In her September 20 A/V Club piece "Should Some Movies Be Taken More Seriously Than Others," Stephanie Zacharek, doing the sort of end run that's become a reliable feature of the "Your Art Film Sucks And So Do You" thumbsucker, characterizes the music score of Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master as "interesting," and then muses that that term, which she put in quotes to begin with, "might just be a euphemism for something you wouldn't want to play at home with your cats around." In a parenthetical, she then adds, "And I say that as someone who has subjected her own cats to Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, and late Coltrane, God help their small ears."
I should add here that Stephanie is a friend, but also that I feel for her as Edmund Wilson did for Vladimir Nabokov, that is, a "warm affection sometimes chilled by exasperation."
Anyway, you get what she's doing there—she's trying to tell you, and in an ingratiating way, that just because she's hostile to this particular piece of possibly "difficult" art, she's hardly hostile to ALL such art. Dan Kois did the same thing in his notorious "cultural vegetables" piece when he admitted that he eventually "got" Derek Jarman's Blue, which still tops the shameless self-aggrandizement chart in that it bids to make himself look not just open-minded but gay-friendly and compassionate. (Jarman himself has yet to tell Kois "Good on yer, mate!" or any such thing, alas.) But I'm not writing this to decry the rhetorical device as such. I'm writing this because cats really don't care what kind of music you play in their presence. For the most part.
We like to romanticize and anthropomorphize our delightful feline friends, but let's face it: the domesticated feline consciousness, such as it is, is simply not wired to respond subjectively to, let alone process, music. Cats are attentive, sure, and have very sharp senses. But their senses are arranged in a way that's entirely different from our own, and their pleasure centers have very little to do with those of humans. It stands to reason that the inverse follows—they're annoyed by different things. Loud noises startle cats, to be sure, just as they startle humans. A blaring saxophone, played by Coleman, Ayler, or Coltrane, simply doesn't register to a cat the way it does to us. Cats don't try to make sense of it because A) their intellectual apparatus is not so sophisticated as they're able to make sense of it and B) there's no practical need for them to make sense of it. They categorize sounds in an almost binary way: those that are specifically friendly and inviting (your voice, the snap of a cat food can opening) and those that either threaten them or put them in stalking mode (as in the chirp of birds on a branch outside a window). If you put on No New York, your cat won't saunter in front of the speaker, raise a cat eyebrow, and ask "What's HE on about" as James Chance and the Contortions subject "I Can't Stand Myself" to a seizure.
My cat, the above-pictured Pinky, a.k.a. The Pinkster, a.k.a. Beast, a.k.a. Purr Beast, a.k.a. about two dozen other really stupid nicknames, never showed any visible reaction to any of the music I played in my apartment during the period of our cohabitation, which was from 1990 to 2006. He was five years old when my cohabitating girlfriend of the time, Beth "The Shermanator" Sherman adopted his adorable ass, and we had no idea what environment he came from or what kind of music was played in it. As you can imagine, what with my being a very nearly professional Rock Snob of a certain age and having come of a certain age in a certain era, the amount of ostensibly Unlistenable Noise in my music library is pretty formidable, and I can find it for you in pretty much nearly every genre in which the quality of unlistenable noisiness is possible. From AMM to Xenakis with DNA, Metal Machine Music, Swans and The Velvet Underground in between, the Pinkster heard it all, and frankly, he didn't give a shit.
All except for one recording. The 1991 Gramavision CD The Second Dream Of The High Tension Line Stepdown Transformer, a particular iteration (the 1984 "Melodic Version") of a piece by the American composer LaMonte Young. Young is a composer with a particular interest in long durations, microtonal intervals, and drone music, and unlike his The Well-Tuned Piano, High Tension Line Transformer is not, on the face of it, a particularly complex or knotty piece; it consists here of an ensemble of trumpet players who chose between four specific pitches and play them at varying lengths. The first time I played it at home on my stereo, which was/is pretty good and can get pretty loud, it made Pinky very nervous. I don't know if it was the specific pitches, or the phases they might seem to go in and out of, the sounds in relation to the silences, but the piece made him immediately extremely nervous. In very specific way: he began pacing in front of the speakers, and pausing, and then he would look at me, and then he would pace some more, then look at me. It was the damnedest thing. After about four minutes I just had to turn it off. He never reacted to any other music, including the scant amount of Young music on disc, in the same way again. And, you know, in the interim, Keiji Heino made A LOT of records and I owned and played a lot of them.
Some time soon after the unfortunate experience with The Second Dream Of The High Tension Line Stepdown Transformer I had the occasion to interview LaMonte Young and his partner Marian Zazeela, and I told him this story in the spirit of sharing a droll anecdote. Young is a man of rather gentle demeanor, but that did not prepare me for his reaction: he was genuinely upset, almost hurt. Whatever his overt intentions concerning his music, causing unrest in the nervous system of another living creature did not figure. The idea that it did my cat some brief harm was not even vaguely amusing to him.
Artists are unusual people. And their thought processes are unusual, and the extent to which their thought processes are unusual is often not unrelated to the medium in which they work. Later in Zacherek's article about...whatever it's about, she says "[t]he movie I’m yearning to see again was not made by anyone who has been deemed a great artist, but by a sometime-director who mostly writes screenplays." This movie is Premium Rush, which I haven't seen. I couldn't review it because not one but two friends worked on it, but I hear it's very good and I look forward to catching it. I rather doubt, however, that sometime-director David Koepp would really appreciate having his movie adopted as a club with which to attempt to beat The Master and its fans over the head. The implication Zacharek is barely bothering to try to cover up is that there are some directors who like you and who want you to have fun, and some directors who hate you and want to punish you and make you do homework. Because no actual pleasure can be had from a "difficult" film. Even if you do own some Albert Ayler records.
Before I get too exasperated, I'll give the last word to Orson Welles, who, in a mid-'60s interview for a British television show called Tempo, is asked by the interviewer: "To what extent, though, do you normally consider the audience you're going for?"
Welles pauses for a good five seconds, then answers:
"Not at all. Impossible to.
Sounds arrogant. It isn’t meant to be and I don’t think it is. It’s because the
public is so unimaginably large. Whenever I do a play I think not only of the
public but of the specific public of that year and that time. And what it will
be like. That’s part of what’s
good about the theater. And part of what’s bad. What limits it even as it makes
it wonderfully immediate. But a film you simply cannot think of the public
because it’s made up of people in Manila, in the mountain vastnesses of the
atlas in the Andes, in Indianapolis, in Manchester, in…tin huts in the jungle.
You simply cannot think of that audience or think what they like because…they
simply aren’t an audience. It’s just a whole…population, you’re making it for,
of the globe, some percentage of which…will drift into a hut or a movie palace
and see what you did. Which is what limits films to an extent but which to a
great extent frees you. But the people, the PURELY commercial people, the
downright movie hacks who 'give ‘em what they want' are not thinking of the
public they’re thinking of the distributors. They know what the distributors
want, but they’re not anymore thinking of the public than I am. They can’t
imagine that public any more than I can. They just know the distributors say, 'There’s a market this year for tough, sexy spy movies. So give ‘em what they
want.' But they’re not really thinking of a public that likes them. They’re
thinking of bookers who will play them and report that we did that much money.
I think it’s an important distinction."
The Tempo interview is an extra on the excellent foreign-region Blu-ray disc of Welles' The Trial, a movie that wants to punish you and make you do homework.
Here is another picture of my cat Pinky, God bless him, who I miss every day and whom I aspire to be more like all the time. As in, for instance, this:
A friend who runs a vintage instrument shop, the clientele is of which is such that the shop scarcely needs me to flog it on this blog, acquired a mellotron recently. I learned a couple of things about the mellotron today.
First off, my long-held supposition that mellotrons used tape loops was entirely wrong. While the concept of a tape loop looks good in one's head, it is apparently impracticable in reality. Pressing a key on the mellotron, rather, engages a tape strip, which runs over the playback head that pressing the key engages, and the physical tape in the strip actually drops into a narrow box, and at the end of the eight-second duration of the tape strip is SUPPOSED to be automatically rewound for replay. As it turns out, one of the issues with a mellotron (and another thing I learned was that mellotrons have LOTS OF ISSUES) is when the tape strip drops down into the box and just stays there, and then you get a key that's just silent when you press it. This tended to compromise my attempted by-ear recreation of the opening of "In The Court Of The Crimson King." I found this discouraging.
Note the A-B-C switch on the upper right of the metal panel of the mellotron. That changes the setting of the recording. The recorded instruments on the tape cartridge currently installed in this mellotron are flute and a string section. The third recording is of a choir, called "voice." However, if you toggle the switch to put it between A and B, say, you can get a kind of "mix" of voice and strings; toggle between B and C and you get a mix of strings and flute. This is not unlike what guitarists discovered of the ostensibly three-position pickup toggle switch on Fender Stratocasters. The switch selected neck, middle or bridge pickup, and that was it. But if you poised the switch between positions one and two, they got a mix of the neck and middle pickup. Between positions two and three, a mix of middle and bridge pickups. Eventually Fender got the message and made the switch a five-position geegaw. But the action on the '75 Strat I handled today was so sweet I'd be willing to live with the three-position switch.
But we're talking mellotron. Which is, in practice, a wonky, difficult instrument. "It's ridiculous," noted thefriend I came to the shop with, "but it's a retro thing, so everybody with Stupid Rockstar Money wants one." He, a professional musician of some repute, was able to conjure a few better-than-passable runs out of the thing. This irritated me a bit, as did his competent runs on a ukelele. "Oy," I whiged in a stage whisper to S., the shop's overseer. "Even HE plays guitar better than me. He's not even supposed to play guitar. He's a front man."
"What are you in your band?" S. asked.
"The front man."
"So what are you complaining for?"
Apparently when S. bought the mellotron he did not acquire an ornamental side panel that features a painting of a unicorn on it. This item is still in negotiation. I will provide an update if called for. In the meantime, here is a PDF of the Owner's Manual for the 400N.
A review of Abel Ferrara's eschatological study 4:44 Last Day On Earth, for MSN Movies. Using the above song, in either the featured Galaxie 500 version or the Young Marble Giants' original, might have spruced the picture up. But no.
Lou's answer to Environments has certainly raised consciousness in both the journalistic and business communities. Though it is a blatant rip-off, it is not—philistine cavils to the contrary—totally unlistenable. But for white noise I'll still take "Sister Ray." C+—Robert Christgau, reviewing Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, 1975
Metal Machine Music. Those three words alone suffice to completely destroy Chuck Klosterman's theory that if America still had a functional music industry, the Metallica/Lou Reed collaboration that Klosterman finds "totally unlistenable" would not exist. (To be fair, before anyone jumps down my throat and says "The 'totally unlistenable' part is in the subhead, and maybe Klosterman didn't write that!", Klosterman's own characterization of the music in the review itself contains the speculation that the work "might be a successful simulation of how it feels to develop schizophrenia while suffering from a migraine, although slightly less melodic.") But given that Klosterman was barely in kindergarten when MMM came out, and that he likes to wear his ahistorical approach to critical analysis on his sleeve (the extent of his curiosity about the sources of the Reed/Metallica work can be gleaned by his note "Lulu is based on theatrical German expressionism from the early 20th century") it would be cruel to overemphasize the fact that his theory has no actual legs. And anyway, that's neither here nor there. Klosterman's not alone in playing the "unlistenable" card with respect to Lulu; the Chicago Tribune's Greg Kot not only drops the "u" word but moans that Lulu "wallows in a tarpit of ugliness." These citations are just the tip of an iceberg that has all manner of bearded not-so-bright young things trying to decide whether to snicker or recoil in abject horror from the double CD.
Which I have to admit I kind of like. A good deal. And I'm kind of amused by the language its detractors have been using to attack it, because they all kind of sound like my mom and her friends did back in the early '70s when I had the temerity to blast The Velvet Underground and Nico from my portable fold-out stereo in my Dumont, N.J. backyard during a barbecue one summer night. "Where's the melody?" "How can you listen to that without getting a headache?" "Sounds like Chinese funeral music!" (That last was the reaction to "Venus In Furs.") That was a fun experiment. So you can imagine how amused I am to witness people whose main mission in life is to provide some sort of intellectual rationale/apologia for the likes of The Black-Eyed Peas' "I Gotta Feeling" getting into just such a snit over three electric guitars, bass, drums, and an admittedly flat vocalist. Now as my poor wife will be happy to tell you, I eat "unlistenable" for breakfast. While I like a nice Stanley Turrentine/Astrud Gilberto collaboration as much, if not more, than the next guy, I am also apt, of an afternoon, to listen to Otomo Yoshihide's Modulation With 2 Electric Guitars and 2 Amplifiers at what is commonly referred to as a "punishing" volume.
But really, while my standard might be somewhat different from the average, I don't find Lulu all that tough a sit. It isn't as if it's just a lot of unmodulated clamor. While a fair amount of it does consist of loud guitar vamps/riffs under Lou declaiming rather, um, vivid lyrics, there's a fair amount of dynamic range, varied instrumentation, pianissimo passages, all that stuff. In other words, its isn't nearly a musically monolithic as its detractors might lead one to believe, and the aggressive stuff is pretty convincing; I can do ab crunches quite efficiently to it. And honestly, out of the ten tracks spread over two CDs, there are at least three that could qualify as "real" "rock" "songs," not art songs or experiments or what have you. The whole thing leads me to wonder, have the people bitching about this record ever heard any Lou Reed records? Not the recent, oft-highfalutin, frequently derided stuff like Ecstasy and The Raven (two records I was pleasantly surprised to see highly rated by Christgau, who's second only to Lester Bangs, I think, as the greatest and most perceptive of Lou skeptics/fans), but, like, you know, Street Hassle, or The Blue Mask, or maybe "Lady Godiva's Operation" on The Velvet Underground's White Light/White Heat? Because I'm thinking maybe a little familiarity with that material mighta helped them not have an aneurysm at the opening lines of the opening track, the bit about cutting tits off. Which brings us to the other thing a lot of people are having problems with, which is that Reed, and sometimes even Metallica's own James Hetfield, often sing in first person from the perspective of a young woman—the Lulu of the album's title, I'd reckon—and what's up with that? Again, I don't expect Chuck Klosterman to drop much science pertaining to art song tradition/convention and/or Frank Wedekind, and to be completely honest my own expertise on either of these topics is a stitch limited, but again, even taking that/him out of the equation, it's hardly as if this strategy is outrageously unprecedented. Granted, the artists do themselves not-so-much of a favor by deeming to explain what they're up to with a small-type line in the behind-the-discs card notes reading "All songs on this album are based on songs written by Lou Reed for the play Lulu." But given the near-hysteria of the hostility greeting the album from those who are maybe in a position to appreciate and even shed some light on the context of its creation and theme, maybe the artists figured they were in a kind of fuck-it, let's-just-let-it-drop situation anyway. That said, I haven't listened to it quite enough to weigh in on whether it "works" as some kinda unified thingamajug, but a somewhat informed combination of my gut, ears, brain, and history with Mr. Reed say, no, it's not at all unlistenable, and yes, it may indeed be very good indeed, somewhere between Street Hassle Good and The Blue Mask Good. But Klosterman's right, it isn't very melodic. But you know what is? Sinatra/Jobim. So listen to that, why dontcha?
I have no problem admitting I'm a Phineas Newborn dilettante. Even Stanley Booth, the author of the thorough, admiring, and extremely painful appreciation of Newborn that was my first exposure to the great pianist, wrote in that account that shortly before he met the man in the early '70s he "knew almost nothing about Phineas Newborn except that he was a jazz pianist whose records I'd seen reviewed in Down Beat in the '50s."
Booth's piece, entitled "Fascinating Changes," first appeared shortly after Newborn's death in the spring of 1989, in a quarterly musical supplement that was then being published in the Village Voice, in the days when someone of Stanley Booth's caliber would permit his work to be printed in the Village Voice. It is reprinted in Booth's 1991 collection Rythm Oil, an absolutely essential book for anyone with even just a passing interest in music, the United States of America, and good writing. In the book Booth prefaces the piece thus: "This piece was written before Phineas Newborn, Jr., died, but it ran in the Village Voice as one more obituary. I don't like it, as a poet once said, but I guess things happen that way."
Booth's account was of an extremely troubled, perhaps mentally ill individual, more or less at sea, who plays piano like an angel. It is an angry piece that weaves in threads of family history, Memphis history, observations on the various natures of the music business of the time, the vicissitudes of jazz critics (which Booth has very little patience for; after quoting a review of a Newborn set by one John Mehegan which takes it to task for a lack of "real jazz feeling," Booth writes "The absurdity of a white piano teacher from New York telling Phineas Newborn about real jazz feeling is delicious."
In any event, after reading Booth's article, I was kind of haunted by the oddity of the character that Booth had made out of Newborn. Booth's perspective was not that of a clinician but as a kind of privileged observer, and the mysteries in his story and Phineas' story are kept mysteries, and among the most troubling of the mysteries surrounds a beating that Newborn suffers at unknown hands for unknown reason not long after Booth first meets and hears the pianist. Booth also conjures the sense of a world that most of us will not, can not, ever know, and does this with some wry pique, as in this digression from a reasonably suspenseful and worrying narrative in the piece:
Leaving the Dickensons downstairs with Fred, who was saying, 'I have seen the time I could call six and have it come up, tell the dice what to do,' Susan and I went up to my office, sat on the couch and passed the time until we heard footsteps on the carpeted stairs. I looked around the door-jamb to see who was coming up and spied Fred on the landing. 'Where Junior?'
Insufferable Yankee editors have explained to me how offensive it is to quote Southerners speaking as we speak. Fred said Where Junior not because he didn't know it's correct to say Where Is Junior but because he knew I knew there wasn't time to say Where the fuck is Junior?
And of course I needed to hear some Phineas Newborn music. A little easier said than done. I was living in Manhattan at the time, in Murray Hill, and as far as I knew, the record store with the best-stocked jazz department at the time was J&R Music World downtown, then an altogether dustier and more cramped environment than it is today. Oh, yeah, and almost entirely vinyl. And even there, Phineas Newborn records were thin on the ground. So thin on the ground there were no "proper" Phineas Newborn records, that is, no solo piano recordings or accounts of him leading a group. No, there was only one record I could find featuring Newborn, this trio set on which drummer Roy Haynes is the first player listed and hence often credited as the leader, although it's not a "Roy Haynes Trio" record; We Three, originally released on Riverside's "New Jazz" imprint, as far as I can tell.
It's not a record with any kind of agenda; it feels as casual, maybe even "tossed off," as any record featuring three instrumentalists as accomplished and distinctive as Haynes, Newborn and bassist Chambers could be. Its opening cut is "Reflection," a tune by Ray Bryant, another underappreciated pianistic master of the Memphis baroque, but the first voice you hear isn't this session's keyboardist; no, the tune begins with the sweet thunder of Haynes' floor tom, I believe, rumbling with the clarity and crispness that has ever been the defining feature of his style; then the piano comes in, a bouncy, Latinish right-handed melodic theme with some unexpected forward somersaults, backed by a tricky hi-hat pattern (Haynes takes his own sweet time here before giving the snare one of his inimitable smacks) and some sneaky scale-climbing from Chambers. Then it's off to the races for Phineas, whose runs have an incredible fluidity and playfulness but also what I myself always took for not just real "jazz feeling" but real blues feeling. There's masterful technique here but also a bedrock love of the forms and conventions of what they're playing; call it authenticity, or organic-ness, or what you will; this is "down home" music in a very deep sense. It's also music that's mind-blowingly virtuosic in ways that you'd never necessarily process unless you were sitting down trying to process it, and the music always feels so good that you're hardly ever inclined to devote your listening time to parsing in that way. The album's centerpiece is a ten-minute-plus tour-de-force workout of Avery Parrish's "After Hours," which Newborn opens with a simultaneously knotty and very lowdown iteration of the theme, runs off a bit like it weren't no thing, twinkling the high notes multiple bars before breaking off with an exclamation point or a wink. Then he'll slow down and breathe in and out a couple of cool chords. The bassist and the drummer provide what appears to be mere comfortable, confident support, pick up the tempo to take things for a stroll, and on it ambles; it isn't until you really start picking the thing about that you notice in sections of the jam each player is in a different time signature; it's all so in the pocket you'd never suspect a contrivance of that sort.
It's all just pure pleasure as it fills the room, and I guess that's why this apparently not particularly historic session has grown through the years into one of my favorite, if not my absolute favorite, records. I don't entertain the whole "desert island disc" question all that often, but when I do, We Three is always a very strong candidate. I've never been in a situation or mood, good or bad, where putting the thing on didn't do something to improve things. I've listened to a good deal more of Phineas Newborn's music since then, and of course Haynes' Out of the Afternoon, an actual historic session featuring Roland Kirk on reeds, Tommy Flanagan on piano, and Henry Grimes for heaven's sake on bass, is and ever shall be an all-time fave too, and I don't suppose I need to start on Paul Chambers' other work (played bass on Kind of Blue, you know...three years prior to this)...but still, We Three has a big hold on me. It's a remarkably joyous record without being particularly sappily demonstrative about it; and of course it only represents a particular moment of creation, an afternoon in Hackensack, N.J., at pioneering jazz recordist Rudy Van Gelder. Chambers was all of 23 years old at the time; in 1969, after struggles with alcohol and heroin, he would die of tuberculosis. Newborn was 26, and just a couple of years away from his first stay in a mental institution. Haynes was the eldest of "we three," 33; he turned, if I can believe my eyes, 86 this year, and is still playing; he made an appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman in June of this year.