A while back I was walking with Long Tom, down in his neck of the woods, Durham, North Carolina, to be precise, the treed neighborhood he'd come back to out of the woods, not far from Duke, and we were talking about our college days back in the late sixties and early seventies, when the badges you wore on campus were so different than the ones the kids wear now. "No shite, Sherlock, forty years is two effin generations ago."
Back then, a book like V. or later, Gravity's Rainbow, could be a badge. Something you had to at least know about, or carry around campus, even if you were never gonna read it. The Beats were on the wane, Tolkien was too juvenile, and Vonnegut was too easy. Pynchon was an important marker, like Dylan or psilocybin. Now I suppose it's Flip Video or an unlocked iPhone. No way is it a book. And it wasn't a way of knowing, because the satisfaction came from showing off your references, even if you didn't fully comprehend what they referred to.
So one day you went into the city to see Anthony Braxton blow on his saxophone, and create something noisy, intellectual, and textural at the same time, playing with Barry Altschul, Dave Holland and Chick Corea, the pieces running into each other, indistinguishable really, as individual numbers, and yet, every six, seven minutes or so, all four musicians would be doing something that sounded like they'd been playing together the whole time and it was very exciting. That merge. Plus a friend of a friend was taking lessons with Barry, who would frequently disappear into his big drum kit, not keeping time so much as altering it, and that made it even more exciting. It was another thing we could refer to.
It was especially exciting if you were a white, middle-class boy in the throes of an attempt to gain real knowledge, of the Anthony Braxton kind, combining virtuosity, gamesmanship, a yearning to get beyond abstraction, and a loud showing off. Seeing how far he could take angularity and bend it into circularity. This was a peculiar kind of knowledge, useful only if you were really into music, way past post-bop, into free jazz. Which you dug unfeignedly. But you also needed a badge to show your membership in that community of listeners who were into something avant-garde, something real. As opposed to merely pop, let's say. Not everyone would follow you to Braxton, but that was okay, it was just for initiates anyway, meaning us.
If you were white and middle class, you needed other markers of authenticity. That was a big thing. You needed to know the blues, and be able to make fine distinctions between various strains of it. There was Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and James Cotton, and Buddy Guy, and Muddy Waters. There was B. B. King in Central Park and he played the wrong notes sometimes and just went right on, so you learned that the blues made everything alright, even wrong notes. He was big and blubbery and sweated through a set that made people effin cry, even as they gyrated. You wouldn't think it now, seeing him sitting down, diabetic and almost out of gas, hardly anything left left of the legend, no matter how much he deserves that big smile. But there was a time he shouted the blues and stroked his Lucille and didn't give a shite. That meant a lot, that was the kind of knowledge you were after. The blues sounded good and it was easy to like. It wasn't hard to get, like Braxton. Braxton was a badge of a different order.
Take literature. You wanted to read and write straightforward, square sentences, and instead you went for the obscure looping prolix stuff instead, drunk on words. And sense? Hell, sense was just a by-product of sound. It was the voice that had to be genuine, that had to take risks. If the voice seduced the ear, the mind would follow. It helped to be musical, didn't it? Because somebody who was into literature told you that you had to read Finnegans Wake out loud to get the gist of it. To hear the puns. Then there was Kerouac and his buddies declaiming madly, along with some cat in a hot, dark room playing the bongos. Now that used to be hip, but it was passé. Like Last Exit to Brooklyn or William Burroughs. They were already old. Though they would come back again and again.
So now I go to a Dylan concert and the kids are crowding the stage, even though the old guy is looking like Vincent Price under that hat. He and his band still cut it up there, though. I just wonder if the kids are hearing what I'm hearing. And now here's Pynchon, in his seventies, writing about the very era Tom and I were talking about, another baggy book filled with those bloody awful puns of his. And the kids are looking forward to it. They're still reading this guy, even if they're not carrying his books around campus. Amazing. Maybe he's free of being anybody's badge. Now he can just riff like an old jazzman taking apart a standard, something like My Foolish Heart, let's say, and impressing the girls with a couple of long runs up and down the scale. "Look, sis, the old cat's still got lungs."
Yeah, and now Benny Profane is a porn director, and Pynchon's L. A. is farther from us than Chandler's L. A. was from him. Who knows, poot, as long as the kids are still reading him, maybe it'll all come back some day, in some freaky disguise. Whaddya think?