summertime/Doin’ Time” recorded by the ska, punk, hip hop, party band, Sublime. [ ]

PART SIX The Bird That Caged Herself

Summertime reversed.bmp
It seems there must be some monsters in any “Summertime” discussion; they are unavoidable. There are so many masks in the creation, production and interpretation of this lullaby based in lost racial caricature that there will always be distortions to amuse, distract, and not infrequently offend someone. Most disturbing versions in my personal survey are the “Summertime” recordings of Janis Joplin. .
Since 1968-69 time hasn’t been kind to Ms. Joplin, particularly with her two recordings of “Summertime”. The lens of fifty years has magnified their flaws and diminished their contextual meaning. That doesn’t mean that they are somehow dishonest, but rather that like many recordings from that period of experimentation and excess, they have difficulty escaping being classified only as artifacts. It requires effort to review these recordings. In spite of the fond memories they contain for me personally, if I weren’t writing this essay I don’t think I would choose to listen to them, as opposed to others I’ve already discussed.

In 1968, when I was seventeen, I saw Ms. Joplin perform with Big Brother and the Holding Company in a half filled Public Hall in Cleveland, Ohio. They were touring in support of “Cheap Thrills”, the album containing “Summertime”. Apart from seeing “The Executioners” at a school dance, I’d never seen a rock and roll act in person. Even today I recall her performance as loud, hypnotic and vaguely desperate. We met her on stage briefly afterwards and she put a string of beads around the neck of my friend Anne. She seemed small, alone and kind. I felt oddly pleased that she had an acne eruption. Janis Joplin represented any shunned teenager’s fantasy to become suddenly charismatic, discovered and recognized as the voice their generation’s rebellion. In 1968 that was Ms. Joplin’s actual reality.

She was both fortunate and fatally inopportune to inhabit a musical era that prized ecstatic improvisation over formal training. That period of popular music was defined by a synergistic combination of burgeoning Boomer/Hippie audiences, the expansion of rock and roll from an intimate club acts to commercialized stadium productions, and the widespread availability and near mandatory use of all manner of dangerous drugs. The Dionysian mood of the times produced, idolized and devoured dozens of artists like Janis Joplin. Even while she was alive she was an artist whose recordings were primarily memorabilia of her performances. What was fundamental to her career was the myth of overpowering genius, that she had magically escaped a restrictive world (and high school in 1960s Port Arthur, Texas was undoubtedly constraining) and been daemonically remade into some kind of elemental voice singing outside the limitations of ordinary lives. It wasn’t talent; it was the spectacle of inspiration crowds came to witness. The promise of her show was hip fun, catharsis and relatively safe proximity to unfettered rebellion.

What she presented to me that night in Cleveland was far removed from any record she produced in her career. It was similar to the difference between seeing a tightrope walker in a circus tent, or on television; the value diminishes in relation to the immediate proximity of disaster. Technically she was untrained, and like many of the Blues and Rhythm & Blues singers she emulated, she prematurely ruined her instrument by the demands of over-performance. However “Summertime” was recorded in 1968 and Ms. Joplin largely directed the production of the entire “Cheap Thrills” recording, and at twenty-five, was in her best form. It isn’t unreasonable to assume the recording is what she intended. Films of her in the studio during those recording sessions reveal her to be intelligent, determined and a skillful manager of the people and the task and before her.

She released a live version from her performance at the Woodstock Music Festival and included “Summertime” as a staple of her concerts. Her interpretation was a rock and roll version of blues. Ms. Joplin’s emotive rock and roll vocals were genuine in her ability to integrate traditional African American musical forms into the eidetic shapes of the improvisations of acid rock. On the other hand, Big Brother and the Holding Company were (and remained) a terribly inadequate backup band. Even in a time when no guitar solo was too shapeless, too distorted, or was required to adhere to any tempo, they struggled. I charitably assume it was drugs in excess, or the demands of maintaining the psychedelic blues music style.

Blues was a favored as a form because it was fundamentally simple to play, but allowed for improvisation and personalization. Blues also contained an emotional authority that rock and roll didn’t; you believed Robert Johnson, you pretended to believe Chuck Berry. Generally white musicians in the sixties employed a musical style that tended to imitate and re-inhabit existing blues forms with combinations of technical virtuosity, improvisation and emotional excess in a quest for a type of “authenticity” that overcame the limitations of not being “black”. It was part of the same long, angry conversation that extended from Stephen Foster, minstrelsy and colored “Porgy and Bess” from its initial productions through today. In the late 1960’s there were particularly virulent debates about the qualities and degree of “blackness” in popular music and art. Many African American artists like Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), took realistic offense at the historic exploitation of “black music” by “white” artists. In the late sixties and early seventies, that conversation, like much of the heated rhetoric of those days,became virulent, accusatory and simultaneously productive and counter-productive.

In the less than ten years since the last surge of recordings of “Summertime”, Louis Armstrong was abused for Uncle Tom-ism, John Coltrane was dead and cannonizied, and the Protean Miles Davis was abandoning post-bop jazz quartets for free form funk ensembles. There was deserved criticism for groups and white musicians who even refused to acknowledge their musical sources. And there was the de facto financial re-segregation of traditional rhythm and blues by British musicians and blue eyed soul singers. Historical accuracy and financial responsibility notwithstanding, that debate was and continues to be genuine in that it struggles with, privilege, integration and identity. Janis Joplin’s interpretation of “Summertime” speaks to those issues although somewhat obliquely.

In 1968 “Summertime” appeared on “Cheap Thrills” which was the Billboard number one album for eight weeks, and sold over a million copies in its first month of release. The album cover featured illustrations by the underground comic artist, Art Crumb, who depicted the singer of “Summertime” in an exaggerated racial caricature of a kerchief wearing ‘mammy’ holding a white baby. It was (and is) a disturbing reference. The only way the image could have been more offensive would for it to have been to be larger. Originally it was intended to be the back liner notes, but Ms. Joplin lobbied to have it become the cover. The iconoclastic Mr. Crumb aside, there is a solipsistic entitlement that pervades this recording. From this vantage nearly fifty years later I could charitably call this expression adolescent, new found powers to shock or contest authority. Adolescent rebellion acting out. Charitably it speaks of the naiveté, rebellion and poor judgment of intoxicated youth. It’s same formula that continues to produce unfortunate wardrobe choices, regrettable sexting, sad tattoos, vandalism, and tens of thousands of car wrecks. It’s that initial flush of liberty that seems invigorating, irresponsible, and addictive.

But any parent can tell you adolescent acting out isn’t without consequences for someone. Willie Mae ”Big Mama” Thornton ten years previously had her R&B hit “Hound Dog” re-recorded by the young, white, Elvis Presley. Ten years later had her hit song, ”Ball & Chain”, re-recorded by the young, white, Janis Joplin. Both of the re-recordings were so successful that they transformed white trash singers into single name identities, Elvis and Janis. Ms. Thornton wrote “Ball &Chain”, but received no royalty payments, only the snide credit buried in the illustration of the “Cheap Thrills” album cover. Although Ms. Thornton wasn’t alone as an African-American musician in being cheated out of publishing rights and royalties by predatory record deals, it must have been bitter to have it happen on such a scale twice. It wasn’t just the songs, Ms. Thornton had her act appropriated as if it were public property, translated into a “whitened” version delivered by over sexualized delinquents, and had seen both thieves rewarded with unimagined sums of money and international fame. However she did outlive them both.

Artistic rebellion, zeitgeist, countercultural movements, and frozen adolescence aside, Ms. Joplin was addicted to drugs and alcohol. She died of a heroin overdose in October of 1970. Her entire career was a little less than five years long. Without judging her life and personal struggles, it’s difficult to overlook the influences of the harsh realities of that lifestyle on her music.

It would also be unfair to characterize Ms. Joplin as “trapped in adolescence” without mentioning that there were seventy-six million other people approximately her age who owned a pair of bell bottomed pants. The entire country was quite literally trapped in adolescence. It was an enormous audience and market for music and fashion, but it was also a collective mirror for the unmodulated hormones, de rigueur creativity, and rebelliousness that marked both that period of life and those moments in time. For a brief time, Ms. Joplin was merely first citizen among millions of women with long frazzled hair, flowing blouses and a tangle of necklaces. At the same time in the background of every dinner conversation was a war drafting and sending home thousands of casualties, riots and assassinations.

Listening to the “Cheap Thrills” rendition of “Summertime” it’s difficult for me to imagine to whom this song is directed. There is little of a lullaby sounding in this arrangement, unless it is it is the sound of a trapped woman singing to try to soothe her inner child. (Not an altogether inaccurate definition of rock and roll as an art form.) There’s no summer and no musical allusions to the Catfish Row of “Porgy and Bess”. Sam Andrew III is credited for having arranged the guitar figures that interpret the song. He employs the stylistic minor key noodling raga that was the beginning of many pop songs from that period and then extends it into searching motif. Ultimately it finds Ms. Joplin’s voice imposing the lyric and melody over two guitar parts that ramble around in distortion and distress until converging at a sonic mutual climax, and then trundle off again in what appears to a cyclical repetition,It was a formula used by hundreds of bands forconcert and extended versions of songs. Apart from tribute bands, this “Summertime” doesn’t strike me as an interpretation that might want to be repeated. However Ms. Joplin’s vocalizing comes across as brutally intimate, and carries the burden through the nebulous guitars, and that amalgam is, in its way, surprisingly honest and beautiful.

What Ms. Joplin required herself to do spiritually and physically to produce those recordings was authentic art in spite of my reservations of taste, racial sensitivity, or the ethics of its cost. The “Cheap Thrills” recording nods faintly to an imagined world of “Porgy and Bess” (Mr. Crumb had seen to that) but primarily it re-imagines the song as a cathartic expression of privileged intimacy with the music of dark summer spirits. The voice of Janis Joplin tears at itself to imitate a séance with the legendary curses, haunts, and superstitions that populate the shadows of classic blues. The seemingly intoxicated guitars might describe the sonic landscape of the Catfish Row Ms. Joplin knew. A street scene also replete with drug dealers, bullies, shade tree picnics, con games, untrustworthy friends and philanderers. Onto that cheap thrill surface she projects her inner doubts and losses with no more protection than a string of beads. She inhabits both the memory of the 1935 song and her Orphic need to sing. In her versions of “Summertime” there is a sense of fracture, of tumbling, and surrounding menace. She creates the appearance of being possessed by a voice that the singer can neither stop, nor escape until the song is over.

The qualities we expect from a performer are ones that the audience generally prefers to have concealed. We don’t care to view the practice required to develop those exact notes subtly inflected or extended, we just expect the anticipated sonic image each night in Monterrey, Woodstock, or Cleveland. That kind of consistent vocal presence comes through a lifetime of training and tedious hours of discipline that are generally known only to professional musicians and their families. That training also develops the ability to put on and take off the mask of performance. Ms. Joplin had none of that and what audiences demanded of Ms. Joplin was different and more.

In an age of celebrated for care-free life style, Janis Joplin was expected to suffer, ritually and gracelessly. Her public suffering relieved part of the collective guilt of her intoxicated generation by her willing exhibitions of pain. Within that dynamic the cultura land racial stylistic notions of “authenticity” or “real” become more tragic. That self- immolation comes through in the 1969 live recording of “Summertime” at Woodstock. She is abandoned in the lyrics to trance-like syllabic stammering, a different dialect from the one Abbie Lincoln sang in 1935. Neither is it the world weary complaint of Bessie Smith, or the sly wisdom of Willie Mae Thornton. It was toxic suffering, not blues. Ms. Joplin’s “Summertime” had no tight orchestrated revue, or slick showmanship. Her audience, her addiction, wanted to experience how close she would come to dying. Nina Simone (who also recorded “Summertime”) discussing Janis Joplin remarked bitterly “…she worked so hard, and she sang for corpses.” Those corpses were a young, white, stoned, barely conscious mob screaming and laughing. Her addiction was to same people she could never leave in Port Arthur. They came to watch the show, for the festival, it was summertime.



PART TWO  “Summertime”  Without Gershwin

The 1940 original cast recording was directed by Alexander Smallens and recorded during the period “Porgy and Bess” was in flux.


Gershwin died in 1937.  “Porgy and Bess” closed after 142 performances in 1935, then wandered in sporadic repertoire until it was revived in 1940, the year of DuBose Heyward’s death. This recording is sung by Anne Brown who did not sing in the production, but was chosen for the recording. It’s clean, professional and pretty, but speaks more to New York than South Carolina. By this time of his death Gershwin was widely discussed as a significant composer. In Paris he had met, Poulenc, Ravel, Weil, Prokofiev and Stravinsky. His correspondence shows he was interested in Virgil Thompson, Alban Berg, Charles Ives, Edgar Varese, and Aaron Copland.  He had subscribed to and read Henry Cowell’s New Music Quarterly. He studied musical notation with Arthur Schillinger. When he died, Gershwin was an active, ambitious intellectual; however these posthumous bona fides sometimes bring an artifice of austerity that this version of “Summertime” struggles to carry.

The sonic arrangement of the Decca 78rpm record emphasizes the orchestration and diminishes the tonal flexiblity of the voice compared to the 1935 Gershwin trial recording. The 1940 version is under the direction of Alexander Smallens, who had been Gershwin’s personal choice since he heard him direct “Four Saints in Three Acts” by Virgil Thompson. Based on their relationship and Smallens long dedication to performing the work, I assume that this arrangement and the choice of Ms. Brown in large measure reflect his sense of the musical intentions of George Gershwin, an opera in the European tradition depicting American ambitions.

Interestingly, in the 1940 revival, the part of Bess was performed by Julliard trained, Metropolitan Opera soprano, Leontyne Price. Later she recorded a version of “Summertime” in Germany under the baton of Herbert Von Karajan in 1960 at the Fledermaus Gala of Prince Orlofsky. I would establish it as a gold standard in terms of following the score with absolute obedience. If any recording could achieve a flawless, note for note rendition, this would be as close as possible. Ms. Price was both in full voice and intimate with performing the song. Herbert von Karan, as the premier 20th Century conductor of Beethoven, was a legendary musical tyrant. It seems a marriage made for fidelity.


This rendition has some sense of ethereal weather, but expresses little feeling of belief. In spite of the complete control of the score, a legendary orchestra and Ms. Price’s astonishing voice, strangely it doesn’t reflect summer or a sleeping baby. It seems to have no geographical context. Listening to it, it could as easily be a woman imprisoned in a Schwartz Walden castle as Catfish Row. Being correct is only so valuable. Taking the music to its European limit didn’t seem to have produced a finer form of expression.

That same year Mahalia Jackson also recorded an interpretation of “Summertime” that seems incendiary:


Here is a hearkening to the original voice, song and fundamental sentiment that attracted Gershwin, one that Billie Holiday had immediately understood. This voice understands the nuances of the gospel spirituals. It holds what is precious, closer. The naked piano has moved the music to near complete interiority. The child becomes the sense of self in a wretched world. Ms. Jackson seamlessly moves into “Motherless Child” in an organic reflection of the chord progression, but also as a protest. Not that Gershwin has appropriated the tune, but a song that has its roots much deeper than Tin Pan Alley. In “Motherless Child” it’s not “nothing can harm you”, but nothing can rescue you. The person who sings this “Summertime” imbues it with the contradiction that a rich daddy and good looking mama are no genuine protection from harm. Everything can be taken by this world; loss is the foundation of any spiritual before the first hands clap.

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:
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:// . 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.

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