Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘music’

21 NOVEMBER, 2013

Duke Ellington’s Diet

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What the celebrated composer’s relationship with food reveals about the inner conflicts we share.

This is a culture where our relationship with food, though sometimes a canvas for creativity, has mutated from a source of sustenance to a grand arena for our moral struggles with willpower, a tyranny of habits we seek to rewire, a currency of status in the world’s hierarchy of haves and have-nots. At its most tragic, it can rip the psyche apart under the conflicting, unrelenting impulses for indulgence and control. While for most of us, these daily dramas play out in private, for public figures they offer source material for that sad excuse for journalism we find at the newsstand and the supermarket checkout aisle. And yet something about it — about those shared demons of our ambivalent relationship with food as a metaphor and voodoo doll for our inner contradictions and oscillations between self-loathing and self-pleasuring, between quenching and control — holds immutable allure for even those furthest removed from tabloid culture.

Perhaps it is the confluence of these curious cultural phenomena that makes for one of the most interesting parts of Terry Teachout’s fantastic new biography, Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington (public library) — Ellington’s relationship with food. In many ways, it presents an amplified version of the inner struggles we face daily — amplified to the point of caricature, which is what makes it both so powerful and so unsettling, in the same way we tend to be uneasy around or profoundly dislike those who exhibit exaggerated versions of our own worst traits.

Ellington, who was exceedingly concerned with how he looked on stage, went to great lengths to reconcile and conceal his conflicted appetites for pleasure and for appearance. He wore show-stopping ensembles when he performed — but with a twist:

Beneath it all he wore a corset, a useful tool for a performer whose appetite for food was as gargantuan as his appetite for sex. One of Ellington’s nicknames was “Dumpy,” and Tricky Sam Nanton paid awestruck tribute to his capacity: “He’s a genius, all right, but Jesus, how he eats!” Some of his best-remembered quirks had to do with food, such as his practice of wrapping up a leftover chop in a handkerchief or napkin, then tucking it in one of his pockets after a meal. It was a habit he had acquired in his early days, when food, like money, was harder to come by. “After a while, you eat in self-defense,” he told Whitney Balliett. “You get so you hoard little pieces of food against the time when there isn’t going to be any.”

Fashion plate: Duke Ellington in his dressing room at New York’s Paramount Theatre, photographed in May 1946 by William Gottlieb. In the thirties, he traveled with five trunks of clothes plus a separate trunk for his shoes. Ellington’s hair, as always, has been meticulously straightened, a look that he never abandoned, even after it became unfashionable among younger blacks

But his struggles with food cut deeper than a mere quirk. Teachout cites one journalist’s account of how Ellington’s notorious compulsion for controlling his image backfired in the most tragicomic of ways in his diet:

Duke, who is always worrying about keeping his weight down, may announce that he intends to have nothing but Shredded Wheat and black tea. . . . Duke’s resolution about not overeating frequently collapses at this point. When it does, he orders a steak, and after finishing it he engages in another moral struggle for about five minutes. Then he really begins to eat. He has another steak, smothered in onions, a double portion of fried potatoes, a salad, a bowl of sliced tomatoes, a giant lobster and melted butter, coffee, and an Ellington dessert — perhaps a combination of pie, cake, ice cream, custard, pastry, jello, fruit, and cheese. His appetite really whetted, he may order ham and eggs, a half-dozen pancakes, waffles and syrup, and some hot biscuits. Then, determined to get back on his diet, he will finish, as he began, with Shredded Wheat and black tea.

For a closer look at Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, dive into the story of how Ellington engineered his own image.

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11 NOVEMBER, 2013

Lou Reed on Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan, Laurie Anderson, Setting Edgar Allan Poe to Music, and Why Record Labels Deserve to Die

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“Making things that are beautiful is real fun.”

In February of 2012, the late and great Lou Reed, already severely ill and awaiting a liver transplant , visited the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania, my alma mater, as a guest at the Blutt Singer-Songwriter Symposium — an annual event inviting prominent musicians, including Patti Smith (whose recent tribute to Reed is pure goosebumps), Loudon Wainwright, and Roseanne Cash, to perform and discuss their work. Reed’s conversation with Rolling Stone critic Anthony deCurtis, author of the excellent In Other Words: Artists Talk About Life and Work, is one of his last recorded live interviews. Here are the essential highlights from the interview, in which Reed radiates his singular fusion of irreverence, insight, and uncompromising creative genius.

On Andy Warhol and the birth of The Velvet Underground:

Warhol was what you would call a workaholic. … And he worked — people have no idea. … He was an astonishing person. When you consider what he was like when he was doing art direction in windows and all that — with the suit, the tie, the whole thing. And then, one day, PHOOM! He’s not Andy Warhol anymore — now he’s Andy Warhol, he’s in Levis and the wig and the jacket — fantastic! He created himself — you gotta love it.

Reed doesn’t conceal his contempt for the music labels, who didn’t like or even listen to the very music they were selling:

All these record companies deserve to go bankrupt. They’re all, you know, lying sacks of shit. No joke — these are bad guys, they deserve everything that’s happened to them.

On Bob Dylan:

On his wife, the artist and musician Laurie Anderson, whose remembrance of Reed is one of the most soul-stirring meditations on love and loss ever written (“And death? I believe that the purpose of death is the release of love.”):

She’s so smart and can do anything — anything she does is absolutely great. It’s amazing.

On balancing raw force and raw vulnerability in his music and writing:

I like conflict — it’s balance. Or, like tai chi, balance is like the yin and the yang. Even a song like “Perfect Day” — the kick is at the end, the last verse: “I thought I was someone else, someone good.”

Illustration by Lorenzo Mattotti from The Raven by Lou Reed. Click image for details.

On adapting literary works to music and rewriting Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry in his 2003 album The Raven and the companion graphic novel:

The trouble with Poe was that his language is so serious — the vocabulary — the words he’s using — some of those words were arcane when he used them — and then, architectural terms from Greece. And I, dutifully sitting there with the dictionary, looking all of this up and thinking, certainly, in a song or on the album I don’t want to have [things like this] in there — you can just as easily use a word someone knows what it means. … For him, great. For me, no. I spent most of the time translating them into English before even starting, but I couldn’t wait to rewrite “The Raven,” the poem. Mine is like a contemporary version of it, and we have a graphic novel out … illustrated by this great Italian artist, Lorenzo Mattotti. … Making things that are beautiful is real fun.

The Raven is absolutely fantastic — here’s a taste:

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11 NOVEMBER, 2013

Susan Sontag on How the False Divide Between Pop Culture and “High” Culture Limits Us

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“There are contradictory impulses in everything.”

“If I had to choose between the Doors and Dostoyevsky, then — of course — I’d choose Dostoyevsky,” Susan Sontag wrote in the preface to the 30th-anniversary edition of her cultural classic Against Interpretation, then mischievously asked, “But do I have to choose? … Happenings did not make me care less about Aristotle and Shakespeare. I was — I am — for a pluralistic, polymorphous culture.” This demolition of the false divide between “high” and “low” culture has since had its ample exponents, most recently and convincingly Rolling Stone critic Greil Marcus in his fantastic 2013 SVA commencement address. But Sontag remains arguably the greatest patron saint of this “pluralistic, polymorphous” view of culture.

In 1978, Rolling Stone contributing editor Jonathan Cott interviewed Sontag in twelve hours of conversation, beginning in Paris and continuing in New York, only a third of which was published in the magazine. Now, more than three decades later and almost a decade after Sontag’s death, the full, wide-ranging magnificence of their tête-à-tête, spanning from literature and philosophy to illness and mental health to music and art, is at last released in Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview (public library).

Cott marvels at what made the dialogue especially extraordinary:

Unlike almost any other person whom I’ve ever interviewed — the pianist Glenn Gould is the one other exception — Susan spoke not in sentences but in measured and expansive paragraphs. And what seemed most striking to me was the exactitude and “moral and linguistic fine-tuning” — as she once described Henry James’s writing style—with which she framed and elaborated her thoughts, precisely calibrating her intended meanings with parenthetical remarks and qualifying words (“sometimes,” “occasionally,” “usually,” “for the most part,” “in almost all cases”), the munificence and fluency of her conversation manifesting what the French refer to as an ivresse du discours — an inebriation with the spoken word. “I am hooked on talk as a creative dialogue,” she once remarked in her journals, and added: “For me, it’s the principal medium of my salvation.

Susan Sontag on art: Diary excerpts illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton. Click image for details.

As remarkable as the entire conversation is, however, one of its most rewarding tangents is Sontag’s meditation on the osmosis between intellectualism and pop culture, her resistance to that enduring, toxic divide between the two, and her conviction in expounding the pluralism of culture — something Cott likens to “the pile on the velvet that, upon reversing one’s touch, provides two textures and two ways of feeling, two shades and two ways of perceiving.”

But the part that resonates most deeply with me, as a lover of history and of consistently celebrating that fertile intersection of the timeless and the timely, is Sontag’s eloquent insistence upon the value of history as the petri dish of our becoming — something legendary graphic designer Massimo Vignelli echoed decades later in his meditation on intellectual elegance, where he argued that “a designer without a sense of history is worth nothing,” an insight that can be extrapolated to just about any discipline of creative and intellectual endeavor. Sontag tells Cott:

I really believe in history, and that’s something people don’t believe in anymore. I know that what we do and think is a historical creation. I have very few beliefs, but this is certainly a real belief: that most everything we think of as natural is historical and has roots — specifically in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the so-called Romantic revolutionary period — and we’re essentially still dealing with expectations and feelings that were formulated at that time, like ideas about happiness, individuality, radical social change, and pleasure. We were given a vocabulary that came into existence at a particular historical moment. So when I go to a Patti Smith concert at CBGB, I enjoy, participate, appreciate, and am tuned in better because I’ve read Nietzsche.

The Histomap by John Sparks, 1931, from 'Cartographies of Time: A Visual History of the Timeline.' Click image for details.

When Cott asks her how she thinks Patti Smith would relate to this notion herself — a remarkable musician celebrated as the Godmother of Punk, who also writes beautiful poetry, is enamored with Virginia Woolf, and reveres William S. Burroughs — Sontag answers:

In the way she talks, the way she comes on, what she’s trying to do, the kind of person she is. That’s part of where we are culturally, and where we are culturally has these roots. There’s no incompatibility between observing the world and being tuned into this electronic, multimedia, multi-tracked, McLuhanite world and enjoying what can be enjoyed. I love rock and roll. Rock and roll changed my life. . . .

Further in the conversation, while discussing one of her essays, Sontag introduces another dimension:

It seems to be quite convincing to argue that Buddhism is the highest spiritual moment of humanity. It seems clear to me that rock and roll is the greatest movement of popular music that’s ever existed. If somebody asks me if I like rock and roll, I tell them that I love rock and roll. Or if you ask me if Buddhism is an incredible moment of human transcendence and profundity, I would say yes. But it’s something else to talk about the way in which interest in Buddhism occurs in our society. It’s one thing to listen to punk rock as music, and another to understand the whole S&M — necrophilia — Grand Guignol — Night of the Living DeadTexas Chainsaw Massacre sensibility that feeds into that. On the one hand, you’re talking about the cultural situation and the impulses people are getting from it, and on the other, you’re talking about what the thing is. And I don’t feel it’s a contradiction. I’m certainly not going to give up on rock and roll. I’m not going to say that because kids are walking around in their vampire makeup or wearing swastikas therefore this music is no good, which is the square, conservative judgment that’s so much in the ascendant now. That’s easy to say because most people who make those judgments, of course, know nothing about the music, aren’t attracted to it, and have never been moved viscerally or sensually or sexually by it. Any more than I want to give up on my admiration for Buddhism because of what’s happened to it in California or Hawaii. Everything is always abused, and then one is always trying to disentangle things.

Curiously, Sontag’s premise seems to be the opposite of what she argues in Against Interpretation — there is no “high” or “low” culture, no “good” or “bad,” only our interpretations and whatever cultural purpose we extract from them. She seals this notion with one final example:

To take the traditional example, and it’s the one that precedes all the examples we use from contemporary popular culture: Nietzsche. Nietzsche really was an inspiration for Nazism, and there are things in his writings that seem to prefigure and support the Nazi ideology.

But I’m not going to give up on him because of that, though I’m also not going to deny that things could be developed in that way.

[…]

There are contradictory impulses in everything, and you have to keep directing your attention to what is contradictory and try to sort these things out and to purify them.

Ultimately, however, the greatest peril of the false high/low divide is that it robs a writer — a person — of being able to absorb the vibrant wholeness and multiplicity of life with complete awareness, to be fully present with the world and attentive to all of its dimensions. Sontag captures this beautifully, adding to her collected wisdom on writing, when she tells Cott:

Giving full attention to the world, which includes you … that’s what a writer does — a writer pays attention to the world. Because I’m very against this solipsistic notion that you find it all in your head. You don’t, there really is a world that’s there whether you’re in it or not.

Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview is ineffably brilliant in its entirety. Complement it with Sontag on literature and freedom, the four people every writer must be, photography and aesthetic consumerism, writing, boredom, sex, censorship, and aphorisms, her radical vision for remixing education, her insight on why lists appeal to us, and her illustrated meditations on art and on love.

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