Showing posts with label Romanticism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Romanticism. Show all posts

Friday, May 8, 2020

Restless Wind

“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husband’s necks. Anything can happen.” A famous, oft-quoted passage from Raymond Chandler’s short story “Red Wind” (Dime Detective Magazine January, 1938), the Santa Ana winds typically portend the arrival of autumn in southern California. By describing the winds as “red,” Chandler invokes blood (as in Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, 1929), violence, and, inevitably I suppose, passion. But “red” can also refer to the atmosphere: the ambient temperature, in this case, hot. In her essay, “The Santa Ana,” published in August, 1967, Joan Didion cites the above passage by Chandler, choosing to elaborate on wind as “atmosphere,” or “mood,” rather than just air in motion:

The Santa Ana, which is named for one of the canyons it rushes through, is a foehn wind, like the foehn of Austria and Switzerland and the hamsin of Israel. There are a number of persistent malevolent winds, perhaps the best known of which are the mistral of France and the Mediterranean sirocco, but a foehn wind has distinct characteristics: it occurs on the leeward slope of a mountain range and, although the air begins as a cold mass, it is warmed as it comes down the mountain and appears finally as a hot dry wind. Whenever and wherever foehn blows, doctors hear about headaches and nausea and allergies, about “nervousness,” about “depression.”

The Santa Ana wind is an inexorable force, unstoppable, merciless, disturbing the atmosphere and consequently the environment, impacting human behavior as well as health and well-being. Both Chandler and Didion resort to mythological thinking (“folk wisdom”) to understand the Santa Ana wind. It is an evil wind, a wind-spirit sent by an illness-causing demon, one of those ancient, malevolent winds that were believed to bring sickness and death. We humans are at its mercy. “[T]he violence and unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.” Wind is at the root of all illness and misfortune, capable even of precipitating existential dread. Of the Anemoi, the four wind gods of Greek mythology, Notus (South Wind) would send a wind that rose after midsummer, a scorching wind that would burn the crops and choke men with dust. (Other of the Anemoi were a bit more congenial.)

The wind of song is seldom if ever just air in motion, but Romantically conceived, Romantic in its Coleridgian form: “we receive but what we give,/And in our life alone does Nature live” (Dejection: An Ode). The wind is a positive or negative force based on what we attribute to it. And, alas, when asked a question, the restless wind never answers:

And would we aught behold, of higher worth,
Than that inanimate cold world allowed
To the poor loveless ever-anxious crowd,
Ah! from the soul itself must issue forth
A light, a glory, a fair luminous cloud
Enveloping the Earth—
And from the soul itself must there be sent
A sweet and potent voice, of its own birth,
Of all sweet sounds the life and element!

A Few Songs About the Ever-Changing Wind:
John Anderson – Seminole Wind
The Association – Windy
Billy Bragg & Wilco – Black Wind Blowing
Patsy Cline – The Wayward Wind
King Crimson – I Talk to the Wind
Christopher Cross – Ride Like the Wind
Donovan – Catch the Wind
Steve Goodman – Santa Ana Winds
Jimi Hendrix – The Wind Cries Mary
Elton John – Candle in the Wind
Kansas – Dust in the Wind
The Kingston Trio – They Call the Wind Maria
McCoy Tyner – Fly With the Wind
Peter, Paul & Mary – Blowin’ in the Wind
Chris Rea – Windy Town
Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band – Against the Wind
Rod Stewart – Mandolin Wind
Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention – Any Way the Wind Blows
Warren Zevon – Hasten Down the Wind

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Song Of The Vipers

In Chapter 2 (“The Rise of Individualism and the Jazz Solo”) of James Lincoln Collier’s book, Jazz: The American Theme Song (1993), Collier discusses how the forces of modernism enabled the transformation of jazz bands from ensembles to vehicles for soloists. Modernism privileged the individual, championing the virtues of “individualism.” It valued “freedom of the spirit, the virtues of primitivism, belief in living spontaneously . . . and . . . individual expression” (44). Adherence to these values led some to refuse to read, study, or rehearse music, “for fear that a conscious knowing of what they were doing will inhibit spontaneity and the free flow of feeling” (45). However, if modernism privileged freedom of the spirit, primitivism, and spontaneity (the latter expressed in the form of the improvised jazz solo), modernism also was a consequence of the so-called “machine age,” which valued predictability rather than spontaneity, the planned rather than the improvised, and interchangeability (replaceability) rather than individuality.

It’s possible — to theorize a little — that drug use became a fixture of early jazz (sub)culture as a reaction against modernism, that is, the machine age that was dominated by spirit-crushing, that is, mindless and unfulfilling, labor. I’m aware that what was called Romanticism in the nineteenth century was called “Modernism” in the twentieth; drug addiction (such as Charlie Parker’s), as a form of self-destruction, conforms to the Romantic myth of early death as a sign of heightened sensitivity and consciousness. Yet it is also true that the early “drug subcultures” arose in Paris in the early modernist period, the city to which the mercurial Sidney Bechet was drawn in the early 1920s, to the detriment of his recording career in the United States. Among the first of the Parisian drug subcultures (or at least one of the most famous) was the Club des Haschischins, which flourished in Paris in the 1840s and ‘50s. Its members included Charles Baudelaire, Alexander Dumas, Gerald de Nerval, and Théophile Gautier. In the mid-twentieth century, writers such as William Burroughs and Bryon Gysin revived the myth of the “Hashishin” or “Assassins” — a secret group of drug users at odds with the material culture in which they lived — as a way of conceptualizing the modern “drug subculture” or so-called “drug underground.” The important point is to notice the link between esotericism and the individual’s need for a quasi-religious transcendence that can occur only with the secrecy of ritual. “The structure of modern life tends to eliminate possibilities of radical change,” Luigi Zola astutely notes, which is why secret or esoteric societies hold such imaginative power for individuals in modern desacralized urban society (see Mike Jay, Ed., Artificial Paradises 367). Mike Jay has observed that drug subcultures “share many of the underlying dynamics with initiatory secret societies” (Artificial Paradises 366). Such occult or secret societies are premised on initiation ceremonies  (employing drugs) allowing individuals access to a higher state of being — what is meant by “high” in the first place. The French expression for being high — “il plane” — expresses the meaning of being high as being metaphorically elevated to a different plane, or level of conscious awareness. The urban jazz subculture, in turn, shared many of the features of a secret society (exclusive membership). “Speaking of 1931,” Louis Armstrong wrote in “Tight Like That Gage,” “we did call ourselves Vipers, which could have been anybody from all walks of life that smoked and respected gage. That was our cute little name for marijuana, and it was a misdemeanor in those days.”

Coupled with what Ted Gioia has called “the primitivist myth” (The Imperfect Art, 1988) that has informed much of the early critical writing about jazz, drug use (or perhaps excessive drug use, addiction) became the imprimatur of authenticity—the positive indication of tortured artistic genius.