Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Books: Beneath the Underdog, by Charles Mingus

Mingus' music discloses all his roiling passion, pride, and sorrow, but his book explains, in an equally compelling and personal language, most of what's behind it, if maintaining the mystique of personal mythology common to monomaniacs and brilliant artists alike. I never knew anything about him but what I could hear: the pulsing streets of New York, the swaying of slave's spirituals, the lone, cool thumping of a bass that sets the tone for a hundred wailing elephantine souls. His records can't be mistaken for anyone else's. But though he came to New York, I recognize our crazy city in his music because I know the city. I don't know a thing about Watts, in LA county, where Mingus grew up, except that it's poor, and that it's black. But it seems that's where Mingus' soul first started to roil.

The way he tells it, three things make Mingus Mingus (and this is not to be confused with the way he starts his book, "I am three"): sex, race, and music. I list sex first because he addresses it early; he seems to have an understanding of himself as a sexual being before seeing himself as a racial being, and before he ever puts his hands on a musical instrument, sitting in the sandbox as a toddler, pouring hot sand into his pants because it feels good. This childhood sexuality doesn't bother me, though his descriptions of his sexual self as an adult will be the undoing of this otherwise honest and unsettling memoir. His uncurbed sexuality starts causing trouble right away (called a pervert on the playground with pants full of sand), particularly when he falls in love with the untouchably beautiful Lee-Marie, who plays cello with him in the county junior orchestra. They can't be more than ten or eleven, but they embark together on a kind of endless love that will last all his life (though he'll bed hundreds of other women, and love them too) and her's, though it will destroy her eventually; her parents forbid her to see him, and so he sates his sexual needs elsewhere, pining for her in her tower all the while.

Meanwhile, he's playing the cello by ear, having been taught enough by a vagabond music teacher to do just that, but not to read music. This will set him up for another kind of rage, because every time a conductor realizes the young musician can't read, the racist epithets will spew, the drawn conclusion always being that "Dumb niggers can't read." Soon, he trades in his cello for a bass and starts playing along with the radio, the notes tuned in reverse until someone clues him in otherwise. I don't doubt that the insults were unbearable for the young man, excoriated for memorizing the treble clef when the bass isn't played on those lines, but I also don't doubt that his incredibly free musical soul gained more by learning less in early years. Even if he did get it from both sides: called a nigger by the whites and called a yellow shit by the darker, prouder blacks. It's tricky for a white girl this decade to engage with Mingus' supercharged discussion of race; 1850 seems so long ago, but when Mingus was a kid in Watts, his grandparents, all the old people around, remembered slavery, had been slaves.

Things get stickier when Mingus, a grown man now and playing clubs in New York and LA starts, against his better judgements, following the examples of his fellow musicians and stringing wealthy, white women along for their money. This evolves into a short stint as a pimp, with which Mingus never seems quite comfortable, although his (white, rich) lover at the time, Donna, seems to embrace the life freely. This is where the book, as previously mentioned, begins to derail, since Mingus, committed to Donna, decides nevertheless to "rescue" Lee-Marie (whom, we find out, he did marry when they were 18, but whose parents separated them, had their own daughter's tubes tied against her will, and threatened to commit her if she tried to see him again). A few gunshots later, he has his childhood love back in his arms, and brings her home to Donna; he is to have two wives, and they are both to be his whores, working the desires of wealthy men as a team to bring in money to support their man. As soon as he brings Lee-Marie home, she and Donna each are captivated by the other's beauty, and as excited as two girls on the first day of kindergarten who decide to be best friends; they immediately go to bed together.

I've insisted here before that memoir need not follow objective historical truth* as closely as a tack stitch follows a hemline. There is a validity to an author's fantasy life; his desires disclose as much (if not more) as his actions, and the way he wants to be seen says more about him as the way he actually looks. Thus, I found little to criticize in Mingus' tall tale of a trip to Mexico; he and another black musician drive down with a pair of white, wealthy Southerner women, where they check into a hotel and Mingus proceeds to hire two dozen Mexican prostitutes for an orgy in their room, each of which he satisfies before the night is over. These faceless, nameless women are the stuff of fantasy, meaningful only in reference to a place, a night, their sheer numbers. But for Lee-Marie, a woman who, for Mingus, at least within the confines of his book, most closely approximates an angel, who refused to ever so much as date another, both before and after their ill-fated marriage, to suddenly, happily, become not only a bisexual, but also a prostitute, is preposterous. Equally, for Donna, who to that moment had barely heard of Lee-Marie, who had Mingus to herself, and who had no idea her man was out gunfighting over an old flame, to welcome Lee-Marie with tender affection rather than jealousy, is preposterous. The three of them going to bed together, living together until Donna and Lee-Marie eventually leave Charles for a shared life of high-class prostitution, is the stuff of a different kind of fantasy, one that doesn't fit, one that shocks us so strongly out of our softened state that we call into question every other thing we took for granted.

All the while, there is a taught undercurrent of spirituality (what I would call pseudo-spirituality if speaking of any person I respected less); Mingus narrates his story in a simultaneous first and third person, as if he writes as a disembodied soul looking down on his body as it moves through the physical world, and he in fact describes a few out of body experiences he had, his soul trying to leave his body forever, to die, before due. He does it even as a baby, then as an adult studying yoga (during which eight-month period, he claims, he remains completely abstinent and free of sexual desire, though he doesn't explain what shook him out of it). For a skeptical reader like me, this works better as a narrative device than an actual spiritual discourse (yoga silences the soul's caterwauling; no yogis write Mingus music). No matter what he says in his book, you hear it in his music; his soul is screaming, restless, raging, reaching—always reaching heavenward with arms and open mouth, but tied to the ground from the waist down, his viscera, his balls, feet kicking.

*Perhaps a construct itself. . .


InnaSoul said...

Thank you.

UW said...

What an excellent review! I've bookmarked your blog