The Twelve O’Clock Canon

My heart grows the good kind of old. Maybe I feel this way each winter, as the bones swell closer to the cold and more sensitive to its touch, and maybe I will feel different when the world is green again. If the world is green again.

Regardless, it will still be in the summer months that the flesh of flesh is not as solid; the stunts and trumps of youth reserved for youth and memory; the dreams broken of their worse habits, such as dreaming.

I dream in the unsanctioned moments of the day of writing sonnets, of growing old and fat and in love, in love still, with the confounding angel, my wife, who so sagely found me before I became lost; of being with my children gentle of action and tempered of thought; of my only madness being books, those relentless lovers, and their too, too guarded mysteries. 

It is a beautiful world that includes guitars and women, a world that will always be good and always be bewildering. The beautiful things of this world should prevail, the numbers being so uneven: only fear and money and stupidity are ugly, but armed and tentacled as they are, they are as numerous as the sands.

My disquiet, anymore, demands none of the violent resolution of my youth: the fits of poetry and prose and music and abuse and rancor and destruction, the wantonness of tragic poets, their flickering, electric scorn for peace and security and time. I no longer wish to stay up all night with an acoustic guitar and a packet of cigarettes and a monolith of pain to carve with catharsis into spearheads and reliefs. As I am—as we all are—parent to those triplet beasts of avarice, fear, and ignorance, my anxiety now is that I will not live long enough to have provided more of the beautiful than the ugly. And that I will not live long enough to read all of my books. Especially as I keep acquiring books, and keep doing ugly things. 

Perhaps a confession is in order. So I confess: I am human: afraid; filled with desires terrible, material, sublime; knowing only that there are things I don’t know, but not what they are. 

In time, but in no little amount of time, I am off to plug a hole in a wall, as imperious Caesar; to make a progress through the guts of a beggar. Or a king. In time, but not yet.

It is a very different thing to be young and gifted and in possession of wits too weak to overthrow self-destruction—to be determined of a youthful death—than it is to reach past that too green date and prepare for an old man’s death. One can die young or one can die old, and each of these ends, if prepared for at all, must be prepared for differently. I may, I suppose, still die young: in a fit, in a street, in a crime, in the entropy of illness, but it is more likely that all the dying I will do before my hair turns silver and my fingers turn lean I have already done. In my dreams. 

In my dreams, I have no pillow-talk with Death. Death and I relate directly, without hoods or shrouds or myths, in the daylight awake and face-to-face. When She comes for others, She lets me know She has not come for me. I watch Her leave—She passes through and I don’t get up. 

In my dreams, I fashion uneasy farewells for the younger man’s dreams. To add more to this statement would be a dream within a dream. There is a furrow for dreams that are not to be, and I am filling it. 

I no longer entertain the dreams that keep me behind a guitar; or those that want to write the kind of book made more beautiful by coffee stains and ground corners; or erotic prayers or caustic comedy or blood-stained bibles. 

There is a verse of poetry I have never forgotten. It is ancient, ageless, and nearly perfect. It is about love and about its times. It is canonical, and seminal, and if you heard it you would know it, I’m certain. I will let you know when I have written it. If only such a young man could write it.



The Blair Witch Project and The Digital Age

Watched The Blair Witch Project  last night. Second time for me.

It’s a curious movie as it’s so unclear in its objective: If it was a straight horror movie in that style, it would have been more like the Paranormal Activity films, with more carefully drawn characters, and images that are at least discomforting on their own, without relying upon context—The Blair Witch Project features only one such visual: it relies somewhat on context and is the very last frame of the movie; if it was meant to be a drama or at least a narrative then the characters would have been more developed: the filmmakers seem to make efforts, especially early in the film, to make the characters unsympathetic, shooting them often in profile, out of focus, rarely close-up, and always buffered by another lens (this is key: we are never actually looking at the characters, but seeing them through the lens/eye of another character); it also departs from a contemporary narrative as the characters’ objectives keep changing: first, a graveyard, then the car, then the map, then another character—south, east, etc.

The film functions most directly as a meta-level exercise to involve the viewer. I recall some controversy when the film was released, as people believed it was real. Well, that was the idea. It never breaks the suspension of reality, nor fixes the viewer to a new reality: you engage The Blair Witch Project  in exactly the same way you would if it were real, except that you know it is not. If footage like this were found, and the tale was true, it would have been filmed the way it was, edited the way it was, fixed with titles the way it was, distributed the way it was (meaning the film’s enormous popularity was due to a modest promotional campaign, but benefited more from word-of-mouth), and viewed the way it was. But meta-level texts rarely disorient their audience the way this film does. It is both their and our map that is lost. One doesn’t find oneself rooting for them to get back to the car, because it’s impossible to frame them doing so successfully without an alligator dropping through a transom. The filmmakers shift the objectives of the characters and the audience. They lead us off the map, destroy the map, ultimately take us all literally around in a circle. In a horror movie, or psychological thriller, we expect doom for all but one (maybe two) triumphant characters. A drama resolves with a sustainable, often beneficial, change to a principal character. In meta-level art, the user is involved somehow in the story’s denouement. The Blair Witch Project is voyeurism. We only wish to see what happens next. We have no other expectations. The filmmakers build in us the apathy necessary to watch these kids gets slaughtered. Or get home. Either one, whatever.

It is the rare film in which we do not relate to any character. The “character” fitted most closely to the audience is actually Heather’s camera: coldly, stoically it watches everything; it documents a story it doesn’t know and not the story it expected; it intercedes only by its presence. In this way, The Blair Witch Project was one of the most important films of the twentieth century and prophetic in its anticipation of our twenty-first century transformation into cameras, computers, machines.

In his 1979 book The Illusion of Technique, the American philosopher William Barrett traces the assimilation of Americans into the machine—our seamless and ceaselessly refined shift into gears, Modern Times-style, that function so flawlessly that no one ever notices a fault in the products. It is the price we’ll pay, like Oedipus for light, for access, information, ultimately for the apathy necessary to know and see everything we ever wish to know and see. In The Blair Witch Project, we take a turn as a camera. We should have been unsettled by it, weren’t, and kept going. Now we have Facebook, WikiLeaks, Anonymous, an entire music industry and entire film industry at our fingertips. Some of these things are good, and some are not, but while we wonder about artificial intelligence, the “singularity,” about our machines becoming as smart as us, should we consider the inverse? Now that we’ve become, at least as much as we have access, as smart as our machines, can films, music, art, books, information have the same value? Is it a coincidence that these industries are struggling? Can there ever be another Blair Witch Project?


American Idle

I no longer have “idols.” I had them when I was a kid. But I was so much younger then: I’m older than that now. Someone at a show once asked me which stone faces would be on my personal Mount Rushmore, and I picked four with whom I have a learning relationship, and to whom I can relate to, and none of which were among my idols when I was a kid: Marlon Brando, Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan, and Henry Miller. These men have a greater influence on me and my work than any other artists, and only one of them is a singer.

A Mount Rushmore of singers alone would be Dylan, Jeff Tweedy, Tom Waits, and Hank Williams. Of these, perhaps only Hank Williams would have a snowball’s chance of getting out the preliminary auditions for American Idol. And they’ve all actually been American idols. “You’re an idol of ours,” says a young musician to Bob Dylan during Don’t Look Back. Briefly, here are some other actual American idols unlikely to have made it anywhere near “Hollywood Week” on American Idol: John Lennon; Joey Ramone; Axl Rose; Neil Young; Jimi Hendrix; Jim Morrison; Janis Joplin; Kurt Cobain. In fact, I can think of only two singers who have meant anything to me who would have had a good chance of advancing on American Idol: Jeff Buckley, and Elvis Presley.

According to Dictionary.com, Idol:

"1. A representation or symbol of an object of worship; broadly : a false god.

2. A likeness of something.
3. A form or appearance visible but without substance. 
4. A n object of extreme devotion.
5. A false conception.”


The case can be made that all of these apply to the winners of American Idol, but we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and work with the fourth definition: An object of extreme devotion.


I’ve resented American Idol since it was introduced, and have never watched the show. To me, it represented one of the worst trends in American culture: The inability to delay gratification, to work for something, to earn something. Elvis was an innately talented truck-driver when a recording he paid to make for his mother was heard by Sam Phillips, and Phillips put him together with Scotty Moore and Bill Black. Sam Phillips was looking for a white bridge to black music. And the rest is not history:


Elvis cut two additional records at Sun, both of which faded into oblivion for the “good ballad singer” who didn’t “sound like nobody.” He auditioned for and was rejected by a vocal quartet, dismissed as having no ear for harmony. A local working band rejected him, too, saying he should stick to driving a truck, as he was “never going to make it as a singer.” Elvis took swings at songs that Phillips found for him, but his efforts stalled. Then That’s Alright, Mama, and Blue Moon of Kentucky, each cut with Moore and Black, found a modest audience on the radio. The band played small clubs in the area, opened for Slim Whitman, left an unimpressed Grand Ole Opry behind them, and had a middling performance on The Louisiana Hayride. Elvis wasn’t a successful regional act until early 1955, and even then the band kept busy touring the south, from Tennessee to Texas and back, in a station wagon.

The rest of us didn’t find him, and make him the Elvis we know, until 1956, when he made his first RCA recordings and television appearances.
It’s not really the narrative that has been associated with Elvis Presley through the years: Country boy records a song for his mother, signs with record label, appears on Ed Sullivan, famous overnight. We don’t think of dive bars and truck-stops along Route 40, rejection, a singer trying to find his voice, a sweaty station wagon, failure. It’s not the path of an American Idol.

And that’s what I hate about American Idol: The cynical idea that what Elvis and many other singers and musicians earned at such great cost you can get by winning a game show. In The Last Waltz, Robbie Robertson and the other members of The Band talk about the long, hard road to success: Empty rooms, being so broke on the road that they resorted to shoplifting. The pathology of it that comes out in their exquisite music, that lends credibility to that music.

The American Dream used to be that anyone could be and do anything. Where you started had nothing to with where you were going to end up. Work hard, have a plan, stick to it, shut out the negative, and you could do it, no matter what kind of shit you came from. Not anymore. The New American Dream is that we all have what it takes, and all it takes is a big enough screen. We’re all special, we’re all talented, we’re all dynamic, we’re all original and gifted and brilliant, and all we need is a single moment and enough open eyes. We’re all the next Jay Z, we’re all the next Bob Dylan, we’re all the next Madonna, George Strait, and Michael Jackson and Lady Gaga. Who cares what those people went through to get where they ended up. Who cares that there wasn’t a game show for Elvis, that there was no magic audition for Madonna, who was once so broke pursuing a career as a dancer that she posed nude for a little cash. That’s not the model. The model is individual achievement, the supremacy of the individual, that innate value in all of us, that great stretching reach for fame and glory. That’s what they sell us. All those models of perseverance, hard work, and dedication-those are for others: those are models of group achievement; those are for bands, movements, neighborhood renaissances, politicians. For you, and for me, it’s overnight: The spotlight, being famous for being famous, the reality competition show, the forty thousand YouTube hits.

"We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars, but we won’t…"-Fight Club

I interviewed a young girl from Woonsocket for an article about her Hollywood Week audition for American Idol. Advancing through the initial audition, she was warned by a producer that she should “get the ‘musical theater’” out of her voice, that she would never make it. This morning, I was directed to this column by my friend, the poet Tony Brown. In the column, the point is ably made that what viewers want from American Idol contestants is “a juke box.” And that’s where the young woman from Woonsocket failed: She is steeped in musical theater, and filtered her performances through that lens. She interpreted the music she performed, God forbid. The young woman, like a few other Idol contestants, plays the guitar and writes songs. On her guitar, there is a sticker that says “You Are Being Brainwashed.” I was impressed with her work ethic, and her talent, and left convinced that more would be heard from her, and that she was not without ideas.

Where the hell she got ideas from is beyond me. Ideas are for bands, movements, neighborhood renaissances, politicians, game and software developers, and writers. There are certainly no ideas on American Idol, save for the idea that we can all get famous overnight and make a lot of money for ourselves and for the show.

Even Elvis may not have been a good enough ballad singer to make it through an American Idol audition. A producer may have warned him that he had a lot of African-American music in his voice. His rendition of Blue Moon of Kentucky may have contained too much of the country music he was steeped in, and not enough of the bluegrass familiar in prior versions of the song. And That’s Alright, Mama would have been, then, an animal that the producers and judges had no chance to understand, because it was pure idea. On the track, Elvis simply banged on the chord that he knew best, playing an up-tempo version of the simple one-four-five blues during a session break at Sun Studios. It was a lark, a chance he wouldn’t have taken with tape rolling. When Moore and Black joined in, Phillips heard something, the something he was looking for: a white boy turning a black singer’s second-tier single into a kinetic vamp and a revolution. There will be no revolutions on American Idol.

An object of extreme devotion.

Most of us have only extreme devotion to people we know, people we love. But I understand the application of the definition for “idol” to pop stars. I’ve already detailed my own equivalents. Let’s say that Marlon Brando, Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan, and Henry Miller are my “idols.” I came to these artists organically, and their influence has shaped my identity and my life. I don’t think this is hyperbole, but nature. I cherish the work I didn’t know I was doing when I was uncovering all of these men and their work. I didn’t find them on a game show, or even on television. Perhaps they all resonated for me immediately, and perhaps it was a long period of exposure during which their influence developed. It is different for each.

What the United States does, and does more and better and more perversely than any other culture, is commodify things-to make a thing a commodity. Here, we cynically find organic trends, we find them in nature, in their own habitats, and we hang up a shingle to sell them. We do it with everything. Ironically, it is hipsters that take this hook deepest in the cheek: believing that there is a field of products they can consume that will exclude them from being consumers. But they are. Most of us are. Among other, truly marginal types, there are in American culture Consumers and Creators. The most egregious offense of American Idol is cynically commodifying the organic process of finding our American idols. Once found, those idols, themselves Consumers of The New American Dream(TM), are painted to look like Creators, so all we ever see on American Idol is ourselves, by ourselves, buying ourselves: A  representation or symbol of an object of worship; a false god; a likeness of something; a form or appearance visible but without substance; a false conception.


Americana, and How it Got That Way

Folk, country, and blues started out as music played by the dirt poor, and by slaves. There are folk ballads collected that have their origins not on American plantations and porches, but in European parlors, but for the most part, “roots” music is peasant music. The earliest banjos were home-made, approximating traditional African instruments. The proliferation of the guitar, itself a modernization of the lute, came later.

The Americana surge represented by acts like The Avett Brothers, Mumford and Sons, The Low Anthem, et al, is not very different from the folk revival of the late fifties and early sixties. Perhaps the purer one came first: the current trend is a revival of a revival, but maybe without the scholarship? Another point to consider is that Joan Baez and Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs were emulating artists who came less then a generation before them, and used as a principle source Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, released just a few years (1952) before the folk revival got wind behind it. The equivalent of a movement today based somewhat on a record released in 2000 or so. But besides the luminaries who emerged from the folk revival, such as Dylan, the heroes remain the same for this revival as they were for the prior revival: Hank Williams is a principal influence on John McCauley of Deer Tick; the new Low Anthem record opens with a George Carter song, and a highlight of their live performances is a cover of a Skip James tune; The Avett Brothers and Mumford and Sons (nearly interchangeable) are updated string bands.

The music referred to above is arguably the most valid music of our times. (Although one could make a case that the sheer dominance of synthesizers in the pop music of FM radio and billboard charts is more valid: it is an utterly plastic, manufactured sound produced not by musical instruments but by instruments designed to simulate musical instruments. As our world becomes more synthetic, more simulated, less real, so does the most popular music. The sound of popular music has in common with our times what the poetry of Paul Celan had in common with the world after World War II. Perhaps while Mumford and Sons were reading Bound for Glory and listening to the Mississippi Sheiks, Pharrell Williams and Dr. Luke were reading Baudrillard.) Whether it is or is not, it will remain the music on the margins that will influence the next generation of bands and performers; further, the popular music will always be too easy for certain minds: we don’t start out with Tolstoy in our nurseries. There are levels: board books, through to Dr. Seuss, Weekly Reader and Encyclopedia Brown, to Harry Potter and on to adult books and then, for many of us, more challenging texts, ever graduating. The same levels exist in all media. The Passion of Joan of Arc is lost on pre-teens. Our tastes sophisticate. Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, and the Jonas Brothers make music for listeners at a certain level. Paradoxically, the most mainstream music is ultimately the most marginalized.

Should the most valid music of our times be more progressive, should it trace its roots to music that represented the times when the artists making today’s music were young, unformed, malleable? I was listening to Bob Dylan in 1994, as I turned eighteen. And that influence remained with me. Should I have paid closer attention to Nirvana? Obviously a tour of the charts from that year, the Billboard Top 40, mainstream FM radio, would yield music that, for the most part, was and is just as invalid. But records that Bob Dylan made in the sixties were only by their rare merit slightly valid in 1994: they weren’t a testament to the times, they weren’t a mirror, they weren’t for me. But the post-industrial fray at the edges of our culture in the nineties, the latent anxiety, the changing roles of men and women: these things are all there in the music of Nirvana. That music was as exclusive in the way it represented its time as Bob Dylan’s was in its time.

Something I missed, and I missed understanding those times and so, these.

I’m not exactly a peasant, but I can make a claim to roots music. Or a claim with more substance than that which can be offered by many of today’s Americana artists with their Ivy League pedigree, their parents in the suburbs. What is really the difference between white singers like Elvis appropriating “black” music and The Avett Brothers appropriating peasant music? Of course, when Elvis did it, it was a revolution. That’s one difference. As The Avett Brothers and others play country, blues, and folk music, they’re doing it in a shadow that Elvis didn’t have to bear. Without compromising any modesty, I can say that I came to music organically: My great-grandfather came to the U.S. alone from Italy at sixteen-years-old. He landed at Ellis Island, presumably wandered, and found work on the Providence-Worcestor Railroad. From a family with a long music tradition, he could play nearly any instrument handed to him, preferring string instruments and accordion. His peers on the railroad were mostly Irish and passed their work days singing ballads, a cappella. My great-grandfather befriended them by providing accompaniment on whichever instrument was available. Some of them invited him to settle near them, and he became the first Italian-American resident of Blackstone, Massachusetts.

We don’t play acoustic guitars because we can’t afford electric guitars. We play them because with one in our hands, we are self-contained, a unit. No band is necessary to make a statement, to sound our private barbaric yawps, to sit up all night crafting our great utterances. The acoustic guitar sounds like wood, and wire. It lends itself to folk, blues, and country. There’s something terrestrial about it. Acoustic music is sold secretly, or at least in a way you don’t see, because status is not sold with it. The possession of the most popular music is not different from the possession of the newest, most expensive car, the largest house in the most exclusive neighborhood, the most recent and advanced mobile device: it marks one as in possession of success and knowledge and status. In real time, money and power are popular and the inverse is true: popularity and the accumulation of the insignia of the popular represent achievement, reach, vitality. In this pursuit the acoustic guitar, the mandolin, the double bass and, especially, the banjo cannot help.

Of the marks described above, the “hipster” wears only that of knowledge, and not of real-time knowledge. The purpose of the hipster is to demonstrate priori knowledge: that what was dismissed as uncool by the masses it is possible to feign as cool to manufacture an unshared trend: an artificial artifice, a simulacrum; and to predict what will be dismissed as unpopular by the masses next. The mathematics of the hipster depend not on merit or pleasure, only on a dogged commitment to the margins of popular culture. In this, the Americana musician (although there are many hipsters among them) differs from the hipster: The Americana musician is a collector of sounds that have not or cannot be appropriated, whether they are or have been popular or not; the Americana musician collects hand-made sounds, and that is the guiding principal. In this, there is the hipster’s pretense, but not the hipster’s contrivance. In this, there is not status symbol to be had save for a superior grasp of the Roots Music Secret Handshake. And while others have become used to the mad plastic world, the death of the real, and look to the mainstream for sounds that match it, the roots musician is the rebel rebelling against the rebellion by reaching for the antidote, the inversion, the ultimately real sounds of wood and wire and reeds and pipes and strings and plantations and juke-joints and the sunset porches of sharecroppers.

But they are not overt about this reach, this collection. The Carolina Chocolate Drops should be the model for the contemporary roots act. The Drops are a de facto string band, like the Mississippi Sheiks. They play some Mississippi Sheiks material, as well. In performance, they speak openly about the origins of the music they make. They have no interest in the mainstream, and they have no interest in the credibility that comes with making art on the margins. They use contemporary methods, like beat-boxing, to both draw out the rhythms of the music they’re making and to link this music, principally street music, to the long tradition of folk music. While the Avett Brothers and Mumford and Sons make music that should perhaps be in a museum and find it sold as an alternative to modern pop music, the Carolina Chocolate Drops are unapologetic docents leading a tour of American music and how it got that way.

At the Northeast Regional Folk Alliance’s (NERFA) one-day conference in Franklin, MA, last week, there was no folk music. There was a lot of acoustic music. Name a song that is sung by people when they gather socially, a song whose originator you can’t name and the words to which many of us know. It’s called Happy Birthday, and it’s the only folk song in the western world. Even in dark pockets of Appalachia, songs sung communally have well-known authors. If they don’t, it’s very likely that a number of key arrangements of the songs have been copyrighted on behalf of a recording artist somewhere. There is no more “folk music.” At NERFA, the unifying principals were independence and acoustic guitars. The romantic ideal of the singer-songwriter prevailed. This ideal is a tight box, and the purpose of NERFA is to show you how to fit into it: how to market your act, how to perform, how to record, how to network to be exactly like the model acoustic acts centralized by the conference’s organizers and participants. Which is not a bad thing, as these principals are the relative principals of success and are holistic and can be generalized. But the sounds pursued by the greatest of today’s Americana musicians, those deft collectors, would not have fit in at NERFA.

And that’s the idea. Those sounds have their origin among the poor. Roots music is peasant music. To hear it back then, you had to know something: who in your area played it, who was coming through that was playing it, and where they would be playing it. Sometimes, it was playing all the time right where you lived: your plantation, your block, your barn. And in enough of today’s best Americana music, that hasn’t changed: it’s music that you have to know something to enjoy. It’s not for hipsters, who reject it for being accepted, and it’s not for the mainstream audiences who chaff at its inherent challenge and prefer the artificial sounds they can’t be blamed for relating to.

Which leaves today’s roots music in perhaps the purest place of all: it is music being selected for it’s physical authenticity by collectors and then shared, primarily, with other collectors. There’s nothing traditional about it, except that this process of searching, preserving, and sharing, doesn’t depend upon broad distribution, record labels, popularity, or FM radio: just one collector, and another.