Nothing Succeeds Like Excess


Oscar Wilde said this. To which he added, “Moderation is a fatal thing.” I’ve always been a big fan of Oscar’s and once used that quote to justify inordinate drinking and recklessness in college, which in turn led to a year’s suspension and a subsequent turnaround in my life. Oscar’s life ended badly; mine is happily still in progress.

Born in Dublin, he came from a fortunate family and evolved into the major spokesperson for the aesthetic movement in late Victorian England. The aesthetes were a noisy but watered-down offshoot of the French Symbolists, whom I wrote about in a doctoral thesis. Through his pen and his wit, Oscar became known throughout the educated world.

I’ve never made any claim to wit or been part of a movement. I did come from a fortunate family and have written about that elsewhere. Part of growing up in the 1950s as I did was, however, to be seen as educated and clever, and I attempted to fill that bill through love of music and art. As Oscar did, this was an effort to move out of the pedestrian world of business and the common culture that grated on such elegant souls.

But it was important to make this move without much pretension or hype. The last thing you wanted was to be looked at as a pansy or, god forbid, a homo. Since my social tendencies lay in the other direction, I generally fitted in, had lots of friends, male and female, and made the arts the focal part of my “other life.”

Wilde, on the other hand, went out of his way to promote and display his otherness, disdaining convention, writing well, and paradoxically pleasing and even capturing society. His popularity even extended beyond the smart set. Excess does sometimes win out.

The phrase, “nothing succeeds like success” is still current and still accepted. But it’s part of the old culture, particularly the moneyed culture. The common culture today makes it a virtue to have come up the hard way. If you are a politician or an entertainer, the last thing you want to do is admit you came from wealth. Being successful typically means working your way up from being poor or middle class. The classic example is Joe Biden. John Kerry is still mocked.

I smell a lot of hypocrisy in this. Coming up the hard way means you likely had to spend a lot of energy on learning accepted behaviors, on pleasing the powerful, on survival skills. The more fortunate, on the other hand, can (theoretically) earn their success more easily. Yet privilege and success are publicly disdained because our culture continues to value the familiar, the commonplace and the old work ethic.

Oscar knew better. He also said, “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”

Greene’s Gazpacho and Trump’s Toilets

The New Yorker

Yesterday the media reported endlessly on Greene’s continuing and insufferable stupidity and the ex-president’s propensity to flush documents down White House toilets. Hard to wake up to this stuff.

I still read the latest in politics each morning on the internet. This practice had begun to ruin my day so I’ve endeavored to change it. I try to make phone calls and email friends, walk to the bakery, get on my exercise machine. I’m still caught up with our political follies, but no longer to the point of writing about them or hashing them out with friends. It ain’t worth the angst.

Since most people can’t face the enormity of what’s happening in the U.S., the media’s fallback is to divert us with the folly of our political happenings. Politics and the reporting thereof have become a burlesque.

Yet I’ve spent too many years in politics not to take it seriously. It’s very hard to do that now. I mark all the many appeals for funds I get from Democrats as spam. I no longer follow Democrats Abroad. Most of the received opinions about the current crisis—the likely onset of a new civil war, gerrymandering, court packing, and so on—I find repetitious and half-baked. Or they keep telling us about the persistent Congressional standoffs.

So maybe we shouldn’t blame the media for telling us ad nauseum about the crocodile who finally got the tire removed from its neck. Yesterday I was looking for some freaky “good news stories” to write about, like the one about preventing Alzheimer’s with toothpaste. The idea was to lighten up the pervasive gloom about current events. I eventually tossed out that approach after realizing that such stuff was just clickbait. The media thrives on clickbait.

Since I spent quite a few years studying and teaching literature I tried to get back to reading more. That worked for a while but I always gravitated to the current affairs stuff on Kindle and got too absorbed in that. Interesting but invariably gloomy.

So I looked at the shelves of books that I had just unpacked after my recent move. Music, history, fiction, poetry, and culture were there in abundance. Could they be a passage to my recovery from boredom and disgust? The books looked back at me as if through a scrim of non-recognition, even though I had read them all and absorbed much pleasure from many. But I felt little urge to pick them up and explore them again.

Even so, I will do that with a few because they represent old pleasures and insights that were and are valuable to me. Literature is life rendered, after all, and mostly from a simpler and better time. It has always been a refuge for me, and perhaps it will be so again. In times like this, we need our sanctuaries.

Old Neighborhoods and New

view from my rooftop

This is the last time I’ll keep boring you with news of my move. Moving is like jumping into cold water. You do get used to it.

A very good piece about the trials of moving is here. Writer Paul Cantor focuses on the things you acquire over time, how important they are to you, how you decide what to get rid of:

Ultimately, the hardest part about moving is sifting through those things, the things you acquire unconsciously, the things you don’t even know you have until you are confronted with the sad reality of maybe not having them, and trying to rationalize what stays, what goes, and what little pieces of yourself, pieces you may not so readily recall in the future, you’re willing to let go of.

I have a large green plastic box I brought with me from the states some twelve years ago. It contains many old family photos, some of my 19th century forebears, lots of pictures of my kids growing up, my high school yearbook, my college and graduate degrees, a grade-school report card, my first Social Security card. There is even some artwork my ad agency produced for clients.

What is the value of such stuff—not only to me but to my kids who will have to sort through it all when I pass? I’ve been stymied with this problem for years and couldn’t face the huge number of decisions it would take to come to terms with all this junk from the past. So I moved with the whole box, and the decisions are still on hold.

What I had to adapt to right away was a new neighborhood, almost like a new culture in this city of Oaxaca. The old town, or Centro as it’s called, is the heart of the colonial city with its many shops, markets, and tourist hangouts. I’m on the edge of that in a little alleyway called Flavio Perez Gasga. It’s an unusually quiet part of town.

My old hood was in Colonia Reforma, just north of here and a more “modern” area where formerly the wealthy had moved to escape the clamor and indigence of the city. Reforma’s atmosphere is more like Mexico City’s, and even the food there is somewhat different. Here in Centro the cuisine is more traditional Oaxacan. There are more door-to-door services, different markets, different kinds of restaurants, a different spirit.

It’s only a mile away from where I used to live but, I’m tempted to say, a world away in ambience and character. I think I’ll like it—and God knows I’m too old to consider moving again.

Thoughts on Moving

Mercado Sanchez Pascuas

I moved to a new house a little over a week ago. Which prompted me to review all the many times I’ve moved since, for instance, leaving graduate school and getting married. It turns out that I’ve changed domiciles some 16 times in those 61 years. Reasons for this instability range from job change to partner change, from responsibility to choice.

For movers I’ve used everything from U-Haul to FedEx. My latest move, about a mile across town, went very smoothly and made me grateful for all the good help I had. But it also brought on a lot of anxiety, fatigue, and irritation. Clearly, my age is showing.

Moving, as we know, brings out the best and worst in people. Stress-wise I would compare it to:

    • taking on a lot of questionable debt
    • a poker game—being sometimes in control, often not
    • the trials of a migrant trying to cross into a new country
    • being grateful for a former tenant who left behind a lot of booze and a big bottle of Tums.

I had great friends offering to help box the 3,000-plus vinyl LPs and CDs I’ve collected over the years. Finally, my new roommate and I did it ourselves, and she provided sort of an organizational roadmap for the move and the services (internet, utilities, etc.) and people we had to contract with.

We had to paint and make a few repairs to the new place. Our new landlady was accommodating and paid for much of this. The local moving crew was friendly and competent. The physical packing and moving was completed in a very few days.

So why did I experience so much fatigue and anxiety? Moving gives you no excuse for harboring old papers, files, and stuff you will never want or need again. Housecleaning means cutting loose from the past, which can be liberating or disturbing. I felt it both ways.

And then there’s the pressure of trying to find new places for all the stuff you brought with you—the clothes, cookware, houseware, underwear, hardware that need to find a new home. This takes time and involves making lots of petty but necessary decisions.

Being here just over a week I find the experience still a little unsettling. And yet I’m right next door to a large farmers market, and other small shops selling everything abound in the neighborhood. People have been friendly and helpful. What’s not to like? Moving at its best seems always to cut both ways.

How White Is Your Christmas?

I’ve told some of you the story of how my wonderful Jewish mother one year decorated our annual Christmas tree with gold spray-painted bagels. Family friends thought that was a hoot, but as a judgmental college kid I thought it was inappropriate if not ludicrous. Looking back now, I think of it as a lighthearted but determined attempt to assimilate to the white Christian culture that ruled in the 1950s.

My mother loved Christmas and all its trappings. We always had a big tree, sang the carols, and hosted parties of comfort and joy. This was part of the liberal mystique of the time to proclaim brotherhood with Christians, treating the holiday as an occasion for broad secular respect—much as we cherish Santa Claus.

I never went much for the religious side of Judaism, and the white Christian ideals of that time also seemed just foreign to me. We heard pious mouthings from the believers on the one hand, and then the rage of zealots like those who celebrated the grisly murder of Emmett Till. Fierce anger and hostility came from people who at the same time professed to be godly Christians.

The hypocrisy of that time has stuck with me. And it’s part of present-day politics. The religious right has grown mightily in influence, and their behavior is more anti-Christian than ever. Now it is amplified by white fears of a nonwhite takeover. These fears are driving a dominant portion of the far-right to plot the next insurrection and plan the subversion of the 2024 election. We are facing a white Christmas that looks to be a prelude to more political madness.

In his typical mode, NY Times contributor Thomas Edsall interviewed academics on the question of whether the present GOP is a threat to democracy—and whether the Democratic party is able to defend it. Through voting restrictions, gerrymandering and the inequities of state representation in the Senate, the Republicans gained power even while the white evangelicals declined in numbers. But their influence has gained strength as they see their sense of ownership of America slipping away. They react with “rage, resentment and paranoia.”

Edsall’s respondents fear that, for the Democrats, winning elections won’t be enough. Their support from working-class voters continues to erode. And too many structural elements keep “fortifying the Republican minority, its by-any-means-necessary politics and its commitment to white hegemony.”

One of Edsall’s interviewees (Julie Wronski) notes the GOP’s dilemma: they can’t grow the party with a more inclusive strategy because White Christians, a diminishing base of the party, must be defended at all costs to prevent the threat of minority status. Now the religious right is on the verge of another victory in the Supreme Court, blurring the separation of church and state.

How voters perceive these issues is critical, of course. And the Democrats are not doing enough to get the critical message out that the country’s democracy is at stake. They are temporizing over tactics regarding the BBB in Congress when they should be fighting the growth of religious intolerance and racism. They are hanging bagels on the Christmas tree.

Alcoholics Synonymous

Who could be surprised to learn that the pandemic has produced more heavy drinking? Recent studies tell us the obvious. The history of drinking in America has been fraught with ups and downs and ambivalence about booze, though for centuries drinking has been part of family life. It certainly was so in mine.

My parents seemed tacitly to approve of my drinking from about age fifteen—or at least were easy and permissive about it. Here’s how some of that culture came about.

One of my early memories is of my father mixing drinks at his opulent built-in bar, all stainless steel, mirrors and glasses, with a wet sink of course. I recall seeing in the cabinets below many fifths of Dewar’s White Label Scotch, a brand which I still like to this day. Dad used to take me to Bears football games in the dead of winter, and I learned the virtues of drinking out of a flask.

Scotch and gin were family staples, and my father had a six o’clock ritual of alternating Scotch on the rocks one night with Seagram’s yellow gin martinis the next. I once asked him what would happen if he drank martinis two nights in a row—a remark not wholly appreciated.

After my parents retired to Miami, that same alternating ritual continued. On a visit there which hadn’t gone too smoothly I poured myself a double Scotch one evening. Dad said, “John, you seem to be drinking a lot these days.” I got up and poured the drink out in the bar sink and he responded, “Well, you didn’t have to do that.”

But we also had our jolly times with booze. One such was the Boodles Gin incident, recounted in my book Jive-Colored Glasses (pp. 88-89). My mother and father had come to New York to celebrate the birth of my second son Ethan, and we celebrated, bombed out and jovial, with an afternoon of Boodles martinis.

My mother had her own preferences for drinking, which usually involved vodka and water with a squeeze of lime. She admitted that this was owing to vodka’s propensity to have no giveaway smell. After she died, her maid discovered a plain bottle labeled “DOUCHE” in the medicine cabinet. It contained you-know-what.

Heavy drinking seems to be as American as apple pie. Kate Julian notes this in her valuable piece on the subject:

By 1830, the average American adult was consuming about three times the amount we drink today. An obsession with alcohol’s harms understandably followed, starting the country on the long road to Prohibition.

What’s distinctly American about this story is not alcohol’s prominent place in our history (that’s true of many societies), but the zeal with which we’ve swung between extremes.

After noting that close to 25 percent of Americans admit to drinking more in the pandemic, she wonders how bad this excessive drinking really is. It depends, she says, “not only on how much you drink, but on how and where and with whom you do it.” We drink “because it is fun” and most of us avoid the “dark side” of drinking alcohol.

Yet drinking has lately become less social and more solitary, a typically American propensity. Julian notes that anxious women have become the new class of sometime drunks:

A growing class of merchandise now helps women carry concealed alcohol: There are purses with secret pockets, and chunky bracelets that double as flasks, and—perhaps least likely of all to invite close investigation—flasks designed to look like tampons.

She adds to these “the Poland Spring bottle secretly filled with vodka.” Some things never change.

Coltrane the Cultural Icon

I’m moved to write about the Great Jazz Messiah after reading what Ben Ratliff wrote in the Washington Post the other day. Ben, a good critic now somewhat retired from journalism, pokes and probes around the cultural goings-on of the early ‘60s to explain Coltrane’s evolution, from 1961 to be exact.

It’s a kind of “rambling, unfocused piece,” as one commenter put it. And it makes the usual generalizations about the era that can ring false to those who lived through it, as I did. His piece also testifies to why I don’t write jazz criticism anymore.

Ratliff focuses on 1961 because it was the time of Coltrane’s pathbreaking Live at the Village Vanguard recordings. Here’s part of his negative take on the culture of that time:

From my standpoint—I wasn’t born until seven years later—the culture of that period seems marked by tension, diffusion, doubt, repetition, foreboding, lengthiness, savviness, taut aggression, wary knowledge, inspired dread, disciplined joy. The music sounds post-heroic and pre-cynical; interestingly free from grandiosity; full of room for the listener to find a place within it and make up their own mind. I want to live in it—not necessarily in its material evidence (I am looking forward to the next Playboi Carti record, just like you), but in its sensitivity, its skepticism and refusals. I think I can.

(Whew! Some tortured language here. Just like you, I had to Google “Playboi Carti.”) Ben finds all this as a cornerstone to Coltrane’s music of the period. I heard it rather differently. As a college kid I had spent an evening hearing Coltrane live with the first Miles Davis Quintet, as recounted in Jive-Colored Glasses. In 1956-57 that marked a whole new sound from the hard bop noises we were used to.

When I came to New York in 1965 to teach at NYU I also found a quasi-career as a jazz writer. Coltrane’s music by then had moved on to its final phase, a sound of total feeling—formless, powerful, and to a degree ineffable. Ben Ratliff, it turns out, wrote one of the best critical books about this development—in Coltrane: The Story of a Sound).

If you came at the later Coltrane from a more analytical (and less cultural) point of view as I did, you’d find the music hard to get into, hard to move you musically. After A Love Supreme he just lost me. Ben’s book quotes trumpeter Don Ellis’s criticisms (p. 163). Here are a couple of things Ellis points up that also bothered me. One is Coltrane’s sense of time:

That is, he never really gets “inside” the pulse, but rather plays over it. He now has his whole group playing with this same feeling! This is a good device, but it would be even more effective if balanced by strong “inside time” sections. In fact contrast in general is one of the weaknesses of this group.

 . . . In the great bulk of Coltrane’s work we get a good deal of filigree or decoration (in the form of continuous scales and arpeggios performed at a rapid velocity) but very little “meat” or positive strong statements or ideas. It is like he is playing chorus after chorus, solo after solo on only one idea—that of continually varying scale patterns and arpeggios.

That is valid technical criticism, but it really got under the skin of all those who wanted to find echoes of Africa in all that Coltrane did, to the exclusion of other influences. A kind of reverse racism, it seemed to me, and I wrote a piece about it that generated some commentary.

There has been so much written about the ‘60s, the white-black polarizations, the push for new Black Art, the musical cries of cultural pain. Coltrane’s late music, especially in Meditations and after, values feeling over form and rapidly became part of how American culture came to view jazz as a whole.

In that sense Saint John was certainly a revolutionary. But, like so much in our cultural life, his late music was not really open to replication. For all its angry devotional power, I think its closed, hermetic appeal was one reason why jazz lost its way and became a music only for the committed few.

By the Time I Retrieved My Fly Swatter,
the Fly Had Flown Off

Our concept of time constrains, to one degree or another, everything we do. Delay frustrates the best-laid plans, stresses every outcome, and makes for bad decisions. Look at the climate crisis. We still can’t comprehend the magnitude of its unfolding. The remedies proposed are insufficient and politically impossible, even if we had the time and will to impose them.

Democrats keep struggling to agree on their social spending plan, and the results look worse and worse. Biden wants an agreement before he goes to the Glasgow conference to avoid looking like a climate blowhard. But the pressure of time won’t make for a better deal. To link an event like Glasgow to drafting major legislation is typical of how we lock ourselves into political and social deceptions.

And yet I think we all function better with deadlines. Channeling the pressure of time to an agreed-upon outcome produces results, especially when dodging the deadline has serious consequences. But this only works on the mundane level of things to do. How does Nancy Pelosi enforce her legislative deadlines? Out of necessity she fudges them.

Political impotence is the result and has been for years. Anything short of major political reform won’t change things, and so we’ll keep trying to swat flies like Sinema and Manchin because we’re not going to see major political reform, are we?

My outlook is gloomy because real political reform seems more than ever a pipedream, and the world is enmeshed in a capitalistic system with deep historical and social roots. Amitav Ghosh has written a new book about this which I’ll be reviewing shortly.

Our concept of time has led to the great divorce from nature that has finally resulted in massive climate change. We still see time as something linear, progressing, moving always forward. But in fact, as I’ve said before, “progress is the spurious idea behind modernity, which fostered the separation of mankind from nature.”

The way we perceive time is basically an illusion. So says physicist Carlo Rovelli in a wonderful book, The Order of Time, which I’ve read. “Perhaps, therefore, the flow of time is not a characteristic of the universe: like the rotation of the heavens, it is due to the particular perspective that we have from our corner of it.”

Still, our awareness of time passing “contains all the ambrosia and all the gall of life.”

Old Jazz Posts Never Die

Some of you will remember, my old blogging hangout and the ancestor of I’m now reposting several of JI&O’s better pieces on All About Jazz, one of the longest lasting and most comprehensive jazz websites. This, courtesy of AAJ founder/publisher Michael Ricci.

The posts cover everything from a Louis Armstrong party to Miguel Zenón and can be read here. I hope you jazz lovers will check them out and, if the spirit moves you, leave a comment or two.