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Thursday 4/2/20

A couple pretty big numbers are relevant with this blog post. Yesterday, I composed a story called "Jetés." The title refers to a kind of jump in ballet. The story is as powerful as anything I have ever written, despite being only 800 words long. But that is word count-wise. Life-wise, depth-wise, art-wise, it might as well be infinity-words-long. Pure art. The story is a COVID-19 story (and so much more). I hadn't expected to compose this one, after "Six Feet Away," and with "Change of Gauge"--the second one I expected to do--still waiting.


This is a story the world needs right now, and you put it in the right place, and it's going to do something. The story was the 100th work of short fiction I have composed since June 2018. Short fiction. Complete works of short fiction. So, that doesn't mean the arts pieces, sports pieces, op-eds, the books, the blog entries. Someone said to me a while back that it was though I had a printer and I was pressing the print button and out were coming masterpieces, as easy as that, easier than that. The analogy is apt. I am doing that. I have been doing it for a long time. It would be one thing to have 100 short stories in that amount of time that were all awful, but they were complete. I have 100 new short fiction masterpieces. There is no flab anywhere, there is no qualitative drop from one work to another. There is no overlap, no reliance on habits, pat voices, structures, styles. Each work is completely new and form-busting. Meanwhile, this very blog post is the 600th post since this journal launched in--get this--June 2018 as well. To give one an idea of what that means: at my median average for each entry, about seventy entries make for a full book. It was not very long ago--it was certainly in 2020--that I was on Downtown talking about how the blog had hit, or was about to hit, 500 entries.


Today I composed a 1700 word essay on Paul Whiteman and his recording of "Whispering" from 100 years ago. Whiteman--who was a white man--was a controversial figure, with some accusing him of ripping off black artists, trying to make a buck on jazz. A few days ago, the Library of Congress selected "Whispering" for inclusion in its registry of historically significant works. I don't think there's ever been a good piece written about him, and I also think we err when we try to make jazz centrally about race. So, I went inside of the history, the music, and the relationship certain other musicians have had with this music. Brief excerpt:


***


Whiteman was rotund, with the glossy sheen of a man who wanted to sell you a used car that might not make it back home. In both visage and sound, he doesn’t exactly scream out that here is anything cutting edge. There’s a strain of sentimentalism in a lot of his recordings with enough sugar to remind you to book that dental appointment. He had savvy, though, being smart enough to rope in the vocal talents of Bing Crosby—and Crosby paired with Beiderbecke on record is one of the true early treats of jazz—but let’s consider “Whispering,” which does anything but whisper to you.


Remember, we are going back 100 years ago, so this isn’t the rhythmic barrage of Metallica circa 1991, but for the time, this is pretty smoking rhythm. Whiteman billed himself as the King of Jazz, a bit of bumptiousness that has done his legacy no favors in the century since, but we must keep in mind that jazz as a viable musical outlet, at least so far as most of America was concerned, was seen as modish, faddish. There was an expectation that it would pass, was akin to a craze, like the twist later was.


Whiteman couldn't have black players, but he could have the best white ones, and they were canny enough to give themselves over, collectively, to something that would later be known as swing. They didn’t play jazz as novelty music, as the Original Dixieland Jazz Band would do at times; there is real sincerity in the sound of “Whispering,” right from its opening 12-bar intro, a kind of prefatory blues statement that I bet Charlie Parker would have loved, even as he cranked it up to 300 beats-per-minute.


Right away you detect a pulse in this ensemble work. There’s an assertion of a swirling center, almost like the photographed eye of a storm, bur rendered in motoric notes instead. The previous autumn had seen the release of a Gershwin piano roll of the tune, and if you think there’s an unspannable gulf between Gershwin as he viewed the piano and rhythm composition and as Count Basie and Thelonious Monk did, you’d miss your guess.


Atop that skeleton, Whiteman hung the flesh. I’m not going to tell you that Whiteman was a maestro auteur of helming a band, ala Miles Davis, but he knew who could play and who couldn’t. I suspect, after that, with a really good chart in hand—as he had here—he mostly got out of the way and let the boys blow.


The original Victor release bills the tune—via a subtitle—as a foxtrot. A century ago, this was a wave of advancing rhythm. It sounds quaint to make the remark now, but the banjos wail. They provide the same intense chording as you get with a lot of early Who songs, or we might think of that iron-grip John Lennon has on his guitar with “I’m Happy Just to Dance with You.” If the foxes were trotting, they were doing so at speeds to outrun the hounds. At your party, “Whispering” would have been the humdinger number.


***


I sold an essay on Miles Davis, which is different, of course, than the essay that The American Interest just ran. This other one is about the recordings surrounding Kind of Blue, which are oft-neglected, though they are not less strong and, in some cases, richer. The piece is called "Blue Clusters."


I reached out to Ned Hinkle at the Brattle, who heads up their programming, volunteering my services--they are a non-profit--and brainstorming some ideas during this difficult time. I said perhaps a Brattle podcast would be interesting and keep people tuned in right now, or a filmed conversational series, which we could put up on a Brattle YouTube channel.


Here is Tuesday's Downtown segment, which is one of my personal favorite segments. It is a completely different radio presence. Radio has been around for a while, and I know that no one has sounded like this on it.


Sports Illustrated laid off more people. Publishing venues need to change. It's time for the old way, the bad writing, the favor-trading, the cronyism, the log-rolling, the nepotism, the classism, it's time for all of it to go away, or you and your venue are going to die. We are getting near the end of the ancien regime. Has to change. I am the change. Ability, innovation, freshness, merit, a compelling voice, a compelling viewpoint, is the way to go, and it's the only way to go. They have no sports to cover now. Neither of the new-ish co-editors have ever written me back, despite all of the great pieces I did for SI. I offered them "Loading the Shaft," a short story about a hockey mom and former hockey star as a young woman, which hockey people would love, sports people would love, and people who could care less about sports would love, which they can now see without having to be a regular SI reader by dint of things getting shared on the internet when something catches a bit of fire. Try it. Try something new.


I found a recording of the Jam at the Rat here in Boston--legendarily seedy club that was in Kenmore Square--from 1977. The recording could not be played in this country, and to my shock, I was able to (quickly) figure out how to convert it into a downloadable file. Been listening to a lot of Television of late (check this out--gig at CBGB's just after Christmas 1976). They are better than I thought. They're an amazing band, actually. The drummer, Jesus. "Marquee Moon" may have the best opening lines in rock history: "I remember how the darkness doubled/I recall how lightning struck itself." Especially the way Verlaine sings them. Dude could sing. There's actually image not that far off from that in "Fitty." Listened to the Beta Band's The Three E.P.s, a Green Day BBC airshot from 1994, Joy Division's Warsaw demos. Saw Foreign Intrigue from 1956 with Robert Mitchum. They didn't exactly bust their asses thinking of a creative title. MIddling film, but it's nice to see Mitchum back in the trench coat from Out of the Past.


Met a hot, articulate, twenty-one-year-old ballet dancer, but I was quickly uninterested. I am looking for someone who is brilliant, dynamic, and who communicates readily and well. Sans those things, I am off, and off fast. Now I am talking to a twenty-two-year-old student, also hot, funnier. Age means nothing to me; if you can hang, you can hang. My age doesn't really mean anything. What's my age? I feel like I don't have one, except insofar as I need to get done what I need to get done in the time I have. One waits to be surprised, and maybe one day it will happen. Until then, I keep an open mind, until I realize--often swiftly--what a person is and is not, and then I move along. I know what--whom--I'm looking for.


I see lots of jokes today on Twitter, the digital cesspool of humanity--though mental illness is more obviously displayed on Facebook--about Robert Kraft and hand jobs from Asian women. Nice. Kraft offered up his plan to fly to China and procure more than a million surgical masks. I think people like this should do a lot more than they probably do--because I think what they do do they let you know about it--but the man did the right thing and a thing to help people and maybe we can just let it go at that and not rip on the guy after having done it? That seems pretty simple and decent, which is, of course, too much for many people.


I like that people who work at aquariums are called aquarists.


Just finished the Ernest Renan/Jesus Christ essay for Easter. Hopefully I am in time to have this run by then. I will re-file it today. Edits and revisions were a lot of work. Whole shebang was 3000 words in the end. I sent "Jetés" and the Whiteman essay to a number of people who hate me. I've seen this for so long now, so I just accept it for what it is--as existing--but these people are such that even when you would help them and their business, get them valued recognition, traffic, and that's just for possible starters, they will always defer to the grudge they have invented, to the pettiness, like that's the stuff comprising their two-headed god. Even when you help them. Even when you make them money. They'd rather not be moved forward, have the cash, whatever else could be reaped. They are that in thrall to what it is that causes them to discriminate in the first place. At least, that's how it has played out so far.


I gave Emma a copy of "Jetés" and also got some Peeps at CVS for us to share. Pitched something on The Last Dance, the upcoming documentary about the final hurrah of the Michael Jordan Bulls. I'd like to make sure I find a venue for that.


People are making a big deal about Shakespeare writing King Lear during a quarantine, especially as would-be writers pat themselves on the back for doing nothing during this quarantine, saying we should not feel like we need to create anything right now, which is what they say to themselves--and their ilk--at all other times. One of the many reasons they never do anything. If you had the talent, you'd do it, you'd do a lot, because talent is the driver of activity. What would-be writers like to do--and I'll chart some examples in future entries--is pull you down to their level, or get you below it, as quickly as they can. With me, that will entail things like left-handed compliments about my productivity, as though this is all a matter of effort, when effort has very little to do with it. I do the work, but the genius is the driver. If they had it, too, they'd do it, too. Simple. But the idea that it's largely about effort, just putting the time in, is a comfort to them, a way to keep up the lies to self; after all, one day, they can awake and decide to put the time in. Right. Good luck with that. (Also: Did I do a naked, pre-shower dance to A Certain Ratio's "Winter Hill" yesterday? Yes, I did.)


But I think I will itemize the works I have created during this time of Quarantine. Shakespeare. King Lear. Ha. That's it?


So, here we are:


"Sleepies" (fiction)

"Six Feet Away" (fiction; and earlier version, "Shed")

"Pre-Prime" (fiction)

"Sound Holes" (fiction)

"The Horn Players (Stackable Variations)" (fiction)

"Wood Ducks" (fiction)

"Jetés" (fiction)

Tom Brady op-ed

F. Scott Fitzgerald op-ed

piece on Francis Wolff's jazz photographs

Ernest Renan/Jesus Christ Easter essay

Paul Whiteman/race/jazz essay

Sherlock Holmes/breakfast essay

Samuel Pepys/COVID-19 essay

Daniel Defoe/Plague essay


And many blogs.


Excerpt from the Renan:


***


It reads like a Western potboiler—this timeless tale of the East—crossed with urban noir; as if Cornell Woolrich had taken inspiration from the Dead Sea Scrolls after a stint on a dude ranch. The effect is intended: Renan wanted to dish out the narrative, because as Christ himself knew, nothing enmeshes and bonds us like storytelling. Hence, all of the parables, the metaphor, analogies, in which Christ spoke. If you’re a churchgoer, and you find yourself nodding off during the readings, note how the bits in quotes—from the voice of Christ the man, narrative-helmer—jerk you back awake, re-center focus. Or, as Renan writes:

“The movement he directed was entirely spiritual, but it was still a movement; hence the men of order, persuaded that it was essential for humanity not to be disturbed, felt themselves bound to prevent the new spirit from extending itself. Never was seen a more striking example of how much such a course of procedure defeats its own object. Left free, Jesus would have exhausted himself in a desperate struggle with the impossible. The unintelligent hate of his enemies decided the success of his work, and sealed his divinity.”

What he means by “entirely spiritual” is in concept. If the metaphor turns out to be actual, possessed of an earthly transliteration—a sort of divine existence while on earth—then so be it, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We can aspire and never reach—in fact, there may be no tenet more vital to being human. If you are constantly reaching, as in attaining, you might not be reaching high enough, is what Renan’s Christ professes. That’s his faith—in the reach, the striving. The villains of this piece—as of our time—are those who want the same old for the sake of the same old.


We see it in the art worlds, where the emphasis on finding work like other work kills off audience and the chances of a possible influx of audience, whereas the new, the bracing, from the Beatles to Disney to Hitchcock to Billie Holiday, has been what we most go for in what I call the gut of the human soul. And probably the soul of the human gut, and the gut and soul of the heart.


Now, Renan is shaving off the ends of some puzzle pieces here to make them fit together better with his narrative/ideological outline, and I wouldn’t agree that if Christ has not died, his movement, as Renan terms it, would have been quelled. To my thinking, if the person is that good at what they do, you’d prefer to have them around in support of their own cause, rather than not around, because with the latter, we are getting into martyr territory, and I find martyr territory limiting.


But we know, historically, that this man Jesus Christ died, and his struggle with those militantly hidebound had just been beginning—after all, he was only thirty-three. He would have had a long fight in front of him. “Unintelligent hate” is an arresting qualifier because it presupposes something approaching its opposite—a smarter hate, if you will. Renan is describing a hatred born of someone else’s virtues, not their vices. Hating the person of true character, of genius, of productivity, expertise, rather than the warmonger, the child molester, the arsonist, the skimmer of funds.


I have a rooting interest in this, and a professional one, as someone despised throughout his own industry, a hate that came with greater success, increased creativity, a singularly voluminous body of work. I remember once, a long time ago, back when various venues were starting to ban me out of petty power plays, envy, if I spoke on NPR or had a feature in Rolling Stone or a short story in Harper’s—believe me, I understand Renan’s concept of “unintelligent hate”—a friend said to me that I was the kind of person who ends up nailed to a cross, and those words have haunted me ever since. I hope they are not true, but it’s one more reason the earthly Christ has resonance for me, why I also think Christ the human would have been able to do more by forestalling death. Renan is advocating on the devil’s behalf, with the part about necessary expiration, at that very moment in Christ’s life, but there’s a subtle point, this notion of the sealing of divinity, a securing of official divine status. Yes, to become the figure-in-the-sky type of being, the deity, death played a role in the brand, we might say. Renan’s Christ, though, is not foremostly about divinity. In truth, its ancillary. Renan on Christ’s so-called “Miracles” is notable:

“It is impossible, among the miraculous narratives so tediously enumerated in the Gospels, to distinguish the miracles attributed to Jesus by public opinion from those in which he consented to play an active part. It is especially impossible to ascertain whether the offensive circumstances attending them, the groanings, the strugglings, and other features savoring of jugglery, are really historical, or whether they are the fruit of the belief of the compilers, strongly imbued with theurgy, and living, in this respect, in a world analogous to that of the "spiritualists" of our times. Almost all the miracles which Jesus thought he performed appear to have been miracles of healing. Medicine was at this period in Judea what it still is in the East -- that is to say, in no respect scientific, but absolutely surrendered to individual inspiration. Scientific medicine, founded by Greece five centuries before, was at the time of Jesus unknown to the Jews of Palestine. In such a stale of knowledge, the presence of a superior man, treating the diseased with gentleness, and giving him by some sensible signs the assurance of his recovery, is often a decisive remedy. Who would dare to say that in many cases, always excepting certain peculiar injuries, the touch of a superior being is not equal to all the resources of pharmacy? The mere pleasure of seeing him cures. He gives only a smile, or a hope, but these are not in vain.”

Cut through the hocus-pocus, Christ becomes more relatable, his power to inspire, to make us think, to check our own impulses, not diminished—even increased. This is akin to a great work of fiction—you have a literal level of “these things actually happened,” and you have a metaphorical level of “X also means Y, which didn’t literally happen.” They are coevals, they simultaneously exist, neither undercuts the other. It’s like how the scientist can be a person of deep faith, a term I find more useful—and telling—than belief, which is more the province of the spiritualists that Renan is referencing above.


***

A form of this piece of paper has made previous appearances in this journal. On it I write the names of the new short stories, as they are completed, going back to June 2018. Here is what the paper looks like after 100 stories.