Saturday, February 28, 2009


I was thinking the other day about knowing when to stop:  Cooking, paintings and even these little memoirs, have shown me so readily how a late regret can materialize unannounced, and irreversible.  I know immediately I went too far.  If I had laid the brush down, not introduced red, killed the heat, undoubled the metaphor, perhaps it would have been perfect.

What reminded me of it was a poem by Leonard Cohen--actually I think it first appeared as a song on his Recent Songs album, but I only know the poem.  

I came so far for beauty
I left so much behind:
my patience and my family,
my masterpiece unsigned   

There have been days when I was so in love with a handmade thing (lately it has been a series of absurd show flyers papering Gooski's) that I felt with authorial certainty in bursts human artifice was superior to nature.  It wasn't til I begrudgingly recalled the discipline I'd alternately neglected and lost that I realized I had been wrong.  Not in the superiority of handmade things, rather the sacredness and the accidental way I came to the Hill. 

Thursday, February 26, 2009

October 23, 1963.

Someone must've been cleaning out an attic space on Polish Hill recently; I found this check--it was written and cancelled a little less than a month prior to the Kennedy assassination. Sometimes chaotic tragedy is the best way to demarcate time. The natural chemistry took innovative care in its development, thinking, we need an interceding force. Something memorable: This time a simple snow won't do. Thusly did we learn about how snow is older than misfortune.

On the afternoon of 9/11 I recall, in the second, more mundane, wave of realization, in which the world was starting to take its new shape, thinking of Borges' short story, 'The Aleph', and my grandparents, none of whom exactly knew the world as it quite unexpectedly was.

The picture must've been snapped at the house in Sharon, probably 1978 or thereabouts. My brother popped out in '77. Each time I think of that house something is in a different place. It gets larger and larger with time, its details fewer and parsed by the emptying space--can I expect an extinguishing white mural when I finally go? Actually, I suspect death isn't so much blank as it is garish. Like bad carpet or wallpaper.

Each time I paint a picture like this I imagine a volunteer panel of archetypal Austrian psychiatrists hovering over it, examining how small I made the mouths, and how wanly these figures seem to pry for sustenance. Or even light. Just once I'd like the panel to be made up of "the fashion police", eager to spread wide my ideas of a somber coverage.

Janine: You know Wilfred, this is the kind of sensible attire a man is liable to wear when, against the pit of sensibility and the advocacy of his own personal welfare, he looks back.

Wilfed: Looks back indeed, Janine. I couldn't agree more. Bawdy Smallmouth Glycerine is a dominant color this fall.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

...nor his field.

This small, extremely self-polarizing statement is dedicated to one of the few world class music writers I know, Francis Davis, in congratulations on his recent Grammy for the liner notes to Columbia's Miles Davis-Kind of Blue 50th Anniverasy Edition.  Francis is a writer with an unparalleled gift, and a genuinely good person, which among the vocation knows even fewer parallels still.

I've lost the will to criticize music at age 33.  

The reason is, I think, because on some fundamental level by doing so I find myself trying to anticipate the experience of hearing.  The older I get the less I care about the lives of musicians, the reasons they do what they do.  I don't fuss as much over their mistakes and I don't appreciate the perfection.

Over the weekend I came across a fantastic little essay written by H. L. Mencken for a publication called Smart Set, in 1919, called "The Music Lover".   Mencken especially advised the humanists who seek to teach a love of music to the unformed student heart, as if conveniently in the rote-learned appreciation of Scarlatti might also flower a resistance to commit violent crimes or masturbate immoderately.  

Some people will move to music, others simply won't.  They don't need to learn the notes of the scale, the traditionalist convictions of Brahms or difference between modal and tonal jazz.  No amount of classroom pummeling is going to affect the inner lantern.  

The mark of a music lover then is the urge to create his own music, Mencken went on to say.  But seeing as he wrote the essay well before the advent of ubiquitous music journalism he might suffer a small modification:  There are many of us whose sole function is to bray indulgently, often without conviction on any number of subjects.  On music, our numbers are legion and most highly braying.  It could be that we music writers are the ones most sorely in need of the creative act we observe: the clumsy, arhythmic and often just plain self-conscious who hide our personal music in our bedrooms or in our heads.

Whatever we think of active musicians, those of us who love music find in it something transcendent.  As such the act of creating it isn't so much an artifice, such as seeing a tree in nature and drawing its likeness, as it is a possessed and probably uncontrollable communication of something grander.  It is a natural passage through the body of the musician.  As critics we envy that with a searing redness.  And when we feel the musician has erred in the conveyance we pounce.

So, without impulse, age 33, I have grown mostly comfortable with the notion of listening and listening only--a pronouncement that even now I defy arrogantly.  To be in love with something requires that you do not distract it by anything but the disturbance of love.  Some critics would argue that's exactly what they do.  But often the written word reads different.  There is bitterness and personal neediness with no place in the writing.  The urge to find beauty is supplanted by a thirst to name-stamp new discoveries.  The masculine urge to recharacterize the sound in one's own voice and likeness obliterates the kernel of reverence--I speak from some experience.

I have come to a place where, at 6:15 on Saturday evening, on every Saturday evening--as I am forming habits with age, I pull a record from its sleeve, play it, wishing I had no idea who the people responsible for the sounds were, wishing even the names and pictures were gone.

There is one tendon of resistance to the joyous abyss of hearing it on those anonymous terms:  

I go over to the computer, invariably and with the urgeless propriety of myself, age 17,  and change my Facebook status to read:

Bryan is listening to

It's an irresistible force, not unlike a song.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The way we were.

It might've been that auspicious first single, or the even the dramatic art work--the Deutsche Grammophon-inspired Ringleader cover was a nice, if flagrant, nod to the august stuff inside.  But this image of a lording Moz with a swaddled child in his arm is as cryptic as it is indulgent.   

I eagerly disparaged apologists who covered for the two most recent Moz lp's--as vigorously as I defended the spotty, but occasionally magnetic, Maladjusted.  Morrissey has been suffering at the hands of critical and spectatorial frenzies all his professional life.  And if anything their erratic pronouncements have tilted even further in his favor over the past few years.  

Morrissey represents the belated child of a generation--the love mistake errantly shot, young, into the Thatcher/Reagan years.  His glam post-punk emerged from Roxy Music and the New York Dolls in much the way that Neutral Milk Hotel's obscene yodel emerged from his early-Smiths vocal style; or Richard Hawley's rockabilly crooner reboot from solo Moz tunes like "The Loop", or the earlier's James Dean-idolatry, "Nowhere Fast".  Apart from late Quentin Crisp and maybe late Truman Capote in Murder By Death, the solidified notion of a cool old queen in popular culture remains inchoate--Antony's growing up fast and scarred in the spotlight, but as the Man said, these things take time.  In their (perfectly reasonable) gambits for the posterity purse the New York Dolls have come to resemble Aerosmith.  Nothing wrong with it, just not exactly what one likes to think of when envisioning the natural progression of glamorous scum.  

But Morrissey, despite all missteps along the way, might just be that vision.  Now more than ever.  Why else would we still wait up?  Why else would critics still forge sweatily to find his hidden, sometimes tissue-thin, virtues?  

Having paced his career spectacularly--if unwittingly so, the Morrissey emerging here relishes a bolstered Smiths revival, invigorated in his ongoing business with this rotating band.  But its not just a planetary alignment that makes this outing different from recent previous ones.  In fact the prior two, nearly equally over-praised, 2003's You Are The Quarry & 2006's Ringleader of the Tormentors, each share the magnitude of Years of Refusal--a sustaining air of a comeback.  The only difference is that the singer and band alike seem to be finally willing to embrace it, and move with its celebratory energies. 

Sadly, like any icon of Morrissey's ever emboldening status, the infiltration of reverence has its costs.  There are dull moments to Years of Refusal that must have, in the studio, seemed both natural and filial.  "Black Cloud" & "All You Need is Me" (minus a few tack-sharp lyrical turns) are sincere, if couch-comfortable by now.  In them overt desires to satisfy Morrissey's need to self-actualize--not to mention that gang's dedication to abetting him,  sometimes trump the simmering pursuit of a catchy tune.  The music works out of that faintly rockabilly heritage guiding much of the post-Bona Drag solo era, but it's generalized guitar rock personality resists the hooks and wants for ever more of the seductive barbs that once enlivened the younger man.

"I'm Throwing My Arms Around Paris" is one of a fine number of tunes to dispel these doubts.  Set to a shimmering orchestral Pretenders-pop sound--not unlike the "Boxers" single, its melody sticks, and the irresistibly narcissistic metaphor of Morrissey as Helen of Troy is the arrogant stuff for which he was first (and best) loved.  That it may just be a paean to his new city of residence is purely beside the point.

The un[der]examined sidemen heard on Years, push against caution, lending a professionalism to Morrissey's revitalized passion.  "It's Not Your Birthday Anymore" shows that core band (drummer, Matt Walker, lending a particular kind of explosiveness) in lock step with that singer, the awkward soaring, animal target; three years ago this would've sounded by-the-numbers.  We get melody, we get a spark back.  The underlying irony is that Morrissey hasn't really changed his authorial voice.  He's still the same vicious, graying masochist.  But with a lift in his sincerity the need to make excuses for him has been gratefully alleviated.       


Sunday, February 15, 2009


I put to you that album covers are more patriotic than the flag.  The archaeologists will look back and say, see, look what they loved.  How they loved it!

These are ten things I learned and observed while cleaning the bar, Gooski's, Polish Hill, Pittsburgh, PA, USA, yesterday, Saturday February 14th, 2009, beginning at 2:15 PM, ending at 3:05 PM.

1.  I am most likely sterile from a single application of the caustic sanitizing formula used to mop the floors.  Effective as it is, if you drop a fork when eating there do not observe the five second rule.  Let it go.

2.  The lozenge I found beneath the Dark Knight pinball game machine, it turns out, is hydrocodone.  Initially I mistook it for a Runt.  Do you remember Runts?

3.  One should never abuse opiates.  Abuse leads the direct way to the obliteration of self love.

4.  Music helps distract from the odor of fetid revelries.  I like Slayer's Haunting the Chapel or Schoenberg, as their abrasive qualities--and only their abrasive qualities, can surpass the annihilation of those fetid revelries of Friday.

5.  Emptying skunked beer trash bags in flurries on Polish Hill has a humbling Bruegelesque quality to it.  Also, the visual gratification of seeing one's own breath at the mouthing of the words: fuckin a.  That's also nice.

6.  Women, by volume and weight, produce significantly more lavatory garbage than do men.  Also, their graffiti is better.  Also, their minds are spectacular and dirty.  

7.  By 2:00 AM on any given Friday gravity will have brought roughly $4.65 in spare change back to the damaged Earth from which it was augured.  

8.  Oh, and a $1 bill.  But believe you me when I tell you I compromised when I fetched it from the swamp.    

9.  The sobriety of a ping pong player can be determined, after the fact, by whether or not he or she sat the paddle at a cant atop the resting ball.  The sober always do.  And, need I clarify, by sober I mean serious?

10.  There is simply no stifling the gag reflex when changing a soiled urinal puck.  The monastic humility fostered in the act is transcendent and rewarding. 

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

What makes winters lonely, now at last I know.


That was her real name. It's important when appreciating Ms. Dearie's phenomenon as it pointed to a destined air in her lovely genius. She sang like an eternal girl--smart, confident, energizing, intimate and wholly mysterious. It can also be said, and of so few others, that the academic quality of Ms. Dearie's art was a defining asset. She seemed to express the librarian's romantic daydream, one informed by languages, art, other lands and poetry. A specific kind of cool was lost with her.

Stephen Holden's obituary for The New York Times can be read here. But indulging myself, here is a particularly gratifying excerpt:

Ms. Dearie didn't suffer fools gladly and was unafraid to voice her disdain for music she didn't like; the songs of Andrew Lloyd Webber were a particular pet peeve.

Tonight the turntable will hum late with the 1956 Blossom Dearie album on Verve Records, I imagine to the usual--if wistful this time, infatuated glances at the lovely image adorning its cover.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Eavo's party.

In the attached artwork Michael Eavis, the proprietor of the famous, mud-shellacked Glastonbury dairy farm, upon which the eponymous music festival is held, embraces--and in doing so reconciles, the school dodgems (the Blur fans) and the shaggy punters (Oasis fans). I came to regard the scene as (both spatially and temporally) a diorama for the peculiar life I'd taken on back in the late 90's.

Your guess is as good as mine as to what the valentimes-colored creature with the vaguely fossiliferous character in the lower right of the picture is. Smart money's on trilobite sushi.

The plant is wheat grass, or a psychologically cryptic expression of the shortage of green space in my adult life.  Dude, Glastonbury went on forever.

Monday, February 2, 2009

We came to play.

I'm too stinko and frazzled to make some shit up.  Here's what I been listening to since they put a ring on the other thumb:

The Persuasions-We Came To Play
Wilson Pickett-The Wicked Pickett
Don Covay-Mercy!
Herbie Hancock-Maiden Voyage
Bob Wills-The Columbia Historic Edition
Daft Punk-Discovery

And though I don't remember it, the strewn evidence doesn't lie:
The Minutemen-Double Nickels on the Dime

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The delicate taxonomy of the sabbath.

So the last time we had one of these I was hooting and raising high the neighboring Mummers' roofbeams for the Curtain from Two Street.  Miss Kate came home to an apartment redolent of mostarda and spare ribs, PBR and hoarse enigmatic victory.  That's in the past.  Back in August I cleaned the place, thawing the last of  some mustard and honey drenched pork belly, ate it (unwisely) and left our keys by the stove.

Already today I feel a Noahic flood of loud strong sentiments, and have been assured--both in whisper campaigns and in the pre-order tickets fattening my wallet, that I'll sell more wings than Boeing at Gooski's tonight.  I have a picture of the crowd in my head.  A lot of the regulars who have been bellied up for every game.  When we were down they would clear the bar to enhance the flow of positive energy.  One would ask for a glass bottle of Heinz ketchup.  It stands for Pittsburgh, homophonous with the wide receiver, number 86--the MVP the last time we found ourselves in this position.      

Ideally it'll echo the AFC game. I'll wipe the honey and olive oil on my pants and play Primal Scream's 'Movin On Up' on the jukebox.  The scene will recall the land dispute early in Speak, Memory when, once solved, Nabokov's idealized father was flung from the landworkers' rejoicing arms into the sky like a hero.  I try to tell myself none of this means anything.  When Obama won Carl asked, does this really mean anything.

Christ, how should I know.  GO STEELERS!