Tuesday, February 07, 2023

Obsession in the Pursuit of Virtue is No Vice: Love Me Fierce In Danger by Steven Powell- The Life of James Ellroy


As any serious Ellroy reader knows, Jean Hilliker Ellroy was murdered, her body found early Sunday morning, June 22nd, 1958 in El Monte, California.  On that same night, in Pasadena, I recall, or at least I think I recall, that I was with  a group of fellow junior high school friends, all of us some 13 years old, a week or so into our summer vacation. We had just come down from the nearby railroad tracks where the Super Chief dutifully passed by twice a day, and were aimlessly walking down Colorado Blvd, east of Rosemead, some eight miles from El Monte. From out of nowhere several police cars arrived, sirens shrieking, roadblocks put in place, and we were told to get off the street and go home.  

Ever since hearing about Jean Ellroy's murder, I've associated it with that night in Pasadena. Did the two events really have anything to do with one another? Or was it just a coincidence? And did they really happen on the same night? To be truthful, I can't say one way or the other.  Or was it one of those dreams that, over time, slowly morphs into reality? Perhaps the police had been tipped off about a possible suspect- that "swarthy man" they were looking for- or maybe they'd been thrown into action by another case altogether?  What occurred on that evening, that is if anything occurred at all, has stayed with me for many years, even using it-  minus anything about what had taken place in El Monte- as the opening to my recent novel Skin Flick. 

Not that Powell's  scrupulously researched and extremely readable biography was of any help in disentangling the facts from my fiction, or dispelling the notion that I can definitively say I really do remember the night Ellroy's mother was murdered. Even so, it's Powell's account of his subject's early life that I found most fascinating, from Ellroy's brief period in the San Gabriel Valley to his years in L.A.'s Fairfax district, from breaking into houses of women he was fixated on to caddying at various elite Hollywood golf courses. No wonder Powell's description of those days often reads like an early Ellroy novel. Which is to be expected since, as Powell points out, Ellroy has long utilised the details of his life, particularly in those early novels, as fodder for his fiction. 

Thankfully, Powell isn't afraid to present Ellroy in all his guises: good, bad and ugly. Whether dog lover, barking manic, right-winger, womaniser, self-promoter, friend, drug addict, alcoholic, rehab attendee, etc., though, of course, the most important guise of all, that of a brilliant and feverish writer who has challenged the norms of crime and historical fiction. As well as rummaging through Ellroy's life, Powell offers up a series of close readings of the demon dog's major works. However obligatory, this unfortunately constitutes, for me, one of the least interesting aspects of the book.  Maybe because Ellroy's plots are as dizzying, if not more so, than those of Raymond Chandler. And, for some perverse reason, my instinct is to let any incomprehension speak for itself.  Indeed, I might have glossed over Powell's  readings if not for his lucid ability to deconstruct those very plots.  By the same token,  I found my curiosity regarding Ellroy's life and corresponding fiction, beginning to fade in direct proportion to his rise in notoriety and entrance into the monied world of high stakes publishing and Hollywood movie making. Perhaps that's because his public shtick had by then become  all-too predictable, his novels increasingly fragmented and dispersed, and his private demons all too obvious. Having said that, Powell doesn't flinch when contrasting Ellroy's outward demeanour with the messiness of his inner life. Not my truc, it's true, but such is the  nature of biographical writing and Powell handles it as well as anyone could possibly be expected to do.

That Ellroy's L.A. and mine are relatively congruent clearly has something to do with why my obsessive interest in Ellroy reached its zenith early on, reading, as they were  published, Brown's Requiem and Clandestine, followed by his Lloyd Hopkins series, and, in what I still regard as the apogee of his oeuvre, the first The L.A. Quartet and American Tabloid. His follow-up, My Dark Places, important as it might have been for Ellroy, and however popular amongst his fans, marked a modulation, not so much in  Ellroy's writing style- that had already been accomplished-  as in how he was presenting his writing and himself to the public. Though I read with interest the novels that followed- Cold Six Thousand, Blood's a Rover and Perfidia- I found my attention was focusing less on the plots of those books than on  their construction, contours and linguistic inventiveness.  As for murk and muck of This Storm and Widespread Panic, I have to admit I've yet to take the plunge, but expect more of the same, if not even more so.        

A friend once said, "The problem with Ellroy is that he's a frustrated poet." In fact, his writing makes more sense if one thinks of it in that way.  Particularly his later work, which might be regarded as something closer to epic poetry than to prose, as imagistic as it is scriptorial, its bullet-like lines and vernacularisms more akin to  spontaneous bop-prosody than genre-ridden hardboiled prose. And let's face it, the extremes to which Ellroy  goes when it comes to his  public persona can sometimes seem more like that of a classic over-the-top romantic poet than a writer of historical crime fiction.  

Nevertheless, I can't imagine many Ellroy readers who won't want to read Love Me Fierce.... And well they should. Because, even if you thought you knew Ellroy, there will be something in Powell's book to surprise you, something that will offer a greater understanding of Ellroy  and how he's  been able to turn the complexities of his life and the world around him into the totality of his fiction. In the end, this is as  clear-headed a portrait of Ellroy as we're likely  to get.  Moreover, one comes away from Powell's book reassured that the richness of Ellroy's fictional world-building can't help but provide an access to institutional machinery- whether the police, politicians, the underworld, Hollywood producers, up-market publishers, high rollers and power brokers- and, by doing so, fills a gap separating the market from the realities of everyday life.  Though, if you'll excuse me, I can't help but think about that summer's night in 1958 still convinced it might be true.   

Saturday, February 04, 2023

Reading Robert Kelly: A City Full of Voices, A Voice Full of Cities

"The mind loves the unknown." 

It wasn't in a poetry magazine that I first came across the work of Robert Kelly, but in the underground film house-journal Film Culture.  It was sometime in 1965 that I happened upon Kelly's short entry on Stan Brakhage's Art of Vision (RK: "Mind at the mercy of the eye at last."). It was some months later, while living in Mexico City, that I first encountered Kelly's  poetry, El Corno Emplumado's edition of Her Body Against Time. Up to then I was primarily reading Michael McClure and LeRoi Jones/not yet Baraka, with Olson and Dorn waiting in the wings. Nevertheless, I would carry Kelly's book with me from  Mexico to New York to Los Angeles and, finally, San Francisco.  
Brakhage, in turn, wrote two published letters to Kelly, which I was certain I had also read  in Film Culture, but apparently not. But both those letters and the Robert Kelly's essay can be found in A Voice Full of Cities: The Collected Essays of Robert Kelly (2014) and A City Full of Voices: Essays On the Work of Robert Kelly (2019). Edited  by Pierre Joris, Peter Cockelbergh and Joel Newberger, and published by Contra Mundum Press, these books are clearly works of love, whose editors who have not only gathered together Kelly's many contributions, but have enlisted an army of contributors, all clearly au courant when it comes to Kelly's work, coming at it, as they do,  from different angles. Which makes these two volumes a heavy lift, whether metaphorically or literally; in fact, some 1400 pages in all. Though so prolific has Kelly been that even that  number would no doubt  pale compared to what might constitute his collected works.   

Reading Ken Irby's review of Her Body Against Time in A City Full of Voices, I began to wonder if I had come across that review when it  first appeared in Kulchur, before I'd read Kelly's book. It's possible... But even as a  poetry greenhorn, I remember being impressed by the depth of Kelly's vision and the how his poetry was not only his world but how the world seemed like fodder for his poetry.  A condition echoed in lines- purloined from Jed Rasula's excellent "A Book On Line and Measure" in A City Full...- in a later lengthy poem entitled  The World, in which Kelly reminds us that "there is no/form not/organic no/mind not mine."

Or it could have been that any poet who wrote about Brakhage, and, in turn, any poet that Brakhage found important enough to write about, was going to be of  interest to me. So infected was I at the time by the visual poetry of what was then called the New American Cinema.  The common denominator  being the investment both placed in seeing, not to mention their articulation of that investment.  As Kelly writes in Her Body..., "how much more/will I see/ or see again..." Couple that with their take on Olson's "'You go all around the subject.' And I sd, 'I didn't know there was a sub-/ject,'", and it's no wonder that I would fall under Kelly's spell, just as I had been by Brakhage's films, not to mention how both were able to dissect their own work and that of others.      

For some reason my reading of Kelly's work tailed off sometime after the publication of his book length poem The Loom (Black Sparrow). Around which time I heard he'd been appointed poet-in-residence at Caltech, which of course prompted fanciful notions that such an institution, in my home town at that, might be giving this particular poet space to practice some kind of Duncanian alchemical magic, while, at the same time, hoping it wasn't an indication that it was trying to revive its  sleazier roots personified by the likes of arch-huckster L. Ron Hubbard and rocket-man and dark arts dabbler Jack Parsons. Now that I think about it, what kept me from continuing my reading of Kelly's work was  that I simply couldn't keep up with the volume of his output,  though it should be said that my interests around that time were solidly Dornian. It goes without saying that reading Kelly is no small matter, but entails a level of attention that not everyone is ready or willing to give to it. Still, for me, Kelly's notion of "the city," or "polis," as Olson would have it, would continue to resonate. That is to say, the  city as a place of discovery, not just in Paul Goodman's sense of an Empire City, but a modernist twist on the Augustine's  belief that "outside the city man is either god or beast;" which is to say, a place in which one is allowed to discover a poetics out of that experience.      

Fast forward  half a century and I find I'm once again attracted to Kelly's work, or, at least for the time being, his essays. Call me perverse, but for some reason I've always had  a weakness for  prose written by poets. Which, for me, makes A Voice Full of Cities such a delight. By the same token, it's invariably interesting to read those who write about Kelly, covering as they do in A City Full of Voices a range of interests and ways  of thinking about Kelly's poetry.          

Even had I been able to do so, it would have been difficult to keep up with Kelly's incredible output. After all it constitutes a life. As Guy Davenport has written, "There is no end to a Kelly poem...It's a cataract of energy." His essays, reviews, stories and novels (unfortunately his fiction isn't included, but perhaps would constitute a volume on its own) are much more than an addendum to his poetry, while, at the same time, squelching the notion that prose is necessarily a more literal or less poetic form of writing. But here they are, his essays, which, if nothing else, demonstrate once again the breadth of his work. 

Now in his late 80s, Kelly has moved  from the articulation of a working poetics (deep image) to an autobiographical and investigatory poetics, which necessarily includes the aesthetics of various poets, film-makers, artists, novelists, philosophers, friends, etc.. The  common denominator here is the relationship between seeing and vision, turning, as Brakhage did, a physical deficiency into a personal aesthetic.  And so Kelly's essays, moving from  the late 1950s to the near-present, constitute a map of thoughts and images- if one can separate the two- making these two volumes a celebration of Kelly's poetic life by a range of respondents, each with their own insights, from early takes by the likes of Olson "not imageS but IMAGE," Creeley, Blackburn, Irby,  Sitney, Eshleman and Davenport to later writers like Joris, Cockelbergh, Quasha, Silliman, Fisher, Yau, and Chernicoff. Proving that no single person has the definitive word or ability to encompass Kelly's oeuvre.  As Billie Chernicoff asks at the beginning of On Robert Kelly's Seaspel, "How does he do it?" To which she says she has no answer. I would agree. One can only shake one's head and wonder, while marvelling at the flow of words, the intensity of thought and vision.  

Click on here for a short interview with RK by George Quasha.: https://youtu.be/MB4EcLDg-w4

Tuesday, November 08, 2022

Ted Berrigan's Get the Money: The Collected Prose (1961-1983)

It was 1963 or '64,  in the library at Cal State L.A., that I came across my first Ted Berrigan poems. At the time I was solidly into the likes of Charles Olson, LeRoi (not yet Baraka) Jones, Michael McClure and Frank O'Hara- in fact, just about anyone  in Don Allen’s New American Poetry- but I'd never come across  anything quite like Berrigan's poems. They seemed so off-hand and playful, with none of   the heaviness and obscurantics associated with  Pound and his various poetic progeny.  Naturally, I thought about writing like Berrigan- who wouldn't? His work  seemed so natural in its reach and drift, so easy to emulate. Well, if only...  A year later at San Francisco State I was handing over a clutch of Berrigan-like poems to John Logan who, for better or worse, had been hired as the college's in-house poet.  He looked at the pages like they were pieces of rotting fruit, quite likely the product of an idiot.  Not that I cared. After all,  Logan wasn't someone I'd ever thought of emulating, nor even considered interesting as a poet.  He was, I thought at the time, just another old guy who had a decent line in self-pity. 

Still mining the open stacks, and with nothing better to do, I started to peruse back issues of Kulchur, enticed as I was  by the magazine's masthead and table of contents carrying such names as Sorrentino, Corso, Di Prima, Dorn, Don Phelps and Fielding Dawson. And, of course, Berrigan. Not poems this time, but  reviews.  Open, humorous, but also deadly serious, Berrigan's prose turned out to be every bit as beguiling as his poetry. So much so that it sent me back  to the poems, this time his  Sonnets, or what I could find of them, since the Grove Press edition had yet to be published. So of the moment were they that as the moment passed, so eventually did my attention. Which led me to wonder whether poems like his were even meant to last. But if poetry wasn't  of and for  the moment, then exactly what was it of and for?  Posterity? I wasn't really sure there was such a thing. 

But that kind of speculation soon faded, replaced by more immediate concerns of a personal and political nature. Fast forward thirty  years and five thousand miles away,  I was willingly forking out  twelve quid for a secondhand copy of Berrigan’s Collected Poetry. Those same poems, I discovered, had in the intervening years turned into  heart-wrenching reminders of a particular time and place, and the promise of what could have been and might still be. Sure, they were submerged in a certain kind of quotidian immodesty, but, despite time and technology, that is very much part of their charm.  Like a great deal of art of that period, those poems represent a community and way of viewing the world. With his polaroid exactness Berrigan's poems, like those of O'Hara, Paul Blackburn and Philip Whalen, wear their intelligence as lightly as possible, never making a thing out to it, which, in fact, was typical of  the New York/Tulsa school (Padgett, Gallup, Brainard). Always in search of the sweet spot of everyday reality, less a product of the street than of windows, galleries, poetry readings and the work of other writers.     

Much the same could  be said of Berrigan's criticism and journals, both  of which are abundantly represented in Get The Money: The Collected Prose (1961-1983), published by City Lights (eds., Edmund Berrigan, Anslem Berrigan, Alice Notley, Nick Sturm). In entry after entry, Berrigan pursues and captures the presence, and more often than not the essence, of whatever he scrutinises, whether a painting, poem, novel, or person, always in search of its fundamental is-ness. Not defensive "in the presence of the spontaneously beautiful," but, as Berrigan writes in a review of Ron Padgett's In Advance of the Broken Tone Arm, but which might be applied to  himself, "Padgett doesn't really take any chance in beauty's presence; he is simply there." That being the case, Berrigan, as the title of this volume suggests, mockingly pursues payment, knowing that what he is advocating and producing will most likely have little if any monetary value. Though who would have been able to say that there wouldn't one day be a market for what was then thought to be unmarketable. That Berrigan has nothing to lose or gain makes his critiques all the more honest, cogent, personal and playful.  This in an era when the apparent chaos was such that most criticism, with the exception of magazines like Kulchur, were lagging behind, or simply didn't get, what Berrigan was promoting.          

Coming in at just under 300 pages, Get the Money!, with entries on the likes of Kenward Elmslie, FT Prince,  Red Grooms, Alice Neel, John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, Anne Waldman, Jim Carroll, Tom Raworth, Joel Oppenheimer, and much more, will surely be this year's favourite commodity for any fetishistic punter with an inkling for  Berrigan's work, or, for that matter,  the New York poetry and art scene during those years. All proof that Berrigan's prose is never less than an extension of his poetry, indicative of his engagement with what is going on around him. As the Whitehead quote Berrigan inserts as the epigraph to his journals, reads,  "What is going to happen is already happening." That word, happening, for better or worse, so synonymous with the era and its sense of community. Likewise, behind the dash-it-off, who-gives-a fuck attitude, Get the Money attests to someone lasered into the push and pull of both public and private with an apparent recklessness that never fails to connect.  Or one could equally say that Berrigan's critique is never less than an extension of the object being criticised. Even if that object is no more than  an opportunity for him to demonstrate his literary chops. As in his "review" of Burroughs' Nova Express, which could be read as a flexing of Berrigan's literary muscles, or as a conscious, if overly enthusiastic, extension of the novel.  Even though, at the other end of the scale, "Frank O'Hara Dead at 40" comes across as a completely straight and touching, but  manufactured, tribute. A case perhaps of Get the Money for real, but not without  feeling.  Just as the occasion dictates, but tame when compared with the following, written in a more familiar manner: 

"In fact, it would be much easier for me to get something said about this book if I could briefly turn into Charles Olson or John Lennon or Martin Luther King. Then I'd just lean forward into the TV camera and intensely, 'If you really want to know what it's all about, read Frank O'Hara, that's right, FRANK O'HARA... Whereupon...Joe Levine would rush production on his new movie, Life on Earth, the biography of Frank O'Hara, starring young James Cagney as Frank... and Gig Young as John Ashbery, Rod Steiger as Jane Freilicher. What excitement!"

All of which makes Berrigan if not political, at least doggedly democratic in his merging of subject and object. Though sometimes it does seem like he's the focal point, cheerleader and barker-in-chief of a semi-secret society. Democratic, thenbut only in a world within a world within a world, exemplified by the various entries about Berrigan's friends, Berrigan himself, or Berrigan and his friends. But wait a sec... Wasn't that what poetry communities, significant or otherwise, were about in those pre-internet age? Even at the risk of over-reach, or, in this case, over-sell, as Berrigan shamelessly tests the limits, however playfully, insisting as always on le droit du poete. A tendency that, in today's world of identity politics and territorial armour, might be questionable. But this is now and that was then. Whatever the subterranean politics, Berrigan remains as large as life, missed by many and forgotten by no one who inhabited that world and its margins. All of which leaves one to speculate about Berrigan's letters, which, if gathered together, would undoubtedly complete the picture of this most late twentieth century of twentieth century poets. 

Thursday, October 20, 2022

Lofts and Corners: From Holy Ghost: The Life & Death of Free Jazz Pioneer Albert Ayler by Richard Kolada to The Cricket: Black Music in Evolution 1968-69 (edited by David Grundy, original editors Amiri Baraka, A.B. Spellman, Larry Neal)

Though I think I first heard about Albert Ayler through Amiri Baraka's LeRoi Jones Apple Cores column in Downbeat in the mid-1960s, I can't actually recall when I  first heard his music. It just seems like it's always been part of the musical landscape.  However, I do remember being surprised to find, when visiting London, Paris and Amsterdam in 1967, that nearly everyone I ran into seemed to have an Ayler LP in their collection. Of course, by then Ayler had already played extensively in Europe. Another example of an artist better appreciated abroad than at home. 

Much to my disappointment, I never actually heard Ayler play live. Mainly because he never travelled to the west coast. Had he come to San Francisco, he would  have found, as Archie Shepp had, an attentive audience amongst the jazz cognoscenti in the city.  I once asked my friend, the poet Lewis Macadams, who had seen Ayler at  Sluggs, what it was like to hear Ayler up close. Lewis said the only thing he could compare it to was the sound Tibetan monks made when chanting along side those long trumpets.       

An apt comparison, but one that conveys just one side of Ayler's playing. Likewise, Ayler would always emphasise the spiritual nature of his music. Not that jazz, prior to Ayler and, of course, Coltrane, had been devoid of spirituality. After all, jazz is at the very least partially rooted in gospel music. Likewise, the rise of Islam amongst musicians in the late 1940s onwards couldn't help but give the music a spiritual dimension. Then, of course, there's the  transcendent nature of the music itself. 

But rarely had the spiritual side been stated so bluntly and so boldly. With titles referencing angels, ghosts, bells and the search for spiritual unity, Ayler's sound sought to transform basic melodies into congruent waves and clusters. So deep and immense was his sound that it was able to attract a select but diverse audience, from black activists and nationalists to spaced-out hippies, from culture vultures to producers in pursuit of either art or mammon.  So intense and seemingly anarchic was his music that perhaps it's understandable Ayler has never been placed on the free jazz pedestal alongside Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, or Cecil Taylor. Could it be that, these days, the academically trained might be able to churn out antiseptic solos by Coltrane and Coleman, and marvel at what they perceive as the Euro-modernism of Taylor, but only a select few would dare to emulate Ayler.  Which is understandable. After all, how would one go about "teaching" Ayler. It would  be like trying to instruct someone in how to capture the wind.  

As Richard Koloda's diligently researched and long overdue book, published by Jawbone Editions, suggests, Ayler's music recalls an entire history of African American music, from folk melodies to gospel songs, from field hollers to pre-blues fife and drum music, from marching band rhythms to futuristic sheets of sound.  Moving far beyond the restrictions of The Great American Songbook, Ayler's music referenced the past, while pointing to  a utopian landscape of possibility (black futurism for real). Naturally, opinion would be divided amongst critics, some of whom thought, and perhaps still think, Ayler a charlatan, while others were simply bemused by his playing. All of this Koloda documents in his book. As well as Ayler's heartfelt belief that he had a higher calling, leading him to link up with Ornette and, most important of all, Coltrane (playing, per Coltrane request, at the latter's funeral). Though his music might be outside the realm of academia, his influence is nevertheless apparent in  musicians like Charles Gayle, Frank Wright, Evan Parker, Peter Brotzman, Vernon Johnson, Frank Lowe, David Ware, Marion Brown, Archie Shepp, Joe McPhee, David Murray and Mark Ribot. 
Koloda is excellent when it comes to  the burden Ayler would carry for his single-mindedness. Though at times, the author's investigation, reliant as it is on information recycled from periodicals and commentators of the time, can verge on the pedestrian. On the other hand, he does manage to bring a great deal of information together, and, while doing so, provides his fair share of primary research, whether through  interviews- including those with Ayler's brother and musical cohort, Donald Ayler, and their father Edward- as well as his communiques with various relevant parties. Koloda is particularly good when it comes to detailing the pressures put on Ayler by a record label like Impulse, which sought  to alter the direction of Ayler's music so it might appeal to a wider audience, and which might well  have had something to do with Ayler's decline into  depression and ultimately his death. Though Koloda presents a number scenarios, he doesn't come to any specific conclusion regarding Ayler's demise. Immediately his body was pulled from the East River, questions were raised, and Koloda addresses each of them. Could it have been suicide by drowning for someone known to be  frightened of water; a drug deal gone wrong though Ayler wasn't known to ingest anything stronger than marijuana;  a gangland murder of someone who had no apparent ties with the mob? Speculation has long been rife, so much so that, in France, there was even a Gallimard Serie Noir paperback anthology entitled The Death of Albert Ayler. 

Of course, most dedicated Ayler fans are likely to have their own quibbles with Koloda's book. Personally, I thought he was a bit harsh when discussing Baraka's role in Ayler's music, implying that Baraka  was using Ayler for his own political ends. While there  might be some truth to that, it's also clear  that  Baraka was  the loudest and most persuasive of Ayler advocates. Another quibble: Koloda at times succumbs to  his own research, relying a bit too much on detailing gigs, recording sessions, and critical reaction. I would have preferred even more interviews and stories from those who knew or were influenced by Ayler. But, then, perhaps not all biographers can be as thorough as Stanley Crouch was in researching the story of Charlie Parker's early life in Kansas City Lightning.  Having said that, such reservations shouldn't stop any dedicated Aylerite from getting hold of this book.  

It's sometimes forgotten how articulate Ayler could be.  A number of radio interviews can be found on-line, then there's  his apocalyptic and quixotic article- a mixture of UFO sightings, William Blake, the Pentecostal church and the Nation of Islam-  To Mr. Jones, I Had a Vision ("Don't forget that arguing with each other is bad because if you do the devil angel is laughing in the closet... You see if you argue the Holy angels leave you because they are of oneness of harmony, so don't bring on the devil.") that appeared in the short-lived (1968-69) but influential magazine The Cricket. Edited by Baraka (calling himself at the time Imamu Ameer Baraka), poet/critic A.B. Spellman (Four Lives in Bebop) and poet/scholar Larry Neal, The Cricket should be essential for anyone interested in Ayler and the  sensibility that informed the music of that era. Despite its short life-span, The Cricket was arguably the best and most political publication devoted to the emerging black music scene. Created after  the 1967 Newark riots, and distributed for free, the magazine contained not only reviews of live and recorded  black music, but also poetry, essays and short plays. Not that it was alone in presentation or advocacy. There were other publications as political but perhaps not so Afro-centric, such as those from the Artists Workshop in Detroit (Work, Wh'ere, Guerrilla).  But The Cricket, if not the most experimental, was the most immediate, rooted in and around the community in which the music was centred, its specific purpose to challenge the dominance of white writers in reporting on  black music, and critique  the role of white club and record owners in exploiting the music. With copies for many years  difficult to come by, the magazine has by now taken on a legendary status amongst those who remember those times and that music.

All of which  makes the recent republication of the magazine, put together in an amazing single volume, published by Blank Forms Editions, by British poet and scholar David Grundy (author of A Black Arts Poetry Machine: Amiri Baraka and the Umbra Poets), an occasion for celebration. Because, following Spellman's Preface and Grundy's excellent and comprehensive  overview,  what one finds here are contributions by the likes of Baraka, Spellman, and Neal, as well as musicians such as Ayler,  Milford Graves, Oliver Nelson, Sun Ra, and Mtume, poets like  Sonia Sanchez,  critics (though, at the time, still a drummer) Stanley Crouch, poet and novelist Ishmael Reed, and many others.  

Determinedly of  the moment, The Cricket's revolutionary passion and insight are apparent on just about  every page.  If some of the articles seem  overly stylised, all one can say is such were the times, the posture and the perspective. To be fair,  the magazine wasn't simply a booster for the "new thing;"  its writers were ready and willing to criticise the music when they thought it fell short.  For instance, there's Mwanfunzi Katibu's take-down of Shepp's Three For a Quarter One For a Dime album, or Larry Neal's critique of Ayler's contentious latter day Impulse LP New Grass. Regarding the latter, Neal was stating the obvious when he wrote that  the record was the result of Ayler being leaned-on by Impulse in order to court a wider and whiter audience. Few, including Koloda, would disagree. Though Neal was less bothered by  Ayler attempt to court a wider audience as he was by the music itself which he considered lacking in focus and subtlety.  

Reading The Cricket is to be cast back to a time- right down to its mimeo font and spacing- when the music was everything, and everything was at stake, politically as well as artistically. A time when  ethics and aesthetics sought to be one and the same, and the likes of Albert Ayler were walking a tight-rope, bursting with energy but ultimately fighting a losing battle with the profiteers that be. One can't help but miss those days when the music so highly charged and political, when it was still something mostly learned from listening and watching, whether in clubs or jam sessions, before jazz became, for better or worse, institutionalised in places of higher learning.  But let's leave the last word to the surviving member of The Cricket's editorial team, A.B. Spellman. Regarding the technology of that time, seemingly so primitive yet so political, and the means by which such publications could exist, Spellman, only half-jokingly, writes in his Preface,  "Someone should do an homage to the Gestetner mimeograph machine. It was, if not the heart, at least the vascular system of the myriad movements of the day. It was clumsy, extremely messy—you got blue ink on all of your clothes; blue ink soaked into the flesh of your hands for days. But with a mimeograph machine, a couple of reams of paper, a good stapler, you could have yourself a publication. We didn’t need no stinkin’ internet."

Thursday, September 29, 2022

Writing Skin Flick


It would be an understatement to say that between the writing of what would become Skin Flick and its eventual publication a lot has happened in the world. So much so that I feel as though the real author of my most recent novel could well be someone else altogether. Perhaps my evil twin or  a case of identity thief.  Or is it that we are simply living in a different world from the one we inhabited around the time I began writing the novel which would have been sometime around 2010.  Though I have a dim recollection at the time of wanting to write something under similar conditions to those that faced pulp paperback writers in  the late 1940s and 1950s regarding deadlines, word count, narrative drive heading into the unknown, etc.. Of course, those who wrote for the  likes of Gold Medal and Lion were hardly dabblers when it came to the conditions they wrote under, but working writers who ground out books because their lives and livelihood depended on what they were able to produce. Nevertheless, I gave myself a time limit- was it six weeks or six months? I can no longer recall- to write what would become Skin Flick. Though I might as well have had said six years, because the book has taken that long, thanks to various factors, including Covid, for the book to go from its initial writing to its publication. Within that time Skin Flick has gone through the various permutations and title changes. Consequently, the novel that took the shortest amount of time to write of any of the books I’ve written, has taken the longest amount of time to complete and finally publish.

When I began the novel I remember being engrossed in certain purveyors of self-abasement, such as Dan Fante and Jerry Stahl. As well as memories of Hubert Selby's Requiem For a Dream. There was, and remains, something appealing about such writers with their first-person narratives, and no perceivable limit to the depths they are willing to descend. Which has to do with their honesty, sense of humour and perspective, the latter of which sometimes manifests itself as having no perspective at all. Of course, who, other than the writers themselves, can say with any exactitude that what they write might  be nothing more than a masquerade. In any case, there is that side to Skin Flick’s mock confessional, first-person narrative which starts off  in something akin to  Ross Macdonald territory before gradually descending into that world one normally associates with Fante and Stahl, if not the likes of David Goodis and Jim Thompson. Which is to say that Skin Flick moves from the everyday to the perverse, albeit from the viewpoint of a not-all-that-successful freelance journalist, who begins with the best of intentions, to help an old friend, but who, despite or because of his flaws, ends up trapped in his own pursuit, just marginally less warped than those he’s pursuing.

The result is a deep dive into the greed-is-good 1980’s, and its assorted depravities, from real estate scams and bank scandals, to the rise of Jesus-is-coming-so-why-worry-about-the-future mindset, from the corruption of the “sexual revolution” to pornography as the last refuge of the desperate and raw product of late capitalism.  While the title refers to the often used term for a certain type of movie, it also suggests the exploitation of bodies on a personal as well as political level, that beauty, from skin deep to deep down, can easily be flicked away by power and money. But, then, that was a time when even the most righteous were, to varying degrees, guilty of whatever crimes and misdemeanours the culture had to offer. And the reason why, with its quotidian contradictions, Skin Flick is a novel in which no one escapes unscathed.

("Writing Skin Flick" first appeared in a slightly different version in Crime Time)

Thursday, June 16, 2022

Derek Raymond Revisited

The couple days have been spent revisiting Derek Raymond's (aka Robin Cook) autobiography The Hidden Files. I remember, when it came out, some expressed disappointment because they said the book did not have the same edge and dark focus of his crime/noir novels. That its prose and presentation was a bit self-conscious, as though Robin was trying to prove his worth as a writer. Maybe there was some truth in the latter, though at the time of its publication, I enjoyed the book immensely. But, for some reason, I hadn't  looked at it since. This even though I've re-read Robin's Factory novels, and some of his others (Crust On Its Uppers, A State of Denmark, The Legacy of the Stiff Upper Lip, etc.) at various times since their publication or re-publication. Re-reading The Hidden Files was not only a great pleasure but I found it quite moving. For me, no matter how under-appreciated it might have been at the time, The Hidden Files really does deserve to be up there with the likes of Cyril Connolly's Enemies of Promise, a kind of scaled down version of Anthony Powell's multi-volumed Dance to the Music of Time. For me there has always been something admirable about old Etonians- and I seem to have known a few over the years- who have the political and personal nous to reject their class, their education, and sense of entitlement. Certainly no one personifies that kind of downward mobility more than Robin. What a pleasure it was during late 1980s and early 1990s to run into him on the streets of Kilburn, where we were neighbours, or at events at Compendium or Murder One. As I was revisiting The Hidden Files I couldn't help but be reminded of those days, which led me to dig out my 1992 interview with Robin which took place at this favourite pub, The Coach and Horses in Soho, and subsequent article that appeared in the Observer Magazine later on that same year.