Cool: An Introduction
There’s something to this…
Straight razor sleeping
on the coffee-table.
On the faded blue couch,
in the backseat of the LTD.
Something about this…
black stone and heavy silver, and talk
of the candy lady above the pool-hall.
And there is, though.
And there’s something about this monkey suit, too.
Red and gold,
like a fire chief on top of a wedding cake.
And the sand,
fine, spread it out
for The Dance Everybody’s doing now.
Or will be. And that’s
Spats, or The Doughboy, and The Rope too.
There’s something to that, still.
There’s something in this razor,
on the inside pocket of the suit,
Next to a red velvet purse rattling a root
and two new pennies.
Down here at the hotel,
premium beer from the Vegan Sex Grotto.
This straight razor,
on the wedding cake,
red as a fire monkey.
Falling asleep outside again,
like the day don’t matter
like it was tomorrow yesterday
Something to this
like we ain't truly human
susceptible to violent madness of love and loss,
separated from our babies,
and at war with the women.
There’s something to this.
Ishmael Reed Publishing Company ©1998–2010
For San Francisco Bay Guardian
Dear Mr. Ligon,
I'd like to begin this letter with an apology.
For years I've included your work in my personal pantheon. Since my first encounter with your text-based paintings in the pages of Artforum during your early days at the Whitney Museum, to your critiques of Mapplethorpe, to your contributions to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, I have always found your work intriguing, inspiring, and — at times — exasperating. In short, you've never failed to impress me. Even more so when I consider your very vocal status as a gay black man in the high-end art world and as a gay black artist in the world at large. Still, I owe you this apology because, though I've held you in high esteem, I have underestimated you.
AMERICA, the catalog for your 20-year retrospective show held at the Whitney this year, has given me the opportunity to study the breadth and depth of your body of work. Being able sit with this sturdy black book, this 300-page piece of art in itself has — frankly — put me through some changes, brother.
Scott Rothkopf's introductory essay talks about your early days as an Abstract Expressionist seeking your voice and how you found "that there was too much of a gap between what I wanted to say and the means I had to say it." This reminded me of the line, "I'm simply without the means to conduct my own prism" from Will Alexander's poetry collection Compression and Purity — which is what inspired me to write you this letter instead of some critique or some such. If you haven't yet, you should read Alexander's book. You'd like it.
Pulling inspiration from sources like Basquiat, David Hammons, Adrian Piper, Jasper Johns, and Martin Puryear, you began to make literary-based pieces where text is the primary — but not the only — means of communicating your newfound voice. And this, I confess, is where I got all messed up.
Take your dreambook series. As a viewer of painted text, I took it as a given that everyone knew what a dreambook was. That everyone knew what those three stenciled numbers in the middle of each piece meant. I thought everyone knew that you were preserving a magical artifact, and lucky magic at that. Only you knew better. You knew that everyone did not know dreambooks, or magic numbers — and where better to preserve this occult knowledge than in a museum of modern art? You understand curatorial expression, that how and where you say it is just as important as the saying itself. You have created literary-based multimedia narratives. I didn't see this until AMERICA, and for this, I apologize.
I also apologize for what I can say, in hindsight, was a once-over of many of my favorite text pieces. In my defense, I didn't get the opportunity to study your work in such great detail as the lush and plentiful plates in AMERICA have allowed me. Perhaps if I had, I wouldn't be feeling so bad right now. I was so taken by the passages you chose from Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Richard Pryor that I seemingly glossed over the statements the paintings themselves were making.
In one of my favorites, the words, "I'm Turning Into A Specter Before Your Very Eyes and I'm Going to Haunt You," are painted in bold black stencil that starts at the very top of a large white canvas. And as the phrase repeats again and again, the letters begin to merge and darken, so by the bottom of the piece the letters are so thick, smeared, and obscured that all that remains is the intent of words, the feeling behind them. The effect is eerie and liberating at the same time. Okwui Enwezor's essay "Text, Subtext, Intertext: Painting Language and Signifying in the Work of Glenn Ligon" shed much light on that.
I guess because of your dry wit and wry observations, I have not given you your "teeth." Your take on runaway slave posters, placing yourself as described by friends and associates as the runaway, or your tribute to Henry "Box" Brown, the man who mailed himself to freedom, have intrigued me. But it was in the interview with Thelma Golden, where you mention that quoting Richard Pryor was scary, that I found my missing piece. There is something in the way that I laugh when I listen to Pryor that is relieving. His every punch line is like a daredevil outrunning the hell-hounds once again. You're right, Pryor is scary.
For your part as the impetus to the "post-black" movement, for your haunting texts and textures, for deciding that AMERICA is the best theme for your retrospective — you scare me. I wrote this to say you scare me, Glenn Ligon. And I like it.
"'I am the carnivore/ The hounded night walker/ Searching for my wings scattered under glass."
So begins "Blood Penguin," the first poem in Will Alexander's latest collection, Compression & Purity (City Lights, 100 pages, $13.95). Alexander is an honest-and-for-true black surrealist. In 2011, he will have three books of poetry, one novel, one book of essays, and a book of philosophy coming out. Even if you've never heard his name before, you gotta admit that Will Alexander is a bad muthafuckah. "because of my leaning," he writes in the same poem, "I know the stark Egyptian soma/ Much as would the blinded cemetery scribe.'"
Invoking equal parts Homer and Ray Charles, Alexander excavates as only a black surrealist can — by revisiting and resurrecting cults and symbols of the past with new eyes while taking a biographic, confessional tone. Many of the pieces coalesce into declarations/definitions for an ever-shifting identity meeting the limits of contemporary classification.
"I am simply without means to conduct my own prism," Alexander writes in this opening poem. A lament of all artists and creative others who find themselves at this juncture where capability could possibly override access and capital, enabling us to manifest our truest visions.
In "The Deluge in Information," we once again meet this fluid identity. "I am more like a crow from crucial underwater fires," Alexander writes, "a crucial underwater crow/ Neither Chinese or Shinto/ But of the black dimensionality as hidden underwater mass."
Whereas Alexander's Sunrise in Armageddon (2006) was a whop over the head that only the most Joycean among us could dare to hold with a steady grip, Compression & Purity hovers over a series of consistent, graspable subjects throughout. The treatment of identity/biography in "Blood Penguin" and "Deluge" is fully unmasked in "On Anti-Biography," where Alexander makes the succinct, clear statement: "I am only concerned with simultaneity and height, with rays of monomial kindling, guiding the neocortex though ravens, into the ecstasy of x-rays and blackness."
This and the poem that follows, "My Interior Vita," ring like an Afrosurrealist's manifesto. When Alexander writes, "Yet above all, the earth being for me the specificity of Africa, as revealed by Diop, and Jackson, and Van Sertima, and its electrical scent in the writing of Damas. Because of this purview I have never drawn to provincial description, or to quiescent chemistry of condensed domestic horizon," he seems to be speaking for those who have rejected the quiet servitude that characterizes existing roles for African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, and queer folk. Even as he's speaking from a universal mind with a universal tongue, he always seems to land on the side of "otherness."
"Yet at a more ancient remove," he continues, "there exists the example of Nubia and Kemet unconcerned with life as secular confiscation, but with the unification of disciplines, such as astronomy, philosophy, law, as paths to the revelations of the self. Knowledge then, as alchemical operation, rather than an isolated expertise." Word.
Though Afrosurreal, Alexander is "Afro futurist" as well. "Alien Personas," the name of yet another strong poem in this collection, could easily be a rubric for the other driving force in this book. Beginning with the personification poem "Water On A New Mars" ("Being water/ I am the voltage of rocks/ Of algid suns in transition/ Flying across a scape/ Of bitter Martian dioxide"), Alexander reaches from the semi-utopian science fiction of Octavia Butler to dystopian Delanyian homage and the expansive cosmology of Sun Ra. What we find is an artist seeking a unified-all-inclusive art theory. A noble, if totally insane, gesture for a better and brighter tomorrow.
Compression and Purity works well as an introduction to Alexander's black surrealist oeuvre while still engaging and challenging his longtime readers. Though emotionally cold and detached, the poems more than make up for it with a genuine love of language and its power to effect change.
D. Scot Miller
Having uprooted from his native Atlanta to chase his musical dreams in L.A., Cody ChestnuTT and his band, the Crosswalk, landed a deal with Hollywood Records and got as far as recording and mixing a debut album, Venus Loves a Melody, before things went south. In 2002, ChestnuTT took his bass, drum machine, keyboard, guitar, organ, microphone, and headphones into his bedroom and single-handedly crafted his debut album, The Headphone Masterpiece (Ready Set Go). The 99-minute double CD contained 39 songs that ranged from Southern-fried rock to hip-hop, and was laced with enough dastardly and divine deeds to provoke any listener. All of it was written, produced, and performed by ChesnuTT on his four-track cassette recorder.
The success of the album is evident in how it permeated the American fabric. ChestnuTT's fame soared when Grammy Award-winning band the Roots decided to cover his song "The Seed" for its 2002 album Phrenology, with ChestnuTT on guitar and vocals. The video for "The Seed (2.0)" was nominated for an MTV Video Music Award and an MTV 2 Award. The Headphone Masterpiece was nominated for the Shortlist Music Prize in 2003. ChesnuTT's music figured in Miranda July's Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005), and his performance in the Dave Chappelle movie Block Party (2005) was a throwback to the days of Wattstax. Thom Yorke of Radiohead considers ChesnuTT a musical genius, and the opening riff to Headphone Masterpiece's "Look Good In Leather" has become a ubiquitous commercial ditty.
Though ChesnuTT continued to tour and release singles, it wasn't until his 2010 reemergence project, the six-track EP Black Skin No Value (Vibration Vineyard), that he truly returned, brandishing a lyrical approach that had evolved beyond the more "profane" content of Masterpiece. In his words, "the EP was a social commentary rooted in spiritual and soul traditions." Due later this year, his next album, Landing On a Hundred, promises to be as passionate and powerful as the rest of his work. On the eve of a show at Yoshi's, I caught up with him.
DsM: Why did you title your EP Black Skin No Value?
Cody ChesnuTT: I wanted to form something that was ironic. To blend all I think could be a literal application to what I feel is going on. We're facing a low perception of self-worth in the community — from media, the justice system, and so many different things — and at the same time the content of the body of work itself is in stark contrast. We have to recognize that there's value in acknowledging or addressing the issue. Off the top, it was an ironic approach to deal with what I feel is a crisis in the community.
DsM: Although there's community focus in the album, most of the songs seem intimate.
CC: Yeah, it's straightforward. I wanted to take a sound-bite songwriting approach. Straight to the point, to cut through all the noise we're hearing in the media right now. Something that awakens the spirit in some way, or opens chakras that make sure you're really paying attention to what we're facing right now.
DsM: Somewhere between rock, funk, folk, soul, hip-hop, and experimental sounds, The Headphone Masterpiece and its success left you in an interesting position in the world of music. I know you didn't cultivate this crossroad or gray area, so how do you work within it?
CC: I don't think about it. I just create. I do know that the last experience put me in a position where I had some advantages as an artist that gave me room to do what I wanted to do. That's the beauty of my career — it set me up to go either way. Gave me the freedom to create whatever I wanted to create. What's your take on it?
DsM: In The Headphone Masterpiece you're able to show so many sides in an industry that demands two-dimensionality. You go from "Serve This Royalty" to "Smoke and Love," then you write "Bitch, I'm Broke" and throw in a lullaby to your son. You're showing yourself as a fully-formed human being. I feel that kind of complexity confuses the machine.
CC: I think that is to my advantage. I was hoping, and still hope, that it will inspire other people to look at the humanity of it all. To not be so focused on sure-thing in-the-box marketing. I think exposing the range of human emotion makes the landscape much more interesting. Not to get too deep off into the philosophical aspects of creativity, but I'm reading a piece on Nietzsche's self-criticism and The Birth of Tragedy, and [Nietzsche is] saying that after the first three Greek tragedies, there were no more to create — the rest are just copies. That's why we need to expose the range and bring in new content, because, in my opinion, certain subject matter has been exhausted. There's more to explore within the spirit. It's what drives me to do what I do.
DsM: What can we expect from your show?
CC I'm playing all new material with a 10-piece band. I'm really interested into tapping into that root soul music. The kind of music that heals, the kind that touches. It's what I want to feel and hear right now. And there seems to be a consensus that people really want something a little more substantive, closer to that feeling that they had when they were growing up. Right now is an interesting time to bring back that healing vibration, that element. I'm not the only one doing it. I just want to contribute to what I think is a renaissance, a resurgence, a restoration, so to speak, of soul. So much of the soul has been sapped out of our music.
D. Scot Miller for firstname.lastname@example.org
MUSIC In his 1963 essay "Jazz and the White Critic," Amiri Baraka (then Leroi Jones) writes, "The New Thing, as recent jazz is called, is a reaction to the hard bop-funk-groove-soul camp, which itself came into being in protest against the squelching of most of the blues elements in cool and progressive jazz. Funk (groove, soul) has become as formal and clichéd as cool or swing, and opportunities for imaginative expression have dwindled almost to nothing."
In today's "almost to nothing" post-everything musical wasteland, there is a persistent dwindling yet again. So much musical freedom has given way to downloaded snippets and the time restrictions of YouTube videos. Even our old popular rebel friends, hip-hop and punk rock, have lost their teeth to corporate bling or easy-bake obscurity. Improvisation, experimentation, and innovation are still so hard to come by that I can't help but wonder — don't we need a new thing?
The "New Thing" that Baraka defends in his essay is now the mainstay of a modern, and still thriving, jazz movement that included the likes of Coltrane and Eric Dolphy. Today you can find it in the sounds of musicians such as Ornette Coleman and Roscoe Mitchell.
In 1965, Mitchell helped found the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). His 1966 album Sound (Delmark) is heralded by many as a milestone that helped usher in "The New Thing." Along with Henry Threadgill, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, and others, Mitchell became a founding member of The Art Ensemble of Chicago in the late 1960s. He's since continued to explore the fringes of avant-garde jazz, noise, classical, folk, and world music to create hybrid compositions that mesmerize and provoke.
This week, on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, Yoshi's is inviting Mitchell to join Baraka, the author of more than 40 books, poet icon, revolutionary activist, and father of Afrosurreal Expressionism.
Baraka is renowned as the founder of the Black Arts Movement in Harlem in the 1960s, just as Mitchell is revered as the founder of the AACM in Chicago around the same time. Both men have a reputation for the type of work regimens and standards of excellence that produce results. Baraka is a master performer and reader. Mitchell is a master musician who, along with saxophone, plays clarinet, flute, piccolo, oboe, and many handmade "little instruments" that create ethereal, and eerily familiar, sounds. In short, having these two men on stage doing their thing is like having more than 100 years of the radical avant-garde blowing fire and ice in your face. You'll like it. Trust me.
The idea that American music never fully explored "The New Thing" when it emerged nearly 50 years ago is slowly coming to light, thanks to Soul Jazz's 2004 compilation New Thing! and a recent resurgence of interest in — and reissuing of — works by Sun Ra, Thelonious Monk, and George Lewis. It leaves me to wonder: is the old "New Thing" just the new "New Thing" we've been waiting for?
AMIRI BARAKA AND ROSCOE MITCHELL
Mon./17, 8 and 10 p.m., $12–$18
Yoshi's San Francisco
1330 Fillmore, SF