June 30, 2014
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
John Domini's criticism has always impressed me with its intellectual rigor and perspicacity. His new collection of reviews and essays The Sea-God's Herb gathers much of his wisdom and insight into one volume.
Jeff VanderMeer wrote of the book:
"A valuable and fascinating book, always with an eye toward interesting experimentation. It's both rigorous and generous, full of insight for those who already know the many authors under discussion and for those seeking an introduction."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
Donald Barthelme once claimed that a critic's best weapon was "a tasteful, well-thought-out silence." What am I doing, then, backing up my "Selected Essays & Criticism" with a lot of noise? With a playlist?
Yet my subject in Sea-God's Herb is Barthelme's turf, call it postmodern narrative, and for writers of that era, our era, music has always been a navigational star. A person my age, down in the dumps, can tuck his malaise into a song title: "(Stuck inside of Mobile with the) Memphis Blues Again." And how many boomer bursts of creativity, wonderful or a waste of time, have been fueled by a stack (or a stick: a flash-drive) of Miles Davis?
Davis and Dylan both make this list, of course they do, but every time I look over Sea-God, the soundtrack in my head tends to wilder diversity and farther fringes. I'd like to think the book celebrates those fringes, and Google-Maps the best routes between them and the timeless mess within — the source of all song, right?
"Peaches en Regalia," Frank Zappa (the original, off Hot Rats)
This amazing guy, this fountainhead, leaves me uncomfortable with just one pick, and you'll see how I handle that, below. Anyway, "Peaches" comes out of his peak, the late ‘60s, when his compositions had the urgency and humor of his guitar work; they asserted new freedom and blazed new satisfactions.
"Gnossiennes," Erik Satie
And if forced to pick a single one, then "Gnossienne #1," in which Satie first forged his extraordinary imaginative connection to the ancient Minoans of Knossos. All he had to go on were the same ancient frescos we do, but he alone made it out among the beautiful young Cretans, dancing with the bulls.
"Little Babies," Sleater-Kinney
Carrie Brownstein had a NPR article about stages of performance: first in studio, then in a listener's ear, then live onstage. She argued that in studio the trio developed its own communicative magic, impossible to recapture on another platform. This song seems to address just that magic, that miracle birth.
"Misterioso," Thelonius Monk
(1948, the quartet, with Milt Jackson on vibes)
Once I caught Dr. John talking about Monk, claiming that in him you could hear the whole history of piano, "from the church to the jelly roll." Yes, and this piece throws in the Stages of Man, starting with baby steps and winding up in modern dance. Gilbert Sorrentino filched the title for his absolute weirdest text.
"Mississippi," Bob Dylan
No getting around this guy and all he's meant to me, as he shuttled among folk, blues, and rock, always great at finding a groove, yet always uncomfortable about staying there long. This number stands out for its inclusiveness, its wry fondness for the wildcat variety of his musical experience.
"Amiak Abét Abét," Either/Orchestra (from Éthiopiques)
Either/Orchestra has become our Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria, opening up new routes to the far Indies of music, and its work with "Ethio-jazz" players, in Addis Ababa, comes at you with the percussion and wail a writer can only wish for.
"Fauvus distillans," Hildegard von Bingen
(Anonymous 4, Eleven Thousand Virgins)
The previous pick reminded us that the first instrument was the drum, but this one raises up the music-maker everyone's born with, namely the voice. More particularly, the woman's voice, in the hands of the 12th-Century abbess who may have been the greatest ever at such voices' manipulation — and this piece conveys an image of nourishing womanhood without end, the dripping honeycomb.
"Ain't No Way," Aretha Franklin
Speaking of women's voices! Here we've got two sisters, Aretha and Carolyn, and the single soprano complement (possibly Carolyn, possibly Cissy Houston) above Aretha's gutty lead and blues piano rises like a star to guide the hymn and the grind together to a new kingdom of glory.
"Dog in Winter," Wingdale Community Singers
The Wingdale Singers takes us to barnyard joys of jamming with friends, and yet the stuff of their songs tends to be urban anonymity, like this poor stray in the Projects. The combo is pleasingly off-the-wall, and among the spare instrumentation you'll find the guitar of Rick Moody, a superb writer. I wish I'd worked out a place for his Four Fingers of Death, hilarious and scarifying, in my Sea-God.
"So What," Miles Davis (Kind of Blue)
An inevitable choice, as I say, but a couple of summers ago I glimpsed again the genie Miles caught in the bottle, in the spring of ‘59. Over south of Rome, I caught the attempt of a well-meaning student quartet, and I mean — nothing. I mean, thud. Whereas Miles and his cats, that was levitation in lower Manhattan. Floating above, they dangled threads of modal gossamer, and in them caught the genie.
"Sing Me Back Home," Merle Haggard (original, 1968)
Good country songs hark back to the centuries-old Scotch-Irish, folks pretty much doomed at birth unless they fled for America. Merle can tap directly into that anguish, almost without metaphors and with a tribal balladeer's gift for linking melody to heartbreak. Loretta Lynn's another one, on the women's side.
"Killing Floor," Howlin' Wolf (original, 1964)
The Wolf too forges a direct line from the latest technology (that Hubert Sumlin riff, suspended between rock and blues) to timeless lament. But of course the former Chester Burnett came roaring out of a different cave than Merle or Loretta did, and it wasn't the eyes he was trying to make wet.
"Proverb," Steve Reich (Phases)
Actually, I didn't sink into Reich's angelic vibrations, like a lover's repeated chime at your doorbell, until my book was just about done. Still, "Proverb" captures a bruising joy: you probably won't get more than a single good idea in your life. Then came Richard Powers and Orfeo, with its meditations on the piece.
"Mystery Achievement," The Pretenders (The Pretenders, 1979)
Chrissie Hynde closed out her group's take-no-prisoners debut with this shotgun marriage of rhythm-guitar mastery and galaxy-spanning voice. I'd like to think that, while voyaging beyond the outer planets, Hynde's sonic waveforms encountered those of Hildegard von Bingen, and there they duetted in fresh ecstasy.
"Dog Breath, in the Year of the Plague," Frank Zappa
The Mothers of Invention (Uncle Meat, 1969)
And now our Italian-American genius of L.A. indulges his fondness for voice, and so we're back where we started, as if caught in the tidal metaphor I used to organize Sea-God. With luck, the surge and recession felt inspirational.
John Domini and The Sea-God's Herb: Reviews and Essays links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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