Monday, March 23, 2009

Double Standard? Deaccessioning in Art and Music

Everybody who follows the art world at all knows that the National Academy museum in New York has been coming in for merciless criticism over its sale of two Hudson River School paintings to raise money for basic operating expenses. The Association of Art Museum Directors has prohibited its members from entering into any collaboration with the NA. The so-called "deaccessioning" of holdings to pay operating expenses is like the cardinal sin of the museum community. And there are some good reasons for this; for example: (a) it suggests that the museum leadership is sitting on its duff instead of fundraising; (b) it sends an awful message to people who might contribute artworks with the intention of improving a particular museum's holdings; (c) it threatens to dismantle collections that were painstakingly built up over decades to represent a particular style or school (d) since the only works worth selling for this purpose are those of great merit which bring high prices, it is a sure road to the diminution of the status of the institution - a slippery slope, so to speak; and (e) it demoralizes patrons, staff, audiences, critics, and just about anyone else the museum might count as its base of support.

Whew! Plenty to be concerned about, there. The NY State Legislature has even begun to consider a bill that would legally prohibit deaccessioning to pay operating expenses. And though I personally doubt they would be able to prevent such sales, which can be executed under a variety of pretenses, there are more than enough examples to worry anyone who thinks that important collections have a life of their own and need to be preserved. In 2005 the New York Public Library sold a large number of paintings, including another Hudson River School work of inestimable cultural value to the area and the institution (
Asher Durand's "Kindred Spirits"). It ended up in the hands of Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton, who also wished to denude Fisk University of half their interest in a world-class collection of Georgia O'Keefe paintings. With the full complicity of the university Board, who pleaded financial distress, she hoped to stash some of them in her Crystal Bridges museum in Arkansas. If Arkansas travellers can smuggle some artworks out of the NYPL, maybe we can kidnap some backporch country fiddlers and move a couple of swamps to Queens? (What's that you say - Queens already has enough swamps?) And in what must be the Nightmare on Elm Street of deaccessioning, Brandeis University recently announced that they would close the highly regarded Rose Art Museum due to a budget shortfall, and use the money to improve "arts education" (there's plenty of art in Beantown, they reasoned, so who needs this particular collection?)

And now for something not completely different: everybody who follows the music world knows that in 2007 the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra sold its recently acquired collection of classic Cremonese instruments. All sorts of shenanigans accompanied the acquisition of the instruments in 2003, including a gross overestimate of the value of the collection by the seller, Herbert Axelrod, questions about the authenticity of some of them, and doubts about the appraisal process. What is not in question, though, is that the NJSO in one leap became an orchestra renowned for its string sound (something it took the Philadelphia Orchestra many years to achieve), and the repository of a substantial share of the greatest violins ever made. Yet in 2007 the orchestra sold the collection to pay down debt and support future operating expenses. The collection, some 30 historic string instruments including several Stradivaris and del Gesus, was purchased by hedge fund managers Seth and Brook Taube. The twin bankers, whose Columbus Nova Partners fund was allegedly closed for poor performance, helped themselves to two Strads and gave the orchestra a 5-year loan on the rest.

For this act of deaccessioning, the NJSO was not roundly criticized in the press or condemned by their peers. No professional organization said, "okay, don't lend these guys any instruments". They were not censured by critics or made the goats of music bloggers. So - double standard, or what? Think about it. A museum's "product" is the display of art. An orchestra's "product" is the performance of music. The art that a museum collects gives it a particular strength, or personality. The orchestra's strength or personality is more complex, and depends on the type of music it performs, the skills of its players, and the personalities of the conductors it has had; but the instruments it acquires and uses are definitely a part of the mix, and perhaps the main component of the tonal qualities of its sound. Many orchestras will purchase or commission instruments according to certain principles of sound or taste. So the presence of 30 of the world's greatest string instruments on one stage is not exactly a minor aspect of the orchestra's sound. Replacing them with other, more modern and less sonorous, instruments is comparable to to the Metropolitan Museum saying, "You know, we could really fix the bottom line here if we just get rid of these Rembrandts and Vermeers and pull up some of that French neo-classical stuff out of the basement".

Now let's go back to some of the arguments against deaccessioning in the museum world: (a) it suggests that the museum leadership is sitting on its duff instead of fundraising (this would see to apply equally well in the music world); (b) it sends an awful message to people who might contribute artworks with the intention of improving a particular museum's holdings (contribution of instruments may be a less typical situation in music, but the argument is equally coherent when it applies); (c) it threatens to dismantle collections that were painstakingly built up over decades to represent a particular style or school (less compelling in this case, since this particular collection was acquired all at once and deaccessioned fairly quickly) (d) since the only works worth selling for this purpose are those of great merit which bring high prices, it is a sure road to the diminution of the status of the institution (ditto for an orchestra with a collection of fine instruments); and (e) it demoralizes patrons, staff, audiences, critics, and just about anyone else the museum might count as its base of support (no question the same applies in this case, in spades).

In fact, let's be blunt, the Axelrod transaction put the NJSO on the cultural map for the first time in its history, allowing it to compete for audience with the far more famous orchestra across the Hudson, and was an important factor in their ability to lure a world class conductor, Neeme Jarvi. And let's not forget, the National Gallery sold off two major paintings, and had plans (apparently now abandoned) to sell off a few more; whereas NJSO sold off what was essentially the single most important physical component of its sound!

But there are other facts that make this decision more complicated. Bringing the sound of the rest of the orchestra in line with what amounts to one of the most resonant string sections in the world
certainly would take a concerted (nyuk nyuk :-) effort. I suppose the storage, security and insurance costs must be considerable. The sale was executed only a few years after the purchase, before one could say that it was part of the NJSO tradition. And of course one can now add the standard recessionist logic, in-these-difficult-times-one-must-be-prepared-to-make-tough decisions: if they had not sold them when they did, would they be able to survive a major economic crisis?

All this, however, doesn't quite cut it as a reason to sell off the collection for operating expenses. For one thing, by the time the 5-year loan is up, the orchestra will have been using the collection for about 10 years. Those years will have been the ones in which the orchestra first drew serious attention in the music world, gained new status and audiences, and perhaps even lured a few of us across the river to check out the new sound. (I admit I have not gone to hear them yet, but it's been on my agenda. Like going to the Barnes Collection before they deaccession their original quarters. Even the Parrot can't take wing and fly to every worthwhile cultural event in this area.) Furthermore, none of these excuses would have been accepted in the art world as a reason to sell holdings in order to pay debt or operating expenses. That is considered just bad management, selling what will attract people tomorrow in order to pay what you owe today. Fool's gambit, is the thinking over in artland.

So what to make of all this? My basic instinct is that all the arguments and assumptions aren't getting to the heart of the problem, which seems to always lie a little below the surface of the institutional fracas. What it's about is that in a world where more and more people are willing to trade slot cars for video games, guitars for Guitar Hero, real life for Second Lives, real books for Kindles, real friends for Facebook "friends" and real thought for Twitters, cultural institutions have by default been saddled with the incredibly serious task of reminding us that our longstanding cultural traditions are actually still just as important as they always were, indeed moreso. They are, like it or not, responsible for reminding us that this painting, that building, that piece of music, are part of who we are - as persons, as New Yorkers (or even New Jerseyans, I guess), as Americans,
and why we should care that this is so. It is to our collective benefit, as I see it, that certain things which have inherent value and help define us should simply persist; that they don't just go away and turn into something else, become virtual or get replaced with some cheapened version after dumbing down the audience so much that they barely notice the difference. This is the burden that our museums, publishing houses, orchestras, landmark commissions and other cultural institutions have to bear. To protect what is there, sometimes for no more than the simple reason that it has been there for a long time, and that the place where it is is admired partly because this or that symbol is there and carries with it the sense of place and of tradition, is a responsibility of those who are entrusted with our cultural heritage. And that includes not only museums and libraries, but universities, who merit additional calumny for pigheadedness in posing a false dichotomy between a cultural trust and the bottom line. (Ultimately you can thank Reagan and his "revolution" for this, as that is the source of the ideological migration of university boards from seeing financial accountability as serving educational goals in the broadest sense, to seeing it as a justification for stripping away tenured chairs and academic freedom, as well as abandoning cultural leadership.)

I would say this preservationist sensibility even applies to something like Yankee Stadium, which, if there weren't plenty of other reasons to question the value for the City of replacing it, ought to have been preserved for no other reason than that it is one of America's historic ballparks and has been associated with one of America's most historic baseball teams. (I didn't ask whether you like them; I'd probably say the same about Fenway Park or Wrigley Field, FYI. Squawck!) The point is, it is incumbent on every cultural institution to be a sort of levee against gratuitous change; to the extent possible, the only change should be in the direction of enrichment of what is there already, not the utilitarian swapping of art or instruments or other cultural treasures for short term gains.

Do I think that any institution that ever sold anything to pay expenses should be condemned? No. If the question is really survival in a diminished form rather than disappearance off the face of the earth, we may have to accept the smaller loss. But even that is not an absolute truth. The O'Keefe paintings were given to Fisk wth the express mandate that they may not be sold - ever. It appears that the intent here is simply that the works shall not be used as collateral, regardless of the circumstances. This is not in the least mitigated by the shool's economic plight, and O'Keefe's heirs were right to sue to recover the works. (Though the judge's decision that the university must neither sell them nor return them was, at least for the time being, the best solution.) Moreover, to say that survival is really at stake reqires being intimately familiar with the finances, fundraising history, and possible alternatives for an institution. When I was a student at the Mannes College of Music, there was an effort to merge the school with the much larger Manhattan School of Music uptown. This was supposed to be an effort to "save" the school; it's financial condition was allegedly deteriorating, and Manhattan would have the resources to support much of Mannes and its staff. To make a long story short, the Board of Directors that made this decision was sued, removed by the Court for failure to carry out their fiscal responsibilities, and replaced with a new Board that was actually committed to the school. The merger effort was a kind of deaccessioning, not just of the building, which was soon abandoned anyway, but of the musical traditions that informed the school since it was founded. Mannes has a distinctive theoretical tradition and pedagogical philosophy, and this would have been diluted at best, or in all probability swallowed whole, as it was effectively collapsed into the Manhattan School curriculum. Ultimately, a much less toxic merger with the New School allowed Mannes to maintain its independence and musical traditions while obtaining the financial resources of a major university.

So, it is far from clear that every time an institution's board jumps up and says, "Sell, sell! We are deeply in debt!" everyone must pull out their handkerchiefs and weep for the troubled institution, or look the other way while they pawn their prized possessions. The presumption should not be one of innocence, but of guilt: boards are a mixture of wealthy, well-meaning and committed individuals, and lazy, rich, obstructive, neurotic and self-interested attention-getters and status-seekers. No one can know who is winning at any given moment, but when the Board says they just can't raise enough money or hire competent enough managers to keep the institution going without deaccessioning, it's time to be suspicious.

And it is not only lack of fundraising initiative that should be looked into. In the case of the National Academy, part of the story was the temporary replacement of the museum's Director with someone who had nonprofit management and fundraising experience, but no experience in the art world. The problem only intensifies when the board is responsible to a higher entity like a university, whose primary mission is not that of the cultural institution, and whose financial goals may at times conflict with its commitment to cultural goals. For any number of reasons, our instinct should be to keep things where they are. That won't always be right, and it won't always be possible, but we should have to be thoroughly convinced before we give up the principle and accede to deaccessioning.

So, there you go: another art-and-the-public-interest post from your friendly local Parrot. If I didn't have two other blogs, three or four books to write, an album to record and a fulltime job, I could get used to this. Or maybe I could deaccession one or two of my six lives and learn to focus. It is tempting.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Examined Film: Review of Astra Taylor's "The Examined Life"

"The place of philosophy in modern public life" - that is the phrase I remember catching my attention from some web site for this film (though it is not on this one), convincing me that this must be an important film, and one that neatly intersects my mission here. Would that that impression were justified by what I just saw at the IFC theater in Manhattan. After 20 years as a professional philosopher - a bit more studying some of the leftist literature that informs some of the subjects of this film - my reaction was to wonder if it could possibly have been as dull for those viewers not already saturated with the intellectual content conveyed here.

Let me first say this: I have known, or met, philosophers who I would not hesitate to spend hours listening to; chewing the fat with over a beer; or just passing the time with in idle conversation that might range from Quine to Brahms to memorable camping trips. I do not limit this class of people to my personal friends or classmates. I mean people, for example, like Sidney Morgenbesser (a true character in the best Socratic sense) or Marx Wartofsky (who was really the last Renaissance man), both unfortunately resting in Plato's heaven, or
David Pears, to the best of my knowledge alive and well and living in England, any of whom could hold court or be the subject of anecdotes for hours on end. I mean people like Daniel Dennett, Jerry Fodor, Hilary Putnam, Eddy Zemach, Bas van Frassen, Stephen Davies, Jerrold Levinson, Stephen Toulmin, or indeed the Brooklyn native who made the phrase "the examined life" famous as the title of one of his books, Robert Nozick. I don't mean that these are my favorite philosophers - not by a long shot, in many cases - but they are people I have met or heard and who I know can hold the attention of of an audience, have interesting things to say on many subjects, and might just convince a film audience that there are philosophers, neither superstars, crackpots, nor stuffed shirts, who are capable of taking them on a tour of reality or morality that goes just a bit deeper than what they are used to. They speak with passion, humor, and erudition, without being pompous, boring, obscure or intentionally asinine.

But it seems as if Taylor was not looking for good film subjects, but rather for philosophers who fit a certain conception of who would have something to say to a mass audience: feminists, multiculturalists, Marxists, gender theorists, literary theorists, African-American philosophers, or animal liberationists. Forget those stodgy, mainstream Anglo-American analytic types, who would want to hear them? And actually, that's largely true - who would want to hear most of them? But then again, who would want to hear a Continental or Marxist philosopher, or some slightly outré ethicist, who is trying to sound very important and relevant and only succeeds in restating their well-worn theories (because it is all they really know how to talk about)?

That, unfortunately, describes quite a bit of what Ms. Taylor captured on film. Here is Peter Singer walking ever so appropriately down Fifth Avenue, commenting on the wildly extravagant designer items, then standing in the Diamond District, etc., and calling forth references from "Famine, Affluence and Morality" and Animal Liberation that he has been working for about 35 years now. There is Martha Nussbaum going on, predictably, about Aristotle and virtue and feminist ethics, with about as much connection to the audience as a passing cloud. Michael Hardt, co-author of Empire (with Antonio Negri), ponders his failed revolutionary impulses in the 1980's and sets about thinking, in terms no more enlightening than the average activist's park bench conversation, how one can be pro-democracy and pro-revolutionary, or how one can be revolutionary at all in the face of global capitalism. Yawn. In his book, if I have gleaned his views correctly (I have not read it, but I've read several discussions of it), Hardt says that globalization is, in spite of itself, the crucible in which the new democratic society will be born. This is just an updated version of the old "revisionist" idea about how democratic socialism will come about (not a "communist manifesto for the 20th century" as it is sometimes called), but more on that later.

Though other reviewers have been duly reverential towards the sequence in which gender theorist Judith Butler takes a walk, goes shopping, and meditates on bodies and movement in the company of the filmmaker's physically impaired, wheelchair-bound sister Sunaura Taylor, while trying to say very meaningful and supportive things, I found it artificial, cloying and in some spots bordering on condescending. You cannot somehow normalize physical impairments that affect a small portion of the population by meditating on the limitations of bodies in general; all you can do is encourage those unfolding social and scientific developments that give people with physical limitations greater degrees of physical and social freedom, and permit them to participate in ever greater degrees in the type of activities that most of us consider normal, and rewarding. And you don't need a philosopher or gender theorist to do that, just a reasonably sensible and sensitive person. But more than that, in my view, the only dialogic stance that truly delegitimizes and undermines discrimination and prejudice against physically disabled persons is to treat them as exactly equal partners in respect of that asset which is not disabled, i.e., their minds. And that is not what I heard here; rather, I received the impression of a philosopher utilizing a dialogue with a disabled person to create a platform for her own ideas about bodies and movements. At other points she seemed to assent to what Sunaura Taylor said with benign reassurance but little critical consideration. Throughout the conversation I felt a lack of give and take, as if there had been a pact not to challenge one another's presuppositions, or engage in a real exchange of views. Perhaps this reflects the caregiver view of ethics, which is at the heart of the feminist approach, and emphasizes allegedly female virtues of nurture and loyalty to the circle of human beings closest to you. But respecting the dignity of persons also means not patronizing them in the way we patronize children and others for whom we are responsible. The responsible caregiver, be it a mother, nurse, social worker or home attendant, must limit the respect they show for the dignity and independence of the person in their care. Otherwise they will not be effective when they need to make decisions on that person's behalf. That ethical model does not work for normal adult relationships.

Other sequences in this film involved a pretty dry, academic set of thoughts from Avital Ronell, an NYU literary theorist who could not resist the urge to drag Heidegger into the proceedings, ending up sounding like she did not quite get this idea of philosophers (we are applying the term loosely) standing in front of a camera and saying something to a mass audience. As for Slavoj Zizek, who makes an appearance in this film after having a Taylor film of his own, he comes off as a slightly incoherent nutcase who enjoins us to love the piles of garbage among which he has chosen to be filmed for his sequence. Indeed, we are to despise the notions of nature and ecology and embrace filth and excess as the key to overcoming global warming and other environmental threats. This is the type of philosopher who should be kept as far from public view as possible, lest the world at large confirm its prejudice to the effect that philosophers are people whose job is to confuse others by arguing that absurd things are true. Be that as it may, I think there is something resembling a coherent point underlying Zizek's charades, only it would be a minor miracle if anyone understood it from this film. Again, I'll come back to this later.

I have left two people for last: Kwame Anthony Appiah, on whose contributions I'm afraid I can't comment because they came at a time when I had briefly given up trying to prop my eyelids open; and Cornell West, whose wide-ranging and wildly intertextual remarks provided the one bright spot in the film, though their import seems to have passed by most of the reviewers and for that reason probably a bit of the audience as well. While ranging over the history of art and ideas from Plato to Goethe and on through Charlie Parker and the Beatles, West focused his remarks primarily on the idea of life as a space between nonexistence and death, and emphasized the ways in which we give that brief flash of spirit some meaning and make it worth holding onto. Taylor wisely edited West's engaging remarks into several sequences, interspersed around the others, which at least broke the monotony of the other lifeless talking heads as they either failed to focus or rehearsed well-worn ideas in stiff language. While West's parts may not have been perfect, especially for indulging in a lot more references than necessary to make his points, he at least gave a hint of what a philosopher can do when he has a command of popular as well as intellectual culture and has actually thought a bit about life, death, and our place on earth.

While Zizek did display a certain fervor, what really attracted our attention with him was waiting for a payoff that never came, as he tried to convince us that trash on stilts is way cooler than ordinary waste and pollution. Personally I find it extremely unfortunate when philosophers stake out baldly idiotic positions to demonstrate that philosophy can see deeper into the nature of reality than ordinary common sense. It can, but that ain't how. But let's try to tie things together a bit, because there is a little more here than mere antics for the sake of getting attention. We can start by going back to Hardt and his globalization fetish. Since at least the Utopian socialism of the 19th century, t
here has been a way of thinking about the good (social democratic) society as a kind of algae, or mold, that under the right conditions grows outward from one or more initial sites until it swallows everything in its wake. The Utopian societies were supposed to do this, spreading socialism by example. Then Eduard Bernstein contributed the idea of capitalism "evolving" into socialism. Karl Kautsky conceived of an "ultra-imperialism" that spread peace due to its very reach. Even Lenin suggested that in the globalization of finance capital, the organizational framework of socialism was being incubated in the womb of international capitalism. But Lenin, unlike the others, never imagined that this globalization of capital would just roll over into socialism without a violent revolution.

The core idea that seems to be repeated in Hardt's view is that the endless penetration of capitalism into every corner of the world, and the ever-growing neural network of connections between people and nations, is destined to finally evolve into a vast world culture in which war, racism and other conflicts are submerged in the interest of the great global leviathan. But while these conflicts are removed, the fundamental exploitation of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie
remains - a kind of 1984-ish dystopia in which the underlying injustice of the whole system is hidden beneath the surface of harmony and uniformity. Hardt's and Negri's main contribution seems to be the idea that we can push this capitalist leviathan to the brink of self-destruction by pushing the democratic logic it hypocritically represents as its own as far as it can go. (This too is not a very original idea, but never mind.) Thus they suggest certain key democratic demands we can make within the framework of capitalism to help the system undermine itself.

So what does this have to do with Zizek? Well, first, he wrote a lengthy article about Hardt's and Negri's book in the journal Rethinking Marxism, in which he accused them of not going far enough in rejecting the logic of capitalism. Zizek suggests that operating within the framework of demands that can be accommodated, if not entirely met, by capitalism itself is self-defeating. He therefore finds it unhelpful for revolutionaries to associate themselves with the progressive movements that capitalism (as the classic Marxist analysis has it) allows to flourish in order to "blow off steam". Environmentalism, as perhaps the movement of the moment, plays into the hands of capitalism by suggesting some sort of idealistic return to nature. Instead, Zizek thinks (not that his ideas are very clearly formulated, but this is the general drift) we should force the issue, let the contradictions of capitalism increase and destroy it from the inside. You see, it is essentially the same kind of Hegelian line, the new form of Being incubating within the old and then splitting it into opposites, the class struggle finally revealed for what it is. In a moment of inspired obfuscation and trendiness he somehow imagines the World Wide Web as the modern counterpart to Lenin's idea of capitalism preparing the framework of the new society and the seeds of its own destruction within itself. Okay, that's about as hip as Herbert Marcuse finding the source of socialist revolution in the student and intellectual movements of the 1960's.

Anyway, what I wanted to show is that Zizek's ultimately loony love affair with garbage follows the logic of a well-worn idea from the Communist Manifesto, that capitalism nourishes the germ of its own destruction within itself. From there it is an easy (but to me, long discredited) step to the idea that a true revolutionary should help capitalism make itself as bad as possible - love those discarded spring water bottles, my friends, rather than protesting them, for they are the spring of self-destruction of global capitalism, or something like that. I guess I should be honest and say I'm doing a lot of interpreting here. Zizek himself tends to stick to safer ways of putting his views, emphasizing that revolutionaries should reject the invitation to engage in the liberal-democratic critique of the shortcomings of "bourgeois democracy". But to give him credit for not being a self-contradictory lunatic means to take his views to be something like this. (I do wonder if he would tell us to love all those nuclear missiles too. I think Zizek's philosophy contains the seeds of its own destruction too.)

Okay, so much for political theory, which is not exactly in short supply in The Examined Life. But there is an aesthetic point here too. Zizek's rants about the virtues of garbage fit into a worldview that is just one step beyond that of Hardt. And this view obviously suggests that the various feminist, anti-racist, anti-discriminatory, post-colonial politics of the other interviewees are just what capitalism needs to continue to dominate us. The filmmaker, however, being apparently no less naive about political theory than philosophy, fails to give the audience any clue that this is the case. So while the rather boring and pedantic pastische of left-liberal interventions based on
Continental and feminist philosophical trends is disturbed from within by a philosophical and political rift, this is not even visible to the audience. There is, in effect, an intellectual fight going on here, with Zizek on one side, most of the others on the other side, and Hardt sort of moderating with a foot in both camps, but it might as well be one loose chain of vaguely related thoughts on ethics and society for all we can tell from the film itself.

It would be unfair not to mention that Taylor does attempt to use some aesthetic means to liven things up, encouraging constant movement during the interviews and letting the camera capture dozens of naturalistic images along the way. At its best, it gives us the impression that the generally ordinary landscapes trodden by the film crew and its subjects (few scenes other than those of the dump are more exotic than Central park) are as teeming with life as the philosophers' heads are teeming with ideas. Too bad the gulls and turtles are so much more interesting than most of the ideas that one wants to resist the camera's return to the philosophical promenades.

Another point, no more positive (I guess I am not feeling very charitable today, in case you hadn't noticed) is that Taylor makes only the most limited effort to guide or draw out the philosophers in ways that might get them thinking outside their predefined, well-rehearsed boxes. All I can really recall her asking, in various ways, is whether philosophy is a search for the meaning of life. The answer to this question was actually supplied so well by Cornell West that she should have left it alone for the rest of the film. The truth is, few philosophers know what to say to that question, because "meaning" itself can have so many meanings that it is not even clear what the question is. Is the "meaning" of life like the meaning of a sentence? of a work of art? of an act or event? Is the question implicitly asking if I believe in god?

My advice is, don't ask that question unless you are prepared to give a philosophical answer to the reply, "What kind of answer are you actually looking for?" Otherwise it is sort of a blank check - "say something, anything, about the meaning of life". And if I were to give an immediate answer to that, it could only be that in itself, it means about as much as a pointless film. Because either no one is directing it, or they are doing it without any clear sense of overall purpose. Which, I guess, is as good a place as any to end this review.

(Note: This post was originally published on Friday 3/6/09 at 2:06 a.m. After re-reading it I felt that it was much too sloppy, both in editing and expression of ideas. It returned to Edit mode after about 48 hours online. It is now republished with substantial alterations, mainly intended to clarify many of the original points.)

Monday, January 12, 2009

Remembering 40 Years of Good Times, (during some) Bad Times

Okay, so I said I'd talk about Coldplay. We're getting there - I mean, at least it's a band widely accused of having plagiarized a cut or two. But, disappointment to follow: I'm not going to talk about Led Zep's plagiarism, not even after hearing Bert Jansch play what must be the original version of "Black Mountain Side" a year ago or so. Zep's alleged plagiarism of Willie Dixon and others is old news. So are their other alleged nefarious misdeeds, like beating the crap out of one of Bill Graham's concert managers. In fact I think I've mentioned them before in this blog, so why beat a dead, er, whale? Besides, after watching Jimmy Page pop out of that bus at the Beijing Olympics and perform the next to impossible task of convincing us that we should pay any attention to England after that phantasmagoria of sporting prowess and technical wizardry, I am inclined to let the past be the past.

But not quite. Today, you see, is the 40th anniversary of Led Zeppelin's eponymous debut album. (I know, you thought Eponymous was by R.E.M.; and I thought R.E.M. was something you do in the middle of the night.) After spending the day discussing with my brothers whether this was the greatest post-Beatles album of all time, I could not help but want to add a few thoughts to settle the matter. I'm sure my brothers will agree wholeheartedly that this is the end of it. Not that I dare look at the comments for a year or two.

Actually I don't really want to settle whether this is the greatest post-Beatles album ever. (It's not technically post-Beatles, because Abbey Road and Let It Be had yet to come out, but we all know The Beatles were pretty much history by the end of 1969, the year Zep I was released.) There are, for those of us inclined to discuss such things, a few contenders for the crown - Dark Side of the Moon, being a prime candidate, maybe The Yes Album or Close to the Edge, maybe In the Court of the Crimson King. (If I have to say who the bands are you probably won't appreciate this post much. Please move to the next one, where I promise to mention Coldplay at least once.) Not too many more options, though if you want to push it you could maybe make a case for Born to Run or Never Mind the Bullocks or Nevermind (hey... never noticed that before). No question, though, Zep I is sort of in a class by itself, and all I want to talk about here is why it made the impression it did.

And, let's just say, it did - indisputably, indelibly, left an imprint the size of a cattle brand on the belly of rock music. For me, it was the first album that created a sort of mystical communion with the music: lying behind a bar at my summer camp when I was 14 years old, in a kind of makeshift isolation booth with some pillows on the floor and a set of Koss headphones, I and everyone else on the staff spun it on a reel to reel, vying nightly for a chance to listen. There were other albums - Wheels of Fire, definitely, I think maybe Days of Future Passed was among them, and CCR's Bayou Country (the one with "Proud Mary") but the album that summer was Led Zeppelin. Nothing compared.

And that alone is amazing. T
his was July-August of 1969. I'm not sure of the exact release dates, but among the other albums that came out that year were In the Court of the Crimson King, Abbey Road, Let It Bleed, On the Thresshold of a Dream, The Band, 2 or 3 of CCR's best albums, Live Dead and Aoxomoxoa, Clouds, Crosby Still and Nash, The Soft Parade, Hot Rats, The Velvet Underground... and that is really just a snapshot. To say nothing of the equally unbelievable output of 1967-8. Yet, coming at the tail end of what my be the three greatest years ever in popular music ("may be" is a concession to objectivity; shine a light in my brain and you're going to see something like "without the slightest shadow of a question, the 3 greatest years that ever were or will be in popular music" - but I have to be more objective since I'm pretending to be a sort of journalist here) Led Zeppelin demanded and got your undivided attention, from the two opening beats of "Good Times, Bad Times" to the last bowed elephant whine in "How Many More Times". Why? What was so special? I suppose this has been answered before, but I don't really care; I'm going to answer it again.

Start with this: those two opening beats - what are they? Where on earth did they come from? What can you compare them to? Nothing, really; but here's what comes to mind: Bill Haley bursting out, "One, two, three o'clock, four o'clock rock!"; the first guitar chord in "A Hard Day's Night"; or Mick Jagger insisting, "What a drag it is getting old..." at the beginning of "Mother's Little Helper". If not that, then the first line of Moby Dick ("Call me Ishmael"); or the opening of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock ("Let us go then, you and I..."). Or, the best analogy I think: the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. The point is, it is absolutely as dramatic a statement as you could make, and they did it with two beats. No other album or song intro quite like it in the history of music.

And what happens next? Well, they build. The two beats (dunk-dunk) develop a tail in the form of John Bonham's tap, tap, tap. Then the taps double (dunk-dunk tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap). Then they add a dotted note, and finally, after a perfectly crafted 2-bar drum intro all hell breaks loose. And here already you can pick up, if you are alert, what will be one of the defining aspects of this album: the drums have become an absolutely equal, in fact essential, part of the music. This is not to diminish the brilliant work that had already been contributed by such percussionists as Ringo, Charlie Watts, Keith Moon, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, Mitch Mitchell, Dennis Wilson, Spencer Dryden, Corky Lang and of course Ginger Baker. Ringo's brilliant work on "Come Together" - a lesson in how to make a "rhythm section" into the essence of a song - came out later the same year, but he had made himself an essential part of other Beatles tunes, starting at least as far back as his dynamic fills in "Boys". Baker and Moon were perhaps the closest to breaking out of the backup role and putting the drums in a place of prominence. But with Bonham and Zep the job was completed, and it was not limited to this song or that, it was a totally defining component of the band's sound. Oddly enough, one of the few songs on which Bonham would ever play a straight backbeat was "Kashmir" - perhaps their most "progressive" tune, where the 4/4 backbeat is intentionally at odds with the 6/4 of the meter hammered out by the guitar and keyboards. Never mind the introduction of 30-minute drum solos, the doubling of the bass drum, or other of Bonham's innovations. By the time he provided that slightly off-center 2-bar lead-in, you could pretty much say that rock had entered a new era.

That was only a part of what happened with Zep I, though. The next big story has to be the voice of Robert Plant. Throughout the album, on nearly every cut, Plant's voice is an instrument. Just as the drums have jumped out from behind the curtain and become an instrument, so has the voice. It is no longer confined to singing. It is not confined, period. It sings, it screams, it wails, it whoops, it slides, it practically fornicates with the rest of the sound. It imitates the guitar, the guitar imitates Plant, they go back and forth - "imitates" is a lousy word here, because this is not "imitation" as in a Bach fugue, but a real blending, melding of voice and instrumental sound, until you cannot tell them apart. There are some nice harmonies here, and the singing itself is comparable in emotional quality only, perhaps, to that of Janis Joplin. (I Got Them Old Kosmic Blues Again, Mama was yet another great 1969 release.) But the story here was not just the singing of the lyrics, but the use of the voice as yet another new instrument.

This alone would be enough to turn a page in rock history. But of course, there was Page and his guitar. For one thing, there could be no question, none whatsoever, that this was the most aggressive guitar playing ever seen. Clapton was great, and those who hold him in higher esteem than Page - for his incomparable tone, his clean and graceful lines, his taste, not to mention the incredible double solos on Wheels of Fire - certainly have an argument, just as there are plenty of people who would rate John McLaughlin higher than Larry Coryell. For me, I like something who takes chances, and gets away with them, brilliantly in most cases, even if he sometimes falls, misses a couple of notes, makes some unpleasant noise. Page took chances no one even thought of taking before, and the result was - well, just listen, if you haven't recently, to the solos in "Good Times, Bad Times", "Dazed and Confused", and "Communication Breakdown", for instance. Paganini, the great 19th c. violinist, was accused of having sold his soul to the devil to be able to play the way he did. Page's solos have bat-out-of-hell quality that has been imitated about a billion times by now, but no mere technician can play rock and roll the way he did. I remember a friend of mine at the time dismissing Page as not very clean, and holding up Alvin Lee of Ten Years After as a better guitarist (Lee's work on the cut "Going Home" is justly famous.) Be that as it may, nothing Alvin Lee, or Zappa, or Jerry Garcia, or even Jorma had done would influence the style of rock guitar playing the way page did. He showed what could be done, in a way that only Jimi Hendrix had done before. If you wish, you could say that Jimmy perfected what Jimi had started. And it all came together, a mature, new, challenging sound, on the band's debut recording!

Page did more than just play fast solos, of course. He practically took the place of two guitarists, turning complex rhthms into leads and leads into the main backbones of songs. He moved beyond the reverb-and-wah-wah effects of the psychedelic era and challenged the echoplex to become part of the aural landscape. In spite of being the godfather of heavy metal, he brought in acoustic guitars with uncompromising fingerstyle technique that retained more than a bit of the feel of British folk music. Easy enough when you are helping yourself to a tune that Jansch had arranged, but "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You" was to the best of my knowledge a Page original; and there would be plenty more folk material, from "Gallows Pole" to "Nobody's Fault But Mine". Here he was doing anything particularly new - Jorma's acoustic work, Harrison's sitar, and much else preceded him, but there had been a tendency to get away from it in acid rock. The concentration on both acoustic and Chicago-style urban blues brought a sense of roots-rock authenticity to Zep I that few recent groups could claim. Cream, for sure, The Beatles in their early days, Jefferson Airplane to some extent, maybe Canned Heat - but it was hard to miss the in-your-face attention to serious roots music on this album, even as it moved rock onto a whole new platform. At the same time, the technique of bowing the guitar, especially in "Dazed and Confused" and "How Many More Times", lent an almost surreal quality to the music, beyond psychedelic, not yet space-rock, but something totally futuristic and different and fascinating. "How the hell is he doing that?", was the natural reaction, and on finding out the answer - "I didn't know you could do that!" Well - there you go.

I have not even said a word yet about how Page played the blues. Perhaps because I don't have the words for it. Maybe that is best. There have been great blues players since - Stevie Ray Vaughan, George Thoroughgood, many others - but with all due respect, there are few recordings in the history of rock that even equal, much less surpass, the two (properly attributed) Willie Dixon cuts on Zep I, "You Shook Me" and "I Can't Quit You Babe". You can laugh at Page's imitation of Chuck Berry's patented shuffle on stage, but I've heard, I think, every major urban blues guitarist before Page, and I mean from Tampa Red and Lowell Fulson to B.B. King and Muddy Waters, and nobody played the blues quite like that. Of course, they couldn't: because he didn't just play the blues, he used the most cutting edge electronic effects to their full potential, and achieved a new kind of blues vocabulary in doing so. Again, only Hendrix compares as an innovator. And if you have any questions about his taste, I urge you to jump a couple of disks forward to Zep III, put those headphones on, and settle in with "Since I've Been Loving You", one of the most tasteful blues recordings ever made, to my ears.

Have I missed anything? Yes, indeed; a quarter of the band, in fact. No, make that two-fifths, since he was not only the bass player but the keyboard man. John Paul Jones - what can you say? There are so many places where his playing is so crucial to the music, I could almost repeat everything I said about Bonham but substitute "bass" for "drums". Caution suggests that I should not, though: as great as he was, and as important as he was, there were too many others who pioneered that trail, not least of them Paul McCartney. I tend to think that if there is anything McCartney hadn't done with a bass by 1969, then Jack Bruce or Phil Lesh or Jack Casady had. But whatever: from the little fills in "Good Times, Bad Times" to the opening of "Dazed and Confused" to that enormous avalanche of sound that plummets into "Oh Rosie, Oh girl..." in "How Many More Times", Jones was there, a helluva lot more than just a solid bottom. Maybe he wouldn't prove his full mettle until "The Lemon Song" on the next album, but he was already in top form on the first one.

So, how much can you say about a single album? A lot, I guess, since I recently saw a series of monographs on various rock classics for sale in B&N, I think. Come to the PL, folks, we're better and cheaper. But it's time to wrap up, and say goodnight to what is certainly one of the monuments of rock history. There have been some other great debut albums - King Crimson and Blue Oyster Cult, for example. For the most part, though, when you think about it, it has taken even the greatest groups a couple of disks to work up to their full potential. That Led Zep achieved this earth-shaking triumph with their first recording is truly in the realm of the incredible, an Opus 1 equal to the best that anyone else has to offer. To do that and not be a flash in the pan, but go on to record another seven albums packed with brilliant material, that is a feat equalled only by The Beatles, to my mind - and Led Zep's first recording was a greater achievement than anything the Beatles did until at least A Hard Day's Night, if not Revolver. And with that I bid you goodnight.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Winter JazzFest Brings Parrot Out of Hiding

Well, I'm not going to make any grand announcements like "the parrot squawks again", because who knows, this could be a dead parrot bounce. But one reason I quit posting a year ago or more (I guess more) - aside from the big one of starting other blogs and not being able to keep them all up at once - is that I was getting away from the social issues I was really interested in and often ended up writing performance reviews - which was not the original point. And I really want to get back to the heavy stuff. But what always seems to drag me back to the flogosbeer is a good concert or cultural event.

Thus I find myself more tempted to talk about the Jazz Festival I went to last night, and some of the great performances I saw there - or should I say great performers - than about, say, the question of who Coldplay plagiarized, if anyone, or the death of the music industry, or whether Herman Rosenblatt is a horrible person for writing a "memoir" in which the main character (him) turns out to be partly fictional. So that's what I'll do, for openers, only I'll adopt an entirely new practice for this sort of post: keeping it down to what an ordinary person can read in 15 minutes. I know, I know, what an unreasonable demand to impose on myself, I should be more realistic... nevertheless, here goes.

So I said great performers, not always great performances, by which I do not mean that the performers were having an off night. But something was off - usually a microphone. Start with Will Calhoun and his Native Land Experience
(which was actually the last act I saw): due to technical problems - which turned out to be a misbehaving mike cable - they ended up having time for only one full number, and then basically (as far as I could tell) improvised for 5 minutes until they were all but literally given the stage hook treatment. That one number (a fairly long one) pretty much brought the house down. And if the last 5 minutes was indeed an improv, it still blew away a shitload of performances by lesser groups. To their credit they attempted to make up for the fact that jazz fans stood around for half hour to hear one tune by tossing free CD's to the audience (sort of the like blasting teeshirts into the stands at a baseball game - of course, I was no more successful at being in the right spot this time than I was at the last teeshirt blast). Their one song, I have to say, left the impression that this is best damn fusion group I've heard since I saw Weather Report at Northwestern 35 years ago. This I say despite the fact that I was ever so slightly disappointed that Pharoah Sanders didn't make an impromptu appearance at the gig. Who'm I kidding? Myself, I guess, but not without cause. Will Calhoun, the incredible drummer (think Buddy Miles, Billy Cobham, Michael Walden, Alfonse Mouzon - that sort of incredible) for Living Color, as well as leader of his own band, recorded five tracks of his Native Land Experience album with Sanders. I saw the Pharoah, too, back in the good old Chicago days . It seemed like a reasonable miracle that he might grace me with his presence again. Alas, no Pharoah, and barely any Calhoun. Nevertheless, an amazing short concert.

Next, take the guy I happen to be listening to right now on, Lafayette Gilchrist - incredible piano player, who reminded me of yet another decades-old Chicago-area music experience, Sunnyland Slim at (long-defunked) Alice's Revisited. (
If you are getting the impression that the Chicago music scene left more of an impression on me than the illustrious faculty at Northwestern, you are paying attention.) Not that their styles are so similar, Gilchrist is quite modern, and not blind either, but both riveting keyboardists with a few similar moves. Anyway, Kenny's Castaways, the unlikely host of a third of this jazz festival (the others were Le Poisson Rouge, a big space in a charming basement direclty across the street from Kenny's, and Sullivan Hall, another oblong cave around the corner) obviously has little or no experience with acoustic jazz pianists, perhaps having had nothing softer than some alt-country grundge in 30 years, since the piano (such as it is) was miked about two feet above the keyboard, with the lid closed - the predictable result being that you could barely hear Gilchrist at all. Thus, as I was saying - incredible performers, not always great performances, when you take technical and other factors into account. Though, ignoring those factors, the performances that nobody heard were no doubt exceptional. Especially the ones that were merely underamplified.

We also saw (and for the most part heard) Theo Bleckmann (vocalist, in various popular and show tunes backed by expressionistic string arrangements), Jason Moran's Bandwagon (whose style I lack a ready vocabulary to describe, but much of it was impressive), Toshi Reagon and Big Lovely (not jazz, and a bit long on attitude for this sort of environment, but energetic, unapologetic and well-played soul-pop), a bit of Don Byron Ivey-Divey Trio (very creative and refreshingly non-technical contemporary stuff with tenor sax or clarinet), and a dose of Tar Baby (very decent if not exactly earth-shaking post-bob jazz). All this for $25 and a tip for the Sullivan Hall men's room attendant. (I think they're practicing for the 4-star restaurant they'll be opening as soon as the economy improves, at which they'll serve cheeseburgers, onion rings and a goat cheese-mesclun salad with truffle oil).

The festival was sponsored by APAP - no, not Tylenol (I know some of you wiseacres who are not modern jazz fans are just waiting for an opening ) but the Association of Performing Arts Presenters. I'm assuming, from the crowds that packed nearly every concert, especially the later shows (it's the Village, after all) that the presenters made out like bandits, especially if everyone consumed as much alcohol as my small collective of five friends.

As I said, that's what I'm tempted to write about, but I'm not going to indulge myself. Except this time. Because there are issues of Great Social and Political Import that need to be addressed. Though another idea I had when I started PL was to talk about the arts in a context that related to NYC, which I guess I was a bit more successful at. So on that score the APAP Winter JazzFest is more relevant than, say, the question of whether Coldplay stole a riff from Joe Satriani. Nevertheless, see my next post...