I had answered my ringing house phone to a recording. I put the phone on speaker, set it down on the counter, and waited for the caller to come on live. The recording continued, as if with indefinite intent. I opened Garage Band on my laptop and recorded the message, later adding the other tracks with instruments and vocals.
Beach painting by John Linker
“Music as discourse (jazz) doesn’t work,” John Cage said. “If you’re going to have a discussion, have it, and use words.”[i]
Cage’s claim might have met with some disagreement last Wednesday evening, when around 100 jazz and book festive fans filled Classic Piano’s small recital room for the launch of Lynn Darroch’s new book, “Rhythm in the Rain: Jazz in the Pacific Northwest.”[ii]
The recital room filled with folding chairs sloped downward, a small theatre, to a raised stage. In the back of the room, a table laden with cheeses and crackers and wine and such was bookended with a chair on which sat a stack of Lynn’s book, fresh from Ooligan Press, ready for selling, signing, and reading.
On the stage, Lynn stood behind a podium and read aloud in his distinctive forte-piano voice passages from his book, accompanied by jazz pianist Tom Grant, improvising in a range from pp to ff , in focused conversation with Lynn. (Visions of Rexroth and Ferlinghetti and “Jazz in the Cellar,” but missing Kerouac and company buzzing around existentially obnoxious.)
The discourse worked. “The musicians seem to trade remarks, and sometimes talk along with one another, as if each were reciting a text – a poem or a scripture – which they then consider” (28). “Iyer said: ‘It’s not that we just hear sounds. We hear the sources of the sound, and we’ve evolved to identify them’” (28).[iii]
But do we hear the sources of the sound when we listen to music through electronic speakers? Or when we listen in retrospect? Is the source of the sound the speaker, and not the instrument, the source of sound the instrument makes having been converted from wood and string, brass and breath, hand and beat, and which substitutes or confuses audio signals with true source sound?
Lynn backed away from the podium, and Tom Grant segued into an intricate rendition of Thelonius Monk’s “Blue Monk.” Grant sat at a grand piano, his feet never tiring on the pedals, his focus on Lynn’s discussion.
There came a break during which Lynn sold and signed copies of his book. He gave away a free CD containing some his readings, accompanied by jazz, to fans buying the book at the launch. Tom sat on the edge of the stage chatting with the vocalist Shirley Nanette, who had been sitting in the front row in the audience. In the back of the room, several students associated with PSU’s Ooligan Press chatted about book design, jazz, blogs and other forces of the moment, contributing to a new chapter of jazz in the northwest.
Outside, the evening was dark and wet and not many people were out and about. A few smokers occupied the tables and chairs on the sidewalk next door at the Aladdin Theatre.
In “The Elvic Oracle: Did anyone invent rock and roll?,” in an aside on Sam Phillips’s Sun Studio experience, Louis Menand relates an anecdote on the studio sound as follows: “The band had damaged an amplifier on the way to the studio, so it buzzed when music was played. Phillips considered this a delicious imperfection, and he kept it. That is the sound that makes the record, and many people have called ‘Rocket 88’ the first rock-and-roll song.”[iv]
Many of today’s music listeners value the most expensive and exotic, delicate and accurate sound systems, in order to reproduce the sound of a broken amplifier. The recording and reproduction of music and sound typically, if not always, can only cover the original. “All history is retrospective,” Menand concludes: “…a legend is just one of the forms that history takes” (87).
[i] “Music as discourse (jazz) doesn’t work,” John Cage said, in his “DIARY: HOW TO IMPROVE THE WORLD (YOU WILL ONLY MAKE MATTERS WORSE) 1965,” the first text in his collection “A Year From Monday.” “If you’re going to have a discussion, have it and use words” (p. 12).
[iii] “Time is a Ghost,” by Alec Wilkinson, Feb. 1, 2016, The New Yorker, on the physicist turned jazz musician Vijay Iyer.
[iv] “The Elvic Oracle: Did anyone invent rock and roll?,” by Louis Menand, November 16, 2015, The New Yorker, on the random, fortuitous, indifferent forces that have helped influence what listeners hear and who they hear it by, and how those forces get encoded in legend in retrospect.
An instrumental guitar version of the old folk song, “Old Blue,” recorded impromptu using Garage Band on the laptop, two tracks, each recorded using Telephone Vocal, then copied and pasted twice, for a total of six tracks, the pasted tracks each using a different Garage Band library voice (including Deeper Vocal, Dublin Delay, Surfin’ in Stereo, and Mystery Chorus). Check it out!
This Yamaha Red Label FG-180 guitar was probably built in 1969. The woman in the guitar store next to the Loyola Theatre in Westchester said Jimmy Webb had been in the week before and picked up this very Yamaha and played a few chords. She couldn’t believe I’d never heard of Jimmy Webb. It was March, 1970, and I’d just returned from active duty in Forts Bliss and Huachuca. Having talked to some other guitarists, I already knew the FG-180 was the guitar I wanted for the money I had, factory made in Japan, so inexpensive, but playable, reliable, and sound worthy. The guitar, case included, cost $100, a Martin dreadnought knockoff, no extra charge for the Jimmy Webb back story.
A back story is a forward. The forward is not a trailer, nor is it an abstract. The back story never spoils. It’s an appetizer. The back story, moving forward, provides the predicament that explains the current situation. Without a back story, new episodes drift aimlessly and meaninglessly, random dead links. The back story deflates absurdity and fills the reader with hope. The back story is a proposal, a hypothesis, an argument.
My first guitar was a hand-me-down from a neighbor friend, but its neck was broken by an early girlfriend jumping off the top bunk. I then purchased for $25 from an ad in the South Bay Daily Breeze newspaper, a nylon string, plywood top Orlando.
What is the relationship between physicists’ string theories and guitar? The on-line forums for both are full of confusing, contradictory claims, but full of back stories. A guitar often comes with a back story. Several guitar cases were recently spotted for sale in thrift shops, but the guitars were long gone. We might have some idea the age of the universe, but is it old or young, and what does it matter? The Ventura guitar case the guitar shop offered to throw in today shows the wear and tear of travel in a deuce and a half, to Fort Liggett and Camp Roberts and Camp Pendleton, and later trips to gold rush country and various ocean beaches, and not a few years sleeping in a dank basement while the guitar enjoyed an open stand in the living room.
This FG-180 has a spruce, two-piece solid top, mahogany sides, and a two-piece mahogany back. The neck is a thick bar of nato of one piece with the head. The fretboard is one quarter inch thick rosewood. The Yamaha link (above) says the backs were three-piece, but the top and back of this one are both two-piece, book matched. The bridge is rosewood. The FG stands for folk guitar. This one has a thin crack in the back of the head, at the top of the neck.
The top under the bridge has lifted some, and the head crack is a bit worrisome; light or extra-light strings will reduce tension. The FG-180 is now set up with D’Addario XL Chromes, flat wound, jazz light gauge, electric guitar strings. The electric strings when played acoustically don’t produce as loud or deep or full a sound as acoustic strings, but they pop, ping, and twang, “like a steel rail humming” (Pete Seeger, “Hobo’s Lullaby”), and if you do want to plug the guitar into an amplifier, use an old fashion, Dean Markley sound hole fitted pickup.
In Astra Taylor’s film “Examined Life,” Slavoj Zizek explains how we are seduced by ideology. If the universe has a back story, our present predicament can be explained, even if the explanation makes no sense. The Big Bang is a big back story. When an effect tickles or bites or bombards or floods us, we search for a cause. We reconsider our back stories.
We somehow must work and rework, correct or clarify, our back stories into our instantaneous presentations and performances amid the distractions, commercials, hypes, phobias, click bait, news tsunamis – the whole bafflegab of what’s up now.
Zizi Papacharissi, in “A Networked Self,” appears to understand the ability to “back-story” (to verbalize a noun, to go with the flow, “To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet” as Eliot said in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”) as an adaptation skill, the ability to adapt to changes in social environments, from a supposed fixed state, where the self was assumed to be a character bound in a book with a lineal story, to a fluid self that is constantly seeking its own level, walking on the deck of a small boat, changing with every social interaction, mimicry as a survival technique (elasticity of demand in a social market):
“Narratives about the self have always been performative. That’s what renders aspects of our identity a discourse. What changes is that performativity is augmented through online means of self presentation. And it is this enhanced theatricality, afforded by certain online platforms (SNSs, and various forms of blogs and microblogs), that individuals find most appealing.
Sociability is practiced to the network, via the network. Performances of the self enable sociability, and these socially oriented performances must carry meaning for multiple publics and audiences without sacrificing one’s true sense of self. These polysemic performances not only contain many layers of meaning, but are remixed and remixable – sampling digital traces of identity to piece together performances that are further remixed and re-interpreted by multiple audiences and publics.”
That could be used as a back story that may now explain the emergence of the folk revival of the 1950s and 60s. The revival, originally acted out in small coffee shops, living rooms, and campus settings, was at first minimally commercial. Few expected to earn a life-long living from singing folk song covers, but that wasn’t the goal, and the identity of the performer was inseparable from the identity of the audience. The audience participated in the performance. But that participation wasn’t a surge of fans aspiring to go on stage. There often wasn’t a stage, and each time a song was sung it was renewed in an altered form. Many of these performances were not recorded. They were passed on as living songs. Folk music is chameleon and transferable.
One of my older sisters sang in a high school folk group, “The Travelling Trio.” Their travels did not take them out of the Los Angeles Basin. They sang in living rooms and the local high school gym. Imagine a young Judy Garland singing Elizabeth Cotton’s “Freight Train.” But unlike my sister, whose voice flowed like melted chocolate over fresh strawberries, your voice sounds like a galvanized plumbing pipe rattling in the wall with trapped air bubbles. Such a voice might confuse Tom Waits with Hedy West. Still, your Kentucky grandfather played the spoons and the harmonica, to add more filler to your back story, and you were an easy target for the music bug early on.
But a singing gig was not to become part of your back story. You played finger style. You liked the guitarist John Fahey, saw him play at Long Beach State and again at the Ash Grove. Not only did he not sing, on stage he never said a word. You were playing what you pretended was folk blues and fell into jazz. You took up what you called jazz guitar, though not everyone necessarily heard it that way.
Classical guitar lessons are useful for a few years. Your fingers already know how to play, but your brain doesn’t always know what they are doing. Over time, you’ll use up several teachers who will walk you through a couple of Aaron Shearer books, and a few of the Frederick Noad books, and teach you the Segovia scale method (which you might later hear Joe Pass dis, along with the number system). Your first teacher will probably introduce you to Leo Brouwer and his “Etudes Simples.” The Cuban composer’s short pieces are of course not all that simple, but at least you don’t have to sing. You’ll learn to read, slowly, like a stuttering primary school student, and learn enough to work through a Dionisio Aguado book, “Studi Per Chitarra,” on your own. You’ll learn by heart the old cliché: “The guitar is the easiest of instruments to play poorly, the most difficult to play well.” You’ll return to jazz and folk and find your breath and take solace in another cliché: “Close enough for jazz.”
Close enough substitutes feeling for the pursuit of perfection which as Cornel West explains in “Examined Life” is the romantic road to disappointment. So it was in the spirit of close enough that I answered an invitation from Sunshine Dixon to read a poem at an artists’ reception in the campus library, but I suggested that instead of reading a poem I might bring my old FG-180 guitar and sing a folk song. I worked up a folk version of “Gospel Plow,” using Dylan’s version on his first album as inspiration. If a recording pops up on-line somewhere I’ll add a link to the back story or upload a piece of it to SoundCloud. Maybe sister Peggy Ann will tune in.
And if you’d like to read more about the artists’ reception, Sunshine and I collaborated on a short article now on-line here, already part of a back story.
What is there to discuss-ion? “Music as discourse (jazz) doesn’t work,” John Cage said.* “If you’re going to have a discussion, have it and use words.” As both a jazz and Cage fan, I’ve often reflected on the paradox, for discourse, “running to and fro,” seems an accurate description of jazz, with or without words.
According to Google’s Ngram Viewer, the word discussion in American English is on the decline, following a peak around 1960. Interested readers may follow the link to an Ngram Viewer chart that graphs the word discussion found in “lots of books” from 1800 through 2008 using the corpus “American English.” But what is the difference between being involved in a discussion and having a conversation? Again using Ngram Viewer, we find conversation and discussion crossing just after 1900, discussion on the rise, conversation falling off, but recently apparently headed for another crossing, discussion dying, conversation on the upswing, beginning around 1980. What does all this mean, if anything? But it looks interesting, even if it does not provoke a good discussion question.
Are discussions weightier than conversations? We may not associate the chitchat, the tete-a-tete, with discussion, but with conversation. Do we gossip during a discussion? We prattle on. Are you still with us? Maybe conversations are more intimate than discussions. Can we have a conversation question in the same sense we have discussion questions? If words have meanings, then perhaps a discussion on discussion might mean something. But is mere meaning ever enough, or must we have entertainment to boot? To mean is to mind, as we mine for meaning. And Cage added, immediately following his seemingly anti-jazz comment, in parentheses, “(Dialogue is another matter).” What did he mean by that?
What are discussion questions, and should we have them? Can we have a discussion without a question to prompt one? What is the discussion question that can only result in silence? And is that the discussion we desire?
Give any one thought a push : it falls down easily but the pusher and the pushed pro-duce that enter- tainment called a dis-cussion . Shall we have one later ? Cage, "Lecture on Nothing," Silence, 1961 (1973), 109 (the text is arranged in four columns, here approximate).
Without further ado:
7 Short Discussion Questions with Equally Short Suggested Answers:
- Q: Are discussion questions deconstructive? A: Pour the lecture neat.
- Q: Where would you like to sit? A: In separate sections.
- Q: Has education become entertainment? A: You’re taking me out tonight?
- Q: How can we improve the world? A: How long is this supposed to last?
- Q: What can we learn from randomness? A: Noise counts – percussion discussion.
- Q: Why even when diligently minding our own business are we often snared by a discussion question? A: “Do you know the way to San Jose?”
- Q: Does wasted time pay for itself? A: Time will never tell.
* John Cage, "DIARY: HOW TO IMPROVE THE WORLD (YOU WILL ONLY MAKE MATTERS WORSE) 1965," A Year From Monday, 1967, 12.
“jazzskin” is an old, handmade chapbook (1973, 17 pages – click on photos):
The “poetry occurs” idea is a riff off John Cage, whose book “Silence” (1961) begins with “The Future of Music: Credo”: “Wherever we are,” Cage says, “what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.” In his essay “Experimental Music,” Cage underscores the idea that noise is everywhere and attempts to control it create other hazards, but, he says, “One need not fear about the future of music. But this fearlessness only follows if, at the parting of the ways, where it is realized that sounds occur whether intended or not, one turns in the direction of those he does not intend.” When I was working on “jazzskin,” I felt, as I do now, the same about poetry that Cage felt about music. But Cage was not a jazz fan. He apparently thought jazz was about having a conversation, for which he preferred words.
John Lancaster’s review of The Road of Excess, Marcus Boon’s book on writing under the influence, appeared in the January 6, 2003 New Yorker, and the review provides an effective, short introduction into drug use in writing as well as the journalistic impulse to too easily categorize, stereotype, and generalize. Associating addictions with occupations simply creates a stereotype. It’s probably true to say that alcoholism travels promiscuously in sales, but this doesn’t mean that alcohol is notably absent from other occupations, nor that all who work in sales are alcoholics, so what does the adage gain us in understanding either addiction or sales? Addictions transcend occupations; we find them everywhere. We may be living in the Age of Drugs, since we also live in the Age of Anxiety. Lancaster points out that most of the drugs we associate with addictions are late 19th or 20th century inventions. But while drugs addict, not all addictions are to drugs. Boon’s title comes from William Blake’s “The Proverbs of Hell,” found in Blake’s long poem, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The complete line is “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” But Blake wasn’t talking about drugs. He was talking about contraries. When Salvador Dali was asked if he painted while on drugs, as if that might explain surrealism, he responded, no; and asked in reply, “Why should I take the drug; I am the drug.”
Lancaster attempts to level the hyperbole, claiming that beyond the classic cases frequently referenced, attempts to associate drugs with writing usually miss the train we’re actually on. Then, he adds a final paragraph, which unfortunately drags jazz and drugs into his discussion, to support his anti-climactic claim that drug use has, after all, influenced the arts, particularly popular music. “The story of dope-fiend writers is interesting, but the history of dope-fiend jazz musicians is the history of jazz,” Lancaster says. Dope is not the history of jazz, any more than alcohol is the history of any occupation. Drugs have seeped into all socio-economic demographics of our society. Should we say that steroid use is the history of baseball? In the end, the average writer is no different from the average carpenter, who rises early and starts pounding nails, not beers, while the writer is pounding keys. Of interest with regard to Lancaster’s review are the letters found in the January 27 New Yorker “Mail,” Sue Mingus emphatically insisting that her husband, the famous jazz bassist Charles Mingus, listed by Lancaster as an addict, “was not a heroin addict,” and she eloquently argues that Lancaster “perpetuates myths and clichés and reveals little of the nature of creativity.” Another reader wrote to deflate Lancaster’s reference that listening to Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue approximates the heroin experience. The reader claimed that the Kind of Blue album came after Miles’s addictions, seemingly a question of fact; but, in any case, the year we saw Mark McQuire and Jose Canseco hit back to back homers in the King Dome – did that approximate for the fan what it’s like to be on steroids?
As pervasive then as drug use, are the associations we make about its use, and so we were not surprised to hear JazzWax weighing in on jazz and popular music drug use in yesterday’s Sunday Wax Bits. Keith Richards’s recent memoir, Life, provides a fresh example of the JazzWax point that popular music’s business plan has always promoted the glamorization of drugs. But Lancaster also pointed out that writing that is about drugs is usually best when it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and is wrapped in humor. We’re not sure we can take Richards’s entire memoir seriously, for it’s a memoir meant to sell a life, and if the story of popular music is about something other than popular music, it’s about an addiction not to drugs, but to money, which reveals itself in exploitation and adulteration, a watering down of goods and needs to wants and consumptions.