from The Book of Urizen, Chapter 9

Let’s return today to the English mystic and poet William Blake, but continue on a thought that is inherent with the last two pieces, one by Yeats and the other by a long-winded guy who writes this. Poetry, just like other writing can, within its levels, do any number of things. One can seek to teach, to reassure, to tell stories, to amuse, to make philosophical points, or to abstractly portray beauty in poetry. Some poets, some critics, some projects, believe some of these are more worthy aims than others. From one day to another I may favor one of these over another in my reading, my performances here, in my own writing.

There’s a certain “high church” of poetry that feels that which aim and which methods are used in reaching it is crucial—and that other choices harm the art. I’m not smart enough, or well enough read, to know if they’re right.

But there’s one thing impactful poetry shares with the other arts: that’s the texture of the immediacy of experience, of how its creation, its creator, its reader, its listener feels and shares of any of this.

So, it largely makes no difference to readers today what political side William Butler Yeats was on in the Irish Civil War. And if post-WWII “Westerns” dealt with certain horrors: racist terrorism, genocide, colonialism, and the responsibilities of citizenship in an uncertain and sometimes buffered way, well so be it. What remains is the emotional and perceptual core transferred now.

Today’s piece is a section from one of William Blake’s “prophetic books,” a series of very small editions he wrote, illustrated, colored and printed himself. As a young man I admired that. Blake bows to no other as far as “Indie Cred,” “get in the van,” and DIY spirit. Furthermore, he developed (or envisioned) his own mythology to explain his metaphysical outlook.

I can still remember first reading about Blake in a list of minor poets*  in some leftover textbook of one of my parents sometime in the mid-60s. The note said that while he wrote some charming short lyrics he later descended into longer works that were judged as borderline insane. To many a young person that’s not a tragic story so much as it’s intriguing.

A year or two later the rock’n’roll band The Doors dropped a Blake line into an album cut and I eventually was able to get a few paperbacks collecting Blake poetry. “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” youthful Byronic mythos was part of this no doubt.

I couldn’t make head nor tails out of Blake’s “prophetic books.” I could see the Milton and Books of Moses references, but that didn’t illuminate things much. In the decades since, there have arisen many Blake scholars who worked out his structure and epistemological themes to a great degree. That’s helped. But even then as a teenager, and now as an old man, I could and can still catch glimpses of how it felt to apprehend and sing these things Blake wrote. The poems are like their illustrations in Blake’s great plan for “illuminated books:” they are meaningful in their impact without necessarily telling you what they are meant to mean within some overall structure. And that’s probably how visionary works should be.

Blake's Ancient of Days on St. Paul dome

A recent special exhibition of Blake works in London was celebrated by projecting one of Blake’s most famous images on the dome of St. Paul’s cathedral. Not shown: the irony of nonconformist Blake’s image on a national religious landmark.

 

So today I’m going to perform part of the final chapter of Blake’s Book of Urizen  which comes after Blake has told something like a condensed tale of “Paradise Lost”  or the book of Genesis;  but with his own vision of the creation of the world and religion and the fall and fate of humankind. It doesn’t require that you understand or agree with Blake’s ideas if I can help illuminate Blake’s words so that you can understand the feeling of creating in a failed and fallen world.

In Blake’s mythos mankind is descended from fallen Eternals, blind to the infinity of the universe and their own souls. When we see his famous picture of a bearded Urizen with a compass at right angles measuring the world it’s not only a picture of visionary might—it’s the picture of a fallen, blind Eternal assiduously measuring a world with a puny device.

I didn’t go directly Doors rock’n’roll for today’s audio piece, instead the words led me somewhere else, to one of the things that influenced that band: the mythos of another visionary: Sun Ra, the Birmingham Alabama born Afro-American who recast himself as a prophet from the planet Saturn, and thereby encoded African and Afro-American culture as an infinite thing.

So Afro-Futurist saxophones today in gratitude to Sun Ra and to William Blake. The player to hear my performance is below, and the full text and illuminated plates of Blake’s Book of Urizen  is here if you‘d like to read along, The section I perform is near the bottom, Chapter 9, verses 3-6.

 

 

*Blake started gaining some reputational ground by the late 19th century in England, but American literary forces lagged in appreciation for him.

In Memory of Clarence Clemons

I’ve noticed that most of what I’ve written about this Parlando project in the first month or so has concentrated on words and the world they reflect; but Parlando’s subtitle is “The Place Where Music and Words Meet.” This piece has a simple musical setting, and yes I’m going to talk more about words, but the subject of “In Memory of Clarence Clemons” is a working musician and what a musician can do.

Clarence Clemons was a working musician his entire adult life. That’s an achievement. The number of people with a handful of musical gigs in their background (someone like myself) is much larger than the number of people who spend their working life doing that. The reason for that is that it’s a hard life, however rewarding in moments. Many of us who play music know those moments, and they are much intensified when those moments happen to be shared by other people. Drugs and sex are compared to that experience, but to many musicians they are pale shadows to that experience of musical communion. This is a reason why some musicians over-indulge in drugs and sex, to try to match, with quantity, that quality experienced when music is communicating. There is another reason musicians seek such salve. Being a musician is, over time, a collection of wearing days against those bright moments: the frustrations of every informal job with irregular hours, irregular pay, irregular working conditions, irregular demand for the music the musician plays, irregular co-workers and bosses, topped with the specific failures that can be the other side of music’s joys.

I did not know Clarence Clemons. I know next to nothing about his personal life, how he coped with or experienced these things. But I do know how that musical communion feels, both as an unfaithful musician and as an ardent audience.

In the early 1970s I was living in New York in a city that was suffering, and a large part of that suffering was racism and racial tribalism. It was like America—and the world I suppose—in general in that regard, but a little more intense. Some folks, I was one, tried to make life work despite this. This is the glory of humanity: suffering from such blindness and weakness—yet even with those handicaps, some, perhaps even most, try to make it work. Compared to this, art sometimes seems trivial.

Among rock critics of the time there emerged an implicit search for what was called “The New Dylan.” They had figured they needed to find “The New Dylan” because the old one seemed to not want the job anymore. Why was this important to them?

There is a famous maxim about rock critics “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Though no one knows who said it first, it’s been said many times because it points out a truth about how rock music was written about. Since it’s hard to write words about music—and particularly hard for non-musicians writing for non-musicians—rock critics, to a large degree, weren’t music critics. They were performance critics, fashion critics, social movement critics, and—here’s the biggest portion—lyrics critics. Because of that, “rock criticism” was largely the child of the emergence of Bob Dylan.

Since I have other points I need to make, I’m going to say this as briefly as possible. Bob Dylan utterly changed popular song lyrics. It’s impossible to underestimate his importance in this. There are scattered influences that Dylan had to draw on as he made his lyric revolution, but afterward his influence is everywhere. In ’60s and ’70s it was possible for a time to easily understand lyric writers were imitating Dylan, but as time has passed we no longer remember what those changes were.

So in the early 70s rock critics had no fresh Bob Dylan revolution to write about. They believed they had no one who was using words in an exciting new way reflecting new ways to experience the world. It’s a disrespectful joke to say this, but if Bruce Springsteen didn’t exist, rock critics would have to have invented him. In actuality, this was one cross Springsteen had to bear for the first decade of his career: that rock critics had invented him to fill their needs. The debate, of course, was held between rock critics.

I bought Springsteen’s first album in 1972 after reading about it in a magazine article that quoted generously from the lyrics. I’m sure the article somewhere must have used the term “The New Dylan.” Yes, I was attracted by the playfulness in the use of language, but I was also drawn to what was emerging as his subject matter: the honest confusion and struggles of life. To go beyond this writing about the lyrics, the article’s architectural ballet, I had to listen to the LP to hear the music. My favorite track turned out to be “Spirit In the Night,” which was kind of a Van Morrison groove, and in place of what would have been the obligatory guitar solo, a sax solo. That was Clarence Clemons.

By 1972 you weren’t likely to hear a sax solo in a rock tune. The instrument was already in its long popular music decline from near ubiquity in ’50s R&B to now. Can you think of one significant current indie rock band with a full-time sax player?

About a year later the second Bruce Springsteen album came out: “The Wild, the Innocent, and the E-Street Shuffle.” His lyric writing had improved, but musically this album is at a whole different level. His song structures are often through-composed, the playing is great, and the arrangements are sublime. The front cover of that LP is a perfectly serviceable sensitive-singer-song-writer picture reminiscent of an isolated frame from Van Morrison’s Moondance cover. Flip the cover over and there is a picture of the musicians who played the music. In the center of that picture (as is should be) is the young and dark face of David Sancious, who was the main contributor to those arrangements and that playing; and at the beginning of the lineup, standing next to Springsteen is Clarence Clemons, the second Afro-American in the band.

Integrated bands existed before and after this. It’s a common musician’s peccadillo, in their professional blindness, to care less about color and more about sound. But I’ll say this, there was such hope in that picture for me at that moment, living in that city that maybe didn’t even know that it’s sadness had roots in tribalism and hateful racial stereotypes. A couple of years later, while I was still living there, the Born To Run LP came out, with the iconic fold-out cover: against a stark white background, Springsteen leaning on the much larger Clemmons playing his sax.

So when Clemmons died in 2011, all that came back to me in a rush. The words came out almost as you hear them here, and I recorded this performance myself over a humble bass and drum loop shortly after writing them. The way it came out was one of the things showed the way to the Parlando project.

So with the publication this week of Bruce Springsteen’s memoir, also called Born To Run, I thought it’d be a good time to share this early spoken word and music piece that speaks to these things. To hear it, click on the gadget that should appear below.