Songs I Like #8: King Tubby, “Hijack the Barber”

I started this during a music-writing activity I did during the July swelter with my students at King County Jail.

These last couple weeks have been so steady-hot that I’ve had to cultivate the art of slow: slow moving, slow eating, slow love and slow days so I can (hopefully) not break that first sweat; club soda with lime, strawberries, rose wine, frozen coconut bars, and, finally, dub reggae.

I’m probably one of the only non-stoned people in Seattle to love dub–the languorous, liquid species of instrumental reggae that cuts the vocals into echoing shreds, turns the horns into punctuation, and soaks the drum accents until they sound like they were played in a cathedral, adding a third dimension to the music and making its tricky editing sound sensual, and above all easy. In a dub track, only the bass remains untouched, the song’s heartbeat and soul, and I have a subwoofer that turns the bass into a kind of heavy massage.

Dub was the only music my dad forbade; he forgave Suicide Machines screaming “I don’t give a shit about you stupid motherfuckers!” and Sublime’s porn samples and Snoop Dogg and Dre spelling out their revenge on Luke, but when I put on Lee Perry’s Arkology box, he said, “God, please turn off that mind-rotting stuff!” Up to my room with it I’d slink. But now, I think even he’d agree that it’s just too damn hot for verses and choruses.

One day I’ll convince Cait that we need to put a $1,000 stereo into the $2,000 Camry we share with our housemate, but until then, I can get rattled and stretched and beaten by my dub LPs only at home on my couch, letting our ceiling fan stir my hair, letting the music accent the dreaminess and dusty heat of these summer days.

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New Publication: Returning to the Death of God Theologians

The editors at Young Adult Catholics have published a three-part essay of mine on encountering the Death of God theologians. Is the transcendent real? Have we forgotten it? Is it being withheld from us? Have we outgrown it? Here’s the piece: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

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New Publication: Review of Erica Mena and Robert Fernandez

Hey folks, new review of Erica Mena’s Featherbone (Ricochet) and Robert Fernandez’s Pink Reef (Canarium) up this morning at Jacket2.

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New Publication: on Corina Copp and Ben Fama

Hey folks— my review of Corina Copp’s The Green Ray and Ben Fama’s Fantasy is up now in the new Kenyon Review Online. Enjoy!

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A Premature Eulogy for Robert Christgau

Robert Christgau isn’t dead. He slips on his orthotics and goes to shows; he listens closely to many hundreds of new records a year and writes beautifully about dozens of them. I don’t want to wait until the 75-year-old rock critic kicks the bucket to consider his virtues and talk about how much I love him.

Christgau at home. Image lifted from Brooklyn Magazine profile "The Dean's List"

Christgau at home. Image lifted from Brooklyn Magazine profile “The Dean’s List”

Christgau’s lifelong affection for the rock and roll’s collective cultural appeal, physical pleasure, and black-led but deeply integrated racial history has made him prickly toward those who apply high-art ambitions to the genre. It’s also made him unusually sensitive, as white critics go, to the ways that race and racism play out in rock and roll.

As early as 1967, mainstream tastemakers began to embrace the more ambitious white West Coast and English rockers as “geniuses” making “art” in the mixed idiom of rock and roll, conferring a cultural legitimacy (and a European Modernist heritage) on their cryptic lyrics and heady, baroque arrangements. This legitimacy would long elude, say, black geniuses in the rock and roll tradition, from James Brown to Holland-Dozier-Holland. Surveying the white-dominated, “forward-thinking” scene at that year’s Monterey Pop Festival, Christgau noted that he didn’t see anyone there who felt their music had a kinship “with, say, Martha and the Vandellas.” As rock became “art,” with the racial baggage this implied, Christgau stuck with his own sense of pleasure as a critic, refusing to take surface opacity for depth.

And as recently as last year, he noted that the much-maligned hit-factory style currently dominating pop—where beatmakers shop their rhythms to producers who match those backing tracks to a series of hookwriters and then to a singer—had at last undone the Eurocentric tradition of songwriting credits (and royalties) being divided between the lyricist and melodist. For decades, the rhythmmakers—the crew that carries the song’s heartbeat, the people who make a good tune a hit—being consigned only to per-session payment, or at best a small slice of royalties. Now, thanks to the hit factory, they’re the first ones getting paid.

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1978. Lifted from Pacifica’s website: http://www.scpr.org/

He has the kind of beautifully subtle distinction in his listening that comes from paying close attention to his own sense of pleasure ahead of—and sometimes against—critical chatter. His acuteness means he can find things to admire and enjoy even in records that make him uneasy or that he’s inclined to strongly dislike. He’s not afraid to speak in moral terms about records he finds revolting. Plus, of course, his writing’s polish and concision means he can say/evoke/riff on/crack wise about a lot in very few words. It remains damn refreshing to read criticism that (to echo a formulation from writer Carl Wilson) works hard to locate for whom, to whom, and by what channels a work of art speaks: Christgau’s criticism is social, free of bohemian chauvinism. It’s also refreshing that, though Christgau has zero interest in making himself like something, he’s willing to ask himself what it’s like for him to like something, and share the fruits of this question with his readers.

(This is not to cover up some obnoxious moments in his writing—at one point referring to Hendrix, an artist he adored, as a “psychedelic Uncle Tom”; making a nasty sexist quip about the Donnas; chastising Nas and Damian Marley’s critical Afrocentrism by informing them that critical dissent is protected thanks only to the European Enlightenment. And, of course, sometimes I find his reviews reactionary or misguided or etc. He’s written a lot.)

And then, of course, there are the fruits of his work. Through his inimitable and seemingly inexhaustible Consumer Guide (14,000 reviews there to browse), I’ve discovered easily a hundred completely-new-to-me-at-the-time records I now adore. (Surely I’m not the only one to trawl Spotify with his A-pluses in a separate tab?) This spring alone I’m getting to know Wussy’s Funeral Songs, Kate & Anna McGarrigle’s Tell My Sister rarities collection, the Three Tenors of Soul’s All the Way from Philadelphia, Sly & Robbie Present Taxi, Sam Mangwana’s Maria Tebbo twofer, Amy LaVere’s Hallelujah I’m a Dreamer, and Ornette Coleman’s Of Human Feelings. He hates metal; he’s grossed out by most jazz fusion; he detests prog rock. But he’ll listen attentively to it three times before he tells you so.

Christgau, I look forward to years of not-having-to-miss-you-yet.

Love

JAT

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New Poems in The Stockholm Review of Literature

A batch of my poems are online now in the decentered and uncanny journal The Stockholm Review of Literature. Much gratitude to the editors. (While you’re there, please also discover and adore Andy Stallings’ excerpts from his book-length sequence Paradise.)

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Patrice Beck, 1946-2016

Hey friends and curious strangers, just a brief note to say that my mom, a dear ardent difficult compassionate and much-beloved individual, died suddenly this week. Been much supported in all the numbing practicalities of death (insurance paperwork, event planning), and in the intense oceanic movements of grief, by my fierce and loving community.

My mom taught me to take the struggle for human dignity and liberation absolutely personally; she also treasured her relationship with God through a deep anti-authoritarian streak that made her a restless member of any faith community. She liked good food and booze both fancy and cheap, and experienced a somatic, overmastering pleasure in the music she loved (New Orleans R&B, honky-tonk, jazz, zydeco, Los Lobos, Stevie Wonder, Cuban son).

Something from Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss, a book she read in the last year of her life: “Life is not an error, even when it is. That is to say, whatever faith you emerge with at the end of your life is going to be not simply affected by that life but intimately dependent on it, for faith in God is, in the deepest sense, faith in life—which means that even the staunchest life of faith is a life of great change.” My heart goes out toward someone whose changes are done.

Jay_198206_Mom

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