Party of One: Purity Is a Pigeonhole

by Thomas Griffith

First to set the scene. I was naturally suspicious when advised not to get there until after 11 P.M., by which time the tourists would have cleared out and there would be only the people who really loved and understood fado. After all, every tourist now carries a guidebook telling him where to find places that are out-of-the-way and nontouristy.

The nightclub in Lisbon reminded me, in its busy, casual, friendly atmosphere, of an American jazz joint many years ago: the tables set close together, the place jammed; the people enjoying themselves inexpensively, eating and drinking, and sometimes—during the half-hour wait between sets, in one corner of the room or another—a party bursting happily into song.

A small spotlight came on, and in an open archway that bridged two crowded rooms, two musicians of somber dress and mien seated themselves, facing one another, against pillars. One, who played a six-stringed viola, was nearly blind and had to be led by his partner with the twelve-string guitar. Neither looked at the audience, as if they wanted to be regarded as invisible. As they began to lay down a strong rhythm one became aware of a singer’s voice behind them.

Sometimes it would be that of an older woman with a sad, experienced face that went with the dark melancholy of her voice. Fado, as I had come to know from Amalia Rodriguez’s records, is passionate, not pretty, singing, with a piercing harshness like a heart’s cry when a singer spreads out a note. But there is beauty too, as the voice cascades down a descending phrase like a skilled skier making a series of twisting turns down a mountainside.

The star of the evening was not the famous fado singer who runs the place and makes a brief, jaunty singing appearance, but her son, Carlos do Carmo. Though known throughout Portugal by his recordings, he busied himself between sets at the cashier’s cage or in seating people. When his turn to sing came, the accompanists seemed to play with special precision and spirit. Like all the other singers that night, Carlos do Carmo scorned amplification. His lyrics, in Portuguese, were incomprehensible to me, but are said to be leftwing in theme, which may have added to their enthusiastic reception by the young couples in the audience. He had Sinatra’s gift for sounding as if lyrics still had fresh meaning to him, but Sinatra might have envied Carlos do Carmo’s ego-free performing manner. It was 3 A.M. and the nightclub was still packed when he sang his final number.

Exhilarated by the evening, I discovered in myself as we walked back to the hotel an autumnal feeling that one gets these days when traveling abroad. I had enjoyed a privileged intrusion into a foreign culture, the kind of experience of the alien that becomes increasingly rare in the spreading homogeneity. Except for two German F-104 fighter pilots at a nearby table, we seemed to have been the only foreigners in the room; but what will happen to the grave purity of the singing, to the right of the Portuguese to have something of their own to themselves, when tourists take over the place? Inconspicuous as we sought to be, we were, in that setting, contaminants.

Beside this traveler’s feeling—that every foreign experience must be grabbed quickly and treasured, because each year it will be less pure than before—there exists another kind of autumnal feeling that is comparable but not really similar. This is the feeling that everything new in the arts is inferior to what existed before. It’s not a feeling I share. A settled belief in the decline of everything tells more about the observer than about what is being observed. In your taste in art or music or poetry, when did the world stop for you to get off?

This kind of disenchantment is thought to be an infirmity of advancing age, since age does not necessarily make one more discerning, only less adventuresome. For some of my friends, popular music ended thirtyfive years ago with the big-band swing era, or even with the First World War, when the Navy shut down Storyville. I’m glad in a way for the vigor of their

prejudices; they become curators of their eras.

I know a classical music critic who thinks no worthwhile piece of music has been written since Mahler, and others who think that painting has been ugly ever since the Impressionists. The really revolutionary breaks (such as Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon), the kind that so many people still cannot accept, happened before most of us were born. I once heard Stravinsky complain that Toscanini occasionally played Firebird and Petrouchka, Stravinsky’s earlier masterpieces, but thirty years after it had been written he still would not conduct The Rite of Spring or any later Stravinsky works. Because Toscanini was so gifted at conducting the music he did love, he can be forgiven for a decided narrowness in his taste. But I doubt that the rest of us—those of us who are primarily consumers of painting, music, fiction —are entitled to the firmness of our rejections.

The arts may indeed be in a decline: perhaps classical music, in becoming too cerebral, has lost its way; perhaps serious painting has lost its moorings and limited its opportunities through experimentalism. Only the trendy think that today’s new is automatically to be preferred to whatever went before. Cultures do go through stagnant or churning periods, and in music, in art, in architecture we may be in such a period.

But I think there is another reason why people who try to keep culturally abreast of their times feel estranged in so many areas now. Our times are unparalleled in the cultural bombardment to which we are subjected — ballets, operas, music festivals, repertory companies, all pleading for our money, our time, our attention. We no longer seek out cultural experiences so much as we fend them off and screen them out. It becomes easier to respond only to what one already knows and likes in the arts, and then to conclude, especially in fields that one has not followed closely, that there has been a decided falloff in quality.

I speak now not of experts but of audiences. They sigh for a past time of giants—in literature, this might be the era of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Faulkner—and demand to know who their contemporary equivalents are. In the unsorted clutter of our own day, the question is not easily answered. Yet current literature is particularly rich, with such luminosities as Bellow, Cheever, and Pynchon, and such impressive writers at midcareer as John Irving, Anne Tyler, Wilfrid Sheed, and Peter Taylor. If these seem not as singular as P’itzgerald, Hemingway, and Faulkner, those earlier literary figures do have some advantages. The fascination of later biographers with their messy lives adds to their literarycuriosity value. They also embody an era that has become historical. They are read not alone for what they consciously intend, but also for what they unconsciously mirror of their own day. In time, the writers of today will gain by a similar cultural accretion.

In this mood—being mindful that indifference is not entitled to its dismissals, and that it is folly to say that nothing is good anymore—I began to reconsider my other autumnal judgment, the tourist’s lament that nothing is pure and undefiled anymore.

It occurred to me that much of what I liked, and of what the young Lisbon audience liked, in Carlos do Carmo’s singing that night was his sophisticated softening of the rawness of traditional /ado. If this was corruption, it was not because of the contaminating presence of me or of tourists before me, but because Carmo inhabits and cannot escape the present. Growing up, he must have seen Hollywood musicals, listened to the radio, heard records— Sinatra, Piaf, Gilberto, Crosby, Sablon, Trenet—that influenced him; he has learned the arts of the recording studio. A performer takes from whatever he hears in order to perfect his style and fashion his own uniqueness. Artistic isolationism cannot be demanded of him. (I remember seeing a jazz critic wince one night in Louis Armstrong’s dressing room when Armstrong expressed high admiration for the clean, sweet sound of Guy Lombardo’s Royal Canadians, whom all purists despised.) The best of contemporary rock —not the gimmickery of punk rock or the frenetic inanity of disco—has a wide-ranging musical curiosity that makes itself at home in homogeneity, at ease in complicated African or East Indian rhythms that the Glenn Miller Orchestra couldn’t have coped with.

Such sophisticated musical activity is frowned upon by purists. Ralph Ellison has written of the need of jazz historians to find a naive and untutored past to explain the emergence of great jazz originals. Ellison grew up on Oklahoma City’s East Side, close by the Rock Island’s roundhouse and switching yards, but nonetheless, as he lay abed as a boy, he could hear the blues-shouting voice of Jimmy Rushing coming from Slaughter’s Hall four blocks away. He knew from childhood Charlie Christian, that brilliant jazz guitarist who had a brief, meteoric career with the Benny Goodman Sextet before dying at twenty-three of tuberculosis. Far from being ignorant of forms of music other than the blues, Ellison has written, Christian had to take extensive musicappreciation courses in school, where harmony was taught from the ninth to the twelfth grades. Unlike his older brother, Charlie Christian chose not to sing in high-school operettas or play in the concert band, but to make his own way in the jazz that was considered by the respectable Negroes in school and church to be “a backward, low-class form of expression.” Ehison finds the reality more interesting than the cultists’ myth of Christian’s primitive beginnings.

I suspect that the search for uncomplicated aesthetic purity is part of an audience’s need to categorize, to pigeonhole, and to rank—the time-saving need that consumers have, in areas that are not central to their lives, to sample only the acknowledged best, the most genuine. But I also suspect that except in terms of commercial reward, such pigeonholing and categorizing matters little to the writer, the painter, the musician, the performer. Each in his art has to be corruptibly free to roam wherever curiosity takes him. □