more underground men in montreal: dany laferrière’s famous first novel

The narrator of How to Make Love To A Negro (Without Getting Tired), a young Haitian man, rents a seedy apartment in the Montreal slums. His shut-in roommate, a Muslim named Bouba, is an obsessive jazz fan. The two men spend their days listening to jazz classics, drinking wine, reading, discussing Kant and Freud, the Koran and Allah, or else busy themselves pursuing sex with young Canadian women they nickname Miz Literature, Miz Sophisticated, Miz Piggy, etc. The narrator wanders through Montreal and works on his novel—a bildungsroman he hopes will bring him fame—and a degree of fortune—while exposing the absurdity of the ideas and behaviour of those around him.

How to Make Love to a Negro without Getting Tired

By Dany Laferrière

Coach House Press, 1987

(trans. David Homel)







The Nigger Narcissus

I CAN’T believe it, this is the fifth time Bouba’s played that Charlie Parker record. He’s crazy about jazz, and this must be his Parker period. Last week I had Coltrane for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Now it’s Parker’s turn.

There’s only one good thing about this place: you can play Parker or Miles Davis or even a noisier cat like Archie Shepp at three o’clock in the morning (with walls as thin as onionskin paper) Without some idiot telling you to turn it down.

We’re suffocating in the summer heat, jammed in between the Fontaine de Johannie (a roach-ridden restaurant frequented by small-time hoods) and a minuscule topless bar, at 3670 rue St-Denis, right across from Cherrier. An abject one-and-a-half that the landlord palmed off on poor Bouba as a two-and-a-half for $120 a mouth. We’re up on the third floor. A narrow room cut lengthwise by a horrible Japanese screen decorated with enormous stylized birds. A fridge in a constant state of palpitation, as if we were holed up above some railroad station. Playboy bunnies thumbtacked to the wall that we had to take down when we got here to avoid the suicidal tenden-cies those things inevitably cause. A stove with elements as cold as a witch’s tit at forty below. And, extra added attraction, the Cross of Mount Royal framed in the window.

I sleep on a filthy bed and Bouba made himself a nest Oil the plucked couch Cull Of mountains and valleys. Bouba inhabits it fully. He drinks, reads, eats, meditates and fucks on it. He has married the hills and dales of this cotton-stuffed whore.

When we came into possession of this meager pigsty, Bouba settled on the couch with the collected works of Freud, an old dictionary with the letters A through D and part of E missing, and a torn and tattered copy of the Koran.

Superficially, Bouba spends all day doing nothing. In reality, lie is purifying the universe.

Sleep cures us of all physical impurities, mental illness and moral perversion. Between pages of the Koran. Bouba engages in sleep cures that can last up to three days. The Koran, in its infinite wisdom, states: “Every soul shall taste death. You shall receive your rewards only on the Day of Resurrection. Whoever is spared the fire of Hell and is admitted to Paradise shall surely gain his end; for the life of this world is nothing but a fleeting vanity.” (Sura III, 182.) The world can blow itself up if it wants to; Bouba is sleeping.

Sometimes his sleep is a, strident as Miles Davis’s trumpet, Bouba becomes closed upon himself, his face impenetrable, his knees folded under his chin. Other times I find him on his back, his arms forming a cross, his mouth opening onto a black hole, his toes pointed towards the ceiling. The Koran in all its magnanimity says: “You cause the night to pass into the clay, and the day into the night; YOU bring forth the living from the dead and the dead from the living. You give without stint to Whom You Will.” (Sura II, 26.) And so Bouba is aiming for a place at the right hand of Allah (may his holy name be praised).

CHARLIE PARKER tears through the night. A heavy, humid, Tristes Tropiques kind of night. jazz always makes me think of New Orleans, and that makes a Negro nostalgic.

Bouba is crashed out on the couch ill his usual position (lying on his left side, facing Mecca), sipping Shanghai lea and perusing a volume of Freud. Since Bouba is totally jazz-crazy, and since he recognizes only one guru (Allah is great and Freud is his prophet), it did not take him long to concoct a complex and sophisticated theory the long and short of which is that Sigmund Freud invented jazz.

“In what volume, Bouba?”

Totem and Taboo, man,”

Man. He actually calls me man.

“If Freud played jazz, for Christ’s sake, we would have known about it,” Bouba breathes in a mighty lungful of air. Which is what he does every time he deals with a non-believer, a Cartesian, a rationalist, a head-shrinker. The Koran says: “Wait, then, as they themselves are waiting.”

“You know,” Bouba finally intones, “you know that SF lived in New York.”

“Of course he did.”

“He Could have learned to play trumpet from any tubercular musician in Harlem.”

It’s possible.”

“Do you know what jazz is at least?”

“I can’t describe it, but I’d know what it is if I heard it.”

“Good.” Bouba says after a lengthy period of meditation, “listen to this then.”

Then I’m sucked in and swallowed, absorbed, osmosed, drunk, digested and chewed up by a flow of wild words, fantastic hallucinations with paranoid pronunciation, jolted by jazz impulses to the rhythm of Sura incantations—then I realize that Bouba is performing a syncopated, staccato reading of the unsuspecting pages 68 and 69 of Totem and Taboo.

“non stop ad libbing”—selections from kerouac’s san francisco blues



Jack Kerouac, Book of Blues
San Francisco Blues

In my system, the form of blues choruses is limited by the small page of the breastpocket notebook in which they are written, like the form of a set number of bars in a jazz blues chorus, and so sometimes the word-meaning can carry harmonically from one chorus into another, or not, just like the phrase-meaning can carry harmonically from one chorus to the other, or not, in jazz, so that, in these blues, as in jazz, the form is determined by Time, and by the musicians spontaneous phrasing & harmonizing with the beat of the time as it waves & waves on by in measured choruses.

It’s all gotta be non stop ad libbing within each chorus, or the gig is shot.
                                                                                                                —Jack Kerouac




I see the backs
Of old Men rolling
Slowly into black








Line faced mustached

Black men with turned back

Army weathered brownhats

Stomp on by with bags

Of burlap & rue

Talking to secret

Companions with long hair

In the sidewalk

On 3rd Street San Francisco

With the rain of exhaust

    Plicking in the mist

    You see in black

    Store doors—

    Petting trucks farting—

    Vastly city.








3rd St Market to Lease
Has a washed down tile

Tile entrance once white

   Now caked with gum
Of a thousand hundred feet
Feet of passers who

   Did not straight on

Bending to flap the time

Pap page in back

With smoke emanating

From their noses

But slowly like old

   Lantern jawed junkmen

   Hurrying with the lump

   Wondrous potato bag

     To the avenues of sunshine

     Came, bending to spit,

   & Shuffled awhile there.



 The rooftop of the beatup 
 On 3rd & Harrison 
 Has Belfast painted 
Black on yellow 

    On the side 
 the old Frisco wood is 
 shown with weatherbeaten

rainboards & a

washed out blue bottle

once painted for wild 

 commercial reasons by 

 an excited seltzerite 

    as firemen came last

afternoon & raised the

ladder to a fruitless 

 fire that was not there, 

 so, is Belfast singin 

   in this time



when brand’s forgotten 
taste washed in 
 rain the gullies broadened 

 & everybody gone

and acrobats of the 


    who dug bel fast 

    divers all 

   and the divers all dove




  little girls make 
  shadows on the 

  sidewalk shorter 

 than the shadow 

    of death 

       in this town—







Fat girls

In red coats

With flap white out shoes


monstrous soldiers

stalk at dawn

Looking for whores

And burning to eat up


Harried Mexican laborers

Become respectable

In San Francisco

Carrying newspapers

Of culture burden

And packages of need

Walk sadly reluctant


To work in dawn

Stalking with not care

In the feel of their stride

Touching to hide the sidewalk,

Blackshiny lastnight parlor

Shoes hitting the slippery

With hard slicky heels

To slide & Fall:

Breboac! Karrak!





Dumb kids with thick lips

And black skin

Carry paper bags


“Stop bothering the cat!”

His mother yelled at him

Yesterday and now

He goes to work

Down Third Street

In the milky dawn

Piano rolling over the hill

To the tune of the English

Fifers in some whiter mine,

`Brick a brack,

 Pliers on your back;

 Mick mack

 Kidneys in your back;  

   Bald boo!

 Oranges and you!

   Lick Lock

    The redfaced cock’





 Oi yal!

She yawns to lall

    La la—

 Me Loom—

      The weary gray hat

      Peacoat ex sailor

      Marining meekly

      Hands a poop a pocket



Oh     Mo     Sea!

    The long fat yellow

    Eternity cream

    Of the Third St Bus

    Roof swimming like

    A monosyllable

    Armored Monosaur

    Swimming in my Priomordial


      Of pain





Alas! Youth is worried,

Pa’s astray.

What to say

     To the well dressed ambassadors

     From death’s truth

     Pimplike, rich,

     In the morning slick;

     Or sad white caps

     Of snowy sea men

     In San Franciso

Gray streets

     Arm waving to walk

     The Harrison cross

        And earn later sunset







 Dig the sad old bum

No money

 Presuming to hit the store

And buy his cube of oleo

 For 8 cents

 So in cheap rooms

 At A M     3 30

 He can cough and groan

 In a white tile sink

 By his bed

 Which is used

 To run water in

 And stagger to

 In the reel of wake up

 Middle of the night

     Flophouse Nightmares—

     His death no blackern

     Mine, his Toast’s

     Just as well buttered

     And on the one side.





San Francisco is too sad
Time, I cant understand
Fog, shrouds the hills in

Makes unshod feet so cold

Fills black rooms with day

   Dayblack in the white windows

   And gloom in the pain of pianos:

Shadows in the jazz age

   Filing by; ladders of flappers

Painter’s white bucket

Funny 3 Stooge Comedies

And fuzzy headed Hero

Moofle Lip suck’t it all up

And wondered why

The milk & cream of heaven

Was writ in gold leaf

On a book – big eyes

For the world

The better to see—




And big lips for the word
And Buddhahood
And death.

   Touch the cup to these sad lips
Let the purple grape foam
In my gullet deep

   Spread saccharine

      And crimson carnadine

      In my vine of veins

And shoot power

      To my hand

         Belly heart & head—

              This Magic Carpet

                  Arabian World

                  Will take us

                      Easeful Zinging

                  Cross the sky

                  Singing Madrigals




 To horizons of golden

 Moment emptiness

Whither whence uncaring

    Dizzy ride in space

      To red fires

      Beyond the pale,

      Rosy gore outlooks



San Francisco is too old

 Her chimneys lean

    And look sooty

 After all this time

    Of waiting for something

    To happen

    Betwixt hill & house—

    Heart & Heaven.




San Francisco,

San Francisco,

You’re a muttering bum

   In a brown beat suit

   Can’t make a woman

   On a rainy corner


Your corners open out

San Francisco

To the arc racks 
Of the seals
   Lost in vapors

   Cold and bleak.




You’re as useless

As a soda truck

Parked in the rain

With cases of pretty red

 Orange green & Coca Cola

     Brown receiving

 Drops like the sea

     Receiveth driving spikes

Welling in the navel void.


I also have loud poems:

Broken plastic coverlets

 Flapping in the rain

     To cover newspapers

     All printed up

       And plain.



 Guys with big pockets

In heavy topcoats

 And slit scar

 Head bands down

 The middle of their hair

 All Bruce Barton combed

    Stand surveying Harrison

    Folsom & the Ramp

      And the redbrick clock

    Wishin they had a woman

    Or some money, honey


Westinghouse Elevators

Are full of pretty girls

With classy cans

   And cute pans

   And long slim legs

   And eyes for the boss

   At a quarter of four.


30TH CHORUS     

Old Age is an Indian

 With grey hair

And a cane

In an old coat

 Tapping along

 The rainy street

    To see the pretty oranges

 And the stores

    On his big day

When the dog’s let out.


Somewhere in this snow
I see little children raped
By maniacal sex fiends

Eager to make a break

But the F B I

In the form of Ted 

 Stands waiting 

   Hand on gun 
 In the Paranoiac 
    Summer time 

    To come.







   Falling off in wind.
I got the San Francisco

Bluer than misery

I got the San Francisco blues

Bluer than Eternity

         I gotta go on home

         Fine me 



      I got the San Francisco


      Bluer than heaven’s gate,


      I got the San Francisco blues

Bluer than blue paint, 


         I better move on home

         Sleep in

            My golden

            Dream again




I’d better be a poet

Or lay down dead


Little boys are angels

Crying in the street

Wear funny hats

Wait for green lights

 Carry bust out tubes

    Around their necks

   And roam the railyards

    Of the great cities

       Looking for locomotive

    Full of shit

       Run down to the waterfront

       And dream of Cathay

       Hook spars with Gulls

         Of athavoid thought




Babies born screaming

      in this town

Are miserable examples

      of what happens



   Bein crazy is

   The least of my worries


Now the sun’s goin down

In old San Fran

 The hills are in a haze

 Of shroudy afternoon—

 Bent withered Burroughsian

 Greeks pass

    In gray felt hats

    Expensively pearly

    On bony suffer heads




Pulsing push
To come on in
Inundate Frisco

  Fill the rills

And ride the ravines

And sneak on in

With Whipporwill

    To-hoo— To-wa!

      The Chinese call it woo

      The French les brumes

      The British





        Cellar door




This means

     that everything

       has some home

       to come to

Light has windows

     balconies of iron

       like New Orleans


It also has all space

 And I have windows

      balconies of iron

        like New Orleans


I also have all space


And St Louis too

 Light follows rivers

    I do too

   Light fades, I pass




Light illuminates

 The intense cough

Of young girls in love

Hurrying to sell their

       future husband

On the Market St



Light makes his face


Her white mask


She sucks to bone him dry

 And make him happy

 Make him cry

     Make him baby

 Stay by me.




San Francisco Blues
Written in a rocking chair
In the Cameo Hotel

San Francisco Skid row

Nineteen Fifty Four



This pretty white city
On the other side of the country
Will no longer be

Available to me

I saw heaven move

Said ‘This is the end’

Because I was tired

of all that portend




And any time you need 

   I’ll be at the other 



   at the final wall. 




from the opening chapter of fanny howe’s indivisible


Fanny Howe’s novel Indivisible (2000) does things with words and with the good old Aristotelian categories of time and space that you don’t see much of these days. Henny, a filmmaker, is married to McCool, an alcoholic musician. They live in a working-class part of Boston. Without children of their own, Henny raises foster kids and also opens their door to transients for much-needed money. Tragedy and betrayal result, and there’s lots of good stuff about mysticism and philosophy in general and Buddhism, Marxism and Catholicism in particular. Nietzsche and Bambi — who else would you expect? — also figure into the story. On the verge of a religious conversion, Henny locks her husband in the closet…









I locked my husband in a closet one fine winter morning. It was not a large modern closet, but a little stuffy one in a century old brick building. Inside that space with him were two pairs of shoes, a warm coat, a chamber pot, a bottle of water, peanut butter and a box of crackers. The lock was strong but the keyhole was the kind you can both peek through and pick. We had already looked simultaneously, our eyes darkening to the point of blindness as they fastened on each other, separated by only two inches of wood. Now I would not want to try peeking again. My eyes meeting his eyes was more disturbing than the naked encounter of our two whole faces in the light of day. It reminded me that no one knew what I had done except for the person I had done it with. And you God.



A gold and oily sun lay on the city three days later. Remember how coldly it shone on the faces of the blind children. They stayed on that stoop where the beam fell the warmest. I wasn’t alone. My religious friend came up behind me and put his arm across my shoulder.

“We have to say goodbye,” he murmured.

I meant to say, “Now?” but said, “No.”

I had seen I’m nobody written on my ceiling only that morning.


Brick extended on either side. The river lay at the end. Its opposite bank showed a trail of leafless trees. My friend was tall, aristocratic in his gestures — that is, without greed. He said the holy spirit was everywhere if you paid attention. Not as a rewarded prayer but as an atmosphere that threw your body wide open. I said I hoped this was true. He was very intelligent and well-read. He had sacrificed intimacy and replaced it with intuition.


I wanted badly to believe like him that the air is a conscious spirit. But my paranoia was suffusing the atmosphere, and each passing person wore a steely aura. “Please God don’t let it snow when I have to fly,” he said and slipped away. My womanly body, heavy once productive, and the van for the children, gunning its engine, seemed to be pounded into one object. It was Dublin and it wasn’t. That is, the Irish were all around in shops and restaurants, their voices too soft for the raw American air and a haunt to me. “Come on. Let’s walk and say goodbye,” he insisted. We walked towards St. John the Evangelist.


“I’ve got to make a confession,” I told him. “Can’t I just make it to you? I mean, you’re almost a monk, for God’s sake.”

“No,” said Tom. “The priest will hear you. Go on.”

Obediently I went inside. The old priest was not a Catholic. He was as white as a lightbulb and as smooth. His fingers tapered to pointed tips as if he wore a lizard’s lacy gloves. It was cold inside his room. Outside – the river brown and slow. A draft came under the door.

I think he knew that a dread of Catholicism was one reason I was there. He kept muttering about Rome, and how it wouldn’t tolerate what he would, as an Anglican.


Personally I think pride is a sin. But I said “a failure of charity” was my reason for being there. This was not an honest confession, but close enough. The priest told me to pray for people who bothered me, using their given name when I did. He said a name was assigned to a person before birth, and therefore the human name was sacred. Then he blessed me. Walking out, I felt I was dragging my skeleton like a pack of branches. After all, a skeleton doesn’t clack inside the skin, but is more like wood torn from a tree and wrapped in cloth.

Outside Tom was waiting and we walked over the snow. “I missed that flute of flame that burns between Arjuna and Krishna — the golden faces of Buddha, and Yogananda, Ramakrishna, Milarepa, and the dark eyes of Edith Stein and Saint Teresa. Are all Americans Protestant? The church was cold, austere. I’m a bad Catholic.”

He nodded vaguely and said: “But you’re a good atheist. Catholicism has an enflamed vocabulary, don’t worry. You can transform each day into a sacrament by taking the eucharist. You just don’t want to bother.”


Even the will to raise and move a collection of bones can seem heroic. Only an object on one side — or a person — can draw it forwards — or on another side an imagined object or person. Maybe the will responds to nearby objects and thoughts the way a clam opens when it’s tapped. “Mechanistic…. We really should put more trust in the plain surface of our actions,” I said.

“Do we really have to say goodbye? And leave each other in such a state?”

“We do.”

“But first, Tom — I have one favor to ask you.”



Exactly ten years before, during a premature blizzard, I left all my children at home and went to meet my best friends in the Hotel Commander. I did so carrying the weight of my husband like a tree on my back. This was a meeting I couldn’t miss, no matter how low I stooped.

The walk from the subway to the hotel was bitter, wet and shiny. Traffic lights moved slowly on my right, while the brick walls and cold gray trees sopped up the gathering snow. I kept my eyes fixed on the left where dark areas behind shrubs and gates could conceal a man, and stepped up my pace.

Lewis and Libby were already seated in a booth in a downstairs lounge. I shook off my coat and sat beside Libby and we all ordered stiff drinks, recalling drunker meetings from earlier youth. I leaned back and kept my eyes on the door, in case my husband appeared and caught me offguard.

“Relax, Henny,” Lewis reproved me.

“I’ve never met him,” Libby cried. “It’s unbelievable.”

“He’s unbelievable,” said Lewis.

“He can’t be that bad.”

“He is. He should be eliminated. He won’t let her out of the house, without her lying. She probably said she had a neighborhood meeting tonight. Right?”

“Henny’s not a coward.”

“She likes to keep the peace though. That’s not good.”

“I’m going to be back in the spring. I’ll meet him then,”

Libby said. “And if he’s all that bad, I will do something to him.”

“Henny has an mercenary army of children around her, protecting her against him,” Lewis explained. “They aren’t even her own.”

“Hen, tell me the truth. Do you wish he would die? I’ll make him leave you if you want me to,” said Libby.

A renunciatory rush went down my spine when I saw, out in the lobby, the back of a man in a pea-jacket and woollen cap. Gathered over, I left the table for the rest room, and Libby followed breathless. She was wringing her hands, smelling of musk rose, and dancing on her pin-thin legs in high heel boots that had rings of wet fur around the tops while I sat in the sink. “Was it him? Was it him?”

We never found out.

That was the same night we climbed out the hotel kitchen window and walked up a slippery hill, one on each side of Lewis, hugging to his arms, while the snow whipped against our cheeks and lips, and we talked about group suicide.

“Phenobarbital, vodka and applesauce, I think.”

“No, Kool-aid, anything sweet.”

“For some reason.”

“Jam a little smear of strawberry on the tongue.”

“Or honey.”

“Catbirds and the smell of jasmine and we all lie in a line under the stars.”

“With great dignity.”

“Despite the shitting.”

“And die.”

“Die out.”

“I can dig it,” said Lewis. “I can dig it.”

“But we have to do it all together,” Libby said.



There is a kind of story, God, that glides along under everything else that is happening, and this kind of story only jumps out into the light like a silver fish when it wants to see where it lives in relation to everything else.


Snow is a pattern in this story. It was snowing the day of my first visit to the Federal Penitentiary. The ground was strung with pearly bulbs of ice. I had visited many social service offices in my day, but never a prison. I associated prison with sequence and looked around for a way to break out. As a first-time visitor, and in the early moments, I remembered nervously standing with a crowd of strangers waiting for someone familiar to emerge from behind a green door with a big light over it. For each one of us, the familiar person would be a different person, but our experience would be the same. I already know that some conflicts in life have no resolution and have to be treated in a different way from common problems.


But prison seemed to relate to issues of privacy in ways that were unimaginable to those who had never been forcibly hidden. Simplistically I was scared of being in a jail because it was a space that was unsafe from itself, the way a mind is. But I forced myself, as I sometimes do, to go to the place I dreaded the most — to the place that was so repugnant, it could only change me. Maybe the sacred grove of our time is either the prison or the grave site of a massacre. I have always believed I must visit those sacred groves, and not the woodlands, if I want to know the truth. In this case, I only wanted to see someone I loved and to comfort her by my coming. And surely enough, I did undergo a kind of conversion through my encounters with the persons there. When you visit someone in prison, this paranoid question comes up: Do I exist only in fear? The spirit hates cowards.

It broods heavily in the presence of fear. I only felt as safe as a baby when I was holding a baby or a child and so, sitting empty-armed, in a roomful of strangers, watching the light over the heavy door, was a test of will.

Then I saw a child — a little boy in the room with me — he was like a leaf blowing across an indoor floor. And while waiting for my friend to comeout the door, I moved near him.

I asked him what book he had brought with him. He kept his face down and said, “Gnomes.”

“Do you read it yourself, honey?”

“No, I can’t. Tom reads it to me.”

“Do you want me to read some?”

“Sure,” he said and lifted his smile. His eyelids were brown and deeply circled and closed, as long as the eyelids of the dead whose lashes are strangely punctuated by shadows longer than when they were alive and batting. He wore a limpid smile that inscribed a pretty dimple in his right cheek.

“I’m getting obsessed,” he said, “with books about gnomes, goblins, elves, hobbits.”

“How do you mean obsessed?”

“I want to know everything about them. And sometimes I’m sure they really exist and run around my feet.”

“How can you tell?”

“My shoelaces come untied sometimes, and I think I feel them on my shoes.”

“I don’t know, honey. I’ve never seen one. Let’s go read about gnomes.”

When I took his hot little hand in mine, I felt the material charge of will and spirit return to me. I had an instinctual feeling that the room held me fast by my fate. To be here was to be physically “inside” but the way a ghost is inside the world when it returns to haunt someone and still can depart at will. The ghost is confused, paralyzed by its guilt at being present without paying the price for it. Punishment is easily confused with safety.  

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bud powell: godfather to “geniuses who occasionally got their mail in mental health facilities”

"Much of what I try to do on the page is create a state of mind: quite often the extreme and occasionally conflicting drive to stay alive and not kill yourself or anybody else in the process."

Jerry Stahl
                                          Frank Delia
Jerry Stahl

Living With Music: Jerry Stahl

Jerry Stahl’s books include “Permanent Midnight,” “I, Fatty” and, most recently, “Pain Killers.”

1) “Better Git It in Your Soul,” Charles Mingus
. One of my favorite memories is seeing a white guy tell Mingus to turn on the air conditioning at the Five Spot. Mingus was about 5-foot-2, built like two tanks glued together, and wearing a pair of tan-and-brown checkerboard leather pants. The look Mingus gave the man was life-changing — not unlike the up from the underworld growl of his vocal in “Devil Rode a Black Horse.” Bonus point: “Beneath The Underdog,” Mingus’s autobiography, may be the most viscerally brilliant memoir ever written in English.)

2) “Enter Evening,” Cecil Taylor Unit.
Listening to Taylor is like reading “Ulysses.” You know you’d need post-doctorate work in five different fields to comprehend half of what the artist is doing, but you hang in for the music even if you can’t understand it. By the end you’re shaking and sweating. But you’re cool for the day.

3) “Ascenseur de la Chaffeud,” Miles Davis.
Part of what makes writing hard, for me, is transitioning from the ho-hum quotidian of life to whatever weird space is required to create. “Elevator to the Gallows” goes right there. According to the liner notes, Miles improvised this on the spot, while watching Jeanne Morreau noir it up. The theme is so haunting, so effective at conveying the desperate, end-of-the-line joy of doomed couples in black-and-white movies. It’s one of those songs you can play 20 times in a row. The CD has a half-dozen different takes of the same song. They can all penetrate your aorta.

4) “245,” Eric Dolphy.
What I remember most about this record is the monster growth sprouting on Dolphy’s forehead on the cover. The way he plays, I half imagined the thing was some kind of tumor the saxophonist blew out of his brain while recording this track. That kind of intensity, apparently, you really have to pay for.

5) “East Broadway Rundown,” Sonny Rollins.
Some music I listen to for the same reason I re-read certain books or stare at certain paintings — in hopes that by osmosis, or some kind of cosmic leakage, a sliver of the artist’s power might somehow pass my way. Rollins has that kind of power. Most famous for his two-year stint woodshedding on the Williamsburg Bridge, on “Blessing in Disguise” Rollins rolls in at 20 plus minutes. For some reason, listening to it reminded me of this interview with Norman Mailer, where he talks about how, when you’re starting out, you have nothing but wild energy, which compensates for the fact that you might not know what the hell you’re doing. When you get older, Mailer said, you don’t have that energy — but you have the caginess to know how to use what you have. Beyond the music, the album is worth tracking down for the William Claxton photo of Rollins in gunbelt and cowboy hat in the middle of a desert in a sharkskin suit. Whatever hep-cat marketing whiz came up with the idea of Rollins dressing like Roy Rogers, I hope he’s happy now.

6) “Un Poco Loco,” Bud Powell.
Powell is godfather to the fraternity of geniuses — from Oscar Levant to Brian Wilson to Syd Barrett — who occasionally got their mail in mental health facilities. In 1947 the pianist underwent electroconvulsive therapy at Creedmor. In 1954 he recorded “Un Poco Loco,” on which (maybe it’s me) he sounds as though he’s playing with an orchestra only he can hear. Harold Bloom includes “Un Poco” in his 100 Greatest Works of the 20th Century. But forget that, and check it out anyway.

7) “Speedball,” Lee Morgan.
Jazz guys were way ahead of rock stars when it came to dying young. The way Morgan plays on this, it’s almost as if he knew what was in the mail. Morgan bought it at 33, when his girlfriend — who had the incredibly prophetic name of “Helen More” — walked into Slugs, a club in the East Village, and shot him between sets, in the heart. Morgan played as if he had one toe in a puddle and one in a wall socket. That agitated soulfulness always hits something I can’t quite name. Whatever it is, you can feel it.

8) “Chinatown,” Luna.
Of the 50 million great and “essential” (as they say on iTunes) songs to include, this one, from Luna’s “Penthouse” album, hits the occasionally necessary Soothe button. Dean Wareham has an unlikely quiver of a voice that, for whatever ungodly reason, sounds as if he’s survived something his music alludes to but never gives away. There’s something that goes all the way back to Tom Verlaine and Television in this sound. It’s as if the singer is the quiet guy who never made any trouble.

9 “Katrina,” James “Blood” Ulmer.
It’s not the blues’ fault it got turned into music for beer commercials. As the saying goes, “Ideas are not responsible for the people who embrace them.” Ullmer put in years playing with Ornette Coleman, and his fractured, vein-popping guitar on “Katrina” cuts with a kind of rawness for which there’s no other term but avant gutbucket.

10) “I Feel That Old Feeling Coming On,” James Brown.
Brown wailing “I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I ,I, I” from down in his toe is flat-out inspirational. His urgency could rouse a liver off life support. This is the song you play when you need to keep going. Plus he gives all the advice you ever need about writing. In five words: “Hit it and quit it.”




images from a toronto summer in the 1960s

today in Toronto it is cold, dark and windy, but luckily I found in the pages of  Raymond Souster’s poetry a sun-dappled glimpse from a summer four decades old…

there it lay on the page, just waiting to be read, to be seen and felt…


Who says
nothing beautiful ever happens
in Toronto?

Just think of this —

Bobby Hackett coming suddenly
out of Whaley, Royce on Yonge Street,
holding in his hand a gleaming trumpet
which catching the late rays
of the afternoon sun makes jewels,
crown jewels flashing in my mind long after
he’s waved for a taxi, driven south
into the soft auto haze….

— Raymond Souster, The Years, 1971