Sunday, January 30, 2011
My father was stationed at Maxwell AFB in Montgomery, Alabama, during the last half of 1955 and the first half of '56--which just happened to be the timeframe for the lengthy Bus Boycott kicked off by exhausted rider Rosa Parks and turned into a defining Civil Rights event by the young, then-unknown Reverend Martin Luther King and his followers.
Meanwhile, a future "King" with the odd name Elvis was all over the airwaves too; I listened especially for "You're Right, I'm Left, She's Gone" and "Mystery Train" (Sun hits preceding his move to RCA and "Heartbreak Hotel"). But I was 12 going on 13, not smart enough to go see that new singer when he showed up at the Alabama State Fair...
Mainly I felt like a lagging misfit in the highly social 7th grade I was attending. Several factors, but mostly my own immaturity, made that year of Black people walking and Elvis swivelling very much a year of teen angst too as I tried to come to terms with the precocious no-longer-kids all around me with their Southern fixations on sex and race.
Three decades later I wrote a poem expressing some of those feelings, looking back also on the important history--social, racial, musical--we didn't realize we were experiencing. I was slow to think of reviving this poem in conjunction with Dr. King's celebratory day just passed, but maybe it doesn't hurt to expand our remembrance beyond a once-a-year holiday Monday...
(Note: Montgomery was the first capital of the Confederacy, with "President" Jefferson Davis in residence. And the poem's title makes punning reference to a phrase, "Et in Arcadia Ego," from an Eclogue by Latin poet Virgil, his words meaning a rather elaborate "Even in Arcady I am," with Arcady a sort of nymphs-and-shepherds paradise, and the mysterious "I"... Death.)
Et in Alabama Ego
“Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery”:
John Prine warbled that, long after I’d gone
And fled for good... Turning thirteen, I'd nary
A clue compared to junior high’s Rebel debs--
Southern new belles whose angora’ed
Shapes could halt a Crimson Tide,
Or breed an Auburn horde:
Dana Jo, Jewel, and languid Lenore
Running the ’55 fast lane
While Bigger girls Rita and Bonnie Gay
Coyly maintained the country-club ways.
Eddie-come-never, I was plain dazed
By training bras and formal drags,
Tri-Hi-Y functions and making out. Chubby outcast
In baggy pants, I’d more to do with j.d. trash
Like Bubba Beauchamp--“Beech-um,” he’d snarl,
A snaggle-tooth bully pure coonass-mean--
Battered by him twice for not crying “Uncle!”
Which made strong-arm Johnny, our own James Dean,
Train me hard for some future rumble.
The "sosh"-scene kids scared me more,
Filled with their ‘Bama-style rage
At most things black: Negroes called spear-
Chuck and jungle bunny; boys my age
Gone nig’-knockin’. “You ain’t a man
Till you’ve dipped your pen in ink,” they’d brag.
“And me with a pencil,” I’d mumble--
Small-time loser at Deep South love and hate.
Was Wallace the governor yet? I disremember.
Hank Williams' Caddy lay in the state rotunda,
But some whites gave rides to Boycotters
Stubbornly trampling on. While two Kings rocked
The Confederacy's Cradle, I trucked
With Dixie dreams, Old Jeff's unfinished curse.
Tuesday, January 25, 2011
Back in the late Sixties when Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records was regularly traveling across the South, searching for old 78s and recording all the Americana/Roots musicians he could find, he was sometimes accompanied by documentary filmmaker Les Blank (Les's company soon called Flower Films). Chris would tape the artists performing in living rooms,
on front porches or wherever, and Les would follow the folks around, attempting to capture their lives on film in some scaled-down but essential way. And he succeeded; he assembled brilliant portraits of Lightnin' Hopkins (The Blues Accordin' to...), songster/sharecropper Mance Lipscomb (A Well-Spent Life), Zydeco star Clifton Chenier (Hot Pepper) and others.
I got to know Les somehow, and we stayed at each other's houses occasionally. Once I had stomach flu and a serious fever, holed up at his place in L.A. for several days while still trying to peddle my screenplay on Robert Johnson; a year later, Les drank a beer too many and fell asleep on my living room couch with a lighted cigarette in his hand, burning a serious black scar in my first wife's favorite antique table. Blank was banned from the house after that--which I should have realized meant divorce was lurking in my future too!
During that time Les also made a maybe 20-minute picture--expanded later, I think--called Spend It All, which aimed to introduce Southwest Louisiana's then still-unknown, backwoods (but French Acadian derived) culture to the world. I remember a series of wacky scenes with roving bands of Cajuns on horseback riding out for some Christmas shenanigans, and also one crazed "coonass" with a major toothache who pulled out the offending molar himself using a pair of pliers! Les went on to do other documentaries on Cajuns over the years, but that's the one I always think of when I hear that distinctive music driven by squeezebox accordion, sawing fiddle and, yes, triangle.
I had that experience today playing the CD Evangeline Made in the car--released back in 2002 and Grammy-nominated later, but I'd not heard it before. Well, my new used copy sounds great! The album is subtitled "A Tribute to Cajun Music," and it's an attempt by the revered resident Savoys of Eunice, LA--author-historian Ann and musician-instrument maker Marc--to keep the flame (that would be "les flammes d'enfer") alive by teaching non-Cajuns to play the traditional songs and sounds. Willing participants range from ex-punk, ex-glam star David Johansen (kinda like a post-Katrina crawfish washed outta his bayou), and Nick Lowe-and-getting-lower for "Arrette pas la Musique," through famed singer Linda Ronstadt harmonizing neatly with Ann Savoy twice, and skittish folk star Linda Thompson in her contrary contralto mode (but still compelling), to a handful of major performers whose cuts are way beyond adequate.
Houston-born country star Rodney Crowell does a sort of Western Swung version of "Blues de Bosco" full of whoops and hollers and good times, while authenticity-driven rocker John Fogerty channels fiddler Doug Kershaw to deliver an amped-up, tres-hot Cajun stomp, cher, hauling "Diggy Liggy Lo" off to a Clearwater swamp. Country-rock songbird Maria McKee sings a sweet rewrite of Harry Choates's "Jolie Blonde" (titled "Ma Blonde Est Partie" here) and an even sweeter lullaby, "Tout un Beau Soir en me Promenant," chosen to close the album with crickets and a twilight tune. Alt.folkish Patty Griffin chirps une vraie beaute called "Pa Janvier, Laisse Moi m'en Aller," and Prince of Folk/Rock/Twanging Chinese Outer-Space Guitar, Richard Thompson (a regular pal of the Savoys), shows up twice, adding lead to one of the Ronstadt-Savoy duets, then picking his way--one-man way, at that--through the Cajun standard I mentioned earlier, "Les Flammes d'Enfer."
Aside from his nimble fingers, Richard's solo show stands out because every other track, whether with guest vocalist or instruments only, boasts backing by changing combos drawn from the Savoy-Doucet Band (with Marc's accordion work both jaw-dropping and beautiful), slide-maitre Sonny Landreth, special guests Steve Riley and Jimmy Breaux, and such Southwestern parish names as Balfa, Broussard, Gaspard, Vidrine... In other words, calmez-toi, ma jolie, you're in good gar-catching, rice-farming, coon-hunting hands. This fractious-French tribute is really a Cajun all-star cookout, fish fry, and fais-do-do. Allons au bal!
Meanwhile, for contrast I'd like to call attention to one of the most ruckus-raisin' remarkable LPs ever issued, one which I've happily held onto since the late Eighties--a sort of balls-to-the-wall, and that wall busting wide open, cross between traditional Cajun and punk-metal rock. If you can imagine the wild Irish band The Pogues as Cajun punksters instead (but, hey, one Pogues song sparks up a family-car commercial these days!), then you're half-way to grasping the sound of the group and album called Mamou, on Jungle Records out of Austin.
This is a concept LP, really, and the concept is to start out with a "Jolie Blonde" that soon explodes into speed metal, and eventually end the album in strictly traditional mode, with triangle ringing, horse hooves clopping, and a fading-off tempo more transport than two-step... and in between to burn up the recording studio with a cadre of Cajun youngsters (led by slide/electric fuzz guitarist Steve LaFleur) free to take the music anywhere they choose, as rapidly and noisily as they choose. Fiddler Jonno Frishberg (he bellows a mean accordion too) and drum-crashing Joe Granger are on fire from first to last, while LaFleur shouts and moans and his guitar snarls and sizzles, sounding on "La Valse de Balfas," for example, like Jimi Hendrix drowning in Bayou Teche.
The band "plays" LaFleur originals, Dewey Balfa standards, and traditional tunes too, but they all sound alike--loud, fast, and proud of it--screaming "Hurricane, I hear you howling," chanting "Madame Bozo, don't shoot me," and moaning a surprisingly lovely "La Louisiane, jamais d'la vie." LaFleur fights off the fires of hell too, via his own four-times-faster version of "Les Flammes." And the album delivers a final one-two punch with "'Tit Galop a Mamou" (kissin' cousin to "Diggy Liggy Lo") and the six-minute, fuzztone folkrocker "La Danse de Mardi Gras," which starts stately, goes to speed-warped, then finally slows, reverts to traditional accordion sounds and effects, and drifts off into the night... Whew!
Don't play this at home. You might just be irrevocably altered, from Acadian sad and accordion cool to plain-crazy Cajun.
Wednesday, January 19, 2011
I had this bee in my bonnet--well, "G in my gullet" might be more to the point--thinking about John Steinbeck's novels on film, specifically The Red Pony in its televised version from the Seventies (starring Henry Fonda and Maureen O'Hara), with a near-mythic film score by much-lauded composer Jerry Goldsmith, which has never been (legally) issued on LP or CD. That brought to mind Of Mice and Men, the version televised in the Nineties with John Malkovich and Gary Sinise and a wonderful Americana score composed by sometime Jazz trumpeter Mark Isham. (I actually met Mark back in 1983 or so when his earliest film soundtracks were being released on Windham Hill Records, but that's not part of this scrambled tale.)
Both Steinbeck novels when first filmed had famous landmark scores composed by Aaron Copland during his populist music period, stretching from the Billy the Kid and Appalachian Spring and Rodeo ballets, to his great Lincoln Portrait (one Copland recording has actor Fonda dryly perfect as the narrator), and beautiful opera The Tender Land, and late-Forties film scores, the period when Copland pretty much invented the sound of America in Classical music along with its extension into the movies.
I was thinking that an essay comparing the early and later scores might be entertaining, and also indicative of how well-served Steinbeck has been by the many excellent soundtracks--quietly masterful Alfred Newman for Grapes of Wrath, then Copland's two, followed in the Fifties by Alex North's Mexican-modernist music for Viva Zapata and Leonard Rosenman's somewhat-atonal, psyche-in-sound score for East of Eden, and later the piano work of Doctor John enlivening Cannery Row, plus the remakes drawing on Goldsmith and Isham. And didn't Duke Ellington write an orchestral suite based on Sweet Thursday for the Monterey Jazz Festival? Major composers and musicians all.
But that's where this vague plan has stalled, as I await (no breath held) the long-desired, long-overdue official issue of Goldsmith's music for The Red Pony. Even a release of the film on DVD would be most welcome. I mean, come on... Henry Fonda? A masterwork by score giant Jerry? Talk about a no-brainer. Why is that telefilm not available? And the collector labels Varese Sarabande or Intrada could easily create a fantastic 2CD set offering the complete scores from both versions, Aaron's and Jerry's "Ponies" running neck and neck, head to head. (It's actually been 25 years since VS issued the one and only Copland/Red Pony soundtrack--as opposed to the well-known suite he made from it.) Could it be... this year, Jerry's album?
In the meantime that round-up is a good idea that's going no further. Just like my long-promised and long-delayed Part 3 discussion of tenor saxman Bill Perkins. And an essay on Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill, and Lotte Lenya as I conceive them. And pieces on Tom Selleck on screens big and small, and the funny, sexy TV series Bones, and reviews of live albums by Art Pepper and John Coltrane, and a look at the amazing stream of Jazz compilations and reissues coming out of Spain (thanks to looser copyright laws), and then... well, who knows?
Will any of the aforementioned ideas come to fruition? I guess you'll have to check back from time to time to see where the posts take me--and you too, maybe.
Further deponent sayeth not.
Thursday, January 13, 2011
After finally finding a copy, I was 20 or so pages into Ron Rosenbaum's hefty tome with the startling title The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups (published back in 2006), enjoying it immensely and wondering why... and then, thinking out loud, I realized, "This is as strange and wonderful and oddly exciting as Confederates in the Attic!" (Tony Horwitz's critical smash published in 1998 is still one of my favorite books of the past quarter century.)
My thoughts sped on, racing and tumbling over one another: The characters are quirky and sometimes fanatical, the stories told are wild and woolly and weird, the writers get right down in the trenches with the participants (Bard experts and crazed "reenactors"), the imagery and actions center on history and warfare real and imagined, the subjects are perennially important (England's Man from Stratford and America's Civil War), and the books deliver edifying information, life-changing experiences, and sheer entertainment... both books just damn-fine fun to read.
Like the reconstituted Armies of the North and the South, the "bardolators" and scholars reconnoiter, skirmish, and attack. Raids behind enemy lines are common, whether staged out in the open, or secretly within ivied walls. Electronic messages fly back and forth. Schemes are hatched, plans made and made again; feints and retreats mark postmodern theories stated, held for a time, then revised. Papers--whole books--are published then quickly superceded. Dedicated souls risk their reputations, their futures, indeed their very lives...
Okay, okay, it's true I've exaggerated the melodrama (and our Will always abjured such, of course!); I've abused Rosenbaum's metaphorical title and conflated the activities described in both books. And yet... The Yanks and Rebs fire blanks, languish through battlefield pauses, fight over which soldiers among the units have garbed themselves most accurately; the experts argue blank verse, end-line pauses, New Historicism and "original" intent. The reenactors dress up, sleep on the ground, march hither and yon; the scholars assume the mantle of 16th-century transposing scribes, attempt to pin down the identities of type compositors, leap back and forth from Quartos to Folios to unascribed fragments. Rogue warriors from all camps venture radical innovations, maybe gain headlines for a time, but ultimately win no battles as the vested interests and stickler-for-accuracy historians reassert the not-yet-defeated status quo.
Such were my admittedly romanticized notions as I kept reading the Shakespeare book (and remembering Confederates). So imagine my delight when I reached page 249 and found a brief but possibly vindicating passage. After a chapter devoted to scholarly debate over the rhythms and brief pauses built into, and in between, Shakespeare's pentameter lines, Rosenbaum takes up the academics' arguments over differing spellings of words:
I had initially sought to avoid the unmodernized spelling argument like a plague. From my initial, superficial knowledge of it, I didn't see how it could be of interest to any but the most antiquarian-minded of scholars. I thought of it as analogous to the mindset of Civil War "reenactors" who are so concerned that the threads stitching the buttons on their uniforms be "authentic" or "original."
But those soldiers and certain experts on Shakespeare find the fate of battles and the actual meaning of entire plays to be sewn from such threads. And that is the evident intent of Rosenbaum's book, to explain in light-hearted, first-person prose the far-ranging, complex minutiae driving the scholars in their search for what "Shakespearean" means or, indeed, is.
The Bard's biography is impossibly meagre--yes, all those "Life of Shakespeare" volumes are 99 per cent invented!--so the plays must be the thing wherein to catch the conscious of the country man. Certain deniers want to prove that other, better-educated aristocrats did the writing rather than Will; others are fixated on his revisions--however small, however great--if Will actually made any, rather than the copier scribes and print typesetters engaged by his theater companies. Indeed, entire different versions are known, found in the various Folios, Quartos, individual playbooks, cue sheets and such (three versions of Hamlet, at least two of Lear, and so on). All the plays we think we know actually represent conflations of selected words, spellings, lines, speeches, whole scenes, entire plays that have been cobbled together by earlier Shakespeare editor "experts," not to mention actors, directors, publishers, and anyone else with an axe to grind or an act to engrain.
Now whole armies of modern scholars are attacking the received wisdom on several fronts, and Rosenbaum wants us to know about them, and how Will's works in their infinite variety really are unfixed--or re-fixed every succeeding generation, changed by new academic theories battling established schools of thought. So the Shakespeare industry thrives, and tenure marches on.
I'd forgotten that Horwitz's book had the subtitle "Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War"--an accurate description of the mock battles staged (not deadly but serious, as though all the world were at stake), and the comical reenactor fixations and adventures like the marathon multi-battlefield trek called the "Wargasm." But the harmless stories take a sharp turn when Horwitz covers Ku Klux Klan rallies on behalf of the executed-as-traitor ex-commandant of Andersonville Prison and in support of the Confederate flag in that continuing bastion of racism and stupidity, South Carolina. His 15 chapters in fact detail encounters across nine Southern states, and while Northerners (or Northwesterners like me) might find the whole shooting match amusing/bemusing/disturbing, those Rebel believers in "the Lost Cause" or "the War of Secession" or "the War Between the States" (but never that Yankee phrase "Civil War") are as serious as a heart-stopping cannonade...
But hold; enough with the stretched comparisons. Read about our unfinished war to be amused and appalled. Rosenbaum amazes in a different way. And though the 15th century Wars of the Roses--the source for Shakespeare's History Plays--were "civil wars" of a sort, the actual English Civil War came two centuries later in the 1640's.
Some of the scholars interviewed do actually talk of battles and victories and destroying their rivals, and doubting Ron was himself threatened by the poltroon who used computer analysis to "prove" successfully, for a few years anyway, that Shakespeare wrote the "Funeral Elegy," a pathetic long thing completely devoid of poetic merit, probably the work of Will's rival, John Ford. (The word-count attribution fooled too many other experts for a time, until those outcast souls who still believe in "close reading," in imagery and language and style, were able to banish the pretender, his SHAXICON computer program, and the bastard text.) In general, however, the academics only fuss and feud, snipe and snarl, vying for career advancement and envying each other's research findings.
Though the arguments over minutiae are surprisingly interesting, at least as Rosenbaum tells the stories, certain chapters resonate more deeply; I would nominate Ron's discussion of the extra and unexpected dimensions of Shakespeare on film; the potentially seismic manuscript of unproduced play Sir Thomas More, a round-robin multi-playwright dud which just may house 147 lines handwritten by Will (identified among the scribes as "Hand D"), which would be the first ever found; the mysterious concept of "the secret play," whether hidden within each individual work, or perhaps existing as a single coded master secret, the key to all things Shakespearean.
Best of all are Ron's encounters with theatrical director Peter Brook and his famous, life-altering 1970 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream--and related to that, Rosenbaum's intuitions about the character named Bottom, the weaver and self-appointed leader of the "Rustics," the village's "rude mechanicals." Bottom becomes oddly central to things, and the misread "Fairy Play" a work central to all things Shakespearean. The weaver's words (some of them quoted below) come to suggest the infinite "bottomlessness" of true Shakespearean themes/thought/theater.
It's not that Will willed humanness into existence--the claim trumpeted by Falstaffian Harold Bloom, one of Ron's few betes noirs (the virulent anti-semitism infecting The Merchant of Venice is another)--rather that Shakespeare was the most human. Peter Brook explains the man's exceptionalism thus:
I think the uniqueness inheres in his generosity. I think there's no one else who manages to insert himself totally in such a wide range of human beings... That he could have, in the act of writing, instead of using them partly to express what he himself wants to say, lets them say what they want to say... to be such a highly developed, highly acute servant of other people's truths is unique.
Yet Shakespeare remains anonymous too, "quite simply because he does disappear, dissolve, parcel himself out to his characters..."
This person walking through the streets of London must have lived each single moment with an incredible richness of awareness. So many levels, infinite levels of meaning... He can overhear and notice two kinds of things: all the life and noise pouring out with great excitement. Yet at the same time, even though he's a very practical man, he can evoke in words faraway worlds, strange tales, astonishing ideas, and develop and link them to an intimation of meaning in society, in regard to the gods, a sense of cosmic reality--these were all pulsing through his mind, all these levels at the same time...
Shakespeare managed to link the highest levels of metaphysical thought with political thought, with a social sense of life, with a sense of human comedy, with a sense of human tragedy. A joy in human vulgarity, a likeness for human likeness and a joy in human grossness. And all of these put in their place, combined, make up the whole of his works...
[E]ach line of Shakespeare is an atom. The energy that can be released is infinite--if we can split it open.
The mentions of infinity--and Brook is just one among the many actors, directors, and scholars so enthused--returns Rosenbaum's musings to Bottom and his spell-induced "radiant dream," during which he is transformed into half-man, half-donkey, consorts with the under-a-love-spell Queen of the Fairies, and eventually awakens:
I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Man is but an ass, if he go about t' expound this dream. Methought I was--there is no man can tell what. Methought I was, and methought I had--but man is but a patch'd fool, if he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballet of this dream. It shall be called "Bottom's Dream," because it hath no bottom...
Of course the speech is often singled out for its multiple levels of punning humor, the bewilderment and wonder, confused synesthesia, and echoes of 1st Corinthians ("The eye hath not seen, and the ear hath not heard..."). But Ron learned during his research and interviews that the same passage in the 1550's Geneva Bible ended with these words: "For the spirit searcheth all things, yea, the bottom of God's secrets." ...Which can never be fathomed.
Bottomlessness, the Abyss, the Void--these words are often employed to invoke Shakespeare's limitless language and wisdom, depths of meaning and character, encompassing love and endless sorrow, tragic foolishness and comic, even cosmic, cruelty... speaking the complexity of every human emotion ad infinitum. He took what his imagination bodied forth--the forms of things unknown--and turned them to shapes, giving "to aery nothing/ A local habitation and a name."
The rest is silence.
Wednesday, January 5, 2011
Alan Kurtz, former writer/editor for on-line blog Jazz.com, and then a regular commentator/essayist for Blogcritics.org, has now published a brief but significant book with the defining title Stereotypes in Black Music: The African-American Crossover Compromise (available via Amazon). Mentioning his book in a comment elsewhere, I suggested that Alan's intent was a "rigorous examination of race records old and new, racial stereotypes black and white, and race-baiting by any and all." Ranging over more than a century of music, Kurtz traces the not-very-hidden continuations of minstrelsy, the post-Civil War "coon shows," in the changing disguises they acquired decade after decade all the way up to the present.
Minstrel shows began with whites demeaning blacks by blacking their own pale faces, then exaggerating perceived Negro characteristics and diction. (I'd say "denigrating" except the root syllables suggest denying blackness, when the opposite was intended.) But black people got "even" by creating their own minstrel shows, reclaiming whatever cash was to be made and maybe slipping in some coded language--ebony Ebonics perhaps?--that only other blacks would understand. (Kurtz doesn't make that point, but I believe minstrelsy history would show certain skits and jokes as having hidden layers of meaning.) And this formed the platform for much of the entertainment and then recordings produced thereafter, black performers allowing similar racial stereotyping to go on, casually working for the white agents and managers, record labels and venue owners, in order to gain broader (meaning white) audiences and any resulting "big money" possibilities.
Kurtz looks at a variety of examples, from Louis Armstrong singing "Shine" and dressing as "King of the Zulus," to the Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway orchestras playing "jungle music," to Lester Young and Dizzy Gillespie and Slim Gaillard speaking hipster slang and clowning on stage (though Young was too Pres-identially cool for such antics), to the anger, adamant noise, and bruited Africanisms of the so-called Free Jazz players, to the disturbing and disreputable yet astonishingly popular rappers of the past two decades. Drug addicts and draft dodgers, doowoppers and barwalkers, greedy deejays and seedy ofays, malcontents and militants, tattered Toms and cats named Fats... they're all here. Whatever their stories, the black artists Alan chose as examples (even the raw-sex gangsta rappers) played on perennial white stereotypes concerning black "primitiveness" and sexuality in order to win white listeners (buyers) while retaining their core black fans.
What this may say about the subconscious bigotry, gullibility, even masochism, of white folks... well, Kurtz leaves that as a message inherent between the lines. He has covered a creditable amount of material in 27 trim and pithy chapters--quoting lyrics, excerpting related academic folderol, describing the major characters, presenting each tale in his stringent, sarcastic, acerbically witty, stubbornly intellectual yet sometimes intentionally rude style. Compressing and telescoping major developments and eras, he offers concise examples rather than expansive concepts shaped through time. Inevitably this requires him to excise (or give short shrift to) the parallel developments that might complicate his focussed perspective.
Some sample omissions... Ellington played jungle music, yes, but he also required his band to appear on-stage as gentlemen scrupulously garbed in tuxes or suits, the Duke's droll elegance having rubbed off on them too. Yes, Marvin Gaye got down and slightly lewd with "Sexual Healing" (and the Let's Get It On album before that), but he had already created What's Going On, one of the most thoughtful, socially conscious, yet entirely musical albums of all time, essentially a Soul symphony. And some rappers keyed in on political and ghetto issues rather than chanting violent or abusive threats; think of the amazing single releases of Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel, and that crew ("The Message," "New York New York," "White Lines").
What bothers me some as reader is Alan's heavy emphasis on rap, half of his book devoted to way too many crude and offensive lyrics of the past 30 years quoted at depressing length. His own comments deservedly make a mockery of this unfortunate era in black music, but I'd rather have read more about the ragtime years or the Roaring Twenties, or how black music deflected the Depression, all of which he clearly could have made serio-comic and fascinating. Author Alan picked his own exemplars of course, but conspicuously absent nonetheless are important artists as raw or clever or brilliant as Millie Jackson, James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Gil Scott-Heron--even popular Soul performers like Bobby Womack, Stevie Wonder, and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes--all of whom would have helped flesh out the pre-rap portions of Kurtz's thesis and book. (Maybe he'll get to do an expanded second edition.)
At any rate, many amazing sections are too X-rated for me to quote, but here's a passage that might suggest the mischief Kurtz gets up to:
For all its innovativeness, then, bebop was little more than the plaything of a handful of eccentric geniuses whose stereotypical posturing more than their abstruse art appealed primarily to white audiences. In particular, the outlaw persona of Charlie Parker briefly rekindled the allure of the savage to ofay primitivists such as the Beats, who pretended to dig jazz but didn't know a bongo from a bassinet. One such was Beat godfather Jack Kerouac, who in his slapdash essay "The Beginning of Bop" has Dizzy screaming, pianist Thelonious Monk crashing and nonpareil saxophonist Charlie Parker squealing as "off they whaled [sic] on Salt Peanuts jumping like mad monkeys in the gray new air."
In another excellent paragraph, Kurtz conflates President Bush's post-9/11 advice that Americans go shopping, with a then just-released, blithely hedonistic album by rapper Jay-Z, which coincidentally enjoyed brisk sales:
Yes, Mr. President, it's true: as part of us knelt in prayer, grieving for the victims and their families, or gaped numbly at the TV and tried to comprehend this assault on our collective identity, another part of us went shopping and came home clutching The Blueprint. But I ask you, sir: What better proof could there be that murderous martyrs flying hijacked airliners in hot pursuit of their 72 virgins and a camel (the mythical desert equivalent of 40 acres and a mule) had failed to penetrate our spiritual airspace? The enemies of liberty might take love out of the City, damn them, but they'll never destroy our quest for a pair of chicks on X, menaging in the car before we reach our garage. God bless you, Mr. President. And God bless Jay-Z.
Additional "rappercussions"--from Hurricane Katrina, the AIDs epidemic, street violence, N's and B's and ho's, rival posses and brutal po-lice--are spot-lit one by one and then skewered by Kurtz. He even uncovers a 2006 regional hit version of a 19th century minstrel-show tune, which brings the bitter survey full circle. But he ends the book by quoting some scatalogical lyrics from The Notorious B.I.G. (one of several murdered rappers) and then remarks, straightfaced as ever, "Leave it to Biggie Smalls to make us nostalgic for the quiet dignity and grace of 'coon shows' and blackface minstrelsy."
Strong stuff, and an impertinent, imperfect, but important book.