Fragmented thoughts on rock, reading and other delights.
Friday, July 30, 2010
Thurston, Nate and Me
Who is that charming looking man at the right of the picture? Why that's me, your humble blogger. But I didn't post this picture because it's so flattering of yours truly. It's because of the company that surrounds me.
I came across this photo and the two below a couple weeks ago when I was cleaning out my office on campus. I had almost forgotten I had them - they were sitting amidst a huge pile of papers and I probably hadn't seen them for about four years. They were taken in 2002, during my first year teaching at Smith, and they capture an occasion worth recalling.
The occasion was a poetry reading by Nathaniel Mackey - he being the African American gentleman standing third from the left in the top photo. Mackey is a gifted, awe-inspiring poet, critic and prose writer. He is one of the nation's best, and he has a deep, abiding, passionate interest in music. I got to know his work through my friend and former professor Maria Damon, who turned me on to a series of prose fiction works that Mackey had written. The books are epistolary novels, following a running, years-long exchange between an experimental jazz musician named N. and his correspondent, named Angel of Dust. They go deep into the creative processes of making music, the cultural background of African American jazz, and the perils and pleasures of making difficult, demanding art. The books are titled, Bedouin Hornbook, Djbot Baghostus's Run, and Atet A.D.. They constitute some of the best fictional music writing I have ever encountered and I cannot recommend them highly enough.
Encouraged by Maria, I had invited Mackey to give a reading at Bowling Green State University the year before this photo was taken and had a great time getting to know him. A year later, by coincidence, he was invited to give a reading at nearby UMASS by Peter Gizzi, another great poet and former colleague of Nate's who had just joined the UMASS writing department. Peter is standing to the left of Nate in the photo, with his wife Liz - another talented writer - on his other side. Nate knew that I had moved to Smith, recommended to Peter that he invite me to the reading, and that's why I'm in the picture with them all.
But of course there's more to the story, because at the center of the image is Thurston Moore, co-guitarist, singer and indie-rock demi-god member of Sonic Youth. I can't claim to be friends with Thurston but he's lived in this neck of the woods longer than I have and, unsurprisingly, our interests intersect enough that we often wind up at the same events. He's had a long standing interest in various sorts of avant-garde activity and so there he was at Mackey's reading, accompanied by a mutual friend, Michael Ehlers, who is hidden in the top photo but standing next to Thurston in the one below (Michael just moved away from Northampton a year or so ago after living here for years; he was the head of the great independent free jazz record label Eremite, and put on some amazing shows here over the years before he left).
On a closing note, I need to acknowledge the photographer, who goes unseen. Her name was Lori Kemp, and she was a student at Smith during my first year. She was a non-traditional aged student (we call them Adas, for the program that admits them) with a punk rock past, and accompanied me to the reading with camera in hand. I haven't seen her for years so Lori, if by some chance you come across this post, drop a line and say hey.
Axman is Steve Waksman, a professor of music and American Studies at Smith College, author of Instruments of Desire: The Electric Guitar and the Shaping of Musical Experience and a new book on heavy metal and punk.