The Messenger

When Gil Scott-Heron died last May at the age of 62 nearly all the obituaries saluted him as “the Godfather of Rap.” It was a title he modestly denied when I interviewed him in 1995, shortly after his recording Spirits had come out. Poet, novelist, R&B musician and social activist, Scott-Heron had influenced the rhyme and rhythms of what would become the rap movement. But the content of his message, contained in “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” “Save the Children,” and dozens of other socially-conscious songs and politically-contrary lyrics, seemed largely ignored by the commercially-intent rap movement he supposedly had inspired.

The interview was a difficult endeavor that saw him cancel an arranged face-to-face, postpone a handful of phone appointments and eventually make contact as he drove around New York’s west side. At key moments in the conversation, the connection would break up and I was left wondering what exactly he had said. I suspected the man was occupied with a mission I could only guess at. By the time he died, it was well known that the suspicions I harbored were well founded.

 

That someone of such achievement, someone of such compassion and determination would succumb to the very evils he had sung about in “The Bottle” and “Angel Dust” is the unspoken heart of The Last Holiday, Scott-Heron’s recently released memoir. By the time he passed, Scott-Heron had spent a fair portion of his last years in jail for cocaine possession, had confessed to battles with addiction and had revealed he was HIV positive. As a young man, he was talented, ambitious (despite “a complete dedication to marijuana”) and fearless in pursuing his goals. What happened?

The omission of any hint of Scott-Heron’s lifestyle struggles puts a huge hole in the memoir, especially considering that the book was written during those last years and that drug use may have even influenced its writing. It’s especially disappointing considering the honesty and excellence of the book’s first half.

The stand-out tune from Spirits was “Message To the Messengers,” a plea for that generation’s rap stars to show some respect for their elders and what had gone down before. ““[Rappers] have to know they’re not going through anything new” he told me, “it’s the same stuff I went through back then. They’ve got to remember it’s not about them. It’s about community and the people.”

That’s exactly what the book’s first several fascinating chapters are about, community and people. It addresses the years between his childhood in small-town Tennessee to his signing with Clive Davis’ Arista Records. This journey makes for a compelling, even inspiring story. Scott-Heron acknowledges the help he had along the way, including that from a young white English teacher named Nettie Leaf who challenged him to read John Knowles A Separate Peace, a book he thought was “white noise about white people.”  Leaf recognized his promise as a writer and helped him get into a private school that would challenge both his intellect and his social skills. He credits his mother with helping him develop his style and reveals that it was she who, “provided the punch line” for his classic complaint against misplaced priorities,  “Whitey On the Moon.” She also suggested mimicking Langston Hughes by repeating the opening line of the poem—” a rat done bit my sister Nell…”

And he worked hard. Presidential candidates who have suggested there’s no work ethic in America’s underclass should read Scott-Heron’s description of employment at age 14 as a dishwasher in a steaming restaurant kitchen and how he sometimes held down multiple jobs to keep himself in school books. It’s thrilling to read how success –not always the case–follows his hard work.

The early sections devoted to his upbringing by his grandmother in Jackson, Tennessee, his eventual move to New York to join his mother, his hot-bloodied pursuit of an education and his eventual recording success even as he coveted a career as a novelist are strong stuff, written with the kind of rhythm and word play expected of someone whose seen as a spiritual inspiration of the rap movement. But then the book changes purpose as its focus shifts to Stevie Wonder and the effort to establish a holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King. It’s as if Scott-Heron has gone into denial and lost his abilities for self-examination. While the sections on Wonder are worthy in that they establish his important role in securing the King holiday –remember Wonder’s joyful 1981 song “Happy Birthday”?—we didn’t come this far with Scott-Heron to see him disappear.

Not only is the focus lost, the writing deteriorates and the book’s construction suddenly seems haphazard.  An excerpt from a long-held Scott-Heron project called “The Artist” seem to fall in as if from the moon. Chapters lurch from story to story without connection. Sprinkled throughout the text are poems, written in rhyming couplets, some deserving a backbeat and a melody line to carry their worthy message forward, clumsy others just waiting to be forgotten. When one of these poems expressing  the hope that morning coffee, “Will hit the right spot and somehow make it clear/What the hell’s going on? What am I doing here?”  we can’t help wonder right along with him.

The unevenness of the text is probably due to the start-and-stop way it was written over his last decade or so.  The book seems to be of two minds and of the two the first is better. Even as the narrative starts to skip like a damaged recording, there are some great moments as Scott-Heron jumps ahead and out of his life to consider the election of Ronald Reagan, and his feelings on joining the Wonderlove tour. We feel the innocent excitement of the book’s first half when Scott-Heron stands on stage next to a child-like Michael Jackson and when he recalls Jesse Jackson giving an election speech at the San Diego Convention Center in 1984. But largely in the book’s second half, the narrative flow, the thing that made so many of his musical verses strong, is missing.

It’s strange to realize once finishing the book that despite all the talk of “spirits” who helped him along the way he completely avoids addressing the devils that did him in. What a disappointment it is – and telling– to know that someone who wrote so honestly about his early life, who penned lyrics that touched a generation with their biting commentary and hopeful resolution, would ignore the struggle that consumed the last years of his life. The Last Holiday seems to stray from its intended themes and leave us with one that’s unintended: the messenger losing sight of the message. It’s as if he wants to tell us, as he does about his early years, but as during that long ago interview, the connection is always breaking up.–Cabbage Rabbit

 

Playlist, 12/11

DAVID MURRAY CUBAN ENSEMBLE PLAYS NAT KING COLE EN ESPANOl;   Motema. Nothing like the original except the tunes. Murray, always adept at finding new ways to frame his music, works with a nine-piece ensemble and strings to do what he does best: cry, caterwaul, lose control (never; it only sounds like it) and get fresh during ballads. More to come on this outstanding recording.

FURTHER EXPLORATIONS, Chick Corea, Eddie Gomez, Paul Motian; Concord Jazz, release date: January 17,2012. Recorded live at the Blue Note in NYC and celebrating the 50th anniversary of the release of Bill Evans Explorations this two-disc set warms us with the sort of interplay that LaFaro and Motian attained on the original. Nobody would mistake Cora for Evans and that’s the beauty of it. For the late Motian, an extension, a perfect circle.

TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY SOUNDTRACK  by Alberto Iglesias; Silva Screen Records. Pedro Almovodar’s favorite composer has strung together a variety of downbeat themes that sound as a continuous whole. We hear some John Adams, some Phillip Glass, even some Steve Reich in this moody music. More on this later as well.  

Joe Henry, Stripped

Joe Henry is best known in service to others, a writer of songs for stars (Madonna “Don’t Tell Me To Stop”) and producer to everyone from Meshell Ndegéocello and Ani DiFranco to Elvis Costello and Mose Allison. His own recordings tend to be noisy affairs with confessional, expressionistic poetry set to pop-savvy melodies framed in cartoonish cacophony. Over the years, he’s included jazz musicians including Brad Mehldau, Don Byron and Ornette Coleman to bring added spark and soulfulness to match his often surreal words. Reverie manages the soulfulness without the static. It’s stripped down Henry with even more obscure lyrics (“I keep wooden boxes like traps strung with wire/In the light of old ties, piled and on fire”). The acoustic quartet of guitar, piano, bass, and drums is occasionally decorated with pump organ, added guitarist Marc Ribot’s ukulele, and backup vocals from Irish singer-songwriter Lisa Hannigan. The effect is even more melancholy than the often down-beat singer has conveyed in the past, and with reason. “Room At Arles,” dedicated to the late, tragic Vic Chesnutt, is particularly somber (“The curtains wave a flag to say/This afternoon is done/And giving in to evening who has/Beat him like a brother”). Despite the mood and minimalism, Reverie is still “raucous and fractured and noisy” as he asserts in the liner notes’ dedication to his parents. And that’s just the way we Henry fans like it.   —Cabbage Rabbit

Spalding Gray Naked, Unseen

Spalding Gray struck me as the perfect balance of author and performer, someone who wrote well and revealingly of himself and then brought that self to the stage. As a long time Gray fan, I was anticipating the release of The Journals of Spalding Gray this month until I read the excerpts printed in today’s New York Times Sunday Magazine. Yes, Gray is introspective and thoughtful, curious as to who he is and why, just as he was in his monologues (if not as deeply as in his published work). But something seemed lacking, something prevented my usual embrace of his story. And I realized that I was getting only half of Gray, the writer without the performer. And I was disappointed in myself for needing the visual, the audible, the theatrical factor that made Gray unique.

One excerpt caught my attention.

Problems with father tempted by the idea that all I do may be a reaction against my father — I look at his life and do all I can to live my life in opposition to this makes my life inflexible and rigid.

This idea of the reactionary life, particularly in light of my own father, has long been a source of discomfort and discussion. Was the protest movement of the 1960s motivated by politics or psychology?  That we might be seeing it in generational terms — my 60s-’70s rebellious and politically radical generation was a reaction to the organizational and blue-collar patriarchs of the post-War generation, wasn’t it? The current Occupy Wall Street movement resulting from reactionary tendencies directed towards the greed-is-good generation of the ’80s and now the ’00s —  it’s powered by the same motivations isn’t it?  It’s a troubling question.  I believe the current movement is ideologically motivated, a reaction to the conditions and the protestors’ perceived future. But ours, a generation that embraced ideals and sold out a decade and more later? I’m not so sure–Cabbage Rabbit

The Postman Rings Once

Albert Snyder’s murder in 1927 at the hands of his wife and her lover gave James M. Cain — and others —  ideas. As Literary Legend has it, the killing inspired Cain twice, once in Double Indemnity and again with The Postman Always Rings Twice . The actual incident was the perfect combination of sex and murder, and its telling in the papers overshadowed what was waiting on the economic horizon.

A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion –the title pulled from a newspaper article of the time;  the chapters have equally Old Testament titles–is something of a tease. Hansen’s fictional period piece is big on “surge” and short on “guilt.” It’s as if the postman rang only once.

What we get instead is long on before and short on after. When the two finally dumb themselves into doing the deed (they’d already done dirty in many dirty ways), things move fast.

Hansen had benefit of memoirs from both of the condemned and is reported to have studied the incident throoughly.  While the juries, the attorneys and the public might have supplied endless material for  Hansen’s biopic, he instead concentrates on the accused’s lack of genuine guilt. The characters in both Postman and Identity, and their subsequent films, share the same base characteristics, all in different circumstances. Here, the not-so-star crossed lovers are oblivious in completely different ways.

The faux-steamy first section is where Hansen takes advantage of creative license. What he made up is damn good, presented flatly, judgmental in that it’s not.  And if the closing section, by comparison, seems to get bored with itself,  we should appreciate Hansen’s circling in quickly. It seemed like knowing how it was going to end suddenly made it less interesting even though we knew how it was going to end from the beginning. If this is the well from which much noir springs, it doesn’t give whatever cliche it’s attached to much support. And, as well,  it does. Are we all this self-absorbed? Hansen, with example, says in so many words that we like to think we’re not. Verdict? I couldn’t put it down.–Cabbage Rabbit

Death of Comics Reboot

Take aways from the publicity surrounding the “reboot” of DC’s line of comics:

— Starting over as issue #1 means not being bound by previous story line.  So maybe Lois and Clark aren’t married. Now what? “Part of the nature of culture is that we retell stories that are meaningful to us, again and again, in different ways,” says Henry Jenkins, the provost’s professor of communication, journalism and cinematic arts at the University of Southern California, “pointing to Homer’s “Iliad,” Virgil’s “Aeneid” and Dante’s “Inferno” as ‘continual reboots of Greek mythology.’” Yeah, what would happen if Odysseus never made it home? Would Homer have increased sales? Myth making — even superhero myth — builds on shared narrative and collective understanding. This is one of the great attractions we felt towards Superman when we first started reading him centuries ago. We knew the story of his leaving Krypton and being found by Ma and Pa Kent, we knew the back story to his dog Krypto and the arrival of Supergirl,we carried a torch for Lana Lang (that red hair) and on and on. We lost interest as the stories pulled away from established myth and were long gone by the time Superman’s origins were rewritten in 1986. It’s more than continuity. It’s legend.

–“The success of superhero movies like “Thor” and “Captain America: The First Avenger” did not entirely rub off on the comics that inspired them, with individual titles struggling to sell more than 100,000 copies at $2.99 or $3.99 a copy.”  Comics are not spin-offs, like action figures, but stand-alones.

–“Recent reports by ICv2, a research company that tracks pop-cultural products, said that in July dollar sales of periodical comics were down 4.27 percent from the same month last year, down 4.6 percent in June and down 6.3 percent for the second quarter over all. Sales of graphic novels at traditional bookstores were up…” That says something encouraging. The kids, whatever their ages, are alright.

–Envy. In Rolling Stone, Grant Morrison, who’s doing the reboot of Action, says “I can appreciate someone like Chris Ware for his artistry, which I think is beautiful, but I think his attitude stinks, it just seems to be the attitude of somebody really privileged, and honestly, try living here, try living on an Indian reservation and shut up, and really seeing all that nihilistic stuff, it really makes me angry, it’s unhelpful to all of us, and it’s coming from people who have money and success to talk  like that and bring those aspects of the way we live in favor of all the  others, and it’s indefensible.” On the other hand, he says he stayed away from comics groupies.

–Morrison also says kids are abandoning comics  and turning  to movies. If that’s true, it’s a blow to our collective imagination.

–While this discussion in The New York Times‘ “Arts Beat” blog of the first reboot — Justice League #1 — does little to advance the craft of comics criticism, the comments that follow do.  Comment #2 quotes Jules Feiffer in The Great Comic Book Heroes saying Batman’s fans have “healthier egos” because Batman was a model of hard work and self-betterment. After all, unlike Superman, he was only human. That has changed, as has Batman, in these steroid sculpted times (no, I’m not accusing Bruce Wayne of following Barry Bonds). This commenter notes that heroes have both become more psychologically real and less human appearing.

Ironically enough, as the heroes have become (a trend one applauds) more human in complex psychology and in the details of their lives (marriages, social relationships, emotional depth), they have become way more cartoonish in the art, turning almost into abstract images, which lack of realism creates a real disconnect (for me anyway) between physical and emotional being.

I believe that those who favored Superman were imagining themselves inside of Jung’s theory of exceptionalism: children believing they were princes or possessing  super powers of  other forms of difference and not part of their own lives and families. Alien, like Superman.

–“Arts Beat” blog reviewer George Gene Gustines, without using the words “youth” or “demographic” feels the same way I felt when reading Justice League #1. Responding to reviewer Adam W. Kepler’s remark that, ” There’s nothing in this first issue that’s innovative, in either the story or the art,” Gustines says:

That feeling just confirms for me that I – as a long time reader of comic books – am not the target audience for this. This initiative is part of the quest for the fabled “new reader,” which, for the sake of the industry, I hope is found.

With 11 pages of ads for future issues of “The New 52!” as the reboot is called (and a Batman themed Converse shoe ad), not counting inside front and back covers, well, I doubted that the Caped Crusaders teaming with Green Lantern, coming so conveniently close to GL’s movie release, my readership was the point. The commenters discuss serialization and speculate who the audience for superheroe comics is, the suspicion being that DC is shooting for a “new,” “younger” demographic. Doing so may risk their current readership who, as commenter #1 speculates is in their mid-20s -to-mid-30s and which probably (my speculation) doesn’t end there. Sure enough, as I was reading the Times I column, here comes CNN with a “most requested” news item coverage showing buyers lining up for the Justice League release. No one there looked to be under 30…maybe the parents were keeping the kids at home.–Cabbage Rabbit

 

Death and Taxes

You’ve gotta believe that most all of what you read in David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King was written by David Foster Wallace. After all, the manuscript was trimmed from “a green duffel bag and two Trader Joe’s sacks” worth of paper  to 548 pages, as editor Michael Pietsch tells us. But then, we don’t know how much stitching Pietsch had to do. We know there was no “outline or other indication of what order David intended for these chapters.”   He tells us he edited “lightly,” and that he cut out”unintentional distractions and confusions…”. And I thought confusions were what Wallace was all about.

Pietsch says, “There were notes and false starts, lists of names, plot ideas, instructions to himself. All these materials were gorgeously alive and charged with observations; reading them was the closest timing to seeing his amazing mind at play upon the world.”  This may suggest that the editor did a lot of writing to bring it all together. It also gives us a way to discern, in its dull and stammering way, what is stitching to what is Wallace.

Does it matter what is Wallace and what is not? Of course it does. And our take is that most of it is, in its being “gorgeously alive” (well, maybe not “gorgeously”  but “grindingly” or “sadly”) and in its glimpse into Wallace’s  “amazing mind.”  What’s amazing about it is its willingness to pursue detail, to pose self-reflecting questions and see a number of answers, to find the most absurd circumstances and put them to sound use.

It matters because I can’t help wonder if the young man who is at the IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Il isn’t — it is! — David Foster Wallace and that as he explains his adolescence in terms of his job aspirations (what a turnaround!), he’s telling us about what that amazing mind went through. There are other characters of interest, drawn in Wallace’s too-revealing style, as if, again, he were writing about himself.  The  narrative is Pynchon-like  in its time-out-of-mind pacing. And there’s some paranoia  — big-brother type paranoia–  thrown in for good measure.  What’d you expect? It’s the IRS.

We’re not ready to make comparisons to Infinite Jest…may have to read it again (that was last summer’s project). And there’s one thing certain: it is unfinished. But this is definitely a David Foster Wallace novel, even some of it wasn’t written by him.–Cabbage Rabbbit