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You're self-medicating again

Thursday 6/27/19

Wrote a 2000 word piece on Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, and the Fourth of July. Fourth piece in two days. Excerpt:


The opening “St. James Infirmary” features Armstrong with a mute, which Oliver taught him how to use, and which Oliver pioneered. The man was the Lewis and Clark of mute-playing. The rhythm section sways like birch trees in the wind before a storm; a weather-swell is about to kick in. Or so we think—because we get solo Louis instead, his trumpet threading its way around the elements, it feels. He is in no rush to turn this song into a blues, which is what nearly everyone does with it. Rather, he is treating it as something more stately, a requiem for a king housed in a morgue tale from deep in New Orleans. His vocal is slower than his trumpet playing, approaching recitative. Lines are punctuated with knowing laughter for what is the dance of life and death; no sense moping over what you can’t control, he seems to say, but he can control what is played here, and the “take-us-home” outro chorus is Hot Fives/Sevens level, a tip of the horn from one master to another.


“My Old Kentucky Home” urbanizes the melodicism of Stephen Foster with the gritty Chicago neo-soul of Oliver and Armstrong. One has the feeling of being in on a person’s individual musical memories that mean one thing to them, another to us, a gap of the unknowable marking the space between both parties, but the gap not really being pertinent, given the manful autonomy of this sound. That’s not a gender thing—it’s a striving thing, again, Armstrong’s trumpet-based knight errant-ism. You listen to his version of “Big Butter and Egg Man” and you have the strangest epiphany: King Oliver must have been a really nice guy. This is his spirit, as transposed by Armstrong, and it is one that engenders our affections in Armstrong’s catarrhal vocal growls, soft shoe shuffles of the adenoids that conjure a sensation of laughter shared between friends. I think with some people we have a different way of laughing with them than with anyone else. These people are probably our best friends. And that is what I always hear with this number.


You see no music writing like that, do you? Sent it to The New Yorker and The Atlantic. Both places will ignore it. I've written on Armstrong for The New Yorker, but that was when I was less hated. And lesser as an artist. The day is coming when documentation will be done. Some of you probably still have your jaws on the floor from what I shared with you in a letter earlier today.


I was supposed to do more today. It is just so hard sometimes to do anything. When you know what awaits. Because you out-write, out-work, out-produce, out-know, out-move. Tomorrow I will write two more pieces--an essay on Billie Holiday, a Stan Getz record review--a lot of jazz lately--and hopefully work on the short story, "Fitty," though I don't know why I say "hopefully," as though it matters; they have the dagger ready to stab the baby in the head the second it is out of the womb. There is some curious engine of something--faith?--that drives me on thus far and still has me creating. Is it a shadow sense that it will actually be good to have all of this when a certain time comes for me? Has a seed of knowledge along those lines been planted deep in me by someone or something else? Because I just see doom, personally. I see someone who is cursed and doomed. I see someone with a great need to be wrong about that. And I even see someone who if he was proven wrong about that and things went as they could and should go in proportion to that person's ability and what they can give the world, that would make sense to me, too, still, I suppose. I still have it in me to say "finally, at last," I think.


I saw one of those trends on Twitter asking people to summarize Twitter in four words. I looked through some attempts. Is it really that hard for people to write something intelligent? You just see awful jokes. Do people really not know how awful they are? Do they think they're funny? Can anyone tell what anything is? Or, more to the point, can anyone honestly tell what anything is if they came up with it? Do people know they have nothing intelligent to say and say something anyway because they want to participate and just hope for the best? That seems likely. I posted this:


Twitter in four words? How about "Orgiastic scrum of anger" or "Cesspool of human nullity" or "antemortem of societal collapse" or "End us soon God" or "Who will save us" or "You are not busy" or "You're self-medicating again" or "Develop real human relationships."


When you say the truth, people these days, who are insecure and who depend upon illusion and self-deceit as means of survival, brand that as anger. The above is the truth. It's also satirical, at points, but accurate, speaking to larger issues, pulling truths into light, pithily. I have been looking around Twitter more lately. And I would venture that at no point in human history have so many people been so disturbingly angry. I think anger is now the most common emotion, and it comes from insecurity and self-doubt. It comes from the gnawing knowledge of the life lived without purpose. Of being too scared to try harder, risk more, improve. There's a lot of cowardice at the center of American lives now. It adds up. It depresses your mental state. Those feelings that are not at the top of our conscious thoughts have a knack for doing the most damage to us. They are the termites in our psychological walls. Their presence is not articulated, but it is felt, and the inability to deal with those feelings produces a kind of mad rage of frustration at the very level of the individual. Most posts on Twitter are angry. Well, most comments. About the most superfluous subjects. What happens to people? Children are not angry. The anger comes when you are older. A lot of these people have settled for what they've settled for in life. Each day does not bring crushing, iniquitous disappointment. If someone was dealing with what I am dealing with, their anger would be such that they would either spontaneously combust--I believe that--or they'd be up on a roof or in a building shooting people. They wouldn't be able to handle this. Not for even a short period of time. But they don't have to handle it (let alone keep it together, keep trying, and, debasement of debasement, be civil and even affable to people who want to destroy you, who have frozen you out, whom you have done absolutely nothing to), and I watch them reaming each other apart--the tone is always so violently angry--over something as silly as the hockey Hall of Fame. When did we all turn so bad and rotten? You'd think every one of these people was held hostage in a basement by Life itself and brutalized every day for twenty years and now they've been let out, and they detest everything and everyone. But they have a nice house, a spouse, three kids, steady job. And all of this rage. And no, it's not Trump. The language people use, too. A word like "fuck" is a word like any word; it has to be used with rhetorical efficacy. If you read my fiction, you'll see, certainly, shocking things, but do you also see how they are organic? They originate naturally, from context, from the lives and realities of the stories, situations, characters; that's why my work throbs with human life perhaps even more than human life itself does. Paradoxically. And yet it never oversteps. Saying "fuck" randomly, over and over again, is as sensible as just shouting out "apricot!" desultorily. I look for these people now when I'm at the Starbucks or something. When I hold the door open for someone, or they do so for me, I wonder, "Is that one of these people? What are they going to be like later? They are just hiding it now? Why does it come out like that later? Then they just mask it again for a while?"


The few people who do follow me on Twitter come from a group, a level, that is is a top 1% kind of deal, in terms of smarts. That concerns me. Because you need the other people as well. One guy, for instance, has the job of writing definitions for dictionaries. All are readers. All have multiple interests. I think you can be anyone and understand my work, my language, what I say on the radio, and understand it readily. I write and talk to communicate, to reach. And I have hit upon a blend of writing both above the level of the smartest person--so there is always something more for someone smarter than they are--and down to the opposite level, too, so that everyone everywhere thinks they are getting max meaning, and it's all clear. Other writers do not do that. It is either trash that you'd think would bore a simpleton, or the pretentious wankery that the self-appointed intellectuals pretend to find "deep" because no one can understand it. I write for the folk and the intelligentsia simultaneously, and I think the members of each group would think I am writing primarily for them. So it worries me when I see that the few people who do follow me on Twitter have this same thing in common. Goodness knows I say controversial things, too, that no one else in our society will say, like with the op-eds, for example, but that doesn't bring in anyone either. I also worry that a part of the problem is that I'm saying those things so well that people are not moved towards those remarks because what they often want remarks to be--and the person who made them--is a kind of punching bag where they can get their licks in, sound off with their opinion. They want to fight, to argue. And I think people know that they're not going to get very far arguing against the words I wrote or spoke, because of what those words were. It can also be complete lack of exposure. The lack of backing, the lack of a platform. And with those things, this is a different conversation, or the questions I'm asking here simply resolve themselves and there is no need for that conversation.


Ran three miles, walked three, climbed the Monument three times. My old classic workout of Three Threes. I sent an op-ed to the New York Daily News. It is quarter past four now. I will start preparing for several hours now for tomorrow's day of work. And isn't this a great photo? It's King Oliver and Lil Hardin, Louis Armstrong's future wife. See how he has the mute?