Book Review: Autumn by Ali Smith

“It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.”
Autumn by Ali Smith

It’s been nearly six months since I last wrote a blog post. 2017 has not been fun. Keeping up with scandals and nominations, violence and presidential tweets, breaking news and old skeletons, incriminations and analyses, insults, retractions and lies has felt like a full time job.

And it’s exhausting.

Though it hasn’t been that I have not been busy–I have read more already this year than in a long time. It’s just that sitting down and putting down my thoughts on this blog seemed so pointless, so self-centered. And god knows the times call for less self-involvement and a lot more outward action.

But here I am again. Because I know that that too is important.

In Issue 221 of The Paris Review (Summer 2017), I read a interview with the Scottish writer, Ali Smith. The conversation was intelligent, thoughtful and enticing.

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Ali Smith (Photo: Antonio Olmos)

So, I went out immediately and bought two books: Artful (2013) and Autumn (2016). (I had read her novel Accidental several years back, was floored by its creativity and beauty, but for some reason never followed up on more.)

Artful, on the surface, is made up of the four lectures on literary criticism that Smith was ask to deliver at Oxford. It is also, at the same time, a ghost story, a love story, and a novel–a combination that only Ali Smith would attempt and could pull-off. It is an extraordinary feat–the criticism is sparkling (I have underlined passages and dog-eared pages) and the narrative is engrossing and engaging.

The novel Autumn, however, is the more current, and is what I so much needed to read, in these “interesting days.” And again, it is magical.

Daniel Gluck is an old man and he is dying. He is 101 years old. Housed in the

Autumn book cover

Book Cover for Autumn

Maltings Care Providers institution, he is visited often by Elisabeth Demand, the young woman who has been his friend since she was thirteen, some twenty years ago. She is now an adjunct instructor of Art History–a subject he inspired in her as he taught her, as a young girl, how to see beyond surfaces and think and question all that she witnesses.

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Scandal-63 by Pauline Boty

The remembered scenes of their past, innocent relationship are wonderful and inspiring and hopeful. Daniel is a wonderful and creative teacher and a fine companion for the young Elisabeth. He introduces her to Chaplin, to Keats, and to Plath.

More importantly, he introduces her to the British POP ART artist, Pauline Boty. It is she, a forgotten artist of the 1960s whose work captured the zeitgeist of the day–from Bob Dylan to Christine Keeler–whom Elisabeth writes her doctoral thesis on.

(And the scandal of Christine Keeler and the machinations of the two governments involved with her, sorely reflect the tenor of our own times. It is capturing this scandal that Boty is perhaps best remembered for.)

But now Daniel is dying and it is the summer of 2016, after the Brexit vote, and the UK is in turmoil. Elisabeth’s mother puts in best when she says:

I’m tired of the news. I’m tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren’t, and deals so simplistically with what’s truly appalling. I’m tired of the vitriol. I’m tired of the anger. I’m tired of the meanness. I’m tired of the selfishness. I’m tired of how we’re doing nothing to stop it. I’m tired of how we’re encouraging it. I’m tired of the violence there is and I’m tired of the violence that’s on its way, that’s coming, that hasn’t happened yet. I’m tired of liars. I’m tired of how those liars have let this happen. I’m tired of having to wonder whether they did it out of stupidity or did it on purpose. I’m tired of lying governments. I’m tired of people not caring whether they’re being lied to any more I’m tired of being made to feel this fearful. I’m tired of animosity. I’m tired of pusillanimosity.
Autumn (
page 56-57)

Ali Smith  is writing in 2016 England but it very much could be here, now.

And that is what makes it so hopeful. For Daniel’s lessons and Elisabeth’s understanding of them underscore the importance and ultimate permanence of ART in turbulent times. For we learn that governments explode and implode, that pendulums swing one way and then the other, that movements and hatreds and despots come and go. But ART remains.

Daniel and Elisabeth’s relationship–a relationship with a 68 year age difference–is one that is based on love and trust and hope and acceptance.

And that, at least, is a bright light in these dark times.

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Leonard Cohen: You Want it Darker

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RIP: Leonard Cohen (illustration 2016 by jpbohannon)

About a month ago, a coworker sent me a YouTube link of the title track of Leonard Cohen’s upcoming album, You Want It Darker. She wanted me both to hear it and to help her make sense of it.

And it was dark. It was almost a challenge to a god that has allowed humanity to do what it has in the course of human history. It was punctuated by the opening prayer of Rosh Hashana, “Hineni, Hineni.” (Here I am, Lord).  And then it was followed by Cohen’s line: “I am ready, Lord.”

(Perhaps, Cohen shouldn’t have issued the challenge when he did. For in the week that he died, the world indeed became darker in many ways for many of us.)

There have been many wonderful obituaries written over the past week, articles that celebrated his music, his poetry, his novels, obits that detailed his fully-lived life, both the loves and the disappointments, the treacheries and the successes. (Here is The London Times’ obituary.)

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Cohen in London in 1978 (SIPA PRESS/REX/Shutterstock)

And, of course, there were the inevitable comparisons to Dylan. Over the past several weeks, both have been rightly acclaimed as momentous poets of  our times–death and international prizes undoubtedly will do that–but too many of the commentators positioned it as some sort  a race, a competition.

It isn’t. It never is.

Certainly, they were both poets, but they are greatly different. Dylan’s words, he claims, come easy; Cohen struggled long and hard on his. (He claims that “Hallelujah” took him five years to write.) But they both brought to their work an elevated sense of language and imagery, a modern sensibility far removed from the insipid themes of most popular music of the time.

I learned about both of them when I was a very, young boy. When I was eleven, my eighteen-year old cousin and I both got guitars for Christmas. So we learned together, except he was 18 and much more part of the world and the emerging folk scene. Consequently, what I first learned on guitar was the Dylan songbook and the folk music published in SingOut magazine.

My first songs were Dylan’s “Hollis Brown” (one chord, E-minor, throughout) and “To Romana” (two chords, C and G). Before too long I moved on to Cohen’s “Suzanne.” In the small and insulated world of folk music, the song “Suzanne” was everywhere, as everyone it seemed was covering it. ( I mainly knew Judy Collins’ version. I can’t imagine my cracking adolescent voice trying to imitate her beautiful soprano. But oh well, …)

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Milton Glaser’s iconic poster of Bob Dylan

My fascination with Cohen, however, came much later. Dylan was Dylan and, if I had a musical idol, it was certainly he. For most of my adult life. But as I grew older, Cohen seemed to speak to me more readily. Oddly, Dylan’s writing began to seem overly specific, whereas Cohen was speaking to me individually and universally.

And as I grew older, his disappointments were more understandable. In a October 17, 2016 profile in The New Yorker, Cohen stated that “I am ready to die.”

I have been thinking about my own death a lot recently. One learns only gradually that one is not immortal, or at least the understanding of that comes on gradually. Cohen knew that, but he still kept creating;  at 82, two weeks before he died, he put out this last album.

It is serious and resigned and thoughtful.

It is beautiful. And sometimes funny.

And it is wonderful to listen to.

 

 

Quote #66: “Yes to dance beneath a diamond sky…” Bob Dylan

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“Bob Dylan” illustration 2016 by jpbohannon

“Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky
With one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea
Circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate
Driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.”

Bob Dylan, 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature Winner
“Mr. Tambourine Man”

Quote #41: “…someday, everything’s gonna be different.”

Dylan's self-portrait The cover of the Self-Portrait album

Dylan’s self-portrait
The cover of the Self-Portrait album

“But someday, every thing’s gonna be different/ when I paint my masterpiece.”

Bob Dylan, “When I Paint My Masterpiece”

Happy Birthday, Bob: May 24, 1941…so as a special treat, here’s Bob singing “When I Paint My Masterpiece” with the Band.

Music Review: Tom Jones’ Spirit in the Room: “There’s a Lot New, Pussycat!”

tomjonesI can’t believe I’m doing this. But I am.  I am reviewing the latest Tom Jones album.  Mainly because it’s extraordinary.

Remember when Johnny Cash did that Nine Inch Nails cover produced by Rick Rubin and accompanied by that powerful video, and how every hipster coffee shop around now has a Johnny Cash tune playing on its sound system about once every 20 minutes?  If you don’t remember, here it is:

Well, Tom Jones is doing the same thing. He has left behind the Las Vegas glitz and the sex-god personna of his past (he parodied himself in Mars Attacks, for god’s sake!) And he is choosing songs that give resonance to his powerful voice.  Like a old bottle of Laphroaig that announces itself with a blast of peat smoke against your throat, Tom Jones voice is aged to perfection. And the lyrics he’s delivering add to that agedness, to the gravitas.Spirit+in+the+Room

Produced by Ethan Johns and covering songs by Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Richard Thompson, Odetta, Paul Simon and McCartney, among others, Spirit in the Room presents Jones stripped down and honest. Just as likely to be accompanied  by a single acoustic guitar or a tinkling piano as a full-tilt-boogie band, Jones dives into the blues, gospel, and roots music.

And again, he has the voice to do it: this time, however, one hears more of the Welsh ditch-digger than the nightclub lounge singer.  And in my opinion, that’s a vast improvement. He is authentic, he is wise, he is ruminative.

Jones’ cover of Cohen’s “Tower of Song” is every bit as good as Cohen has ever done it. One hears the pain of age, the pain of wisdom.

Richard Thompson’s “Dimming of the Day” is one of my top ten favorite songs ever (I own recordings by Thompson, Bonnie Raitt, the Corrs, Emmylou Harris, and a wonderful version by the short-lived band, Danko, Fjeld and Anderson) and I was excited to see that Jones included it here and that he does it well.

His voice smooths out Waits’ growl, roughs out Simon’s baritone and turns Dylan’s “When the Deal Goes Down” into a rueful waltz that reminds me of Jagger’s version of “The Long Black Veil” with the Chieftains. And his version of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Soul of Man” is almost threatening and is as jagged as the guitar that centers it.

I have always felt that Tom Jones was a bit schmaltzy but, to be fair, I never gave him much of a listen. He has always had a powerful voice, but his delivery was always a little more polished than I preferred, every end note seemed elongated, every word seemed to carry the same weight.  He always seemed to be overdoing what I saw was essentially an outdated vibrato.

But I was wrong or he has changed or I have changed.  Because Spirit in the Room is quite an achievement.

Now, I’ll  probably start hearing him every fifteen minutes in the coffee shops I hide in!

♦     ♦    ♦    ♦    ♦    ♦    ♦

Here is Tom Jones covering Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song,” the first track on the album:

Dylan’s rhythms and the 13-year old poet

dylanSo, out of the blue on Saturday morning I receive a poem by a young boy, Domenic Feola, thirteen years old.  I don’t know him, never taught him, probably never will.  He is a suburban kid who runs cross-country at one of the city parks. But his ear is impeccable and his language is crisp.  And the rhythm of his poem is infectious (until the last couplet where in trying to sum up his feelings he loses is footing) .

             The City

     by Domenic Feola

Bright lights, fast trains
Cold nights, heavy rains
Dirty air, bus fare
Pigeons flying everywhere
Crowded streets, traffic jams
Music beats, grand slams
Bugs fly, kids cry
No stars in the night sky
Noisy bars, littered trash
Big cars, no cash
Garbage smells, huge hotels
In the shadows, spiders dwell
Scary strangers, taxi cabs
Hidden dangers, science labs
Museums of art, cherry tart
Broken beat up shopping carts
If you say I’m biased, I would agree
I think the suburbs are more for me.

Pretty sophisticated for a thirteen-year-old boy. Or for anyone, for that matter.  Great imagery, great confidence and impressive rhythm.  If I could, I would talk to him about the rhythm. That is the strength of the poem–but there are a few times where it needs to be tightened, where some minor tweaking would make it even better.  But it is impressive nevertheless.

Album Cover Subterranean Homesick Blues

Album Cover Subterranean Homesick Blues

In fact when I first read the poem I could hear Dylan–specifically “Subterranean Homesick Blues” –in the rhythm. Here’s the second verse from Dylan’s song:

Maggie comes fleet foot
Face full of black soot
Talkin’ that the heat put
Plants in the bed but
The phone’s tapped anyway
Maggie says that many say
They must bust in early May
Orders from the DA
Look out kid
Don’t matter what you did
Walk on your tip toes
Don’t try, ‘No Doz’
Better stay away from those
That carry around a fire hose
Keep a clean nose
Watch the plain clothes
You don’t need a weather man
To know which way the wind blows.

from “Subterranean Homesick Blues”

The short 5 and 6 syllable lines are similar. The grammatical “packages” the same.

Now, I read someone say that this Dylan song was one of the first rap songs.  But that’s not true, it’s utter nonsense.  Dylan was influenced by “talking blues,” Chuck Berry’s rock-and-roll, and the Beats like Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Ferlinghetti. (Notice in the iconic picture at the top, Alan Ginsberg talking to folksinger Bob Neuwirth on the left side of the photo.)

On the other hand, Dominic Feloa (who probably doesn’t know who Bob Dylan is) more than likely has been influenced by rap and hip-hop.  It is all around him, in the music he listens to, the advertisements he is bombarded with, the zeitgeist of the culture.  Yet his rhythms are a bit different. It might be that his non-urban background (and his youth)  gives his rap rhythms a subtle difference, a blunter edge. But they are working.

So, cheers to Dominic Feloa.  Keep writing. Show your work to your teachers.  Find someone to work with, to work against.  Write–revise–and write again.  Send your work out.  Expect rejection.  Work harder.  Good luck to you.  Thanks for letting me read your poem.

And, of course, I couldn’t leave without sharing a video, a promotion for the 1965 Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back, a promotion that did have an enormous influence on what was to become “music videos.”  This was the original…it has been copied/parodied countless times: