I’ve joined the Zoom world of COVID- 19 with a vengeance. Classes that used to be up close and personal, with the rich shower of interaction that is at its peak only when people are face-to-face in one particular place and time, are now subject to the glitches and the electronic filtering of the online world. A literature professor once remarked to me in private conversation, “Reading a book in translation is like kissing your lover through a veil.” A similar and in some ways greater distancing takes place when the slight motions of our hands, the twinkle or the glint in our eyes, and the timbre and cadence of our voice are translated into a series of digits, sent through the ether, and reconstituted on the other side.
Yet for all that, there are works of translation that are in themselves works of art. I think of the late lyricist Robert Hunter’s translation of Rilke’s Duino Elegies, as well as the more distant memories of Dostoevsky, Homer, and others that moved me deeply. The remove could not be removed, but the passion of the translator as well as the skill made the works alive and powerful, if not unaltered.
So I have had to seek such magic in my own Zoom classes; it’s an ongoing work, with mixed success. I am most grateful to my students for joining me in the evolving work and pitching in. It’s been a wonderful focus during these disrupted times.
The times have challenged many who thrive, both financially and artistically, from the powerful interaction between artist and audience that takes in live performance. In particular, after the downfall of the traditional record company model of the music business, when it is so hard to succeed merely from a recording contract, the inability to play live is both a financial and artistic challenge of the gravest sort.
Some have risen to the challenge and shown their excellence through shining new and powerful light.
I first heard Jorma Kaukonen’s guitar in the early spring of 1967, framing Grace Slick’s voice and finishing off the song “Somebody to Love” with a sound that opened the doors to the rich cascade vital new music that would soon be everywhere in that year of Sgt. Pepper. As a high-schooler, the power of improvisational music soon captured me completely. Whether it was hearing the jazz of Charles Lloyd or John Coltrane, or following Eric Clapton and Cream or Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, that daring conversation and that leaning out onto the audience to invite and to dare the listeners to join them in the miracle of artistic creation as it unfolded in the moment — this was the place where life’s focus became real and clear.
The Jefferson Airplane, where Kaukonen was the lead guitar, and later Hot Tuna, which he cofounded with Jack Casady, were among my favorites at this. The highly experimental After Bathing at Baxter’s was there in my high school’s record collection and has been a fave of mine ever since. Best, naturally, was going to the place he was performing and being an immediate witness and play a certain kind of part in that unfolding of creation. I caught the Airplane and Tuna at New York’s Fillmore East and Boston’s Music Hall, even a performance in the gym of Boston College, a show so flat-out unapologetic that Boston College didn’t let another rock act come there for a long, long time.
Decades after those tumultuous years, Kaukonen continues to play with fire and with grace. He writes in an autobiography free of pretense of his struggle with substances and with relationships, and has come through into a hard-won sobriety that has given his work tremendous resonance and depth. His performance place at the Fur Peace Ranch in rural southeastern Ohio, a performance space that he and his wife, Vanessa, founded and direct, is intimate and warm, one of the best places in the world to hear live music. Especially here, in a beloved place, with an audience of those who know who to join in the journey, Jorma’s music excels.
When the coronavirus hit, his touring schedule, like that of musicians all around the world, took a hard hit. Months of cancellations make for a hard financial blow. And they also take away those vital opportunities to do what such artists do best — respond in concert with an audience to the miraculous flow of creativity that is music at its live best.
Jorma’s response has been the Quarantine Concerts. Taking to live-streaming YouTube each Saturday night, he has sat down on an empty stage with is acoustic guitar and given an hour-plus show. It isn’t the same as being there, but what it is, in all its difference, is immediate, intimate, and powerfully connected to the invisible audience of people all around the globe who are tuning in.
This is masterful. This is the living soul of America in all its creativity, tested and tempered by time, growing and learning from every triumph and even more, from every mistake, generous, free, living and disciplined, funny and personal, challenging and vital.
Freedom beckons freely — there is no paywall, they in the best traditions of street music, the electronic hat is extended for those who wish to contribute. Check out this enduring music — here is a link to last week’s show (the music starts at the 5:34 point) — and check it out this Saturday night.
The best response to this COVID darkness, as to any darkness, is to shine some light. It’s shining brightly right here.