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See through you

Monday 5/4/20

Have started a piece this AM on "St. James Infirmary." Should be able to sell it, will do it with alacrity then finish Beatles feature, finish short story "Rain Dried," do Dylan essay, do Sam Cooke work, pitch an op-ed idea on body positivity that occurred to me yesterday. Now is the time to stop the nonsense about how it's super duper to be any size. There are realities to physical health. We should try to maintain standards of it. We should not attack others who cannot or ourselves when we cannot, but we shouldn't act as if there are not real dangers to being drastically out of shape. Reality needs to prevail over the all-out worshiping of feelings that our culture has become. I ran six miles yesterday. My sneakers are ripped everywhere, so they abrade me, which meant I had to also pop a large blister. I finally ordered new sneakers. I got a sunburn from sitting on a bench on the lawn at Lewis Wharf, reading a book of Bob Dylan interviews and Jack Ludwig's Hockey Night in Moscow, a witnessed account of the 1972 Summit Series, which is pretty good, but could use an editor--not to sharpen the prose or reign it in, but just with some grammar issues.


It's nine o'clock now. Same morning. "St. James Infirmary"/COVID-19 essay is written. 2000 words. It is excellent. Sent it to six people who hate me who will not say a word back. David Remnick, Jane Yong Kim, Michael Agger, etc. Truly a masterful piece. Excerpt from the essay:

See You There

The viral frontlines of the jazz classic “St. James Infirmary” and COVID-19

Times are seldomly what one wishes them to be when the word “frontline” is commonly referenced. It suggests that a pernicious edge has encroached upon society, slicing away the status quo with its knack for scumbling certain harsh realities.

In the age of COVID-19, the edge is most prevalent in hospitals. We all see the stories—the mid-career doctor who commits suicide allegedly on account of the death and dying she’s seen. We don’t often know, of course, the reason a person takes their own life, and it’s never so basic as the news makes it out, but we also know that there are people experiencing things that most of us are not, bearing witness to a kind of terror that we are left to imagine—a limited stand-in, often, but arguably one for the best.

The various dispatches from those frontlines have lately put me mind of jazz’s most evocative medical dispatch, one of the most terrifying songs in the medium, but one which, remarkably, was a hit several times over for an assortment of artists.

We’re not exactly sure of the origins of “St. James Infirmary,” in which a broken man—or a man about to be broken by grief—goes to a hospital to see his “baby,” by which he means his significant other. She may or may not be dead, given that she’s “stretched out,” a term you really only want to encounter if you’re an athlete and all limbered up for the big game. She’s likely in a coma state, and the time has come for final farewells, something these days which often occurs over FaceTime. We’ll call this the early jazz version.

The song is likely based on an eighteenth century rural folk blues called “The Unfortunate Rake,” about a gamboling youth who tucks into the ladies with regularity, in the style of Fielding’s Tom Jones, acquiring a not-very-merry collection of venereal diseases, which effectively do him in.

The title is a misdirection—rakes were considered hail fellows well met for whom, for whatever reason, things usually worked out more or less well. Rakes, you could say, had a tendency to skate. You’d be living your life with strict mental and physical discipline, you’d have tragedies befall you, but that rake down the street would be having a grand old assured time in what Shane MacGowan later sang of as the sunny side of the street. So, this was sobering, and it was comeuppance; the universe had clapped back at a rake having gone too far.

The ballad made it to Appalachia during the time of the first World War, with the name of a local hospital being dropped into the lyrics. The song in all of its versions has always had a form of stop-you-dead opening line, which hasn’t varied much. In the hills of Georgia, that opening line was, “As I went down by St. James hospital one morning.” The “As” is deadly—those who have known death understand that it’s not a fixed point; it becomes so, to a degree, only after, when it lodges in the past as something that happened to someone close to us which also became something that happened to us. There is, let us say, a lot of “during” to death. It takes time. Those seconds are not regular temporal seconds; they are emotional seconds, whose length can be for years. You remember everything about the day a loved one died, unless you have repressed those memories, because the seconds were stretched.

The very first word of the song establishes that activeness. We enter the fear with the singer who is also going to be our witness and reporter. In this instance, the body on the cooling board is that of the singer’s son. The passing over has already occurred by the time of arrival. The body is “as cold as the clay.” Such an arresting soil choice—the associative link is with wetness, congealment, a foreshadowing of human form being interred in earth, the various elements. We bury someone, we inevitably think of the rain that will come down, exposure. We cry, or feel as we are about to. Moisture is central.


Do you know how daunting it used to be to do a 2000 word piece? Took a long time. This was back in 2009. I remember it well. I was always faster than any other writer. It'd take me days. Maybe I'd get 500 words down, but they'd be a mess, they'd need work. I tried over the course of a week to get a draft. Maybe I'd let it sit a week. For a 2000 word essay, they'd give you a long time. Month or two or more. Now I can do a peerless piece that length in, say, an hour. Easy as you please. Like it's just one thing in my day, like the three mile run, the brushing of teeth, a thing to cross off and get to the next thing. It's insane, really, the level I have come to. What I'm going to do now is finish the short story, "Rain Dried," which is as good a work of fiction, or anything, I have ever written, then I'll send that to more people who hate me and won't respond. Then I'll run, then I'll finish the Beatles essay and file that today. Is this normal? Sports op-ed tomorrow, essay on jazz and COVID this AM, great short story, Beatles feature later in the week, on the radio tomorrow. Is that normal to you? You could multiple that times thirty every week if I didn't have an industry against me. And that's just what I know about this week. There will be more, because there is always more.

Haven't watched last night's episodes of The Last Dance yet, but I saw that the Stereo MC's were featured in the soundtrack with "Connected." Strange choice, given that they were English and didn't do much in the States. I saw them at Avalon, actually. I think it was Avalon. Somewhere on Lansdowne. Also: spoke to Ryan. We're going to tape that podcast on the Doors soon. It'll mostly be on "Five to One," but in that way that anything I talk about or write about is about that thing. It's always more. You know the drill by now if you're seeing this.

Pitched an excellent idea on Beethoven to Kathleen Burke at Smithsonian. She ignores everything I send, unless it's from a different email account, then forgets who I am, loves the idea, tells me to follow-up in a week, which I do, and then she ignores me, never to respond again, until she forgets who I am again. Perfectly normal. Perfectly professional. She, of course, gets mad, because I do follow-up, after not hearing from her.

Thought of the day: When all you do is prove it and prove it so hard, no one can say jack shit and you can say whatever you wish about that thing you prove again, and again, and again, and again, and again. They can hate you, fear you, envy you, discriminate against you, tell others to do the same, but no one, ever, in the history of the world, has ever managed to disavow reality.

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