A poem: in (sort of) memoriam Rod McKuen

Rod McKuen has died. He belonged to my parents’ generation as the sort of poet people read when they didn’t otherwise read poetry; I seem to remember that Eric Idle, in particular, used to love taking the piss out of McKuen. With good reason, I think.

I read the Wikipedia article on McKuen and, crap as he was, I felt sorry for him; he’s not going to go down to posterity as an unrecognised great. Looking at the long, long list of titles of his books of poetry, I thought they read a bit like a poem, so I’ve preserved the order that they came in, stripped out the dates and publishing information, and have heavily re-punctuated them. Apart from that, I think that the poem retains some of its subject’s cheesy romanticism, while maintaining a certain reticent dignity. Or not. Your call.

Good luck, big guy; here’s hoping that Brel’s standing you a few drinks in some less reputable corner of paradise.

And autumn came Stanyan Street; and other sorrows listen to the warm, lonesome cities.

And autumn came in someone’s shadow, twelve years of Christmas caught in the quiet fields of wonder.

The Carols of Christmas, and to each season, moment to moment, come to me in silence …

Moment to moment …

Revised edition.

Beyond the boardwalk celebrations of the heart, the sea around me.
Coming close to the earth, we touch the sky.

The power bright and shining, a book of days; the beautiful strangers’ book
of days, and a month of Sundays.

The sound of solitude.

Suspension Bridge.

Intervals. Valentines. A safe place to land, rusting in the rain.

A poem: in (sort of) memoriam Rod McKuen

I may be jazz, but yet I am offended

I was browsing YouTube the other night, wondering as usual whether the guitars I own are adequate or if I’d be better off with another one, when I decided to look for reviews of a particular instrument: the Epiphone Broadway.

The Broadway was introduced in 1931 as an unamplified f-hole archtop suitable for big bands, and it was the go-to guitar for many a mid-20th-century session man. At some point it acquired pickups but it’s never lost its bigness; I once saw one in a Dublin shop and didn’t have the nerve to ask for a tryout, probably because it was priced at about €800, well beyond my reach. (I was in the market for an f-hole archtop and ended up getting a far more affordable Ibanez AF75, although mine is the rather uglier orange-hued AF75D, not the sunburst beauty as seen in the link.)

Well, among the many reviews of the Broadway on YouTube was this one:

— in which a Broadway is played with great gusto through some serious distortion effects, and not with the sort of smooth, muffled, warm, clean tone normally considered appropriate for such a venerable jazz box. Of the comments on the video, which are not many, the majority are in an appalled tone, as if the player had taken a shit on the instrument:

This is no way to play an Epiphone Broadway.

*facepalm* Dude.. its a Hollowbody, designed for blues / jazz, and here you are with rock licks and distortion? you might as well demo a frickin les paul! -.-‘

Weirdly, the other two comments about how you shouldn’t do this to a Broadway, goddammit, are from the player himself:

You are right, it should be a clean sound and not a distorted sound.

Appreciate it. We do so many videos, we get lost sometimes on which sounds to use. You’re right, it should be a clean sound and not a distorted sound.

The only other comments, in which someone says that they liked the video because ‘[t]here are a couple dozen of everyone doing the typical jazz licks and that’s fine but why have so many videos showing the same thing?’ and someone else agrees with him, are alone. I’m the person who agreed, for what it’s worth.

Jazz used to think of itself as, in Whitney Balliett‘s fine phrase, ‘the sound of surprise’. It’s always been a contested music, with nobody being able to agree about where the frontier is; Charlie Parker used to be accused of having anti-jazz instincts, but as someone who has ‘Donna Lee‘ as his ringtone, I can confirm that Charlie Parker bursting into a crowded 21st century office sounds more like Louis Armstrong than like the avant-garde. (Of course, Louis Armstrong was once the avant-garde, but that’s another story.) Jazz guitar in particular has been a pretty sorry field for most of its history, with the early innovations of Charlie Christian soon becoming boringly canonical; it could be argued that jazz guitar didn’t really loosen up until you had a generation of guitarists coming of age who’d grown up listening to punk, or alternative rock. It’s depressing to see social pressure being applied to the way you play an instrument; the instrument itself doesn’t care how it’s played.

It’s true that you couldn’t take a Broadway onto a rock stage and turn it up to 11. Its large, hollow body would vibrate and it would feed back uncontrollably. But if you have ever wondered why jazz, which was once the most exciting music on the planet, can sometimes sound so boring, now you know.

I may be jazz, but yet I am offended

Concert, Inverleith House, 18/01/2015

I played a concert today at Inverleith House in Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden — well, it was more of an improv session, really, organised by the immensely charming Yati Durant of the Edinburgh Film Music Orchestra and a very, very fine musician, with Margaret Christie on double bass (Margaret is a freelance publishing professional in her day job and is always open to a bit of improv) and Nicola Baroni on cello — Nicola and Margaret I knew from Edimpro rehearsals, but I’d not played a concert with Nicola before, and had little idea of what he was capable of.

It was to mark the end of the Tony Conrad exhibition in the gallery. Yati, Margaret, Richard Worth and I had played an earlier concert in November last year, around the beginning of the exhibition. The November concert had been really fun, so I was looking forward to this one.

Well, it was if anything more fun, with Nicola playing the hell out of his cello and an amplified park bench that happened to hanging there as part of the show. Being the only amplified musician there, I had to be careful about dynamics; note to fellow players of single-coil guitars, when you’re playing with unamplified acoustic musicians, keep a hand on that pickup volume knob if you want there to be such a thing as actual silence. At one point Yati’s small daughter joined in, sitting on her mother’s lap and sawing at the park bench with a violin bow, and then she and her mum began a bit of vocalising and we got into a bit of call-and-response. I used my trusty EBow a lot (damn, I love that thing) and in general my gear behaved itself, but as usual I got a bit frustrated with my rather old Zoom G2.1u and its annoying reluctance to go to bypass unless you hit both footswitches at the exact same instant.

Having said that about silence, amp hum can be fun; there was a young woman present, a friend of Yati’s, I think, and he gave her a small pocket-sized analog synth to play, which made some interesting swirly noises that I thought were coming from my own gear until I realised she was making them. One of the patches on the Zoom has a ring modulator setting which creates insane amounts of swirly amp hum, and if you bonk the guitar it makes for a hum that you can actually tune, by twirling the gain knob on the Zoom. So that prompted a brief, impromptu duet.

When you play improvised music you can’t always tell for sure if the audience is really liking it or just being polite. But at 2.30pm we’d been playing for ninety minutes straight, and we took a break. That was when Yati’s little girl began doing her thing with the park bench. A middle-aged couple (what am I talking about? I’m ‘middle-aged’) had appeared beside me and the woman whispered to me “Are you going to play some more?” I said I wasn’t sure, but that we were booked until 3pm. She asked Yati the same question and gradually we started to join in with Yati’s small daughter, which developed into one of the more eventful improvisations of the day.

Gear I brought: Fender Telecaster, Roland MicroCube, Zoom G2.1u, Boss RC-30 Loop Station

Gear notes: I didn’t use the RC-30 much until the very end, when we were tailing off and I was feeling a bit burned out; I’d randomly recorded a few seconds of guitar earlier in the afternoon and I played the loop a bit while Yati and Nicola were banging the hell out of that park bench. The Zoom, for all its versatility, is getting increasingly annoying to me (noisy, fucks with my already questionable tone, hard to turn off) and I may have to retire it. The MicroCube is a great practice amp but faced with players like Yati, Nicola and Margaret, with the lovely tone coming from their brass and strings, I’m starting to dislike the MicroCube’s digital-sounding tone. It would be nice to sound a bit cleaner and more valve-y. Next time, different pedals; I really only use the Zoom for its pitch-shifting capability, and that will shortly be rectified. Maybe I need to sell the MicroCube and start relying on house amps.

Music notes: With such a spread of different types of player, this was a less jazzy session than the November one. Nicola and Yati had a great sense of humour and mutual rapport; sometimes I just stopped playing and watched Nicola because he was so intense with that cello, while still being entirely musical. Yati being on trumpet and (I think) flugelhorn, there was unavoidably a jazz flavour about some of his playing, which I liked very much; it’s just what the sound of the instrument does, but he’s such a good player that you’re kept on your toes and you don’t want to slack. Margaret and I not being full-time musicians, I think we both tend to wait and see what the others are doing and respond to it, but I don’t like to always find myself doing that. Sometimes it’s good to drop a bomb. As long as it’s the right bomb.

Damn, I love improvising. The latecoming couple whose arrival prompted us to play an extra 40 minutes were so sweet afterwards. It was like going to see improvised music in Inverleith House was their Sunday treat.

Concert, Inverleith House, 18/01/2015

Isolated thoughts about Lady Gaga

Lady Gaga: sure, she’s derivative. But so were her predecessors. The thing about Lady Gaga is that she is open about it. Madonna, her most obvious precursor, behaved as though nobody except Madonna had ever behaved like that. Whereas Lady Gaga’s genius, which makes her perhaps a greater artist than Madonna, is that she behaves as though she knows what it’s like to be a pop music fan because she is herself one. With Madonna, it’s a kind of shell game in which we’re supposed to not point out that she ripped off this look from Cyndi Lauper and that look from Marilyn Monroe. This is why Madonna’s work seems so corporate and impersonal. We can believe that Madonna herself wants it that way, but it looks the same as if it had been designed by a committee, because Madonna herself thinks like a committee. Whereas Lady Gaga’s brilliance is that her work, although openly derivative, has all the messiness and embarrassing degree of apparent overshare of indie music. She knows that her fans worry about her and care for her, whereas Madonna always behaved as though she doesn’t give a fuck and can overcome trouble with sheer force of will. Gaga dramatises her own trouble in her work: look at her mastery of new media like the long-form video (Marry the Night). Madonna’s effect is of ruthless self-will, whereas Gaga gives the impression of someone who’s constantly trying to reward her fans for their loyalty — there are stories of her buying pizza for fans queuing up at signings, which you really can’t imagine Madonna doing. (Madonna as modernist, compared to Gaga as postmodernist; Madonna is like T.S. Eliot, Gaga more like Frank O’Hara).

Isolated thoughts about Lady Gaga