Monday, March 27, 2017

Stairway To Heaven by Alison Hawthorne Deming


Stairway To Heaven: Poems
Alison Hawthorne Deming
Penguin paperback $20
Release date: Sept 27, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-14-310885-6

Stairway To Heaven by Alison Hawthorne Deming is about death, and grieving, of and for Deming's friends and brother, but especially her mother. At the middle, the core, of the book is “The Luminous Mother,” the longest poem of the book, about the last days and moments of Deming's mother, starting with a prayer for both, and an invocation of Whitman—that is, an invocation of poetry/art:

I light two candles of uneven height
one for my brother and one for my mother
both dead in the same inscrutable year

After burning for two days
the candles are the same height. What
is the science of their diminishing?

I want an explanation about the matter
when I should be paying attention
to the condition of my soul.

I take Whitman's command
as my own. I do not bow to death.
I place my hand against its cheek

as the heart quiets and grows still...

The spaces between lines read as lines unsaid, or hesitations, or places we readers might fill in with our own experience. This is always true with poetry, but even more apparent here, the three-line stanzas a seemingly much-needed structure Deming holds on to writing about a difficult topic that could send anyone out of control. The stanzas also a perhaps very slight nod to, or evoking of, Dante as well. Her poem not as epic, of course, but still, Deming's confronting death. Not quite the afterlife, not for her, but a questioning of how and why, and maybe an unconscious desire to take this experience beyond, to continue the dialogue.

Other poems about death and dying, meaning about grief, lie scattered around this one, but Stairway To Heaven also includes many desert poems, which stand alone, and are the best, like “What The Desert Is Thinking”:

We know the desert has consciousness because the saguaros
stand up and speak as one about the heat.

They tell the Gila woodpeckers to come in out of the sun.
They tell a man or a woman lost without water to lie

in the column of shade they make out of their kindness.
The saguaros all hum together like Tibetan or Gregorian monks

one green chord that people hear when they drive
through Gates Pass and come to the Place where they gasp.

Beauty does that though the nihilist will make an ironic joke
about the note of surprise that has escaped

from his or her loneliness. The smile from the joke will cover
for the smile for joy. That's okay. Consciousness

is like the saguaro's decision to wait half a century to com up
with arms though arms were in its mind all along.

'Place' in the book becomes vital. We go from the American desert to the east coast ocean and forest, and back to the desert for the last series of poems. In all cases, in all poems, except those when Deming is in a hospital room with someone dying, she places herself outside, and it's in the outside, in N/nature, where she finds refuge from, and solace in, her grief, culminating, almost seemingly inevitably, in Death Valley, maybe the starkest landscape in America, and certainly one most people would find uninviting or even scary. And yet, Deming shows us the beauty there. And this is what poetry, and art, does: not only to help us come to terms with death (others', and our own) but even find a certain stark beauty in it. It's hard to conceive, but in “Resurrection,” Deming's mother wants death, at 102 has had enough of life and its pain(s). Death can even be desirable.

The weakest point of Stairway To Heaven is the title poem. I admit, as an old Led Zeppelin fan I was curious, but weaving an interview with Robert Plant heard on the radio into the grieving process for her brother just becomes a distraction from the strongest part of the poem, the ending, with Deming in dialogue with her brother on his death bed:

…..Do you ever dream
of animals, I ask him, hospice bed

looking out on a plywood squirrel
perched on cement black wall.

Frequently. A lilt of surprising joy. What kind?
Mostly the jungle animals. Then: I'm going

to do my exercises now. What exercises?
I like pacing, he said, immobilized

upon his death nest of nine pillows.
Then he closed his eyes to become the inward one

whose only work was to wear a pathway
back and forth within his enclosure.

Sections like this, when Deming just stands back and lets us 'see' the scene(s) of the process of dying, and let's the dead talk, à la Dante, are where she's at her most powerful (likewise especially with her mother). Not forcing meaning, but showing us a picture, and letting us create/imagine our own meaning.

You don't have to read Stairway To Heaven as a series of connected poems about death and grieving, and it's interesting to think about how the 'theme' of the book would have changed if, say, Deming's mother and brother hadn't died—I think somehow the collection would have ended up more of a celebration of nature, which would have been fine. And yet, that aspect of celebration is still in here, on the edges of grief, where maybe it always is. Life is sad. Life has a lot of things to celebrate. We go on. We go out into the desert. We look up at the stars. And feel small. Isn't that beautiful?

The Sobbing School by Joshua Bennett


The Sobbing School
by Joshua Bennett
Penguin 2016
ISBN: 978-0-14-311186-3

I'm not the first to say that the most exciting contemporary American poetry seems to be coming from 'younger' black writers like Joshua Bennett. The reason seems to be that there is more at stake, that anyone paying attention to the news in the last few years can see race relations are not that good in America, and some of us like to think the poetry could/should be about that, about what's going on politically, socially, culturally, in America or the world.

Whereas, one could be a little cynical about popular white poets so comfortably comfortable in their middle-class-ness that they seem to not have much of urgency to write about, so delve into cleverness, with poems of odd humor that lead nowhere (Dean Young), or sound like pure gibberishness (Charles Bernstein) or go for a pithyness-lite than merely amuses (Billy Collins). Or, while I'm burning bridges, suburban family life (Sharon Olds) or finding life lessons looking out the window at birds (Mary Oliver). All of which culminates in the vague pleasantness of, at its worst, The Writer's Almanac.

I say all this having read and enjoyed all of those poets (except Bernstein) and The Writer's Almanac. But meanwhile, there are other poetries going on taking more risks, because challenging the status quo, challenging white middle-class apathy, which I always thought poetry was really supposed to do.

The Sobbing School is one of the five 2015 winners of the National Poetry Series, chosen by Eugene Gloria, and is Bennett's first book. The title comes from lines by Zora Neale Hurston quoted at the beginning, worth repeating here:

I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it....No, I do no weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.

Strong words, implying, with the knife, a readiness and willingness to strike back at the world, with Hurston's, and Bennett's, knives, of course, words, though Bennett does seem to be jabbing his knife, a little, at those in the sobbing school, those in the black community who aren't sharpening their knives—this made even more explicit by the cover, featuring a photo (credit not given anywhere that I can find) of a building burning in what looks like city projects, while some young black men in the background watch casually and others in the foreground play basketball. The message seems clear: no matter how badly the world of black America is burning—and we all know the cause(s)—there are those in the black community who just watch, or worse, not pay attention at all, not care.

Bennett is known, or has been known, for spoken word poetry, and tours regularly in that capacity (including reading for President Obama!). When I was younger, the poetry slam/performance poetry poets I saw and heard at the Nuyorican in New York and The Green Mill in Chicago were all vehemently, rabidly, anti-academic and anti-intellectual, and from what I've seen of the scene in Portland now, that seems still to be the case. Not that spoken word is exactly the same, but it came out of them, perhaps, and comes from the same aesthetic and, if one were to criticize all three, one might say they put the emphasis more on the performance than the poetry (I asked Saul Williams a Slam Nation movie screening in Chicago once about that and his response was, "The poetry is performance")(or something like that). But Bennett also happens to have obtained a PhD in English from Princeton, making him perhaps some kind of spoken word/academic hybrid.

I'm not sure the poems in The Sobbing School are the same ones Bennett reads in his performance poet mode, nor even if he thinks of himself as having different modes. These don't seem like they would go over well at a slam poetry contest, say, because there's not quite the over the top-ness of emotion and energy and politics and humor, though certainly those aspects are all present. Maybe the closest example of what I think might go over well as performance poetry would be  "12 Absolutely True Facts About Richard Wright":

When Richard Wright was five years old he torched
his momma's living room curtains just to see cinder blacken
his father's hands like the insides of a loganberry pie.

Richard Wright was a steel-driving men. Richard Wright
could fly. Richard Wright wrote his last book about lice
& magnolia blossoms & it went viral in Mississippi.

Richard Wright had a zoologist twin sister named Giovanna.
Sadly, her work did not outlive her. Richard Wright outlived
every talking horse he ever met. Richard Wright loved

to hoop. Reputable sources swear he was trash with his left.
Richard Wright was born in a hornet's nest. In 1975,
he beat Earl "The Pearl" Monroe in a game of H-O-R-S-E.

Took him for seven large that night on a bad bet.
Richard Wright was a code word & a mountain range
& a treble clef. I tell you, Richard Wright could fly!

Old heads say they saw him soar in circa late summer
of '59, sitting cross-legged & singing gospel
from the saddled back of an inner-city tortoise.

Richard Wright taught us how to forfeit.
Richard Wright was  steel-driving man.
Richard Wright outlived everything he ever built.

Richard Wright built the White House.
Hammered each nail into place
with his unadorned hands.

Richard Wright was a monument
all by himself. Richard Wright
was a soda can.

The absurd humor, the use of 'chant' repetition, the pop culture references, the conversational language, above all the readability (in both senses of that word, with eyes and out loud) all point to an energetic reading. And yet, I'm not sure the subject matter would go over at a spoken word performance. I'm not sure most spoken work audiences, or poets, know, or want to know, who Richard Wright was. Nor would they get the horse references. I suspect though, that Bennett is probably such a good performer that you might not need to know, that it would be a pleasure just to hear (and see) him.

But there are softer, quieter, poems of Bennett's that would, gasp, almost sound ok on The Writer's Almanac, like "Love Poem Ending With A Typewriter"

And maybe no one's happy,
I think to myself, usually during
the plane ride home or as I read dead French
philosophers on the couch,

only a child's height away
from my girlfriend, who, for real
for real, is a Platonic ideal in her own
right, all any reasonable citizen

of desire might dare
to imagine in these times
of breakup over text message
& earnest tweets left

unanswered for days. We fit
like the grooves on a bullet.
We both love Rilke & want
children & think furniture

design is pretty important.

That first line, "And maybe no one's happy" just captures the human condition, period, beyond black and white (or yellow or red or whatever, green and purple) though there's definitely a middle-class feel, which Bennett seems to be poking fun of, a little. That is, poking fun at himself as a former-black-man-of-the-streets-now-intellectual who reads Rilke and Foucault. The one small odd detail that would get this banned from Garrison Keillor's show (and there are others later in the poem) is the "We fit / like the grooves on a bullet" which I'm going to go out on a limb and say most white middleclass couples would not compare themselves too. This is a little reminder, to us and perhaps to himself, that because he's black, his middleclass comfortableness might not be so comfortable, that he'll always be a little closer to (systemic or cultural) violence than any of us, including himself, would want.

If his bio had not told me that Bennett was a spoken word poet, I would have placed him in, or traced him back to, the New York School Poets (maybe fourth generation by now) not just because he lives in New York, but because of two big influences: "Preface To A Twenty-Volume Regicide Note" is a nod to Amiri Baraka, back when he was LeRoi Jones, who I consider part of the New York School, even if some wouldn't because he was/is 'political' and (let's just say it) black. But Baraka/Jones had something in common with Frank O'Hara in his use of common everyday American speech, and that is what I hear/see in Bennett. Take, almost at random, "In Defense of DMX":

No one knows Ella Fitzgerald
was raised in Yonkers,

which probably makes you
the most famous person

to ever hail from Yonkers & most days
I'm pretty cool with this gap in the archive

if only because of that part in the Grand Champ intro
where your homeboy says, Fact of the matter is, I trust dogs

more than I trust humans & I feel pretty
much the same way only

you should switch out dogs
for written agreements

or Apple products in my case....

Given, this poem is addressed to DMX (Earl Simmons), a hip hop artist, but the 'you' ends up sounding like it's addressed to us, which has O'Hara's 'Personism' all over it, along with the humor and references to popular music and products. Though as Emmett goes dark, in this poem and in The Sobbing School in general (something most New York School poets never did)(though Baraka did, which could be the main argument why he doesn't belong in that grouping)(but still) but he's still being funny, making fun of the fact that he and DMX are from Yonkers, but

            ....I usually follow up any claim
to our home, our beloved, mutual shame

by mentioning the Ovidian qualities
of your more recent work & you know

how it is, Earl. You know nothing beautiful
comes from where we come from....

In this context, in this poem, the 'shame' and 'home' are bigger than Yonkers: Bennett's talking about the larger world, black America, and the shame they're made to feel.

Which brings us back to the Hurston quote, the shame of "the sobbing school" types, whom Bennett wants to deny, but with whom he nonetheless has to at least deal, through anger, or humor. Or Art. Beauty. That's the saving detail Hurston gives us, which Bennett uses: the oyster knife. It can be used for violence, but its main purpose is, like poetry, for finding pearls, beauty, the beautiful. The Sobbing School is a call to get up, stand up, yes, but it is also a reminder to look for the beauty in life. Because, Bennet says, what's a world worth fighting for if there's no beauty?

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

haiku



lie naked on my
sleeping bag watching planets
and stars appear


Appeared at a handful of stones Nov 13, 2013. 
#worldpoetryday


Friday, March 17, 2017

BASS SOLO—novel excerpt

First 16 pages of my novel BASS SOLO. Full manuscript available on request!



Jimi motherfucking Hendrix. That’s who inspired me to play bass. See, I didn’t want to be him—he was so cool I’d never even dare—I just wanted to be in a band with him. My mom’s boyfriend at the time, this white dude Dave, had a huge old record collection, and he’d play them at night, and these sounds would come out of the speakers, crazy shit. Feedback, like when the preacher at church would get too close to the microphone, only this was music. Controlled noise. And when I looked at the records, there was a black guy like my father, like me, except with this big crazy afro, with a cool white glowing guitar, the expression on his face all contorted like it was almost hurting him to play, either hurting him physically, or hurting him that he was causing his guitar pain by making it scream like that. I wanted to be that, I wanted to be with him, be his friend and be in his band. And though his drummer, Mitch Mitchell, was white (and British I later learned), on some albums (the later Band of Gypsies ones, though I didn’t know that until later) there were pictures of this other black guy, who looked like me, playing this other instrument. This was Billy Cox, and the instrument looked like a guitar, but it only had four, thicker, strings, and was bigger. I asked Dave what it was and he said, —That’s a bass guitar!
—What’s a bass guitar? What does bass mean?
He smiled and thought about it, and said, —It’s the low end, the part you feel in your chest. The thumpy part.
We got right next to the speakers. “Red House” was playing, and he said, —Listen. You hear that low part going dum-da dum-da dum-da dum-da, going up and down like that?
I nodded. —Yeah.
He smiled. —That’s the bass. That’s the part that makes people dance.
—That’s what I want to do! I want to play bass with Jimi Hendrix!
When my momma got home from the hospital that night I ran up to her before she even got her coat off and almost yelled, —I want to play bass!
She looked at me like I’d gone crazy. I think I had. —You want to play what?
—Bass! With Jimi Hendrix!
—Oh Lord....
But on my birthday a week later, there it was. Momma had Dave go out and buy me one. I didn’t know it at the time, and Dave probably didn’t know it either, but it was a cheap thing, by a company called Univox, and smaller than a regular bass, more the size of a guitar, I guess designed for beginners like me. I didn’t mind though. I liked it. It was white, kinda like Jimi Hendrix’s guitar and I was already picturing myself up on stage with him—us and our matching white guitars.
I also got a small amplifier, and a cord to plug my bass into it. I think back now on it and laugh, it was pathetic, the speaker in it was shot, making the sound that came out fuzzy, but I didn’t care, in fact I liked the fuzziness. It sounded Hendrix-ish. And it was loud enough that Momma yelled at me from downstairs to turn it down. Yes! That was rock ‘n roll!
That would also in some way make up for in fifth grade, when a woman came into our class and gave us a music aptitude test. I don’t remember the specifics, but it required her playing recordings of sets of tones, and us answering multiple guess questions about the differences or similarities between them. Like, was the first note higher than the second, or lower? After we took the test, she vanished with our answers and we all forgot about her, until she came back a week later and asked everyone whose name she called off to come with her. One by one, a few of the other kids names were called, all of them white. She took them out and up to the library. When they got back an hour later, I asked one of the girls what happened. She said that, based on how well they’d done on the music aptitude test, they had been given the opportunity to join the middle school orchestra, and choose the instrument they might like to learn. And: —Oh yeah Anthony, that lady said she forgot to call your name because Young was so far down the list.
Which, was it that, or because I was black? Because the woman never came back to get me. Nobody did. Nada. Nothing. I sometimes wonder what would’ve happened if I’d been able to go with that group. Like, maybe I would’ve learned to play the cello and be playing in some orchestra now. Or hell, maybe I would’ve ended up playing the double bass, I probably would’ve picked something huge like that, and played in an orchestra, or become an old school Charles Mingus type jazz dude. Or maybe that wouldn’t have changed anything, that I would’ve felt the pull of rock anyways. But I kinda think it would’ve changed everything.
The problem was, of course, that Jimi Hendrix was long dead by that time, which Dave eventually, reluctantly, had to tell me. My drooped down to my chest and I slumped up to my room and sat on my bed. I didn't cry, but neither did life seem fair at that point. I looked at my bass, laying in its case. I went over to it and put it on, looping the strap over my left shoulder, and looked at myself in my mirror, something I still do to this day actually, and imagined myself on stage with him, imagined him standing behind me nodding, like a father I did not have. But I would make him proud, or try, and I knew, the way children know, that if I made him proud he'd somehow look after me. And he has.

Friday night in Portland. Stumptown. Third night of the tour. Always good crowds here. I've even years ago played over across the river in the stadium, with Ozzy, tens thousand people. Now I'm downtown in a place than can hold maybe 300. If we get that. Started in LA, hit San Fran last night, Seattle tomorrow night. Bam bam bam. Knocking them out up the coast, then we go inland to Boise and who the fuck knows after that. Minneapolis? Then Chicago Detroit Cleveland and on to New York. I think. Or maybe we go down to Memphis and Louisville first. I'm already losing track of time. Or place. Or both.
I'm hungry. Being on tour there's no lack of food, just that it ain't that good, junk that doesn't really fill you up, at least not in a good way. The club we're playing at, Dante's, has a little to-go pizza place in the corner, and the band gets free pizza. Hard to resist that, but I'm holding off getting dinner with the guys to have something with my sister Jenna a little later, before the show. But hungry, sitting around, standing around, doing soundcheck, waiting to go through all the soundchecks with each group. Or each grouping, I should say: We've got us a sort of magical mystery tour of three total bands, but I'm playing bass for all of them, as is this young kid Sean playing keyboards, and Chris is singing in the first and third, but we've got three different drummers, and three different guitar players. It's a mess, messy, but a messy room is a sign of creativity, right? And it's the new economics of bands and touring, cutting down on personnel to save money, though I'm doing alright on pay, at least, every night we play, and when I got the offer to do the tour, under these circumstances, after the money was negotiated, I said, I'm getting my own hotel room for this. Which was actually the bigger grumble than the money, but touring, big- or small-time, kills me: 24/7 with a bunch of dudes on the bus, sharing meals, playing gigs, I needs me some alone time some time.
This german guitarist dude's the headliner. Udo Johann Rot. Old white hippie-looking dude with long hair, gotta be in his sixties by now though I never asked. But wears a psychedelic bandana when he plays, kinda to cover up his bald spot, but also has his 'thing,' his look, with an Indian dreamcatcher hanging off his guitar. I don't know, rock and metal musicians from Europe are always a little bit more eccentric, whereas us americans just go out with jeans and a t-shirt.
Udo's the one who founded The Scorpions, way back in the seventies, when they were more of the next step beyond Jimi Hendrix, that is to say when they were good, and why I knew about them. But either they kicked him out, or he quit, or who knows, but they then of course went on to be huge, if not good, with their pop song sing along choruses. Udo kinda dropped out, did some solo records, was still popular in Europe, and amongst the guitar god wanna-bes here. With good reason: he is a guitar god. He's a hella good guitarist. I've played with some other hella good guitar players in my career, and most of them were influenced by this guy. So I'm honored to be on this tour, honored he picked me, and the best part is we get to jam out on a couple Hendrix tunes every night. That's how I got the gig: I was recommended, he'd heard my solo album, and called me himself from Germany, and like the first question he asked was, 'Do you like Jimi Hendrix?'
And I was like, Man, hell yes, I know everything.
—You know Castles Made of Sand?
—Yes.
—Red House?
—Hell yeah. Everyone knows that. Yes.
—Hear My Train A Comin'?
—Yes, even that.
—Ok, let's do it.
—I got the gig?
—You got the gig.
Something like that. First time we got together, just him and me and Jimmy Butcher, his wiz kid south african/british drummer, we just jammed on Hendrix tunes, with Udo singing. He sings english way better than he speaks it, and for a white guy, he sounds like Hendrix.
The rest of the songs we're doing are old Scorpions songs, the early greatest hits. He's coming out with a new album of re-recordings of those songs. Which, if the first two nights are an indication, fans already know. I was a little surprised, I admit, to see young dudes singing along to something like "Coins For Charon," recorded before they were born.

The problem with playing the bass back then in Michigan was that I had no idea how to play the damn thing. But my momma, and to this I give her eternal credit and my eternal thanks, made me take lessons, and paid for them, saying, —Well if you gonna have an instrument, you better damn well learn how to play it right.
She walked into Playland Music one day, without my knowing, and signed me up, once a week, every Friday after school. She’d pick me up, drive me home to get my bass, drive me over to Playland, wait outside in the car for the half hour lesson, drive me home and drop me off, then head to work at the hospital for the second shift.
My teacher was Gary Glass, this older slightly overweight white guy. Gary made his living as a musician, back when that was still possible, even in a small town like Jackson. He’d gig at night and teach during the day, and lived in an apartment with his wife on the north side by I-94. He had thin short light brown hair, parted on the side, and a small bald spot in back. He wore thin rim glasses and kinda nerdy plaid shirts, the kind that were maybe in style back in the fifties. In fact, he looked like an accountant, but he spoke like a total musician, like I’ve heard both white guys and black guys speak, especially in jazz, dropping words like ‘cat’ and ‘cool’. As in, —Yeah, Hendrix was a cool cat.
I was nervous walking in that first day. The guy behind the counter at Playland was white (the owner I learned later) and the other people in the store where white, and they all looked at me, though to be fair, I think they would’ve all looked at anyone coming in, and the owner smiled and said hello. Gary came out smiling and shook my hand and led back to his little room in back. There was a desk, with a stereo on it, and two filing cabinets that I later learned were filled with sheet music transcriptions of all kinds of songs. There was also a Fender guitar amp, with dual plugs for us to both plug into. The coolest thing was that Gary played a Fender Stratocaster, just like Hendrix. It wasn’t quite white, more like a pale yellow, but that was what I focused on, the Strat.
My momma hadn’t quite explained everything exactly. When I pulled my instrument out of its case, Gary said, —Oh, you play bass. Let me check it out.
I think at the time Playland had a separate bass instructor, but Gary knew how to play. He did some kind of bluesy line, plucking the strings with his right thumb, something I’d never seen before, then with his two fingers. He sounded good. He handed it back to me and asked me what I was interested in, why I wanted to play. I of course told him about Hendrix, and he smiled and nodded. —Ok, that’s cool. I dig it. Here’s the deal. We’ll learn some basics, but also get into learning some actual songs soon too, ok? And one thing you’re gonna need to do, is learn how to read music, dig?
I nodded. I didn’t know. Sounded good. Sounded logical. I knew about reading music, had seen the music in the hymnals at church, and seen how some people to sign along to the music just by looking at that fly shit on the black lines. Only much later did I learn that Hendrix never learned to read music.
Gary went out into the store and returned with two books, The Complete Electric Bass Player, and Chuck Rainey, and a book of blank sheet music. He also pulled out a piece of paper from one of his file cabinets with a diagram of the fret board of a bass, with letters, A, B, C, etcetera, scattered what looked like at first kind of randomly all over. But he explained how there were really only seven notes, A to G, which made up a scale, and the eighth note, or the ‘octave.’ For that first lesson, and the first month, he patiently explained what those letters meant, and how each letter corresponded a note on the fret board, and to one of those black lines on sheet music. There was a basic logic to it, even if some things were weird, like that there were two frets between most notes, like C and D, but only one between B and C, and E and F. When I asked why, Gary shrugged and smiled, —It’s just the way music works. If it was totally logical, it wouldn’t be that interesting.
He also showed me the beginnings of rhythm, and how songs are broken down into ‘measures’ with each measure being broken down into, usually, four ‘beats’, or quarter notes, which themselves can be broken down into eight notes, and then sixteenth notes. Sounds complicated, and it was then, but I got the basic idea, especially when he reminded me of how some of those old songs you can here on the radio start with the drummer actually counting off ‘One, two, three, four!’ The trick, or what makes music music is how, and more importantly when notes come in, so that for example even though there’s four beats to a measure, the actual notes played may or may not be on the beat, and some instruments may be playing notes in different parts of the measure than others. I’m making it way more complicated than it is, and just at the beginning Gary only had me working on basic stuff.
Once I had a basic concept of rhythm, and the notes, Gary showed me what’s called a 12 bar blues, one of the most basic chord progressions. —This will serve you well. Once you know the 12 bar, you’ll be able to play anything from blues, to rock, to country. Hell, they use it in bluegrass sometimes!
He drew out the basic chord progression on a sheet of blank sheet music. —There’s only three chords. That first one, the ‘one chord’ is the root. So whatever key you’re in, you start on that note. After four measures on the root chord, you go up to the four for two measures. So, if you’re in C for example, you count up the scale to the fourth note. C, one, D, two, E, three, F, four. You go up to F. Get it?
I nodded. That made sense.
—Then it goes back to the one chord for two more measures. Then is goes up to the five. If we’re still in C, what’s the five chord going to be?
I counted up. —C, D, E, F, G. G?
He nodded. —That’s right. Now where’s G on your bass?
I found C and counted up to G. Which was also the highest open string on the bass.
—Now where else can you play G?
I didn’t get it.
—Go down. Is there another G below C?
There was. At the third fret on the lowest string. —Oh. Here.
He nodded again. —That’s right. And that’s part of the art of bass playing. You got choices sometimes. You can play notes an octave up, or an octave down.
—How do you know which to play?
—You just figure it out after a while. Usually you’d want to play the lower note, because that’s what a bass player does, is hold to low end down, but sometimes, for effect, or a change, or for variety, you might want to slip up higher. It adds tension and intensity. It happens in all types of a music. Bach, Mingus, all them cats did stuff like that.
I thought about that, looking at my fret board. I knew by then that each fret was one note, and that there were twelve actual notes between every octave, so that the twelfth fret was the same note at the open string, just an octave up, so I went up to the E at the twelfth fret and counted up, F at the thirteenth, F sharp at the fourteenth, to G at the fifteenth, which was that same actual G as the open G string, just played at a different part of the neck. And from there, at the seventeenth fret on the D string, was a G note another octave up from that. —So I could be playing up here too?
—Well, no. You don’t want to ever go up above the twelfth fret. That’s guitar territory. A bass player needs to hold down the bottom.
I didn’t ask him, but at the time I thought, then why does the bass have those notes? Why are there notes above the twelfth fret? But something about the way he said it, the way he acted, he seemed almost angry about the idea, which seemed crazy to me, but that has been the reaction of most guitar players I’ve ever known: they just do not like the idea of a bass player playing up high, taking a solo.
Every week Gary would teach me some new stuff and send me home with something to practice. Like when he showed me where all the basic notes on the fret board where, he told me to practice playing them, memorize them. And I did. It didn’t even feel like work, or homework. It was like he’d opened up a room full of treasure and told me, Explore this room all week. Every day, after school I’d sit down with his diagrams and go over what we’d talked about in the lesson. I think about it now and it’s amazing. I’d memorize the four open strings, E, A, D, G, then find the notes, slowly, on each string. Like I’d find the C note on the third fret of the A string, on the diagram, then spend what seems like minutes in my memory now finding the C note on my bass, counting up the frets. Then the D note, which could be played either on the open D string, or at the fifth fret of the A string. They were the same note, the same amount of vibrations, and that’s how you can tune an instrument: pluck the D note on the fifth fret, and pluck the open string, and adjust the open string until they both sound the same. Nowadays there’s electric tuners that are super accurate, but they weren’t around at the time, and tuning my bass like that (because same thing for the other strings, find the G on the fifth fret of the D string, and it’s the same note at the open G string) helped me develop of sense for even hearing notes, especially down on the lower range like that,
I would spend hours going over this, all on my own up in my room. Hours just going back and forth from Gary’s diagrams to my bass fretboard, gradually memorizing where each note was, and being able to go from one, up to the next, crossing over to next string. So, starting with the open E string, then one fret up to the F, then two frets up to the G, up to the open A string, two frets up to B, one fret up to C, to the open D string, two frets up to E, one fret to F, to the open G, and two frets up to A. And then back down. It took me so long to be able to even do that, play all those notes up and down, without looking at Gary’s diagram. I swear it was hours. And it was not work. It was play. Or, not even that, it was just intensity, concentration. I wanted to be there figuring those notes out. I wanted to be learning them. I don’t know how or why. There were frustrations, but I think there were enough little accomplishments along the way that felt like rewards, that I constantly felt like I was improving, getting better, even though I know now how almost pitiful my growth would seem to me. On the other hand, Gary told Momma one time when she came into the store to pick me up, —Anthony’s my best student. He actually practices at home. Most people don’t.
It never would have occurred to me not to practice. My point is, I’m not saying I was born with some innate talent. I practiced my ass off. Though there were some certain circumstances that made practicing my ass off interesting. Having a room of my own. Having free time. Being an introvert and ok with being alone. Having a good teacher like Gary, both experienced and patient and a good explainer. Having a mother willing to spend money for lessons. Having Dave there with his record collection, being exposed to music at a young age. Seeing a picture of Hendrix.
Though some stuff seemed, or seems, unique to me, like my love of music, something I was born with, especially when I met my father later on. Like it was in my blood. But then I wonder if music isn’t in everyone’s blood and it’s just that the way our society is set up, for both blacks and whites and everybody, that it not only doesn’t encourage music, but discourages it in some way. I love music so much, it’s been such a vital part of my life, I can’t conceive of someone not liking it as much as I do, but some people don’t. I guess. I mean, everyone seemed to love music in college, people defined themselves by it, even non-musicians, but later on, people I knew, once they got into the real world, with jobs and families and shit, they listen to it less and less. I’ve seen it with my family and I’ve seen it with my friends. My momma had all those Motown records, still has them somewhere, or else Dave took them, but she just doesn’t listen to music much anymore. Just whatever’s on the radio. If that.
Or my sister Jenna. Back then, she just listened to hip-hop, which was still called rap back then, and what’s called R&B on the radio. She eventually did become a dancer, but the exotic kind. Not to say though, that that choice (if it was a choice, and not economic necessity) wasn't somehow relevant. But, I sometimes think that my friends, not that I have a lot, are my friends because we all still like to listen to music.
I’m not saying parents should force music on their children. Any time children are forced to do anything they’ll usually grow up to hate it. But if their children show any inclination, like singing or anything, which most children do, they should offer music lessons up as something fun to try, like, Hey, do you want to try this? Or, that goes with anything. Like, if you’re son is dancing around the house, show him a video of people dancing, different styles, and ask him if he’d like to try it. I think the key is being an observant parent and picking up on cues, on interests, and encouraging instead of forcing them. Easy for me to say, I never had kids. That I know of.

It's Udo's tour, his name, he's the headliner. We've got two busses and a truck, and the one bus is basically his, with his actual real bed in back, and computer with internet, and hot german girlfriend half his age. Whereas the rest of us get the bunkbeds and/or just hang out up front.
The two opening acts are older guitarists too, though not quite as old, more my age. The first group is made up of the drummer and guitarist who played with Dio before he died. And if you don't know who he is, well, he sang with Rainbow then Black Sabbath, then had a successful solo career with multiple albums. They've stayed together as a kind of tribute band, still playing Dio's songs, though they did a solo album and tour, which didn't do much. But somehow they got tagged on the tour, with me playing bass, and Sean and Chris playing keys and singing. It kind of feels like I'm playing in a cover band again, since we're doing Dio songs, but also they like to just do older classic rock/metal songs, something like "Highway Star" by Deep Purple. Why not though? The crowd seems to like it, everybody knows the songs, and actually, based on what I've seen these first two nights, the biggest crowds came to see them, or at least the drummer, Vinnie Appice, who played with Dio in Black Sabbath too. Of name recognition for any of us, he's got it. I'm not quite sure how Udo feels about the opening act getting the biggest crowd, but I'm not sure he knows, since he hasn't come out to watch them, so far. Or maybe he knows, or his management company knows, and Vinnie and Jason are actually doing their job: drawing folks in who might actually stay and check out Udo Johann Rot. But it's strange, seeing a 'god', someone I've seen in arenas, with a huge drumset surrounding so he had to crawl into it, now playing with a basic set, not even on a drum riser, on the fucking stage floor. Is it for the money? Yeah, probably. Us drummers and bass players don't get songwriting credits most of the time, so we don't get the residuals. And nobody pays for music anymore, so one of the main ways for a musician to earn a living is to tour. But, also, gotta give Vinnie credit for getting out and playing, and enjoying it, because he does, I've seen him, looked over while we're playing, and he's got that light in his eyes. Doesn't matter how big the crowd (well, as long as there is a crowd and not an empty hall) every musician loves to just play. Me too. I've played stadiums and festivals, and had a row of amps behind me. Now I'm back to one.
The second 'band' is really Robbie Less, an instrumental guitarist (at least for his own stuff—he played in Alice Cooper's touring band), one of the shredders from Shrapnel Records. I played on his first album, which in itself was a crazy story, since he recorded it just him and drummer (Steve Seard, from the pop band Voyager—I know I know, but he's actually a great drummer and that album is, in my humble opinion, his best drumming ever) and they brought me in after to record the bass. So I'm like, sitting there in the studio, plugged directly into the console, with Vinnie sitting next to me calling out chord changes as they come. It was crazy, but it worked, and I'm really proud of my playing on that album. Vinnie's the one, or one of the one's, who recommended me for the tour, and so it's been cool to actually play those songs, for reals, with him. Though I gotta say, I'm not sure the dynamic of instrumental metal/rock songs works in a place like this, for a crowd like this. Maybe for one song, but for a whole set? Fans need some kind of focal point. That is, lyrics, and a singer. I say this from experience. I've done jazz gigs, all kinds, where the expectations are different, people expect instrumentals, but they're more mellow affairs. With rock though, you need that singer to unite everyone, and to have those sing-along choruses, something that you can basically memorize by the second time around without too much difficulty.
Still though, this is a crowd that's come to hear Udo Johann Rot, so there's a bunch of a musicians, guitarists, in the audience, and Vinnie shreds, so he has some appreciators. He's a good guy too, real Bronx accent, showing his age like all of us, a little more stockier than when I first met him, way back in the early 90s. He's not much of a front man, just asking everyone between songs if they're having a good time, then back into another song. But hey, this is the only part of the night where I get any bass solos, so I'm happy.
It's a long night for me, true. Even when I was playing with Ozzy, headlining, we'd only do about two hours, tops. This is like three hours. More, including the waiting around between sets. So I'm trying to pace myself. I dig playing with Chris and Jason, and with Vinnie, but my main priority is to be 'on' for Udo, so while Jason and Vinnie are trying to give their all, I gotta hold back a little, which I think they don't like, but like I said, having me play bass for all three acts gives them a little bit more of a bigger cut.
Everyone is still rough around the edges. We had about a week to rehearse down in LA, and we've all made it through all the songs without flubbing anything too bad. I don't think most fans even notice, though Udo does have a little bit of the evil eye if you fuck up. He's a rock star and expects perfection, and the dude is good, and a legend, so it's hard to deny him that. But for example, Chris is still reading some of the lyrics for both sets off of an iPad, which he sets up on a stand at the back of the stage, but still visible to everybody. Kinda unprofessional, but he got the gig even later than I did, and memorizing two sets' worth of lyrics is hard. I also feel bad for him because even though he's the singer and supposed to be the focus on stage, he's not, nobody's ever heard of him, and they came to see the guitarists (and Vinnie the drummer) and though he's got a certain charisma, and can do the jive-talking between songs, Udo just dominates the stage, dominates all of us really, and literally last night in San Fran, when we were about to go into the two Hendrix songs of the night, Udo just pointed at Chris, then gave him the thumb, like, get off stage, right in front of everybody. Which, how is a singer supposed to work with that dynamic? How's he supposed to come back after those two kickass songs with Udo singing, and try and reassert himself? I personally think Udo should have him sing the Hendrix tunes, except Chris doesn't sound anything like Hendrix, he's got the high metal band voice, and Udo is Udo and wants to sing his Hendrix.
But, with all these dynamics, and all older dudes getting paid more than the younger ones, and people coming to see the Dio drummer more than Udo, who knows if this band of gypsies will stay together the whole tour. I'm just trying to enjoy myself, and am, getting to play with some legends. Getting to play, period. Gotta pay the bills just like everyone else. Touring is hopefully a better deal financially for me right now, though I'm giving up three months (maybe more) of potential, though not for sure, studio work back in LA. Those gigs are hit and miss, at least for tour I know how much I'll make ahead of time, which is enough afford the mortgage payments on the house I 'bought' there while I was with Ozzy. Because yeah, I'm working to afford a house I'm not even living in while I'm working. The life of a working musician. Everyone seems to think all musicians are millionaires, like Ozzy, but most of us unknowns, the back-up musicians, even the band backing up Ozzy in those stadiums, we're just trying to make some kind of middle-class living. And even Ozzy had to downgrade and sell his mansion in LA.


Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Teaching Philosophy

This appeared in the semi-academic journal Writing On The Edge: On Writing and Teaching Writing, Volume 26, Number 1, Fall 2015.


Teaching Philosophy

what am I doing here?
this interview-slash-teaching demo
in a dress shirt
tie (ack!)
and shoes
my hair pulled back in a ponytail
(at least my tattoos aren't visible)
the dancing monkey
before
and for
the Committee

how did I even make it this far
to the final ten or twelve?
they want a rhetorician
but I'm not even a sophist—
worse—
a poet

they want me to pretend to profess
to talk a lot about comp theory
when in my classes
I don't talk hardly at all—
just to get things going
to ask questions
to show my students that asking questions
is ok
being curious the best way to learn—
the only way

the Committee
wants to know
if I'll be active on committees
in addition to teaching five classes a week
and grading five classes' worth of essays
on my weekends
so I lie and say yes
that I would love that opportunity

the Committee wants
to know
if I am willing to teach so-called
developmental writing students—
as if that were a punishment
or a burden—
before passing upward
to teaching 'argumentative' essays
and being able to spot misplaced periods in students' Works Cited pages
and I don't have to lie on that one
though I don't tell them that
my developmental students write poetry
every class
and actually know what it is
to enjoy writing

what am I doing here?
I should be in a fire lookout tower
on a mountain
in the desert
barefoot
and watching the sun set
picking my nose
but I do enjoy teaching
I do enjoy being in the classroom
watching writing happen
watching students gain confidence
it's just that the Committee
wants to know
what I think teaching is
or rather
wants to know
that what I think teaching is
is what they think teaching is
and I just don't know—
teaching seems to me being a guide
providing a welcome community
where people can sit down and write
and write some more
and revise
and maybe revise again
because writing is a process
not a thing you do the night before something is due
and not a thing
where you start with a thesis statement
and an outline
and bullshit from there

but what do I know?
I still think college is a place one goes
to become a better person
and even most of my students
would laugh at that
and say it's to get a job
and with no middle class jobs anywhere—
and no middle class—
who can blame them?
and who can blame the Committee
for wanting to go along with the business model
for school
except—

I can
I can blame them—
won't do any good
but casting blame feels good
everyone knows that

so I don't know
what am I doing here?
I should be hiking in the Grand Canyon
or just sitting in a café
in Portland
sipping green tea
and watching the women in black tights
and writing