Jazzman from the Past

Last Monday at Experimental Sound Studio, pianist Dave Bryant played a set and gave a talk about harmolodics (what Ornette Coleman called his way of composing). Dave played for a time in Coleman’s band and studied with him before that. But my connection to Dave isn’t musical. About 30 years ago, when I was still in high school, he was my manager at the Coolidge Corner Theatre.

At the movie theater, Dave was low-key almost to the point of sleepy. I didn’t know much about him until going to a gig of his at some little club in Somerville. Up on stage, leading his trio, Shock Exchange, the mellow, floppy haired guy I knew was transformed into a wild man. He beat the hell out of those keys. It was one of the first times I realized there could be a difference between how you act on a job and how you act when you do what you love. It was kind of like that thing Flaubert said, “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” 

I haven’t seen Dave since Coolidge days so when I saw his Chicago gig listed I made sure to be there. I even tracked down his website and wrote him an email, but I never heard back. There’s a good chance he had no memory of me. Lots of high school kids worked at the theater and his time there was obviously just a means to an end.

The music he played Monday wasn’t as raucous as the stuff I remembered but it had an intelligence and grace which only comes from doing something a very long time. The bassist and drummer who backed him were much younger but you could tell they had to work to keep up with him at times. After a short break he came back out and gave an hour-long talk about the music philosophy Coleman had taught him. A lot of the technical stuff went way over my head, but the stuff about wrestling with tradition and keeping engaged creatively in every waking moment definitely hit the mark.

Afterwards I thought about coming up and introducing myself but thought better of it. Even if he remembered me after a little prodding, what would be the point? To remind him of a time he had a shit day-job with a bunch of high schoolers? I was just happy to see he was still doing his thing all these years later.

Also: I sat through the horrendous new Bourne movie so you don’t have to.

The Incantations of Daniel Johnston

If you grew up in the ’80s and had any interest in punk or alternative music, you would’ve heard the songs of Daniel Johnston. They came on cassettes decorated with odd line drawings of frogs, eyeballs, and superheroes, with titles like “Hi, How Are You?” and “Yip Jump Music”. Bands like Yo La Tengo covered his songs and many others, like Kurt Cobain, became ardent fans. But what were we all so captivated by?

The Incantations of Daniel Johnston is a graphic novel with art by Ricardo Cavalo and words by Scott McClanahan which attempts a personal and idiosyncratic explanation. In his introduction, Cavalo writes that he admires Johnston’s ability to fight, as well as the sincerity and innocence in his work, and considers him a personal hero. Johnston’s fight is primarily with himself and his own demons so Cavalo’s brightly colored illustrations are full of people who appear to be turning themselves inside out. Eyeballs are a signature part of Johnston’s iconography, so there are eyes all over every page of this book. The effect is of a pulsing, overheated consciousness, always aware of the viewer’s presence, always trying desperately to hold it together.

In the original, Spanish version of this book, called El desorganismo de Daniel Johnston, Cavalo provided his own mostly straight-ahead biographical text. What the writer Scott McClanahan has provided for the new edition is a kind of prose poem on mental illness, fame, and the battle between good and evil. Rather than regurgitating the facts of Johnston’s life, McClanahan takes the man’s struggle and makes it his own.“Daniel went to the mental hospital and there wasn’t anything fun about it. It was just another prison like our minds.”

There’s always a danger when people glorify mental illness. When Daniel Johnston was embraced by the rock underground back in the ’80s, what they loved about him was his innocence and unvarnished honesty. But those raw, open emotions came with a psychic toll which wasn’t always acknowledged by his admirers. Johnston often went off his meds in order to be able to sing, but he would sometimes become violent afterwords. One of the strengths of Cavalo and McClanahan’s book is that it acknowledges the complicated and likely unresolvable relationship between genius and insanity.

As the book tracks the many ups and downs of Johnston’s life, the authors’ affection for the man is evident, but so is their knowledge that romanticizing his treacherous journey will lead to a false picture of a unique artist, who deserves his due, but not through rose-colored glasses. “It’s all a lie. There will be no happy endings waiting for any of us. There are only the stories we tell ourselves about shooting stars in the sky.”

But wait! I also wrote a review of Martin Seay’s great debut novel which takes place in three different Venices…Needless to say, I highly recommend you buy multiple copies of that and the Daniel Johnston book immediately!

San Marzano tomato seeds

A couple days before I left for Italy I went to Manny’s for a pastrami on rye. I’ve been going there for decades at this point and always get the same thing. Gino, the guy who makes those amazing pastrami sandwiches, has been there over thirty years. I took my parents there years ago and he still always asks after their well-being. When I told him I was headed to Italy to spend time with them, he asked that I send along his regards. I asked if he wanted me to bring anything back and he said San Marzano tomato seeds without missing a beat.

It took some doing but a worker of my folks’ hosts in Fiesole finally located a couple packages a day before I was to return home. Gino couldn’t believe it when I handed them over. He’s an avid gardener and these tomatoes allegedly make for the best sauce. It was good to’ve had an assignment while I was away and to’ve been able to accomplish it. It made the trip relate back to life at home, however tangentially. 

A couple months back I found two homemade driftwood-looking frames at a Goodwill in Wisconsin. I used one for a painting I’d done at the Skylark awhile back and offered it to the owners. On Thursday it was hung in the alcove by the entrance, right above the table where it was painted. Having a piece of mine as part of the permanent decor of that bar is an honor and makes me feel like I’ve contributed a bit to its history. Now when I go into work I’ll see it out of the corner of my eye and be reminded that I’ve been there long enough to become part of the scenery. This is the polar opposite of the dislocated feeling of travel. Unlike Italy, where driving my parents around and looking for tomato seeds made me feel useful, just walking through the door of the Skylark on a given evening is enough for me not to feel out of place.

—I reviewed a compelling Japanese film about sisters reckoning with their family history after their father’s death and a ridiculous HBO show about a kid who borrows his father’s cab, then gets accused of murder. Also: Here’s a sketch of director Todd Solondz during the Q & A for his great new film Weiner Dog at the Music Box on Saturday night.