Thoughts of Athens, Manhattan, Oscar Wilde Defining Decadence, and Gray Poets: Chesnutt & McCourt

In Apotheosis on January 6, 2010 at 12:20 AM

Frank McCourt, the great Irish-American writer/professor, is inside of a grave now, as is Vic Chesnutt, announced Christmas Day 2009. The Decade of Decadence, typed 00’s, is hard to pronounce in word. Here are my secondary thoughts on The Roaring 00’s, Thoughts of Athens, Manhattan, Oscar Wilde Defining Decadence, and Gray Poets: Chesnutt and McCourt.

From the English poet Oscar Wilde —

“Classicism is the subordination of the parts to the whole; Decadence is the subordination of the whole to the parts.”

Chronologically, Athens is not just a city jutting into the Mediterranean Sea. I spent the front half of the decade living in — Athens, Georgia — the U.S. city-state further West, located between Atlanta, the state’s capital, and the mountains of North Georgia. The small college town is a one-and-one-half-hour drive from Atlanta.

In Athens, there is a Broad Street running down the top half of a campus celebrated for many things, including University of Georgia football, Greek organizations and Music most importantly, as plainly as it sounds.

A typical review of Athens describes Athens, Georgia as “The Home of The Georgia Bulldogs, R.E.M. and Michael Stipe, The B-52s and The Love Shack.” Others are more familiar with Neutral Milk Hotel, also begun there, and “The Best Ice-Cream In Town” at Hodgson’s Pharmacy. Centrally a part of what Gore Vidal would call the “Historical Amnesia” of Athens are additional sell-able objects, Vic Chesnutt, Nuci’s Space, Steve Dancz and The UGA Steel Drum Band. They collectively bestow “The Classic City” with its Greatness, Classicism and Namesake through Music.

Respectively, they represent (1) folk songwriter localism in the grand tradition, (2) the only performance space that brought us The Dave Douglas Quintet, traveling in from New York City for one night only, (3) the cornerstone jazz preservation program in the Southeast and (4) the most rewarding listening experience in steel drumming to be found in Lower Appalachia. Inspiring together en masse, all these inputs produce The Real Athens, Georgia, properly adjusted for inflation.

The operator in Athens, just as much so as anywhere, is sub-ordination, the sub-ordering of things, the ranking of importances, as Oscar Wilde understood.  More modernly, Morrissey, the English-American songwriter, phrases it differently from the American view, “Does the Body rule the Mind, or Does the Mind rule the Body?”  It is a paradoxical question, likely without final answer. What is known, Vic Chesnutt is as strong a musician as Athens has ever produced, and he will be remembered.

I only ever saw Vic Chesnutt once in Athens; just as I only ever saw Michael Stipe once in Athens; as was the case with Neutral Milk Hotel as well. On the latter, I swear Jeff Mangum worked in the record shop on Jackson Street in 2001.

In 2002, that one occasion involving Chesnutt brought me to The Chapel on North Campus on a Friday afternoon — Vic Chesnutt, the Musician, appeared with Forrest Gander, the Poet. What one loves about Athens is that you can stumble into large, vaulted architectures for occasions on end. Poetry meeting strummed guitar from a wheel-chair is about how my mind recalled The Act as it unfolded at the time; but The Mural, “Interior of St. Peter’s Rome” (1847), hanging in the background, was Epic and stage-setting for any object on stage. In fact, anyone could have sneezed on stage that day and been a hit, just given how awesome and captivating that painting was in focusing one’s attention. I just recently discovered the painting is by 19th Century American painter George Cooke.

Flash forward a half decade later to present —

I understand Chesnutt a little more so today. Grimly, it has taken graduating from UGA, moving to New York, returning to Atlanta, and eventually hearing of his death for me to finally really grasp the “Bigness” of Chesnutt, the Lyricist. Chesnutt’s songwriting is strong. He is straight and simple. The songwriting is straight and simple. There are country elements. Brick and mortar objects construct in his lyrical subjects a painting of space and time that is as quickly a picture of The South as it is a picture of Athens, where old demographics clash with new demographics.

“Granny” is the best song I have heard in 2009.

“You are the Light of My Life, and the Beat of My Heart” is the central lyric. In it, Chesnutt’s lyrics are reality, and Songs are real again. The lyrics are empowering, and one realizes in listening that they too can build something lasting, basic and powerful. Essentially, that is just it. In song, Vic Chesnutt’s Grandmother is speaking, ringing in common with Jeff Mangum singing I Love You Jesus Christ, just as much so as Jim James singing At Dawn or Ian Curtis recalling She’s Lost Control. There is a Digitalness about all these barded songwriters.

Michael Stipe described Chesnutt’s essence nicely in a NPR interview, ex cathedra, speaking just after Chesnutt’s passing —

“The thing I would have to say is his laugh, and his ability to take a very kind of dark moment and twist it and make everyone laugh at themselves.  I will miss that for the rest of my life.”

Frank McCourt is a strong writer —

The Streets of Manhattan are called “The Grid.” The Grid is as old as The Civil War, and many people have walked across it, including Frank McCourt, the Irish-American writer-professor from the North. Legend has it that Jean-Paul Sartre, the French philosopher, enjoyed glancing down the ends of East-West streets in “The City That Never Sleeps,” where he could witness the road disappearing into the atmosphere for as far as the eye could see. Here-in resides a wider metaphor for Chesnutt singing in Athens and, more closely, Frank McCourt singing in Brooklyn. Indeed, had Sartre glanced firmly Eastward on a clear day in his own time, he might have spotted Frank McCourt letting battle commence daily in a Brooklyn high-school, battling with The Mouth.

In Frank McCourt, there are passages that remind me of John Maynard Keynes, the English economist. Consider his provided definition of Teacher, for instance, from Teacher Man (2005) —

“In the high school classroom, you are a drill sergeant, a rabbi, a shoulder to cry on, a disciplinarian, a singer, a low-level scholar, a clerk, a referee, a clown, a counselor, a dress-code enforcer, a conductor, an apologist, a philosopher, a collaborator, a tap dancer, a politician, a therapist, a fool, a traffic cop, a priest, a mother-father-brother-sister-uncle-aunt, a book-keeper, a critic, a psychologist, the last straw.”

John Keynes defined Economist in 1933 using similar form, not quite alliterative, but dramatic and dynamic —

“He must be mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher — in some degree. He must understand symbols and speak in words. He must contemplate the particular, in terms of the general, and touch abstract and concrete in the same flight of thought. He must study the present in the light of the past for the purposes of the future. No part of man’s nature or his institutions must be entirely outside his regard. He must be purposeful and disinterested in a simultaneous mood, as aloof and incorruptible as an artist, yet sometimes as near to earth as a politician.”

The Teacher’s Dilemma is very clear, and always present.

I constructed below a graph to be used as aid in describing The Dilemma of the Teacher. Faced daily, the teacher chooses whether or not to assign weekend paper writing assignments to be completed and graded by the end of next weekend. As McCourt was acutely aware, there is always an opportunity cost.

In Winter 2005, I traveled to The Upper East Side to hear McCourt critique Teacher Man at 92nd Street YMCA. There he discussed his third book, a biographical sketch on his life as a high-school teacher in Manhattan and Brooklyn. My recording is stored somewhere on a MP3-player that’s battery life has since expired. I still haven’t managed to revive it. Thankfully, today the 92nd Y is hosting the MP3 of that event, archived on-line — Frank McCourt: Teacher Man, December 15, 2005.

From the American poet Walt Whitman —

“I myself but write one or two indicative words for the future, I but advance a moment only to wheel and hurry back in the darkness.”

Farewell, Gray Poets: Chesnutt and McCourt. Athens, Manhattan and the World are Lesser Cities without you.


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