Last week I offered up a paean to a series of August Kleinzahler’s poems written as itinerant chapters to his A History of Music, a title shared with the most famous music history textbook, one that shaped many a music student’s view of the development of the musical arts from Gregorian chant to Arnold Schoenberg. This week let me inscribe a coda to that Lobgesang with a hymn to the San Francisco poet’s recent collection of music criticism, Music I-LXXIV.
The first of these seventy-four essays—and I’m not sure what the significance of that number is, if any; one might have thought seventy-eight would have worked well since the cool cover of this elegantly produced paperback has a trompe l’oeil of a shellac 78 sliding into its sleeve—begins where the opening chapter in Kleinzahler’s A History of Music ended: with Liberace. Kleinzahler visits the Liberace museum in Vegas, “not exactly to pay homage, really, but out of curiosity.” At the end A History, Kleinzahler imagined ”Lee” in full, glittering magnificence on stage. I don’t know whether the museum visit counted as an inspiration for the poetry, or represents a general interest in the campy excesses of American culture, but without the least bit of heavy-handedness this concise essay shows an understanding of, and empathy for, the glory and sadness that was Liberace and envelopes more than a few musicians on their lives’ journeys.
After the encounter with Liberace’s odd and lasting legacy, Kleinzahler continually takes time to revel in the bizarre turns of music history and its products even if more of his critical energies are devoted to the good and the beautiful. This attitude allows him inspired expressions of anti-appreciation, as with his opener to three pages on Johny Cash, who, observes Kleinzahler, “recorded over 130 albums and all but a handful of them are mediocre or just plain dreadful.” But among this wreckage Kleinzahler finds moments worth remembering, indeed unforgettable; in the midst of the essay, he recalls listening with his father to Cash in duet with Bob Dylan on the latter’s original “Girl from the North Country.” Kleinzahler senior identifies Cash as “the real” thing, “intimating,” Kleinzahler junior writes, “that Dylan was not.” Kleinzahler then muses on what his father would have heard: “inside the stark baritone the burl of a lifetime’s worth of trouble and pain.” “Burl” is an unforgettable image and a spot-on critical observation, a brilliant metaphor for the unique grain of Cash’s voice, gnarly but beautiful, especially when cut onto vinyl.
Kleinzahler has unbridled interest in recorded sound, a collector’s rambling desires to duck into the alleys snaking off the main avenues of music history. The second essay invites us into this musical omnivores world at a dark juncture. Kleinzahler has to part with his 2,500 CDs: “Then there was the time I sold my CDs. Well, not all of them. I kept seventy-five.” This economic shock-therapy is inflicted because he was broke, finding himself in that circumstances, because among other things, “he’d forgotten to find a job.” Thus begins a gentle, but no less hilarious, send-up of Walter Benjamin’s “Unpacking My Library,” that famous essay embracing the collection as an expression of the identity of the collector. Kleinzahler follows this line of thought, not with the complex syntax and philosophical grandeur of a Benjamin, but with the remarks of some of the many friends who people the essays of Music I-LXXIV: “Holy Shit!” they exclaim when they see the vast stretches of shelf space devoted to “Blues, jazz, classical, world, R&B, bluegrass, country: one splendid disc (probably not easy to come by) after another.” Kleinzahler has the good humor to revel in his obsession, even in the after the objects of his affection are long gone: “As addictions go it was quite marvelous, really. I didn’t damage my health whatsoever.” The mania leads to fantasies of donating the “Kleinzahler Collection” to “a small, elite arts college in the New England.”
This collection gone out of control is dispersed—or perhaps disbursed—to the winds of fiscal necessity. In one bitter parting, fifteen hundred go “at a pop” to Recycled records, and are sold from that shop within a week, so matchless is Kleinzahler’s taste.
These ruminations on the loss of a collection lead to observations on the nature of things, which along the way touch on the failed attempt to airlift the monstrous Herbert von Karajan, that collector of trophy conducting jobs and trophy wives, out of his Alpine retreat, to the cold embrace of cryogenic preservation. The acquisition of a wife leads to inheriting many other kinds of things than CDs. And then return to his rent-controlled apartment after couple of years away from San Francisco has Kleinzahler rummage through the detritus of his once-great collection. There are still dozens and dozens of cassettes compiled from his former CD library and these artifacts inspire a reverie of past glories: from samplings as diverse as “Longhair Percussion Discussion” and “Twelve Versions of ‘On Green Dolphin Street,” we can’t but be inspired by Kleinzahler’s range and dedication. Among the anthologies are heard his fascination with “bebop tuba, Trautonium (a bit like a Theremin), Aeolian harp, Raoul Hausmann and Kurt Schwitters, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Ivor Cutler …”
The CDs may be gone and the cassettes mere ghostly residue of the once-vast holdings, but the music has stayed with him, in him. These essays, follow Kleinzahler to the biggest monuments of Western Music—e.g. the Goldberg Variations—and to the dives of the Chicago’s South Side, not mention many other delightful, and sometimes dangerous, stops.
How can you not rejoice essays that themselves rejoice variously in Bach and Bebop? Kleinzahler’s world is endlessly fascinating, from the the mysterious perfection of Ruckers’ harpsichords to the “last major musical even of the 20th century”,” Elliot Carter’s Symphonia sum fluxus pretium spei; from the smoky, worldly philosophy and music of cabaret-singer, actor, and author Hildegarde Knef to the “deep, oak-cured harmonies of bass-viols, theorbo and harpsichord” the perfect vessel for the ruminations of the super-sophisticated 17th-century Frenchman, Marin Marais; from the acrobatic feats of Howlin’ Wolf to the more contained gymnastic discipline of the organist at his hidden bench.
Kleinzahler’s tastes are both catholic and quirky, and while he often hides behind the armor of the amateur, claiming less than professional knowledge of his material, he writes about these staggeringly diverse interests with wit, warmth, and eye and ear for the unexpected. His take on music both obscure and canonic always refreshes, doing what the best criticism should do: providing new insights into classics, or prodding one to explore repertories previously unknown. Many collectors are bores. Kleinzahler is the most gracious of interlocutors.
One essay is devoted to jukebox selections of the legendary bar and Kleinzahler hang-out on Haight Street in San Francisco, Persian aub Zam Zam, and its legendarily irascible bartender. Kleinzahler tells us that Bruno had Goodman, Ellington, and “lots of Fats.” Since Bruno basically lived behind the bar he knew his musical material well. From the few times I visited the place I remember 1940s music but nothing specific. The essay makes me wish I had been more attentive. One would part with one’s own record collection to sit in that old bar—now changed for the worse since Bruno’s death, as Kleinzahler has noted elsewhere—and talk music present, past and future with the poet over one of Bruno’s famous martinis. For all its provocative detail and delightful detours, this book makes one appreciate anew what Kleinzahler calls the “occasions of listening” alone or with friends, preferably with a drink in hand.
DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at email@example.com