Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Jesus Christ, Just In Time

If you don't have a sense of humor about your religion, then what you have is not religion.

Christ upon the cross
looked out upon Calvary.
The sweat on his brow mixed with dirt
from his face, and it dripped down to flop
on the Centurion's helmet.  The soldier
backed away.  He was bored.
He hated crucifixions. They were the worst duty;
he should have a better billet, maybe more salt for his beans,
a higher grade of wine.
There was a sound, suddenly, quite loud.  It was harp music.
It did not come from the small group of devotees
who claimed that the convict was some kind of messiah.
Yeshu Ben Joseph tilted his head as far as it would go.
"Could you get my iPhone?" he asked, looking down at the soldier.
The Centurion did not understand this request.
He had been squatting, using his spear to support his weight,
both hands wrapped around its polished wooden handle.
"Your WHAT?"
"It's in my loincloth," said Christ.  "I think it's stuck to my skin."
There was confusion in the Centurion's face.  He pulled himself up
wearily, hands clutching the spear.
The harp music continued.
"Mithras' Balls, make that go away!", the soldier cursed.
"Just get my iPhone out of my loincloth and put it to your ear." said Christ,
"Follow the sound.  As you can see, my hands aren't free."
The Roman, shrinking from his gory task,
nose all wrinkled, found a gleaming rectangle of mystery.
He put it to his ear.  His face twisted with confusion.
He looked up at the criminal on the cross.  The crown of thorns
was causing blood and sweat to drip down the man's chest.
Perhaps the criminal was really the Messiah. 
The Centurion shook his head, as if to dispel madness.
He held up the alien rectangle.
"It says it's your mother."
There was a pause.
Christ called down from the cross,
"Ma, I'm kinda busy right now."
The soldier held the device, but now terror
caused his eyes to blur.  HIs heart pounded in his chest.
The strange device was next to his face and the voice
was audible even to Christ on the cross.
"You haven't called me in a week!," the voice complained.
"What's wrong with you" said the soldier, "don't you revere your own mother?"
He looked at the small box, polished to unnatural sheen like
a jade mirror.  He had not noticed the figures on its surface, the many hieroglyphs.
Now they moved of their own volition.  The Centurion dropped the box as if scalded.
"It's a demon's toy!  I must fetch the Tribunaris!"
Before the soldier could move, his knees buckled.
He put his hands to his face and began to weep.
"I don't know why I feel this way!" he wailed.
Meanwhile, the object continued to make squawking noises.
"Ma!" Christ called down from the cross.  "Ma!  I'll call you back.
I promise.  It might take a couple days, but I promise I'll call you back!"

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Patience Stone: a film review

          You may view this film with an almost salacious glee if you have been in an abusive marriage where your thoughts and your voice were throttled by fear. 
         THE PATIENCE STONE will be your cinematic wet dream.
          The setting for the action is a nameless city in a nameless land.  There is a civil war between various militias.  Crazed men armed with assault rifles and rocket launchers careen through the blasted city in pickup trucks.  At night the tracers whizz and ricochet.
          The character called The Woman lives in a ruin of a house with her wounded, paralyzed husband.  She has sent her two children to her aunt's house.  Her husband can't talk, he can't even blink, but he is alive. The "doctors" say that the he might recover in two weeks, but the bullet hole in his neck isn't healing.  All The Woman can do is refill his IV drip, keep him hydrated, wash him and talk to him.  The Woman realizes, while talking, that she can say anything she wants.  She can speak the unspeakable.  She can speak truth.  She can tell her husband what an asshole he's been, treating her like dirt.  "The night we were married you were on me like an animal.  Then you were finished, just like that."  She mocks him, and by extension the males who share his culture.  They're all premature ejaculators.  "You've been excited so long you can't even get it out of your pants."
          Her husband becomes her Patience Stone, a legendary object into which you can pour all your pain.  When the stone has taken all of your suffering it falls to pieces and you are at last free of everything that has afflicted your spirit.  The Woman protects her husband, hides him from enemy militia fighters and builds a place of concealment in a closet.  Every time she leaves the house she says "Go to Hell!" or "Fuck You!"  If she had said these things in the old days her husband would have killed her instantly, without legal consequences.  

          As she drains her contempt and hostility into her personal Patience Stone a militia commander breaks into her house, searching for his enemies.  He is accompanied by a young soldier with a pronounced stutter. The Husband is hidden.  The commander is thinking about rape until The Woman tells him
she's a prostitute.  He thinks about killing her on the spot but he's busy with war.  He leaves after spitting on The Woman.
          Later the young man with the stutter returns and offers The Woman money for sex.  He can't be put off, his excitement is too great.  He topples on her prone body and ejaculates before he can get his pants off.  The Woman is upset but she's also amused.  There's something touching about this handsome orphan who can barely speak.  "Was this your first time?" she asks.  He nods.
          The Woman continues her one sided conversation with her staring husband.  Her pain, her rage, her bitterness come pouring forth.  "Fuck you," she tells him each time she leaves to fetch supplies.  "Go to Hell!"
          At this point I can say no more lest I enter spoiler territory.  This film is a profound indictment of patriarchal cultures everywhere.  I was privileged to see THE PATIENCE STONE with a friend who had suffered under such a system.  I could feel the release of her breath whenever The Woman said something that my friend would have said if she had been able to voice her feelings.
          The actress playing The Woman, Golshifteh Farahani, should walk on roads paved with Oscars.  But whether or not her performance is recognized is beside the point.  This is a great film, that, for all its message content, avoids the puerile and tendentious.  It doesn't preach and it never bores.  It is a suspense tale.  Will The Husband return to consciousness?  Does he hear his wife?  Will he kill her before she kills him?
          As The Woman's aunt says, "Those who don't know how to make love make war."
          A full five muskrats for this film, THE PATIENCE STONE.
Don't wait patiently.  Get it now!

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

I Quit Smoking...Again!

          The last time I quit smoking I stashed a pound of tobacco in a high shelf.  I put my Supermatic cigarette making machine next to the tobacco, and a box of filtered tubes next to the machine.  I wasn't fooling myself.  I planned on smoking again.  It was simply a matter of how long I could remain smoke-free before stress and sadness pushed me back to the bag of tobacco, the tubes and the machine.  Any time I wanted, I could make one cigarette or twenty.

          That box of goods sat on the shelf for about six months before I took it down and eased myself back into the habits of a regular smoker.  There is NO up-side to smoking.  In America people treat smokers like scum.  How can I exude self confidence in society when the reek of my clothing gives me away?  How can I teach classes and exude authority?  The social stigma is bad enough but the health risks are so astronomical that one must be utterly insane to smoke.  Yet there I was...again!  Smoking.

          It was the wheeze in my chest that did it: pushed me to the point where the stash of 'baccy and the fancy rolling machine went into a foul dumpster, never to be seen again.

          I wheezed so badly that I kept myself awake.  My god!  It was as if I had John Philip Sousa and a brass band in my upper chest and they were tuning up before a concert.   Tootle tootle whooo whoo!
Shut up, f'god's sake, I'm trying to sleep!  Realizing that I couldn't escape, that the wheeze and I were one and the same shook me deeply.

          Ending addiction is tough.  Addiction isn't about the substance, it's about the emotions that lead to the substance.  I'm going through a time in my life in which I am frightened and very sad.  My immediate problem will be to survive the onslaught of suppressed emotion.  Ending an addiction is like opening a Pandora's Box of hidden feelings.

          It is now March and I've been without tobacco since December.  I spent most of January in a state of terror and despair.  These are visceral emotions, they roil the guts and drain the energy from every day life.  I could recognize the intensity of these emotions as the product of release from addiction.  They had been stored in my psyche, but my smoking rituals had kept them at bay.  Now I had no comforting coffee n' smokes, no drive to work n' smokes, no smokes, period.  I had nothing but nicotine patches.  There was no avoiding these excruciating feelings.  Every day I woke up with a blue wave of terror emanating from my stomach.   After four or five weeks of this emotional sledge hammer I felt a slight easing of the weight. 

          Another month has passed and though I'm still frightened and sad, these feelings exist as bearable phenomena, like bad weather. 
          I can handle bad weather.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

When Did Artists Drop To The Bottom Rung Of The Social Order?

When I'm at a social gathering, talking to an attractive young lady, I am better prepared conversationally than I was in my naive younger years.  Such encounters depend upon time-honored gambits: you exchange names, express musical preferences, and soon it's time for the inevitable question: so, what do you do?
          To think; To THINK! that once upon a time I would blithely answer with some honesty.  Oh, I said smoothly, I'm a writer.
          I might as well have said "I carry herpes samples in petri dishes to labs where they test for new medicines in the ongoing struggle against the Herpes Simplex virus and, yes, I have been exposed, it's an occupational hazard."
          I'm a writer, I used to say, thinking that was the cool thing.  I kept my other vocation in reserve.  I was already embarrassed about being a musician and seldom confessed that I was one of THOSE.  My tattoos had been removed and I never..ever..wore any kind of hat but if we trace further back into the days of my youth we would find that time, yes...THAT time...when I would tell a girl I was chatting up at a party that I am a musician.  Well, I play drums among other instruments, uhhuh uhhuh..a little keyboard, and I do some songwriting.
          It is testament to my burgeoning maturity that I am no longer such a moron as to tell the truth in early- stage flirting conversation.  A writer!  What was I thinking?  Does anything sound more like simpering self-delusion?  Should I reveal that I sit around for most of the day tapping at a keyboard and sending query emails into that immense yet oh so tiny void that existed before the Big Bang, that place where nothing exists, not even intention and certainly not rejection slips of digital brevity?  I make less money than a janitor.  In fact, janitor is my day job, the one I can't quit lest I starve.  I will be asked politely what I have written and I must respond either cutely or sorrowfully.  I haven't published anything important, no best sellers I'm afraid.  Or I'm the guy that wrote ECHOES OF BOILING LOBSTER SCREAMS or YOUR TITS ALMOST SHOW COMPLETELY BUT YOU ALREADY KNOW THAT.  Or I'm the guy who's gotten filthy rich on the Young Adult wizard series YOUR MOUTH IS OPEN YOUR MOUTH IS OPEN YOUR MOUTH IS ALWAYS OPEN.  When I get around to writing the last of the series, YOUR MOUTH IS FINALLY CLOSED AND NOW WE KNOW WHY BECAUSE ITS REALLY AN UGLY THIN-LIPPED LITTLE MOUTH I will sweep my winnings into a tidy pile and depart for casinos run by The Sultan Of Brunei.  When I've lost all my money I will open a little business sharpening vampires' teeth.  I took that six month course at the online University Of East Oakland,"Sharpening Vampire Teeth: a growing lucrative field of dental specialization."
          I have two questions.  Did the calling of Artist take a precipitous drop in prestige or has it always been this way and perceptive artists are only now realizing that the world could give a shit if they're artists (THE WORLD DOESN'T CARE)?!!  I think it's a little of both but when I was last indeed put on the spot for "what do I do?" I experienced icy fingers of apathy creeping along the paths of my nerves and it hit me forcefully: artists are at the bottom of the pecking order artists are laughable poseurs artists are as honored as public masturbators.  I'm talking about REAL artists with real talent, those with soul-crushing passion and experience of the lethal dangers of the psyche. They don't count they never have counted. If there has ever been a time when they counted less it's right now.  Creative people no longer have even the shelter of those little camps they set up for creative people, camps called Mental Hospitals::::there are no more mental hospitals there's no place you can go if you're creative or even if you think you're creative.
          Things are really bad for a society when this happens.  It's like when they decide to kick out all the Jews.  An empire suddenly takes a nose dive when it kicks out its Jews. It happens every time. Jews are like that healthy intestinal bacteria, Jews are the Acidophilus of a society and when the Jews go so does the digestion. The Spanish Armada was drowned shortly after Spain expelled the Jews.  Without Jews there sets in intellectual and moral diarrhea..HEY!  I'M A JEW. I CAN SAY THIS!
          Yow.  I got carried away there.  I'm just so upset.  I don't tell people I'm a writer any more.   I hide my creativity.  That's really scary, when I'm embarrassed to be like one of those people who are psychic but don't admit it because they don't want to be seen as some kind of nut.  I'm not a nut5 bllleeeeh bllleeeehhhh I'm not I'm not I see dead people.  Okay, I'm an artist, I've said it.  I'm the guy at the health club who makes the wrong adjustment and gets thrown backwards off the treadmill, thrown sprawling on top of a weight bench that is currently occupied by a red haired red bearded three  hundred pound Judo instructor. I'm that guy.  Yeah, I'm that guy. 

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Some Notes On Being a Neglected Artist and Other Matters

        I love my books.  I've spent forty years writing a few books.  After I won my short story prize from Playboy, the book industry showed a lot of interest in my books.  This was twenty years ago.  The books weren't ready to be published.  I wasn't ready to be published.  I needed to revise all of my books another five or six times.  That's how I work.  Revisions, endless revisions.  Sometimes I'll encounter a structural problem and I won't know how to solve that problem.  Then, Eureka!, six months or six years later it comes to me in a flash.  I discover how to solve that problem.  This happened with my sci fi novel, THE GODS OF THE GIFT (  I had a problem.  I hadn't explained a major plot concept.  I had instead glossed over the emptiness with some pages of weak writing.  It virtually gutted the book's most important aspects.  Unless I solved that problem the novel wouldn't be worth reading.  
            Now the book is right.  Of course, popular tastes have shifted, mostly downward, and I can't get an agent to give me the time of day.
            I identify, strongly, with Vincent Van Gogh.  Do I need to explain the reasons?  Of course not.  Don't worry, I'm not going to shoot myself in the head and spend two weeks dying of my wound.  I am going through a miserable time in my life but I've noticed that things change, moods change, outlooks brighten, then dim.  It's a big universe.  Ultimately it doesn't make much difference whether or not my books get published.  I would like them to be read because each book is a uniquely beautiful experience.  I want other people to share that experience.  So I will probably self-publish and try my best to market my uniquely beautiful books.
            The following excerpt is from my book CONFESSIONS OF AN HONEST MAN.  It isn't a major plot point, it does little to move the story forward.  I just like the writing about music.

1967: The Zoot Prestige Trio At The Esquire Lounge

                    The Esquire Lounge was an archetypal venue: a pure urban jazz club, on the ‘circuit’, right down on Euclid Avenue between the steel mills to the west and the college to the east.  The club’s sign had martini glasses jiggling in neon pink and green.  Every time Aaron saw it, he sensed that some day it would be a priceless artifact in a museum.  The neon tubes spelling “Esquire Lounge” and its dancing long-stemmed martini glasses would be studied by serious observers of semiotics and folk art.  
          Zoot and the boys had finished a week’s engagement at the Jazzland Grill in Columbus.  The drive to Cleveland was a little over two hours.  
          Before checking into the hotel, before doing anything, Zoot wanted to see old friends and examine the new soundboard at the Esquire. The gig was going to be recorded for Blue Note Records.  Rumors were flying in the jazz world that the new band was something special, that Zoot had found a pair of "monsters", as they were called, to back him up as he played his distinctive bop'n'blues style.  For Aaron and Tyrone, it was their debut.  Downbeat Magazine was going to review the record, it would be written up by critics like Leonard Feather and Nat Hentoff. 
          It was big.  It was important.  The album was going to be called “Hot Sax”.
          Zoot entered the club majestically, placing his feet on the carpet as if he were dancing, doing his lanky walk, all his joints subtly undulating.
          “What’s up, buttercup?,” he inqured of the man sitting on a stool behind the bar.  There were five or six people in the club, nursing drinks and chatting quietly.  Two women spread white cotton tablecloths below the bandstand.
          “Zoot motherfucking Prestige!” said the club’s proprietor,  “What is happenin’?” He put out his cigarette and came sailing from behind the bar, a tall fat man with a medium afro. He did a series of finger snaps and arcane handshakes with Zoot, then embraced him with a huge laugh.
          Aaron knew these sounds and gestures; they were the greeting rituals of adult black males.  They were tunes of loose laughter, arms and hands swinging wide and making noisy contact.  The words meant little.  The tones of understanding and recognition were everything. He had tried, for a while, to imitate this hip black language.  He felt ridiculous.  What kind of spectacle must he be?  A “white Negro”.  What’s that nasty term?  A “Wigger”?  Did he want to be a slang term?  Wait, let’s not forget the Jew.  What was he?  A Nigyid?  A Yidgro?  Oh God, he’s a Yigger!  No, he would speak the way he spoke, act the way he acted, just as he was.

          Zoot did quick introductions.   The club’s owner was Hilton Stubbs.  When Aaron was introduced, Stubbs looked at him coldly.  Then, as if Aaron didn’t exist, Stubbs pointed to him and inquired of Zoot, “What is this?”
          Zoot bristled.  “What do you mean, ‘what is this?’, motherfucker.  This is my drummer.”
          “This is a white kid from Shaker Heights, man, this won’t go down.”
          “Hilton, you don’t know shit.”  Zoot extended a protective arm around Aaron’s shoulders.  “You wanna cancel the gig?”  Zoot picked up his saxophone case.  “I can tell Blue Note to move their gear over to The Loose End and I’ll have another gig.  Tonight.”
          “Naw, shit man, I won’t do that; but I don’t believe no white kid can play drums with Zoot Prestige and sound like the real deal.”
          “Why don’t you talk to him like he’s here in front of you, fool?”
          Stubbs looked at Aaron.  “Hmmmph.” He lit a cigarette languidly, sizing Aaron up. “I never seen Zoot Prestige with a bad drummer.  You can’t be more than fucking twenty years old, kid.  What do you know about soul?”
          Aaron shrugged.  “Gig starts at nine. You’ll find out.”
          At that moment, several other people came from the back of the club, saw Zoot and the greeting rituals were repeated.  Aaron was ignored or treated to a cold stare, a lingering gaze of contempt and then a dismissive de-focusing of the eyes, as if he had simply vanished.  Traveling with Zoot on the circuit, he had gotten a lot of racist attitude. He let it bounce off him.  He knew that later things would be different.
          The equipment had to be unloaded and set up.  There was already a Hammond organ and a Leslie speaker on the stage. Tyrone helped Aaron with the drums.  At half past five, the recording crew arrived, hauling in a big Ampex eight track recorder in a wheeled case.  They placed microphones where needed and a sound check was done.  The band and the recording crew ordered a few slabs of the Esquire’s legendary barbecue and drank a few beers.
          Zoot led his band to the Hotel Onyx, next door, where they checked in.  Zoot had a room.  Tyrone and Aaron shared a room.  They showered, shaved, lay on their respective beds and relaxed. 
          Aaron fell asleep.  At eight o clock, Tyrone shook him awake.  He had a familiar, crazed look on his face, as if he were about to do something naughty.
          “Hey man, check this out.”  Tyrone held two sugar cubes in his palm.  They resembled pistils at the center of the long mocha petals of his fingers.  Tyrone’s digits were like the tentacles of a carnivorous plant. 
          Aaron sat up.  Outside the window of the room, a neon sign was going bing! bop! bing! bop!  Rooms!  Hotel Onyx!  Rooms!  Hotel Onyx!
          “Aw shit, what is that?’’  Aaron rubbed his face, yawned.
          “Hee hee.  Owsley acid.  The purest.”  Tyrone was full of mad mischief.  His eyes seemed to melt and harden like molten glass.  Aaron loved him, loved his playing, loved his daring.  He was virtually illiterate, had dropped out of school in the fourth grade, but he was a thinker, a philosopher, a musical intellect.
          “Owsley acid.  It’s always Owsley acid.  How do you know it isn’t bathtub PCP?  With all the shit I just went through being white, you want me to take a psychedelic and play a gig?”

          “I am Tyrone Terry, man, THE Tyrone Terry.  Nobody twacks bullshit dope on me.  I would kill them with my lethal B flat.  What the fuck, man, it’s not like you aint done it before.  Here.”  He handed a cube to Aaron, then sucked the remaining cube into his mouth.  His cheeks dented inward so that the goatee on his chin went down like a sword blade.  Behind his glasses his eyes were like the fires of a kiln.  Aaron ate the cube, with a tiny twist of fear.  He knew taking a psychedelic was like going for a ride on a tiger’s back.  It could connect him to the primal power; or it could turn on him and eat him alive.  He would risk it.
          Having made this commitment, Aaron now had other preparations to make. He wished he hadn’t eaten the barbecue.  It sat in his guts like a greasy snake.  No matter, he would sweat it off.  He sat in a quiet corner of the room, putting himself into lotus position.  There was a terror of annihilation in him, residue from other psychedelic experiences.  He had learned to let go of himself, had even learned to function, to play music, to walk around in the ‘ordinary’ world of people.  It was the initial phases of the drug rush that were the most difficult.  Suddenly, one finds oneself….utterly….without significance, lost in a vastness beyond vastness, so that the personality of Aaron Kantro was some kind of silly joke.  It was this silly joke that Aaron had learned to dismiss with a figurative wave of his hand.  What does it matter if I matter?  Move forward into the risk, take the grotesque with the beautiful, take it all.  Inhale and exhale universes with each breath.
          Aaron heard Tyrone settle down beside him.  Yoga was something Aaron had imparted to his friend, only to discover that Tyrone had a natural ability to settle into a deep silence.  He was, perhaps, less intellectually encumbered.  Whatever the reason, Tyrone was a natural yogi, he meditated and conjured mind exercises of stunning imagination.
          Zoot would come to fetch them at quarter to nine.  The young men had to don their tuxedoes.  The drug was working, beginning as they meditated, stretching their imagery into an immense hall in which they could hear one another’s thoughts like echoes from walls of a cave. 
          “We got a gig,” Aaron reminded Tyrone as he uncurled his legs.  Tyrone opened his eyes slowly, and they were like search lights being uncovered, a mighty glow emitted from their orbs.  Pulling themselves into the mundane world, the musical brothers dressed and looked at their reflections in the mirror, giggling.  “Be cool, be cool, “ Tyrone admonished, sinking his head between his shoulders as if to mimic stealth.  “The Zoot will be wise to this, and he won’t be happy if we’re melting.”
          “Promise I won’t melt,” Aaron confirmed.  He was serious, he knew he had a responsibility to his mentor to behave and play like a professional jazz musician. 
          Zoot entered the room, sat in the one easy chair and let both legs splay over the chair’s arm rest..  He brought out his little pouch and crumpled some weed into the corncob pipe.  He examined his compatriots with an air of suspicion, but he had seen this before and had a measure of faith in his sidemen.
          “Dudes look good,” he said.  “Feelin alright? Tight?  Outtasight?”
          “Just fine, Zoot.  Lookin’ forward to it, “ Tyrone replied.  Aaron nodded agreement.
          Zoot eyed his sidemen speculatively.  “Gonna get cosmological on me?  Gonna do Coltrane riffs?”  This was one of Zoot’s cautionary admonitions.  He loved John Coltrane but knew his bread and butter, knew what the patrons of the Esquire Club came to hear:  stompin’ blues shoutin bop-till-you-drop tenor saxophone organ trio music. 
          “Don’t you trust us, Zoot?  We know the gig.”  Aaron’s hands were rattling complex drum patterns on his kneecap.  Warming up. 
          “There’s something about you two, tonight.  You’re glittering a little bit.”  It was impossible to tell whether or not he winked, because when he wanted to, Zoot could wink but not wink.  Aaron suspected he had winked.  The saxophonist lit the pipe, inhaled.  Then he loaded it again and passed it to Aaron.  “I would righteously appreciate some discipline from you young monsters.  Don’t think I don’t know what’s going on here.  This ain’t speculative fiction.  This is the Kingdom of Funktonics.  Aaron, you gotta stay inside the groove and let these Black Nationalist motherfuckers know you can play some shit.” 
          “We will play some shit,” Tyrone affirmed, making it sound like a solemn oath. Aaron repeated it.  “We will play some shit.”
          Each of them had the requisite two hits of weed, enacted the pre-set ritual that was as much a part of their working life as their instruments and their PA system.  They headed down the long stairs with its purple carpeting, into the foyer with its thousands of tiny hexagonal tiles and green trim.  Euclid avenue was a parade of horsepower vanity.  Caddies,Continentals and Grand Prix convertibles gurgled toward the traffic lights.  A bit of rain had fallen and the smell of wet pavement and gasoline fumes mingled in the air. Reflections from neon lights bounced up from the sidewalks.  Aaron inhaled and marveled at the wild beauty of the world.
          They went around to the kitchen entrance of the club.  Zoot gave a signal to Hilton Stubbs.  The proprietor nodded and went to the bandstand.  It was a good house.  The tables were taken.  The bar was already two rows deep.  The recording engineers were perched at their boards like alchemists over tables of potions and unguents
          .“Ladies and gentlemen,” Stubbs said into the microphone.  “The Club Esquire is honored to present the reigning Master of Funk, the Prestigious One, The Zoot with the roots and his smokin’ recruits,  the one and only…… Zoot….. Pres…..tige!”
          They came through the swinging door and made their procession to the bandstand. When the applause and whistles died down, Zoot looked at Tyrone and Aaron, snapped his fingers and counted off a blistering tempo for “All the Things You Are”.  They were off. Tyrone’s organ vamped behind Zoot’s solo like butter rolling down a split yam.  Aaron was crisp as a new hundred dollar bill.  The stick in his right hand came down on the ride cymbal almost lazily; just enough behind the beat to give it tension, to make that indefinable suspense that was the elusive quality of swing.  He pop popped with his left hand on the snare, talking to Zoot’s cadences.  It was a glory.  It was jazz. 
          They played Monk’s tune, “Well You Needn”t.  Then, to slow things down, Zoot called for “Angel Eyes”.   That’s when the LSD began working at its full intensity.  Tyrone played the dark moody chords of the song.  Its story was that of an urban barroom drama, of souls sliding toward damnation but gripping their humanity with ferocious desperation.  When Tyrone’s solo came, he landed on one of those blue tones that the organ could sustain forever, while his right hand trilled and trilled pure funkiness.  It was musical laughter.  Aaron’s smile grew larger than his face, a Cheshire Cat grin where the rest of him disappeared into the curling lips and glowing teeth.  Zoot rocked his horn and arched his back.  The audience was screaming approval.  The walls started to melt.  Hilton Stubbs looked like a goat or a devil, behind the bar, smiling so that his gold tooth flashed across the room.  Tyrone glanced at Aaron, wicked sly wit oozing from his eyes.
          Stay inside, Aaron mentally signalled.  Don’t get crazy.  Tyrone nodded.  Don’t worry; I can get crazy and still stay inside.  They were IT.  They were tradition.  They were milking all the conventions, all the known things of jazz.  Tyrone arpeggioed to get to the head of the tune.  It was like ocean waves, surf rolling in perfect cylinders toward the shore.  Zoot heard the cue and they restated the brooding melodrama of Angel Eyes.  The tune ended in a wash of cymbals, organ and saxophone.  Perfect. 
          Zoot knew what was happening, but said nothing.  As long as they played well, he would let it slide.  He couldn’t sit on these two young horses.  He could go with them, out to the boundary.  If he felt them slipping off, he would give them the infamous Zoot Stare.  If he could keep them right there, right at the boundary but still within the vocabulary, the vocabulary itself would become the realm of exploration. 
          It worked.  It worked all night.  At one moment, Aaron took a drum solo and felt his arms multiply, felt as if four right hands and four left hands were striking and bouncing off the drums with incredible speed.  He was a Hindu God, he was eight-armed Ganesh, the elephant god, the lord of Jupiter.  He rolled and crackled and flamed but kept it together, never got abstract, hit the One, the downbeat, right where he was supposed to. 
          There wasn’t anyone in the room who was wondering if Aaron could play drums. There wasn’t anyone in the room who was thinking about black or white, soul or without soul, paid dues, ain’t paid dues, hipness or squareness. 
          There was only the miracle of music.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

THE NEWSROOM and SHAMELESS: Television Triumphs

          If I were just starting out in the world I would want to write for television.  Hell, I want to write for television NOW!  I think it's the most influential force on the planet.  It may not live up to its potential.  It may betray its potential every day, betray it so badly as to be a force for heinous criminality.  Still, I would love to work in television.  There is world-saving potential in the boob-tube, but it can only be used in drips and drabs.
          A TV series is like nothing else in the world of writing.  It's huge.  It provides a set of characters and a plot world that arc across vast swathes of time.  How many years does a successful TV series run?  Three, five, ten?  I've seen enough series to be aware of a quality curve.  The pilot episode and the first season are full of birth pangs.  The cast and crew don't even know if they'll have a second season.  Actors are getting to know their characters, writers are getting to know their actors.
          Seasons Three and Four are usually the best.  Then there's a slump as writers and actors get bored, switch out, change tacks, whatever.  If a series gets to Season Six it puts on a fresh coat of make-up and regains the energy necessary to finish out its requisite nine or ten seasons.
          We know that THE NEWSROOM will last three seasons.  The HBO execs have told us so.  I can barely imagine any drama so powerful needing much longer to tell its story.   

          I'm a fan of Aaron Sorkin's writing.  The Newsroom shows Sorkin's evolution as a writer and maker of TV drama.  Some of Season One episodes are so good that they achieve that amazing and rare quality of....of MAJESTY.  That's right.  Majesty.  Goosebumps.
          The show's opening titles are a bit long but they convey to us the reverence with which the producers view the tradition of broadcast news.  The iconography is there: Murrow, Cronkite, Huntley, Brinkley, the faces of American television news in an era when news was on at six o'clock every night and it was THE NEWS.  It was not info-tainment.  This tension between the exalted past of journalism and the present tawdry state of...whatever-it-is...drives crucial pieces of the plot.
          Jeff Daniels plays news icon Will McAvoy, a monolithic newscaster hewn in the Mt. Rushmore style of the Old School.  He's young enough to be in the Peter Jennings mold, yet crusty enough to harken back to the days of black and white television.  He's a bridge figure: he brings echoes along with him.  He brings the times when The News was honest.  He's an Institution.  He's powerful and widely trusted yet his job hangs from a teeny thread that's held by the Network's owners.  Said owner is Leona Lansing, played by a feisty Jane Fonda.  Her son, Reese Lansing, is the network CEO.  Reese is in bed with Teabaggers, the Koch Brothers, all those crypto-fascists.  He hangs over Will McAvoy like the fabled Sword, and there you have just a fraction of the plot.  Love interest, check, psychotherapy, check, a staff full of college-fresh Millennials, check.  Everything required to build plot tension in a loamy garden of Relevance.  That's all right with me!  Bring on Season Two!  Five Muskrats!

SHAMELESS: Not A Shame At All

          The role of Frank Gallagher must have made William H. Macy shout with shameless joy. His character is the ultimate shirker.  He's a sociopathic alcoholic single father of six children.  They  range in age from toddler to twenty-something.  He could care less.  Frank cares only about booze and cooze.  Frank never knows where he will wake up from a night's carouse.  As often as not, he regains consciousness in a dumpster.  It's a miracle Frank never freezes to death on the streets of Chicago's South Side.  He seems to have one of those special angels assigned to feckless drunkards, the angels that see to it that lushes emerge from head-on collisions without a scratch, that they are one step ahead of the piano that crashes onto the sidewalk.  That kind of angel.  Frank nurses a spark of amoral opportunism; he may sit at the bar, fully addled with booze, but his wits light up when some fool blurts that he's just come into money.  Frank slides his stool over.  Frank survives. 
          I hate Frank.  This is wonderful because a good villain drives a drama like nothing else.  He's a malignant narcissist.  Underneath all the sloppy booze behavior he's cunning and articulate.  He's left all his motherless children in the care of oldest daughter Fiona.  It's Fiona who has dedicated her life to packing school lunches, getting kids to band practice on time, to being a de facto mother of six at twenty two.  Fiona is desperately trying to keep the kids out of The System, heroically striving to give them foundations of stability.  Fiona is one big sacrifice.  Her only indulgence is to have a boyfriend.  These boyfriends have been historically abysmal, so when Steve shows up he seems too good to be true.  He is, of course, too good to be true but it takes a while to unravel his riddle.
          Every character in this drama is finely drawn.  Every casting choice is sublime.  Oldest son "Lip" (for Philip), is graduating high school with a 4.6 grade point average.  He has no plans for college.  His counselors, his siblings and his teachers gnash their teeth over Lip's lack of ambition.  He's being offered full scholarships to MIT, Harvard and Columbia.  His girlfriend secretly filled out college applications because Lip has no ambition and regards personal achievement as a game for suckers.  Lip sees a world on the brink of collapse.  Why waste all that effort getting degrees when they're going to be useless?
          The striking thing about the Gallagher children is their loyalty to one another.  Each carries his or her weight.  They have one another's backs.
          Their feelings about their father are complex. The younger ones tend to adore him.  Nine year old Carl is Frank's disciple, taking lessons in larceny.  Eleven year old Debbie thinks she's "daddy's girl" until one day she learns the hard way that daddy doesn't give a fuck about her, that "Daddy's Girl" is a bottle of Scotch. Fifteen year old Ian is gay and has relationships with both an older rich man and a thug who pretends to be homophobic.  Everything about the Gallagher family is complicated because that's what life is: complicated.  Every solved problem begets two new and more serious problems.  Most of the problems devolve upon Frank's escapades, cons, thefts and maybe even an inadvertent killing or two.  We know that he buried Aunt Edna in the yard so he could keep collecting her Social Security checks.  Frank leaves craters with every step he takes.

           SHAMELESS is real life writ large.  Dysfunction exists in the air, it is a basic component of modern oxygen and there's no escaping it.  Frank Gallagher stumbles around and through the maze of existence as if with night vision goggles.  He can see in the dark because he's the one who made the dark.  He's the perfect role for William Macy.  He's filthy, his hair is matted, his clothes are rotting, he hasn't shaved in weeks.  He should NOT have such a perfect set of teeth but I think the producers weaseled out of that choice.  It would have made Frank unbearable, a visual trial more awful than he would have been worth.
          A special award, an EmmyGlobeOscar, toEmmy Rossum as Fiona.  She plays this character with strength and vulnerability.  Fiona is enduring stress and carrying responsibilities that would break a lesser spirit.  Her eyes show a desperate clinging to what's left of her will.  She's "this far" from the edge, one more straw on her back will overwhelm her. She's sexy but exhausted.  She has the look of a woman who, unless she catches a break,  will age with terrifying speed after thirty.
          The cast is a brilliant ensemble.  The series shows the love and joy with which it is being made by the production company.

          This is a great TV series, one of the best I've seen.  Five muskrats for SHAMELESS.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Worst Program On Television

There is no worst show on TV.  There are a plethora of disgusting, heinous, exploitive and dishonest shows.  Asking me to chose one is like asking me to stick my hand down a fairground Portapotty.
          I won't do it.  I have neither the courage nor the desire.  I've watched some shit, to be sure.  I've watched TV shit out of curiosity, morbid humor, a sense of snobbish superiority.  I've watched TV shit for a lot of reasons.  I wanted to bring a report back from the Front Line, from the cesspool of modern broadcast entertainment.
          I can't do it.  I descended the circles of Hell until my nerve failed.  I watched "Hoarders".  I watched the inane chatter of The Kardashians.  I watched as America's fixation on puke, pee and poop exploded out of the Big Screen and landed on my defenseless psyche.
          I watched Rob Dyrdek's "Ridiculousness", in which teenagers addled their essence by launching themselves into skateboard twirls that crunched their skulls or exploded their scrotums.  I watched kids do all the "don't try this at home" stunts purveyed by Jackass Johnny Knoxville (and don't get me wrong, I laugh and wince too).
          The veil between television and internet is very thin.  Youtube weirdness ends up on Daniel Tosh's often-hilarious show.  Uploaded videos are all over the television landscape, pockmarking  the Cable Universe with ridiculousness.
          It seems as though the Lowest Common Denominator gets lower all the time.  As the world's population explodes so do the number of niche market Reality TV shows, most of which are carefully scripted and engineered to stretch fifteen minutes of content across an hour of commercials for smartphones, cars, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.

          I quailed at watching MY 600 POUND LIFE.  I feel for Melissa's situation.  I struggle with my own issues regarding weight.  But I couldn't watch the show. It was transparently exploitive. So let's just give the "Worst TV" ribbon to HERE COMES HONEY BOO BOO and stop there.  I'm not sure why this boring insipid show is on television and the fact that it gets renewed for another season makes me sad.  Very sad.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Mentalist: Sherlock Holmes Meets TV Psychic

December 31, 2013

            There's just enough here to keep us watching.  Just enough.  Simon Baker as sleuth Patrick Jane exudes enough wit and humility to keep the rusty old plots together long enough to be entertaining.  If it's easy to guess the killer and be right most of the time, it's a sign that the writers are being lazy.  Where's the suspense?  What's the fun if we know who murdered the victim within ten minutes?  It seems as though the writers are getting plots from a software program and fleshing them out with a strong leading cast. 
            Mind you, this is halfway through Season One.  I decided to order Season Two on the basis of a good story on Disc Four.  Maybe the series will get better. Maybe the producers got the green light on another season and decided to put more effort into the writing.  We can always hope.  It's a good gimmick, the reformed phony psychic turned cop, or "consultant", in a Special Crimes Unit.  Described that way, it reeks of Network TV, but, again, there's the work of Simon Baker.  It would be easy to sneer at a dude who looks like Simon Baker.  But his character, Patrick Jane, has been broken.  His wife and child were murdered by a serial madman named Red John.  This is the crisis that changed Patrick Jane from a show-biz psychic to an investigator who uses his skills at reading people to ferret out the criminal.  Baker as Patrick Jane carries himself with a large degree of appealing self mockery. 
            Red John hasn't been caught.  The show's producers seemed to be keeping him in a storage closet in case they got renewed.  Now they've gotten the budget for a Season Two (and, looky! They're still in production for Season Six). Now they can bring out Red John and start building a story arc that may generate some real suspense.  Meanwhile, we will keep watching.  So far, The Mentalist is a C/grade series with promise.  If it builds itself up, it might become worth three muskrats.*

*Muskrats are my grading curve.  The highest accolade for media production would be a grade of five muskrats.