Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Blogging: An Infantile Disorder

Hey everybody!

Sorry I have not written much since Christmas. I am especially appreciative to those of you-- Carl, Paula, Nick, John, and Sandy-- who have written nice and helpful comments. I hope to produce more pages on the Wu-Tang Clan for I Hear A New World over the next few months, and I will definitely write about Merle Haggard one of these days. Thanks so much for commenting... I really appreciate it, even if I have a somewhat Butoh-esque way of showing it.

No surprise, I have been deeply immersed in matters scholastic. Enjoyable but harried. So much so that now I can only communicate in Mickey Spillance sentence frgments. No time for verbs.

This quarter I took a great class on the Communist Party and anti-communism (left and right) in America, and a more or less standard, though nevertheless still deeply helpful, US-history-boot-camp class on Reconstruction and the Progressive era. The communism/anticommunism class had two highlights: 1) it finally rid me of my anxiety that someone, in the supermarket perhaps, would ask me what a "Shachtmanite" was and I wouldn't be able to provide an adequate answer. Now I totally can. 2) It also spurred further thinking about the Popular Front and American music, some of which I hope to develop here when I have the time. Maybe I will do a little of that right now...

The Popular Front was the period between the mid-1930s and the end of WWII, when the Comintern changed directions from its ultraleftist stance of the late 20s and early 30s(which eschewed all cooperation with socialists, social democrats, and liberals)and urged Communists to join the political mainstream in their respective countries. Folk musicians, popular culture workers like cartoonists and Hollywood film studio employees, muralists, proletarian novelists and politically-charged theatre artist were crucial members of the Popular Front coalition. For a long time afterwards, (and for the most part, during the 1930s and 40s) the anti-Stalinist Left regarded the Popular Front as politically opportunistic and culturally stunted. Trotskyists especially hated the limits placed on the creative imagination by "socialist realism" and folk cultism.

For younger US history and American Studies types, this negative impression of the Popular Front seems dated; since the publication of Michael Denning's The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Age of the CIO they have mostly regarded the late 30s as the highpoint of intellectual and artistic convergence with left-wing working-class politics. There are some problems with this revisionism (especially for folks sympathetic to the left-wing anti-stalinists who felt that it was important to fight against the Popular Front's fealty to Russia, especially after a lot of Stalin's crimes started to become known and even more especially after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact), but for the most part I think that Denning's work is undeniably amazing. By downplaying the salience of partisan infighting (which is always the story of national lefts)Denning is able to reveal broad affinities between left-wing artists, intellectuals, and political leaders. This interpretive gesture not only sheds light on the power of cultural production within social movements but also indicates a way for contemporary artists and intellectuals to forge links to a broader struggle for a better world.

One project I have been playing around with is a kind of sequel to Denning's work: what happens to the Cultural Front in the age of the AFL-CIO? As many younger scholars of the Cold War-era Left are discovering, state repression didn't stop oppositional thinkers, activists, and artists from working, it just made their lives much more difficult. For whatever reason, their influence on the 1960s political left and cultural avant-garde seems to me really fascinating. A couple of examples, both of which came out of a long and free-wheeling discussion with an emeritus faculty member here, who was part of the group that helped found the Students for a Democratic Society in the early 1960s:

1)The first stirrings of the New Left in Ann Arbor, Michigan, developed in a creative bohemian subculture that included both young socialist activists, experimenting with their freedom from the ossified political culture of New York but still connected to the labor movement because of their proximity to Detroit, and experimental musicians like Gordon Mumma, who were developing, along with visionaries like Alvin Lucier and Robert Ashley, an alternative to the cul-de-sac of academic composition;

2)In February I had the great pleasure of interviewing Henry Grimes. Grimes is a bass player who played with Sonny Rollins and Lee Konitz while in his early twenties, worked with Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, and Pharoah Sanders in the 1960s, appearing on many of the most cherished albums of the free jazz era, and then seemed to disappear for many years. Since 2003, he has been playing in public again, which is one of the really happy stories of the last few years. Grimes recorded an incredible LP for the ESP Disk label in 1965 called The Call, which was the product of an intense period of mutual collaboration with a trio that shared an apartment in New York near hotspot Slug's Saloon. The clarinetist with the Grimes trio was Perry Robinson, and as I re-listened to The Call in preparation for the interview, I became very fascinated with his wonderful, serpentine lines, and especially the way that Robinson and Grimes played off and against one another. Nevertheless, I had never thought about looking into Robinson's biography or his other recordings. As it happened, when I was talking to my informant about the SDS and the New Left, he told me that he had been friendly with a famous Popular Front composer, who traveled in the same circles as his parents, CP members who taught high school until they were blacklisted. As it turned out, this composer was Earl Robinson, who wrote the Paul Robeson's showpiece, "Ballad for Americans," perhaps the sine qua non Popular Front musical composition. Quickly it became apparent that Perry Robinson was Earl Robinson's son. For whatever reason, these direct links between the Popular Front and 1960s free jazz, the SDS and the Sonic Arts Union, seem fascinating, and would no doubt seem even moreso when contextualized within what I imagine are dozens of other similar examples.

What led me to thinking about blogging about this, oddly enough, was the recent coverage of Austin Texas' least likeable megaevent, SXSW. I agree wholeheartedly with Nick Hennies-- musicians want to make money, and anybody that tries to make them feel bad about that is a dick. If a corporate sleazefest means that somebody is going to send old friends or new friends to your town for fun and music-making, then we probably ought to see it as the equivalent of photocopying band fliers at an evil office job. But it would be very different if instead of embracing corporate love, SXSW-- which is as much a project of municipal generosity and, especially, largesse on the part of Austin musicians, service employees, and residents as it is of corporate support-- could be about different values. Austinites provide a "good time" and "authentic vibe" for corporate fuckmongers, and they get little or nothing back. Imagine if Austin bands began to organize a broad union of bar staff, hotel workers, and ordinary music fans, and threatened a general strike of SXSW 2008 if certain demands are not met: for instance, wage increases for workers and a drastically increased minimum wage for bars and "cool" stores like Book People and Waterloo; municipal provision of health care benefits; provision of corporate-free zones for performances and dissemination of information about the activities of the sponsors of SXSW; and abolition of admission fees to SXSW events. Most radical would simply be the demand to "open the books," so that the people who actually finance SXSW could see where money is being made and how. Even if none of it worked, it would be an amazing difference to use SXSW to raise critical consciousness rather than... what? Having everybody be happy to put their lives on hold and sacrifice their souls so that Lily Allen and a bunch of Sy Sperling-clone record company stooges will grace Austin with their presence? Who needs it?

I'm glad to see I'm not the only one Lily Allen touched a nerve with. I'd never heard her before until I saw her on SNL the other night and was kind of shocked and later completely offended by her performance. I'm sure I don't need to go into why as it is beside the point...

As you know, I've been bitching about SXSW's inhospitable attitude towards civilian show-goers, often stating "They make thousands off wristbands from these people then say the festival isn't for them." Then yesterday I started thinking, "Maybe the festival really isn't making that much money off the wristbands."

After all, a guy I know in San Diego made $35,000 for 30-minutes of music in a Chevy commercial. In general, I think the amount of money advertising generates is much much higher than the average person might expect. How much higher I don't really know, which is why I think we need a Hans Haacke style expose of the SXSW books. Let's see who's really paying for this shit...

And as for "it's not for the fans", even if the advertisers are really the overwhelming majority of funding, who's going to advertise at a festival with no fans?

Hm, maybe this deserves its own response post in my own blog.

Glad to see you're posting again, albeit sporadically.
Good to see you posting again. That's really cool that you got to interview Grimes. I'm a huge fan of his work, especially that record with the great and underrated Robinson, which is one of the high points of 60s jazz. It is truly a record to fall in love with, and I wish more people knew about it.

Are you going to publish your interview? I really dig that Live at the Kerava record Grimes did with David Murray, too--their take on "Flowers for Albert" is nothing less than sublime. He's playing with Cecil Taylor these days, no? Is the Grimes trio still together?
er, that should have said "30 seconds of music", not "30 minutes".
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