Friday, November 30, 2007

Making A Sick Hearse Out Of A Slow Fear

There’s an episode of The Simpsons in which Bart is invited to have dinner with the Reverend and Mrs. Lovejoy.

He looks for a way to contribute to the dinner conversation and finally hits on the idea of telling those assembled about the plot of an episode of Martin he’d seen recently. We can tell before he gets to the end of his first sentence that it’s going to end badly.

The next shot is Bart being hustled to the front door, trying to explain but only managing to get out “But…but…but…” The sensitive Mrs. Lovejoy (“Won’t somebody think of the children?”) misunderstands the word as “butt” and, with hands over her ears, cries out “Make him stop!”

There was a little of that going on as I read my speech at the birthday party. I thought I was being charming, but all that anyone heard was butt butt butt.

Now in the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I understood that I was taking a slight risk, if only because it wasn’t exactly the sort of thing people usually heard from me. But that was what I had hoped might also contribute to the hilarity, this sense of the unexpected. Or maybe I had just watched Borat too many times.

And it’s not that I’m such a fan of rude humor, although it depends on how it’s done. The rudest humor I can think of is that on Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s Derek and Clive albums, but that is so completely over the top so intentionally that I laugh every time.

Once in a while, though, one occasionally feels the need to not so much offend as transgress. Break a rule, cross a line, push an envelope, see what happens.

Now if I had thought what I had done wouldn’t be funny, I wouldn’t have done it because the success of the speech was the number one goal. But in my head (a dangerous barometer to go by, admittedly) this thing was funny. Looking it over after the fact, I still think that with the opportunity to perform it in a quieter space, with time to let the lines breathe, it would work.

I could tell as soon as I got to the first joke, however, that I was in big trouble.

What is the sound of no hands clapping?

The deadliest of silences had settled on the proceedings and I was afraid to look up from the page, sensing that this would only create further embarrassment. This was the bellweather joke – if this didn’t work, the rest was going to be pure torture for everyone, especially me.

My eyes flew down the page, desperately searching for the jokes that would save me. All I could find was more of the same, wisecracks about genitalia and decrepitude. What had I been thinking?

Johnny Carson used to have this great shtick he did when he was bombing. Taking the full measure of the audience’s apathy, he’d nod to the orchestra and start to tap dance as they played Tea For Two, as if to say “I’ll entertain you if it kills me.” Inevitably, this would get more laughs than the actual joke would have.

I had no such back up plan and felt pushed into taking Winston Churchill’s famous advice, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

My speech had suddenly become a death march, an endless corridor of quiet that threatened to sabotage the entire affair. Time slowed to a crawl as I delivered each line into an infinite darkness, knowing that there was no chance of rescue or escape. I could feel a chorus of uncomprehending eyes staring at me, sick with sadness and confusion.

My god, how long was this thing?

Finally, mercifully, as I got close to the end, part of this ill-conceived venture actually worked:

And that’s the wonderful thing about being alive now, they keep finding new and better ways of extending our suffering, which is great. It means years more of drooling on yourself and mumbling incoherently to 19 year old orderlies who will feel like they’d rather die than resemble the grotesque parody of humanity that you’ve become. My point is that we’re all going to get there together, one large incontinent mass of foul and flatulent flesh, shuffling our way into the grave as civilization makes haste to erase any evidence that we existed.

Anyway, happy 50th, honey.

The crowd threw me a bone and chuckled at that, but I had not been forgiven for what had preceded it, I could tell. That little bit of laughter felt like I’d discovered an oasis after years spent wandering in the desert.

I’d learned a valuable lesson, though. You can never take your audience for granted and have to earn their reaction every time as if it were the first. You have to tailor what you do to invite the largest number of people into the tent with you and know when to get off the stage.

Or, as I might have said that night, width is far more important than length.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Donald Ayler, 1942-2007

A month late but here it is, from The Wire:

Donald Ayler, the trumpet playing younger brother of saxophonist Albert Ayler, died on October 21st following a sudden heart attack. Donald’s buzzing, declamatory trumpet playing, which was part Holy Roller primitive, part avant garde firebrand, was an integral component in the groups led by Albert during 1965-8, animating the ecstatic mood of such landmark recordings of the new jazz as Spirits Rejoice, Bells, Live In Greenwich Village and Love Cry. In 1967 Donald, who was born October 5th, 1942 in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, had what he referred to as a "nervous breakdown" (in fact he suffered with mental illness for most of his life). This factor, coupled with his sacking from his brother’s group circa 1968, and then Albert’s mysterious death in 1970, effectively forced him to quit music for good (although in the early 80s he did re-emerge briefly to work with a new group in Florence, Italy). Donald appeared in Kasper Collins’s recent documentary My Name Is Albert Ayler where he spoke movingly and eloquently about the music he and his brother had made together four decades earlier. He died at the care home in Northfield, Ohio where he had been resident for some time.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Springtime For Screwloose

I can’t remember which comedian did it, maybe you remember, but someone put a track on one of their albums that was a piece of pantomime.

So, of course, all you heard was the audience’s reaction: a series of laughs that culminated in a huge roar at the end, but you had no idea what the audience had witnessed.

It was a disorienting thing to listen to, this disembodied laughter without any context.

I was reminded of it recently when I noticed at work that many of the employees were obviously listening to the same morning radio show on their headphones.

The laughs all come at the same time, from across the aisle and across the room, but they’re all different. Some linger, as if to savor the experience, others seem to be ahead of the pack in anticipating the joke to come.

It’s almost hypnotic, like watching the ocean. It ebbs and flows and you have the sensation of listening to one giant hive mind.

Now my usual reaction to this is to think that laughter so consistent and so regular every day must be the result of a couple of motormouthed deejays pandering to their audience with a sad excuse for wit and humor.

It’s possible I have misjudged them.

Upon realizing that I would need some remarks to deliver at the wife’s recent birthday party, I figured I would come up with the sort of funny but sentimental, irreverent yet heartfelt thing that I inevitably produce. To be fair, these bits of oratory usually go over pretty well, and I do my best to deliver them in a way that will maximize their effectiveness.

Now when it comes to putting anything like this together, I am a composer of instinct.

I try to shake a few things loose, see if they have any potential and juggle them around to see if they fuse. If the disparate parts start to speak to each other, I know I’m on the right track and the thing usually starts to create itself with little help from me.

It’s an instinct I usually trust.

It tells me what works and what doesn’t. It solves problems and offers alternatives. It helps me sand off the rough edges to make a pleasing aesthetic whole.

This time, though, I could tell that this instinct was going a slightly different way this time. It was creating something a little, I suppose, “edgier” than usual and although I was straying a little outside of my usual province, I felt confident that it would work.

When I finished it I could see precisely where the laughs would appear, from the benign chuckles to the involuntary belly roars. I could see where the pauses and beats had to go to wring the tears of mirth from their eyes. It was all so obvious how well it would go over and I couldn’t wait to debut it.

Let me repeat that I have a good track record with these things. So to fail, not in a small or subtle way but in an immeasurable and catastrophic way, at an event meant to honor the wife as she was surrounded by friends and family, was more than a little mortifying.

To know about 15 seconds in when the first joke crashes and burns to the ground in a hail of gunfire that you have to now make your way through the rest of it, knowing full well than the audience is only going to react with even less enthusiasm, is like finding a pit in the pit of your stomach: you didn’t know there was anything that far down.

There had been some lovely testimonials prior to my talk. Stories of adventure and loyalty and times gone by, told with gusto and affection.

Let me explain what I was aiming for:

I had two overriding concepts guiding the speech. One was that the narrator would talk a good game about how entering this stage of Life was a beautiful thing, etc., but he would do it in a way that featured descriptions of the drawbacks of old age presented in the most unpalatable way possible, the idea being to face the thing head on and thus disarm it, rather than engaging in tired homilies about age and wisdom.

The other comedic axis consisted of an omnipresent layer of sexual perversion, which is to say that the narrator would frequently lapse into unappetizing innuendo and sleazy suggestion without realizing how offensive he was being.

These two strands flirted and danced around each other like strands of DNA, dipping and diving like the players in some garish and depraved mating ritual.

Somehow, someway, my instinct leading the way off the cliff, never marching more confidently or flying its flags more brilliantly, it had seemed to me that this, this hymn to decrepitude and unwholesome appetites, this wholly inappropriate paeon to piercings and perversion, it had seemed to me that this would be terribly, terribly funny.

Next: Making A Sick Hearse Out Of A Slow Fear

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Pages Against The Machine

Having said all that, a love of books as objects doesn’t always translate into the act of reading and I’d have to admit, if asked, that I’ve fallen out of the habit lately. Too often my eyes get tired and I find myself drifting off.

Curiously, though, I find myself at the moment surrounded by a good many more volumes than usual, so let’s have a look:

I picked up Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men simply because I wanted to know what to expect from the imminent film version by the Coen Brothers. As its title implies, the book is a meditation on where the country’s been and where it’s going. A crime drama involving a huge amount of cash, a seemingly unstoppable killer, and a now-retired Texas sheriff, it’s easy to see why it appealed to the Coens – in fact, you’re tempted to think that they must have influenced McCarthy to some extent, insofar as it slips so effortlessly into their previous work. It’s hard not to think that they saw an opportunity here to present the flip side of themes laid out in Fargo, Raising Arizona, and Miller’s Crossing. If you're afraid that we've already crossed the threshold into a new soulless and inhuman future, the book or the film will do little to allay your fears.

The narrative alternates between the story itself and the voice of the sheriff speaking directly to the reader, a voice that frequently strikes you as sounding a bit like Huckleberry Finn’s if he’d made it to the end of the twentieth century. I’m sure this didn’t get past the Coens, whose adapted screenplay throws in a couple of nods that are not in the original novel.

All told, it’s rather a bleak vision and the Coens have been very faithful to the book, which probably isn’t going to make it a crowd pleaser.

Without the crime stories produced by the great pulp writers of the 30’s like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain, the Coens would probably still be trying to finish their first screenplay. The Black Lizard Big Book Of Pulps, a huge paperback doorstop of a thing that runs over 1,100 pages, is a wonderful treasure trove of such stuff, featuring the hard-boiled detectives and duplicitous dames that figured in the stories printed by magazines like Black Mask and Dime Detective. I suppose a little could go a long way for some folks (“I didn’t like his face and I told him so,” opens Carroll John Daly’s The Third Murderer), but for me it’s just the perfect bedside book.

Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice is a collection of three articles by essayist Janet Malcolm concerning Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. I apparently missed their original appearances in the New Yorker, but I’m glad I caught up with them here, even if some of the information passed along is a little disturbing. It’s also a good crash course in who’s who in recent Stein scholarship and it seems as if I’ll eventually have to come to grips with a 700 page behemoth from a few years back by Ulla E. Dydo entitled Gertrude Stein: The Language That Rises 1923-1934, supposedly a stunning and sympathetic reading of her work. Hopefully it’ll have a hard-boiled detective in it somewhere.

(In point of fact, Stein actually was a big fan of detective fiction and even tried her hand at writing some. The end result, however, showed about as much interest in finding the killer as Twin Peaks.)

Finally, there’s two new ones from a couple of old favorites. The Pleasures Of The Damned is the latest collection of poems from the late Charles Bukowski, this volume serving as a kind of best-of while including some previously uncollected work, and Mister B. Gone, a novella by Clive Barker.

When editor John Martin of the Black Sparrow Press would arrange the sequence of Bukowski’s poems for their book appearances, it was obvious that he often saved the best for last, like the finale of a fireworks show. To its credit, this collection includes a good many of those impressive and inclusive show-stoppers.

As for Mister B. Gone, Clive Barker continues his fascination with the idea of the word as flesh or the flesh as word (something that dates back to his Books Of Blood) in an entertaining tale narrated by a demon who regularly tries to cajole the reader into burning the book. The book's second half, in which the powers of Heaven and Hell battle over the invention of the first printing press (!) is full of the kind of phantasmagoria that Barker almost has a patent on now. Several lifetimes away now from the kind of stories that made his name, he now specializes in trying to place the reader in a world in which the physical and metaphysical have become interchangable and the landscape is awake with ghosts or memories or both. Even in a brief work such as this, Barker's mission statement, a unique urge to blend the flesh and the spirit, is stamped on every page. He couldn't be dull if he tried.