music

Making life add up in art

December 28, 2016 | 17 Comments

The noble Bob

October 19, 2016 | 12 Comments

Bob Dylan’s work is like barbeque or Mexican food—some is better, but it’s all good. It was news last week that he got the Nobel Prize for literature. It hasn’t been news for a long time that he’s a genius. But then, genius is simply brilliance plus output. Then again, he’s a genius among geniuses. I count it as my good fortune to have lived during a time when an artist on the order of William Shakespeare has been belting it out for us.

He’s written timeless gems like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin” and surreal masterpieces like “Desolation Row” and “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” and born-again testaments like “Slow Train Coming” and “You’ve Got to Serve Somebody,” along with too many love songs to count. He created one of my favorite sub-genres: his own spooky Mojave stories like “All Along the Watchtower,” “Senior (Tales of Yankee Power),” and “Man in the Long Dark Coat.” And, always, shooting through everything, the blues.

I try not to be amazed at those who don’t respond to his work—there’s no accounting for taste: anyone who attends church learns that when some hate the minister you love. And some need art, even his, more than others do. But there’s something for anyone in Dylan’s phases. You can start anywhere, and work forward and back. But I might suggest Blood on the Tracks. If you demand his prettiest voice, there’s Dylan’s wonderful Nashville Skyline, recorded with Johnny Cash. Critics are fun, though uneven as guides except for maybe Greil Marcus. Most of them utterly missed the beauty, power, and risk of Dylan’s overtly Christian period.

Dylan reportedly still hasn’t acknowledged his Nobel Prize or told the academy he plans to attend the awards ceremony. He’s ornery. And busy, so very busy. Currently on tour as a singer, he’s also a painter who’s recently been featured for his work as a sculptor. According to a September article in the New York Times, he built the iron archway for a $1.3 billion resort casino at Maryland’s MGM National Harbor. As he told us in 1964’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “It’s just a shadow you’re seeing that he’s chasing.”

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The power to charm

January 20, 2016 | 4 Comments

Anthony Lane’s irreverent reviews for the New Yorker of Hollywood blockbusters make me laugh. He’s fun, quite cheeky. But I’m always pleased when he casts his wit and his elegant sentences toward what he admires. Such as his recent appreciation of Todd Haynes’s film Carol about forbidden love between two women in 1952 America. Less than 20 years after that repressed era, David Bowie, with his androgyny and his openness about his bisexuality, helped usher the shift in consciousness that has culminated in America in marriage equality. Among last week’s many tributes to Bowie, surely there wasn’t a finer one than Lane’s for his fellow Brit, “David Bowie in the Movies.”

For a brief essay, Lane’s reflects deep processing and manages a thrilling range of considerations. Like Bowie’s work, Lane’s delights in its own performance but hits you with unexpected emotional force.

If genius is brilliance plus output, Bowie certainly qualifies as one. Even among superstar performers, that rarified group, he seemed one in a million. In an ultimately soaring appreciation, Lane takes a measured view of Bowie’s film work. Most of Bowie’s roles were in minor films, Lane says. He doesn’t crown Bowie as a great movie actor, while noting his performance instinct and impact.

Art is made of emotion and it’s about emotion. Lane’s essay showcases perhaps the highest role of the critic, to be emotionally responsive in turn to art.

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Sign me, Bemused

December 3, 2015 | 30 Comments

Way back in graduate school I wrote a paper on the misuse of forte. It means a person’s strong suit when pronounced “fort” but refers to a loud musical passage when pronounced as its spelling indicates, for-tey. Or once it did. The distinction has almost been lost partly because people who knew better began mispronouncing forte to fit in.

Which I think is what interested me, that cognitive dissonance. Everyone wants to belong, to be admired by her or his chosen group. So I was upset when I realized recently that I’d misused the word “bemused” several times in my book, Shepherd: A Memoir. The memorable one to me involves our ewe Big Mama and her sardonic attitude toward me. I said she was bemused by me.

But bemused does not mean “extra amused”; it means bewildered or confused; a secondary meaning is lost in thought. The word is so rampantly misused that its meaning may be changing. And even when used correctly, its meaning often is unclear.

Here’s Mary Karr, describing her father as her storytelling model, in The Art of Memoir: “He had a talent for physical detail and a bemused attention to the human comedy.” Karr is a best-selling memoirist and a respected poet, so we must assume she’s using the word correctly here. Or must we? I think so. Yet Karr intends praise, and it’s more flattering to her father to picture him as amused by the human comedy than confused by it. Maybe he’s just a bit puzzled like everyone else in this comedy of errors we call life.

You can see the lack of clarity flowing from this slippery word.

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Practice, said the maestro

November 20, 2015 | 6 Comments

The classical pianist Seymour Bernstein says he didn’t feel comfortable on stage for most of his career. Terror and horror swept him, he fought blocks, felt inadequate. He increased his practicing from four hours daily to eight. This “integrated” him as a person and artist. As a result, at last he felt fine on stage, at age 50. He secretly arranged a farewell concert. Held at the 92nd Street YMCA in New York City, his last concert was in 1969. It was hailed as a triumph, and he exited public performance for good. He kept playing, practicing, and teaching. He simply quit the strain of the stage, and poured himself into his students.

This is the paradox and the man, now in his late eighties, explored in actor Ethan Hawke’s new documentary, Seymour: An Introduction. I streamed it on Netflix. In taking the title of a J.D. Salinger novella, Hawke alludes to Salinger’s decision to stop publishing, though Salinger lived on for fifty years as a recluse in a fenced compound. Bernstein has lived quietly but socially for 57 years in the same one-room apartment on the upper west side of Manhattan, sleeping in a hideaway bed. Like Salinger, Bernstein separates the practice of art from its public airing. There’s a lesson here for writers, loathe as most are to view any composition as mere practice or for its own sake. Publication is the thing!

Hawke, suffering a five-year bout of stage fright and a general artistic malaise, met Bernstein at a dinner party and adopted him as a mentor. “I have been struggling recently with finding why it is that I do what I do,” Hawke explains. “I knew that the superficial things—material wealth, the world thinking you are a big-shot—I kind of knew that that was phony. That that was inauthentic to build a career on. But I didn’t know what was authentic.”

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Ode to joy

October 21, 2015 | 2 Comments

Mad Men captured the excesses and brio of the late 1959s, the 1960s, and the early 1970s. As I explained in 2012 when I drifted away, its fitting climax seemed to be when its main characters formed their own Madison Avenue advertising agency. That’s when a respectable novel would’ve ended. But I drifted back, partly because Don Draper and his times reminded me of my father. Now I’ve watched the rest, and binged on the seventh and final season. I found the show’s last year riveting—especially once the principal players of Sterling Cooper Partners were absorbed by the mother ship, sent to McCann Erickson, which had since bought a majority interest in the scrappy underdog.

Even by the sexist standards of the time, McCann Erickson is a dreadful place for the women, and controlling and soulless for everyone. But the Sterling Cooper partners will become millionaires if they can hang on for four years and fulfill the basic terms of their contract. Can they? One by one, the answer is, basically, no. As they choose their fates, I was reminded of the famous ending of Six Feet Under, which flashed forward to the characters’ deaths. For these Madison Avenue men and women, however, they get another chance.

How satisfying to see Pete Campbell, head of accounts, who’d been humbled by his own meanness, insecurity, and egotism reconcile with his wife and fly off to a spiffy new career with Lear Jet. Instantly I remembered him at his worst, when he tried to destroy Don by revealing Don’s tawdry past and assumed identity. This in turn emphasized how the two later became allies and even friends in the show’s long arc.

As Sterling Cooper’s brilliant creative director, Don is McCann Erickson’s big prize and great hope. He’s been handed their Coke account! At first he plays along, but then takes a road trip and disappears. Is this one of his periodic battery-recharging hegiras or is he finally self-destructing for good?

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Novel as waking dream

October 19, 2014 | 7 Comments

Where do ideas begin? How are they spread? Researchers at GDI, an independent think tank in Zurich, consider such questions. They study significant creative intellectuals in our world. Seven novelists made their most recent list of Top 100 Global Thought Leaders. Japanese writer Haruki Murakami was one of them, at Number 47 for his most notable idea: the “utopia of love.”

Murakami continues to explore aspects of the idea of love in his latest book released in English this past August: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, which is considerably easier to tote around than his last one—if you like tactility in your tomes. The story of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki spans a mere 400 pages, whereas Murakami’s previous novel, 1Q84, clocked in around 1,000. Tazaki is also more compact, making it a delight to hold.

I have a Kindle version as well, but I kept returning to the hardback—partly due to Chip Kidd’s masterful design. In his 2012 TED talk, Kidd said he considers what stories look like when he gives form to content: “A book cover is a distillation—a haiku, if you will, of the story.” He also designed 1Q84, in which Murakami played with ideas about the moon and love in parallel universes. One dictionary definition of the word moonstruck is “in another world,” which certainly fits the themes of 1Q84—almost as if they arose from a line by Ovid writing of love in his narrative poem Metamorphoses: “It’s not as though the moon had interposed its own pallor between the earth and you.”

Which makes it all the more interesting, then, to find Murakami’s book that followed 1Q84, the recent Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, segueing so neatly into Ovid’s very next line in Metamorphoses: “Love is the force that leaves you colorless.”

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