Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime: An Imaginary Soundtrack

Here's a playlist for what could be called the soundtrack for my novel Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime. All the tracks are either referred to in the novel or catch the mood of a particular scene. Should you want to listen to any or all of the tracks, you can find this imaginary album on Spotify under the title Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime (see link at the bottom of the page).

Robert Johnson
1 Robert Johnson- Last Fair Deal Gone Down

2 Ornette Coleman- Ramblin'

3 Charles Brown- Driftin' Blues

4 Willie "the Lion" Smith- Carolina Shout

 5 Charlie Patton- Pony Blues

6  King David's Jug Band- Tear It Down

7 Geeshie Wiley- Pick Poor Robin Clean

8 Hambone Willie Newbern- Rollin' & Tumblin'
Ornette, Cherry, Haden, Blackwell

 9 Tommy Johnson- Alcohol & Jake Blues

 10 Sleepy John Estes- Floating Bridge

11 Sam Collins- Jailhouse Blues

12 Geechie Wiley & Elvie Thomas- Motherless Child Blues

13 Bukka White-  Shake Em On Down

14 Lowell Fulson- Reconsider Baby

Chet Baker
15 Nat Cole- Straighten Up and Fly Right

16 Hadda Brooks- Romance In The Dark

17 Pee Wee Crayton- Central Avenue Blues

18 Hop Wilson- Broke & Hungry

19 Little Julian Herrera- Lonely Lonely Nights

Sleepy John Estes
20 Don Julian & the Meadowlarks- Heaven & Paradise

21 Charlie Parker & Dizzy Gillespie- Night In Tunisia

22 Frank Sinatra- One For My Baby

23 Red Norvo- Move

24 Chet Baker & Gerry Mulligan- Jeru

25 Charlie Parker & Dizzy Gillespie- Salt Peanuts


Hop Wilson
Hadda Brooks

Bird & Diz



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Thursday, February 26, 2015

Emory Holmes II on Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime (from the Los Angeles Review of Books)


TURNING NOIR'S RACISM ON ITS HEAD: WOODY HAUT'S LATEST

AMERICAN CRIME FICTION, at least in its so-called "golden era" of the 1940s and '50s, has always given me the creeps. No matter how much I rooted for the doomed hero at the heart of the narrative, whenever his journey brought him face-to-face with anyone who resembled me - that is, a person of color - he seldom viewed them as an ally or a peer, but as an agent of dread malignancies gathering at the urban core; cancers which his own flawed, if indomitable, energies had been honed to sweep clean. Operating under the descriptive rubric "noir" - which is, in a literal translation from the French, "black" crime fiction - noir denotes all things shadowy, duplicitous, corrupted, and Other. Its denizens (including the white hero tasked with sussing out its mysteries and bringing its myriad wrongdoers to heel) inhabit a world from which most decent folk, that is, most "white folk" have rightly fled.

In Woody Haut's new novel, Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime, this literary (and moral) paradigm is turned on its head. All the heroes and heroines in Haut's narrative, no matter their race or points or origin, are outsiders. And it is the white folk in the story, as often as not, whose lives can be described as duplicitous, corrupted, Other. Yet, they are not "caricatures" as they would be in many of the works by authors who lived through, and embodied, in real time, the bad old days of the golden era not just of noir but of America's macho exceptionalism (literary masters like Raymond Chandler and Ernest Hemingway; or James Ellroy, the contemporary kingpin of white power poetics and nostalgia). Rather they are "characters," that is, full-blooded participants, complicit in the double-deals, dirty schemes, and foul crimes that make the tale worth telling and its perpetrators worth watching.

In a classic noir fable, the typically faceless outcasts (that Haut chooses as his heroes and heroines) would have been pressed into action to serve as comic relief and scorn. But in Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime, this familiar lineup of insignificant "perps" - that is, the blacks, Latinos, Jews, homosexuals, ball-breaking women, et al. - are not bit players or living vessels of the city's corruption and veniality, they are the native sons and daughters of its hellish streets and hangouts, searching for love, illicit or otherwise, for redemption and a stiff drink, for easy money and a place at the "grown-up" table, as earnestly as any other harried and desperate American would do.

The flawed hero at the heart of Cry For a Nickel is Abe Howard, a freelance photographer of prodigious luck and skills, but also of questionable morality and tastes. Abe is also a Jew, although one suspects Abe wouldn't recognize Jehovah even if He exhorted him from a burning bush with free tickets to a Dodger game. Faith, religious or otherwise, is decidedly not the subject of this work. As in all classic crime stories, the engine of this narrative is human frailty, man's struggle to master the demons in his own heart, and his battle, patently doomed, against insuperable forces arrayed against him.

(To read the full review)


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Friday, February 20, 2015

Edward Dorn's Derelict Air: From Collected Out, edited by Justin Katko and Kyle Waugh

This is one of those books that should come with both a caveat and a health warning. The latter should probably accompany any book by the contrarian poet of the American west Edward Dorn. Maybe something like  reading this book can seriously endanger your relationship with the world as you know it. But it should also come with a caveat that any potential reader, before dipping into Derelict Air, should first crack open Dorn's Collected Poems (Carcanet, 2012). Not that most of the poems in Derelict Air, painstakingly put together by Justin Katko and Kyle Waugh for Enitharmon Press, aren't strong enough to stand on their own. But to fully appreciate these poems one should, at the very least,  have some knowledge of Dorn's published work, from The Newly Fallen and Hands Up to Geography and North Atlantic Turbine, from Gunslinger to Recollections of Gran Apacheria, and from Abhorrences to Westward Haut, and Chemo Sabe.

The title Derelict Air: From Collected Out, comes from an early poem in this collection, but it also carries overtones of Dorn's narrative poem Idaho Out which appeared in his 1965 book Geography. "Collected Out" also suggests that these poems might be out-takes, though Katko and Waugh prefer to call them "poems of becoming." True, Derelict Air, weighing in at over 500 pages, represents a substantial amount, though not all, of Dorn's mostly unpublished poetry. But what's impressive here isn't just the quantity- apparently there was a good deal more that could have been included- but the quality of the work.  The fact is, most of these poems, in some cases only parts of a whole, read like finished products. While Dorn's Collected Poems contained a good whack of uncollected work, Derelict Air has ventured a step further. Of course, a book of mostly unpublished poems can be tricky. After all, how many poets can you think of whose unpublished work merits reading? But, in this case, it definitely makes for an interesting and important book. Particularly for those Dornistas who, over the years, have poured over the contents of The Collected Poems. Equally important, it makes one realise that Dorn was not only constantly writing, but constantly editing his work,  boiling it down to its essentials.

So one is hardly going to feel short-changed by Derelict Air. After all, these poems comprise, or are part of, over twenty different collections, dating from 1953 to 1999, the year of Dorn's death. While even the most dedicated Dorn reader will be unfamiliar with titles like Looking For a Thing (1957-59), Poems of Washington, Idaho and Mexico (1959), Late in the Revolution (1960-62), Silent Guns (1961-63), A Circle of Songs (1964), In the Face of the Liberal (1964-68), A Convention in a Wallpaper Store (1968), The Grave of Diana (1968-70), The Day and Night Report (1970), Office Equipment (1976-83), The Theater of Money (1971), A Mexico Scrapbook (1972), From the Wrong Side of the Partition- At the Houston MLA (1980-81), and The Connection to Nowhere (1992-99). Likewise, that reader may or may not be surprised by the subjects and formats, from a book of illustrated children's poems to political critiques, such as his poems on the Cuban revolution and missile crisis, and a series of short takes "Intended to be strewn on the floor/ of the 1968 Democratic convention."  

Other poems will be more familiar:  Gunslinger Fragments and Satellites (1970-74)- "Nought was on the set/ when zero placed his bet/ on by whom/ the engine would be BLED and with whom/ the secret train departed/ and, exactly when/ the man had/ started his trip"- Translations with Gordon Brotherston (1971-75, some of which appeared in Dorn and Brotherston's The Sun Unwound), Mellow W/ Teeth (1972-76), Homage to Gran Apacheria (1973),  More Abhorrences (1983-89), Abominations (1991), Denver Skyline (1993-99) and Plus De Languedo Variorum: A Defense of Hersey and Heretics (1992-99). Some of these out-takes could have been included in the appropriate collection.  But even though there are some real nuggets here, I'm not sure their inclusion would have necessarily improved the already published product. However, reading them here, they actually add substance to the finished versions, while, at the same time, demonstrating Dorn's ability, despite his range of subject matter and approach, to perceive the superfluous.

Some of the early poems fall short of what one would come to expect from Dorn, but not by much. Here, for instance, is the first stanza of the title poem,  from sometime around 1953: "A sharp green counter/ was where she sat/  & her color was/velvet it darkened/just right, like love." Not all that far off from lyrical poems that would appear eight years later in Dorn's first collection The Newly Fallen. On the other hand, one tends to forget that Dorn didn't really mature as a poet until he was in his thirties. And while he's often lumped in with various Black Mountain poets, he soon moved beyond the confines of that nebulous, if not meaningless, category. Still, there are those who would   portray him as such, citing Gunslinger as the point at which Dorn broke ranks with his former associates. Disregarding the fact that Dorn's poetry was always shifting in accordance with his interests, one could just as well cite other such points, such as Idaho Out, which mutated into the more radical North Atlantic Turbine. Then shifting once again in poems like The Cosmology of Finding Your Place and The World Box-Score Cup of 1966. That inhalation of the culture would crystallise in Gunslinger, which, following the death of (the) "I," would lead to Recollections of Gran Apacheria, gradually bringing the narrator back into the poem with the writing of Abhorrences and beyond.

These shifts are equally apparent in Derelict Air, moving, as it does, from the lyrical to the political and paradoxical.  The final poems in Plus de Languedoc Variorum: A Defense of Heresy and Heretics demonstrate that, though he was always political and, at least since Abhorrences and Hello, La Jolla, always flirting with the subversive, it's around this time that he really cranks up the volume. For instance, in Unabomber as Heretic, Dorn says, "The real and effective criminal here is not Ted Kaczynski but the legions of industrialists and their hierling scientists who for the past quarter millennium have hewed to the principle that if it can be found out if must be found out- the serpents in the Garden of Eden climbing the tree." While in A Review of Volume 10 of the Olson/Creeley Correspondence, Dorn contemplates suing the Olson estate, with Creeley as co-conspirator: for "the failure to hold up the text of James Thomson's/ City of Dreadful Night was deep intellectual abuse, intentional/ and deceitful- there's no forgiving such selective omission." And in Jesus- He was a Handsome Man, An Essay On the Reconstruction of the Whole Western Myth, Dorn, committing the ultimate Black Mountain heresy, writes, "One of the most powerful crossroads in modern poetry occurs in the West, when ee cummings meets Buffalo Bill, when cummings writes Bill's obit. Buffalo Bill's/defunct is the quintessential 'modern poem, not The Wasteland or The Cantos." After Subtexts, which extends the contrarianisms of Abhorrences while demonstrating that old Gunslinger adage that "only laughter can blow it to rags," one arrives at NAZDAKS, parts of which underscored the version found in The Collected Poems. But it appears here in unadulterated form,  all caps, consisting of warped news flashes, absurd updates and state of the  nation stock exchanges: "TELEFONUS INTERRUPTUS--BREAKFASTUS INTERRUPTUS--MENU MENISCUS--LUNCHCHECK UPCHUCK--DUMP IT--EERIE THEORY UP AN EIGHTH--DREARY THEORY UP A QUARTER--LEERY THEORY UP A HALF--QUERRI THEORY UP ONE AND A QUARTER--DUMP IT QUICK--SPEED OF THOUGHT DOWN A FIFTH...".

Reading Derelict Air, I kept wondering whether Dorn had read many of these poems in public. This, in turn, made me think about Dorn's relationship with publishers. One would have thought that at least some of the collections in Derelict Air would have been published during Dorn's lifetime?  Was it that Dorn held them back, or was it that no one wanted to publish them? Katko and Waugh, writing in the preface, quote a 1963 letter from Dorn to Jeremy Prynne: "I have been screwed of publication in america for verse." But that was quite early on, a year before Hands Up, published by Totem Press, and two years before Geography, published by Stuart Montgomery at Fulcrum.  Katko and Waugh go on to say that most of the early manuscripts and lost books made the rounds of publishers, and were presumably rejected, after which they were turned into other poems, lost or left behind. While this illustrates the task Katko and Waugh, with the help of Dorn's family and friends, had in putting this volume together, it also hints at Dorn's relationship with publishers. Some like Totem, Black Sparrow, Fulcrum, Grey Fox,  Frontier, Wingbow, Turtle Island, Etruscan, and, after Dorn's death, Carcanet, Shearsman and, now, Enitharmon, were more than willing to publish his work. At the same time, he's noticeably absent from the likes of  City Lights and Grove Press, not to mention larger publishers who occasionally dabbled in poetry. Whether Dorn had any desire to publish with such companies is another matter. Though, given his disposition, it's difficult to imagine Dorn publishing with some corporate subsidiary. And what about the unpublished collections from the 1960s onwards? But as Dorn was wont to say,  if a person says what they think and does so in a straight-forward manner, they aren't going to get a lot of grants, nor, one supposes,  are they likely to find many publishers.

Impossible to classify, Dorn wasn't  just a poet of the west, but, to quote the title of his 1993 book, a poet of the way more west. While that might sound like the name of an outlaw country singer, it indicates, as do the poems in Derelict Air, that Dorn's west stretches all the way to the horizon. Beyond boundaries, to a kind of Manifest Destiny in reverse, first glimpsed in North Atlantic Turbine. And he would remain committed to that pursuit, whether in quick lyrical shots, narrative journeys, critiques of history, short sharp shocks, screeds of metaphysical humour and paradox, or incendiary tracts and rants. In any case, it's all here in Derelict Air, proving that Dorn, whether published or unpublished, was a force to be reckoned with. Someone who, as Amiri Baraka once said, "wd rather/ Make you his enemy/ Than lie." Though Neophytes, heed the caveat: tackle The Collected Poems first. You won't regret it. http://www.facebook.com/facebook-widgets/share.php

Monday, February 16, 2015

Weathering the Storm: William Giraldi's Hold The Dark

This is a dark book in more ways than one.  Not only is the story dark, but so is the landscape in the which the story takes place. After all, there's very little daylight in the small Alaskan village in which Core, a nature writer from the lower forty-eight, finds himself. He's the author of a book about hunting down wolves. Medora, having read the book, writes to him, asking him to come to her village to track down  the wolf that has stolen her six year-old son, and, if possible, bring back his remains.  All this while Medora's husband, Sloane, has been fighting, presumably in Iraq.  Core finds the boy, though not anywhere near where he thought he'd be. Probably best not to say much about the plot, if only because Giraldi has constructed something so taut that every beat and turn seems essential. Suffice it to say, the husband returns, and various murders ensue.

The village where Medora and Sloane live is certainly an eerie place, if only because no one speaks to outsiders and barely to one another.  It's a place of snow, myth, superstition, ancient rites and a history that everyone feels but almost no one seems to know, much less articulate. As the days grow shorter and the weather turns increasingly nasty, one realises there's no way this story can possibly end well. Though, with everyone trudging through the snow, from one destination to another, most of them unknown or rarely visited, who can predict the chances of survival, or how order might be brought to a world that has gone so far out of whack.  

"What kind of man does this?" asks Core, regarding one of the murders.  "The human kind," answers Marium, the chief of police. Because humans are capable of anything. Likewise, animals. Core, "the chosen story-teller," loves wolves, particularly when it comes to their intelligence.  And it's only Core who is capable of noting  the relationship between animals and humans; specifically, where does the animal end and the human begin, as well as what connects and separates them. Why does Core stay in such a hostile environment?  Because, at the core of the story, he can't leave the place until he can get a grip on the village and everything that's happening around him. Besides, he is essential to the story, and, as the wolf chaser, the one able to connect human to animal, protagonist to antagonist, cause to effect. In a book with shifting points of view, Core fights to control the narrative, only to eventually fade away, overtaken by Sloane, definitely part-animal himself.

In Hold the Dark "The dead don't haunt the living. The living haunt themselves." Here everyone, to one degree or another, is out of place and alienated from themselves and those around them. Core might know about wolves, but he doesn't know much about his daughter. Marium knows about policing but hasn't a clue about his wife, or, for that matter, Sloane and the ways of the village. In fact, Marium can't even communicate with these villagers, even though he grew up and works in a small town just a few miles away. Then there's Sloane, who knows about the land and his village, but has no idea about people, including certain secrets held by his wife. While Medura knows very little other than how to survive, and the truth about her child. At least Core feels just  how foreign this part of the world is, even if that realisation comes too late. Still, it's only Core who, because of his connection to the wolves, who has tenuous relationship to the village, which Sloane acknowledges with simply a nod of the head.

A bleak,  brutal and beautifully written book, its sentences carved in such a way as to make you think nothing like this has been written before.  I suppose if authorial comparisons are necessary, one might cite Cormac McCarthy or Daniel Woodrell, but neither, no matter how good such writers are, comes close. Not that Giraldi is better, it's just neither McCarthy or Woodrell could have written Giraldi's novel. In the end, as the sayings go, the map is not the territory, and the plot is not necessarily the story. As the characters in  Hold the Dark tell us, it's the lived thing that matters, even if that lived thing can be fully disclosed or understood.  Hence the beauty of Giraldi's writing: "She'd want to know all he'd witnessed. She'd want to hear the truth of these events. But he would have for her only a story- one that seemed to have happened half in dream, rent from the regular world he knew- and that story would wear the clothes of truth. Propped up in bed, he prepared himself for this tale. He searched for the beginning, and for the will to believe it." http://www.facebook.com/facebook-widgets/share.php

Friday, January 23, 2015

Boxing's Last Chance Saloon: Jonathan Rendall's This Bloody Mary Is The Last Thing I Own and Scream: The Tyson Tapes

I've long been fascinated by boxing, no doubt stemming from having spent my childhood watching televised boxing in the 1950s and 60s with my dad, who, as a ringside photographer in Chicago and Detroit during the 1930s and 40s, shot photos of any number of fighters like Joe Louis, Barney Ross, Henry Armstrong, Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta. So I have fond memories of watching fighters like  Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson, Archie Moore, Willie Pep, Kid Gavilan and Carmen Basilio, on TV every Friday night, as well as local boxers like Art Aragon, Carlos Ortiz, Lauro Salas, and Pajarito Moreno on Wednesday and Saturday night live from the Hollywood Legion Stadium (presented by Lenny Bruce's pal Hank Weaver) and the Olympic Auditorium. I continued watching, following it fairly closely through the era of Ali, then Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Tommy Hearns, up to early Tyson. I also watched, but was usually disappointed by most British boxers, with the possible exception of the Sheffield boxer Herol Graham, known, during the 1980s, for being unhittable until a glass-jaw contradicted that notion, turning the canvas into his best friend.

Still, it's the precision and intelligence of fighters  that I've always liked, which is why I've always preferred boxers rather than battlers. It was only during the Tyson's era that my interest really began to wane. It seemed that boxing had turned into even more of a spectacle- though I suppose that began The Rumble In the Jungle- and, in addition, more blood thirsty than ever. Maybe it was Tyson's remarks about wanting to make his opponents suffer, or watching what amounted to vengeance fights. In the UK, boxing, for me, reached its saturation point in the Eubanks and Benn and Eubanks and Watson fights. The atmosphere in those fights was genuinely scary.  Moreover, by that time it had become normal for a fighter to bad mouth his opponent. Perhaps that also had started with Ali, though no one after Ali did it with the same panache and humour. Suddenly fighters and fans alike seemed to be baying for blood, as if they were watching animals rather than humans fight. Boxing was never pretty but suddenly it had turned downright ugly.

Having said that, I still enjoy reading about past fighters, particularly from the era when I first started watching the sport. And there are a number of such books to choose from, most, if not all, typified by an  strong emphasis on style, a quality they share in common with their subjects. Amongst my favourites are  classic texts by A.J. Liebling (The Sweet Science), Budd Schulberg (The Harder They Fall) and Mailer (The Big Fight), but also Joyce Carol Oates (On Boxing), Katherine Dunn (One Ring Circus), W.C. Heinz (The Professional), F.X. Toole (Rope Burns), as well as Jose Torres and Geroge Kimball. And, of course, my favorite boxing novel, Leonard Gardner's Fat City (also my favorite boxing movie).

To that list of books I'll gladly add  Jonathan Rendall, having recently read Jonathan Rendall's This Bloody Mary Is the Last Thing I Own (1997) and the posthumously published Scream: The Tyson Tapes (2014). Both provide an inside look into the sport, from everyday, even low-life, aspects to how it functions at the highest level.  Rendall, an Oxford-educated Brit, died a few years ago, at age 48, was legendary amongst journalists. His ability as a writer matched by his inability to meet a deadline. Yet he could conjure up the atmosphere of the sport with the best of them, a sport that he, like myself, loved and hated in equal measures.

In between the above two books he managed to grind out two others. In 1999 there was Twelve Grand: The Gambler as Hero. An offer he couldn't resist: a publisher fronting him £12,000 to gamble with as he saw fit on the condition that he would write about it.  With an obvious nod to his literary hero, Dostoyevsky, Rendall recounted his adventure with humour and pathos. He then parlayed that book into a three-part Channel 4 TV series, and, of course, another twelve grand. In the TV series he travelled to various race courses and gambling sites in Britain, Las Vegas and Australia, always observing, always involved in whatever action happened to be going down, including a two-day relationship with a woman he picks up in a casino.

Then there was Garden Hopping in 2006, about the search for his birth mother- a search that ended in disappointment. He also penned a drinking column for the Observer, entitled The Last Chance Saloon, as well as writing for the Times, The Correspondent, The Telegraph and The Independent on Sunday. Clearly, Rendall had problems when it came to drinking and gambling, which led to some tricky situations. Like the time a Sunday newspaper commissioned him to interview boxing trainer Brendan Ingle, which ended in Rendall hiding out in a sauna to avoid some thugs who wanted to beat him up. Or in This Bloody Mary... when he's held hostage in a hotel by some menacing security guys who demand money from him.  The opening sentence of The Last Bloody Mary... captures Rendall's writing style and full-tilt manner perfectly: "It was a few hours after Frank Bruno attacked me at Betty Boop's bar in the lobby of the MGM Grand that I decided to get out of boxing."

This Bloody Mary... was good enough to win the Somerset Maugham Award in 1998, previously awarded to Angela Carter, John Le Carré, Ted Hughes and Dorris Lessing.  Rendall not writes about boxing, but he writes about about writing about boxing. Which is unusual. Or maybe I'm partial because I share with Rendall an appreciation of the nimble Herol Graham and his shadow Prince Naseem.  Not only does Rendall enjoy hanging-out with old-timers like the East Ender and former champion Jack Kid Berg, as well as an assortment of insiders, might-have-beens and never-would-bes, but he wasn't afraid to actually manage  the formidable and stylish Colin McMillan, which he writes about in some detail.  Sad, funny, obsessive and insightful, This Bloody Mary... gives you a picture of the fight game that few other books offer. And worth reading if only for Rendall's search for the legendary Cuban boxer Kid Chocolate, whom he eventually finds living in distressing circumstances in Havana:
"Kid Chocolate sat down on one of his chairs and opened his mouth to speak. But rum trickled out instead through his cracked lips stained with tobacco, like lava suddenly spewed from a long-extinct volcano. His voice when it emerged was a hoarse whisper, and he formed words with difficulty, each syllable accompanied by the widening of the eyes and a grin, as if greeting every tortured sound as an old, forgotten friend."


Scream: The Tyson Tapes once again displays Rendall's double-edged attitude towards the sport, but he demonstrates this in a totally different way. Unlike This Bloody Mary..., Rendall is anything but the centre of the narrative.  In fact, he's barely present at all. Edited after Rendall's death  by the always perceptive sports and music writer Richard Williams, it offers, through a number of voices, a total picture of Tyson, not missing out on any of the latter's ups or downs. You come away from the book feeling pity for the former heavyweight champion,  who, given his early years, seemed to lack the most rudimentary social skills, relying, instead, on a jail-house mentality that demanded he use others before they could use him. Which both he and they did, including his former friends and boxing team, as well as the women around him. Rendall lets them all speak for themselves, with everyone contributing a different take on Tyson. In the end it's a rather touching if not totally sympathetic portrait of a once great fighter.  Rendall, like a gaming table version of Hunter Thompson crossed with an adventurous Jeffrey Barnard, died too young, having produced too little.  But what he did produce is well worth seeking out.


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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Young Bird: Kansas City Lightning by Stanley Crouch

Though I've sometimes disagreed with him,  I've always had a soft spot for Stanley Crouch. Even in that hot-house tete-a-tete with the likes of one-time Miles sideman Mtume, I admired Crouch's defence of pre-electronic Miles, though I also had time for his adversaries. And I've long admired Crouch's essays in books like Notes of a Hanging Judge and Celebrating Genius. A musician, essayist, novelist, poet and radical traditionalist, Crouch is as qualified as anyone, and more than most, to revise Charlie Parker's life and legacy. Thirty years in the making, Kansas City Lightning covers Bird's early Kansas City years, up to his first trip to New York and return to K.C..

Crouch has certainly done his research, a good deal of it deriving from oral testimony.  The opening section on the Jay McShann's arrival at the Woodside in Harlem, with young Charlie Parker on alto, is pretty much worth the price of the book on its own.  Every sentence is a gem:

"The rest of the country may have been gearing up for war, but these musicians, known as the Jay McShann Orchestra, had been at war most of their lives. They were jazzmen, and that meant fighting with many a rival band for the affections of the dancers, and fighting with other individual musicians and aggregations for a place in the world of music- whether second chair or first chair, local fame or national recognition... The point was to work at it and think about it and think about it until you'd produced a tone as recognizable as the texture of your own voice. Just as an outstanding individual has a walk, a way of carrying the body through space, or a way of adding unique particulars to a dance, an outstanding player had to work till he developed his own phrasing, his own rhythm.  Like a cook who can reinvent a familiar meal, he had to know how to mix his own musical batter, how to balance his own spices, how to fry an idea on one side before turning it over. All those things formed your style and style was what led to recognition. It was the difference between being an artisan and an artist."

While Ross Russell's forty-year old Bird Lives remains an excellent and important book by that Chandler and Hammett-influenced writer, Kansas City Lightning fills in the gaps in greater detail,  and does so in a manner that befits its subject, Crouch's style an amalgam of black bop prosody and American modernist prose. Though, as Crouch points out, Bird, during this period, was an elusive figure, like a character in a film in  one scene only to vanish and pop up somewhere else.

But Crouch responds with a vengeance, delving into Bird's early life. And there seems to be much there to discover.  Evoking America during the Depression,  Crouch is particularly good when describing the music coming out of those territorial bands, both with and without Bird. And he's fond shifting from the particular to the general, in this case from the biographical to the cultural. Some segues might seem a bit stilted, but they are invariably interesting and thought provoking. For instance, when Bird holds a gun to his wife's head after Rebecca has called him out for lying about a sexually explicit letter from another woman, Crouch shifts from Rebecca's defiance- "If you're going to point at my head ahead, you'd better kill me"-  to what lies behind that defiance,  i.e., how African Americans, particularly women, were meant to behave as opposed to how they were being portrayed in news reels of faraway places, making the gap between fact and fiction more than superficially important, the gun being something real rather than a prop or something carved from the imagination. In the real world, the likes of Rebecca were ready to give it all up for the truth. As was Bird when it came to his music. In fact, Crouch's book is as much about world surrounding Bird, as it is about Bird himself. Which doesn't nor shouldn't obscure the fact that KC Lightning is about the education of a musician, and no ordinary musician at that.


It's also about how Bird came to sound the way he did. Crouch is quick to point out that it wasn't that his playing was a reaction to Lester Young, Chu Berry or Coleman Hawkins. He wanted to be playing with, if not like, them, to be recognised for who he was and what he played. Of course, Bird had and an ear and an ability like no one else. But this is certainly no hagiography. In fact, Bird as a person doesn't come of it looking all that great. After all, because he gave himself totally to the music, personal relationships, unless they were directly related to the music, were likely to take a back seat. Likewise, Crouch doesn't shy from depicting Bird's callous treatment of his wife and child, whether selling Rebecca's clothes to buy drugs, or leaving her to fend for herself.

Because there are blank spots in Bird's day to day Kansas City life, Crouch is left to improvise on what he has uncovered or suspects. And he manages to improvise admirably. This is particularly the case regarding Bird's initial visit to NY. Though that period remains sketchy, Crouch points out that during that time Bird managed to stay drug free, though perhaps he felt he had to lest he trade his music for a life of crime. Still, the paucity of information doesn't stop Crouch from riffing on his subject, while deploying some stylish prose:

"By the time Charlie Parker arrived in New York that winter, he'd been wearing his shoes so long that his feet and legs were swollen out of shape. He had come the hard way, freezing in boxcars between towns, getting a roof over his head and breakfast from the Salvation Army, then taking to the rails again. But he took the bumps, scrapes and pricks of his journey in stride, because he'd finally gotten to the place at the far end of the country where he wanted to be. Slight or acute, pain was a traveling partner by now. He'd learned the weight that hypocrisy and chaos brought to his sense of life, how it felt to be alone and the target of contempt; how to bear the soreness that came with mastering his instrument..."  

Of course, Crouch has much information here that will be new and illuminating to those familiar and unfamiliar with Bird's biography. But Crouch moves from the particular to the general, interpreting Bird, and sounding fairly convincing in the process:

"There was a high-minded, contemplative side to Charlie, too, a habit of wondering how things would feel if the world were vastly different. As fascinated as he was by innovation and invention, he was more intrigued by the inspiration behind the invention- by how some human mind thought of each new idea. He recognized that thought was a pure thing not impeded by social circumstance. It had independent power. A C scale was a C scale, no matter who played it or why, which gave those notes- any notes- a spiritual quality. That's why the bandstand was a sacred place, and why it would have been difficult to ascertain much about the social conditions of the 1930s by listening to the Negro musicians of Charlie's era. They didn't evade life when they performed, whether in public or private; they entered its condition of freedom through their craft, discipline and inspiration. In the pure universe of musical tone, they were able to express themselves as exactly who they were, not as the limited icons that others, black or white, might mistake them for."


Parker's elusiveness even extends to the date and circumstances of his first known recording- Body and Soul/Honeysuckle Rose (see the clip below). A private recording from either 1939 or 1940, location unknown, on which Bird plays unaccompanied. It's there that Crouch ends the book, suggesting, with that recording, that something monumental was about to take place: "Parker, the young talent, was beginning to realize that no established genius, however rough, tough and dreamily hypnotic, could hear what he was hearing. Perhaps what he heard was his and his alone."  One thing for sure, this book will make you want to dust off or acquire recordings by the Blue Devils, Bennie Moten, Buster Smith, Jay McShann, and, of course, Bird.  It also made me want to go back to some of the old school critics, like Albert Muarry and Ralph Ellison, not to mention Langston Hughes. Based on this volume- another is in the pipeline- Crouch's combined book looks certain to be, if not the definitive Bird biography, one of the best biographies of a jazz musician you are likely to read in this or any other year.



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