JAZZ ISN’T DEAD, IT JUST SMELLS FUNNY
The quote belongs to Frank Zappa, and the reason I thought of it was I was thinking of jazz, and the reason I was thinking of jazz was because I was thinking about improvisation, and that in turn was because I have NO IDEA what I’m going to write. None. I have two interview pieces in the works – I like talking to other people and watching what emerges when all you do is listen – and I have the “backwards” interview with Sam Davies wherein he asks me questions. But Sam’s questions are so searching I won’t know what to do with my answers until I actually compile them. It might be best as a magazine piece; we’ll see.
One thing I’ve noticed about this blog page is, the more I stir the pot the more views I get, whereas my more pensive (or “literary”) pieces are less visited. That makes me sad, in fact. I mean, I have views obviously, and it’s sort of fun to just spew them with no editorial mitigation, and it’s great when y’all read them and who knows, you might even rearrange a little mental furniture afterwards. It’s just that I recoil whenever I start to feel the stale breath of obsession, even if wine’s a relatively fine thing to be obsessed about. All this mask wearing gives us trench-breath when we can’t exhale into an open atmosphere. And I find that wine, too, grows stale if we’re too feverishly pressed up against it without opening the windows to let the rest of life blow in.
So my little dream-pieces – of which my favorite to date is “Alone At The Table” – are (among other things) a reminder that wine is a jewel best appreciated in a larger setting of what we fancifully call “life.”
Here’s another thing that occurred to me one night during a wakeful half hour. There is a generation among us now who never lived a day in a pre-digital world. As we know. I had one of those little spools of thoughts that unfurls (if-this-then-that-and-if-that-then-another-thing….) and while these seem to make perfect sense at 2:14am, the daylight isn’t charitable to them. Still, these ideas don’t seem useless even now, and so I think I’ll riff on them, and if I lose the chord changes I’ll fake it until I find my way back – if I do. Bearing in mind that these observations have not been vetted:
For persons-of-the-digital, information is blasting at them from an incomprehensibly wide universe of sources. Right? It’s a truism. But what is maybe missing are maps by which to navigate all that input, and gatekeepers to help a person discern what information is salient and trustworthy, and what is marginal, tendentious, inaccurate or ill-informed. Even if such gatekeepers do exist, we still don’t have maps by which to find our ways to them. It’s all a chaos and a glom. And if those things are true (or true enough) then it stands to reason that people who grew up in this world will have different experiences of mind than we older people do.
We had fewer sources of information because (in part) in order to actually be a source, one had to be qualified, and then you needed institutions to confer those qualifications, and so there was a better chance – not perfect, just better – that your information arrived via people who knew what they were talking about. Even if I’m wrong about all this, even if there actually are gatekeepers, I doubt I am wrong about the essential changes to the very nature of cognition in our current era. Everything all the time whooshing at you means you’d need a highly disciplined and discerning mind to cope with it, let alone organize it, and that very quality of mind is weakened by the onslaught of sheer stuff. A mental diet of thought-Twinkies will send a person into a sugar shock of his basic human wits.
Without gatekeepers, we lose two crucial things: standards, and organization. Without standards we lose hierarchies, and without hierarchies we shrink our sense of the great and profound into a wizened little atrophy of what used to be gratitude and wonder. If this strikes you as alarmist or else some sort of “OK-Boomer” bit of lamentation that things were better in our day, consider the following: The dissolving of the idea of FACTS into “Whatever is convenient for me to believe.” The dwindling respect for expertise. The fantasy that all ideas are valid. The determined shrinking from intellectual difficulty. The inability to cope with dialectical nuance. The diminution of attention spans. The coddled sensibility resulting from the privilege of everything right when you want it and the solipsism that springs from it.
I’m painting in big crude strokes, and I know that these big honking generalities can never be more than generally true, if they are true at all. But let’s look at wine through this prism, and see if the notes I’m blowing work with the chord changes. The simplest way in is via the whole “natural wine” thing, and while I think that world’s been sufficiently pummeled, it’s germane to my bigger theme.
We know that the natural wine sensibility was a wholesome and welcome rejection of the many unseemly contrivances whereby the hoary old tribes of pimped-up spoofulated leviathans strutted their doofus enhancements and hordes of credulous persons found such things desirable. (By the way, does this community of wines still exist? I honestly don’t pay attention. I would have thought it would shrink as the generation who adored it ages out and either grows bored with the crudeness of the come-on or else just doesn’t need to buy so much wine any more.) But once this worthy notion of recoil in the “natural” wine form got stuck in the maw of the modern thinker, it was immediately corrupted and diminished by the very inability to respect or even recognize standards – let alone such sentimentalities as “facts” or “proper use of language.”
Or, depressing to have to say, an inability to appreciate shades of quality, or even quality at all. I was struck by Alice Feiring’s courageous shot across the bow on this very point in a 2019 issue of World Of Fine Wine – though I wish more people had read it – but then Feiring and I are contemporaries, and we probably share some vestigial memory of the distinction between correct and incorrect. But when I hear my contemporaries slinging all manner of muck at these young tasters I need to pause and ask: Good as it feels to vent at their lack of taste, can we pause and consider that perhaps it isn’t their fault? No one taught them how to think! No one showed them a world of wine leading from the marginal to the worthy to the good to the great to the supernal, so they are missing the entire concept of a structure of values leading to greatness. How are these poor souls supposed to navigate their screwed up world? They have no tools. No maps, no teachers (because we’re wary of the very idea of “authority”) and so they fumble around making excuses for the occasional wine that smells like a sewer and tastes like sweaty bog shrimp, and when you remark that the wine is flawed, they are wont to reply “Who’s to say what’s a flaw?”
And then all you can do is to observe, ruefully, that in a world without standards one might just as well learn logic from Kellyanne Conway.
Again, overly broad stokes! And guilty of the same lack of nuance I’m decrying in my own text. So please yowl at me if you think I’m irresponsible or over-pessimistic. If I’m doing a “Get off my lawn” caricature, call my ass out. It could well be that thought – or “jazz” is actually not dead. But Zappa was right; it sure smells funny.