Dying Empire Bebop
The Sedition Of Ecstatic Novelty

by Phil Rockstroh


November 29, 2004   


(Swans - November 29, 2004)   With the season being fall -- perhaps I should let some illusions fall away like dead leaves.

Outside my apartment window, across a wind-blown courtyard, the crimson leaves of a white oak are falling into a swirling breeze, revealing the gnarled limbs and stark branches of the time-battered tree beneath. Nature is enacting fall's blazing spectacle...the landscape is dying in Technicolor, like our flaming-out empire.

At dusk, the late November sky is a cool flame of vivid contrasting colors; as the horizon rises up to occlude the dimming sun...we drift in crisp fall air...we turn away from summer...and its lies of boundless bounty, with its delusions of the exceptionalism of empires.

Winter requires clarity. The delusions of fools need abundance to germinate. Winter's scarcity can clarify the mind. Wallace Stevens reminds us:

"For the listener, who listens in the snow, And, nothing himself, beholds Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is."
(Excerpt from "The Snow Man.")

Rising like the north wind -- an accusatory voice: We live in an empire bent on murder/suicide. It has become a global-wide spree killer...unrepentant...apparently devoid of a conscience...tens of thousands dead in Afghanistan...a hundred thousand dead (so far) in Iraq. Where next will the killer turn his remorseless gaze? At this late juncture, neither you nor I stand any more chance of stopping this senseless rampage then we have of turning back the oncoming winter freeze.

As of late, the grief attendant to my loss of any remaining illusions that I once harbored regarding the possibility of there being any redemption possible for this death-besotted empire has been the predominate theme of my thoughts and writings.

What to do?

I shuffle across the room and switch on of the CD player. The machine whirls to life, shuffles the discs, and begins playing a random mix of mid 20th century jazz -- bebop.

Listening to bebop seems right for this mood: Bebop can transmute overwhelming anxiety and rending sorrow into fear-negating intensity; it can alchemize within one a state of mind that lives in and beyond sorrow simultaneously.

"Crazyology" by Thelonius Monk, the genius jester-king of surprise syncopation, strides from the speakers. Monk's music -- composed while the irradiated ashes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still swirled in the psychotic air of the early cold war years -- will tease and tickle the clinched, anxious moment, bombarding it with abrupt changes in tempo, spacing, and breaks -- as it perpetrates upon the melody, tone, and scale of a song an analogue of what the knowledge of The Bomb did to mechanized minds of the early Atomic Age, abruptly thrusting them into an unexpected world, thereby decimating their sacred verities -- until, for those who allow themselves to be receptive to the outlandish grace of Monk's music, the haunted mind will be released from its reflexive self-reference to an ossified past and float free as blue smoke into the freedom of midnight air.

Next track: Mingus steps up with "Fables of Faubus" and he will not let us off so easy. With his propulsive tempos, he demands that we cease to lie to ourselves, as he pushes us towards the undying soul of the rising moment -- then, by enveloping us with pulsing textures and explosive layering, he reveals to us what numbed-out banalities we become when our lives are based upon comfortable lies. The vitality of his genius shows us what our life could be -- if we weren't such complacent cowards, of how we could throb to life -- if we were to admit our complicity in the quotidian crime of accepting the world the way it is. There, Mingus admonishes us, in that dingy, hidden, hollow place where we habitually hide ourselves breeds the obscenity of racism, greed, and war.

Next: The music switches tracks to Charlie Parker blowing "Back Home." For an instant, time and sorrow dissipate, as I become lost in a quixotic reverie, attempting to find a way to play behind the downbeat of this anguished age.

But then Ornette Coleman's "Free Jazz" soars into the room in a flight of swooping asymmetry and the disconcerting humor of his atonal chordal harmonies mocks my pale presumptions -- and just about everybody else's for that matter.

Providentially, Coltrane's "Pursuance" movement from "A Love Supreme" rises into the room like a Rilkean angel. But this does not provide me any kitschy deus ex machina moment: For Trane's angels, like Rilke's, are not of the sexless, Victorian variety, with downy wings, clad in pure white, celestial linen -- but instead, they are ego-shredding messengers who do not flinch from the sorrows of the world; while they are merciful -- they are neither mawkish nor sentimental -- for they herald the exquisite news that Divinity resides in the world of the senses.

Wallace Steven, once again, states it best:

"The greatest poverty is not to live In a physical world, to feel that one's desire Is too difficult to tell from despair. Perhaps, After death, the non-physical people, in paradise, Itself non-physical, may, by chance, observe The green corn gleaming and experience The minor of what we feel."
(Excerpt from Of Esthetique du Mal)

This parcel of sensate eternity where I find myself at this moment has been given the name, Friday evening, and I'm sitting at my desk thrumming my fingers to the melody of cultural oblivion.

By the time the play list arrives at Monk's "Straight No Chaser," thoughts of the inevitability of my country's spiral into inexorable tragedy begin to mix, merge, and dance with Monk's incantatory melody line.

O.K. God Damn it! I rage at the wind-pummeled windowpane and my native land beyond the barren treetop:

Let's take it straight with no chaser. Let's throw back shot after shot of the rotgut truth.

Let's state the unadorned facts of our condition -- stark as the branches of a white oak tree in late fall.

So, forgive me, because this calls for an abrupt change of tempo.

It's long past time we got drunk -- drunk on reality.

Bartender, set up a round.

Let's throw back a shot: We're all staggering drunk on oil.

Throw back another: ...we've gotten mean drunk on the power to level mechanized death...

Another: ...we are self-inflated drunk on the power to control the lumpen masses by the manipulation of electronic imagery.

One more round, for the road...to extinction: We're stupid drunk on mindless consumerism that is numbing out authentic experience and destroying the earth to boot.

We're stinking drunk on militarism, mass media escapism, and consumerism -- when we should be drunk on Coltrane.

For the culture of the United State has become the antithesis of its native jazz. The corporate culture of hyper-control and truth-occluding escapism works like a deadly addiction to destroy the creative spirit: It would have destroyed Charlie Parker even before he had the means to destroy himself.

Consumerism, a form of addiction, usurps the experience of ecstatic novelty and makes false claim that it is its own.

Conversely, bebop and free jazz are ecstatic novelty writ large in sonic waves. John Coltrane reported that the conception and creation of his timeless masterpiece, "A Love Supreme" ended his addiction to drugs and alcohol. This soul-reviving suite should be made the suggested soundtrack of every drug and alcohol rehab unit in the United States -- if not played on a repeating loop at every gas station, convenience store, and shopping mall on the planet.

Like that's going to happen.

The CD player shuffles and Monk's "Epistrophy" arrives, this version in the company of Coltrane. My rage is spent...for now. Of course, the tenor of the times will replenish it in abundance. But, at this moment, Monk and Trane shout encouragement from the real world, the only world there is -- the realm of the eternal now.

Rouse yourself, they insist. -- Let the impossibility of your situation free you from pretense and presumption. As is the case with a bebop jam session, you don't know where you're going next...but, in reality, neither does anyone else -- no matter what they claim to the contrary. For this reason -- all of existence is Coltranesque.

We are free.

We only delude ourselves into believing that we know what's coming next. Bebop informs us the unexpected is what's coming next; that, in life, what moves us most is often unplanned, and sorrow can drop away like a falling leaf and be whirled down the avenue in an improvisational dance with the rifting wind.

We are free.

All is Coltrane.

The tyrants will topple.

Coltrane will remain.

· · · · · ·


America the 'beautiful' on Swans


Phil Rockstroh on Swans (with bio).

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Published November 29, 2004
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