Miles Davis’s Restless Musical Journey

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Illustration by Oliver Barrett of The Atlantic

Although I’m not a musician, I seem to find myself hanging with them an awful lot.  For example, in college I roomed with Warren Moise and accompanied him and his band Wormwood on many a gig.  When Warren decided to drop out and make a go at being a professional musician, he invited me to join Wormwood as soundman or light man or something or another, but I stuck to the unglamorous academic life of a sophomore living in Tenement 9 in the so-called Horseshoe of the University of South Carolina.[1]  Later Warren later returned to school, became a lawyer, but still writes songs, like this one recorded by the Band of Oz.

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The next year I moved off campus with another musician, Stan Gibbons, who played bass for a rock cover band called Buddy Roe. After Buddy Roe broke up, Stan got into jazz, and it was he who turned me on to the Miles Davis album Bitches Brew, which I didn’t dig, and believe me, I got to hear it on numerous occasions, like non-stop for a couple of months. I still don’t dig it, but now that I’ve finished Ian Carr’s two-inch thick (658 pages) Miles Davis, The Definitive Biography, I have come to appreciate why Davis became such a restless innovator and to see his refusal to settle for the profitable status quo as a mark of heroic artistry.

Born to upper middle class parents, Miles Dewey Davis III grew up in East St. Louis where his father practiced dentistry.  Although he grew up in a household awash in music, it was classical music that his African American family embraced. His sister played the piano and his mother the violin.  As Carr puts it in the biography, “After Emancipation, it was the professional men and ministers of the church who were the heads of the new black society, and they were at pains to get rid of any customs that were too ‘negroid’ or which harked back to slavery.  It often happened that leading black citizens became the most fanatical imitators of white society. ”

However, that great corrupter of youth in those days, the radio, turned Miles onto Louis Armstrong, Buddy Bolden, and Roy Eldridge, so he took up the trumpet, played in the school band, but also at social clubs.  By the time he was sixteen and still in high school, he had joined a music union and came under the tutelage of Clark Terry.  This was in the 40’s.  Once he graduated, he talked his parents into letting him go the Juilliard instead of Fisk University.  At the Juilliard, he lived what Carr calls “a Jekell and Hyde” existence, trafficking with classical music by day and jazz, particularly bebop, by night.

Bebop was the first jazz innovative movement Davis got into.  Soon, he found himself attending Charlie Parker gigs, and in 1945 he joined Charlie Parker’s group. During this period, he shared the stage with such greats as Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane.

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Trane and Dizzy

So began his career, a career that featured a series of departures that usually irked the mainstream jazz community.

Weary of bebop, Davis and cronies Gil Evans and Jerry Mulligan among others started experimenting with the idea of having their instruments imitate human voices, creating  more melodic jazz than bebop.  After this so-called “birth of the cool” phase, Davis, now hooked on heroin, played what is called “hard bop.”  He signed with Prestige records and locked in a room by himself kicked his H habit cold turkey, .  Next came modal jazz, and in 1959 Davis released Kind of Blue, which is the best selling jazz album of all time.  In the 60s as rock replaced jazz as the cool pop music, Miles embraced the sound of the guitar, and “went electric,” much to the chagrin of jazz purists, and hence Bitches Brew.

 After Wynton Marsalis publically criticized Miles for abandoning “real jazz,” Miles responded:

What’s [Marsalis] doin’ messin’ with the past?  A player of his caliber should just wise up and realize it’s over . . . Some people, whatever is happening now, either they can’t handle it or they don’t want to know. They’ll be messed up on that bogus ‘nostalgia’ thing. Nostalgia shit!  That’s a pitiful concept.  Because it’s dead, it’s safe – that’s what that shit is about!  Hell, no one wanted to hear us when we were playing jazz. Those days with Bird, Diz, Trane – some were good, some were miserable . . . People didn’t like that stuff then. Hell, why do you think we was playing clubs?  No one wanted us on prime-time TV.  The music wasn’t getting across, you dig!  Jazz is dead![2]

Point taken: innovation is often frowned upon, misunderstood. Why, after all the success of Born in the USA, did Springsteen follow that up with Nebraska?  Why did Dylan abandon acoustic folk for the electric guitar, and why does he constantly reconfigure his songs so that at a concert he might be halfway through “Blowin’ in the Wind” before you recognize it?

Maybe because for them it has gotten old, stale.  You don’t have to like the new product; I much prefer Kind of Blue to Bitches Brew.  However, unless you’re a great musician, you probably should keep your mouth shut and let the masters do their thing.

It’s your thang, do what you wanna do.

I can’t tell you, who to sock it to.


[1]You can read about my travails with my roomies here, a situation that had me literally threatening to hang myself to university officials.

[2]I suspect Miles used a different mode of expression at Juilliard.

 

Where Has All the Body Hair Gone?

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The other night as I was surfing through channels, I stopped to watch a few minutes of Goldfinger, a film whose scenario is about as farfetched as you’ll find outside a fairy tale.

I mean, a virgin sharing accommodations with seven libido-less dwarves (who actually enjoy working in mines) strikes me as more plausible than a fleet of propeller-driven light planes overtaking Fort Knox, enabling an insane gold fetishist to come within seven seconds of detonating an atomic bomb.

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6 Cornfed domestic terrorists

Nevertheless, in the first half of the Sixties, James Bond was the paragon of male coolness.  Sean Connery, of course, was Bond’s first incarnation: six-feet-plus of epicurean machismo blended[1] with superhuman savoir faire. Not only is Bond’s frontal lobe capable of performing spectacular main-frame-fast lifesaving calculations, but he can also distinguish by bouquet the year of an obscure Tuscan Vintage or by sight the Chinese dynasty that produced the vase he encounters in the resiquite subterranean compound.

Unlike any of today’s pouting male models (who seem dangerously close to choking to death on their own smugness),  Sean Connery’s Bond was almost as hirsute as Ronnie’s co-star Bonzo.[2]

Dig this, for example:

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as compared to this:

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For whatever reason, body hair viscerally disgusts Late Empire fashionistas. Mention to anyone under thirty that European women just recently started shaving their armpits, and the retching becomes audible.  Yet, back in the 60’s, testosterone-needy would-be Bonds were actually purchasing chest wigs.

Nowadays, hair removal has migrated down under as a visit to Bond’s old hunting ground,  La Cote d’ Azur, will confirm.[3]

Men as well as women in the Late Empire shave their legs, pluck their knuckle hair, and wax their derrieres.

On the other hand, these same trichophobes think nothing about decorating their bodies with indelible designs fashioned by meth-addicted artisans.

gothic tatoo

I don’t think I’d chosen gothic for this particular message.

I really don’t know how body hair became taboo in an age when most men would, if given the choice, choose a large penis over a large IQ, so I’ll leave it to you to ponder such earth shattering questions as I descend the stairs of my book-lined study  [cue the Bond guitars] to munch on some Caspian caviar, have a glass or two of the Macallan’s 55 year-old Lalique, and then [guitars discordantly morphing into banjo picking] watch me some football.

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A bargain at only 14K


[1]Shaken, not stirred

[2]Or, if your prefer, Tarzan’s co-star Cheetah

[3] Or save a few Euros/dollars and consult a voyeur web site.

 

The Old Masters

Frequent visitors to this blog (all three of you) have no doubt noted a predilection to illustrate my rants with paintings of Bosch and Brueghel, Juvenalian satirists of the highest order; however, when it comes to unflattering depictions of the human race, those two Old Masters share many a Flemish cousin who can also render grotesqueries and human folly with Chaucerian panache.

The Ugly Duchess

Take the above masterpiece, Quentin Massy’s (1466-1530) portrait of Margaret, Duchess of Carinthia, also known as Margaret Maultasch (“Satchel-mouth”), though best known as The Ugly Duchess.  

An exquisite warning to in-breeders everywhere, she, of course, is the great-great-great grandmother of the Duchess Alice encounters in Wonderland.

The Ugly Duchess’s famous issue also include the Cowardly Lion:

AKA Bert Lahr (pictured below in drag)

In Auden’s frequently anthologized poem “Musée des Beaux Arts,” he notes that 

About suffering they were never wrong,

The Old Masters; how well, they understood

Its human position; how it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along [. . .]

He goes on to describe the suffering’s occurring “anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot” and cites Brueghel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus as an example.

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In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away

Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may

Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,

But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone

As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green

Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen

Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,

Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

But it’s not only suffering that goes on in the untidy corners of the paintings of Flemish masters; plenty of hankypanky takes place there as well.

Take this example from the above-mentioned Massys, The Ill-Matched Lovers.

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Note while the lecher’s hand is copping a not-so-surreptitious feel,

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the young woman’s transferring his purse to her companion,

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a literal Fool.

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Anyway, it’s not all tongue-clucking burlesque; these masters certainly could capture beauty when in the mood [not to mention pre-photographic perfection (check out the instruments at the bottom)].  

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Caesar van Everdingen, Pegasus and the Four Muses

Nevertheless, for whatever reason (an overabundance choleric humors, perhaps), I prefer the Old Masters’ satire to their high mindedness. 

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I leave you with these details from Bosch’s The Wayfarer.

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Oink, oink, say the piggies. Splash, splash goes the urine.

The Rattle of Bones and Chuckle from Ear to Ear: A Tribute to Tom Waits

Editor’s Note: My old blog Late Empire Ruminations is coming down soon, so I’m curating pieces from there that are not so topical. This post comes from September 2010.

Independence is for the very few; it is a privilege for the strong. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (Trans. Walter Kaufmann)

The phrase that gives this blog its name – ragwater, bitters, and blue ruin – comes from the Tom Waits song “9th and Hennipen” where

All the doughnuts have names that sound like prostitutes

And the moon’s teeth marks are on the sky.

Tom Waits, the man, I think, could be Frederick Nietzsche’s poster boy for Beyond Good and Evil.  TW is a man who has created and recreated himself, always pushing into the future, ignoring the insect buzz of the masses to remain absolutely true to himself.  Although not quite [cue Dusty Springfield] the son of a preacher man (like Nietzsche himself, Jung, and Hesse), Waits is pretty damned close, the son of two California school teachers, who by profession had to preach the status quo, part of what Yeats dismissed as “the noisy set/Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergyman/The martyrs call the world.”

This pigeonholing may be unfair to Waits’ parents who perhaps on the first day of school each year refused to hold their hands to their hearts and pledge alliance to the flag of the United States of America, but I kind of doubt it.  After his parents divorced, Waits lived with his mother in Richard Nixon’s hometown of Whittier, California.  Once he had a record contract in hand, TW moved to the Tropicana Motel in LA.  Living the nightmare you might say.

Waits Lounging in his room at the Tropicana c. 1976

More and more it seems to me that the philosopher, being of necessity a man of tomorrow, has always found himself, and had to find himself, in contradiction to his today: his enemy was always the ideal of today.” Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

What went right here?  How did this middle class product come to eschew 1) the comforts and security of carpeted dens for seedy decadence 2) the prevalent hippie zeitgeist of the 60’s for the retro Beatnikism of Cassidy and Kerouac 3) rock-n-roll for jazz, later jazz for polka?  

Always restless, TW has never settled on one groove, no matter how lucrative.  Only perhaps the German language is equipped to produce a label for his music: Volktingedbluejazzindustrocabaretmusick.

In the course of the 38 years since TW signed his first recording contract, he has produced a body of high quality popular music that deserves inclusion in the pantheon that houses Bob Dylan, Cole Porter, and Johnny Mercer.  As the Wall Street Journal’s (the very mouthpiece of hipdom) pop critic Jim Fusilli raves: 

Interestingly enough, in later years, TW’s has shifted from the streets of New Orleans and piano jazz eastward to the cabarets of Weimar Berlin and accordion-laced rumbas.  Among the many influences on Waits’s body of work – Stephen Foster, Louis Armstrong, Hoagy Carmichael – stand Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, late practitioners of German Expressionism, working their dark magic in the black shadows of Nietzsche’s colossal influence.  How appropriate that Wait’s first musical Frank’s Lost Years debuted at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater and that his collaboration with William S. Burrows, The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bulletsopened in 1991 in Hamburg.  In his most recent incarnations, he seems German, a sort of Chaplinesque figure, part Kafka, part Brecht, a sort of skid row ubermensch who by heroically forsaking the comforts of mediocrity descended into an underworld of gothic grotesqueries and emerged triumphant, the master of his own fate, a hero armed with the secret knowledge of suffering.

She has that razor sadness that only gets worse

With the clang and the thunder of the Southern Pacific going by

And the clock ticks out like a dripping faucet

til you’re full of rag water and bitters and blue ruin

And you spill out over the side to anyone who will listen…

And I’ve seen it all, I’ve seen it all

Through the window of the evening train.

Mr. Trump Ain’t Right in the Head

I spent this year’s hurricane evacuation in the mountains with my father-in-law and an older couple who happen to be Trump supporters, which meant occasionally I was exposed to Fox News.  My hosts, who are in fact sophisticated, interesting, and kind,[1]are not consumed with politics, and they seem to dislike Democrats more than they admire Trump.  As I was walking past the television, I overheard one of the Fox anchors say, “The Democrats are already trying to exploit this hurricane.” 

 “Hmmm, that doesn’t sound so far and balanced, ” I mused.

It’s as if indeed “the center cannot hold,” that left is left and right is right, and never the twain shall meet.  The exception to this tribalism can be found with the Never Trump Republicans, people like Jennifer Rubin, George Well, David Frum, Bill Kristol, and Joe Walsh, pundits I once mocked but now admire for their devotion to rationality and the rule of law.

I do, however, have some Facebook friends who idolize Trump in an emotional Jim Jones cultish sort of way.  Recently, one addressed me personally in a post in which she asked in reference to the Steele dossier how I would like it if someone had made up a bunch of lies about me. Showing remarkable Dalai Lama like restraint, I didn’t respond with “Well, if I had paid off a porn star because I had sex with her three months after the birth of my son, I might not be that surprised to find myself the source of gossip.”  There’s no talking reason to these folks, who regurgitate Fox’s talking points and refer to Democrats as if they are not their neighbors but enemies to be feared. Several piled on my brother, who wasn’t as restrained as his older sibling, with smugly inane predictions about the fall of the Democratic Party.

How they’re unable to recognize Trump’s dishonesty and vulgarity amazes me.  I get why some Koch-like mega billionaire might be willing to abide Trump’s assault on democratic norms for the sake of gargantuan tax cuts, but I don’t understand why middle class citizens who try to instill honesty in their children support such an inveterate liar whose temperament makes the Amazing Hulk seem as mild-mannered as Fred Rogers in comparison.

In fact, Peter Wehner of the Atlantic makes a compelling argument that Trump suffers from mental illness:

Donald Trump’s disordered personality—his unhealthy patterns of thinking, functioning, and behaving—has become the defining characteristic of his presidency. It manifests itself in multiple ways: his extreme narcissism; his addiction to lying about things large and small, including his finances and bullying and silencing those who could expose them; his detachment from reality, including denying things he said even when there is video evidence to the contrary; his affinity for conspiracy theories; his demand for total loyalty from others while showing none to others; and his self-aggrandizement and petty cheating.

It manifests itself in Trump’s impulsiveness and vindictiveness; his craving for adulation; his misogynypredatory sexual behavior, and sexualization of his daughters; his open admiration for brutal dictators; his remorselessness; and his lack of empathy and sympathy, including attacking a family whose son died while fighting for this countrymocking a reporter with a disability, and ridiculing a former POW. (When asked about Trump’s feelings for his fellow human beings, Trump’s mentor, the notorious lawyer Roy Cohn, reportedly said, “He pisses ice water.”)

And it’s maddening! Each news cycle brings another outrage, whether it be receiving love notes from Kim Jong-un, diverting money from the military to build a medieval wall on the southern border, or encouraging foreign leaders and his own cronies to stay at his properties in blatant violation of the Emolument Clause of the Constitution.  

It’s overwhelming, and what so many of my friends have done is to just stop tuning in, which I can well understand. 


[1]When I suggested I might drive down Friday early to check on my house, the husband of the couple offered to fly me to Johns Island in his private plane.

Confessions of a Fair Weather Fan

Let’s begin with a string of clichés since this post is about sports.

I sort of admire those die-hard fans who, rain or shine, stay true to their teams.  I know many Clemson fans who would remain in the stands till the bitter end in the good ol’ days when Clemson would occasionally take a drubbing.  Back when Carolina won five straight from the Tigers, I marveled as Clemson devotees posted in unequivocal terms on Facebook that their love was steadfast, that there was no Himalayan peak high enough, no Mariana Trench deep enough, etc.  

Not I-and-I.  During the Gamecocks 21 game-losing streak, you wouldn’t find me anywhere near the am radiobroadcast of the game.[1]  In 1990, when the Atlanta Braves ended up in last place, I wouldn’t even bother to glance at the box scores in the paper.  No, I’m a fair weather fan, one whose tribal affiliations are weak.  

This disinclination to link with hometown teams began in Summerville where high school football seemed to be the center of most people’s lives.  Back in the pre-hippie days, if you weren’t on the team or a cheerleader, you could not be an A-list celebrity.  Going to the games on Friday nights was de rigueur.  In fact, my father, who didn’t give a sou[2]about sports, pulled against the Mighty Green Wave for spite’s sake.  Needless, to say, he never accompanied me to a game, nor, in fact, sat in to watch me strike out in my Little League games. [3]  He had better things to do, and I mean that sincerely.  

So, once I deep-sixed preppydom and donned the bandana hairband of the counterculture, I, too, quit going to the games, spending my Friday nights at my pal Adam’s apartment listening to him and his bandmates jam, drinking PBRs, and smoking stems and seeds. After the games, we’d cruise Tastee Freeze’s parking lot, circling amid the blare of rock-n-roll blasting from the speakers of various cars.  What fun!

Post Preppy I-and-I

So when I matriculated at USC, I wasn’t at all into football and didn’t particularly like the players I had in my classes, those hulking short-haired muscle men with “Nixon’s the One” campaign buttons pinned to their pecs.   As a matter of fact, in college I didn’t attend one single game.

However, under the influence of postgraduate peers, I began following the Gamecocks, and I have always been a Braves fan, even in the most bohemian of my days.  Nevertheless, these affiliations are weak, and I no longer let a broadcast impede on anything more promising, like a party or concert.

All that said, I’m really enjoying the 2019 Atlanta Braves, who, right now are killing it.[4]

It’s fun getting to know the players, and the game itself is so inherently interesting with the many complexities underlying each individual pitch.

So let’s go Bravos, I’m with you some of the way.


[1]These pre-dated the ubiquitous television broadcasts that fans now enjoy.

[2]Let’s keep this French merde going for a while.

[3]To show you what a better father I was than Daddy,  I attended my sons’ games, though bringing a New Yorker magazine with me, which I read during the contests.

[4]Not at this very second; they’re down 4-1 in the top of the fifth.  But they’ve won 9 out of their last 10 and something like 16 out of their last 18.  

The Ever Losing Gamecock Blues

 

Take me to a taproom,

Pull me an IPA.

Ain’t no Pabst gonna do it,

The Gamecocks played today.

 

Most talented team ever,

All the sportswriters said,

But when the game clock expired,

My hopes were also dead.

 

So here we go again,

A dozen or so Saturdays shot.

Ought to cancel my ESPN

And buy me a pound of pot.

 

But Hope is a powerful drug,

And patterns easy to ignore.

So sure as hell next Saturday,

I’ll be cursing our failure to score.

 

So take me to a taproom,

Pull me an IPA,

Ain’t no Pabst gonna do it,

The Gamecocks played today.