Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Summer Reading, Part Six

Dave Hickey: Air Guitar

A sweet collection of essays and rants, mostly on art and occasionally on music and basketball.

Some highlights:

"A Glass-Bottomed Cadillac," a post-mortem look at Hank Williams' life, told from the perspective of the man himself. Hickey opens the essay with Hank describing heaven to Bocephus -- and it ain't that great. It's "a big cinder-block structure like the education building of a Methodist church in suburban Indianapolis. It's got beige walls, terrazzo floors, acoustic-tile ceilings, and there isn't any TV or movies. There are just these big felt boards in all the rooms with cutouts of Cain and Abel, David and Bathsheba, and the New Orleans Saints stuck to them, so that you can kind of move around and tell stories if you want to." And, c'mon, that's brilliant. Indianapolis? Perfect. The big felt boards? Perfect. The slightly bizarre inclusion of the New Orleans Saints? Perfect.

"The Heresy of Zone Defense," a simultaneous celebration of basketball (and Dr. J, in particular) and an analysis of the role of rules in facilitating great art. Hickey claims that much joy (including the sort of jaw-dropping play that Dr. J made on a regular basis) is possible only through civilizing rules, rules that "translate the pain of violent conflict into the pleasures of disputation -- into the excitements of politics, the delights of rhetorical art, and competitive sport." Unfortunately, of course, the "liberating rule that civilized us yesterday will, almost inevitably, seek to govern us tomorrow, by suppressing both the pleasure and the disputation." (And the glory of that phrase lies, for me, in the fact that Hickey writes "liberating rule that civilized us" and not "civilizing rule that liberated us." But maybe that's just me).

And "The Delicacy of Rock and Roll," an argument for the primacy of be-bop and rock and roll in twentieth century art. Could the art of Pollock exist without Charlie Parker? Nope. But could be-bop exist without Stan Brakhage? Yep. Likewise, Andy Warhol requires rock, but rock doesn't need Warhol. And I'll need a long passage here, because it's so good, and I have to record a copy of it somewhere:

"Both ages [jazz and rock and roll] make art that succeeds by failing, but each exploits failure in different ways. Jazz presumes that it would be nice if the four of us -- simpatico dudes that we are -- while playing this complicated song together, might somehow be free and autonomous as well. Tragically, this never quite works out. At best, we can only be free one or two at a time -- while the other dudes hold onto the wire... Rock and roll, on the other hand, presumes that the four of us -- as damaged and anti-social as we are -- might possibly get it to-fucking-gether, man, and play this simple song. And play it right, okay? Just this once, in tune and on the beat. But we can't. The songs's too simple, and we're too complicated and too excited."

And that essay ends with this sentence, which, in whole or in part, since Dan Wineman first showed it to me in a copy of Art Issues sometime in 1995, has crept into more journal reflections that I care to add up, anytime I need a quick way to sum up whatever I've been ranting about: "Because in the twentieth century, that's all there is: jazz and rock and roll. The rest is term papers and advertising."

No comments: