Sunday, April 10, 2011

Living in New York City Paranoid Under Blue Skies

Foto by tgw, New York City, March 2011
Say Goodbye to William Walker, or Billy Bang...jazz violinist extraordinaire...started off with Sun Ra and the Arkestra...then played around New York City with his own trio during the 80s-90s. Billy died of lung cancer getting ready to perform at the Rochester Jazz Festival:
I'm not depressed. I don't get depressed. Repressed, yes, maybe...repression. Isn't that what Freud said was our worst enemy? "Let it all hang out." I thought that's where we were headed. And that's what I liked about American Blacks, they were the most patient and tolerant of people, especially of their enemies.

I'm listening to Ezra Sims's String Quartet No. 2 (1962). It is how I'm feeling right now--how I'm not supposed to feel. This the second movement, called "Calmly Moving," and it is lulling me into a midstream of sensibility--a movement that is soon ending in my anticipating ears--I'm a musician; we sense endings...and beginnings, too...and middle passages, too--musicians, even bad ones, usually have more sense than the average bears around town. And I say even the bad ones and I include in the bad ones even those poor little spoiled brats who line up by the millions to try and get on American Idol (a pop music mill--and I see where that little British deejay dick that sold Uncle Rupert on American Idol has another same-kind-of show soon coming on one of the competing same-old-same-old commercial networks--probably the amateur Disney Network) are so fucking confident of their best amateur efforts--amazing how this inane pop teevee show and Walt Disney Inc. now determine who our juvenile and teen-age pop stars will be. But then that's all teevee is (and this includes all the Walt Disney-created teevee amateur shows (Mickey Mouse Club)): the remaking over and over of its historically most-successful shows, of which numerous amateur-hour shows (at least they used to call them "amateur" shows) have been extremely successful over the years (The Lipton Amateur Hour; Arthur Godfrey's Amateur Hour; Ed McMahon's Star Search; etc.). All people...and monkeys...think they can sing. Therefore, all people are jealous of those of us who can sing naturally--just right-off-the-bat, like all people think they can sing--especially when they are in a recording-booth-like shower or any place with a lot of reverb. Playing an instrument naturally...that's another matter. Most instruments aren't easy to just start playing--and it's certainly not like you can just start singing. Only idiot savants and men who talk directly to God like Jimmy Swaggert can claim they saw a piano and right off they knew, by God, they could play it--and they did play it like right off the bat--they just walked up to a piano and BOOM started playing it like a pro right off the bat. In Jimmy's case, it was the piano in his holy rolling church as a boy in Faraday, Louisiana, along with cousins Mickey Gilley and Jerry Lee Lewis--both of whom played the exact same style of piano Jimmy did--all of them playing by ear (which I assume is by God).

I'm making fun of these amateurs--any self-taught singer is an amateur--and I call them still amateurs even after these amateur idols turn professional (they get an agent and a recording contract). Yes, they start out as amateurs and they end up as amateurs--professional recording engineers and sound experts and Pro Tools giving them whatever professional abilities they are forced to learn--yet, their music and singing is still amateur--and here I am a hypocrite.

I remember the afternoon in Dallas, Texas, when the piano van delivered my mother's prize buy of her lifetime, an 1888 Beethoven Pump Organ, made in Paterson, New Jersey, in that year of our (or your) Lord (mine's Lord Buckley)--information one found in gold stenciled text across the back panel just above the line of stops on that old organ. This beast of an instrument was about the size of a spinet piano, except it wore like a Chiquita Banana-type hat atop its top, an elaborately carved topper (headboard, same as a bed's headboard), this one carved up with fruits and vines in dark mahogany, with insets backed by mirrors, all rising up to a rather steeple-like top that was just a ball of mahogany wood on a tower of mahogany vines.

I was seven years old when that organ entered my home that afternoon in Dallas, Texas. A plain English tudor-style two-story brick and stucco home that to me, a near-to-the-ground kid, looked like a castle--and it really was a castle in terms of where it sat in the middle of what was intended to be a pre-World War II housing development--halted by the war, to leave MY house, the model home in the development, a castle atop the hill that had a street, Hilltop Road, named after it. My castle-house with its Trojan Horse-looking cedar tree growing up to a gigantic height on the east side of the tall brick chimney that was the house's broad nose. And what castle didn't have an organ in it? I know in all the schlock Vincent Price "horror" movies of those years, Vincent's castles always had a huge pipe organ in them for Vincent to evilly sit and evilly play--usually a minor-key Bach-like rush of crescendos and diminuendos.

I once met Vincent Price in New Orleans; he was going around with "The Vincent Price Art Collection"--selling it off during appearances at the local Sears-Roebuck store--he sold off his art in cahoots with Sears-Roebuck, for whom he was a paid consultant or some-such PR bullshit title like that. I bought a Renoir drawing from Vincent that day for $600--he personally signed the COA. When my wife-at-the-time later kicked my worthless ass out of our Sutton Place-New York City high-class digs, the Renoir disappeared into her future and not mine. Though I would not own it today had I have gotten it in the divorce settlement--I would have sold it immediately after the divorce because at the time I was working for Time Inc. making at my highest $7,000 a year. My expenses were about twice my income.

It's hard for me to believe I've survived two times in my life when I was stone broke--literally almost put out on a New York City curb with my mangled possessions--without a sou in my jeans--and yet I've managed to come back up both times--to rise back up like the proverbial Phoenix. Hell, in my day, I've gone from flat broke and in debt (credit cards) to a skyrocketed ride up over the hundred-grand-a-year mark in the advertising racket. And what a great word racket is for what our careers really are. Corporate rackets rule us now. In fact, the USA is one big racket--a nation of schemers--a nation of speculators--pure speculations--even speculative ideas--and that's what these teabagger dicks and janes are telling We the Dumbass Conforming People of this country of lemmings--like this effort to destroy Medicare and Medicaid, two programs that are run much cheaper that any private health insurance company could ever run them. We are being pushed back against the wall of either surviving or perishing on our ability to make lucky speculations--meaning investments--investments that to these New Wheeler-Dealers mean "playing them as they're dealt to you"--the greater the odds, the better the speculation. Some will really strike it rich; others will lose their asses. That's the Law of the Jungle--and our civilization--our artificial life--is being repressed back into a Chaotic jungle.
Time has passed. Time has changed. The music has changed. Now it's Sviatoslav Richter playing Bartok's 2nd Piano Concerto with the USSR State Symphony. I had a rare chance to see Sviatoslav in person--in Austin, Texas--I had my ticket--I was totally excited--I listened to him playing Debussy's L'isle joyeux live in concert--where in that ferocious ending of joyous expiration Sviatoslav stomps the stage with his foot--what an ecstatic moment for a worshiper of the piano and the many saints who've learned to play it with automatic perfection--or near-perfection. As Glenn Gould came to realize, only in the recording studio could he do his performance more-close to perfection. He couldn't correct mistakes in live performances--and that's hell for a perfectionist like Glenn. Horowitz, on the other hand, worked his mistakes into his performances as a natural part of his genius--at least Horowitz never feared veering from the script. At the last minute, to my almost-depression-state disappointment, Sviatoslav canceled the concert--his management said he had a bad cold. I quit listening to Sviatoslav for a while after that in reprisal against his letting a headcold deprive me of a chance to see him play in the flesh. Though in a few months all was forgiven and I had to have my Sviatoslav Richter whether it was in person or not--and then I heard him play the Beethoven Eroica Variations...and then Stravinsky's piano version of Petrouchka. Performances that will never be topped.

Men like me and Sviatoslav Richter love the piano from stem to stern--I mean even its design, its architecture, its symmetry, its acoustically boxed projecting abilities, the layout of its two-tone keys--the minor keys, the black keys, the accidentals. And to be able to wail on the best of them is an exquisite delight--like Sviatoslav and Glenn Gould played on the finest instruments--and like I myself have had occasion to play on--once in a recording studio on a 1927 Steinway Grand--and Steinways are still the best to me, though I've never played a Bosendorfer--anyway, all I can say is there is nothing like being able to play a piano! And to play it in a way no one else does or CAN. Oscar Peterson--the greatest piano player from my lifetime, once said he held himself up against any of the best classical pianists--he said he had opportunity to play like them--he could read sheet music--but he said none of them could ever play like him--besides, what he did was totally improvised and was never the same...that which Glenn Gould said about playing live! You can't be perfect live. But then define perfection.

As a writer, am I freer than I am as a musician? This is the kind of mental fodder I'm unable to seriously try and answer in these days and times of making hay while the sun shines.

Nuclear disaster is raring up its hydra-head in Japan. Threatening to come against me. The scared shitless Japanese spin doctors talking in terms of isotope levels, those radiation levels with a half-life of a matter of days; deemphasizing, playing down, the plutonium levels, those superradiation levels with a half-life of 24,000 years! (Samuel Beckett wrote a whole story on his return to using exclamation points--which to an old baseball player-editor like me is a ball and a bat.)

We are facing our own nuclear disaster. Yet, our president with stentorian coolness assures us we're totally safe from a nuclear catastrophe in this country--I sit here in doubt, knowing what I know about backwards thinkers--and just 25 miles down wind from the Indian Point Nuclear Facility, proclaimed for any number of years now as the most unsafe nuclear plant in the USA--built directly over a fault line--a sagging-with-age reactor whose meltdown and eventual hydrogen explosion could wipe out 200,000 people immediately. (I remember the night a drunk managed to drive his car through the front gate of this facility and through fences right up with the nose of his car abutting the reactor core containment building.) But I'm not to worry.

Am I paranoid yet? No. I know better than to be paranoid. Neurotic at times? I deny I'm neurotic, too. I'm, like Henry Miller who is definitely one of my heroes: I'm too sane to be insane. Unlike the great Dr. Hunter Thompson or the great Ernest Hemingway, I can't see myself at a mental breakdown point where my mental agitations were so demeaning as to cause me to turn a high-powered weapon on my head and blow my brains out all over my desk--or in Hemingway's case, his home's vestibule mirror. Both mens's brain pieces should have been preserved--from those blown apart brains came such brilliant thinking; yet, they still turned on their bearers with a repressive vengeance.

Nonconformists being forced to conform. That's what drives great thinkers to self-destruction.

for The Daily Growler Sunday Edition--now in our 5th year of growling

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