Sunny Kafka

Look, I’m proud to claim the name Kafka and to share with Franz a common ancestor. I blame my mother, not him, for the absurd pairing of my names. Sure, it’ his fault that my last name is synonymous with dark unfunny gummed-up absurdity, with torture machines, with crushing heartless totalitarian bureaucracy. You hear Franz Kafka and you think hellscape, but it’s not like Cousin Franz consciously set out to make that his legacy. I doubt he’d be happy to know that thanks to him our family name has mutated into a negative adjective, the suffix esque attaching itself like a cancer to the Czech-German word Kavka, which means “jackdaw.”[1] It’s my mother’s fault; she should have known better to turn my names into an oxymoron.

To me, Jackdaw sounds sort of cool, like a bird baked in a pie fit for the king. And as it turns out, jackdaws are avian, crow kin found in Africa and Eurasia.  They’re famous for nesting in towers and ruins and also for taking bright objects back to their nests.[2]  Although not as black or glossy, they look a lot like carrion crows. Hey, it could be worse. My mother could have named me Carrie Crowe, Carrie short for Carrion.

Could have named me that because, weirdly enough, my father’s name was (or is) Crow but without an “e.” So I come from crows on both sides – ha ha! He was an Indian of the reservation variety and split forever before I was born, so my retro hippie mother laid her last name on me and slapped the adjective “sunny” in front of it. That’s exactly what it reads verbatim on the birth certificate, Sunny Kafka, just those two names, not even a middle initial.

She says she named me after the girl in the song “Sunny.” If you haven’t heard it, you can listen to it in the YouTube below.  Sounds like parakeets and canaries. Chirpy. I’m more of a jackdaw caw-caw Tom Waits, Velvet Underground kind of gal. She should have named me Cloudy Kafka.

I hope I don’t sound too whiny. To tell you the truth, my name’s rarely an issue. After all, I’m a bartender on Folly Beach.[3] Only a skinny fraction of my customers have heard of Franz Kafka, much less read him, and I suspect not a single one has “Kafkaesque” in their speaking vocabulary, though a few might know what an oxymoron is.

Which reminds me.  I met a guy at Snapper Jacks who taught English at Trident Tech. When he asked me what my last name was, I told him, and he smiled but didn’t say anything after that, so I broke the awkward silence by squawking, “So I’m a walking oxymoron – Sunny Kafka!”

He chuckled and said, “Pleased to meet you, Sunny Kafka,” then launched into a tedious mini-lecture on Kafka’s being the great great grandaddy of Groucho Marx, Woody Allen, Larry David, and especially Richard Lewis. I guess I had a sour look on my face because he interrupted himself and asked if I was Jewish.

“Do I look Jewish?” I asked in my trademark snarky tone.

“How should I know? I’m blind as a bat.” 

He took off his sunglasses. 

He looked like a white Willie McTell or a thirty year old Doc Watson, squinty-eyed. By the way, did you know that Roy Orbison wasn’t really blind?


[1] And if you, listen, they do sound somewhat alike, both two syllables, accents on the first, the vowels rhyming sort of.

[2] I’m picturing a sepia-tinged abandoned Albanian factory, krow-like kafkas (sic) flitting out of its windows like black tears but coming back with Rubrik cubes in their beaks.

[3] I’m not making any of this up. Charlie Marlow’s my man. I wouldn’t lie to you.  

Post-Election Electrification

Post-Election Electrification

For Stacey Abrams

There’s a chain gang on the highway
I can hear them rebels yell
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

Bob Dylan, “Blind Willie McTell”

Back in my wilder days of manic
Boppa-bop-a-bebop – PAR-DEE,
I’ll admit I got arrested a couple of times,

blinded by them PO-lice lights
swirling and stuttering blue
in the nightscape like a UFO landing.

I’ve survived slope driving in suburban Atlanta,
not looking both ways before crossing streets,
trafficking in whatever to make ends meet,

have tossed and turned a couple of nights in jail,
which amounted ultimately to next to nothing,
except for experience to cross reference and relate.


I once told my late wife’s oncologist,
“Doc, I guess you’ve never spent a night in the clink.”

His blank stare a tacit no-he-hadn’t.

“But that’s what it’s like in the middle of the night,
when you’re waiting for the biopsy
to drop the next day.”

Experience to cross reference and relate.


Nowadays the Boppa-bop-a-Bebop – PAR-DEE,
rarely sparks in my nervous system circuitry –
except it actually did yesterday –
when James Brown’s Georgia,
when Otis’s Redding’s Georgia,
when Little Richard’s Georgia,
when Ray Charles’s Georgia,
when Ma Rainey’s Georgia turned a very light shade of blue.

Blind Willie McTell himself
Had limped past the President.

So I stepped outside on the deck,
took in a deep breath,
opened my mouth,
and scat-bellowed at the top of my lungs into the wild blue yonder:

Geetchie geetchie yappa yappa – woo!

A Tribute to David Bromberg

I discovered David Bromberg late, in ’76, during my farcical impersonation of a graduate school student. Instead of [forgive the vulgar patriarchal terminology] boning up on feminist theory, I was tending bar with a broken heart until about midnight, and as you bartenders know (right Charlie?), you don’t get off and go straight home.  You go to some early morning alcohol dispensary to wind down, which makes showing up an eight o’clock class on 18th Century English journalism seem as unlikely as Jackie Collins winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.

From left to right, Bob Dylan, Leon Redbone, and David Bromberg

But I digress.  This post is about David Bromberg, whom I consider a woefully underappreciated American treasure.  The first record of his I copped was this one: David Bromberg Songs (1972).  Two tunes that really caught by attention were “Delia,” an obscure yet widely covered (if that’s possible) murder narrative and “Sammy’s Song,” a Hemingwayesque tale about a sixteen-year-old’s uncle-sponsored trip to a brothel.

Take a listen to this snippet from “Delia.”

 

And here’s “Sammy’s Song.”

 

Although most noted for his superb guitar playing, whether he’s laying down blues licks on a Son House cover or finger picking bluegrass at breakneck velocity, it’s Bromberg’s distinctive narrow ranged voice that slays me.  Rather than trying to imitate African Americans or white Southerners, Bromberg employs his very own Tarrytown baritone to great effect.  In addition to the acoustic, electric, and pedal steel guitars, he also plays fiddle and dobro in an eclectic array of genres: bluegrass, blues, folk, jazz, country and western, and rock-n-roll.

I finally got to see him live last March at the Pour House.  His quintet featured Nate Grower on fiddle, Mark Cosgrove on guitar and mandolin, Josh Kanusky on drums, and Butch Amiot on bass.  They ran through a fifteen song set whose highlights included his great cover of Ian and Sylvia’s “Summer Wages,” an acapella rendition of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” and his signature version of  “New Lee Highway Blues.”

David Bromberg at the Pour House, photo by Wesley Moore

And, oh yeah, and “Delia.” He provided a more complete history of the song’s origin, which is absolutely fascinating. Delia Green was a 14-year-old girl shot on Christmas Day in 1900 in Savannah. For whatever reason, her murder inspired several songs, the two most famous by Blind Willie McTell and Blake Alphonso Higgs.  In addition to Bromberg, Bob Dylan, Josh White, Pete Seeger, Harry Bellafonte, Burl Ives, the Kingtson Trio, Bobby Bare, Waylon Jennings, and Johnny Cash have all covered the song.  Of yeah, one more, Pat Boone.

Pat Boone? WTF?

Anyway, do yourself a favor and go out and buy a couple of his records, and if you ever get the chance to see him live, jump at it.

I’ll leave you with this.

 

 

 

Reading Fiction as a Utilitarian Exercise in Self-Improvement

I’ve always been contemptuous of commercial self-improvement because it so smacks of the time clock — protestant fear of predestined damnation meets hedonism lite.

On the one hand, who but a churl would be against sharing good advice?

On the other hand, who but a charlatan — a snake oil salesman — would seek pecuniary profit from enlightening the masses?

buddhaAndJesusAnswer to above question (in chronological order): not Siddhartha, not Jesus.

After all, in the age of the Internet, good advice can be disseminated at no cost. No longer is it necessary to decimate acres of loblollies to inform the huddling masses of the magic steps/habits/protocols that successful/happy/thoughtful people take/inculcate/follow to achieve a less fucked-up state that they have been muddling through.

So in the spirit of altruism, here’s the title of my unwritten masterpiece in the genre:

7 Steps That Sentiment Beings Sick with Desire and Fastened to Dying Animals Take to Get the Most out of the Ever-Foreshortening Days Left to Them.

Climb aboard!

Here are the 7 Steps in chapters:

MetamorphosesOvidChapter 1: Step 1: Sunday

Sequester yourself for an hour — especially you non-church/temple types — and read from various myths — good translations of Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Native American trickster tales, Irish folklore, e.g. — and think about how what you’re reading relates to the universal human condition.

Chapter 2: Step 2: Monday

Take a half-hour off after having done something you have dreaded but have completed –e.g. gone to work, to court, to hell in a hand basket — and then listen to thirty minutes of the Blues, and by listen, I mean not only to the instruments, but also to the lyrics.

 Delia, Delia.

Poor girl, she’s gone.

With all I hate, she done left me all alone.

She’s all I got; it’s gone.

Blind Willie McTell by R Crumb.

Blind Willie McTell by R Crumb.

Chapter 3: Step 3: Tuesday

Put down for at least an hour your cell phone, joystick, remote control, and unhand that mouse.

Get into a non-escapist novel. When’s the last time you’ve read Huck Finn? If you’re reading this blog, I goddamn guarantee you’ll enjoy Huck (not to mention it’s time better spent than reading any blog).

Chapter 3: Step 3: Wednesday

Read slowly, carefully and out loud a ballad, which shouldn’t take up any more than 15 minutes.

I’d start early with folk ballads like “Lord Randall” and steadily work my way up chronologically to literary ballads like XJ Kennedy’s “Down in Dallas.”

Down in Dallas, down in Dallas,

where the wind has to cringe tonight,

Lee Oswald nailed Jack Kennedy up

on the cross of a rifle sight.

Chapter 4: Step 4: Thursday

Spend 45-minutes to following up on something you’ve discovered so far in your reading.

Chapter 5: Step 5: Friday/Saturday

Watch a universally acclaimed motion picture or attend local theater (and by that I mean see a play).

* * *

If you were to so regulate your animal spirits, it would cost you ~6 hours of time you otherwise squander lost in social media, trapped in the repetitive sturm und drang of video games, or seated in front of the flat screen.

Of course, I’m being facetious by suggesting this regimen. This regulation of dabbling in the arts would be destined to fail for the same reason diets fail. After a while, the spirit rebels against the assembly line sameness of eating healthy vegetables or reading outloud every Wednesday quatrains of tetrameter.

However, I can tell you this, reading good fiction can provide invaluable vicarious experience because it creates characters true to life. Cynical Mr. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, despite his delightful wit and clever putdowns, suffers mightily for his detached parenting and refusal to listen to good advice, and his suffering certainly could have been catastrophic if not for Mr. Darcy.

This ARTICLE my friend Ed Burrows sent me scientifically supports the idea that good fiction can also increase your “moral intelligence.”

Dig this:

A 2013 study by the psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano explored the causal relationship between reading high-quality literary fiction and the ability to take the perspective of others, as measured by one of several well-tested tools, such as judging others’ emotions and eye-gaze directionality for interpreting what someone is thinking. The researchers found that participants who were assigned to read literary fiction performed significantly better on these “mind reading” tests that measured where subjects were looking and how they judged the emotions of others than did participants assigned to the other experimental groups, which did not differ from one another.

Think of reading good fiction and poetry as discovery, not escape.