“I didn’t start at the beginning, and there’s a whole lot back there that all young musicians should hear.” — John Coltrane
“A toast to those who love us. And to those who don’t, may they twist their ankles so we can tell by their walk when they are coming.” — Appalachian toast
Gil Scott-Heron’s explosive memoir The Last Holiday is a must for any Scott-Heron fan. Published posthumously, it covers his life from childhood through his career up until the 1980s. As Scott-Heron states at the beginning, writing helped him retain his memories since he was 10, and he hopes his book “will remind you that you can succeed, that help can arrive from unexpected quarters at times that are crucial.” It’s published by Grove Press, an independent giant founded by Barney Rosset when, as a young literary enthusiast, he sought an outlet to publish such important authors as Samuel Beckett.
Right up until his recent death at age 89 Rosset was championing unknown and lesser-known writers such as 30-year-old novelist Rami Shamir, and his post-Burroughsian, post–Sonic Youth novel Train to Pokipse, on the independent imprint Underground Editions. This intense first novel was 10 years in the making, capped by Shamir’s legal and emotional struggles to get the rights back from a big-time publisher who “stole” the manuscript and started selling it online, resulting in a two-year lawsuit. Rosset, who was the main editor for the book, crowned it a “Catcher in the Rye for the new century,” which is no small achievement, considering that this is the man who helped birth such major 20th-century works as Tropic of Cancer and Naked Lunch. Shamir wrote much of his book while listening to “noise” albums, transferring the music/noise into words (a perfect example of one language becoming another). In this novel about what Rosset called “a new lost generation,” the music never ceases, whether it’s the author screaming or the many lyrics, ranging from Erase Errata to Sonic Youth to Bob Dylan, that accompany him to the novel’s frightening finale. Pokipse is a reading must from one generation to all generations.
On a lighter but no less serious note, there’s Jake Marmer’s first book, Jazz Talmud, from the Sheep Meadow Press. The pairing-up of jazz and poetry goes back to the Harlem Renaissance, and the marriage of Judaism and poetry goes even further back to the Song of Songs, but what Marmer has managed to create is a fresh, new genre by mixing the two in a very personal, intimate, and at times disquietingly comfortable way. Being a secular Jew who writes little about ethnicity and religion, and a poet who has spent the better part of my life writing through and about music (mostly jazz), I almost immediately and for very different reasons wanted to intellectually and emotionally resist these poems. My instinct is to shy away from Judaism and constant references to religion, and co-mingling them with jazz seemed ridiculous. But the more I heard Marmer read his poems, with or without musical accompaniment, the more I found the work to be heartwarming, charming, stimulating, intriguing, and irresistible. It is nearly impossible not to get drawn into Marmer’s wordscapes, where jazz and Judaism intertwine, intersect, collide, melt, and meld. His is a world where the angel Gabriel gets to blow his horn in a New Orleans funk band, where the “pure music of a jazz groan” comes out of a Golem in Brooklyn, where Thelonious Monk gets to travel to Jerusalem, give directives, play piano through the morning, and have Marmer try on his gloves. Marmer invents worlds that are convincingly real, and presents real worlds that seem to only thrive in a fertile imagination. Like good music Marmer has found a harmony and balance between all he sees and invents. It is an irreverent and bumpy ride since “god is a conveyer belt” and “a purveyor of superb nonsense.”
This book is an alternative to what’s out there, so don’t let Marmer’s words linger in your “pocket like pebbles” but allow them to, as Marmer puts it, “fly upwards … or at least diagonally.” The great jazz and surrealist poet Ted Joans stated that “jazz is my religion.” I do believe that in Marmer’s case this statement truly applies, and that, conversely, religion is Marmer’s jazz.
Musican/poet Drew Gardner has a new CD out with his Flarf Orchestra, which consists of several poets reading their work to music written and conducted by Gardner, à la Butch Morris. Though the poetry is mostly not to my liking and often borders on sick humor, Gardner’s concept has been refined and works most of the time. One problem is that the recordings are live, and the sound quality suffers.
What I learned at this year’s second annual Alternative Guitar Festival is that the guitar is still one of the most overused and boring instruments, while at the same time capable of being used in an innovative and unique way.
Look for the independent label INTAKT’s two-week residency at the Stone this month. Performers will include the label’s co-founder, Irène Schweizer, along with Oliver Lake, Andrew Cyrille, Pierre Favre, Ingrid Laubrock, and many more.
Worse placement of music in a film: Coltrane playing “My Favorite Things”segueing into Michael Fassbender’s suicidal sister singing a tawdry, dismal version of “New York, New York”in what is supposed to be a downtown club but is way too chi-chi, in the suicidal film Shame, which tries to be much more important than it is. It’s a shame it was ever made in the first place. I saw it back-to-back with A Dangerous Method, wherein Fassbender plays Jung. Except for his ability to completely disappear into his role I give these non-epics, with their hysterical female lead roles, four thumbs down.
A must-see whether you are a fan or not is the documentary of the tragic life of Phil Ochs There But for Fortune, recently aired on PBS. I had known of Ochs’s life, but not in such depth, was a fan of some of his songs but not of him. This doc completely converted me, while at the same time saddened me to the brink of tears. Highly recommended.
So when listening for new sounds, new ideas, press your ear against the wall of heaven or the floor of hell, be happy you’re not a liberal, and as Shamir puts it, “hear the voice of the thunder and the clash” breaking through and the “wind sluicing around the curves of a downfalling body.”
This column is warmly dedicated to Barney Rosset, fierce, independent publisher, photographer, and founder of Grove Press, whose publications were some of the biggest inspirations in my life. Barney passed in February at age 89 still going strong. He was a cultural icon and truly the last of his kind.