Friday, August 28, 2015

Remembering Frank Zappa, and Not Enjoying Doing So

I read on Facebook yesterday that the late Frank Zappa believed only musicians qualified to judge music. For all I know, the great man said this to exactly the same extent that Abraham Lincoln said, “Never believe anything you read on the Internet.” Zappa is also thought to have compared writing about music to dancing about architecture, though there are those who believe the comparison was originally the satirist Martin Mull’s. For the fun of it, though, let’s take as given that Zappa said both things.

Both, in my view, pretty inane. If only musicians are qualified to judge music, would it not follow that only chefs are qualified to rate restaurants? Should the work of the brilliant film critic Pauline Kael have been discounted because she was not herself a filmmaker? Must we be painters ourselves to be awed by the work of Rembrandt or Van Gogh, for instance? Am I not entitled to disdain conceptual modern art as nothing more, at best, than a good joke if I am not myself an artist?


As too is the notion that all musicians would concur. If you can get the little showoff shredder at Guitar Center to stop playing 64th-note triplets at the very top of the neck long enough to ask whom he regards as the really great guitarists, do you suppose he’d mention Django Reinhardt? Jeff Beck? I don’t. My guess would be that he’d cite the guitarist in some Finnish thrash-metal group who plays 128th-note triplets, and whose music a great many musicians might very well find comical.

Not that I don’t find some merit in the idea that one should know something about music before undertaking to review it. I personally loathe what I call the English Teacher School of rock criticism, whereby one mumbles something meaningless about the music (the Los Angeles Times’ long-time pop critic used to hope that something like, “[The artist’s] music contains elements of blues, folk, and rock” would appease everyone), hope no one noticed that the statement meant nothing at all, and then hurry over to the lyrics. Someone like NPR’s Ken Tucker is a slight improvement. Before hurrying over to the lyrics, he’ll speak, for instance, of a “whipcrack snare drum,” which at least gives the reader some idea of the sound. Writing expertly about music without invoking the sort of jargon that made that famous early celebration of the Aeolian cadences in The Beatles’ “Not a Second Time” seem so very fatuous is no easy task. I have always regarded J.D. Considine, most recently of Canada’s The Globe and Mail, as incomparably good at it.

Frank Zappa, I suspect, felt strongly that he should be regarded as a genius because his stuff was really complicated. Whatever else they may argue about, all musicians will agree that the best music is invariably very difficult to play. Not. Because I asserted early in my writing career that his movie 100 Motels was an unfunny disaster, and that I would eagerly trade the whole of his recorded oeuvre for a scratched copy of James and Bobby Purify’s “I’m Your Pupper,” for instance, Zappa was widely known to think no more highly of me than I thought of him. Which troubled me not in the slightest. I never ceased to marvel at the extent to which Zappa was able to intimidate people into regarding his puerile name-calling as satire. Anyone that full of disdain for just about everything just had to have a great, great deal on the ball, right?

By the way (behold my Donald Trump imitation!), I have no compunctions about speaking ill of the dead, my guess being that they don’t mind in the slightest. Indeed, it seems to me that the dead are exactly those of whom we should feel least guilty about speaking ill. And in fairness, I will admit that I think Zappa’s famous observation that the USA was in grave danger of turning into a fascist theocracy was absolutely apt, and prophetic.

Zappa, of course, wasn’t alone in loathing me. I wasn’t on Led Zeppelin’s Xmas card list either, or Neil Young’s.  Remembering which, I’ve got to marvel at what spoiled little fellows some of our fave rock stars have been over the years. They’ve got wealth and fame, and beautiful young women in their most provocative attire lined up for the privilege of fellating them, but is that enough? You bet it isn’t! They also need the critics to pat them on their heads in print and say, “What a wonderfully, wonderfully talented little fellow you are!”

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Looking for Soul Food…and a Place Free of Litter

I walk in the evening. It keeps me fit, and gives me an hour per night to think things over, and sometimes to listen to an interesting podcast. Sometimes I head west, toward Beverly Hills, and walk down 3rd Street, which, without fanfare, has become the most glamorous street in LA, if by glamorous you mean lined with restaurants at which the sort of gorgeous young people LA is commonly (and wrongly) thought to abound in are enjoying expensive cuisine, even on a Monday evening. Sometimes I walk north, through the heart of the Fairfax district, and share the sidewalk with anti-McMansion militants and observant Jews in tiny, bobby pin-secured skullcaps (the fellows) or scrupulously modest skirts (the gals). It’s been nearly three years that I have walked among them, and I have not yet succumbed to the temptation to ask how they can believe in a God who cares if they wear little skullcaps. If I head east, I’m very soon in Hancock Park, one of my city’s most beautiful neighborhoods, the neck of the woods in which, when Beverly Hills and Bel-Air were huge vacant lots, the very rich hung their hats.

Why did Google blur Marilyn's mouth, I wonder.
Last evening, ‘twas south that I headed, through the nice racially mixed neighborhood on whose edge I myself used to reside, around the time of my daughter’s birth. Once having reached Pico Blvd., I can head west toward Little Ethiopia, that portion of Fairfax Avenue lined with African restaurants (and a sort of head shop that sells a lot of Bob Marley-themed merchandise), or turn left, and head for La Brea.

When I lived in the hood, I was fascinated to learn that there was a soul food place of note called Maurice’s Snack ‘n’ Chat, whose name I love more than that of any other restaurant in Los Angeles, with the possible of The Four Season (Chinese) in Koreatown. It seems not to be there anymore. There is an ancient cinema that has been repurposed as an African Methodist church, in which I’ll bet the singing on a Sunday morning is very uplifting. 

On the northeast corner of Pico and Meadowbrook, there is a liquor store on the side of which crude likenesses of Bob Marley, Marilyn Monroe, W.C. Fields, Ray Charles, Alfred Hitchcock, and Elvis have been painted. If I were black, I’m not so sure I’d want to look at Elvis every time I swung by the liquor store for a bottle of Remy Martin, as he co-opted black musical culture — admiringly, yes, but still.

Last night I struggled with another of my little moral dilemmas. A mid-40s-ish Latino guy emerged from the liquor store with a young man of around eight, whom I presumed to be his son. He’d bought the boy some sort of a treat. As they stepped out onto the sidewalk, the guy unwrapped whatever it was, and dropped the plastic right where he stood. He was two big steps away from a non-overflowing trash receptacle.

A part of me wanted to say, “Jeepers creepers, ese. There’s a trash receptacle 48 inches away. How can anyone be so lazy and inconsiderate? I live in this city too!”  Another part of me thought I’d better rephrase that. “I beg your pardon, sir, but I wonder if your dropping your trash so carelessly might be setting an infelicitous example for your little boy.” A third part of me he realized he might not be tickled pink by my embarrassing him in front of his son, and remembered that my recently replaced shoulder has been aching frightfully the past two weeks, rendering me unlikely to mount a very effective defense in the event that he punched me in the nose.

I did what I usually do. I walked on. And disliked myself a little for having done so.

It's just occurred to me that this sort of thing will cease to be a problem as of the day President Trump is sworn in, as all Mexicans, and persons who resemble Mexicans, will be deported, and there will be no more littering problem. Decent real Americans don't litter. The very idea is preposterous.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Time to Take Back Our Country! (Why Democracy Doesn't Work)

More decades ago than I am able to recount without shaking my old gray head and wheezing, “Where did the time go?” I got a little introduction to parenting via my second major adult girlfriend, who, at 20 had had a son with the husband she left for me. We’ll call him Eric. Complete jerk that I was in my waning twenties, I sort of resented Eric’s presence, and was a rotten, inattentive de facto stepdad. The whole experience served to make me very skeptical about my aptitude for parenting, which skepticism vanished pretty much the moment I met my daughter, right there in the delivery room. But that’s another story.

The one on which I want to concentrate here is about my having recently become Eric’s Facebook friend, and discovered, to my limitless horror, that, as he nears 50, he’s equally gung-ho for Jesus and Donald Trump. I got my first inkling of the former several months ago when he posted something about how God had cured his wife’s psoriasis. We began a zesty little dialogue about faith that began with my wondering why, if God were going to cure it anyway (and, being all-knowing, certainly he was aware that He would), He gave Wifey psoriasis in the first place. Well, to test her faith, naturally. Whereupon I wondered why God hadn’t just created a worldful of impeccably faithful persons in the first place, and saved everyone a lot of touble.

I wondered as well why God was more concerned about the psoriasis than about the juvenile cancer and malnutrition from which thousands of children around the world were dying while Wifey celebrated her recovery. When I admitted my inability to believe in an afterlife of the very literal sort in which Eric believed, he asserted that I was obviously mistaken — obviously! One of those types, you see.

If someone finds comfort in a religious belief I find intensely implausible, or even risible, and if no third party is injured as a result of that belief, more power to him. But then it turned out that Eric was an avid Donald Trump supporter, and fond of posting “memes,” as they’re wrongly called, that depicted the World Trade Center in flames with the caption “And we’re supposed to worry about offending Muslims why?” Another asserted that it was Time to Take Back Our Country! “From whom?” I commented. “From the majority of Americans who voted for Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012 If so, how is it your country more than theirs?” When I admitted, at comment’s end, that Eric terrified me, his mom, my ex-life partner and lover, was sorely offended. “Lay off him,” she suggested, in slightly different words. “He’s got a good heart, and everybody’s entitled to their [sic] opinion.”

First things first. How does one with a good heart avidly support a political candidate who, hearing that his xenophobic rants have inspired imbecile thugs to brutalize a homeless person, tacitly applauds the thugs’ “passion” for his proposed ethnic cleansing?

As for everyone’s right to an opinion, couldn’t agree less. It’s an impression to which everyone’s entitled. You get to have an actual opinion only if you’ve troubled yourself to have a rudimentary idea of what you’re talking about. My impression is that Pluto’s status having been downgraded from the ninth and smallest planet in our solar system to  — oh, this is embarrassing! — a dwarf planet is terribly unfair. By virtue of my knowing pretty close to nothing at all about astronomy, though, I am not entitled to an opinion — not unless I’m the sort of Murkan who, in response to a talking head spewing incendiary, but absolutely hollow, rhetoric on TV or radio — It’s time we took our country back! Let’s make America great again! — blurts, “ Hot day-um! That’s exactly what I think, I just realized!” through a mouthful of half-masticated Doritos.

What does Trump’s great popularity tell us, eloquently? That democracy doesn’t work. Granting the same number of votes to the head of the political science department at Stanford or Princeton as to someone thrilled by Trump’s proposal to deport 11 million undocumented aliens, and then invite The Good Ones back in through a special door in his great big huge humongous sea-to-shining-sea wall, may not be rampantly idiotic as any of Trump’s ideas, but they’re within sight of each other. 

Testing, say I. If I need to demonstrate a rudimentary knowledge of traffic law before getting a driver’s license, how does it not make sense that I should have to demonstrate a basic knowledge of history and current events before casting my vote for The Most Powerful Position in the World?