FORTHCOMING

“The Challenges of Temporal Lobe Epilepsy”

Raritan: A Quarterly

"A beautifully written, powerful and profound memoir.
It is quite, quite overwhelming. Each sentence rings like crystal."

--Joyce Carol Oates

NEW

"The Feudal Unconscious:
Capitalism and the Family Romance"

October 159 (Winter 2017)
MIT Press




Now Available

Portuguese translation of THE MYTH OF POPULAR CULTURE (Blackwell Manifestos, 2010) now available from Tinta Negra (Rio de Janeiro, 2015)



OS MITOS DA CULTURA POP: DE DANTE A DYLAN

O renomado crítico cultural americano Perry Meisel detona as noções convencionais sobre a divisão entre “alta” e “baixa” cultura.

O autor transita pela provocante teoria de que a cultura pop experimentou ritmos dialéticos. A hábil análise que o livro apresenta de três tradições culturais duradouras – o romance norte-americano, Hollywood, e o rock inglês e americano – nos leva a um ciclo histórico da cultura pop que tem Dante como ponto de partida e revisita ícones como Wahrol, Melville, Hemingway, Twain, Eisenstein, Benjamin, Scorsese e Sinatra.



THE MYTH OF POPULAR CULTURE: FROM DANTE TO DYLAN

The Myth of Popular Culture discusses the dialectic of "highbrow" and "lowbrow" in popular culture through an examination of literature, film, and popular music. With topics ranging from John Keats to John Ford, the book responds to Adorno's theory that popular culture is not dialectical by showing that it is.

Available as eBooks

COURSE IN GENERAL LINGUISTICS. Trans. Wade Baskin. Co-ed. with Haun Saussy. By Ferdinand de Saussure (Columbia University Press, 2011)

THE MYTH OF POPULAR CULTURE: FROM DANTE TO DYLAN
(
Blackwell Manifestos, 2010)

THE LITERARY FREUD (Routledge, 2007)

THE COWBOY AND THE DANDY: CROSSING OVER FROM ROMANTICISM TO ROCK AND ROLL (Oxford University Press, 1998)

FREUD: A COLLECTION OF CRITICAL ESSAYS (Prentice-Hall, 1981)




7/9/10

Jazz En Route

Jazz-rock in Marseilles disproves an old assumption: that the French can dig what most Americans won't recognize.

by Perry Meisel

Jimmy Cliff, Joe Cocker, the Brecker Brothers, Eddie Palmieri, Cornell Dupree, Tony Williams, Ray Barretto, Joe Beck, Lenny White, Al DiMeola - they were all at the bar last Thursday night at Kennedy Airport ready to board a charter flight for the Riviera '76 "Festival Jazz-Rock" in Le Castellet, France, a distant suburb of Marseilles deep in the Provencal countryside, where romantic love was invented by roving troubadours back in the 12th century. The terrain hasn't changed much since then. Delicate air and sweet sun still bathe the green hills and bald, clefted peaks that look more like Judea than the Bois de Boulogne. But the Antonioni skyline closer to town - the rude modern apartment complexes and half-finished white structures scrawled with political slogans like "Liberez le patriotes corses" - signifies the sonic history that has replaced medieval lutes and courtly love with electric guitars from New York City.
In spite of the reigning myth that jazz is appreciated more in France than it is here, the 20,000 French hippies who gathered at the Circuit Paul Ricard (a Grand Prix racetrack rented by producer Michael Lang of Woodstock fame) showed little understanding and even less appreciation for most of the weekend's music. Their greatest act of love and enthusiasm was a shower of rocks and bottles to get Joe Cocker back onstage for an encore. The crowd's rather pious admiration for slim pickins like John McLaughlin's new acoustic Shakti, and David Liebman and Richard Beirach's sax/piano duo, suggested a preference for grooves we usually call classical, square, European, and for the kind of light instrumentation that normally leaves American audiences hot and panting for electric satisfactions withheld.
We got a glimpse of French musical thinking firsthand when we hopped a morning ride out to the site with Magma, one of the biggest rock and roll bands in France and one of the most boring rock and roll bands in the world (see for yourself on A&M's "Magma"). They are wonderful guys, though, and we chattered on about music each in the other's tongue as though we were trading fours over a brisk tempo. Their notions matched those of some Parisian music critics I spoke to later in the weekend. They added up to an inability to comprehend the differences between grooves, even classical things next to swinging or rocking ones, and Magma's own bloated Wagneriana plainly shows the result of such thinking.
We arrived at the site only to find more of the discomfiture we'd encountered there the night before, when we'd been promised a bill of French rock and found instead that the British crew was still building the stage. Lang's organization was nonexistent, and so was the Woodstock-size crowd they'd predicted. But when attendance swelled to a respectable size, and the lineup finally got under way four or five hours late, the hassles vanished and a two-day musical panorama began.
Billed as "le Jazz-Rock," the festival was devoted to the music we've been using alternative and uncertain names to describe since its baptism by laughter and sarcasm during the late '60s. Since then, of course, it's gained respectability, more often than not as a vehicle for stretching out your head about what jazz and rock music are all about. Though some major luminaries in the movement were noticeably absent from Le Castellet - George Benson, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, George Duke/Billy Cobham - the weekend's fare was still glutton's stuff enough. It mapped itself out pretty clearly, too, offering a summary portrait of a music that seems too often to elude real definitions or formalization.
It was largely a guitarist's festival, since guitarists presented their case more eloquently than anyone else who played. Larry Coryell met his band at the site (he's in the middle of a solo acoustic tour of Europe this summer) and gave the most gratifying performance of the weekend, the best I've heard since the Eleventh House's inception three years ago. Coryell at his best represents the most precarious balance in all contemporary music - a superflux of styles suspended in a tense network of lexical grids (a shaft of Clapton, a shaft of Coltrane, a shaft of Django) and disciplined by rigorous sensibility management (the cool bopper, the mean rocker, the ironic mocker). To put this apparatus into action is a pretty awkward affair if you don't have much grease on your wheels, and the proverbial question with Coryell is whether his brain can keep up with his hands.
"Yin Yang" was the showcase of his set, a devastating high energy load that opened with Coryell on a mean funk binge succeeded by Sly spurts of high trumpet fifths from Terumasa Hino, now with the Eleventh House after a series of brief stints with various jazz aggregations around New York. The real interest, though, came during Coryell's solo, a montage of grammars ranging from gradated patches of chords rifling time with a bone-crunching British blues delivery to backfalling runs phrased like Dolphy or Braxton. These poles framed the musical languages available to Coryell, and he jammed them one against the other as a witting strategy, now two bars of a Page routine, now two more from Django or Wes. This apparent illogic acquires a logic of its own finally, one that functions perfectly only in moments of peculiar keenness when a soloist like Coryell can manage his musical constituency with total control.
It is a logic of montage, all right, and, to extend the (not only) cinematic analogy a little further, it is the reverse of the tracking eye of the soloist rooted in a specific and unfolding groove. Coryell knows no such tracking, and the difference between anarchy and government in his work is always a pertinent question. This montage of grammars is more like a Pound poem, say, than a novel, with no fixed center to its trajectory and no plain ground to which its incongruous flights return. Depending on which sample from the montage you select for an originating point of reference, the music will appear to you in a different way. I used to judge Coryell against the simple and exclusive imperatives of funk or swing, and I found myself often disappointed at what I took to be his deviations from a betrayed norm. As it turns out, I sought overzealously to ground his music where no center obtained, hence letting my critical predispositions set up questions which the music itself was in no position to answer.
If Coryell spoke for a style of logic, New York guitarist Joe Beck spoke for a new style of power. He stands next to the sublimated Coryell like Page next to Clapton, lusty and arrogant the way Larry was when he was younger and his ambitions less focused and informed. Beck has yet to define his musical concepts completely - his music was in more of a state of transformation than anyone else's the whole weekend. Like Coryell, Beck's is power music which threatens as much throbbing vengeance as Zep or the Who. In fact, Joe, who used to work in the studio with Frank Sinatra and Burt Bacharach, is still hungry enough to sound like a Jimmy Page reborn next to the soaring plaints of his co-star, singer Cheryl Barnes. But we still don't know what Beck will finally offer to the world - perhaps he'll be the first jazzman to rise to real rock stardom, complete with a sunglass mystique capable even now of combining the ironies of jazz with the punk pose of rock and roll.
The long-awaited Lenny White group that appeared late Sunday night formalized all that Coryell and Beck had plotted out. It was a pickup group for the occasion, but what a pickup: the Brecker Brothers on horns, Al DiMeola on guitar, Brian Auger on keyboards, and Ray Barretto on congas. You can't ask for more montage than that, unless you were there to hear the ripping fours the soloists traded on each tune they played. The Breckers, though, stole the solo show from both Auger and DiMeoloa. Randy's trumpet is one of the most melodic we have, and with all the electric crackle going down these days (including his brother Michael's unnecessarily electrified tenor), sometimes it's hard to remember just how lyrically potent he is.
It always comes down to a question of power, though, and until Tony Williams came out to jam with the group, there was relatively little of it in evidence. Williams's guitarist got lost somewhere in Europe, so a two-day hassle ensued as to how, and with whom, Tony would perform. The choice of a jam with Lenny White was not only logical; it provided the highlight of the whole festival. The Williams/White/Barretto combination practically overran the Breckers and washed DiMeola and Auger right off the stage. Even the French were brought to a state of rare attention by the thundering rhythms that Williams induced from the band by virtue of personal power alone. He galvanized White's otherwise lackluster enthusiasm into a fierce glow that brought Barretto to his feet to bang his congas against the sage in a stand-up flight of delight he usually reserves for solos with own band.
The same mixture of approaches that characterized Coryell's and White's sets repeated itself in another fashion with the appearance of a Band to Watch in the next few years, Montreal's Boule Noire (Blackball). Fronted by singer/percussionist Georges Thurston, a black French Canadian, Boule Noire is your ideal bilingual jazzrock band, a graphic compendium of styles, though tiered in synchronic layers of sound - Latin/funk percussion, creamy electric saxophone, and heavy London guitar - instead of the temporal montage of Coyrell or Beck. Here each musician played his own consistent style within the democratic environment, ranging from British metal flash to the Gary Bartz cool of swinging alto, a Tullish guttural flute. Boule Noire was perhaps the weekend's most effective new example of how serviceable the principle of ensemble montage can be, a kind of post-Traffic proof that you can rock and swing all at once if you can find the grooves that have double and triple workloads.
Styles of logic and power, though, comprised only one side of this summary event. Its more lucid chapter, and indeed its more pleasurable one, begins with those luminaries of Manhattan soul praised before in these pages, the good doctors of sound who backed Joe Cocker on his recent tour and who traveled with him to Riviera '76. They have a new name - Stuff - and they sounded better than ever at Le Castellet, freshened like everyone else by the Provencal air (in spite of those crazy mistral breezes that whipped up a few times during the weekend) and challenging each other with a saltiness the city seems to blunt - Cornell Dupree's guitar shocked Eric Gale into the only inventive solos I've heard him play.
Cocker, meanwhile, is looking clear-eyed and healthy these days. Even during the raunchiest episodes of his last tour, Joe's musicianship was almost impeccable - all you had to do was close your eyes and listen. His phrasing now is sparer than at any point in his career to date; lean, direct, and full of agonized spaces.
The second chapter in the festival's rhythm and blues saga was written by the Crusaders, the Los Angeles instrumental team that roused from the relative doldrums of early '60s West Coast jazz to punch out some of the most definitive funk music on record in the last few years. Though trombonist Wayne Henderson was back in L.A. on a tight production schedule, the Crusaders were closing a three-week European tour with their appearance at Le Castellet. Their set opened with a Bo Diddley groove driven by California guitarist Larry Carlton, whose rock and roll persona, compelte with racetrack cap and baseball shirt, locked perfectly with tenorman Wilton Felder's chickenshack rave-up and keyboardist Joe Sample's harmonic extensions of soul grooves greenhoused from his Texas past. Though the (then) Jazz Crusaders enjoyed a vogue as a band to watch some years ago at Hermosa Beach, their hearts, says Felder, were still bound to the honky-tonk that he and Sample had grown up with back in Houston. They gave it up when they moved to the Coast because it wasn't a cool bag to play in California during the early '60s. But now that times have changed, it's Roots City for the Crusaders once again.
If Coryell, Lenny White, and Boule Noire each in their various ways presented a strategy of montage, Stuff and the Crusaders presented a strategy of deep focus and tracking instead. These two models of playing can even be extended to all of music, since definitive jazz styles fall largely into grammars of montage on the one hand (e.g., Monk, Dolphy) and grammars of deep focus and sustained tracking on the other (e.g., Pres, Parker), much as rock does in its elastic grasp of Pink Floyd, say, at one pole, and the Stones at the other.
Then there were the reigning princes of Latin music, Eddie Palmieri and Ray Barretto. Thanks to the French highway system, we got lost on the way out to the site the second day of the festival and missed both Palmieri and the German Passport, whose recent lp ("Infinity Machine" on Atco) bespeaks a happy accord with American soul-stomping absent in French bands though present for some reason in lots of German pop like Disco's Silver Convention. Barretto's band, meanwhile, left the French baffled late the night before, though his set was predictably impeccable. Salsa's seeming funk imperatives are only a blind we use to aid our faltering understanding of a music far more subtle and difficult to grasp than we like to think. Listen to the bass line for the key to its contrapuntal tensions - my attention was fixed largely on Barretto's bassist for much of the set, and I even wasted some time trying to count out its syncopated time for one of the guys from Magma who crouched in the press pit with a frustrated scowl much like those his compatriots wore in the army of tents and sleeping bags behind us.
Jimmy Cliff was the festival's biggest heartthrob, one of the consummate stars of the weekend and one who has been shortchanged even in the midst of our growing appreciation of reggae as a whole. A habitual unwillingness to talk about him seriously seems to be taking hold, a reticence out of all proportion to the genuine love his singing (much less his persona in film) has elicited from everyone I know. Of course, his band was badass, too, drifting into rock and roll ballad moods despite the rhythm guitar's peculiar Jamaican accent. Cliff's lead guitarist Enest Ranglen, by the way, is a must hear, an astonishing performer who can split 16th runs with the best of New York's fractured avant-gardists even while he's no less wicked a soul twanger than Dupree or Steve Cropper. Ranglen shuffled his fills behind Jimmy's singing from these two extreme modes of guitar, demonstrating in miniature the compendium qualities of reggae as a whole.
The French crowd, though, had as few clues to what Jimmy Cliff was up to as the Marseilles reporter who wrote the next morning that it was Eddie Palmieri who was the "reggae triumph from Jamaica" (my translation from "Le Provencal") and that someone called "Gimmy Cliss" played "music perhaps less elaborate" than McLaughlin's Shakti, "though it was crammed with dynamite and perfect to dance to" (I wonder where this guy saw people dancing - the only dancers I saw were Americans in the press section doing a Fillmore routine). The polyglot structures the festival presented were alien to the French, and they showed their impatience with all the rudeness they could muster, booing and yawning when a foreign groove arose.
The largest irony in the festival lay in the fact that its monstrous montage of musical styles - melting pot music par excellence - was profoundly anti-European, foreign to everything these proprietary hippies seemed to call their own. One Paris Jazz critic, a writer for Liberation, told me that French music only imitates American, implying by his own sighs in saying so that the inner logic of what passed across the stage at Le Castellet was lost on the audience for whom it was intended. In fact, the American college sweatshirts this NATO crowd wore by the thousands were a perfect expression of their puzzled apprehension of the music - those talismanic shirts bore subtly mistaken legends like "Wisconsin University" and "University of Harvard."
The most telling example of the French attitude came when I stood up to stretch at one point during the proceedings, only to see one of the Frenchmen seated with us in the press corral grab the cardboard I'd been sitting on and slap it under his own ass with a self-satisfied chuckle. I was outraged, as anybody who'd expected Woodstock here would have been, and I started yelling at him about Alsace-Lorraine in an attempt to get my cardboard back. Of course, the very fact that cardboard became a commodity down there in the dust pit showed how we were all forced to play the great European game of refugees and deprivation. Like the battered shutters of Marseilles itself, these tight-lipped French betrayed an intransigence toward even the funkiest interludes in the weekend's music and made it plain that the American notion of French appreciation for soul and jazz is the dreamy invention of wishful expatriates nostalgic for Fitzgerald, Eliot, and James. Like American society itself, American music is polyglot, derived from an experience (even at its most painful) unknown to these "entrenched and marshalled races," as Joyce called them even before World War I.
The ironies multiplied, since the weekend's music was a special testimony to the democratic sensibilities of the Americas from Quebec to Kingston, from Harlem to Muscle Shoals. While the French scoffed and pouted the Americans observed that etiquette by which we live despite our lingering ethnicities. Even the Last Poet, Gil Scott-Heron, had become an Emersonian by festival time, insisting from the stage that "the past is dead" while the roving cameras proved it by televising this revolution after all.
The Americans stirred a new dream of power at Le Castellet, one which means to break down conventional musical boundaries much as American society means to break down (at least in principle) the petty tyrannies and proprietary boundaries we have inherited from European life. Refusing the declensions of bop and even the bardic rhapsodies of Coltrane, these American musicians stand in the street with the rest of us now, no longer elitist visionaries in the self-consuming style of the Dolphys and Aylers, but men of the avenue throwing their anxieties to the winds in a bid for a new kind of power. No wonder everybody applauded when the plane touched down on native ground again - it was good to be back home.

Originally published in The Village Voice, August 9, 1976