Tuesday, August 20, 2019

2) Black Sabbath (10 Rock Albums That Made My Sense of Music What It Is)

10 (Rock) Albums That Made My Sense of Music What It Is

2) Black Sabbath

This is the first record I bought that I’d never heard any music from before buying it. It changed a lot for me and helped me down some paths I was already going.

My friend Steven was the source of most of my music knowledge from the ages of 12 until 14 or 15. Along with most of the Beatles records and some Stones, he played a lot of the big albums from the current time: Fragile by Yes and the first albums by Bad Company and Foreigner and Boston (which was the first album I ever bought for myself) were the ones I remember most. But Steven didn’t play heavy metal, a music that at that time couldn’t be found on any radio station I knew about.

When I bought the record, I didn’t know what heavy metal was. I just liked the cover art. Since about the age of 10 or 11 I’d been a fan of Edgar Allan Poe and had also begun to love horror movies, which I could see sometimes for whole weeks of afternoons down in the basement on the ABC afternoon movie that I could watch by myself, in the dark, before my parents called me upstairs for dinner.

The album turned out to be a musical equivalent of what I already loved. And I didn’t know anybody else who’d ever heard of it. The record became the first example of something that was becoming true of my musical taste and my taste in books and movies: I liked to explore and to find out about things on my own that nobody else could tell me.

Of course, there wasn’t anything like a social scene of gentle, sensitive, shy goths at that time. Didn’t exist. In my junior high, you could be a jock or a preppie or a pothead who hung out by “the tree,” a big tree down by a stream at the bottom of the hill on one edge of the school. Or you could be nothing.

It was only somewhat later that I met anyone who liked heavy metal, and it wasn’t in school: they were young mechanics or bikers (motorcyclists) or other kinds of tougher guys, some quite a bit older, who sometimes came to certain high school parties by the time I was 16 or 17. Black Sabbath didn’t have a pop audience. It had a working class audience.

I loved the big, slow, doomy sound of Black Sabbath. I loved the heavy guitar and the dark lyrics which matched my growing junior high mood. I loved the cover, which in comparison to other later heavy metal covers didn’t feel (then) cartoonish; it felt genuinely disturbed. For someone who read Faulkner’s Sanctuary at age 13 because I’d learned somewhere that it was supposed to be his most horrific book, disturbing was where I wanted to be. I liked the Black Sabbath songs about hell, or hell on earth, just fine.

I was about to go to high school. Hell? High school? I doubted there was a difference.

Once I bought this record, I was on my way to defining for myself what my taste in books and music and movies should be.

1) The Beatles, aka The White Album (10 Rock Albums That Made My Sense of Music What It Is)

Ten (Rock) Albums That Made My Sense of Music What It Is.

This is not a challenge from someone, just my idea of fun.

1) The Beatles, aka The White Album.

Music wasn’t played often in my parents’ house. Although growing up I’d heard many songs on the radio or at the houses of friends, this was maybe the first album I ever listened to repeatedly from beginning to end. The summer I turned 13, my friend Steven played a tape of this album (and a few others) over and over again on a driving trip across the country with his father, my father, and my brother.

The adults tolerated the music, barely, and Steven’s father more than once told him to shut it off, but I loved and still love these songs, although I had no context then for knowing why I loved them. Young as I was, my favorite song at that time (Steven’s too) was “Piggies.” Even at thirteen I knew it was a nasty song about nasty people and I approved. Other favorites were “Blackbird” and “Rocky Racoon,” maybe because I’d always liked stories about animals even though that wasn’t really the focus of these songs, or maybe because the melodies and lyrics were just appealing.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Book Review: In Brazen Fontanelle Aflame by Ted Rees

Ted Rees
In Brazen Fontanelle Aflame

Timeless Infinite Light, 2018
142 pgs.

A few weeks ago, poet Ted Rees asked people on Facebook what poet they wished they’d read when they were younger, and I wanted to say to Ted, you! Which is funny; he’s 20-25 years younger than me and his books didn’t exist when I was younger. Also though, it was true. As I was reading his recent book In Brazen Fontanelle Aflame, I kept thinking to myself, this is the kind of tradition I’d want my own poems to be in, if my poems were going to fit into any kind of tradition.

The works here, mostly prose poems although a few are lined, have a lot of elements that I really admire in poems, including a big geopolitical sweep. The poems often explore contemporary landscapes that picture the variety of human and non-human interactions happening in different locations, some urban, some in the rural back country and even the wilderness. Environmental concerns, concerns with power structures and what’s happening to people, insights into a range of identity and class issues: all of these are mixed together in a way that makes clear that the problems that the poems are exploring are not easily separated from each other. Rees doesn’t write single poems that try to isolate single central issues. His writing moves in sweeping waves that gather things together from place to place, person to person, problem to problem.

The poems also aren’t the pious commentaries of an outside or supposedly objective observer. Instead, the figure of the poet himself is very much a part of these interactions, a young man struggling to survive and facing a shortage of options. He can observe and participate in street level activity because he’s already more or less living right there, down in the worst of it, at least at times, except for those stretches when he seems to have moved out into the California back country. As anthropology has known for awhile, there’s no such thing as an outside observer; there are only people who are involved in a situation, however differently. The narrator in these poems moves around at the most immediate levels of social and financial alienation and disenfranchisement.

One of the most fascinating and original ways that Rees signals his involvement in the many conflicts of the book is the constantly surprising language. The ornate, sometimes nearly anti-imagistic language disrupts any notion that what he’s doing is merely describing. The voice is not that of sober (and often implicitly masculine) direct description that somehow asserts its normalcy by vanishing into the expected vocabulary. Instead, it flaunts a flamboyant and uncontainably wild vocabulary:

“So as to better skiptrace moisture’s corpse, you heave a slippy couch to the makeshift summit and settle into some kalimotxo. Beyond unctuous tide and squall of trade, the incarcerated juttings in murk, what progress has been marched. There emerges a frame of reference for the structure of this smoke, its frottage with our garments and exposed pores, a darling of the blank monolith set.” (31)

My only reservation about In Brazen Fontanelle Aflame, and it’s not a huge one, is the tendency of certain lines to focus more on the poet’s anger than on what’s being discussed, and not always in interesting ways. This happens most often in the use of the word “fucking,” which every time it appears it stands out, at least to me, as the most boring word in this otherwise consistently inventive book: “because being a teenager is always fucking terrible.” (99). The book has a lot of original insults, but at moments the poet’s anger comes off as one-dimensional. This tendency makes the last section of the book, centered around a response to the work of queer writer and artist David Wojnarowicz, feel just a little less effective, maybe also because the more clearly essay-like elements of the last section lead Rees towards what sometimes feel like overgeneralizations.

Quibbles about invective aside, In Brazen Fontanelle Aflame kept me involved and fascinated. It’s hard to put down. It offers a perspective on contemporary U.S. social problems that comes from a narrative voice like no other I’ve read in recent American poetry. I loved the intensity here, and the insight, and the sheer exuberance of the language. Rees is a poet determined to say whatever he needs to say to make the world more survivable for him and many others who live on the outcast edges of a culture too often committed to ignoring its ever-growing human and environmental disasters. And if that’s not poetry worth knowing about, then I don’t know what is.