Saturday, 31 December 2011

Coming Through Slaughter

Coming Through Slaughter - Michael Ondaatje

This is an incantation, a hallucination, an excavation. Melody and noise, beauty and disharmony, whisper and squawk do battle across the page. This is a poets novel, words weighted for their impact, the pulse of rhythm, short passages alternating with long, images that stop you dead with their own gravitational fields.

Buddy Bolden was one of the originators of jazz. "He was the first to play the hard jazz and blues for dancing. Had a good band. Strictly ear band. Later on Armstrong, Bunk Johnson, Freddie Keppard - they all knew he began the good jazz." But, like many such originators Bolden fell as low as he had previously ridden high.

As well as his music he published a scandal rag and was a conduit for the gossip he picked up cutting hair - "the details of the children and the ladies changing hands like coins or a cigarette travelling at mouth level around the room. All these contests for bodies with children in the background like furniture."

"What he did too little of was sleep and what he did too much of was drink and many interpreted his later crack up as a morality tale of a talent that debauched itself." Ondaatje doesn't jump to such easy conclusions. Bolden had achieved "a fine and precise balance" that allowed him to play and live. But it was short-lived.

This balance was disrupted by love and its shadow jealousy, fame, love again and firstly and finally music - "the rabbit he had to run after, because the cage was open now and there would always be the worthless taste of worthless rabbit when he finished." This is all the world has to offer him, an obsessive quest to find new and better sounds that will only ever fill the moments they exist in and then afterwards will leave him emptied, with blood on his white shirt front.

Slaughter is a town but it is also the process of creation, of life lived as war. The book is full of the excitement and fear of lives lived on the edge of collapse. It feels like it was written in the same heat that it ascribes Bolden's journey into sound. It brought to mind  Nick Tosches' somewhat similar quest into musical archaeology in Where Dead Voices Gather. I recommend both.


  1. "But Beautiful - A Book about Jazz" by Geoff Dyer is well worth a read in the same vein. Keith Jarrett says it's the only book about Jazz that he recommends.


  2. Oh, this sounds fab - in fact you had me with your opening paragraph. It's going straight on the wishlist. (I'm trying to hold off from buying any more books at the mo, but this is a strong contender for my next round of purchasing.) There is something terribly tragic about these troubled musicians and their struggle to maintain a balance between creativity and life itself...

    Thanks for pointing me here, Seamus. Good call.

    1. Thanks for visiting and blowing some of the cobwebs from the blog, Jacqui. If you do get this I hope you enjoy it. I certainly did.