Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Copacetic Props: Wesley Brown's Dance of the Infidels

I can't think of many short story collections that delve into the world of jazz as affecting or guileless as Wesley Brown's Dance of the Infidels. Recently published by Concord EPress (full disclosure: also my publisher), these stories-  title taken from Bud Powell's famous  composition (see YouTube clip below)- weave together the lives of iconic jazz musicians with a handful of mainly fictional characters. It's a mix that produces situations and interactions that go some way to defining not just the music, but the era, not to mention  the lives of those affected by the music and the era. Of course, there have been numerous writers who have taken jazz as their subject matter or utilized as a backdrop, from Albert Muarry, Dorothy Baker, Toni Morrison, John Clennon Holmes, Rafi Zabor, Ishmael Reed, Josef Skvorecky and Michael Ondaatje to Lou Cameron and Harold Flender. For me, Brown is every bit as good as most of them, particularly when it comes to depicting the historical, musical and personal shifts during a particular era, in this case the years just prior to and after World Wear Two, when the music was moving from swing to be-bop, from dance music to something more cerebral.  

The political implications are clear, and Brown is able to tap into them.  As well he should, having, during the 1960s, worked with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, before joining the Black Panthers. Eventually he would serve 18 months of a three year sentence for refusing to be inducted in the armed services. Perhaps that's also partly why he can make his subject matter move so seamlessly in that direction, depicting musicians as no less vulnerable than those who follow the music, with all concerned  subject to the function and drift of those transitional years. All of which is apparent from the very first story, Women From Mars, about a young female trombone player who, for economic reasons, joins an up-and-coming female wartime big band. But as excellent and perceptive as that story might be, it only the opening salvo for what will follow.  In the second story, The Land of Oop-Pop-La-Da we're introduced to four young music enthusiasts: Anna, Danny, Sylvia and Wardell. Anna is Jewish,  Danny Catholic, while Sylvia and Wardell are black. Anna and Danny meet in high school, and, bonding over the music, become regulars at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, one of the few places where blacks and whites could openly dance and socialize together. It's where Sylvia spots Wardell- "a smooth talker whose words were as slick as his processed hair"-  on the dance floor.  The four  become friends. But, while Anna is hungry to learn the latest dance steps from Sylvia and Wardell, Danny simply wants to get lost in the music. As  the book progresses, Brown fills out the stories of  each of these characters, culminating in the final entry, In the Mood to Be Moody. Of course, the four teenagers have their ups and downs, and eventually go their separate ways, but not before encountering young versions of  Bird, Dizzy, Billie Holliday, Sarah Vaughan,  Ella Fitzgerald, and King Pleasure, as well as seasoned veterans like  Count Basie, Ellington,  Lionel Hampton, Chick Webb, Cab Calloway, Billie Eckstine.

Billie and Hawk
In between are a couple stand-alone stories, one featuring a teenage  Dexter Gordon, in Harlem for the first time, having just been hired by Lionel Hampton. Interestingly, Brown, the author of three novels, and lauded by none other than James Baldwin, was meant to work with Gordon on the tenorman's  autobiography. Unfortunately  Gordon would  pass away before the book could be written.  Another stand-alone features Coleman Hawkins. Set in 1936, Hawkins has just returned from five years in Europe and in need of replenishment, musically and spiritually. After reluctantly facing down Lester Young, and searching the contours of Body and Soul, Bean in an adjoining recording studio comes across ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his not-so-dummy Charlie McCarthy. An incongruous meeting as hilarious as it is fortuitous. And, of course, touching, something which could be said for all the stories in this collection, each related in a bop prose that specializes in some incisive descriptions of the music:

A young Dexter G.
"Not wanting to step on anyone's toes, Dexter stamped his foot and blew a yelp from his sax like he'd stepped on his own toes, hoping to put himself on a good footing with the two left feet that were so neat of Sweet Georgia Brown. He gave props to Prez's light throaty hum and Webster's breathy growl, letting them know that, like Georgia Brown, he was still in the shade where they were concerned. But not wanting anyone to think that he came up to the bandstand with nothing to say for himself. Dexter blew into Sweet Georgia Brown, catching some of her high-toned sweetness and low-down sass."

"...a horn player named Lester Young was introduced; and, unlike Danny's father, he had a lot to say. Danny listened to what sounded like a humming breeze, dancing a slippery soft shoe on top of the horn player's breath. He couldn't help but wonder if this was the kind of feeling his father didn't want to talk about? A long yawn followed that went on the prowl in Young's throat and mouth and then sneezed through the radio like he was coming down with a head cold. But if Lester Young wasn't feeling well, Danny wanted to get closer to whatever was making him feel under the weather. And he got his wish as feverish puffs of breath, egged on by hoots from the band, ballooned out of the horn, and burst in a splash of heat over Danny's face."
Ella Fitzgerald

If I have a criticism it isn't that the last story closely gumshoes the second,  or that he tends, like many of us, to romanticize  the music (though hardly when compared to, say Geoff Dyer's But Beautiful), but only that this collection is so enjoyable that it really should have been twice as long.  No wonder Baldwin admired Brown's writing. For me, Dance of the Infidels is one of the best books of short stories I've read in a while, and something anyone who loves the music, from young adults to elderly but avid listeners, can't fail to appreciate.


Thursday, March 02, 2017

Been Here and Gone: The Art of the Blues by Bill Dahl and Blues Unlimited, edited by Bill Greensmith, Mike Rowe and Mark Camarigg

I was five or six years old when I heard my first blues song. If I remember right it was Tennessee Ernie Ford singing Milk Em In the Morning Blues. Tennessee Ernie liked to stop  to chat with me before his radio program on KXLA in Pasadena, which came on the air just after my dad's program. Not that I knew blues from blintzes, but, hey, any song with cows or horses in it was  okay by me. Some years later I would be listening to Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Johnny Otis, etc.. But I still wasn't aware of blues as a form, nor would I be until I was in my mid-teens and first heard Leadbelly, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry and Lightnin' Hopkins, probably on Les Claypool's evening program in the early 1960s on KRHM-FM. It was also around that time I bought my first country blues record Samuel Charters's classic compilation The Country Blues. How could I not fall in love with music the Cannon Jug Stompers, Sleepy John Estes, Blind Willie McTell, the Memphis Jug Band, Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, etc.. That was followed by LPs by the likes of Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Leroy Carr, Ray Charles, etc., and pretty much whatever was available at the time, which meant LPs on labels like Folkways and Prestige. Within a few smaller labels would join in the fray, releasing compilations and LPs devoted to recently discovered country blues musicians.

I was fortunate enough during those years to have been able to hang out  at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles  where I heard practically every blues musician playing the coffee house circuit, from  Lightnin', Muddy, Bukka White, Son House, Sleepy Estes, and Johnny Shines, to songsters like Mance Lispscomb and Mississippi John Hurt.  I must have heard Lightnin' a hundred times, so much so that I found myself taking him for granted, to the point that it would be another twenty years before I was able to appreciate him for  the blues poet that he obviously was.

My friends and I would sit in the front row of the Ash Grove listening to those bluesmen, as well as any number of  great bluegrass and old-time musicians, trying to figure out how they did what they did. "Dumb-ass kids," is the way Ed Pearl, who, along with his brother, Bernie, ran the Ash Grove, would refer to us in an interview I read some years back. Which I thought was funny, if a bit unfair. Though we didn't have money to spend, we were as much if not more into the music than anyone else at the club. Ry Cooder was there as well, but he was already on a different level, thanks not only  to his obvious and precocious musical prowess but because he had the sense to ask various musicians to give him private lessons. I was too stupid to think of anything quite so enterprising.

When I moved to the Bay area, I still kept eyes and ears open for whoever came through town, and was able to continue see and hear  Little Walter, Muddy, Howlin' Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Otis Rush, Magic Sam, Son House, Mississippi John Hurt,  B.B. King, Skip James, Albert Collins, Albert King, Earl Hooker, etc. at places like the Fillmore, the Avalon, the Matrix, as well as, in Berkeley, the Cabal and Freight and Salvage. There were also small clubs in the Haight and Fillmore district that booked blues musicians. I remember seeing T-Bone Walker, for instance, at the Haight Levels, with no more fifteen people in the audience. Sometimes the musicians would travel with a band and sometimes they would play with whoever was available.  This could lead to some incongruous pairings, such as the nights I heard Little Walter backed by the Quicksilver Messenger Service.  I don't think Walter was all bothered. Anyway, he was clearly drunk most of time, and not in the best of health. Not that his condition stopped him playing far better than most other bluesmen could do healthy and sober.

By the time I arrived in Britain in the 1970s there were only a couple record shops- Dobells and Colletts- where one could buy blues records. It must have been at Dobell's on the Charing Cross Road that I first picked up a copy of Blues Unlimited. But it led me to realize that Britain was a hotbed for blues scholars, collectors and aficionados.  Mainly it seemed centered around  Blues Unlimited,  edited by Mike Leadbitter and Simon Napier and writers like Mike Rowe and John Broven.  At the time I was also renewing my interest in the rhythm and blues music I had grown up with in L.A., as avid fan of  Johnny Otis's t.v. program and late night radio hosted by DJs such as  Hunter Hancock and Huggy Boy. The Blues Unlimited crowd were fairly parochial in their tastes, and, though each had their specialty, weren't all interested in separating  the various strands of the music. I liked the fact that the  magazine was produced in the sleepy seaside town of Bexhill-on-Sea-  jokingly referred to as "the southland's home of the blues" or something to that effect- where Leadbitter lived Napier and Broven lived. Of course, there were other important British writers working at the time not connected to the magazine as such, like Paul Oliver, whose books I avidly consumed. But when it came to periodicals, Blues Unlimited was, for me,  the most interesting. I even contributed to it at some point in the mid-1970s with a review of Charlie Gillett's book on Atlantic Records. Some of Blues Unlimited's pre-1970 articles were collected in a book that Leadbitter edited entitled Nothing But the Blues (1970). Other than the dedication and scholarship, maybe I liked the magazine because it was in that British tradition of the obsessive amateur, a tradition that invariably cuts  across class lines.  Of course, America has its own brand of rogue collectors, not to mention academics, but there it seems, at least until recently, as much a profession as  a vocation. And, of course, back in the day it was more difficult  for Brits to get access to the music, which might have made many appreciate the music that little bit more. Of course these days that's changed, and, unless one collects 78s, everything is pretty much available in one form or another.

Which brings me to the recently published Blues Unlimited- Essential Interviews From the Original Blues Magazine. Though it might be a bit  similar to Jim O'Neal's Voice of the Blues, published a decade or so ago, which also consists of interviews from O'Neal's magazine,  the recent Blues Unlimited reaches further back, drawing from the magazine's archives a more esoteric bunch of musicians. The interviews, all of which go into great depth, are divided into geographical regions, moving from Chicago to L.A., stopping along the way in Detroit, St Louis, Mississippi, and Texas. Certainly the likes of Red Holloway, Fred Belew, Snooky Pryor, Baby Boy Warren, Big Maceo, Arthur Crudup, Lonnie Johnson, Juke Boy Bonner, James Cotton, Albert Collins, Roy Brown, and record men Henry Glover of King Records and Ralph Bass of companies from Savoy to Chess, are not your usual suspects.  Though it should be said that when these interviews appeared in the magazine, the subjects were still working musicians or producers. Now the musicians are simply distant remnants of the past. Though the subjects might be  dead and gone,  their influence continues. And do their recordings, now their words preserved in books like this one, nicely presented and edited by  Bill Greensmith, Mike Rowe and Mark Camarrigg. Fascinating reading for any dedicated blues fan.

Though Blues Unlimited might be nicely presented,  it can't hold a candle in the looks department to Bill Dahl's The Art of the Blues. A mere glance at the photos is enough to make any bluesnik remember why they got hooked on the music in the first place. Every photo and poster  is like a short story, and a small bit of history.  Romanticised, perhaps, but important artifacts from specific eras and an evolving music whose influence continues to this day.  The ultimate blues coffee table book, The Art of the Blues  is  divided into chapters covering such subjects as sheet music, prewar record ads, catalogs, pre and post-war 78 labels, posters of the music and movies, album covers, blues publications and promotions, etc.. It probably should have been titled The Art of the Blues and Early Jazz, because it covers the latter as well. But don't  be fooled into thinking that just because it concentrates on the art and imagery of the blues that Dahl's book lacks the substance of  the recent Blues Unlimited. On the contrary, there is a great deal of content here, with short but informative essays on a variety of subjects and figures. While so far we have not only the Art of the Blues but The Poetry of the Blues (Paul Garon and Kevin Young),  Conversations With the Blues and Blues Off the Record (Oliver), Nothin' But the Blues (Leadbitter), Nothing But the Blues (ed. Cohn), Deep Blues (Palmer)  and so many others, none  can compare- and I think most of the authors would agree- to actually listening, I mean really listening, to the music itself. http://www.facebook.com/facebook-widgets/share.php

Saturday, February 25, 2017

In the Tower of Song: Steve Erickson's Shadowbahn

"I said to Hank Williams, how lonely does it get?
Hank Williams hasn't answered yet.
But I hear him coughing all night long
A hundred floors above me in the Tower of Song."
                                         Leonard Cohen

Steve Erickson, who's long been one of my favorite writers, really has only one subject, which is to say America: what it is, what it might have been, and what it could be. No more so than in his latest novel,  Shadowbahn, in which he presents an alternative narrative, drilling down deep into the culture to expose present day fissures, in an attempt to arrive at the heart of the heart of the country.  He does this by taking various perennials: music, the open road, and characters motorvating those shadowy and ill-defined blue highways, to find a point where the past, present and future converge, and where that  elusive sense of history can finally be grasped, if not defined.

As usual in an Erickson novel, it's the process that matters, those roads and places as much dreamscape as landscape, its  characters invariably in transit, taking the back roads between places and states of mind. Having said that, the framing of  Shadowbahn is simple enough:  the Twin Towers is spotted by a trucker somewhere deep in the Badlands. On the bumper is a sticker saying SAVE AMERICA FROM ITS SELF, a slogan he can't quite get a handle on.  So the reader is thrown into a land not so much badas neglected, often patronisingly painted as flyover red, part of what, in Shadowbahn, is referred to as the Disunited States. It's a post-vinyl flip-side of our here-and-now nightmare. The towers stand like two twin speakers so natural in their  woof and warp that music emanates from these Towers of Song, though more Eno-ambient than Dylan apocalyptic.

It's all about twins, in fact.  Or dualities. At the core of the novel is Jesse, the lone inhabitant of  one of the Towers, who also happens to be Elvis's stillborn twin. In the Shadowbahn world, it was Jesse who survived and  Elvis who died at birth. Though Jesse can't sing a lick, he writes strange articles about a music-  from Bird and Coltrane to an obscure Elvis-influenced British band in Hamburg- few have heard. Moreover, music comes from Jesse, though it's  not in his voice, but that of his stillborn brother. No wonder the music magazine he writes for thinks Jesse has gone off the deep end.

Because Shadowbahn takes place in a world that might have been had Elvis not existed, the Beatles never got much further than Hamburg. Which meant that John Lennon ends up in a secondhand record store, and eventually becomes homeless. Such was the spirit of the era that even JFK is affected, never becoming president, but, permanently in a wheelchair dreaming of his senatorial past, spends his time gawking at young women as they enter and leave Warhol's Factory. And so music, at least the white rock variety, which a Malcolm X type character understandably critiques, is severely curtailed. Though Parker and Zena, siblings- one black, one white- who travel those secret highways on their way to their mother in Michigan, hold bits of that other strand of American music on taped playlists compiled by their father, which gives them, in turn, a kind of significance, as well as a degree of leverage over others.

"Regions seed from the nation, states from regions, cities from states. By midcentury the recently formed Arklahoma Christian Conglomerate applies to the World Trade Organization for a patent on 'America' under the Trade-Related Intellectual Property (TRIP) agreement. A rage of countersuits is filed by other northwestern-hemispheric entities. Attempting without satisfaction to assess the petitions by typical standards of singularity, functionality, and precedent, the organisation's council ultimately gathers representatives for the various claimants in a locked conference room where, stripped of all digital resources, each imposed a question with the understanding that the patent for 'America' legitimately belongs to whichever answers correctly: Who recorded 'West End Blues' in June 1928?"

Living in such shadows can only obscure the road, making any destination ill-defined and barely reachable. It's the music that paves the way.  After all,  the highway and music have long been intertwined? And what, according to Erickson, America has given to the world. No matter that the music has been appropriated, dependent on the country's original sin as much as on its warped exceptionalism. And so Shadowbahn- laid out in twin paragraphs with headings that could be song titles- implies that it is a matter of who can navigate those blue highway as much as who possesses the music.

"The music is unlike any heard by anyone since what once was called the 'American century,' when the predominant music of that century, so compelling as to have spread beyond America, was the expression of and then rebuttal to America's self-betrayal- when the music was about America regardless of whether it came from America, whether it believed in America, whether it thought of America, whether it spurned or rejected America. The previous century's music knew of America whether anyone knew that it did. At the previous century's root was a blues sung at the moment when America defiled its own great idea, which was the moment that idea was born. "

One can argue until the cows come home whether this is Erickson's best book, but for me it might well be his most important and timely in a series of important and timely books. Not only because these days one often has the feeling of being ensured in some maniacal alternative reality, but because Erickson's book demonstrates the degree to which one takes for granted the narrative to which one's grown accustomed, and how easily that narrative can be blown to rags. No one writes about such matters like Erickson, an inveterate  left-coaster, who has made a career out of exploring not just the edge but how it relates to our continental drift in general. At times Shadowbahn's love for, and obsession with, music and its significance reminded me of the kind of thing the likes of Richard Meltzer and Sandy Pearlman used to indulge in during the early, and heady, days of Crawdaddy. We've come a long way since then. Now, with information moving  faster than a speeding bullet, and more powerful than the most mind-warping loco-weed, it's all about sequencing, turning those playlists Parker and Zema possess into relics of the past. Now it's all about  algorithms and those who create and control them. One can only hope the Tower of Song somehow keeps on keeping on. This as everything falls apart around it. As they do, Shadowbahn is not so much a what if... but an if only... novel.  

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Morbid Symptoms: The Dreams and Realities of Gerard Reve’s “The Evenings”

TRUE TO HIS NAME, Gerard Reve fills his 1947 debut novel The Evenings with a series of dreams, nightmares, and daydreams — fantasies that have as much to do with the Nazi occupation of his native Holland as with his young narrator’s anxieties about life in the postwar years. Given the historical circumstances and what we know of Reve’s temperament, it’s no wonder that these dreams are accompanied by a certain cynicism, a pervasive discontent that, at least at first glance, could be said to border on the nihilistic.
Published when the author was 24 years old — and only now, after all these years, rendered into English by Sam Garrett — The Evenings kick-started a 50-year literary career. Reve’s works include novels as well as books that blur the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. Relatively unknown outside Holland, at home Reve is regarded as a key figure of post–World War II literature. But he was anything but an establishment figure. He was an out gay man who wrote openly and humorously about homosexual sex and the relationship between eroticism and religion and took every opportunity to épater la bourgeoisie et la bohème alike — appearing, for example, at a Dutch literary festival, wearing both a swastika and hammer and sickle around his neck, to read a poem many considered overtly racist. Born into a leftwing, atheist family, Reve ended up a Catholic convert and fervent anticommunist. But this did not secure him the favor of the authorities and the conservative forces in his home country, who prosecuted him for obscenity and blasphemy after he depicted one of his narrators making love to God (incarnated as a donkey).
(to read the full review go to L.A. Review of Books)

Monday, January 23, 2017

Boxing and Film Noir

“Boxing is simple. Two unarmed volunteers, matched in weight and experience, face off in a white-lit square. It is ritualized crisis, genuine but contained. At its best, a bout is high improvisational drama and the boxers are warrior artists. When it falls short of perfection, which is almost always, the failures are interesting in themselves. Horrifying or hilarious, and all points between, no two fights are alike. What happens in and around that mislabelled ring is a potent distillation of everything human.”    
        Katherine Dunn, One Ring Circus                                       

“Mind and muscle coordinated so evenly that one seemed to work as quickly as the other.”    
Jim Tully, The Bruiser

“No other subject is, for the writer, so intensely personal as boxing. To write about boxing is to write- however elliptically and unintentionally- about oneself.”
Joyce Carol Oates, On Boxing

Film noir has long been associated with specific architectural spaces. Nightclubs, barrooms, dime-a-dance palaces, shadowy staircases, as well as particular  views of the city. To that list one can add that most enclosed and claustrophobic of spaces, the boxing ring. In that space dramas, both brutal and artistic, are played out before paying spectators hungry for blood and a modicum of style. Traditionally, those punters, depending on the fighters’ notoriety, comprise a gallery of film noir sleazoids:  gangsters, detectives, tough guys and gals- whether femmes fatales or their candy-wrapped sisters- con-men, gamblers, wealthy sportsmen, as well as a smattering of working class stiffs. All to see two people engaged in the sweet science. Which is to say, to watch two men, at worst, beating each other to a pulp, or, at best, trying to out-think one another in a dance suggested by the more subtle aspects of the sport.

The more I think about the more I’ve come to realize that watching boxing on TV with my father must have served as my introduction to the world of noir.  Television being a poor substitute, as A.J. Liebling would write in his classic book The Sweet Science, for sitting at ringside, a vantage point from which one can more ably instruct the fighters, from a simple “kill ‘em” to the more esoteric “hit him in la panza!”, but one I, nevertheless, still cherish. Friday nights- at least in the days before I was occasionally made to go to shul- we’d watch from the comfort of our  Pasadena living-room, the Gillette Fight of the Week. As well as local broadcasts on Wednesday from L.A.’s Olympic Auditorium and on Saturdays from the Hollywood Legion Stadium. All this went on from the early-1950s to the early 1960s, from the last days of Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson to the first sightings of a young Cassius Clay. Settling down in front of our Zenith 24” with one of those new-fangled pinging remote controls, we would watch regardless of name or rank of the fighters. As we did so my dad regaled me with stories about the boxing matches and fighters he’d covered as a news photographer in Chicago and Detroit from the late 1920s to the mid 1940s. Stories about Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Dempsey, Barney Ross, Benny Leonard, Henry Armstrong, etc. both in and out of the ring. 

Over the years, I grew particularly fond of local L.A. fighters, most of whom never quite made it on the national stage, like Lauro Salas, Manuel Ortiz and Art Aragon. Likewise, the local broadcasts. I remember Hank Weaver, the ringside TV announcer at the Hollywood Legion Stadium, would sometimes have the young comedian Lenny Bruce as his guest. Of course, I also enjoyed watching more well-known boxers like Carmen Basilio, Kid Gavilan, Willie Pep, Rocky Marciano and Archie Moore. There was something about that sleazy boxing world populated by cigar smoke, men with Benzedrine smiles wearing sharp suits and snappy hats, that seemed both glamorous and interesting. With the exception of Aileen Eaton who promoted fights at the Olympic Auditorium, it was pretty much a male-dominated world with women pushed to the background, appendages to snappily dressed gangsters, Hollywood types, and business sharks. Or, scantily dressed, employed between rounds to parade around the ring holding the number of the upcoming round high in the air.  But at that age I was more interested not only in the fighters, but the  photographers, their Graflexes propped on the canvas’s edge, just as my father was once paid to do, not to mention the sportswriters surrounding the ring pounding out copy in situ for the morning editions, a job I would have gladly killed for.

No wonder I was so fascinated by all those boxing movies I would see at local movie houses, or on TV. Films like Champion with Kirk Douglas, Somebody Up There Likes Me with a young Paul Newman. Then, later, The Harder They Come with Bogart, Body and Soul with John Garfield and The Set Up with Robert Ryan. All dark stories- noir before I knew anything about noir- though, for the most part, always allowing a small bit of light to creep into their shadowy finales. I quickly realized that many of the films, at least the not-so-noir ones, seemed to have a similar narrative: immigrant kid from a tough neighborhood climbs to the top despite set-backs, to finally, with the help of a cute understanding young woman, defeat their demons and rise to the top. In other words, classic, if cliched, story lines however dark their undercurrent. But, for me, the stories interested less than the ringside and dressing atmosphere the films were able to convey. 

It was easy even then to see there there was something wrong with these films. Not so much their cliched story lines or fake-inspirational message, but the way they portrayed boxing. Watching the fights on TV and an avid reader of the sports pages and Ring Magazine, I couldn’t help but note that their portrayals were both phony and, for the most part, poorly done, at least in comparison to the boxing matches I’d been watching. And to this time I’ve yet to be dissuaded of that opinion. Documentaries aside, boxing has rarely, if ever, been accurately portrayed. There have been close encounters, moments in Raging Bull, Fat City, The Set Up or bits of Million Dollar Baby. I suppose Michael Mann’s Ali (2001) got it partly right, but that was because it was impossible not to, given Ali’s boxing style and ability to “float like a butterfly…”  But, to my knowledge, no one to this day has been able to depict boxing accurately, to the point where I could say, “yes, that is exactly how it is.” 

One would have thought boxing would be well suited for the screen. Or that directors would be lining up to do so.  All those possible camera angles and ways of lighting the action, the close-ups, not to mention the sheer drama and myriad possibilities regarding physical and psychological transformations and transitions. But, then, the Hollywood’s need for compactness clearly isn’t in accordance with the strategic elements of boxing. What would be the point of exploring the intricacies of boxing? Better to concentrate, in true American style, on the pugnaciousness of a last-ditch punch or the willingness to overcome adversity. Given all that, no wonder few if any directors seem interested in exploring sweet science.

Still, boxing and the cinema have a long backstory. D.W. Griffith made a boxing film, the silent Broken Blossoms in 1919. As did Alfred Hitchcock, having directed The Ring in 1927. While the first known film of a boxing match was made by Edison protege William Dickson, whose 37 second film of a fight between Jack Cushing and Mike Leonard, known as  the ‘Beau Brummell of pugilism,” appeared in 1894. These days you can find clips of almost any legendary bout you can think of on the internet. Watching just a handful reveals what their fictional counterparts lack: the ability to depict ring tactics, the sport’s fluidity of movement, as well as the physics of action and reaction. No wonder that most films are about fighting and punching power than boxing. Or that one invariably sees a bruiser up against a guy with heart, willing to take two punches in order to land one, who gets up off the canvas to beat his opponent and maybe put his well-meaning but compromised manager, in debt to the mob or corrupt promoters, in a difficult position. That seems to be what the public has long wanted, or at least that’s what producers have thought. Boxing may be brutal, bloody and maybe inexcusable, but it doesn't necessarily take place in a world in which good- whatever that means- ultimately prevails. Add to that the quantity of punches thrown in a boxing film, inevitably many more than in any one actual bout, no matter how brutal it might be. And what’s with distorting the sound of those punches? All of which only shows the extent to which most boxing movies not only over-romanticize but falsify their subject. In a sense, it’s not dissimilar from the way most movies featuring jazz falsify and over-romanticize the music. Of course, it’s no coincidence that both jazz and boxing are activities in which minorities- African Americans, Jews, Latinos, etc- play a large part. Or that jazz and boxing both entail a high degree of discipline, a fluidity of movement, a knowledge of the essentials, and an ability to improvise.

Photo by Albert Haut
Of course, some films, the most obvious example being Raging Bull, try to get it right. And Scorsese came close. Perhaps because LaMotta was something of a bruiser in the ring and a rags-to-riches-to rags eccentric outside, which meant he could fit LaMotta's  story could fit within the confines of the standard treatment. Or maybe I just think Scorsese came close because the director for some reason decided to freeze the frame at the exact moment of my dad’s famous shot of Jake knocking Sugar Ray out of the ring. At the same time, one can’t imagine even Scorsese making a similar film about Sugar Ray Leonard, or even Sugar Ray Robinson, much less Floyd Mayweather Jr.. Though their personalities might be sufficiently noirish, their boxing styles aren’t very conducive to usual screen depiction.

Still from Raging Bull, same fight,
Detroit, 1943
Ironical, when one thinks that boxing photography has such a long and illustrious history. Since film is nothing more than 35 photographs per second, one would think it wouldn’t be that difficult to get it right. But that would be to ignore the economics and politics of the film industry. At the same time, while boxing films are rarely convincing, that is hardly the case when it comes to novels, short-stories and literary
essays on the subject. Though maybe that’s an unfair comparison.. After all, writing is cheap to reproduce. And a blank page allows the writer the possibility and space to portray his or her subject in all its subtlety. Nevertheless,  the list of fiction writers who have written convincingly about boxing is a long one, which includes the likes of Leonard Gardner (Fat City), Budd Schulberg (The Harder They Come), James Carlos Blake (The Killing of Stanley Ketchel), Jim Tully (The Bruiser), W.C. Heinz (The Professional), Eddie Muller (The Shadow Boxer, The Distance),  F.X. O’Toole (Rope Burns, O’Toole the nom de plume of cutman Jerry Boyd), Jack London (The Game), and even James Ellroy. While their non-fiction counterparts include Liebling, Mailer (The Big Fight) and others), Joyce Carol Oates (On Boxing), Katherine Dunn (One Ring Circus), Gerald Early (The Culture of Bruising), Nick Tosches (Night Train), Jonathan Rendall (This Bloody Mary Is the Last Thing I Own), as well as work by George Kimball, Hugh McIlvanney and Thomas Hauser.
Leonard Gardner

Although these days I no longer follow the sport as I once did, I still try to keep tabs on a promising fighter or two- more often a slick boxer than a heavy puncher- following their progress until they succeed or fail, as they all do at some point do.  Likewise, I also get as excited as any hardened fan at the prospect of the next big bout. And I still enjoy watching boxing movies- of course, the more noir the better- despite their deficiencies. In fact, it could be that it’s their deficiencies that make them, particularly the older films, so entertaining. And, of course, I live in hope that some new boxing film might finally get it right, no matter how shocked I might be should that ever be the case. Though, despite the recent spate of such films, they never seem to do so. In the meantime, boxing movies, then or now, will remain essential to film noir, and the ring an essential space in the architecture of the genre. 

A baker’s dozen list of my favourite film noir boxing movies:
Huston's Fat City
1   Fat City, 1972, dir., John Huston- My favorite boxing movie as well as my favorite boxing novel. Huston makes a valiant attempt to be accurate when it comes to portraying the sleazier side of small-stakes, small-town boxing. Keach, Bridges and Candy Clark are excellent, and there’s even a role for former L.A. boxer Art ‘the Golden Boy” Aragron.
2   The Set Up, 1949, dir., Robert Wise.  Boxing is mostly about waiting. Waiting for your chance, waiting for the fight, waiting for the decision. Robert Ryan is as stoical as he is touching as  washed-up fighter. Shot in real time, so downbeat one journalist at the time noted: “Any more pictures like this and they’ll be establishing a ban on prize-fights.” Look out for the photographer Weegee as the time-keeper.
3   Raging Bull, 1980, dir., Martin Scorsese. An honest portrayal that comes close to making it as an accurate depiction of boxing in and out of the ring. At least so far as LaMotta boisterous and his off-kilter personality goes. Ring shots are done with painstaking care. But even here it falls victim to the usual boxing schtick.
4   Body and Soul, 1947, dir., Robert Rossen. Script by Abraham Polonsky. One of the first boxing films to portray the sport as a socialist morality drama. With John Garfield playing the victim of big money. Nicely shot by James Wong Howe who filmed the fight scenes on roller skates with a hand-held camera to achieve fluidity and in-the-ring realism.
5   Killer’s Kiss, 1955, dir., Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick’s second film, influenced by his Look Magazine street photographs and film noir. Set in New York, it concerns a welterweight and a taxi dancer. Uneven and flawed, it remains my favorite Kubrick movie. Nicely shot, in noir and white. A calling card that helped when it came to making his next movie, The Killing.
6   The Harder They Fall, 1956, dir., Mark Robson. Based on Shulberg’s excellent novel. Bogart’s final film. Real ex-boxer Max Baer, Jersey Joe Walcott and Joe Greb in a film-within-the film make appearances in this film, loosely based on the career of heavyweight champion Primo Carnera who unsuccessfully sued over the film. Screenplay by Philip Yordan.
7   The Fighter, 2010, dir., David O. Russell. Wasn’t expecting much but was totally engrossed in the film, which led me back to the actual fights. Wahlberg and Bale as Micky Ward and his brother-trainer in the 1980s. But, for me, it’s Melissa Leo and Amy Adams who deliver the knockout blows while displaying the fancier footwork.
8   Million Dollar Baby, 2004, dir., Clint Eastwood. Based on a number of O’Toole short stories.
Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman are convincing enough, though the film falls short of the mark when it comes to ring-realism. Strip away the gender politics and its a fairly routine, possibly over-blown, boxing film. 
9   Hard Times, 1975, dir., Walter Hill. Who also writes the screenplay. Previously known as a screenwriter, he deploys Bronsan and Coburn to great effect as a bare-knuckle fight and his partner and hustler as they travel through Louisiana during the Depression. Hill originally wanted Warren Oates for Coburn’s part.
10  Monkey On My Back, 1957, dir., Andre De Toth. A heavily fictionalized bio film of welterweight champion and war hero Barney Ross, played by Cameron Mitchell. Hokey at times, frightening at other times. In the tradition of 1950s mental illness films, like Fear Strikes Out. Ran into trouble with the censors over its portrayal of drug use.
11  Gentlemen Jim, 1942, dir., Raoul Walsh. Bio-pic of Gentleman Jim Corbett. Errol Flynn as  San Francisco bare-knuckler at the end of the 19th century, who rises to the top, going toe to toe with John L. Sullivan. With a screenplay by noirist Horace McCoy. Former welterweight champ Mushy Callahan trained Flynn for the role, and doubled for Flynn for footwork shots. Apparently Mike Tyson’s favorite boxing film.
12  Somebody Up There Likes Me, 1956, dir., Robert Wise. Biopic of middleweight champ Rocky Graziano. Newman’s first major role. Wise, his noir career behind him- though Odds Against Tomorrow is still to come- dispenses the usual Hollywood boxing story-line: fighter, with the help of a woman, overcomes immigrant poverty and life of crime. Written by Sweet Smell of Success writer Lehman, with some nice street-side shots of the New York thrown in for good measure. 
13  Requiem For a Heavyweight, 1962, dir., Ralph Nelson, from a Rod Serling teleplay. Anthony Quinn as a punch-drunk has-been pugilist at the end of his career, hoping to transition into another way of life. Darker than its TV counterpart. With a young Muhammad Ali as an early Quinn opponent, punching, from Quinn’s point of view, directly into the camera.


Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Explaining the Inexplicable: Another Dream About Fielding Dawson

"I mean that if I chose to make the most wonderful thing that I could make, I would make whatever I am, and it would be invisible, because it would have to be invisible, because what I would make would be whatever it is..."
                                                                                                 "Krazy Kat"

In the dream I was attempting to explain to poet  Ed Dorn the extent to which I liked Fielding Dawson's writing. I think I was making sense, but, then again, it was a dream, so who knows. However, whether awake or asleep, I tend to think I have a bit of form on this particular subject. After all, there was a time when I could think of nothing better than to wallow in Fielding Dawson's  free-flowing prose- which for me worked in the same way Dawson's Abstract Expressionist friends at the Cedar painted, or the way his beloved be-boppers constructed their solos, with sinuous lines, improvised yet based on theory and practise. For me, Dawson, no mean artist himself, was one of the few writers able to catch what others have found so elusive- which is the ability to move between the inside and the outside, perhaps what Dawson's fellow-Black Mountaineer Dorn referred to in an early narrative- was it Idaho Out or The Land Below?- as the insidereal/outsidereal.

I guess Dawson-mania first hit me in the early 1970s, with his first, and I still believe his best, collection of stories, Krazy Kat and the Unveiling, published by Black Sparrow in, I think, 1969. Even now I find those stories remarkable, particularly when one thinks that many were written by someone barely in their twenties.  Other writers, similar in age, locale and temperament, whether Lucia Berlin, Douglas Woolfe or Robert Creeley in The Gold Diggers, were able to explore a similar  terrain, but none were able to own the territory so definitively as Dawson. He not only moved seamlessly between extremes- inner and outer, emotions and situations (exemplified by the title of his Franz Kline book: An Emotional Memoir of Franz Kline)- but he did so with an intensity that made it seem like his words were about to singe the pages on which they were written. All this while maintaining a conversational manner and  matter-of-fact tone, willing to entertain the everyday as well as the near-miraculous.  Krazy Kat... was,  of course, followed by other collections  and   novels- A Mandalay Dream, Penny Lane, Virginia Dare, Open Road and  A Great Day For a Ball Game- though, for me, only a handful approached KK's power and intensity. Which is not say that I did not hungrily consume every book  as soon as I could get my hands on them.  

Perhaps it was inevitable that, over time, Dawson's writing would become less intense and introspective, and, in the process,  more chekovian, which is what Ed Sanders had once said about his writing, an assessment  I initially dismissed. Indeed, some of Dawson's intensity would be channelled into other work, which began in the early 1990s, namely teaching writing to prisoners, first at Rikers Island, then other New York institutions, becoming, in the process an advocate for writers ensconced in the prison system. Though maybe Dawson had written himself out, which would be understandable, or it could be that he found a pursuit that was just as,  if not more, fulfilling.

By early 1990s I was, for some reason, no longer reading Dawson.  Maybe I was too involved  in politics, or maybe it was a matter of my tastes and concerns having changed.  Then, one morning in early January, 2002, I woke up realizing it had been over a decade since I had last read a Dawson story or novel and suddenly wanted to reread him, as well as find out  what he'd been writing in the intervening years. So I ordered his two most recent books, then googled him, only to discover that two days earlier Dawson had passed away. Though his death hit me hard, I didn't find  it altogether strange that I should be thinking about him only a couple days after he'd passed away. Probably because I'd always felt a strong connection to his writing. And, if the dream in which I was trying to explain my liking for Dawson is anything to go by, it's a connection I clearly harbour to this day. One thing I do regret is never having had the opportunity to  meet the man, nor fortunate enough to ever hearing him read live. Still, I've recently managed to make do with the handful of readings archived on sites like Penn Sound. And while I'm not sure how Dawson is regarded these days, I notice there's even a piece of music one can hear on YouTube by composer and one-time Bjork-associate Nico Muhly entitled Fielding Dawson in Franz Kline's Studio. But, for me, it’s the stories on the page that matter. The rest is simply life, as we know it. Or maybe  a dream in which one tries, and fails, to explain what might be, in the end,  inexplicable.