NPR American Masters question: What single work of art changed your life?

This is the colorized cover of the Kindle edition of Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick” as illustrated by Rockwell Kent for the 1930 edition, but with the author’s name added. (see below) 
Well, I gotta right to sing the blues, Or to sing praises, like a fool, to the earthly heavens where art might come from. And if it is the blues, it’s the kind that inspires you rather than keeps your head just above water.
You see, my song sort of went on and on (by Facebook comment standards), spilling over the 12-bar blues form like water in a sinking ship. But the editors at PBS American Masters Facebook page didn’t jettison any of my load of responses to the provocative question: What single work of art changed your life?
They’ve received 247 responses and counting. Here’s my response. I couldn’t quite help myself. I have even expanded on it here, with a bit more text and imagery.
___
As a long-time generalist arts journalist, I’ve encountered so much extraordinary art in all its forms. How to pick one? I might say seeing Picasso’s “Guernica,” but it was an oddly truncated experience, as the Metropolitan Museum of Art closed before I could see all of it. I’d literally been stopped in my tracks on the staircase for long minutes because the center of Guernica filled the doorway view at the top. Then the doors closed. It moved to Spain a short time later, in 1981. So, I live with a reproduction of it, and that oddly but profoundly unfulfilled experience. 1
Imagine seeing, through a doorway, the middle of this astonishing political mural by Picasso, being stopped in your tracks by it on a museum staircase — and then the gallery doors closing on you at 5 p.m. That’s my sadly truncated but unforgettable experience of seeing the mighty “Guernica.” Courtesy Magazine Artsper
___
“Guernica,” of course was named for the Spanish town bombed in 1937 by Nazi planes, complicit with Fascist dictator Franco  — the first act of modern war terrorism on a civilian population of nascent World War II.
And then, seeing Arshile Gorky’s often-gorgeous metamorphosis from surrealism to abstract-expressionism — closely reflecting my own artistic sensibilities — at the Guggenheim Museum of Art is another life-changing moment.
The plow and the song - Digital Remastered Edition Painting by Arshile Gorky
Arshile Gorky’s 1946 painting “The Plow and the Song,” (above) lyrically transmutes his memories of homeland Armenia to the modernist present. The memories were rooted in his long, desperate childhood escape, by foot, with his sister Vartoosh and mother, from the Armenian holocaust conducted by the Ottoman Empire. Their mother, Sushan der Marderosian pictured below — in this wrenchingly poignant Gorky painting from about 1926, with the artist at the age of their exodus — died of starvation in 1918. (Courtesy pixels.)
Pleased with my Milwaukee Journal review of the Guggenheim show, Gorky’s nephew Karlen Mooradian contacted me. I was fortunate enough to obtain an in-person interview with him and Gorky’s sister Vartoosh Adoian Mooradian (Gorky’s original name was Vosdanig Adoian) in Chicago, but I was never able to publish anything from the interview. I did glean great insight from Mooradian’s 1980 book The Many Worlds of Arshile Gorky, about his artist uncle, who committed suicide in 1948. He profoundly influenced many abstract expressionists, none more than Willem de Kooning. 2
The Artist and His Mother, 1926 - 1936 - Arshile Gorky - WikiArt.org
****
Then, music vibrates on and on in my life, where the single transforming moment could be the Butterfield Blues Band’s ground-breaking East-West album, or first hearing John Coltrane’s achingly eloquent and exalting A Love Supreme suite, or his searing Live at Birdland, and imaging being there, in that fire.
John Coltrane “Live at Birdland.” Courtesy deep groove mono
___
Or, by contrast to such earnest passion, the lacerating sneer of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” which helped pinpoint the existential waywardness of the freedom my generation declared from bourgeois convention and responsibility. Or, by another contrast, Dylan’s affirmatively flashing “Chimes of Freedom,” here now, poetry aflame in music
Or, hearing Beethoven or Mahler in fearless, heaving performances, in Milwaukee and Madison. Grammy-winning conductor John DeMain especially unlocked much of Mahler’s glorious might with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, in a full Mahler symphonic cycle in the 1990s and 2000s.
In theater, a darkly, full-chested staging of Macbeth at American Platers Theater, and a thunderbolt-raging King Lear at UW-Milwaukee. So, yes, the commonality here seems an appetite for grand gestures, of many sorts.
___
That’s why I finally must land on the experience of reading Moby-Dick for the first time (as some might’ve guessed). I was already in my ‘40s and, knowing its reputation and having seen Huston’s movie version, I remained unprepared for how inexorably the book swept me away, even though many understandably turn back to the shore. And yet, there’s so much you’d miss. Even the cetology, I gobbled up like so much krill going down a cavernous throat.
Yet the haunting had begun several decades earlier when I found a copy of the 1930 Random House edition which brought the book to widespread readership.
My plastic-covered copy of the 1930 Random House edition of Moby-Dick, what I still believe is the definitive version of an illustrated edition of the book, with art by Rockwell Kent. Photo by Kevin Lynch
___
The visual artist in me responded to this powerfully. I knew then, my day of reckoning with the book loomed somewhere in the future. There have been many illustrated editions of this book since, and some are steeped in their own fiery inspiration. But none so eloquently captures the spirit of the book as it manifest itself in the Depression era, as does that 1930 edition.
Rockwell Kent, in his way, approaches Melville’s genius in his numerous woodblock prints. The black and white Deco-influenced imagery is proto-noir, capturing the sense of lost-at-sea and impending doom and, in deft knife strokes, the essence of characters lurking inside their ravaged, or mortally infected, souls. 3
Infected by what? The blood-lust fervor of Ahab, akin to a demagogue manufacturing an enemy, in the whale that took his leg. The expansively stentorian Ahab, recalling Lear, captivates the whole crew in his questing rage — except for first mate Starbuck and, to a degree, Ishmael, who remains somewhat remote, and “aloft.”
Alas, Random House jumped on their perceived marketing coup with the new edition so strongly that they failed to put Melville’s name anywhere on the cover, only including “Illustrated by Rockwell Kent” on the spine. It was yet another of countless insults to the great and long-forsaken writer, right at the emergence of his genius to broader acceptance. The current Kindle version (at top), at least, corrects that “oversight” with the original cover (colorized though it is).
Captain Ahab — Rockwell Kent – Biblioklept
Here’s a brooding but burning portrait of Captain Ahab, by Rockwell Kent. 
___
So, back to Melville’s text:
The extraordinarily antiphonal voices of Ishmael and Ahab echoed through my head and psyche, across the oceanic expanses of poetic writing, gritty details, and surprising humor, which might make some virtually sea-sick, but hang onto the horizon as the crow’s nest sways!
It was indeed postmodern in 1851, in how Melville strangely constructed it, and summed up his own creation as well as anyone: “It is the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ships’ cables and hawsers. A Polar wind blows through it, and birds of prey hover over it.”
History of Art: Masterpieces of World Literature-Herman Melville
“Thar she blows!” from “Moby Dick,” 1930, illustrated by Kent. 
___
Yet it stays afloat as a metaphor and allegory for America, in the tall, creaking bones of The Pequod, manned by people from many races. And what else did it all mean? Defying fate? Or God? Or nature? Or Nature? Hubris as delusion, or the destiny of grace embraced, one storyteller’s backward glance into timelessness?
Rockwell Kent Ishmael Going Abroad Giclee Art Print | Etsy
Here, Pequod first harpoonist Queequeg, who deeply befriends Ishmael early in the novel, remains vigilant for the White Whale, even while down in the forecastle where the crew bunks. Illustration by Kent. Courtesy Etsy.
Rockwell Kent does Moby Dick – Dimdays
Ahab’s covert mercenary harpoonist Fedallah suffers a terrible fate in the novel, here illustrated by Kent. The John Huston movie version of “Moby-Dick” inaccurately makes this scene out as Ahab so affixed to the whale, to melodramatic effect. 
___
From childhood, oceanic depths had always scared me. In time, Melville’s mounting whorl of words, and his own extraordinary life story, compelled me to begin writing a novel about its author.
These days, people critique the book’s scarcity of women characters. Yet, as Saschaa squeeze of the hand Morrell comments. “On the other hand, the novel makes numerous appeals to the maternal forces of nature. It also breaks down gender norms and boundaries, from Ishmael’s surrender to Queequeg’s ‘bridegroom clasp,’ to Ahab’s boasting of his ‘queenly personality’ to the ambiguous mingling of ‘milk and sperm’ in the infamously erotic chapter ‘A Squeeze of the Hand.’”
Another she doesn’t mention is one of my favorite chapters, the stunning awe of gigantic maternal nursing in “The Grand Armada.” For that matter, tell (the late) Elizabeth Hardwick, author of a brilliantly concise and empathetic Melville biography, how much it lacks for a human female presence. Or Laurie Robertson-Lorant, author of a comprehensive Melville biography. Or Elizabeth Schultz, the doyenne of visual art about “The Great American Novel.”
Moby Dick breaches like a god reaching for the stars, (or to “kiss the sky,” as Jimi Hendrix would exult in the 1960s). in this image by Kent from 1930.
___
On the other hand, one could quote any number of astute observers on the book’s magnificence: Hardwick, F. O. Matthiessen, Harold Bloom, Leslie Fiedler, Alfred Kazin, and Lewis Mumford all come to mind, worth looking up. Most recently, I revisited D.H. Lawrence on Moby-Dick and he says: “A wonderful, wonderful voyage. And a beauty that is so surpassing only because of the author’s awful flounderings in mystical waters. He wanted to get metaphysically deep. And he got deeper than metaphysics. It is a surpassingly beautiful book, with an awful meaning, and bad jolts.” Read his essay in Studies in Classic American Literature for more. 4
So, living on the Heartland edge of a Great Lake, I remain haunted by this and more, by Saint Elmo’s Fire and the diabolical blood ritual, by Pip’s foot on the treadle of the loom, by the Catskill Eagle emerging from the woe that is madness, by Ahab’s burning obsession, by the massive will and long, mysterious memory – is it consciousness? — of the white whale and, of course, by Queequeg’s coffin, a miraculous, sacred offering from a brotherly friend, somehow rising, just free of the hellish vortex.
“Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf…”
_________
1 Picasso was adamant that Guernica remain at the Met until Spain re-established a democratic republic. It would not be until 1981, after both the artist’s and Franco’s deaths, that Spanish negotiators were finally able to bring the mural home.
2 Mooradian’s The Many Worlds of Arshile Gorky includes 70 illustrations, a Q& A interview with Willem DeKooning about Gorky, as well as interviews with Alexander Calder, Lee Krasner Pollock, Malcolm Cowley, Reuben Nakian, Barnett Newman, Peter Blume, Meyer Schapiro, Saul Steinberg and other important figures in modern art and criticism.
3 The edition of Moby-Dick with Kent’s illustrations remains in print. I recommend the version with an introduction by Elizabeth Hardwick, published by The Modern Library, in paperback 2000.
4. Studies in Classic American Literature, DH Lawrence, Penguin, 1923, 1977, 159

Musing about Michael (Bloomfield), gone too soon, like so many

I’m in a reflective mood and just ran across my favorite photograph of the tragic guitar great Michael Bloomfield, a man who’s always spoken to me for various reasons. Well, this photo is a close number one ahead of the famous shot (below) of Bloomfield playing and jivin’ with Bob Dylan when he infamously went electric at The Newport Folk Festival in 1965.  Bloomfield and Dylan cranked up the electric venom on “Maggie’s Farm” and, after that shock treatment, folk music was never the same again. A hoary but sometimes beautiful new creature was born: folk-rock.

(Musicians left to right) Michael Bloomfield, Sam Lay, Jerome Arnold, Bob Dylan. Pinterest

As for the revealing and, for me. rather moving Jim Marshall photo at top, it was taken at the famous Super Session recording with bassist Harvey Brooks affectionately needling Michael.

Bloomfield’s utterly chilled, prone position speaks volumes about the man: enduring extreme, chronic insomnia and drug addiction in the making. It also speaks to the man’s creativity and profound love for the music, especially the blues.

I would think Michael Bloomfield – the Jewish boy from Chicago, as much as any white man – bled blue.

The story continues to unfold: Michael lies amid the maze of wires, with a faraway gaze, a cigarette put out, or simply dropped, in the pool of spilled coffee on the floor. What are his eyes fixed on? What sort of vision hovers, almost taunting him with its distant guitar utopia? It would be fascinating to hear what he was actually playing at that moment, and what those phrases had to say. The man was clearly suffering, but persevering, for the time being, channeling his pain into the music, transforming it into something vibrant and redemptive, the essence of the blues.

Bloomfield played as well as he ever has that day, but could not even complete a whole recording session. Not long after this photo was shot, he informed singer-organist Al Kooper that he couldn’t continue, and Stephen Stills had to be called, finish what would become side two of Super Session.

It’s worth noting why this was to be called Super Session. Kooper, Bloomfield and Brooks had all achieved fame by recording Bob Dylan”s Highway 61 Revisited album, and the song that carved a mountain in the middle of the highway of rock music, called “Like a Rollling Stone.”

Soon afterward, Bloomfield became a freshly-crowned guitar god with the Butterfield Blues Band, which I’ll get to shortly. Although he started with Dylan and Butterfield playing the edgier Fender telecaster guitar (see photo with Dylan) it was with Les Paul’s Gibson guitar that Bloomfield found his true voice, in what he himself termed “sweet blues,” the sound for which you wanted most to be known. A biographical film is titled Sweet Blues: A Film About Michael Bloomfield. Kooper had formed pioneering jazz-rock bands, The Blues Project and Blood, Sweat and Tears, though he left the latter group early on.

The Les Paul guitar’s comparatively clean, singing tone replicated somewhat that of Bloomfield’s idol, B.B. King, who played a different sort of Gibson guitar. Waukeshan Les Paul’s gorgeously-sculpted physical creation allowed for a sonic vividness that captivated most leading rock guitarists at the time, who could all be seen playing the Les Paul shortly after Bloomfield took it up.

Another favorite Bloomfield shot reveals the man’s brilliant blues passion, at a rock fest with the Electric Flag in Santa Rosa, California.

The superbly produced Super Session is a great example of the guitar’s voice in the extraordinarily simpatico hands of Bloomfield.

How good was Bloomfield? Bob Dylan called him the best guitarist he’d ever hear. Or let’s hear Miles Davis, in his float-like-a-butterfly, sting-like-a-bee bluntness: “You could put Michael Bloomfield with James Brown and he’d be a motherfucker.”

To answer more personally, I now must refer backwards, to what would become his career masterpiece, the long instrumental piece “East-West,” which Bloomfield composed in 1966, as the title tune of the Butterfield Blues Band’s second album.

I have discussed the tune in a previous blog about the anthology box set Michael Bloomfield: From the Heart to the Head to the Hand. But what I wanted to say now, in light of the photograph above, is that he may have realized that “East-West,” composed while he was still in his 20s, was the pinnacle of his career. He would would go on to play plenty, including Super Session, and great live follow-up albums for Columbia Records with Kooper, Taj Mahal and others.

He then formed the jazz-rock-R&B band The Electric Flag, but he was poorly suited as a long-term bandleader. So he embarked on a substantial solo career, as a scholarly maven of blues, of virtually all stripes. But because he intuitively fled from the personal spotlight like a heart-of-gold blues vampire (ergo the frequent nocturnal existence?),  he remains underappreciated to this day.

But the masterful blend of Ravi Shankar’s Eastern classical music, rock and John Coltrane’s modal music that became “East-West” also reveals something of the man in the photo above. The tune was famously composed in a sleepless all-night jam and composing session, and one can imagine Bloomfield, in the wee hours, on the floor with his Les Paul again. Something mysterious arose that night. I believe Elvin Bishop, who brilliantly shares lead guitar duties on the piece, in a much grittier style, has related how the piece welled up out of Michael as well as becoming a courageous labor of stylistic synthesis.

The piece is superbly realized as an extended composition. At times, it blazes like a house of blues afire, dueling with sun gods. Yet what always gets me is the quiet passages of the piece, which is miked so closely by producer Paul Rothschild that you can almost hear hear Bloomfield breathe, as he’s hunched over his Les Paul, in his typical manner. He played with tenderness, a balance of reverence and abandon, and assurance in the face of his personal abyss, and the sunburst of musical possibilities. He had unlocked the doors of perception, between two great cultural traditions, and turned vernacular musics into high, revelatory art. “East-West” influenced countless musicians, and the nether blooming directions of creative popular music. Contextualized further, there had been no instrumental work as ambitious as this in American vernacular music in 1966. Few comparable works since have been as artistically successful.

Here it is. I recommend a hearty volume to get the full impact of the music’s wide dynamic range:

(L-R) Bassist Harvey Brooks, guitarist-singer-bandleader Michael Bloomfield, and singer Nick Gravenites of the newly-formed Electric Flag, probably shortly before they performed at the iconic Monterey Pop Festival in 1966. Facebook: Not Necessarily Stoned, but Beautiful: Hippies of the 60s and Beyond

I also just came across a third photo, which I decided to include because it is perhaps more upbeat, yet still complex. It shows Bloomfield with Brooks and singer-songwriter Nick Gravenites (who is credited with co-composing “East-West.”), about the time they had formed The Electric Flag, following all the music previously discussed. It was a marvelous group, bursting with grimy soul and ingenious jazzy finesse, but all too-short lived. You can see the weight of life bearing down on Bloomfield, as a still-young man in his 30s. He was far from finished, but perhaps his fate was sealed.

He died in in his car, alone on a San Francisco street, of a drug overdose at age 37.

“Heroin, be the death of me.” — Lou Reed, The Velvet Underground

_____