Thursday, October 28, 2010

Halloween Memoir

Sometimes it appeared as if every day, or at least every weekend was like Halloween at the Hampton household.

Firstly there was my father's weekly visits to the local ancient warlock Lester, a warlock who lived in a trailer filled with books on Satanism and Black Magick. I was many times forced to stay out in the hot car in the Florida sun, which in November might feel like May; I never knew exactly what was going on in that trailer and somehow I felt I was better off in that car. Merely the sight of Lester's beard, which to me seemed to extend to his knees, was enough to frighten me.

Indeed the whole environment could be quite a scare. All of the colors of shag carpeting and all of those cheap and wretched slick oil paintings of sad clowns at George's house, especially bathrooms in bright shades of peach and bubble gum pink and maroon and rust, and lime and aqua blue and so on were enough to frighten. I had forgotten all of the many thick oil paintings that seemed to cover every bit of wall space at the neighbors. Often at night I would imagine that the figures in the paintings could move or come to life to attack me in my bed. Especially the clowns. There was one painting of Abe Lincoln that was particularly frightful. It was velvet which always seemed to me worse than the oils. It took many decades for me to accept him as a benevolent figure after exposure to that amateur paining of Lincoln. In grade school I would argue with the teachers, "Abe Lincoln couldn't have done all that good stuff. He stares at me late at night and threatens to come out of this velvet painting and molest me".

(This brings up another issue at the time: the ever present threat of the child molester. We were told to trust no male anywhere, especially if in a car.

This warning was actually borne out when, in the middle of midtown Manhattan, an obese man in a minivan circled around me in 1980 with chant "hey little boy you are cute come here come here little boy" over and over like a mantra. I can't imagine with that kind of approach this apparent pedophile got many results. I just laughed at him while running in the other direction).

Secondly there were the cheap horror movies that played with abundance for in the buck a movie theater. All the ads you see in the blog above I probably saw.

Last, but not least, me and my best friend George, under the doubtless diabolical influence of my father, got the idea of acting out stuff. Somehow my father developed a taste for imitating the most evil figures he could come up with and playing games with us kids based on such villainy. I believe he was either a vampire of some kind, or worse a slasher serial killer. When he was the vampire he would wear fangs and a black cape and come out from behind bushes to bite our throats.

But it was when he was a killer that dad went far beyond what in our jargon addled contemporary culture we would call boundaries. He had this toy rubber knife and he would hide in the cavernous plant where our products were created and jump out at us like a crazed killer, "stabbing" us with that rubber knife. Though it was a kind of make believe, that rubber could really hurt and my father showed no mercy in his attacks. When we closed our eyes we could almost feel as if he had transformed or become possessed by the spirit of a crazed killer.
We had the perfect environment for hide and seek games because the plant and other buildings in the area were highly industrial and filled with all kinds of shadows at night. It was never clear to me then nor is it clear now what to feel about any of this acting. It seems as if our only role was to play victim and protect ourselves from getting killed which was a futile effort when faced with someone twice your size with a rubber knife.

Between all of these antics and having to perform the magic shows you can understand if my tastes now run towards, shall we say, the realistic, the less than fantastic.

It was worse after the distribution of The Shining because the Jack Nicholson character was a real inspiration and my father would basically "imitate" that character with us boys "cast" in the role of son Danny running for our lives. There was a real relish in the most macho kind of sadism here. To this day I am most sensitive to any kind of cutting imagery in cinema. I have a horror of broken glass as well.

Then there were the events in the neighborhood that seemed a kind of natural horror. There was the little girl who seized my balls forcing me to the pavement.

And then there were the stories. There was the slick used car salesman who sold my dad our beloved red thunderbird convertible with the white vinyl top: a salesman who, in his leisure time at home got mad at his television and took an imposing shotgun and essentially blew up the television set: one of those huge Magnavoxes with the knobs. His story always changed. When he was sober he would say he shot up the television because he was mad at Phil Donahue because Phil Donahue was not "family oriented". (His words). When he was drunk, which was considerably more often, he said he shot his television so as to spare his wife. His wife eventually left him for fear that she would be next. (Her words)

And of course the kinds of Christians who were always coming around to preach and tell their stories had a rather Gothic kind of Christianity as the emphasis was always on Satan and Satan's deeds, and the condition of Hell, and who was going to Hell and who wasn't and so on.

It did not help matters that my father's relatives would come over and talk of demons and demon possession. Certain rules were made very clear. Right before a visitation by a devil or demon you would hear a distinct sound like a hammer or anvil. How often I would lie sleepless in my bed listening for that sound, whether I "believed" in such things or not.

It was rumored too that the rock band that practiced across the street were devil worshippers. Everybody in the neighborhood said so. They would play all night into the night; their music was so out of tune and sluggish, so warbled and incoherent I often wondered if I would ever develop a taste for this weird kind of music called rock with which everybody around me was so enamored.

My uncle the preacher would invariably visit my father and always ask him: "have you done any more thinking about (thumb pointed downward) up there and (thumb pointed skyward) DOWN there?" with a gleeful smile, all the while tapping his foot in a most arrhythmic manner, a nervous tic, while too, his children would proceed to dismantle our house while their father complained that he could not treat those boys because "where we are we haven't got a proper Christian pediatrician." (At the time I honestly didn't know what this saying met. Up there and down there? Why, of course, it is Heaven and Hell. What else?) You will recall that in this subculture, since then now part of mainstream culture, everything had to be Christian, whatever that meant. There was Christian dentistry and Christian agriculture, and Christian music and Christian schooling, and for all I know, Christian legislature. How little I knew then that these folks would only grow in influence.

Because of all this and more, I do not remember a single Halloween.

Fear has such a bad reputation in our current cultural moment. It is viewed as an illusion, as groundless, as something to be overcome so that we may be better people. No sentiments could be further from the truth. Groundless fear may be a problem, but there are some things in life that are best to be avoided.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Improvised Birthday Message

On October 22, 2010 I will begin the experience of my 43rd year on this baroque planet of ours, in what appears to be a long orphaned age. Accordingly, I will submit my perceptual temperament to a most public gaze, in the manner of reflections, images and memories culled from the most memorable of the past 42 years, in no particular order.

I remember firstly the smells and feels of those herbal concoctions of my father, stored in industrial vats near my crib: the eucalyptus seemed to be my favorite - the most comforting and soothing.

When I came down with an odd childhood disease months from my birth date, in spite of conventional and received wisdom in medical and psychological quarters these days, I have remembered sensations in my body corresponding to the objective fact of my emergency rush to New York City Hospital. I can feel the cramped car I was in, the warmth of my parent's bodies. I remember being locked in an odd incubator, and the constant fussing and toying with me by the nurses. Later, I was told, on my mother's authority they were cutting my hair. I know not much else except that I was miserable during my stay. My difficulty with touch to this day probably owes something to that brief week.

My earliest aesthetic memories were akin to religious children's genuine experience of God, that is, if those children have had such an experience and are not merely playing at empty religious rituals required by their families and communities. For me, the pulse, sound and harmonic tones of Ravels' Bolero, Bach's Brandenberg Concerto, Mercury Radio Theater's Orson Welles shows, the singing of the Beatles, especially "Day in the Life", the sound of Bessie Smith, and the cornet of Bix Beiderbecke, in Broadway, the complete scores of Guys and Dolls, The Fantasticks, and the Rock show Hair: this list comprises among the most important of my earliest formal auditory experiences. Their melodies, rhythms and harmonies shaped and molded me. The sound of those particular singers and orchestras burned into my marrow and bone; they educated my heart most likely prior to the English language.

And speaking of the English language, the next formative experience was listening to my father read aloud from Coleridge, especially Rime Of The Ancient Mariner and Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer. Later on I was introduced to "the absurd" through improvised stories in the manner of Franz Kafka. My father taught a Shakespeare class - you might say an early example of home schooling - a few years later with and my best friend as the sole pupils.

My earliest memories of dramatic art are visual ones: of Kubrick's 2001, the Marx Brothers, Fellini's Roma and The Clowns. From The Marx Brothers I learned the pleasures of insult and iconoclasm. From Fellini I got a sense of human diversity and vitality. From Kubrick I got a taste of something possible in cinema that I had only to see - in the work of Antonioni - finally and fully realized.

From these odd French movies of the 1970s I learned something of what is possible in human conversation. There was more to this art of conversation, however artificially staged. In arguing against my parents and in defense of a production of Harold Pinter's No Man's Land, with Sir Ralph Richardson and Sir John Gielgud no less, I learned of the possibilities of scene construction between merely two people, the nature of performance, and the hard lesson that people could, in spite of their best instincts and intelligence, be rather incurious about the mystery, obliquity and indirection that could transpire and give rise to suspense between two characters.

Unlike many, if not most of my peers, my elders, and increasingly even those younger, I have chosen not to marry or reproduce. This has been very much a choice. Yet it is a choice borne of my desire to spend a certain amount of time alone. I remember the first woman with whom I made love. She was among one of the most beautiful women I have ever had the magical fortune to know. We loved each other's company, but it was not to last because of differences in time and, of course, temperament.

At that time I had something of a musical career starting, writing lots of music and playing lots of gigs. It took many, many years for me to become, to my ears anyway, a decent musician. To make a thing of coherence and meaning - what we may call Art or I, after an old fashion, call Poetry - to say nothing of beauty and excellence is the most arduous thing.

Because of my peculiar disconnection from traditional forms and institutions and my curious sense of freedom, the most important human contact in my life has been through friendship rather than through the form of the couple. This has been as hard on me as it has been liberatory and liberating. But without my friends, some of whom may be reading this right now, my life would be a far worse and more bereft place. I am pleasantly reminded of that self-help cliche that friends are "God's" way of apologizing to us for our families.

During that time my perceptions were rather crude. They still are but are much more complex. My emotions are both considerably dulled, yet, paradoxically, enriched. I hope that is not too oxymoronic, for there is not more to be said on the matter.

One of my heroes and inspirations is Ralph Waldo Emerson. He seems to me right about so many things. Most of all I love his syntax and his style which are are of a piece with his so-called message. I close with this passage from Experience. They seem to me words to live by. I measure my state by them:

I compare notes with one of my friends who expects everything from the universe and is disappointed when anything is less than the best, and I found that I begin at the other extreme, expecting nothing, and am always full of thanks for moderate goods. If we will take the good we find, asking no questions, we shall have heaping measures.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

A Few Improvised Paragraphs Concerning Musical Matters

It has been brought to my attention that this blog needs to become more serious in intent, less coy in its avowed elitism. Other quarters plead for a more intimate, chatty touch. Everybody agrees that I need to include more stuff to look at that is stimulating, something on a par with the daily visual bombardment that greets you from, say, taxi enroute to airport.

I am offering for this, my latest post, some theses concerning the nature of some of our current problems in our life and in our art. I will approach this post (and others to follow) in an improvised fashion. Imagine I am taking choruses, or in this case taking paragraphs.

If you mention the phrase "The Three Tenors", it is popularly known that this refers to the celebrity and media event of the touring and recording of three most acclaimed tenors in the opera and classical world: Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, and Jose Carreras. This was as big an event as the classical world could ever hope to experience. Three masters of their art were everywhere televised, recorded, listened to and discussed.

Many years later another kind of "three tenors" musical event occurred. This was the recording and performance of three giants in west cast jazz tenor saxophone: Pete Christlieb, Ernie Watts, and Ricky Woodard. All three were alumni of the top big bands of several decades, like Kenton and Louis Bellson. All are supreme masters of the improvised solo, and all three are involved in important and noteworthy commercial and pop studio recordings, as Christlieb was in Steely Dan's work, for example.

The latter three tenor project was not very much heralded. Outside of a handful of jazz fans, and woodwind performers, maybe even fellow musicians, few people knew nor cared about this instrumental trio, especially when stacked against the fame of the opera singers.

Here is Christlieb playing "But Beautiful", to perfection.

All of our problems in culture can be gleamed from this single comparison and the data contained therein.

Any explanation that the classical tenor project is innately a widespread success because it is sung, or because the material is inherently likable by more people by virtue of its familiarity, or by the virtue of the superiority of certain Italian composers in the 19th century (or, in the case of "My Way", Canadian American pop composers) is an explanation that is question begging; it is a just-so story. Everybody loves a song with lyrics, my interlocutor would say; it is more natural, goes back to our earliest roots, song is our first creative act as humans etc.

It really doesn't matter how much brain data or social data you can muster to prove the reasons for this inequality of reception. It is a testament to a sheer lack of musical taste, dare I say imagination among the masses of people. (As much as it is a testament, perhaps to the special genius of Verdi and Paul Anka). That the tenor saxophonist is less appealing when he plays improvised lines upon standard popular songs whereas the operatic tenor is always, already a hit when he sings very proper, very predictable repetitions of arias that go back hundreds of years, is for me a matter of great sorrow.

Steve Martin in his play Picasso At The Lapin Agile has a character noticing that Elvis Presley is so much more famous than Albert Einstein. Then the character says a line to the effect of "it will always be that way", a line destined to generate great laughter in an audience. This may be a bon mot on Martin's part but it is not true. Or rather, it becomes the proverbial self-fulfilling prophecy.

It is not a question of the styles being different. It is a question of a deep human limitation that exists around the world. This is the same human limitation that causes millions of people to embrace movies like Titanic.

Comments like these get me called names like snob or elitist. People are forever defending people's right to not like Jazz. It is considered impolite to suggest that this dislike stems from a flaw in the listener.

Actually, given what we know about marketing, anything can be sold on a mass scale. There is no reason why some genius promoter could not have made three middle aged tenor saxophonists as famous as three opera singers. Instrumentals like Mason Williams' "Classical Gas" have been at times as famous as any vocal recording. Looked at in this way, I blame advertisers for not doing their job, or rather, they do their job rather selectively and aim their considerable powers of persuasion at the service of things like the movie The Social Network or trumpeter Chris Botti, rather than, say a grand tenor man like Pete Christlieb. Anything can be sold. Where is the advertiser who happens to be a jazz buff that feels Christlieb could be as famous as Pavarotti?

Perhaps it is the wrong era: in the past the three tenors could have been John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Joe Farrell. (Imagine that performance and recording)! Of course there was the late Michael Brecker. Nobody can hope to beat Brecker at tenor saxophone musicianship and he was almost famous, mainly, because of all the pop albums he was on.

Reception theory in academe has taken a wrong turn in being so accommodating of the receiver. Reception theory should interrogate the audience with all the skepticism and chilly distance that Marxist and Feminist critics once gave canonical works of art.

In any case, quality and taste are not matters that have ever been necessarily limited in appeal. Indeed, a large part of the history of art is a consistent and strong tradition of high quality work that reaches large numbers.

Historically this was always the case (until now) with literature. Books of the highest quality like Tolstoy's Anna Karenina were once widely available at local Kiosks. They were bought and read, I believe, approaching the sales, in their time, of a John Grisham or Jodi Picoult today. One might say that the classical music of Mozart was rather popular in the 18th century. Purely instrumental music has seen waves of popularity equal to that of vocal music.

I think one of the characteristics of a flourishing and "advanced" culture is the existence of widespread instrumental music.

What need explaining, because it is so historically unprecedented, is the appeal of rock music. What does it say that a music in that particular style is so pervasive and popular? What modes does rock ignore or choose to highlight? What gets lost by its domination? Indeed, when the very word "music" is uttered what is generally meant is invariably some kind of band with the usual singer and an electric guitar and so on. The phrase "music scene" means some of kind of alternative band.

But that is a topic I have already addressed once. Yet it bears some more research in the future.

I could not find any clip of the three tenor saxes on youtube. Yet I did find the following. I hope you "like" it.