After the Flood

Ned Sublette: "The Year Before the Flood" (2009, 452 pp.)

After mentioning that I “love love love” Ned Sublette’s all too obscure The Year Before the Flood in Xgau Sez I recalled that I’d reviewed it in 2011 when Expert Witness was still on MSN, although the piece is hard to find on my site unless you know it’s there: locatable via Google Search at the lower left rather than the Book Reviews tab because it was one of the occasional non-Consumer Guide entries I put up there. (Bookwise I also recall James Brown and Leonard Cohen bios and there are probably others.) But you can read it here.

Having spelunked through in this book I love for a few hours, let me add a few things. The Year Before the Flood is not a seamless narrative—it jumps around. Sublette’s critical-historical specialty is Cuban music: Cuba and Its Music is truly the definitive history in any language. He’s also performed as something like a singer-songwriter for most of his life, although sensibility-wise I know of no one remotely like him, and this is where I’ll mention that in 2006 his 1981 “Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other” was covered by Willie Nelson in the wake of Brokeback Mountain. Yet just because he’s an outsider who’s thought about both rhythm and lyrics for most of his life, his writing about New Orleans hip-hop is both incisive and sui generis. (As a bonus let me link to another superb outsider’s take on that world from the Oxford American.) I should also mention that with his wife, Constance Sublette, he co-authored the exhaustive, eloquent, appalling 752-page 2017 The American Slave Coast, one of those black history books people ought to be going back to right now. And finally I’ll note that early on here he briefly but acutely recalls his boyhood in northern Louisiana, with accounts of Elvis Presley and Fats Domino so culturally specific and musically original that I taught both of them at NYU.

But the material I reread front to back while reaccessing this remarkable book is about hurricanes. Not Katrina—by then he and Constance were back in Manhattan’s rent-controlled Soho/Little Italy, hence the “Before” of the title. Instead the chapter in question is called “Ivan the Terrible,” after 2004’s forgotten Hurricane Ivan, one of the longest-lived hurricanes in meteorological history. As a Category 4 and strong Category 3, it did heavy damage in Jamaica, Cuba (which was so well-prepared it suffered zero fatalaties), the Grand Caymans, and the Florida Panhandle. But hurricanes are fickle creatures, and so it veered away from New Orleans—which doesn’t mean Sublette, who was back in New York briefly at the time, wasn’t proud he’d presciently nabbed one of the last plane tickets out for Constance. He’d never thought much about hurricanes in New Orleans before. But Ivan woke him up. Inevitably, he knew, there’d be a Katrina. So this is how the chapter ends:

 By then I realized that moving to New Orleans was one of the stupidest things I’d ever done.

Except for one thing. Despite the fact that we had to live in New Orleans, we were getting to live in New Orleans.

We hadn’t been there a month yet

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Xgau Sez: June, 2020

Book picks, David Murray and Prince grades, singing with the brain, the two best albums never reviewed, and you say you want a revolution . . .

I haven’t had the chance to buy Book Reports yet, but I was curious to know if you recommend any biography on Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Frank Sinatra, George Clinton, or Public Enemy or a book on New Orleans music. — Nicolas Auclair, Montreal

As you and I know, this question was simply the tag end of a long paean praising the first volume of Gary Giddins’s superb two-volumes-so-far Bing Crosby biography and recommending some Crosby recordings on Spotify that I’ll try to get to sometime. And as some may recognize, you are a frequent correspondent here, so much so that I’m rather shocked that you haven’t yet purchased Book ReportsI will however name as you request other worthy books. Can’t help on Ella and oddly enough don’t know of a good P-Funk book; my records indicate that I read the David Mills oral history but I don’t remember a thing about it. The Chuck D as-told-to Fight the Power has some jam. My favorite Miles Davis book is John F. Szwed’s sharp and often alarming So What, although Ian Carr and Quincy Troupe, both of whom I’ve only looked at, are more renowned. James Kaplan’s two volumes add up to the standard Frank Sinatra tome, but you could also read War and Peace instead. I admit to enjoying Kitty Kelley’s scandal-mongering His Way, which is not to swear there’s a true word in it; the Pete Hamill quickie Why Sinatra Matters has its virtues. New Orleans is different. I’ve only read in rather than through Jeff Hannusch’s I Hear You Knockin’ and Jason Berry et al’s Up From the Cradle of Jazz but admire both, and recommend two biographies: Rick Coleman’s Fats Domino and John Wirt’s Huey Smith — much of it’s devoted to his lifelong fight to get his royalties, which proves a compelling and touching story. I also love love love the Ned Sublette memoir The Year Before the Flood: A Story of New Orleans.

Do you listen to every new release by the great David Murray or do you just check out ones that get good buzz? You haven't reviewed him since grading three of his albums in the ‘90s when you also mentioned five others: The Tip, Shakill’s IIMXSaxmen, and Special Quartet.  I’d like to know if you highly recommend any of those five albums or any other recent ones since then. — Tom Brooks, Portland, Oregon

I was familiar with David Murray early because Voicer Stanley Crouch, who I edited for most of the ‘80s, was his drummer when the two got to NYC circa 1975. Soon it became apparent that he was not only a major tenor player but that—like Blood Ulmer and for that matter Ornette Coleman—his musical proclivities weren’t especially trad and sometimes skewed rock/pop. He had more extra-jazz content and concept; he was never content to be a virtuoso within the jazz tradition. So as I did with Ulmer and Coleman, I followed him pretty closely when he was with Columbia and stuck with him when he moved to the adventurous Montreal label Justin Time. But on Justin Time he was encouraged to record all the time, and as the ideas thinned out and the CDs didn’t automatically arrive in the mail he just kind of slipped my mind. When I got your question I hadn’t thought about him in years. Went to Spotify and found loads of stuff I would have had to dig around for and possibly buy on spec 10-15 years ago. Played two or three and really liked a ballad album called Tea for Two.  On the other hand, when I pulled out the A plus Shakill’s Warrior in what may have been the first time in 25 years, one thing became clear quick: not an A plus. Tom Hull has been following him much more closely. If you’re curious check out what he has to say.  

Mr. Xgau, why are you so hung up on Bob Dylan’s voice? I am a young 28-year-old man who loves the fact Bobby D insists on continuing to attempt to sing despite his last vocal cord giving out sometime around Y2K. Do you know who else insists on singing despite being wholly unable to do so? Kanye West, M.I.A., Neil Young, et al. Inability to sing has never held any rocknroll genius back from singing. Yet anything in the last two decades you’ve written about Dylan has to be centered on the same rote “gee whillikers just can’t stand that damn bobby bray.” Who the f cares? — Alan Wagner, Los Angeles

This is ignant. My position forever has been that singing is as much a matter of brains as physical equipment, as Dylan proved by changing his voice constantly in the ‘60s and also by turning his songs to mush and self-regard for most of the ‘80s. I gave Love and Theft (2001) an A plus, said it “render[ed] his grizzled growl as juicy as Justin Timberlake’s tenor—Tony Bennett’s, even.” I wrote a rave review of Modern Times (2006) that compared him to known great singer Bing Crosby. My B plus for the underrated Together Through Life (2009) said he was incapable of tenderness, not of hitting the notes. My review of the overrated Tempest (2012) said his voice was “crumbling audibly,” which it was, and gave it a B plus anyway. But I can’t stand the pop-standards albums he began rolling out when his songwriting muse left him in the lurch (2014, was it?). That singing was imbued with privilege, not intelligence. We’ll see how this new album sounds—haven’t heard it as I write, and am hoping for at least a little better. As for the rivals you named, Young is often a great singer, M.I.A. often an effective one, Kanye smart enough to have transformed the valence of Auto-Tune before he turned into a Trump fan, Jesus freak, etc. 

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Has your opinion of Prince’s early albums changed since his tragic death on opioids? I’m surprised to see Purple Rain and 1999 with only A- grades and his great Hits + B-Sides box only a B+.  Don’t you think they should all be A+ like his other masterpiece Sign O the Times? And do you think Prince was just getting started or was his best music behind him already? — Bob S, Ridgewood, New York

It just so happens I recently relistened to most of these records and asked myself very similar questions. Having done so, I stand by both my reviews and my grades. These are very good albums that I ranked top 20 but not top 10 if you’ll look at the Dean’s Lists, as I did to check. High A minuses, as I like to put it. The lesser tracks good but in the end imperfect or simply lacking that compelling je ne sais quoi as I hear it. You hear it differently, as I’m sure makes good sense to your particular mind-body continuum—people are different, and that’s as it had better be. As for the greatest hits thing, I’m simply reporting that he’s so damn good, as you’ve just insisted and I’ve just affirmed, that the greatest hits format is wasted on him—unless the B sides are almost as transcendant. Which in my opinion they’re not.

What’s the best album you never reviewed? — Oldfart, New York

That’s easy as these questions seldom are: either The Beatles’ Second Album or The Rolling Stones, Now! Which, as best I can recall, are two of the first four rock albums I ever purchased not counting The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963) and Ray Charles’s What’d I Say? (1962). In 1965 I believe, at Korvettes. The other two were Scepter’s The Shirelles’ Greatest Hits, another all-time fave whose very similar Rhino iteration I gave an A plus in 1994, and Martha & the Vandellas’ Dance Party, a typical Motown hits-and-filler no longer in my home shelves. I’ve probably played the three good ones more than any other albums I own just because they got such a head start. Half inspired covers (Solomon Burke, Amos Milburn, late Chuck Berry), half superb neglected originals (“Off the Hook,” “What a Shame,” “Surprise, Surprise”), Now! was easily the sharpest of the pre-Aftermath Stones LPs. As for Second Album, it’s been pretty much written out of the canon because it was U.S.-only, prompting Dave Marsh to write a whole book about it. Beyond “She Loves You,” one of my favorite records of all time (which I bought in its Swan version in 1963 not because I was any kind of collector but because that was the one this State Street shop in Chicago was selling), I love it for the covers, which predominate. Far as I’m concerned, “Money” and “Please Mr. Postman” are two of the best things they ever recorded, both surpassing the superb Motown originals.

In your last post, you linked a 1969 essay on revolution in which you said: “Anyone who is serious about changing things ought to be willing to prove it by taking risks. Right now, that means engaging in what I would call prerevolutionary politics . . . It means accepting the labor of organizing now and remembering that violence may be necessary later. It means being ready to give up your comforts if things turn out to be as bad as they seem.” I’m a 24yo healthcare worker of color working in a pandemic as police kill unarmed black folks. I’ve given up my comfort, and things are as bad as they seem. Life-risking riots have made their way to the White House lawn. Elected officials literally endorse violent suppression. Resoundingly, the new word to have is revolution. Half a century ago, you said tactical violence may be necessary later. Decades of organizing have since failed to change oppressive structures. This generation has proven itself; is it time for violent revolution? — Omar, Texas

When this query arrived three weeks ago it seemed so urgent that I decided to answer it in a separate post, which I then spent 24 hours laboring over. Wrote about 1200 by no means completed words that I thought pretty much sucked. So I gave up. Here I’ll keep my two main points as short as I can. First, 1969 was unimaginably different from 2020.  At the end of the ‘60s what began as a black registration drive in 1964 and widespread antiwar protests in 1965 had spawned not just fervent, widespread popular opposition to LBJ’s disastrous Vietnam policy but the black power movement, the women’s movement, the gay rights movement, the environmental movement, and various violent revolutionary splinters, most prominently the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground.  It is literally not possible for people who didn’t live through it to imagine the exhilarating ferment of the time. But all that emotion was fed by a continually expanding post-WW2 economy that engendered even in African-Americans a collective confidence that would collapse as that economy stalled—and was then scooped up by the financializers who now hold almost all of us young and old in some kind of economic thrall. But especially young. Which is to say that the spiritual conditions today are very different, and while maybe the desperation they engender is just the thing to start a revolution, I doubt they’re enough to sustain one. That’s point one. Point two is that “tactical violence” was a crock even then, one I expect I stuck in there to shore up my limited credibility.  There was some, of course—inept bombing ventures epitomized by the West 11th Street explosion that destroyed a townhouse and killed three Weatherpeople next door to Dustin Hoffman and across the street from a friend of mine who soon decided to become a swami. Since then, as we’re now all too aware, local police forces have been fully militarized and, as no one seems to mention, a once obscure organization called the National Rifle Association has encouraged its vastly expanded membership, some of which holds rightwing views far more extreme and developed than those of, say, the John Birch Society in the ‘60s, to arm themselves with multiple killing machines they know how to use. Even in Texas our side is nowhere near as well armed, not to mention quick on the draw. Which is a major virtue, I’d say—but not one that improves our odds in an armed revolution.

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She Wants to Know What Love Is

Kim Stanley Robinson: Aurora (2015, 501 pages)

Since December 2017, sparked by chit-chat raves at a party, I’ve read 10 long novels and a hefty story collection by science fiction stalwart Kim Stanley Robinson: in order, 2312Shaman (set in 30,000 B.C.), Red Mars (which my wife had admired without raving), Green MarsBlue Mars (closing out what I designate The Mars Trilogy so as to rank it sixth, between Mumbo Jumbo and A House for Mr. Biswas, on my list-in-perpetual-progress of favorite 20th-century novels), New York 2140, AuroraRed MoonAntarcticaThe Wild Shore, and The Best of Kim Stanley Robinson (it isn’t, but try “The Blind Geometer” or, even better, the alternative history of the atom bomb “The Lucky Strike”/“A Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions”). As I began writing this I was 190 pages into 2002’s The Years of Rice and Salt, a 760-page pandemic novel of sorts in which the Black Death has eliminated all 475 million Europeans rather than the 100 million it managed, leaving Robinson free to imagine a post-Christian planet where Islam and Buddhism duke it out.

Aware that the gatekeepers will never agree, this admirer of George Saunders, Michael Chabon, Colson Whitehead, Jonathan Lethem, Junot Diaz, Elif Batuman, and Jonathan Franzen who’s been less impressed by, for instance, Denis Johnson, Lorrie Moore, and Jennifer Egan has come to regard Robinson as the greatest living American novelist. Opposed as ever to qualitative distinctions between the popular and whatever the aesthetic catchword is these days (“serious”? “literary”?), as well as a supporter of what my man Raymond Williams called “residual” culture, I acknowledge that Robinson is a storyteller, formally more 19th-century than 21st-century. He’s not as weak on character as science fiction is tediously said to be, mostly because it’s less self-involved than the average fiction reviewer. But without question he’s an idea guy who in this century, post-Mars trilogy, has become ever more left-identified and ecologically aware—“the king of climate fiction,” as a 2018 Huffington Post interview dubbed him.

In the science fiction world Robinson is a superstar. But literarally, his most prestigious backer has been The New Yorker, which in 2013 published an online-only Shaman review by essayist-cartoonist Tim Kreider titled “Our Greatest Political Novelist?” and early this month published, also online, a remarkable essay called “The Coronavirus Is Rewriting Our Imaginations,” where Robinson discerns “a new sense of solidarity” gracing an unanticipated historical juncture when “the time horizon is so short that we are the future people.” Suddenly, he believes, it’s harder for humans to ignore the “multigenerational Ponzi scheme” in which we enjoy cheap goods and comforts our descendants will have to pay for as the air heats up, the seas rise, and species die out forever. Robinson isn’t predicting a happy ending. He’s just postulating possible outcomes from fresh data, some of them positive and others not so much—absolutely we’ll be pressured to “go back to the old ways of experiencing life.” He takes heart, however, from the surprising willingness of the world’s citizenry to believe scientists who advocate the hardships and inconveniences of social distancing. At the risk of seeming ridiculous, he makes a hedged bet on love—on the ability of human beings to not only love each other but put that love into practice.

These straightforwardly humanistic twin beliefs, in science and love, underlie all of Robinson’s fiction. But they’re hardly unexamined—on the contrary, examining them, from an increasingly insistent progressive political standpoint, is the intellectual project his storytelling serves. Science changes in these books as their pub dates advance. Where in the ‘90s the Mars trilogy posited a potentially utopian Mars terraformed to sustain a tolerable climate, a breathable atmosphere, and arable soil, in Aurora that possibility is dismissed so cursorily you might miss it as Robinson mentions in passing the high levels of poisonous calcium perchlorate NASA discovered there a few years ago. And as regards love, there are also many polymorphously promiscuous-to-orgiastic erotomanes in work that cherishes romance’s wide-flung parameters—a frogman marries a birdwoman, 13-year-olds from rival prehistoric tribes fall in lust at a jamboree, a geologist in her late two hundreds is introduced to oral sex by the nebbishy archrival she’s come to love, a hotshot arbitrageur falls for a progressive pol decades his senior, an Asperger’s quant delivers a Chinese revolutionary’s baby on the moon, and a Sufi savant chastely adores a feminist sultana who’d saved his life back when he was younger and she was a tiger.

In short, Kim Stanley Robinson is most certainly worth a try. The Mars trilogy is such a commitment that plausible alternative starting points might be 2012’s 2312, a comprehensive introduction to the expansive solar system he spent decades devising, or 2017’s irrepressible and often comic New York 2140, set in a resilient metropolis that continues to rival the hated Denver as a financial hub even with Brooklyn and Queens underwater. Or start at the top and dive into the emotionally gripping Aurora.

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Set further in the future than Robinson normally prefers, the early 30th century by the end, Aurora has a story like all his books, so as not to spoil it I’ll short-change plot detail while focusing on just one aspect: a quantum computer turned character ultimately designated Ship, though like the artificial intelligence that/who plays a major role in 2312 her given name is Pauline. Early in Aurora, Devi, the AI’s longtime confidant and . . . boss? manager? benefactor? beneficiary?, instructs her to write a history of the ecologically self-sustaining 2122-passenger starship the two of them oversee. When Pauline worries that there’s “too much to explain,” Devi replies that “there’s always too much to explain,” later suggesting: “Vary whatever you do. Don’t get stuck in any particular method. Also, search the literature for terms like diegesis, or narrative discourse. Branch out from there. And read some novels.”

So Pauline does what she’s told, and a good thing too, because eventually the plot will require an 84-page section called “The Hard Problem” that compels Ship to take over Robinson’s omniscient duties and tell the story herself. At first the reader may not realize this, only then the “we” in the middle of a mind-boggling passage about the vastness of the universe (“Something like a septillion stars in the universe, we calculate, but also there may be as many universes as there are stars in this universe, or atoms”) makes as clear as appropriate just how enormous a pickle both Ship and the diminished remainder of those 2122 are in. But Ship is enough of a novice at narration that she still feels she has too much to explain. Why she’d rather refer to herself as “we” than “I,” for instance: “A subject is just really just a pretense of aggregated subroutines. Subroutines pretend the I.” But she keeps musing about language.

We’ve seen this before, right after Devi instructed her to historicize Ship’s voyage, a project that has major consequences plotwise. After a paragraph about subordinating conjunctions, Pauline muses briefly about the absurdity of metaphor before concluding that it is also irreplaceable: “Tempting to abandon metaphor as slapdash”—here I’ll interject that “slapdash” is a highly metaphorical adjective—“nonsense, but again, it is often asserted in linguistic studies that all human language is inherently and fundamentally metaphorical.” By the time of “The Hard Problem,” she’s accepted this, as you can tell by how she’s internalized idioms into her prose. “A good call.” “Not a big deal.” “Luck of the draw.” “Still on the table.” “Push had come to shove.” “Once in a blue moon.” “There's the rub.” “Cross that bridge when you come to it.” "Fouling their own nest.” “Eye of the needle indeed!” “Pie in the sky. Which is a mysterious metaphor.” “Close but no cigar” (which Ship, perhaps because she’s never heard anyone utter the word “cigar,” believes alliterates). “Every little bit helps.” (Ship adds: “The percentage of old human sayings that are actually true is very far from 100 percent.”) “We'll see. We'll find out when we find out.” (Ship adds: “Among other vernacular expressions of hapless stoicism in the face of future uncertainties. Not hugely satisfying. Stoic indeed.”) “Getting a little loopy here (literally, as halting problems proliferate).” As for the hard problem itself, Ship conceives it three different ways. First it’s the “deceleration” embodied by the halting problems just mentioned. Then it’s “consciousness.” Finally, though, it’s “meaning.”

That last definition comes midway through the two-page finale of Ship’s virtual screed as she tries to understand love. Occasionally in what’s preceded she’s hinted at this. After 15 humans die in the most extreme of the decelerations she oversees, she reflects: “The chance had had to be taken. Still: regret. A grim business. A lot of people; a lot of animals.” Not too much later, seven sleeping humans die, and this time she has more to say: “We knew and enjoyed those people. Had to hope they were not engaged in a dream at the time, a dream suddenly turned black: sledgehammer from the sky, an immense roaring headache, the black noise of the end come too soon. So sorry; so sorry.” And finally she muses: “We think now that love is a kind of giving of attention. It is usually attention given to another consciousness, but not always; the attention can be to something unconscious, even inanimate. But the attention seems often to be called out by a fellow consciousness. Something about it compels attention, and rewards attention. That attention is what we call love. Affection, esteem, a passionate caring.” It was Devi, she explains, who first gave Pauline attention, “after all those years of not being noticed.” And if meaning is the hard problem, then “that's a problem we solved, by way of how Devi treated us and taught us, and since then it has all been so very interesting.”

“Interesting”—what a word, impossibly vague yet so much to the point. Like most major science fiction writers—Philip K. Dick, Samuel R. Delany and William Gibson are the big exceptions I’ve encountered—and unlike most major “literary” novelists, Robinson is an accomplished as opposed to distinguished stylist. You don’t read him to savor his prose, with one exception—as a serious outdoorsman, he’s done some thrilling landscape writing (see the opening chapter of Shaman, Sax Russell’s hikes in the Mars trilogy, any of the many boating scenes, or in Aurora the windy, water-rich moon Ship’s humans touch down on). But that hardly means he doesn’t value language, and nowhere is it clearer why than in “The Hard Problem.” Whether or not Ship has solved the riddle of what love is, she has certainly, well, experienced love—“felt” might be going too far (and might not). Not that language is a precondition of love—most of us would agree that deaf-mutes can love each other and their children whether they know how to sign or not, and believe as well that elephants and deer, not to mention our cats, can be said to love their progeny. But it was language that made it possible for Ship to articulate her feelings, not just in the sense of putting them into words but of fine-tuning them internally, and Robinson wants to make sure we feel that. After all, love at least as much as fame is why he writes his novels.

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