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Body and soul, soul and body

Tuesday 11/10/20

Wrote two full pieces this morning--an op-ed on how to make the most of a solitary, or scaled-back, Thanksgiving, from someone who spends every single Thanksgiving alone; and an essay on Art Tatum's V-Disc recordings from the mid-1940s.

I think people would really connect with the op-ed. It's kind of about Billie Holiday, too. But it's powerful and surprising. I'm going to walk now, and see if I can't run some stairs--not something I normally do during the afternoon, but that was a lot to write, and I need to move. Wrote that journal entry as well. It's just always so much writing. Some lines from the Tatum:

Tatum’s V-Discs span the years 1944-1946. Musicians kept on making them as men marked their time, post-battle, overseas, taking down what needed razing, and raising up that which required building—natural order, civility, the sanctity of human life.

Tatum would sometimes speak before waxing a side, as he does with his 1946 rendition of “Body and Soul,” a title that gains that much more relevance and immediacy in this context: “I’ll be glad to see all of you back as quick as possible,” he says, and the most hard-hearted among us would be challenged not to hear the genuine emotion in his voice.

A spring spritzing of opening notes, a soft blanket of billowing, burnt-fog triplets, and then Tatum sticks the riff in a way that I’ve never hard anyone play it before. He nails it, lands upon it, as he keeps it moving, sidles that riff right on into your kitchen. The ear doesn’t expect the riff in that precise moment, but it feels bidden all the same, a riff with a built-in understanding of “now would be the best time for a visit.”

Being away from home—and in so much more than a literal sense—you wonder what these GIs felt as they heard music of this sort. Tatum highlights the lullaby-like quality of the tune, but it isn’t mere distraction or respite, a point that brooks no remonstrance when he quotes “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” which I always hear as Tatum using the full extent of his imaginative powers to extend empathy.

That’s the trick of empathy—it’s not just about decency, it requires effort, imagination. Tatum is clearly trying to connect with these men, and it’s as if we’re hearing him, if you will, through their boots—boots upon the ground, boots marching to orders of a higher purpose. Which is also what the artist does, so perhaps the power of the Tatum-V-Disc union makes a goodly amount of sense.

“Cocktails for Two,” from summer 1945—just in time for D-Day—features guitar and bass, and hot damn, that Tatum vibrato. Can any pianist, in history, bend a note like this player? Guitarists sat agog listening to Jimi Hendrix, mystified that he could ostensibly control feedback—which ought not to be scientifically possible—and I am the same way with how Tatum extends the sounds of notes that should have already been spent—in terms of sustain—no matter how vigorous the pedaling.

Some lines from the op-ed:

Thanksgiving is the family holiday, even more than Christmas. But family as a concept has rangier possibilities than we tend to assume. I hope to be with a family someday for Thanksgiving, and people who care about me, but what I do in the meanwhile is turn the holiday into a thanks-for-the-art-I-love day.

Art is family to me, and the hope we locate in art, the connection, is something that we don’t give thanks for as often as we should.

There were times in the past when I’d sit and drink on Thanksgiving, watch bad Christmas movies, but a few years ago I said, “right, surely we can manage better than this.”

I pick an artist, and I make Thanksgiving about them and what they bring to my life. I started with a Billie Holiday Thanksgiving. I listened to her records, inched as close as I could to her story, reread her autobiography. Related to what she felt, what she tried to press through. I danced a few little jigs, never an attractive sight as my dances resemble a series of violent hip thrusts. But I got moving, felt life course through me, and I thought about how days like this—Thanksgivings like this—would make future Thanksgivings all the richer.

And just as importantly, I was thankful that I was someone who could find a meaningful way to be on a tricky day. I went to the bakery that is open 24/7/365 here in Boston’s North End, acquired some pizza, felt not the vaguest impulse for self-medication. Wasn't an easy time, but a rewarding one. And at the end of it, I said, “thank you, Billie.”

My recent Thanksgivings are not themed with construction paper cut-outs of Myles Standish-type figures sporting musketoons, but rather the works of late 1960s Beach Boys, the filmography of Orson Welles, the song books of Ella Fitzgerald.

The best art represents the locus of truth, which family gatherings can move us away from. Maybe you have a tendency to say you’re doing better than you are. That can be draining. Art invigorates.

Also--there is something wrong with the site, or the host, but I can't put up new entries in the News section right now, which I tried to do some catch-up work on this morning. You have to change the font color so it's not black on black, so then I had to get on the line with someone, and they couldn't fix it, so the issue was "escalated," which seems to be happening a lot lately.

I spoke to a relative of mine. There is no one in my extended family who has a clue what is going on here. They think it's great. Everything is super wonderful and I'm a huge success and they just don't know. They see that I have a book out, that there's some high-profile piece. They don't pay attention, they don't read these pages, and they don't understand that this person who seems okay to them is the devil of an entire industry that has blackballed him, and that the piece in that fancy venue only creates more hate, more envy, more discrimination, if it's even possible to have more right now. They don't see that there's 100 hours of work for $200, or that if someone had done three of the things I've done, they'd be raking it in, awarded, celebrated, hired, shilled for, etc.

Even something as stupid as those Best American Whatever books. Stories. What have you. You know the anthologies I mean. You'll never so much as see my name in the honorable mentions. I guarantee you that. Not right now. Why do you think that is? But you'll see somebody who has published a half dozen things in their career, none of it very good, and they'll be included. Why do you think that is? I can always tell you who that person knows and what the relationship is. But anyone paying attention knows that there is no way in hell that anyone in this industry will allow me into things like that. Until they have to. Until I've become something bigger--or should I say, recognized as something bigger, by enough people--than someone they can hold back in any way.

It was frustrating to me when "Edges" was coming out in Harper's, because people were like, "this will be awesome, they can't hate you after this," and I knew. I knew it'd get worse. I knew that that story, or any story by Colin Fleming, in even a venue like that, would not only not so much as make an honorable mentions list for BASS--it's just straight up discrimination--but that other people would see that, and make damn sure, the best they could, that they'd try and stop me from getting anything if they had a say-so in it. I knew that it'd be harder for me to publish stories after that. Didn't matter if they were better than that story of mine in Harper's. It mattered that they were by me. I've never written anything better than "Fitty." And look at that story--sitting around now for over a year, going back to July 2018.

But how do you explain any of this to someone who doesn't know, who hasn't paid the smallest bit of attention, and over a text at that? You'll just sound crazy. Because it is that crazy. It's a historically unique situation. But it's real. I live it. And I'd say it's pretty damn well proven by now. I can tell you exactly what will happen. Like when I said there would not be a single review of Meatheads in America. Just like I know I don't even need to check these Best American Whatever anthologies. The funny thing is is that the people doing this, are the same people who brag all day long on social media about how just they are, and go off about patriarchy, and are all BLM and all of that, and letting everyone know that they're one of the good ones. And they are flat out bigots. And who they hate the most, is someone who is everything they are not, who can do things, and does them, at a level and rate they can't even imagine. Their hate and discrimination stems from someone else's strengths, character, virtues, abilities. Not because that person did anything to them. Not because they killed someone, raped someone, touched kids. Think of how truly sick that is. And right now, these people own my life, and everything in it.

Anyway. Time to walk. Because I have to physically train to be able to withstand all of this and somehow keep going. They'll hate you even more when they know you walk ten miles a day and run thousands of stairs and still produce what you do. The better you do something, the more legit you are, the more innovative you are, the more original, the more you will be hated in this industry. A problem to be solved. But I will solve it.

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