Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Once more for Michael

I was never that big a fan of Michael Jackson, post-1960s, because, at the time that he and Quincy Jones (and the mind-boggling virtuosi who made up Q's session crew) were redefining the sound of 1980s pop music, I was listening to other music that I thought grooved harder and was about six times funkier: from Toots & the Maytals to Juluka to the Neville Brothers. And the fey nature of Michael's personality even then--the degree to which his stage presentations, like Baroque opera, were more about a deeply Mannerist abstraction of the traditions of black music than "the thing itself"--left me cold (best line in Chris Rock's "Blacker than Ever" special: "remember those arguments we used to have in the '80s about who was better, Prince or Michael Jackson?" [beat] "Well, Prince *won*!"). I thought then and still think that Prince Rogers Nelson was about six times as creative a genius, a far better singer, as good a dancer, and a WAY more commanding musical imagination.

But there were a couple of things you had to give Michael. He was there first. And maybe some part of the transcendence that he was able to create and evoke onstage for his audiences made it that much harder for him to come back to anything resembling anybody else's Earth.

So, herewith a few defining moments:

the pop perfection of "I Want You Back," when the Motown rhythm section, the compositional genius of The Corporation, and the astonishing invention of Wilton Felder's contrapuntal bass line all came together as if fore-ordained;

the titanic guitar solo in "Beat It", where, in one invitation and a 30 second musical interlude, Michael and Eddie Van Halen between them (and with a little help from the great Aerosmith/Run D.M.C. "Walk This Way") smashed down the Berlin Wall that fascist white radio programmers had tried to erect between black and white musics;

the creepy "Thriller", which I never really liked as a piece of music, and whose portentiously-anticipated "long-form video" was maybe the strongest, earliest hint I got of just how weird, unsettling, and potentially abusive Michael's child-man persona could be; you wanted to say "Jesus, Michael, is that what's inside your head? Is that cadaverous, angry, threatening Zombie-of-the-Undead central character how you actually see yourself?" And, of course, it's what he *became* in the long sad drug-fuddled twilight of the following two decades. One of the great tragedies of Michael Jackson's life--and the lives he fucked up around him--is that the early abuse by his father and by the record business turned him *into* the zombie that he warned us, in "Thriller", was inside him;

and finally, a late flowering, long after he'd begun the final downhill slide:

the beautiful, joyously-retro "The Way You Make Me Feel," whose boy-girl, innocent sexuality was light years away from Michael's own twisted psyche, but whose music and video both reached back to the most beautiful aspects of Smokey Robinson, the Temptations, and Michael's own, momentarily-happier past.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Mystic Seaport: "Music of the Sea"

Mystic Seaport and the "Music of the Sea" Symposium.


Museum people are pretty fun to hang around, not least because they understand that scholarship without accessibility--without translation to some kind of wider audience--is essentially self-indulgence. Not that there's anything wrong with that, as George Costanza would say, but there's no denying that scholarship which speaks only to other scholars has a strong tendency toward isolation and questionable relevancy. If, as I've blogged before, you can't help non-specialists see the value of the research you're doing--if you fail at the task of advocacy on behalf of your research--then your days as a subsidized ivory towered Olympian (or at least Parthenonian) intellect are probably numbered.

That said, the museum people *do* tend to understand the need for accessibility, translation, and advocacy. Adding to that fundamental soundness is their tendency to be deeply, personally and professionally interested in the topics they're working on, and excited about being in a situation that lets them do that work: why wouldn't you be? spending your working days surrounded by artifacts, information, and environments that are your own personal avocation? So they're pretty much infectiously excited about their work, and, hell, excitement and some personal commitment is three-quarters of accessibility anyway.

So it's been pleasant to spend a couple of days here at the Mystic Seaport, a living-history museum that sprawls along the east side of the Mystic River as it debouches out toward the Atlantic. A place I've never been: yesterday, a couple of locals, after inquiring how a Texan could wind up giving a paper in Connecticut, and discovering I was originally from the North Shore of Massachusetts, were gobsmacked that I'd "never been to Mystic before." I don't have any particularly good excuse for that: 50 years on, childhood on the Atlantic, work on lobster boats and in sail lofts, and I'd never been here. But, as I said to my interrogators (in my best Nawth Shoah accent) "well, y'know growin' up in Mahbulhead like I did, we din't exactly need no Mystic Seapawt", and they laughed and agreed.

You get the feeling that a lot of these folks, born between, say 1945 and 1965, found their way into traditional musics during the Great Folk Scare of the early '60s: the college kids who went to the Club 47 in Cambridge and the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island and started out playing Woody Guthrie and Bill Monroe tunes. Some of these folks, realizing the cultural disconnect between their own urban, post-WWII, university-educated, often Jewish or Catholic backgrounds and those of their heroes, in response turned toward either more immediate-from-their-own-heritage musics--the klezmer revival, for example, was sparked when Tommy Jarrell said to Hank Sapoznik "don't Jews have their own music?"--or more specific/less-catchall repertoires:the blues revivalists I knew in the '70s, the Irish trad types who I joined myself, or--in the case of Mystic--the "sea music" (mostly unaccompanied chanteys) of our own region.

And there is a slightly twee feeling about this place: about every third of the historic houses is some kind of tourist Gifte Shoppe or "Inne", and there's an awfully high incidence of sack-dresses and luxuriant muttonchop sideburns amongst the sea-music types.

But the whiff of cordage and seaweed, the calls of the gulls, the calluses in the handshakes even of the scholars and museum types, and the particular opalescent quality of the sky's light over the ocean, aren't faked and can't be. For my first half-century, when I would go "home" to visit aged parents, I would always know I was "home" when I woke up that first morning to the call of the gulls: an absolutely unmistakable sound and one redolent of my childhood. Now, in my second half-century, that's gone: with aged parents in managed care facilities, and with the last mementos and the house of my childhood long since jettisoned, the truth of the Buddhist teaching that the only "home" any of us truly has is the ground under our feet is really learned. But the teaching says nothing about abandoning memory. And memory, here, is still really strong.

So returning to the Atlantic coast, and the sounds and smells of my childhood, and spending 36 hours with people whose passion for the stories, history, people, and artifacts of the sea reminds me likewise, is not an unwelcome recollection.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

RIP Michael

The greatest tragedy in his life? That, like all the truly great soul singers (Otis Redding, Mahalia Jackson, Wilson Pickett, my God! Aretha, Prince), he could embody and act out the most intense, transcendent, transformative passion onstage, because that's the nature of the gig.

And couldn't make it happen for himself.

One of the late flowerings: "Man in the Mirror."

Friday, June 26, 2009

By their boots you shall know them

In traditional music culture in Ireland, if you're a stranger, it's inadvisable to walk into a pub session carrying an instrument case. If they don't know you, and you walk in with a fiddle (or, worse still, a guitar) over your shoulder, then you've put the locals in an awkward position: they either have to totally ignore your existence, or feel obligated to invite you to play. Particularly given the fact that (a) they're there mostly to play with each other, and (b) they don't know you, in west-of-Ireland social aesthetics, this is pushy.

So instead, you leave the instrument in the car, and you wait for the time to come when one of the locals comes to say hello. It may take a while, but sooner or later, in their own (not your) good time), someone will introduce themselves. That's when you can say, "well, yes, I do play a bit," which in turn gives them the option of saying "well, have you an instrument with you?", at which point you say "well, it's in the boot." then they'll invite you; then you'll find your way in.

So, what's in the boot--or the back seat--can reveal more than a little bit of who you are.

No blasphemy intended, but it occurs to me, as I'm leaving the county-line booze store, home of the (soon to be eradicated because Lubbock has finally entered the 20th-century as regards liquor laws) monopolizing corporations, that looking into the back seat of my car actually paints a reasonably complete picture. In mine:

Item: 2 big cardboard boxes, empty, with bags of those horrible little styrofoam packing peanuts: to be given to senior student packing frantically for a year at Oxford.

Item: six long-overdue university library books on African-American vernacular dance: fruit of one day's research foray for minstrelsy project which the travel in first half of summer has effectively prevented me from even touching--but which I'm going to have to crank up in the next two weeks, as there's a paper on the topic to give in London second weekend of May.

Item: beautiful, now-worn wooden sign reading "Music Tonight," painted by same senior student five years ago when we first started up our current pub session in new digs.

Item: a fistful of "green" avoid-the-plastic recyclable grocery bags.

Item: crumpled, supposedly "no-wrinkle" suit jacket worn, in an attempt to respectablize oneself the slightest bit, at three different Master's and Doctoral defenses this week--all three of which sailed through with flying colors, making me very proud.

Item(s): a half-dozen bottles of a light white called Gruene Weltliner, which Dharmonia and I first had in Vienna, where you can blow the whole afternoon at a cafe on a carafe that costs about 4 Euro, and which I just found at a ridiculously low price (score! guess the West Texans can't read the label); 4 of Murphy's, my favorite Irish stout; a half-case of Mexican beer to replenish the cooler at buddy Coop's little music shebeen where the pub session happens tonight.

Item (in the boot): six boxes of CDs I appear on, never yet migrated out of the car from whatever was the last gig where we needed them for the merchandise table.

Item (in the boot): leftover programs from the Seventh Annual Celtic Christmas, a fundraiser for the vernacular music scholarship I founded here.

Item(s) (in the boot): various mix stands,music stands, rucksacks of gear, etc, et al.

I love my life.