a column by
I learned today that the word “obit” has an additional archaic sense: the setting of a star or other heavenly body. It consoles to think that an obituary might be construed not as an expression of grief, or even loss, but as a simple astronomical record. Something that once shone has gone beyond the horizon. One needn’t say more. If you accept the possibility of a hereafter, or simply reject dreary tree-falling-in-the-forest empiricism, it’s possible to say that the star shines still, but not in our view. Even if you don’t, there is some comfort in calculating arcs and trajectories and predicting when and where it might rise again, or return glowing from the trans-Neptunian dust.
Mortality is somewhat on my mind at the moment, at both an emotional level and, I guess, “professionally.” I have written more obituary copy in 2011 than for many years, and more than has been personally comfortable. Twenty five years ago, I worked briefly on secondment to the London Times’ famous obituary department, not at all the fustian catacomb I might have expected but a clean, well-lighted place where death was treated matter-of-factly and as an inevitable consequence of living. The life-stories of the great and the good, and increasingly the not-so-good as The Times democratized its purview to include footballers, jailbirds and jazzmen as well as dukes, archdeacons and rear vice-admirals. It was an interesting time to be there. Certain taboos were being re-examined, largely in late of what might be called the politicization of illness and death as HIV/AIDS changed from being a mysterious minority ailment to something that increasingly impacted the general population. Was it legitimate to mention cause of death? Like most middle class British people, Times obituarists had long favored euphemisms like “after a long illness” (died of cancer), or “suddenly” (heart attack, stroke) but felt no need to go any further. AIDS changed that and at the same time almost enforced a change in how sexuality was described, or hinted at. “Confirmed bachelor” had long been understood to mean gay and even lifelong same-sex partners were generally excluded from the picture, unless there was a creative or professional region for mentioning them, as with Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears. The Times was also subject to pressure from other, perhaps more freethinking papers who had attempted to throw away the antimacassars and make obituary writing fresher and more honest.
Jazz has its own historical reasons for disproportionate mortality: the African-American experience as a whole, socioeconomic marginality, lifestyle issues and ambiguities. It is also an essentially romantic music rather than a classical form, which if Goethe’s Kranke/Gesunde distinction makes any sense at all, means that illness and death assume an often awkwardly dramatic role in our mythologies about the music. Poverty, color, the bottle, the needle, the gun, aspects of sexuality, oppressive forces, a neglectful majority, a defining effort “within and against” the collective, God-bothering spirituality: all these things feed in to the picture in such a way that a jazz musician’s death, whether it is at 20 with a ligature round the arm or from dropsy at 30, or at 80, with belated honors stacking up, is very often awkwardly foregrounded.
As I say, I’ve recently had to exceed my usual appetite for obituarizing. I’ve had to write – and chosen to write – about friends and admired musicians, perhaps most notably guitarist, singer and composer Bert Jansch and composer Graham Collier, the latter a keen reader of Point of Departure. Graham had been living in Greece for the last few years with his partner John Gill, who’s the author of Queer Noises, Essential Gaudi and a new cultural history of Athens, and they were looking for a new place at the time of Graham’s sudden death on Crete. Graham would have been 75 in February 2012, so not a young man, and certainly not an unfulfilled one, though he himself often pointed to the irony of being more widely admired for reissues of work he completed as much as forty five years ago – Deep Dark Blue Centre came out in 1967 – as for work, much of it infinitely bolder and subtler than the early small-group music, completed a couple of years ago like directing 14 Jackson Pollocks or still in progress. Turning 75 marks one of those meaningful/less quarter-century anniversaries that prompt some kind of re-appraisal, but so too does passing away.
I’ve had my say about Graham and his work elsewhere and its strong resonances for me – which come out of a shared admiration for Malcolm Lowry, and the Apollonian Lowry as well as the Dionysian, as well as a commitment to certain kinds of creative discipline, an aesthetic that insists improvisation be solidly grounded and thoughtful and composition as free as possible – but writing about his life has made me think a great deal about how we retrospectively construct a life, a “career” (if that is a different thing), and a body of work which still gives off radiance after the “obit.”
There is nothing more difficult to sustain or convey than creative longevity. As the joke used to run, gerontology is a grey area. I was mildly shocked to read a few days ago a comment of novelist Martin Amis who regards ageing as an inevitable and inexorable erosion of talent. One senses that with Amis there is a certain congruence between vanity and self-perception of talent, as if the face he meets in the shaving mirror each day is an exact correlative of his own creative nature, each line, furrow, broken blood vessel and blotch (though not the teeth, which are famously intact and will survive the final Conflagration) a symptom of fading powers. And there is no doubt that this flies in the face of a certain consensus that “lateness” and “greatness” are in some way intertwined. Think Beethoven, or Henry James, or think of Elliott Carter, who didn’t get into his stride till he was past 80. There is, of course, a dissenting view that says late Beethoven is unlistenable and late James unreadable, but one wonders how much of that is prompted by laziness: The Turn of the Screw can comfortably be read after dinner. Reading The Golden Bowl requires you to cancel dinner engagements for a month.
There is very good psychological reason for our semi-conscious preference for the truncated life. It is the same rationalization as used to apply to golden youths who perished on the fields of Ypres, that they died at the zenith, bright and energetic and full of life. I frequently check into a message board devoted to Eric Dolphy, who died young and left so remarkably little to sustain his comet-like reputation that every tiny survival and fresh discovery (even putative squeaks from a bass clarinet on sessions Dolphy probably didn’t attend) take on disproportionate value. If Dolphy was alive and still working today, which is more than feasible, would those items have any currency at all? Is scarcity really the agent of cultural value? If so, and this is something that exercised Graham a little, is there any value beyond the personal (which also includes the monetary) in continuing to put out work when even one’s admirers have expressed themselves content with “the early stuff.” It is a dilemma.
It’s one that is quite easily answered. There is a tendency, and we are all guilty of it, to allow the biography of a musician to collapse into a mere discography. The same might apply to a novelist or painter, with bibliography and catalogue raisonnee substituted. We have never reached an acceptable accommodation of terms: the “life,” which seems to subsume everything, mewling youth, dribbling age, uncreative fiascos, marriages, divorces, peccadilloes, good or terrible health; the “works,” which can be quantified easily enough in titles, opus numbers and catalogue references; and then, mysteriously, the “career,” which is some middle phase in which personality is specifically tasked to the creation of works. But there is no such thing as a career, any more than a life can be reduced to its work-list. The endless frustration of the obituarist, even if he is able to adduce an anecdote that seems to sum up the person, his philosophy and his work, is that he navigates by a crude trigonometry of vantage points, aware that 99.999% of the life is dark matter, invisible, inaudible but impossible to dismiss as insignificant.
I think all of us who try to mediate art and its audience struggle with that enormous disproportion. Some artists become busier and more recognized with age. Some run out of things to say or fall from fashion. There is no Freytag’s Triangle or Spenglerian arc that dictates how a life of the imagination will play out and what cues posterity will be bequeathed. If Eric Dolphy had died before Out To Lunch! or Miles had succumbed to the Kindly Ones between Tutu and Doo Bop, would we think qualitatively different of them? If Out To Lunch! had been the prelude to a long run of increasingly generic and self-consciously eccentric post-bop platters, would we value it and Dolphy differently? Counterfactual questions are always redundant and always ringingly relevant. I wrote maybe 1000 words on Graham Collier after he died. Of that, maybe half is taken up with proper names – places, people, album titles, institutions. It would be sentimental to say that a man’s spirit is unquantifiable and inexpressible in an element as gross as language, but it doesn’t much help to say that Collier “exists” in his music, unless you also take the view that his music can’t be quantified and expressed in an element as gross as LP vinyl or CD plastic and foil. If an artist exists in his work, then he exists in every single gesture, achieved or aborted, that went to the making of that music, and that is ungraspable. We’re left, faute de mieux, with well-intentioned, ideally loving extrapolation from what has been actualized and can be written down in an account book.
Graham didn’t believe in an afterlife. He was interred on Skopelos in front of a very few friends and with a few words in English and Greek from John. In keeping with Greek practice, his remains will be dug up in a few years and either reinterred in an ossuary or else destroyed. I don’t imagine he had a strong preference. But what I have learned about an “obit” is that it makes us think or should make us think about the moment of return, and the next return, and all those that might happen after we are in the ossuary ourselves. It is a cliché, and therefore resoundingly true, to say that the work persists and prevails, that it always comes back, even if it is sometimes clouded with neglect or refracted through new fashions and cultural imperatives. The important thing is that someone has their eye on the telescope, waiting for the return. Such is the pace now of our culture now that for all our Alexandrian ability to store up every single creative gesture, every stray quotidian thought, we actually have to make a conscious and steadily growing effort to keep departed artists in sight and in focus. Graham Collier’s music has always been a part of my listening life, but perhaps never more so than since the morning I heard he was gone. It sounds no different, no better or worse than it always did, though it does now have that indefinable quality that comes from knowing there is no further possibility of evolution. Unless, of course, John Gill and those who’ll be looking after Graham’s musical legacy, release previously unknown work that radically repositions our perception of it. I somehow suspect that won’t be the case, though there may well be wonderful music still to be copied, edited, rehearsed and performed. We love to think that we are somehow in charge of the canon, that by highlighting or foregrounding, “rediscovering” or “reviving” a lost talent, we have somehow changed the imaginative cosmos. It’s a forgivable fallacy, but it is a fallacy. The human arts are like the night sky. We might see different parts at different times, impose constellations as the shapes suit us, experience sudden brightnesses and apparent extinguishings, but the truth is that it’s all there, all the time, rising and setting, rising and setting. We just need to make the effort to look up, and keep looking up. After the obit, there’s always a fresh rise.