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It's been five months since I've posted an entry to this blog. Granted, I've never figured out how to blog to my best advantage; the act seems secondary to my writing and multimedia work. For the most part, I've used it to announce updates on my publications to those who stumble into this part of the cyberspace gulag. Moreover, I don't have a strong incentive to post opinions on matters I have no strong opinions about. But this delay came about for a more fundamental reason:
I've been sick.
Since July 2010 my body has undergone a number of changes that have kept me riding a medical merry-go-round. No doubt the visits cost me a fair amount of writing time, but I didn't feel well enough physically to write consistently, either. In the past, when my sleep disorders left me floating through the day with all the verve of a Caribbean zombie, I nevertheless managed to write. I even gave my wife instructions: if I die, prop my body in the chair and put my fingers on the keyboard, and I'll produce a voluminous body of posthumous work.
This past year I couldn't even begin my pre-posthumous work. My mind felt flat. It wasn't a terrible feeling, in and of itself. But I've always run on an inner fire, a desire that overcame inertia and many subsequent obstacles. Now I could barely start my inner kindling wood. The urge to work out, especially on the heavy bag that tightens my focus, seemed less appealing than lying on the couch with the morning paper. Matters that I handled routinely now confused me. On a good day, when I'd slept well and my newly-acquired reflux hadn't made indigestion a three-day adventure, I felt like what I imagined a typical retiree felt like. I'd get through the day with some reading, some literary activity, some TV and a noodle float in the pool. Since I wasn't writing a lot of new material, I used those days to publish a large backlog of material I'd written since the late nineties. On my bad days I felt like an old man slowly dying.
Around March, with no diagnosis, I decided I was in a “malaise.” After fifty years, I'd written myself against a wall. My work received praise when people paid attention to it, but I'd never received the level of recognition I'd hoped for. The way the game worked, the next literary superstar would be half my age. Why go through all the hoops one more time for a predictable result? Conducting literary workshops and teaching special classes didn't interest me the way they did when I was younger; the pension from my job allowed me to live modestly without working. Only a MacArthur Foundation grant would make a difference in my personal and creative life, and my ears weren't burning with their whispered nominations. It was time to smell the flowers, live the quiet life I enjoyed, and let posterity keep or not keep my work alive.
But my slow fade into the sunset wasn't always so comfortably blasé. Whether I felt good or bad on a given day, I still had medical problems to address: a chest X-ray revealed calcium buildup in my cardiac arteries, a surprise since nobody on either side of my family experienced heart problems before their late seventies. Finding the source of the calcium was the biggest of a half-dozen problems that had surfaced the previous summer. I had places to see and people to meet: doctor's offices and doctors.
Riding the Medicare merry-go-round of specialists for over a year proved debilitating. Eventually, tests indicated my body's calcium level was too high and that my parathyroid glands were causing the problem. A little online research told me calcium controlled the signals my central nervous system received. The excess calcium was making my existing problems worse and triggering new ones.
The site that offered me the most information (www.parathyroid.com) explained my problem and how it had affected the past twenty-one years of my life.
In 1969, I received cobalt therapy to treat Hodgkins lymphoma in the left side of my neck. A number of people who received this treatment later developed benign tumors in one of their parathyroid glands. The tumor prevented the other glands from working. The list of symptoms related to the condition chronicled my life of the past twenty years, starting with the fatigue problem that began in 1990. By summer 1991 I found myself experiencing fatigue two hours after I woke up; a few months earlier I'd been working 15-hour days at my full-time job, writing, practicing bass and running my poetry band. On my job I began to make mistakes that threatened to undermine my reputation for producing accurate work. When I could barely stand to perform with my poetry band on community access TV, I knew I needed a leave of absence to rest. Despite three months off, I never fully recovered. Instead of being the last person to leave a jazz club, I now settled on my sofa in front of the TV when the first set started. I only went out at night to perform with my poetry band, my duo with Thomas Chapin, or as a solo poet-bassist about twice a month.
In short, I could trace my parathyroid symptoms back twenty years. In turn, I had to revise my personal history. In 1993, I'd broken up my poetry band and stopped performing because I'd come to hate the business aspect of the performing arts. The exhaustion I felt when I practiced for engagements in Southern New England and Manhattan seemed to result from my frustrating relations with presenters after the long hours I put in. Now I realize the exhaustion I was fighting when I practiced came from my parathyroid, not the presenters. Even with 20-20 hindsight and good health, I'm not sure how long I would have kept the band going, even though I viewed it as my most significant artistic achievement. I never enjoyed pitching myself to presenters. Fortunately, the work I've done since I broke up the band has made me revise my opinion of what I consider my most significant work to date.
Eventually, my team of physicians determined that I had a mildly hyperactive parathyroid gland. Treating it was another matter. According to NIH standards, my calcium levels weren't high enough to warrant attention. The parathyroid.com site insisted the calcium level should be lower. My team couldn't decide what to do, even though I was growing less capable by the day. In their opinion, it was a minor condition---until a bone density scan revealed osteoporosis in my left hip. The surgeon I selected determined the condition had gone undiagnosed and untreated for at least eight years. I say twenty, but my oncologist in the eighties and nineties never tested my calcium levels according to records I received, so I can only judge by the way my body has felt.
Since my surgery, I've returned to writing regularly. My wife hears a vitality that's been missing from my voice. Not only have I noticed a spring return to my step, but even my relaxed pace seems to have picked up some speed it hasn't shown in many years. Physically, this past year I've grown so out of shape that I've had to exercise to get into the kind of shape that will allow me to do teh exercises th atwill help me drop the weight I've gained. I'm making progress on all fronts, but have to remind myself I'm recovering and have to pace myself while all the pieces come together.
Next time I post I'll try to update my publications and performances.
Since I considered myself a fiction writer until my mid-30s, I never thought I'd perform jazz poetry. The first time I heard the idiom in the mid-1960s, it sounded like two clashing acts performing simultaneously. The poetry and the music needed to fit together to be effective.
In too much of the jazz poetry I've heard, a booming voice recites an impassioned tirade of social-issue cliches that lack a connection to the tempo or texture of the music. Even brilliant poets who read powerfully when performing solo can sound maddeningly off-base when their declamations lose track of the music's pace and pulse. Musicians, in turn, can diminish a powerful recitation by arranging for a subdued instrument, such as a bass, to solo at the time the poet is reciting the poem's climactic segment and needs more powerful support to heighten its excitement.
Some of the most highly-regarded jazz poets I knos of perform in the manner just described, and their audiences seem to love it. For some people, it's a matter of taste. For me, however, it violates a personal aesthetic I developed and formed strong opinons about during the years when I performed jazz poetry on a regular basis, 1984-1994. To me, the performances I've described don't enhance the idiom; they perpetuate the inability of poets and musicians to recognize and explore the close relationship between jazz and the American vernacular.
Jack Kerouac had a gut-deep grasp of the relationship. The syncopations of bebop and poetry found parallel accents in his recitations. The first time I heard him read with music, the idioms fit. His approach influenced my thinking when I began my own attempt to fuse the idioms .
My approach differs from many other poets because playing a musical instrument has given me a deeper understanding of music than many poets bring to the fusion. In creating my own bassline for my first attempt, my training helped me find the most appropriate musical context for the poem. Once I laid down the bassline, I recited the poem in tempo, using space in my recitation the way an instrumentalist would in a solo.
When I recite, solo or with music, I try recite more slowly than my normal speech pattern, to give the audience time to grasp them. The music fills the spaces between phrases. When I completed “A Slick Set of Wheels, the bassline and recitation fit together far better than I thought.
The reception the poem received led me to create others. Soon I was selling home-produced cassettes, whose pieces I later recorded on The Sex Queen of the Berlin Turnpike, in 1987. I was fortunate enough to know sensitive musicians who needed minimal direction or none at all, such as Thomas Chapin, Brian Johnson, Joe Fonda, Steve Davis, Richard McGhee III and Mario Pavone, to name just a few.
When I scheduled a party for the record's release, all my accompanists on the recoridng had gigs scheduled in Manhattan. Since I was the only bassist available that I could afford, I spent two months teaching myself how to play and recite at the same time. The multi-tasking made me a less effective reader, but still more than adequate, and playing bass in the band helped me control the flow of the music. The record party led me to form my own poetry band and to perform as a single or duo wherever I could find a gig.
I told my band members: play anything you like in any key, so long as it relates to the poem, in effect challenging them to play with freedom, but at the edge of their comfort zones. If, for example, a poem contained a phrase about a bouncing ball, I expected the musicians to find phrases that recreated the ball's bounce musically, not a pat musical phrase.
Over the past decade, my poetry has become more abstract. “Talking monkey grinds to curvature polish” defies literal representation, although a musician could mimic or repeat sounds that might relate to an aspect of the phrase, e.g. a pattern of growls for “grinds” or a smooth glissando for “curvature polish.” The difficulty of finding musical counterparts to abstract phrases allows much more room for improvising. But the same principles apply; the recitation still has to fit within the band's tempo or pulse, however free it may become at any moment.
Once I started my poetry band, I practiced my recitation and basslines every night so that I'd be prepared to work with any unexpected musical situation that might develop during a performance.
This thumbnail sketch of my aesthetic and my working methods may appeal to some jazz poets or it might not. I'm offering an opinion, not a treatise.
Personally, I recommend that poets who want to work with musicians learn something about music and vice-versa. The poet Ottone M. Riccio put a fresh spin on Ezra Pound's famous dictum when he asserted, “Poetry is music made with language.” To make an effective fusion, poets and musicians need to know something about the idioms they're trying to fuse. A poet doesn't need to be a musician to work effectively in the idiom, but he needs to understand basic rhythm and pay attention to phrasing the lines of the poem. The musicians should recognize that a poet can't recite comfortably at certain tempos and count off tempi that don't twist the poet's tongue in mid-performance. It should also build its tunes so that the musicians are playing at peak intensity during the poem's climatic moments, instead of winding down. Knowing the poem will help the musicians create the appropriate dynamics. Grasping the rudiments of the other's idiom helps both execute the fusion more effectively.
I suggest that poets recite their work to recordings or a metronome to sharpen their sense of time and tempo, and, with increased practice, syncopation. The English language has a number of built-in syncopations. The word “idiom, for example, has a built-in triplet rhythm, i.e., three beats superimposed over two notes played in the same tempo. If repeated several times, it can sound like a musical phrase.
In certain situations, poets walk onstage and recite a piece cold---at a jam session, for example. The band has never heard the poem and the poet has never worked with the musicians. Trying to make specific poetic and musical phrases fit will be very difficult to accomplish under the circumstances. But reciting a poem with a sense of musical rhythm over a tempo that allows comfortable recitation will bring the poem and music closer to synthesis.
Poets who I believe fuse the idioms effectively include Barry Wallenstein, David Meltzer, Kirpal Gordon, Steve Dalachinsky, Jim Cohn and Jack Foley I recommend that you listen to their work wherever you can find it. Some have released records, others have performed on YouTube or other online venues. They don't necessarily employ my approach, but they know how to make their verbal music fit with the band.
That's my take. Feel free to disagree.
In college, several friends and acquaintances formed NGC-4594, an early psychedelic rock band whose 45 RPM single “Going Home” made Billboard's Top 100 and who played opposite the Doors, the Mothers of Invention and other celebrated rock bands during their short-lived career. Personal and artistic problems broke up the band in the late sixties, before they could release the fourteen songs they had composed for an album. Fortunately, Steve Starger, the band's organist and, later, the keyboardist in my poetry band, had a copy and made a cassette for me twenty years ago. The tunes, joyful, lively and unabashedly psychedelic, sounded a few steps ahead of other bands that became better known in their time. I'd always thought NGC-4594 a deserved better fate.
Over the past fifteen years I've occasionally surfed the net to see how much attention, if any, other people were paying to NGC-4594. In used vinyl circles the band had gained a reputation as a precursor to many well-known psychedelic bands. One correspondent said NGC-4594 was playing Ultimate Spinach before Ultimate Spinach arrived on the scene.
Several days ago, on a “whatever happened to” surf, I discovered that a British label has released NGC-4594's 1960s recordings under the title Skipping Through the Night. If the release didn't promise the former band members the heady stardom and nonstop kicks of sixties rock stars, it gave recognition four-decades delayed to a half-dozen talented musicians who had moved on, some in the music business and some in other fields, while at least one had died.
It also gave the diehard fans of psychedelic rock a document that would broaden their knowledge of the music's development. NGC-4594 differed from other rock bands of the period because of the jazz influence several members brought to it. Since many of the members composed music, poetry or fiction, their lyrics were stronger than what I heard in many other bands of the sixties. Although the band lacked a celebrity lead singer, the vocals shared by Dan Shanok, Dave Bliss and Chaz Mirsky blended well, with each of the vocalists singing to their strengths. The combination of captivating vocals and sophisticated instrumental backing enticed more than one listener.
With the release of Skipping Through the Night, online commentary on NGC-4594 has increased. I've yet to read a negative comment. Most listeners appreciate it as a “precursor” or an “underground” band ahead of its time.
I've listened to Skipping Through the Night several times since I downloaded it to my iPod a few days ago. Forty-four years after its creation, the music still holds up. Although I have my personal favorites, this is one of the few occasions when I can say that I like all fourteen tunes almost equally. I recommend this recording to anyone who likes good music and especially to anyone who wants a greater sense what the sixties could have been.
I've lived long enough now to “witness history,” and give a little more respect to the reality of my experience. Although I've been out of touch with most of the members of NGC-4594 for almost as long as the band has been apart, I've watched several of its members make the best of their lives, personally and artistically, with no expectation of seeing their best work released. If the band's remaining members can't receive the glory they might have experienced in the sixties, they have the satisfaction, maybe even a tear of joy, of knowing that what we call history finally has corrected itself in their favor, and that every now and then over the course of a life, justice finally does come your way.
I recommend this record very highly.
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