The Famous Door
At the risk of straining a flimsy journalistic gimmick, I’m going to use the less-than-momentous occasion of the seventy-fifth anniversary of his birth on July 13 to bring up Albert Ayler, the late saxophonist whose music had something rare in jazz during his short lifetime and rarer still today. Ayler, who died at the age of 34 in 1970, was a musical hellhound, an avant-gardist with Cecil Taylor’s fascination with unheard sounds and Buddy Guy’s blues fire.
The cliche of “chemistry” explains more creative relationships than the happy ones. Like chemical components, some collaborators mix well, working sympathetically or symbiotically, and some react poorly, even combustively, when they’re brought together.
In the dozens and dozens of shows by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band that I’ve seen since the early 1970s, when I was a kid in New Jersey and Springsteen was, too, I’ve found something comforting—and something discomforting—in Clarence Clemons’s presence on stage.
The web, in the way it favors the short form, tends to disserve artists who work on a large scale, such as the jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins, whose epic improvisations involve the sustained development of complex ideas over time.
“I ain’t trying to start no fight, but I’ll finish one every time”—so crows the country star Blake Shelton in the song that won the first-ever prize for Best Web Video at the CMT Music Awards, broadcast from Nashville this Wednesday evening. Shelton is a coward, and I’m saying that not to pick a fight with him, but to defend country music fans from his award-winning song’s assault on their freedom of individual expression. The title is “Kiss My Country Ass,” and it’s less a song than litany of cynically baiting Red State tropes and cliches.
The pop charts have gotten awfully crowded. There are still only ten songs in the Top Ten, although some could count as multiple songs for the way they combine elements grafted from other pieces of music. There’s nothing new or scandalous in that method, by which Lupe Fiasco employed parts of a Modest Mouse recording to make “The Show Goes On,” the number-nine hit on the Billboard singles chart this week. What’s extraordinary—in fact, unprecedented in the history of pop music—is the high number of ad hoc teams of collaborators named as artists.
I had pleasantly not thought for years about that ghastly song “You Light Up My Life,” until this week, when I heard about the suicide of its writer, Joe Brooks—a hack of genuinely monstrous proportions, who was awaiting trail for charges of drugging and sexually abusing more than a dozen young women lured to his apartment on the pretext of helping to fulfill their young dreams of careers in show business. I will admit to being disappointed by the news of his death; I would have preferred for Brooks to have been tried and, if convicted, sentenced.
Few things of meaning come across as more meaningless than another person’s dreams. Everything that makes a dream fascinating to the dreamer—the confusion, the illogic, the mercurialness of time, place, and identity—seems like little more than random weirdness when the Id involved is not our own. As a means for making art, moreover, dream-telling is treacherous for all but the most artful of tellers. I recall myself having written short stories that ended with the cheat of an explanation that all that I had described was really just a dream. I learned to do better at the advice of Mrs.
The machinery of contemporary culture is programmed to treat occasions as events—to freeze moments in digital permanence, to spread the local and the intimate to everyone everywhere. Much has been made of the instantaneousness of communication in the wireless age. But the documentation of every instant does not simply privilege the moment of experience; it also denies the power of experience itself. Not every occasion is an event, and the fleeting, ephemeral nature of some kinds of experience—including certain kinds of musical experience—is the source of their power.
The fact that there was a good answer has nothing to do with the fact that the standard question about Phoebe Snow is a bad one. Snow, who died this week (at age 58, she would have said, or 60, as The New York Times reported), made eleven studio albums, as well as live records and compilations, from the time she started recording, in 1975, until 2010, when she had a devastating stroke and fell into a coma. Eleven albums is a solid body of work, exactly the same number of studio records Randy Newman has made.