Tag Archives: fall 2001

People Funny Boy: The Genius of Lee "Scratch" Perry

David Katz
Payback Press ($22.95)

by Mark Terrill

Reggae music was just one evolution in the colorful genesis of Jamaica's post-war musical history, which also included ska, dancehall, rock steady and other genres. But reggae was more than just pop music; it was also a part of the culture, and no extensive discussion of reggae music would be complete without also addressing post-colonialism, Rastafarianism, Jamaican politics, and the music business itself, in particular the Jamaican/English axis. David Katz covers all of these issues and more in this comprehensive and highly-readable biography of Lee "Scratch" Perry, "the Salvador Dali of reggae music," the result of years of research and interviews, approved and endorsed by Scratch himself.

Born into a poor family in rural Jamaica in 1936, Lee Perry worked a series of menial labor jobs, including a stint at a rock quarry, where he became fascinated with the thumping sounds of shifting boulders, and eventually had a vision about "King's Stone," resulting in his move to Kingston. He began working as an A& R man for various record labels, quickly establishing himself as an important discoverer and developer of potential talent, and went on to become an assistant producer in several of Kingston's studios, his talent and acumen for extracting the optimum sound and performance from seemingly raw talent earning him a wide reputation. In 1968, Scratch's self-produced "People Funny Boy" sold a staggering 60,000 copies, enabling him to buy a model S Jaguar, and establishing him as an independent producer.

In the early seventies, Scratch built his own studio, the legendary Black Ark, and began experimenting with "dub" music, in which versions of popular reggae songs were heavily reworked, removing the original vocal track, boosting the bass and drum tracks, and adding no end of effects. Originally these dub versions were used for the B-sides of singles, as alternate versions, but Scratch's unlimited imagination and penchant for experimentation elevated dub music to the level of art. The Black Ark Studio soon came to resemble a mixture of a mad scientist's laboratory and a pop music hit factory, producing a steady flow of chart-topping songs that helped establish the careers of Bob Marley, Max Romeo, Junior Murvin, and many others. Scratch, with his in-house band, The Upsetters, soon became one of the driving forces in the Jamaican music scene, and eventually he was sought out as a producer by such diverse musicians as Paul McCartney, John Martyn, Robert Palmer, and The Clash.

The growing popularity and ensuing workload, however—along with a steadily increasing intake of ganja and rum—soon began to take its toll on Scratch's sanity; as Jamaica's political situation degenerated into bloody anarchy, and Scratch sensed that he was not receiving commensurate recognition or financial compensation for his efforts, his grip on reality gradually began to slip. Added to this was Scratch's ongoing confrontation with Rastafarianism and his own bizarre personal cosmology. Eventually he became totally insufferable to all around him, alienating both his family and his large circle of musician-friends, resulting in a self-imposed exile on the grounds of the studio. One summer morning in 1983, the Black Ark was destroyed in a fire, the cause of which is still disputed, eventually becoming the stuff of legend.

Despite the obvious temptation to exploit the more sensational aspects of Scratch's life and career, Katz has written a factual, straightforward, yet lovingly compiled account of a highly eccentric character whose own remarkable life story requires no embellishment whatsoever. Katz's ability to balance detailed documentation with lively anecdotes provide for an absorbing yet entertaining read. At 536 pages, with extensive discography, bibliography and index, People Funny Boy is certainly destined to become the definitive biography of Lee Scratch Perry.

Eventually Scratch left Jamaica, and after various ill-fated projects and collaborations in Canada, America, Holland, and the UK, Scratch finally settled in Switzerland, where he still works in a home studio. There has been talk of reconstructing the Black Ark Studio in Jamaica, and work has actually begun, but it's doubtful if Scratch will ever be able to pick up where he left off, let alone exceed the seminal and complex nature of his incredible output in the seventies, work which has meanwhile found a broad resonance in a range of other genres, from American rap and hip hop to British punk, jungle, ambient and trip hop, from Japanese electronica to European avant-garde and techno. Regardless of what may lay in store in the future, Scratch's legacy will forever remain intact, solid as stone, steady as the groove in his masterpiece, "Roast Fish and Cornbread."

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001

Exiting Nirvana: A Daughter's Life With Autism

Clara Claiborne Park
Little Brown & Co. ($23.95)

by Thomas P. Kalb

There are quite a few books which detail the lives of autistic people. Some of them tell tales which are heart rending. Some of them relate stories of victory. Both of these types are useful in their own way, I suppose, but as the father of two autistic children I have found that it is useless to give way to despair and unhealthy to wait on miracles. That is why Exiting Nirvana , like Kenzaburo Oe's A Personal Matter, has become so important to me. Forbearance may be the key to living with autism—and perhaps the key to living itself.

Clara Park—the mother of Jessy Park, who is the subject of the book—says, quite simply, "Autism is a lifetime condition." Those words struck me quite powerfully. Jessy's story is not one of great victory. She is now in her forties, and continues to have difficulties in her day-to-day living. Sometimes she'll berate a stranger who is sitting in "her" seat at a restaurant. She does not seem to understand love in a romantic sense. She becomes frustrated or overwhelmed at her job in the mailroom.

On the other hand, Clara Park makes it clear that Jessy's life is full of joy and humor and beauty. I laughed aloud several times during the course of Exiting Nirvana, and was often stopped in my tracks by Jessy's observations on the world (e.g., "The hangman hangs by the clothespin because of new politeness"). Four reproductions of Jessy's paintings are included in this book (five if you count the cover), and they too are striking to behold. The colors are oddly wrong, yet interesting, and the attention to detail (a common attribute among people with autism) is stunning.

This is not just a story for people who have autism in their lives, however. It is a story for anyone who has a kind heart and a sincere joi de vivre. I read this book aloud to my eleven-year-old (and ostensibly normal) son over the course of a month and a half, and though there were times when we had to stop to discuss some of the more difficult and semi-technical passages, what he took away from this book was well worth the time we invested: a sincere appreciation for the humor and beauty of a woman named Jessy Park.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001

Who Killed Classical Music?

Maestros, Managers, and Corporate Politics
Norman Lebrecht
Birch Lane Press ($24.95)

by Richard Kostelanetz

Scarcely dead, Norman Lebrecht is a prolific British writer who is a "music columnist" for the London Daily Telegraph, which isn't the London Times, and the author of a desultory Companion to Twentieth-Century Music (1993), among other earlier books. His real subject, or at least the inspiration of his best writing, is not classical music per se but the music business. In this respect, his latest book, Who Killed Classical Music?(1997) resembles his earlier The Maestro Myth (1991) in epitomizing his talents. Since this new volume is, in my opinion, the strongest book about the business of classical music since Virgil Thomson's The State of Music (1938), I wish its American publisher had more experience at music books.

Lebrecht's assumption, which I take to be true, is that no one really understands classical music unless he or she knows what happens between the performer on one hand and the listener on the other. And so he reveals what music managers do, how certain maestros exploit institutional power, what happens to record companies that are swallowed by conglomerates, how sheet-music publishers have power, and what motivates the promotions of record companies. In printing stories that have long been only heard, often filling them out, Lebrecht names names and traces connections. For instance, his story of the decline of Columbia Records after the Sony takeover is classic business journalism.

Because he respects the validity of his approach, Lebrecht does major research. Many earlier writers lamented that Arthur Judson had a stranglehold over American classical performance between 1920 and 1960 roughly, functioning as both the manager of the New York Philharmonic and the proprietor of a major performers' agency, Columbia Artists Management Inc. (In other words, he was selling his own clients to an organization he ran.) However, no one has written the Arthur Judson story so completely, down to its denouement. Margaret Truman's 1948 complaint to her agent (who said tell your daddy) set in motion the legislative machinery that resulted in anti-trust laws.

The biggest villain in this history is not Judson or Walter Legge, a British record company chief who also owned an orchestra, but Herbert von Karajan, who controlled publicly funded performing organizations in Europe (e.g, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Salzberg Festival, etc.), running up expenses with eleemosynary indulgence. Once he possessed orchestras he could have them produce discs, taking the vulture's share of royalties for himself and rerecording favorite pieces for every new technology until he died (digital LPs, CD, videotape, laserdisc). In addition to making it difficult for other conductors to record with his orchestras, von Karajan also drove up the prices that he would be paid and thus other conductors wanted.

The reason for the impending death of classical music is that the superstars, by monopolizing public attention and then available funds for performance and record-company contracts, have shut out successors, creating a culture in which a few succeed while everyone else declines. "There would be no more Kathleen Ferriers, Joan Sutherlands or Jacqueline de Pres, because their nursery playground had been sold to developers and turned into a parking lot." You'll never listen to a von Karajan record again without hearing the sound of money clinking in the background.

Lebrecht's cultural anxiety is justified—obviously true—but he doesn't see far enough to know that similar misfortunes are happening in the other arts: certainly in book publishing, probably in modern dance, perhaps in painting and sculpture. He writes, "Success, in music as in business, is a matter of timing, of being the right person in the right place at the right time. More cruelly than commerce, though, classical music only ever gives you one shot." This one-shot principle accounts for why too much publishing promotion, say, and thus book reviewing concentrates upon people who had once written a single great book—who had once been Big—to the detriment of new discoveries. My neighbors in Manhattan's SoHo tell me that no artist ever becomes Big unless his or her initial exhibition happens in one of only a few prominent galleries. In the opening-shot world, too much cultural presence depends upon the efficacy of one's first fire.

My own opinion is that the elevation of a few, at the expense of many, is the inevitable result of optimal merchandizing at a time of fewer prominent production outfits, most of them controlled by companies that do other things, at a time when more money can be made from good-selling culture, coupled with the lack of support for smaller alternatives by both the sophisticated public and those high-minded agencies purportedly representing the public. In this last respect, the death of culture is caused as much by the default of many as the machinations of a few.

In the course of pursuing his themes, Lebrecht sheds plenty of original light on the careers of such classical superstars as Luciano Pavarotti, Isaac Stern, and Leonard Bernstein; the record producers Walter Legge and Goddard Lieberson; the seduction of cigarette companies as benefactors; the generous support of European governments (only after 1960); the concert agency developed by a sports promoter, etc. This is the sort of book to which I expect to return, if only for Lebrecht's new information and unique insights. (I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the book reminds me of my own The End of Intelligent Writing (1974), which is likewise exposed middlemen's machinations to document a cultural closing down that, decades later, is continuing. Alas, my book does not appear in Lebrecht's otherwise useful bibliography.)

One business truth demonstrated here is that record companies often lose money on the stars they think essential. "When the accountants came to look at dollars and common sense, they found that the only individual [Leonard] Bernstein discs to make money were his Christmas specials," Lebrecht writes. "Tchaikovsky war-horses and sentimental lollipops. Given the same promotion, these records could have been made at a tenth of the cost with a hick conductor and Pomeranian orchestra and sold in equal numbers." The classical discs that really made money were the surprising best-sellers, such as, for recent examples, "Chant" by humble monks and Gorecki's "Third Symphony," both of which were produced cheaply.

In his provocative conclusion, Lebrecht compares classical music to the business of sport, which likewise once depended mostly upon patronage by the wealthy but has since become more commercial. Just as record companies desperately need once-prominent stars, so do baseball-basketball teams, even if salaries paid these stars undermine not only current financial health but the prospects of a team. Like all good business journalists Lebrecht writes less about success than failure that is caused not by innocent idealism but cynical miscalculations. Anyone who thinks himself or herself sophisticated about classical music will learn something significant from this richly detailed book; I certainly did.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001

Ava's Man

Ava's Man by Rick BraggRick Bragg
Knopf ($25)

by Jonathan Shipley

Family—it's all we are and all we really have at the end of the day. The people that make up your family can come and go quietly or they can explode into your life, and as the family history is passed on generation to generation, the stories become richer. My great (several times over) grandfather John Billington came over on the Mayflower, but he wasn't what you'd call a well-heeled Pilgrim. Honestly, he was a rapscallion, a ruffian, a scamp. He bothered Miles Standish to no end. His son nearly lit the Mayflower on fire, and his child also got lost in the woods and was taken care of for a short while by Indians. John shot and killed a man, was found guilty of murder, and is thought to be the first white man executed in the New World. Not exactly the upstanding Pilgrim we read about as kids, but he's family, and his story makes me smile every time I think of it. Rick Bragg, I'm sure, has a similar feeling when he thinks of his grandfather, who is celebrated in Bragg's newest memoir, Ava's Man.

Bragg, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of All Over but the Shoutin', a wonderful account of his mother, continues to look into his family history with the story of Charlie Bundrum, his mother's father. Charlie is a man you wish you could have been around when you were growing up. He was a man to admire, to follow to work as he roofed another house, a man to sneak looks at through the weeds as he checked his moonshine still, a man to hold hands with on the way back from catching catfish from a boat he made from car hoods.

The bulk of the story takes us back to the Great Depression in the Appalachian foothills. Charlie and his wife Ava raised seven children during the Depression, moving again and again trying to find work, trying to stay ahead of the poverty line. He made sure his kids never went to bed hungry, made sure they always had a roof over their head, and made sure they were safe, always. "Charlie had, in the tradition of his own daddy, been hard on his two boys, but they respected him. ‘My daddy is a man,' they would always say when somebody said something about him, about his drinking, his sideline whiskey making, his raggedy overalls. They learned to be men by watching him, the good and the bad."

That's what Rick Bragg has done in this tribute to his grandfather—showed him in the light of day, the good parts and the bad. But Charlie Bundrum was mostly made of the good parts. Bragg, a wonderfully homey writer, like someone just having a conversation on paper over lemonade, brings a life to life, delivering immediacy to events that took place long ago. Like Frank McCourt and Willie Morris, Bragg is a writer who makes you want to tell your own stories—like the story of that rascal on the Mayflower.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001

An Argentine Passion: María Luisa Bemberg and Her Films

An Argentine Passion: Maria Luisa Bemberg and Her Filmsedited by John King, Sheila Whitaker, & Rosa Bosch
Verso ($20)

by Brian Aurand

An Argentine Passion is a thorough and rewarding study of the life, politics, films, working relationships, and critical receptions of the highly successful and influential director, María Luisa Bemberg. It combines background into Argentine culture, history, and politics, highly detailed and poignant readings of Bemberg's films, and her own words. Its primary task lies in setting contexts from which to read Bemberg's cinema and the multiple levels on which it questions authoritarianism in Latin America and the world, both in the past and the present.

María Luisa Bemberg was born in 1922 to a family of significant wealth and international renown, and died in 1995. She married, had children, and later divorced. In 1970, at the age of 48, she worked as a screenwriter on her first film. Ten years later, she directed her first feature, a task which, as Gabriela Massuh asserts, "was like deciding to be a general at a late age when you have never been in the army."

Throughout her 11 films (as a screenwriter and/or director) María Luisa Bemberg's targets and motives have remained constant, even while her critical methods have been adapted to each particular subject. The address of her films attempts to counter the abuses of authority by the patriarchal triangle of family, church, and state in Argentine society. Her highly popular filmmaking has focused on institutional transgressions against women and the various ways in which women have transgressed the taboos and restrictions established by those institutions.

This book is edited by John King, author of Magical Reels: A History of Cinema in Latin America; Sheila Whitaker who first brought Bemberg's films to Britain; and the producer of The Buena Vista Social Club, Rosa Bosch. Here they have collected essays with a wide scope and pertinent detail, as well as personal reminiscences of those who worked closely with Bemberg, that teach much about this Argentine and her films. What comes through is how much she has touched and changed, intellectually and emotionally, everyone who has ever worked with her. As the assistant director Mercedes García Guevara writes, "I gave up trying to understand her. She was complex, unfathomable, sometimes adorable and sometimes disturbing. Approximations aside, María Luisa is sorely missed."

In her arguably most successful texts, Camila (1984), Miss Mary (1986), and Yo, la peor de todas (1990), Bemberg confronts the family and the church in regard to the feminine and female desire, dissidence, and scandal. Through purely filmic narrative, she intervenes in these issues in a way that demands the medium itself be fully explored. Framing and camera distance are always linked. Camera angle and editing (linear and non-linear) make it almost impossible to translate her work from film to another presentation. This alone has been seen as one of her true strengths. As well, her character development—from the aristocratic Camila O'Gorman, executed for seducing and running away with a priest, to the transgressive nun Sor Juana, Mexico's most celebrated colonial poet and thinker, who writes her confession in her own blood in Yo—goes far beyond one-sided portrayals of issues of gender and individual freedom.

One of the major questions surrounding Bemberg's work is the very nature of her overt feminism and the extent to which it functions in a reductive or Manichaen manner. Finely detailed, thorough, and at moments quite eloquent readings of Miss Mary, Yo, and De eso no se habla by Elia Geoffrey Kantaris, Denise Miller, and Kathleen Newman, respectively, support the point that her view was utterly complex. Bemberg's main characters are all women, but the filmic positioning and level of audience identification she allows with these leads are never simple. In Miss Mary, for example, Kantaris argues that we have a "subtly evoked metonymic web of interlocking power structures" rather than a simple opposition between men and women. And, in her reading of Yo, Miller pinpoints the very complexity between helplessness, abdication, denial, surrender, orchestration, and capitulation in response to love and knowledge brought out by the film. With these and other cases, this book goes a long way to argue against reductivist and binary understandings of this filmmaker.

These interpretations work as well to call attention to the relationship between Bemberg and the thought of Octavio Paz, Pedro Almodóvar, and Silvina Ocampo. Traces of Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan are drawn out here. Comparisons are made to François Truffaut and Roman Polanski. Particularly interesting is Newman's political reading of Bemberg in comparison with directors Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabío from Cuba and Francisco Lombardi from Peru. She argues that while these four directors present differing versions of the permeability of the nation state in their films from the early to mid 1990's, all of them call into question the earlier equivalence between the state and the populace functioning as the norm in much New Latin American cinema. Such a reading, then, places Bemberg in a select category of directors who have refused to acquiesce in their challenges of abusive structures at any and all levels. Rather, as we see argued throughout this fine collection, Bemberg continued this very confrontation of the hegemony of the nation state as it comes into contact with global capitalism to the end of her life.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001

Positively 4th Street | Song and Dance Man III

Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard Fariña
David Hajdu
Farrar, Straus & Giroux ($25)

Song and Dance Man III: The Art of Bob Dylan
Michael Gray
Continuum ($35)

by Chris Fischbach

Earlier this month, Bob Dylan released Love and Theft, an album saturated with old blues, folk, and rockabilly. In some sense, it is a continuation of his previous album, Time Out of Mind, but juicier, quicker, and more electric. It has been many years since the American public has eagerly awaited the newest Dylan album to listen to "what's next," or to how he will continue or recover from his past mistakes or successes. In the great albums of the sixties and seventies, Dylan's lyrics and music reflect his struggle to make room for himself in the canon of American Folk music; these days, he has arrived, finally, and his lyrics and music display a solid and wise confidence as Dylan and his music slowly fade into the background of a tradition. Fade, that is, in the best sense of becoming entrenched in the folk consciousness. There is very little Bob Dylan in these latest albums, as there was, say, in Blood on the Tracks or Another Side of Bob Dylan. These days, Dylan the artist matters much less than the work. As they say: don't trust the singer; trust the song.

In the flurry surrounding his sixtieth birthday, it was difficult to open a newspaper or variety magazine and not find an in-depth article or retrospective on Bob Dylan. Subsequently, two books of note were published (one of them re-published) to add to the fray and to provide a launching pad for discussion. David Hajdu's Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard Fariña is perhaps the more glamorous, the more readable and gossipy of the two. It is, in fact, not a Bob Dylan book, as the author has so fervently indicated in interviews. I will only concede Hajdu this point because it happens to be true; however, the book is entitled Positively 4th Street, and it was released to coincide roughly with Dylan's sixtieth birthday. Granted, Hajdu may have had nothing to do with that decision, but writers shouldn't be blind to the fact that their publisher's actions will cast meaning onto their books and do point critics and reviewers in certain directions. As they say: trust the book, not the publisher.

In any event, it's not a Bob Dylan book, or so says this reviewer. Rather, as its subtitle clearly states, it's a book about the lives and times of four intriguing people—and possibly it's not even a book about them. Positively 4th Street is a seamlessly written multibiography of the rise of these four musicians into stardom (or in case of Mimi and Richard, semistardom; or in the case of Richard specifically, semistardom and then cult icon). It's more or less written chronologically, but their individual biographies are woven in and out of each other with graceful juxtaposition. You can see Dylan and Baez closing in on each other's lives before they even meet, written as though it weren't history, but destiny. Then they do meet, sing together, live together, and split up. In the meantime, a wide array of "minor characters" serves to introduce and connect them to Richard Fariña and Mimi Baez, also seemingly destined to be together. Hajdu's triumph is to create a sort of rhizomatic scheme out of history that plays out in a disruptive, jump-cutting narrative, not unlike a slightly more cohesive version of Robert Altman's Short Cuts or even a Joseph Cornell assemblage.

More important than any of these four individuals, however, is the biography that does emerge: that of a single, symbolic unit, a sort of chimera of artists who feed off each other, love and use each other, learn from each other, and break each other's hearts. All, it seems, at least between the covers of this book, destined; all, it seems, because of Hajdu's terrific display of historical narrative (or historical narrative manipulation), destined to define an era. Thus, Positively 4th Street is also a biography of that era. The characters are less important than the details of how they interact with each other, and how that interaction is an accurate and concise depiction of how folk music disseminates, is passed down, and how it remains vital to a contemporary culture. The most valuable scenes in the book may be the details of certain sets played with certain musicians; which songs they taught each other and then how those songs were bent and twisted to create something new. Hajdu's book is a sure classic of American popular history in part because it never takes on its topics directly, but dances beautifully around them.

If David Hajdu's triumph is of precise and accurate evasion, Michael Gray is victorious for the opposite reason: He takes Bob Dylan (or, more precisely, his art) head on, and has thoroughly saturated his subject. Song and Dance Man III: The Art of Bob Dylan is a monster of a book. On my desk it sits right next to the Merriam Webster's dictionary, and I see that they are almost identical in size and shape. I lift them up: Song and Dance Man is heavier.

This is not a book for the casual reader or the dilettante Dylanist. It is more properly a reference book, and the office of its ideal reader would include the following: every Bob Dylan album, a list of every live set Bob Dylan has ever played (yes, this is supposedly available), fifty or so "essential" bootlegs, an immense collection of pre-war blues and folk records, Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, the entire Smithsonian folk and blues collection, and access to the internet with a high-speed connection and bookmarks set to roughly twenty-five vital websites. In other words, this is a book that should be plugged into the wall. If you own anything less than these items, you will sometimes feel woefully inadequate while reading this book. On the other hand, if you would love to have all of the above, this is the book for you.

Originally published in 1972, the second edition of Song and Dance Man appeared in 1981, and this is its third incarnation. Each edition has added a significant amount of pages leading up to this manifestation, which the author says he hopes "is a benign kind of labyrinth or city-state."

The book does not aim to investigate the music of Bob Dylan; instead it focuses almost exclusively on the lyrics, except when a discussion of the music is applicable or can be used to elaborate the lyrics. Gray's investigation takes aim at the lyrics from many different directions and points of view. A brief and selected list of the chapters will give you an idea: "Dylan and the Folk Tradition"; "Dylan and the Literary Tradition"; "Dylan and Rock Music"; "Dylan's Use of Language: Towards Complexity"; "Dylan's Use of Language: Towards a New Simplicity"; "Lay Down Your Weary Tune: Drugs and Mysticism"; "The Coming of Slow Train"; "Even Post-Structuralists Oughta Have the Pre-War Blues"; "Nursery Rhyme", "Fairy Tale", and "Under The Red Sky." Each chapter, then, approaches the lyrics from a different perspective, incessantly illustrating just how deeply Bob Dylan's lyrics are entrenched in folk music, blues, poetry, the Bible, nursery rhymes, and fairy tales. No New Critic, Gray painstakingly compares Dylan's lyrics with the words from those other traditions. (Some of these comparisons lead to another invaluable asset of this book, the citation of old records: name of artist, title of recording, place, date, catalogue number, year of issue, re-issue, and so on. I would venture to guess that there are at least a thousand of these listings.)

The result of Gray's thorough tracking down of the sources for Dylan's lyrics is, to this Dylan fan at least, astounding. The point that begins to emerge is that many of the lines you thought Dylan wrote have probably existed in some form or another for at least a hundred years, and have appeared variously in scores of other songs. This is, after all, how traditions work. But Gray is quick to point out once again why Dylan is a genius, in case you thought for a minute otherwise. One of his main theses is that Dylan uses blues lyrics from the past almost never verbatim in his blues songs, but instead employs the exact lyrics in his non-blues songs (though on the recent Love and Theft, it's as if Dylan is deliberately defying Gray's claim, often employing well-known blues lyrics clearly and loudly). This, by itself, would be more of a remarkable observation than a valuable breakthrough if Gray did not then convincingly argue and show how Dylan does this with tradition after tradition, making his electrifying of folk music seem emblematic of what Dylan is doing to the whole of folk language and culture. Which makes Dylan, to Gray's mind, something like a master fusionist and storehouse of folk knowledge. It's unlikely a reader of this book will not walk away from it convinced that Bob Dylan has a mind and a memory that contains all of the biblical scriptures, and all of folk and blues music, word for word—and not just that he has it all memorized, but that he understands it.

As huge in size and scope as the book is, I feel the need to mention that it is also fun to read. Many of Gray's footnotes, for example, contain out-of-critical-character passages—such as this one, responding to his own negative assessment of "Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands":

When I read this assessment now, I simply feel embarrassed at what a little snob I was when I wrote it. In contrast (and paradoxically), when I go back and listen, after a long gap, to Dylan's recording, every ardent, true feeling I ever had comes back to me. Decades of detritus drop away and I feel back in communion with my best self and my soul. Whatever the shortcomings of the lyric, the recording itself, capturing at its absolute peak Dylan's incomparable capacity for intensity of communication, is a masterpiece if ever there was one. It isn't like listening to a record: it enfolds you, to use a word from the song itself, in a whole universe.

There are many such retractions, confessions, and corrections, which lend to the book a sense of its own history and place in Dylan literature. This is accentuated by a brief, eerily self-reflexive chapter describing the state and history of Dylan criticism itself, often detailing other authors' reactions to the very book you are reading. It's that way. But one of the most astounding assertions Gray makes is one that he only briefly brings up, then drops. While discussing Dylan's lyrics in the context of Paul Auster's novel City of Glass, he writes, "The following passage too rubs shoulders with Dylan's own remarks on the relation between Bob Dylan and his creator, Robert Zimmerman." This assertion, if you can call it that, begs for an explication we never get, and we can only hope that it points to a major new section for a fourth edition of Song and Dance Man.

Readers of these books can, however, always set them down and just listen to the music, ignoring history, biography, and interpretation. As they say: Don't follow leaders, watch your parking meters.

Click here to purchase Positively 4th Street at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase Song and Dance Man III at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001

The Weather

UnknownLisa Robertson
New Star Books ($12)

by Jen Hofer

It felt like dense fog. What is fact is not necessarily human. Memory
anticipates. Authority flows into us like a gel. We cross the border to confront
the ideal. Streaky cloudy at the top of the sky.

The weather is a condition, an atmosphere, a reflector, a manner of addressing the space. Language chasing language chasing thought. Through variegated fields in smooth trips, tripping agile acrobatics as trapeze, lovely ease with some catch. As readers of the weather we are caught in the syntax of broken cloud movement, in the desire for accuracy of description, emotion, perception, belief, in the space outside our bodies, within which our bodies occupy an inquisitive niche. Figures, objects, forms, bodies: the space between or formed by, the space along the edge of, occupied by, held open for: shifting elements in an expanse. The weather is an evaporating theory, tide-like frontal recession advancing in subtle maneuvers, negotiated minute reportage tinged with largesse....

we excavate a non-existent era of the human. Everything is being lifted into
place. Everything is illuminated; we prove inexhaustibility. Far into the night
an infinite sweetness; beyond can be our model.

As a model, diffuse: as a sky. As a model, an antecedent diffuses roughly or refuses. In words the weather corrects itself cumulatively, meanings more placed than replaced in a text ribboning out—jutting forth, doubling back—beyond itself. "Pattern undercuts the slamming heat; we speak into the dark and make corrections: Shadow for Hour. Tantrum for Lyre. Lure for Lights Curious for Lucid. Door for Bridges When accuracy comes it is not annihilated; we're economical with our sensation." The accuracy of the weather: not static. As a model, as a mode, as a mutant spiral doubling back into rigorously formless patterning: "Every system's torn or roughened. Every surface discontinuous. Everywhere we are tipping our throats back, streaming and sifting." The weather a form of praise, a form of forming, a form of sincerity, a forum for noticing within the confines of time and place: the days of the week, a residency, inhabiting time and tone, logic's lodging and longitude under cover or consideration, a porch, some verse, perseverance.

Sometimes, just what I praise, I believe. Words
take a verity to paradise.

The paradise of veracity tilts, flickers, stutters like snapshots in sequence. Description feeds: voracious nourishment in repeated attempts, belief the casualty, belief the cause, belief the hinge, no ease in paradise. "Not for whom do we speak but in whom. Umpteenth agony. We rest on the uncertain depth. Speak to us non-responders. Where can a lady embrace something free blithe and social. By our own elasticity." The weather is on and in and through the world: the social adorns, the social pokes through, the social a discussion before belief. Experience filtered through the weather or the weather a window through which to read experience: the weather a log, the weather an incident, the weather an insistence, the weather the attempt the description the nourishment the beyond.

Sometimes I want a corset like
to harden me or garnish. I
think of this stricture—rain
language, building—as a corset: an
outer ideal mould, I feel
the ideal moulding me the ideal
is now my surface just so very
perfect I know where to buy it and I
take it off. I take it off.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001

Time and Again: Poems 1940—1997

Edwin Honig
Xlibris ($16)

by Henry Gould

Edwin Honig has a flair for drama. His multidimensional poetry manages a speaking voice with a large, fluent vocabulary, both slangy and erudite. His poems are often staged: a dramatic situation leaps to the fore. Here are the concluding lines of "The Gift":

Free! Free! The round voice sings,
mad as a bell swinging with joy,
then stops. Quick! Quick! before eyes

fail against the final wall, let him
know what joy is, in his heart—
the stranger's heart that eagerly
sang out of him, and stopped.

"The Gift," within the confines of 18 lines, sets up a dream-like encounter between the speaker and "a stranger with a baby face" sitting naked and smiling in a locked room, in a pool of his own blood. The drama serves a symbolic function: an embodiment of the otherness of inspiration, akin to possession or speaking in tongues. The process of dramatizing brings together many of Honig's perennial concerns: his fascination with allegory, parable, storytelling; his obsession with the self and its self-delusions (evident in his poetry, and in his translations of Fernando Pessoa); and his immersion in theater proper (his translations of Calderon, his essays on Ben Jonson and the Elizabethans, and his own short plays in prose and verse). Honig's technique involves setting a scene, suddenly, decisively. Within that scene a voice bubbles forth: the voice of a 20th-century Brooklyn Jewish-American, who unites the studied stateliness of Prince Hal with the rambunctiousness of Falstaff. In the short poem "Late, Late," these opposing aspects are muted but subtly present: a restricted, iconic movement combined with an expansive vocabulary.

In the palehaired fields of August
sunlight gravely brushes
poppies, blackeyed daisies,

rusted roses gallivanting
up an old abandoned cellarway
into the open sky.

A peach tree, hunched and mossy,
hard fruit speckled, stiff,
grows near the absent barn.

Red chevrons flashing,
blackbird gangs swell by.
The titmouse follows idly.

Is it their passing darkens
wild mustard, carrot, parsley?
Is it daylight shadows falling?

A first nightstar trembles.
The sickle moon advances
with a special cunning.

"Late, Late" is a concise example of the strain of elegiac mourning which is pervasive in Honig's writing, and is found in combination with two important counter-tones: a streak of bitter, black humor, and a quieter voice of metaphysical hope. This collection of over 50 years' work shows particularly clearly how the poet's muse is framed by death: from the death of his young brother, hit by a truck while the two boys were crossing a street (in the 1920s), to the death of his first wife (in the 1960s), to the sense of political and cultural death (during the Vietnam War era and after), to the lonely confrontation with aging and dying faced by all (in the 1990s). His young wife's passing triggered a whole range of writing, from brief poems to verse plays, stemming from the myth of Orpheus. This section, from a sequence called "Another Orpheus", seems especially moving:

Her Remoteness

We sat in the lamplight's quiet estimation
of our wavering unanswered fire, one moment
in our living brimful glass
containing each of us, each as yet untouched,
unbroken, asking, Who
will drink us if we do not drink each other?
And neither of us stirred.


It is a light lingering on a sill
as I lie half-awakened on a summer morning
sunk in the weighted gladness
of my beached body still awash and unreleased
by the dark tide of sleep
till I advance a hand to touch the light and it
withdraws however far I reach and disappears.

Honig sometimes frames his mournful, rueful, bittersweet intonation in large, ambitious long poems. Most powerfully in Four Springs (a book-length poem modelled in part on Louis MacNeice's Autumn Journal) and Gifts of Light, he expands toward impersonality and objectivity—satirical and social (Four Springs) or a Beethoven-like, metaphysical sublimity (Gifts of Light). The latter poem swells finally into hymn:

Pulsing in the eye and ear
rhythms calling
inner to outer being
are gifts bestowed by light

In the intricate tasks of day
the fishing in
and hauling up
of joys and pains
are gifts bestowed by light

In the endless castings
of the fisher's lines
the slicing of the scalpel
into flesh
are gifts bestowed by light

all of these and more
are of the gifts
bestowed by light

This massive collection is the testament of a survivor, and a record of 20th-century American poetry. Reading Honig through 50 years, one can trace his early apprenticeships, not only to Stevens, Lowell, MacNeice, and Dylan Thomas, but also to the Spanish modernists and European surrealists. One can follow the deepening of his own idiosyncratic vision and manner, while, at the same time, his precise, consistent mastery of diction flows into looser and more flexible forms. In this process he shares the developments of his generation: yet there are ranges of shaped experience which are complementary to, but different from, those of his peers (for example, Berryman or Lowell). Honig was both more cosmopolitan and more isolated: his translations of Spanish and Portuguese literature are known and performed widely around the world; his deep kinship with a Mediterranean—Moorish—Hebraic past filters into his work in distinctive ways; and his quiet life in provincial Rhode Island tempered his poetry with a plangent, meditative quality. For example, here is the beautiful short poem which concludes the volume:

Hymn to Her

The load you take
is dense, backbreaking
and mistaken.

It can be otherwise:
and in full light
wholly undertaken,

the load is slim,
and to the one that
takes it, bracing—

owed to none but
for the life
that lifts awakened.

Note the meticulous, elegant shape of the sentence working against the stanzas, and how right the rhymes are. This lyric by an aging, ailing man sums up a lifetime's commitment in a hopeful key, and declares it good. Hopefully Edwin Honig's dramatic presence and inimitable voice will find many new readers (and listeners) as the new century unfolds.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001

Shake Hands

Shake Hands by Carl ThaylerCarl Thayler
Pavement Saw Press ($10)

by Reno Lauro

The poetry of Carl Thayler has been largely ignored for the past 30 years, but what a mistake that has been. A man of diverse talents and concerns, Thayler grew up in Southern California. During the '50s he acted in several B-movies—the Hollywood press even touted him once as the next James Dean, much to Thayler's chagrin. Deciding to leave the mills of visual opportunism, he eventually moved to the Midwest to study philosophy and pursue poetry. Over the years, his creative life would be extended by friendships with Dexter Gordon, George Oppen, Paul Blackburn, and Howard McCord, among many others. After his first book, The Providings, was published in 1971, he continued writing, testing himself and his art. But without formal publication his work receded behind an onslaught of writing in the 1970s and '80s that would change the concerns of poetry. The brazenly theoretical and social concerns that became the motivating forces of experimental poetry in those years extended a stark contrast to Thayler's perceptive and personal investigations. Both by temperament and the process of his art, he worked in growing isolation.

On the heels of last year's Poems from Naltsus Bichidin (Skanky Possum Press), Shake Hands presents a more personal and painful acknowledgement of the lonely American West. It's sustained by a focus on friendships and their dissolution with the passing of time. The deeply introspective arc of this work examines close bonds between friends, and the inevitable conflict of those relations as they are played out according to their geographic and historic conditions. "Friends…defined a world," Thayler says in the foreword, "I mean literally defined a world as surely as any instrument of thought might map various placements among which one's attentions might trace, or rationalize, lines of perception and activity." Thayler takes us on a journey—gritty, bawdy and, at times painful—of a life and world lost.

Like the line-drawn specter that graces the cover we are left with questions, unsure how to read what we see. Is Shake Hands meant to paint a picture or is the intent to tear one down? Thayler is a tactician versed in literature, landscape, and music. Like a Merle Haggard song, he artfully pieces together verse using skillful rifts and edges that leave one in a morose middle ground where the joy of remembrance is haunted by longing and regret.

Mercy—umbrage taken at your minimalist love? Well here's your drowned world in a seashell—bandy it about as you have my heart, my dreams, & that's only a slurred summary.

Since love encourages defiance of shabby astral secrets: here's to my ruined liver, the glass raised in apology to the quips of excitable song birds.

There are also moments of lucidity and clarity when raw nerves are exposed and undercut by an ethereal level of reflection. In Poems from Naltsus Bichidin, Thayler tied loss and pain to the historic mythology of an American West. Here, there is a groundedness that comes with reflection and the attempted articulation of that experience.

I pray in bird-time, leap in toad-time, turn the corners of heaven in spider-time, perch on the left hand

of Him, thy most reclusive sky-crusader, the northern lights keen among my feathers. I am a saga in my own right, filling the breadth of thy Lord's palm,

I savor the wonderment of myself, token anthropologist, Ghost Dancer, slayer of the mathematical canon, lineage of One. Pure white crow.

Thayler's work reminds us what it is to be human. He knows the metaphysical wilderness and returns from it with new life. "Imago Mundi as malleable / as the world / by which I breathe / a glaze," he writes, sensitive to the craft of his art. His work retrieves the song of the earth. Thayler's acute sense of the lyric, his ear for music, and his truthfulness extend to us a necessary and compelling vision, one ready to be discovered by a new generation.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001


Standard Schaefer
Sun & Moon Press ($10.95)

by Jeffrey Julich

A stem cell from the fertilized embryo of a clone has replicated and spawned and given birth to a book of poetry: Nova, by Standard Schaefer.

Aristotle and the pre-scientific world used to believe in "spontaneous generation," that mosquitoes literally sprang up out of swamps, etc. Schaefer has tilled a Petri dish where meanings and images and story lines spring up ex nihilo out of the swirling concatenations of words he rubs together for flint sparks.

The book intertwines several epic-scale themes; one of them is the science of sub-atomic particles. Quarks and mesons, infamous for their paradoxical, seemingly impossible movement (they pass through each other, can be in two places at once), are the active metaphor for what avant-garde, experimental language does. And there are eggs, and ovals, and circles, and—

The science has a Popular Science feel to it sometimes, but that at least is not a remedial "Physics for Poets" credulity, and it is far from cold or dispassionate. Where another remarkable first book like Eleni Sikelianos's First Worlds, which also uses science as a main theme, can wax mythic in imagining a magnificent, primal Big Bang, or romanticized tectonic plate shifts—consequently a sort of naïve acquiescence to the P.R. the science industry is sending off about its heroic discoveries—Schaefer's scrambling of scientific vocabulary flattens its aggressive proselytizations in a way that leaves its packaging vulnerable to a healthy skepticism.

I read one main Nova storyline, carried across poems of different stylistic methods. The poetry is butch, chock-a-block with boys' stuff, guy talk ("the fist extending to darken the page," "the sting of silver nitrate then swallowed up in cowboy boots," "I sleep in my boots," "Nothing covers the scent of jism on your fingers like armed conflict or sympathy for the working man"). There is a father figure who is dimly glimpsed in the book's more ostensibly autobiographical opening series, "Fort" ("a shadow in a doorway like his father's back / but it was only a guess in his pajamas," "he reached for the roll of fifties and hundreds / kept in the glove box with the golf balls and pajamas," "sirens on the CB—and the old man's habit of high beams"), and as the realism recedes, that father becomes gradually "sublimated" or transformed into further and further distillations of male power figures: el conquistador, bosses ("My former employer") . . . What's left behind is the vacuum of a shadowy paternal silhouette other things try to fill ("laments he's merely an outline of a blunt mass," "In the male of the species, the memories of the man who was alive chiefly in his memory"). There is something elegiac at first about "Daddy go bye-bye."

In the book's second series, "Ovalness," a God father figure gets mixed up with tough male booziness ("God was not built in a bottle") and is put through Finegans Wake-like punning transformations ("Render under Asunder what is Asudder's. Unto Grog what is Grog's"). These are often aimed at The Lord's Prayer ("Our lather who is in curved and thick space, hollow is the sequential advance echoing through your name"), an easy target that might seem puerile or pointlessly blasphemous as anti-religion polemic, but which assumes poignancy when read as struggle with Papa.

The fathers become more and more cartoon-like and comical ("another hilly-billy king whose / context has gone madly insufficient"). He can be as big as Daddy once appeared, a Gulliver from a Lilliputian's eye view ("The tub in the sky where the giants wash their testicles," "the giant has never been extensive, only promiscuous," "bees beat juicy shadows around the nose of the giant") or gnomish. Eventually, the father-figure-comic-strips split and take on funny names, a Shem and Shaum-like, Vladimir and Estragon "general" and "groundskeeper" ("The groundskeeper was imposing, all shoulders and immaculate like a ceiling." "The general claimed to reach it . . . the Grounds Keeper to whom the pear merely occurred"; they're caught playing their boys' games with balls: "says the General over the pings of the pinball machine," sometimes sparring in debate: "According to the crows, one crow could destroy all of heaven, and according to the General, heaven is immune . . . . The Grounds Keeper maintains both are correct") where winner/loser would only be the end of a game enjoyable mainly while it lasts.

In time, these G-men (groundskeeper/general/giant) emerge to be yang-and-yang like facets of male identity ("the impossibility of giants and generals in the same room, much less the same man"). And then they start saying things, things that interweave the book's other major themes of science or grammatology: "'these black holes I call pronouns are but a blue thread . . .' —the Grounds Keeper"). The bigger they are, the harder they fall, and they must come to be undone by their man's work: "The grass eventually devastates the greenskeeper", as if the lawnmower and the thought of all that crabgrass finally did ‘im in.

After their defeat, episodic reappearances that developed sequentially, they are replaced: "the Faculty of Theology contradicts the greenskeeper . . . In place of the greenskeeper, a philosopher was sent". The speculative thinker male emerges out of the chromosomal male. But they were never really flesh-and-blood; they were parahuman ("A point made by the giant: stress on those days was placed on the parahuman aspect of the orgies").

This search for the disappearing/disappeared father, one of the Great Themes of literature—the Odyssey, after all, is the boy Telemachus's search for his father Ulysses—gets Hamlet-like in its spooky apparitions: "fleas so whereas He was once fire-clad now seems surrounded if gradually by ghosts." Indeed, the book opens with a palpable, lugubrious "There's something rotten in Denmark" sickliness: "malaria: bad air / brown wave after brown wave," a sort of Death in Venice sirocco. This is poetry written for a sick country.

There is much of the feel of Language Poetry here; indeed, it is Language Poetry, good Language Poetry. Except maybe not quite Language Poetry. Maybe Lingo Poetry. Or Jargon Poetry. Or Speech Therapy Poetry.

Whereas, for example, many Language Poets announced their intention to make a poetry of text and its printedness, a "grammatology" of language as opposed to the spoken, by casting up right to the surface of the poem a flotsam of linguistic terms that normally only refer to a text (the word "word", "letter," so on), Nova's occasional use of the same material ("Others fear the boards are as thick as a comma," "was it dash marks and vibrating diamonds / caught in the clock," "a dash mark carved through the skull," "the hyphen dividing the autotopsy [sic]," "a void between the letters and details of the window") treats these parts of speech and punctuation marks as surrealistically solid, and emotional. Jots and tittles turn into similar-shaped things: six-pointed asterisks into six-pointed snowflakes, "snow fell with no style / asterisks grew robust"; a typographic crescent shape into a quarter moon, "an aspirin in parenthesis / the aftermath of ellipsis / moon looming"; an etymology, "a tenth of an asteroid used for an asterisk"). The textual is on a plane side-by-side with things of the world.

The newness here is that this masculinity is not a phallic but perhaps rather a testicular maleness; not phallic, but "phatic" (another linguistic term, for the "uh-uh" and "yeah, yeah" fillers that keep a conversation going, here coupled with telling markers of maleness, such as measurements of size or shaft: "a million miles excrete a phatic inch," "shafts of a phatic if transitional species"). Almost lovingly, tenderly: "indentations in the grass / left by poised testicles."

The performance artist and sometimes film-maker Mathew Barney closes one of his Cremaster films with a strange shot: some weird, bumpy, infinity sign flesh protuberance fills the entire screen, squeezed through an opening. One realizes: balls. "The End" and closing credits will come down over or after a panoramic close-up of anonymous testicles. In his Cremaster opera film, a naked satyr has a Barbi's boyfriend Ken-smooth crotch but unmistakable, makeup-powdered scrotum, that tied to long ribbons at the ends of which are tied doves roosting on his shoulders. At his pantomime signal, the doves break into flight, pulling the ribbons in their wake.

Standard Schaefer is pioneering that same, disturbing, scrotal masculinity. In Nova, the ribbons the doves pull are the trails of meaning we're compelled to draw across the text. Nova's politicized manhood is to the male what feminism aimed to be to the female, a sort of liberatory explosion of imprisoning gender stereotypes.

There are some marvelous new slogans to put on our protest posters: "Taking off your clothes is not a revolution."

No wonder Nick Piombino was the judge who picked this book as the National Poetry Series winner: Piombino is a psychoanalyst by trade. It isn't often that Id writes a book. The book is strung together with a sort of fuzzy logic that's so fuzzy it's peach-fuzzy or stubbly like an unshaven chin.

I'm the boss here and this is an order. Buy Nova and read it . . . before it buys you.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001