'The place was disgusting, and he produces God's music.'

by Brendan Wolfe

Hi, Alberta. Thank you again for the book you sent earlier in the year. I've been enjoying it very much. Albert has written today, and of course on more than one occasion prior, of the "psychological claptrap" inflicted on poor Bix. Yet he feels free to write that Bix's "motivations were dictated mostly by his desire to create music." I don't disagree, but when we talk about motivations, aren't we talking about psychology? Maybe it is only "claptrap" if we are speculating about motivations, as opposed to citing letters written home to parents, et cetera. But I have never written a letter home to my parents that was not composed very carefully, with that incredibly important audience in mind. That is not to say that what I wrote was untrue; it is to say that what I wrote was not uncomplicated. That is why I think it's fine to talk about psychology -- even claptrappishly -- but always with the understanding that none of us knows. Not really.

Anyway, I wanted to respond to two things you've written. First, you write that Bix "was almost definitely a sensitive person (so many people hear emotion and self-revelation in his music that he MUST have been sensitive) ..." You traveled the distance from "almost definitely" to an all-capital "MUST" in one sentence, and for all that I have to disagree. I think it's just plain wrong to assume that if you find sensitivity in art, then the artist must be sensitive.

"Talent and character are not connected," Geoff Muldaur told me back in May. "It's a horrible realization for most people. But it's absolutely true. And it baffles people, because how could Ray Charles produce such warm and beautiful things when he wasn't this great guy. Whereas Benny Carter, greatest guy in the world. It's so random -- obsessive-compulsive slob Beethoven. I mean, total slob. Kept his shitter under his writing desk. I mean, the place was disgusting, and he produces God's music."

Muldaur, having known more artists than perhaps the rest of us, is something of an authority. I have certainly seen the case to be true among writers. In fact, I don't much go out of my way to meet the writers I admire most because seldom do they manifest the qualities so evident in their work. It's so disappointing!

I encourage you to read this blog post, by the novelist J. R. Lennon, about his literary heroes, John Cheever and Ray Carver, both of whom are the subject of new biographies.


They are, Lennon mourns, "drinking buddies, enablers, philanderers, abusers, liars, fools ... And yet ... these monstrous years created [for Carver, in particular] a tremendous, if small, body of work -- some of the best stories of the past half a century. I find myself in the position of not wanting it to be true ... my heroes are bastards."

As Bixophiles, are we even willing to entertain the possibility that our hero is a bastard? I ask this not in reference to any particular reason why we might think that; rather, there's no point in pulling out your claptrap machine and dusting it off if you're also not willing to acknowledge (and here understand that I don't mean you personally) the full range of possibilities that exist within a human being. For instance, one can not object to the lifestyle of one's parents and still lead a life in opposition to theirs. One could even be kind to one's parents -- especially in letters home -- and still be the sort of person to engage in all manner of nastiness elsewhere. Those letters home might be evidence that Bix was kind and gentle, but they don't even come close, not even remotely close, to sealing the deal. Put another way, psychologizing is worst when it's used to confirm what we already believe, rather than explore the possibilities of what we don't yet understand.

That leads well enough to my second point. You ask whether I meant to imply that Bix's truancy meant "he was asking to be arrested for child molestation." Not at all! I'm sorry if it even seemed as if I were saying that. But I do think you give a very glass-half-full interpretation of the events of April 22, 1921, when you suggest (if I read you correctly) that poor Bix put "himself at the mercy of people who might mistake youthful freedom for sinister, libertine ways." We don't know whether Bix did what he was accused of doing, but to stampede to the conclusion (as so many have, and again, here I'm not referring to you personally) that he didn't do it because he couldn't have done it, because he wasn't the sort to do that kind of thing but rather the sort to treat his parents well and only get drunk some of the time, and even if he was drunk when he might have done what he was accused of doing (and here I'm paraphrasing the view of a Bix expert I've interviewed) then it was just a bit of drunken silliness and no more. Besides, who can trust a five-year-old?

Like I said, we don't know whether he did it. There's evidence he did; there's some circumstantial evidence that he didn't. But if we're to take a discussion of the accusation seriously, then I think we have to begin with the acknowledgment that it was at least possible he was guilty if for no other reason than because we don't know he wasn't.

Anyway, I apologize if I've gone on at too great a length. Albert is under two feet of snow but also living in the land of great diesel-farting snowplows. I'm under three feet of snow in a land completely innocent of the plow. So I have plenty of time on my hands!

Thanks again for the book.

Posted on Dec 21, 2009, 2:42 PM

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